Boxing Legends & Speedway Dreams

I'm no boxing aficionado but it seems to me that there is a strong argument for the case that the Jack Johnson - Jim Jeffries bout in 1910 was the fight of the 20th Century. Not because the fighters were evenly matched - they weren't. Not because the fight was particularly good - it wasn't. The reasons are all about civil rights and the role of the black race in America.


The fight was a milestone in the evolution of the country's perception of its black citizenry - their role, their capabilities, their rights as human beings. That wasn't just true for how whites saw blacks, but how blacks saw themselves. The fight did not resolve anything but it did make a statement and if it was a breakthrough of any kind it was how a black man fit into the sports landscape not just as a player but as a champion.


These articles form a tale of two boxing champions visiting Indianapolis in late 1909 - how they were treated and how they were perceived. The previous month there had been speculation that Johnson was on his way to Indianapolis but apparently, the visit was delayed several weeks.


Johnson was reviled by virtually all of white America for succeeding, for disposing of a series of less skilled, smaller white opponents to become the first black heavyweight world champion boxer. A perusal of newspaper microfilm bears out any suspicison that America was a land of vastly different sensibilities in the early 1900s. News coverage and the comics section were blatantly racist and intolerable by today's standards.


Despite that backdrop, the November 19, 1909, Indianapolis Star article in attachment Johnson111909 that covers Johnson's visit is reasonably even-handed. The previous month there had been speculation that Johnson was on his way to Indianapolis but apparently, the visit was delayed several weeks. Finally, Johnson was in town for a "performance" at the Empire theater. Such engagements with boxers usually involved a monolog or interview, some shadow boxing, bag work or even sparring.


The article reports that Johnson was quite the auto racing aficionado. He knew the sport's history, the drivers and was familiar with the mechanical details of the cars. Johnson rode in the riding mechanic's seat with driver and engineering innovator J. Walter Christie in one of the latter's front-wheel drive beasts hitting 100 MPH. Legend had that he had been assigned more speeding citations than any man in America. The Marion Motor Car Company furnished the visiting champion with what was termed "a racing car." Johnson did not appear at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but he did "scorch" the local country roads.


Johnson made a brief foray into auto racing in an unsanctioned race meet with the most famous and sometimes notorious self-promoting racer of the day, Barney Oldfield. Despite his antics and a penchant for showmanship in staged races, Oldfield was one of the best of his day. In fact, Oldfield's interest in this event was a scheme to make money off of the attention it would draw and the rights his agreement gave him to the film he produced capturing the occasion.


Oldfield's vast experience made the affair a lopsided contest and Johnson, while he still appreciated a fast car, never proceeded further with any notions of an auto racing career. Oldfield, seemingly always at odds with the sport's American governing body, the American Automobile Association (AAA) found himself suspended for yet again staging an unsanctioned race.


As an aside one of Johnson's Galveston, Texas elementary school teachers, Mrs. F.O. Morgan, had since moved to Indianapolis and was reunited with her former pupil. Morgan, who was forced to employ corporal punishment with Johnson on at least one occasion was quoted, "Arthur was a very good boy after that."


A reception was planned for Johnson at 8:10 that evening at the Summer League Club, 416 North Senate Avenue. The previous night he did some light sparring with Bill Wilkins, described in the article as "a local colored scrapper," who claimed he had never put a pair of boxing gloves on before in his life. The article reports further that Johnson had agreed to "take on all comers" the following two days.


While the report on Johnson's visit was even handed, the November 27, 1909, Indianapolis Star article about Jim Jeffries is decidedly biased. The former champion was performing at Tomlinson Hall - much as Johnson did days earlier at the Empire. The article focuses on Jeffries' physical condition. This was in question as he had retired more than five years prior and had only resumed training to respond to the public pressure and big pay day for fighting Johnson.


The article reads as if it is making a case for Jeffries - or wishful thinking. He was the white majority's champion and the collective "manhood" of that race rested on his shoulders. The feature of the evening was a three-round sparring match with a fighter named Sam Berger. Berger is described as out of his league, someone Jeffries merely toyed with. Again, this is probably excessive praise heaped on Jeffries but who's to know?


This boxing exhibition was the highlight of a card that also involved wrestling contests. Interestingly the last names of the wrestlers are all that is provided: Goldman, Olson, Gotch and a Polish wrestler named Zbyszco.


Earlier in the day Jeffries was hosted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by track Founder and President Carl Fisher. Fisher drove them around the newly paved brick oval in partner James Allison's Stoddard-Dayton touring car. The boxer also visited the track's aerodrome in the infield. There he sat in Joseph "J.W." Curzon's Farman airplane.


Relevant in this context is another Indianapolis News article (attachment JackJohnsonNews082809 ) that preceded the previous two analyzed here by several weeks. It is very brief but touches on an important point in that it documents a situation where Johnson attempted to enter an auto race driving his own car. The dateline is Los Angeles and the race was a 300-mile contest sanctioned by the California Motor Association (CMA). This was the $2,500 Hotel St. Francis Trophy.


Charles S. Bougher, CMA president denied that Johnson entered. Bougher is quoted:

"There is no truth in the report that Johnson has entered a car in the race, nor has he made application to do so, although I have been reliably informed that he was contemplating such action. Should he do so the application will be rejected. The black champion will not be permitted to secure notoriety or free advertising at the expense of the association. If Johnson wants speed let him hire a track and run his head off."


The way the article is presented it is as if the problem with Johnson wanting to race is self-evident. Apparently, people just accepted that to allow a black man into the sport would obviously taint its reputation. It's possible organizers did not feel Johnson was qualified to race wheel-to-wheel and needed more experience in lesser competition, but not likely. Bougher's suggestion that Johnson rent a track and thrash around on his own can't be seen as friendly advice. He simply didn't want a black man in the race because white people would protest.

Johnson111909.pdf662.37 KB
Jefferies112709.pdf2.01 MB
JackJohnsonNews082809.pdf248 KB