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A Sporting Life
The author of America’s best-loved baseball book speaks of his days as a reporter, of his time (unique among sportswriters) owning a team, and of his latest subject, Jack Dempsey, whose violent career he uses to illuminate an era
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Roger Kahn learned early the difference between the bright grass at nearby Ebbets Field and the poetic grass that was, as his anti-baseball mother read to him from Whitman, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Kahn’s literate sport-mindedness, so admired over the years by reviewers of his lyrical yet savvy memoirs and baseball histories, can probably be traced to the dining-table arguments of his Brooklyn teacher parents (the classicist, sports-phobic mother, Olga, and the Dodger-friendly historian father, Gordon) debating baseball’s possible ill effects on their boy. “Baseball was the final mythology of my youth,” Kahn has written. “As I grew older, a passion for baseball came to intrude on—and sometimes to replace—my inherited Brooklyn Hellenism.”
Baseball formally claimed him in 1952, when the New York Herald Tribune made the twenty-four-year-old its reporter covering the Dodgers. Kahn was younger than most of the team, and traveling with the pennant-winning social experiment that was Jackie Robinson’s great club, he saw much of the country beyond the Hudson River for the first time. (During Dodger home stands, however, Kahn was still due home for his mother’s weekly family readings from Ulysses.)
Kahn’s 1972 account of his Dodger and Tribune days, The Boys of Summer, is as beautiful a sports or newspapering memoir as there is, reflecting the hectic pleasures of being young, when “the days are crowded with deadlines, with other people’s petty scoops and your own, bickering and fantasies and train rides and amiable beers.” The book became a national bestseller and an instant classic. Kahn followed it up with collections of journalism, including How the Weather Was; two novels; a portrait, Joe and Marilyn ; a controversial book with Pete Rose, My Story; an account of his exotic experiences as a minor-league baseball owner, Good Enough to Dream; and a book on the lost art of sportswriting, Memories of Summer.
His new book, A Flame of Pure Fire, follows the American epic of Jack Dempsey, one of those spectacular and mythic American lives that, as the fighter’s new biographer has found, turns out to be largely true. But the book is equally a portrait of the 1920s, and it should hold the interest of many readers who are at first drawn more to the culture of Dempsey’s time than to the violent, epoch-defining spectacles through which the champion earned his living: the first million-dollar gate, against Carpentier; the classic, brutal 1923 Dempsey-Firpo match, when Dempsey landed in the reporters’ laps ; and the controversial “Long Count” 1927 fight with Tunney. Throughout the nearly six hundred entertaining pages filled with the words of some of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived—Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Heywood Broun among them—Kahn reacquaints the reader with an America that focused itself so passionately on Dempsey that millions of citizens bought their first radios iust to hear how he would do.
“Whether the Dodgers played him at second base, third, first, or left field, your eye always gravitated to Robinson.”
On one wall of Kahn’s Hudson Valley home, autographed photos of two of his favorite artists and writing subjects hang side by side: Willie Mays and Robert Frost. Similarly, he makes his social history of Dempsey’s 1920s more complete by honoring the related arts of both his hero and his immortalizers.
In your memoir of covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, and in your new book, A Flame of Pure Fire, you seem to have been equally inspired by the careers of two fierce American athletes: Jackie Robinson, who integrated the major leagues in 1947, and Jack Dempsey, the star attraction of the sports-crazy 1920s. What did these men have in common, besides high voices and your admiration?
There’s a center-stage quality to both. Wherever they were, that was center stage. I have a picture of Dempsey visiting the Brooklyn Dodger dugout in 1940. He’s sitting next to Pee Wee Reese, but Dempsey is center stage. And so with Robinson. Whether the Dodgers played him at second base, which was his best oosition. third, first, or left field, which was his worst position, your eye always gravitated to Robinson. There was an extraordinary vitality to both men.
It was there when they talked. When I was first going through the South with Jackie, we were in a little roomette about the length of a bed, sitting pretty much with our knees bumping, and I’d been exposed to the racist South—the white taxi, the colored taxi, the white drinking fountain, the colored drinking fountain—and I said, “Jack, I just want you to know I think this is disgraceful and I’m on your side.” He didn’t give me any points for being on his side. He said, “You think this shit is bad? Then write it.”
