Thursday, July 18, 2013

"The Great White Hope" at the Orchard

By Pete Ehrmann

Editor's Note: Today our resident boxing expert brings us the story of a very unusual event held at the Orchard on July 18th, 1909.

It's a safe bet nobody yelled "Kill the umpire!" during the semi-pro ballgame between City League powerhouses Sissons & Sewells and the McGreals at Athletic Park 104 years ago today. In fact, the chunky, balding, middle-aged guy calling strikes and balls behind home plate was the one most of the 4,200 fans came to the ballpark at 8th and Chambers Sts. to see.

When they didn't see as much of him as expected, some nasty things were yelled about Milwaukee Mayor David Rose, who prevented guest umpire James J. Jeffries from going through with an advertised post-game sparring exhibition and showing what he had in store for his next opponent.

Given his druthers, the boxer known as "Big Jeff," "The Boilermaker" (his pre-boxing profession) and now "The Great White Hope" would never have left the West Coast alfalfa farm to which he retired in 1905 after his undefeated six year reign as heavyweight champion of the world.

Jeffries before his first retirement

For one thing, Jeffries had beaten all the credible challengers to his supremacy in the ring – or at least the ones on the white side of the color line he and his titular predecessors John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, and Bob Fitzsimmons had voluntarily drawn to prevent the most respected title in sports from falling into racially inferior hands.

For another, Jeffries was by nature sulky and grouchy and hated the spotlight perpetually trained on the world's greatest boxer.

After he retired from boxing at 30, Jeff gained 100 pounds, smoked cigarettes and lived the life of an agrarian potentate – until damned fool Tommy Burns violated the heavyweight champion's code and risked the precious title on December 26, 1908 against African-American Jack Johnson, and the worst nightmare of white society came true.

   Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson
Johnson won when police stopped the fight in the 15th round. Writing from ringside in Sydney, Australia, novelist Jack London likened the spectacle to "a playful Ethiopian at loggerheads with a small and futile white man (and) a grown man cuffing a naughty child… There was never so one-sided a world's championship fight in the history of the ring."

London ended his dispatch with the infamous words, "But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."

The novelist's bugle call echoed around the world and intensified as Jack Johnson jauntily went through a succession of white challengers and white mistresses. Big Jeff resisted until public clamor for him to come back – and the prospect of a $100,000 payday if he did – became too great to ignore.

Without committing himself to anything, in the spring of 1909 Jeffries announced that he would go so far as to see what kind of shape he could whip himself into. He hired fellow Californian Sam Berger as both his manager and sparring partner. After winning the first Olympic Games heavyweight championship in 1904, when boxing made its Olympic debut in St. Louis, Berger turned professional and was viewed as a potential successor to Jeffries himself until a couple fights proved otherwise.

In mid-'09, Jeff and Berger embarked on a national tour to keep the drumbeat for a Johnson fight going steady and loud, as well as rake in some easy dough.

Jeffries and Berger, 1909

Milwaukee was their penultimate stop, after Chicago and before Minneapolis. The plan was for Jeff to umpire the game at Athletic Field and then change into his boxing duds and spar three one-minute rounds with Berger in a ring set up over home plate.

For all Jeff's popularity, the announcement on July 4 of his first-ever visit to Milwaukee two weeks hence was met with skepticism by some sportswriters who wondered if he was serious about fighting Johnson to begin with, and, if so, how dancing around with Sam Berger for three minutes per appearance was helping him prepare for it. Championship fights then were 45 three-minute rounds.

"The Boilermaker is picking up all kinds of soft money boxing one-minute rounds with Berger," wrote Jeff Thompson in the Milwaukee Free Press. "After seeing Jeff spar with his manager, the sharps express the opinion that the big fellow's wind has gone, and that he could never recover it. In fact, they agree that Jeff has no idea of fighting again."

"Just how many Milwaukee people will fall for this it remains to be seen," said The Milwaukee Journal, "but it's a cinch that unless Jeffries shows more signs of activity than he has in some of these other affairs of the same brand, he won't make a very big hit with a Milwaukee crowd, for they are very strong on getting something for their money."

But excitement about – and ticket sales for – Jeff's appearance in Milwaukee took off on July 16 when word went out that while he was in town the ex-heavyweight champion (who some in the media insisted was still the champion because Jeffries had abdicated and not lost the title in the ring) might finally post forfeit money committing himself to fight Johnson [he didn't] – and that Johnson himself intended to show up at Athletic Park for a look at the Great White Hope.

To make things even more interesting, the next day a local man named Billy Miller, another boilermaker-turned-boxer, challenged Jeffries to take him on instead of Berger at the ballpark. "Miller believes he can hold his own with the undefeated champion and would let him extend himself much more than Berger does in these exhibitions," said the Free Press.

A brass band greeted the man a Milwaukee Sentinel editorial called "the most talked of personage in our country at the present time" at the Northwestern railroad depot at 8 a.m. on July 18, and escorted Jeffries and Berger to the Pfister Hotel. The Milwaukee Athletic Club hosted a reception for them before the baseball game, which started at 2:30 p.m.

Jack Johnson wasn't around, and if Billy Miller was he remained incognito. Jeffries probably wished he hadn't shown up, either, when Berger took the field after Sissons & Sewells beat McGreals 6-5 and announced to the crowd that there would be no sparring exhibition to follow because Mayor Rose had refused to grant the necessary permit.

In fact, Rose had denied the permit application three days earlier, but the promoters had conveniently neglected to tell anyone.

There was a state statute prohibiting prize fighting in Wisconsin. Bouts were still allowed at local theaters at the sufferance of the mayor, a boxing fan, but in this case, explained Mayor Rose later Sunday evening, "I had to refuse them because the champion [Jeffries] and his manager were to appear in ring costume. We cannot permit this in the open, especially in a place like Athletic Park, surrounded by dwellings. They can spar for exhibition as much as they like in theaters."

"When Berger announced to the crowd that the bout had been called off there was a whole lot of grumbling," reported the Free Press, "but after he had explained the situation they took the disappointment good naturedly."

(Whether that would've been the case had it been Jack Johnson – routinely denigrated in the local press as a "dinge" and "coon" – who disappointed them is a whole 'nother matter.)

The crowd was further mollified when Big Jeff came out in his workout clothes to skip rope, shadow box and do some exercises.

"The great majority of the spectators had never seen a fighter go through his training stunts and appeared to enjoy it hugely," reported the Sentinel the next day. "The sight of a big fellow of Jeff's size skipping the rope like a schoolgirl caused a whole lot of glee in the stands, but when he discarded the rope and started dancing around and smiting an imaginary foe he brought down the house – or rather the bleachers."

"He was a trifle chubby at the waistline," the Sentinel report continued, "but otherwise he appeared to be in fair condition. Whether he will ever get back into condition for a grueling fight, however, is a question which only time will answer."

Not much for elocution, Big Jeff allowed only that he would "knock the block off that [insert Paula Dean epithet here]" if he and Johnson ever fought.

They did, and he didn't. When the "Fight of the Century" finally happened in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, Johnson gave the Great White Hope a beating for 15 rounds until it was stopped. There were deadly race riots around the country afterwards.

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