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“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
What pained Gillett was balm to Rickard, who heartily approved of the reformers, considering them so many unsalaried press agents for the fight. He continued preparations and built a yellow-pine arena to hold 25,000 spectators. Nevertheless, though Rickard was not aware of it, Gillett was beginning to cave in. There were signs and portents: one of the most startling was the spectacle of fifty ministers praying before the state capitol that the Governor would be moved to stop the fight. Rickard took this as gilt-edged publicity —that was the way he did things. Then one morning while he watched the driving of the last nails into the pine stadium, he received a private message that made him take seriously the thought of treachery in the Governor’s mansion: even that wily politician Sunny Jim Coffroth was worried. He had reason to be, as Rickard soon found out, for heat from Washington was being felt in Sacramento.
The first hint of trouble had come to Sunny Jim from a spy in the office of the San Francisco Board of Trade. Its president, a respectable San Franciscan named William R. Wheeler, had received a telegram from Congressman William S. Bennett of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, stating that the “prospective fight” stood in the way of efforts to secure the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 for San Francisco. This was very bad. While it was true that the Johnson-Jeffries match would bring from fifteen to twenty thousand visitors into town and would : greatly increase business for the various institutions catering to the wants of tourists, that bonanza would continue only for a week at most; the exposition would last all summer. Governor Gillett knew that nothing must be allowed to jeopardize it, and after learning of the Bennett message, he called for his attorney general. “Go to San Francisco and tell Rickard to get out of my state,” said Gillett. “Tell him to take Johnson and Jeffries with him. What he is planning is a prize fight, and against the law.” Rickard received the order in a few hours; though forewarned, he was helpless. This was on the evening of June 15, less than three weeks before the fight. Next morning the front page of every metropolitan paper in the country carried as its banner headline some variation of: “ GILLETT VETOES THE BIG FIGHT .” Rickard had the publicity of a lifetime—and no place to cash it in.
The circumstances under which Congressman Bennett had sent his telegram demonstrated the power of reform in that era: it showed, moreover, that the central strength of the movement lay in organized Protestantism. A good churchman, Bennett had gone as a lay delegate to the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Atlantic City early in June. The consensus of the ministers and laymen at this highest gathering of Presbyterians was that all citizens and legislators be admonished to consider the evil of prize fighting and stamp it out. It was therefore obvious that, though not officially acting for his fellow Presbyterians, Mr. Bennett was reflecting their conviction when he used his influence to stop the San Francisco fight.
Mayor McCarthy of San Francisco was out of town when Gillett’s announcement hit the front pages. Now he cut short an eastern trip and hurried back, pausing between trains in Chicago to say to reporters: “I am running San Francisco. I am taking no orders from Gillett or his attorney general. You can bet your last dollar the big fight will be pulled off in my town just as advertised.” But he quieted down when he got home and heard about the danger of losing the Pan-American Exposition. As for James C. Gillett, he was lucky that Sacramento was not the Klondike. However, he had his reward. The New York Times editorialized, “Governor Gillett has assumed national stature. He deserves the heartiest praise of all good citizens.” This praise was echoed in church and reform circles for the next few weeks, but Gillett sank into obscurity and was forgotten.
Those who thought expulsion from California meant cancellation of the fight were disappointed by Rickard’s next move. Instead of giving in, he ordered the stadium dismantled and the timbers held in readiness for shipment to another location. Searching for a site within the United States, he called on Governor Denver S. Dickerson of Nevada, a man of broad views who ruled over a population of only 40,000 people, of whom a negligible number were ministers or women. Nevada was the only state in the union where prize fighting was not forbidden by law. Indeed, the state seemed to have few laws about anything, and was altogether a pleasant sort of place, with magnificent diamond-clear desert nights compensating for the heat of the days. When Rickard asked permission to hold the fight in the small but lively city of Reno, the Governor had only one question.