One time, a few years later, I was visiting Robinson at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He’d been away for a few minutes on the phone and his wife, Rachel, was holding forth. When Jack came in, he didn’t interrupt her when she asked me, “Don’t you want to know if he takes all those verbal assaults on the ballfield and ever took it out on his family?” Answering her own question, and I think it was a good one, she said, “He never did. Never. The only way I could tell it had been very bad for him at the ballpark was he’d come home and he wouldn’t say anything and he’d take a bucket of golf balls”the Robinson house was on a reservoir—“and he’d take the golf balls and he’d take his driver and he’d just hit all those golf balls into the lake.” Robinson added, “The golf balls were white.”
Dempsey was that direct. The first time I spent any stretch with him, in the fifties, I had been working for Newsweek, where I was just beginning to learn that whatever the brass said, you had to pretend that you were listening and then write the best story you could, and that was how to survive on a newsmagazine. These editors began to get excited that “one of our people is going to see Dempsey,” and they started telling me things to ask him, like “Why aren’t there as many white fighters anymore?” They freighted me down with all these heavy questions, which made my discomfort greater, so one afternoon in 1956 at Dempsey’s Broadway restaurant I started in a halting way, and Dempsey took me over to the mural James Montgomery Flagg had painted for him of his 1919 fight with Willard, pointed to the reporters at ringside, and explained, “That’s Grantland Rice, that’s Damon Runyon, that’s Westbrook Pegler,” as if to say, “Son, I’ve been through this before, now please relax.” At the end of the questions my editors had imposed on me, Dempsey said something that later was quoted elsewhere and became well known: “You know it’s a pretty hard life being a boxer. People don’t go into it often of free choice. If you want a different mix of groups—racial groups, religious groups—in boxing, it’s not going to happen in good times. What boxing needs is a good depression.” He was half-kidding, but only half.
You say in your prologue that “more than any other individual, Jack Dempsey created big-time sports in America.” But wouldn’t most people think Babe Ruth did that?
The Ruth of today is partly a product of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Ruth remains focused in the public consciousness because we’re always comparing a Maris or a McGwire or a Griffey. Baseball is flourishing, and as baseball flourishes, the memory of baseball also flourishes. Boxing has been in decline. People are always getting indicted now. There’s no organized public relations effort. So boxing as it was recedes in the public memory.
Here’s what Dempsey did: As a fighter he wins July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Not many people there. About twenty thousand. At Boyle’s Thirty Acres in 1921, he draws the first million-dollar gate, luring some ninety thousand people out to a converted New Jersey swamp. Ruth at his peak was getting eighty thousand dollars a year, but if you wanted Dempsey in the ring, you had to have three, four, five hundred thousand dollars and up. Baseball has always worked the Babe Ruth shtick. As my friend Gerald Astor told me, “There’s too much writing about Babe Ruth and not enough about Dempsey.”
Is that what made you finally write a book about Dempsey, forty years after your Newsweek story?
At Newsweek I got very close to John Lardner, Ring’s oldest son. When John was sick with multiple sclerosis and angina and knew the end was coming, he told me there were two books that he thought I should write, that he would have written had he had the strength. One was The Real Charles Dillon Stengel , who in the minds of John and Ring Lardner was other than the Casey Stengel the public perceived. The book would trace the young Casey’s creative banking methods—he wrote so many bad checks that the owner of a Fiatbush bar papered his window with them—to his later serving as a bank vice president. I didn’t get to do that one. Casey was smart and would never cooperate.
John’s other proposed book was a novel about the 1919 Toledo fight. This left a slow-burning passion in me. Then there was Dempsey asking me to do a book with him in I960. Why didn’t I do it? Well, as Robert Frost said, “Way leads on to way.” I got an assignment from The Saturday Evening Post to do a thirty-thousand-word piece on Harlem (“White Man Walk Easy”). It was a chance to write for the great Otto Friedrich, which was nice if he liked your writing. They said, “Tell us about Harlem.” I said, “I don’t know about Harlem. Harlem is just some place on the way to the Polo Grounds.” Over the three months, I learned it was a lot more than that. Dempsey began to recede in my consciousness. But not forever.
By the time you met him, Dempsey was long retired and a polished gentleman restaurateur. Where did that come from? Did he have much schooling?
He told me that a teacher in Provo had said to him, “You’re not only the biggest kid in this school, you’re also the dumbest.” He was totally self-educated. But certainly he had the background of intelligence. That was the way he fought, tough and intelligent, despite Joyce Carol Oates’s calling him a “barroom brawler.” His father had once taught school, and his mother had read some Carlyle. The family was diffuse but very bright. And he was quite poised.
Dempsey was the biggest draw American sports had ever seen. But how representative was Heywood Broun’s sentiment, expressed after watching the champion overwhelm the French war hero Georges Carpentier: “It was impossible to root for Dempsey. That would have been like giving three long cheers for the guillotine as Sydney Carton walked up to meet it”?
He was a heavy in the beginning. And he was a heavy primarily because he had been charged with draft evasion in 1920. But you want to preface this by saying that to think of his background and his what we today would call dysfunctional family, his evolution into this wonderfully avuncular fellow just boggles the mind. How could this have happened? He was a young, tough hobo. Life on the boxcars had exposed him to the threat of homosexual rape, so he preferred to ride the rods, which, as he explained to me, is literally hanging on to the brake beams underneath the car. If you fall asleep, you die; if you freeze and you lose your grip, you die. But here came Jack from a life like that. He said, “I was a hobo, but I was never a bum. I have begged, but I never stole.” He was working in a Salt Lake City copper mine. Then he met his first wife, Maxine. She was older, thirty-five to his nineteen at the time he met her, and working in a piano bar. Dempsey later said, “They told me Maxine had another business. I didn’t want to believe them. I married Maxine the piano player.” After some hard times for him, probably terribly hard times for her, they got divorced, and she went back to prostitution.
After Dempsey had beaten Willard for the championship in 1919 and signed for the big fight with Carpentier, the first million-dollar gate, the other ladies in the brothel began to tell Maxine, “You’re going to keep doing dollar tricks while your old buddy boy gets a million dollars to fight?” So she wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle , and the letter was published, claiming he had sent her no alimony during World War I and that therefore his draft exemption was fraudulent. They actually went and prosecuted Dempsey on a charge of draft evasion. He won the trial quite dramatically, with a Navy commander named John Kennedy coming off active duty to testify that Dempsey had been trying to enlist.
“Ruth at his peak was getting eighty thousand dollars a year, but if you wanted Dempsey in the ring you had to have three, four, five hundred thousand ...”
He was acquitted, but you can never completely beat a charge of draft evasion. There will always be a suspicion. He was “Slacker Jack,” even though Willard wasn’t in the Army either (he was too tall). The sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was otherwise gentle, had himself been traumatized by what he had seen covering the fighting in the Argonne, and he kept up the charge, telling his colleague Ring Lardner: “To make heroes out of these two characters because they’re boxers galls me. I saw skinny, four-eyed bank clerks killed when they charged German machinegun nests. That was courage. These guys can punch, all right, but they didn’t have the guts to fight for their own country. So what does a boxing match like this mean?”
Then, when he went to fight Carpentier, who had won the Croix de Guerre as a French air force spotter over the trenches, it was “the Hero against the Slacker.” That was sort of the built-in promotion. Anyway, this curse stayed with Dempsey through his career until he landed at Okinawa during World War II.
Your portrait of Dempsey is also a biography of the 1920s, and it’s filled with the verve and hyperbolic style of that era’s great reporters. Why did so many of them write so memorably?
This was a flowering, as you had a flowering of playwriting in Elizabethan England. There was essentially no by-lined sportswriting before World War I. Then there came this sports-page flowering. The names ring like a chord: Paul Gallico, with his wonderful book about sports in the twenties, A Farewell to Sport , and Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Bill McGeehan.
Sportswriting still attracted people with a serious literary bent when I started in the late forties at the Herald Tribune . My first job was mixing paste, carrying copy, and stringing. When I finally got a desk of my own, the fellow next to me, Al Laney, who covered the Giants, had once been James Joyce’s business secretary in Paris, and we would go upstairs, and over stale doughnuts and crummy coffee I would say, “Now what did Joyce tell you about writing?”
You’ve said there could be no Dempsey or so-called golden age of sport without a golden age of sportswriting. Does that mean the writers created Dempsey?
The thing I learned from writing this book is that it was always called the golden age, and the title is generally taken to mean Dempsey, Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and Bill Tilden, but the fact of the case was that the golden age was Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, Westbrook Pegler, Heywood Broun. There was a poem I read long ago by Arthur O’Shaughnessy that talked about forgotten historical empires, and the refrain that ran through it was “They had no poet and they died.” You could have played sports at a high level, but if it had been written the way things were written in 1900, we would not be talking about a golden age. I think it was a golden age for American prose, period.
Many recent writers have criticized Dempsey for not having fought a leading black fighter of his era, Harry Wills. The two did sign a contract for a match, but Dempsey claimed, “The only man I ever ducked was Ernest Hemingway.” What does this all mean?
There was something crazy about Hemingway. Dempsey went to Paris in the early twenties and wandered the town, danced at its nightclubs, and found that its beautiful women were surprisingly receptive—“if,” he said, “you were young and heavyweight champion of the world. And I was young and heavyweight champion of the world.” He sparred many exhibitions over there, and at one point he met Hemingway, who wanted to spar him. Dempsey said he had a wild look and that “to stop him I would have to hurt him badly,” so he refused.
On the Wills question, Dempsey had at least fought other blacks. He fought John Lester Johnson, the Boston Bearcat, and sparred regularly with Bill T‰te. I defer to John Lardner, who said that Wills was big, slow, and strong, that it would have been just another Willard fight. Dempsey mainly was looking for purses. He signed in South Bend for Wills, and somebody gave him a check, but there was nothing in the account. His favorite promoter, Tex Rickard, refused to make the fight in New York, having learned a cynical lesson promoting the 1910 Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries bout, which had caused lynchings and nationwide race riots when Johnson won. He was quoted as saying of a Wills-Dempsey match, “If a nigger’s the champion, the heavyweight championship’s not worth a bucket of warm piss.” (John Nance Garner would later say something similar about the Vice Presidency.)
“People are always getting indicted now. There’s no organized public relations effort. So boxing as it was recedes in the public memory.”
Dempsey grew up primarily in Colorado, Utah, and West Virginia; he was a Scotch-Irish American who also claimed Cherokee ancestry and sometimes cited a Jewish great-grand-mother. You were surprised by Dempsey’s forthright answers to questions about his rumored Jewish roots during the twenties, given the broad anti-Semitism of the era.
Actually, it turns out there was some Jewish strain in there, maybe a great-grandmother named Rachel Solomon, maybe a pots-and-pans peddler in West Virginia named Abraham Levy. Dempsey’s second wife, the Hollywood actress Estelle Taylor, liked to call him Ginsberg. After he lost the championship, Estelle said, “What happened, Ginsberg?” To which Dempsey famously replied, “Honey, I forgot to duck”—a line Reagan used years later. Dempsey had known real poverty, but he was pretty well traveled too. He detested bigotry.
Was the 1923 Firpo fight, when the Argentine challenger knocked Dempsey out of the ring and into the press row (inspiring George Bellows’s most famous painting), the high point of the golden age? Is there any better symbol of how much the champion and the writers needed each other than the sight of Lardner, Runyon, and Pegler all shoving their meal ticket back into the ring? Who actually pushed him back?
Dempsey, who was so groggy he didn’t remember leaving the ring and asked his corner, “What round did I get knocked out in?,” said much later that he hoped a young correspondent named Eddie Neil had pushed him back in, since Neil was killed covering the Spanish Civil War. You can’t see from the film because the camera’s focused on the ring. At one point, Firpo, who wasn’t the funniest guy in the world, said, “There were so many hands on his back, I thought he was getting a massage.”
In 1945 Esquire polled its readers and found that they thought the most significant sports event of the century was the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney rematch, with the infamous Long Count in which Tunney went down but the referee wouldn’t start counting until Dempsey went to a neutral corner—a recent rule. Tunney won by a decision, and the fight itself wasn’t all that exciting apart from the controversy. What made it so important?
If you think of everything involved in the Long Count, it remains one of the huge events of the century. As far as I’ve been able to piece it together, people were trying to fix the fight. You couldn’t fix Dempsey, you couldn’t fix Tunney. Everybody was going to get too much money anyway. Al Capone was an enormous Dempsey fan, to the embarrassment of Dempsey—he even sent him flowers—and an unappetizing group of Philadelphia gamblers were Tunney rooters, including Boo Boo Hoff and Abe Attell, who had been instrumental in fixing the 1919 World Series. Tunney had borrowed money from the Hoff group. As they got closer to the fight, there were questions about the referee, a fellow named Dave Miller. My source on this is the great lightweight fighter Benny Leonard; he said that Miller was the best referee in the country. But word spreads that Al Capone has gotten to Dave Miller, and instead someone named Dave Barry becomes the referee. Barry runs a speak-easy, so you’ve got somebody who makes a living illegally, and he’s refereeing a fight where there’s a lot of betting action.
I’ve seen the Long Count, and you can’t really say how long it was with a stopwatch because the film was speeded up for the newsreels. So you’re dealing with sprockets and such. Benny Leonard and Hype Igoe of The World worked with stopwatches and say Tunney was down eighteen seconds and that the Long Count was because Boo Boo Hoff and Abe Attell had the referee in their pocket and Dempsey was not supposed to win. The dramatic evidence is that a round or two later a light chop to the jaw sent Dempsey down, and in the picture I have there’s Dempsey down and Tunney not in a neutral corner, and Barry is bellowing, “One. . . .” So I think it’s not just that the new neutral-corner rule was unfamiliar to everyone. I think the referee was fixed, and you can write it now because everybody’s dead. The tragedy of the Long Count, however, is often misstated. It’s not so much that Tunney would have been counted out as that Dempsey would have gotten back at him while Tunney was still groggy and finished him off.
“You could have played sports at a high level, but if it had been written the way things were written in 1900, we would not be talking about a golden age.”
It wasn’t until after Dempsey lost his championship in the first Tunney fight that the public sentimentalized him.
People finally realized what they’d had: not a draft dodger but a great champion.
Your connection with sports hasn’t been solely as a reporter. Good Enough to Dream chronicles your attempt to buy and run a minor-league baseball team called the Utica Blue Sox. How did this happen? And how different are the skills for running a team from those for analyzing one?
In covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, I always rooted for a close game. I’d say, “Come on, Cardinals, get some runs, so we’ll have a nice contentious ninth inning.” As an owner of the Motel 6 of baseball teams, we’d be ahead nine to nothing and I’d say, “Come on, guys, let’s get some runs. Let’s get a safe lead.” You root incredibly.
The first thing is you start lying to reporters. The underlying thing is you have to have enough to pay the bus company or you can’t get to Batavia to play the Batavia Suns. So you are always aware of that, and you’ll do anything. I had a Frisbee-throwing contest. “Wanna see someone throw a Frisbee over the right-field fence? It’ll cost you a buck and a half.” We did that. Or “Reduced Beer Night.” You’ll do anything. I really prefer my baseball pure, without rock music. I just want to watch a game—that’s complicated enough. But I couldn’t do that in Utica without bankrupting generations of Kahns. So we had all kinds of promotions, and they used to say to me, “What are you gonna do next? ‘Have a Cold’ Night? Everybody who has a cold gets in half-price?” I said, “That’s not a bad idea.” I had Miss Utica Blue Sox Night.
Also unlike reporting, as an owner you’re also committed to the emotional well-being of your young people. You are so involved in the day-to-day therapy of keeping the team going, I decided that running a team was 70 percent psychology and 30 percent baseball.
Sometimes, after a game, we locked the gates and bought beer for the guys, figuring they’d talk about baseball, and it would be good for the team. Anyway, my daughter Alissa was sixteen, and a publicist’s factotum, and there was a very handsome Canadian pitcher named Roy Morretti. One day I noticed Alissa and Morretti leaning toward each other, and I thought it looked as though I was going to have to decide between my daughter and my favorite pitcher, except for Christy Mathewson. But when I got close enough to listen in, Roy was saying, “Alissa, don’t give your body to a ballplayer. Because if you do, in the morning you’ll be in love and the ballplayer will be gone.”
Maybe you don’t really lie to the press as an owner, but you do mislead. I had one player who was having terrible marital problems, this same pitcher actually. So this guy from one of the Gannett papers says, “Is it true Morretti’s having marital problems?” I said, “That’s absolutely false.” But the guy was on the edge of divorce. Why am I going to say, “Yes, his wife is sick of him,” and put that in the paper? I want a harmonious team.
You have cited Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al and Lose With a Smile, as among the few “works of art built around American sport” before 1935. Why is that?
The only good early baseball book I remember is Pitching in a Pinch, by Christy Mathewson, 1912. Heywood Broun wrote a novel, called The Sun Field, and I don’t think it works. There’s no evidence that Bill McGeehan tried to write a novel or that Runyon tried. I did once say to Red Smith, “Have you thought about writing a novel?” Red said, “Frankly, the idea fills me with terror.”
So there was a period when nobody did sports novels except for boys’ adventure stories, and then suddenly there was a small explosion with Mark Harris and Bernard Malamud. You may not like Malamud’s The Natural, but it was a conscious effort to do the Arthurian legend in a baseball setting: Excalibur and Wonderboy. I find Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly terribly moving. Maybe it’s sentimental, but so am I.
Two events that resonated throughout the sporting twenties celebrate their eightieth anniversaries this year. One, of course, was Dempsey’s astounding win of the championship in Toledo in the summer of 1919, and the other was that fall’s Black Sox scandal. I’ve read that Lardner never really loved baseball after the shock of the World Series fix, that he was sobered by it and afterward focused on the new champion, Dempsey.
I don’t think sobered is the word you want. He was horrified by it. He was from Niles, Michigan, and he was a great White Sox fan, and this was a great White Sox team. They’d really fixed the Series, and there’s this interplay between Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You look at The Great Gatsby, and the fix is in there, with Wolfsheim. I heard from John Lardner—Ring Junior doesn’t agree, but John was older—that after the fix Ring really didn’t want to be around baseball very much, that all he cared about in sports were Jack Dempsey and the Notre Dame football team. Also, John told me that during the actual playing of the 1919 World Series, Ring and Christy Mathewson both were covering it. Mathewson had come back from the war, where he’d been gassed, and they had a deep respect for each other. At the end of one of the games, Matty circled several plays on Ring’s scorecard as fixed plays. Maybe he did this a couple of games. And Ring wrote, “I’m forever blowing ball games / pretty ball games in the air / I come from Chi / I never try / But the gamblers treat us fair.”
Seven years later, when Dempsey lost to Tunney, Lardner turned on him and wrote a nasty column about how “the rabbit puncher punched like a rabbit.”
How skeptically should we read old newspapers for history? If I don’t trust the New York Post ’s entertaining version of yesterday, how should I approach news accounts from sixty or seventy years ago?
Collectively. If you don’t trust the Post or the Times or the Chicago Tribune, you are still going to find aspects of the truth in each. Read a variety of dispatches, then let the muse of common sense be your guide.
How wondrous or nasty a time was the twenties era, really, outside of Dempsey and Ruth?
The nasty twenties: Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin moving toward power. American mob violence, jingoism, the lynchings of blacks, and anti-Semitism.
The good twenties: DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring the future Mrs. Dempsey, the literary flowering, the athletic heroes, the knockout and the home run.
Overrated? The gifts and wit of the Algonquin crowd and Prohibition hootch. One day, when I was twenty-three, my father ordered a Manhattan cocktail, and I said, “Dad, why are you drinking that instead of a respectable scotch on the rocks?” He told me that during Prohibition the booze was so bad you had to disguise its taste in cocktails. That speaks volumes about the way things really were.