The Truth About Toledo's Day in the Sun
In 1971, Willis Stork, the former Head of School at Maumee Country Day School (1938-1955) and at the time, Headmaster of History at the California Polytechnic School in Pasadena, documented the legendary Willard-Dempsey prizefight in an essay he entitled, "Toledo's Day in the Sun." I've always admired the title of Stork's piece because it artfully alludes to two important themes of this historic Toledo affair. First, as a former Toledoan, Stork appreciated the historical significance of the event and the incredible publicity it offered the Glass City. The Willard-Dempsey fight put a tremendous spotlight on Toledo. Second, the sweltering temperatures from the relentless Fourth of July sunshine affected the final attendance figures and the economic success of the event for both the promoters and the city of Toledo. In short, Stork's title was spot on. The Willard-Dempsey fight truly was Toledo's day in the sun.
Like many others who have written about the famous beating that "Manassa" Jack Dempsey administered to Jess Willard in Toledo's searing heat in the summer of 1919, Stork's composition explores a few of the urban legends buried inside this memorable story and that brings me to the point of this post. As we look back on this event 100 years later, there are two pieces of Willard-Dempsey lore that need to be put to rest. First, history tells us that the stadium, “the greatest stadium ever built” according to a reporter for the New York Sun, held only 19,650 paid spectators on the day of the fight. That's just one quarter of its capacity. My good friend and Willard-Dempsey aficionado, Peter Schmidt, has always challenged this crowd estimate as too low based on photographic evidence. The other urban legend forged in the summer heat of 1919 concerns Dempsey's boxing gloves and Schmidt firmly believes this too is a low-down dirty lie that needs to be KO'd—once and for all. So, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fight, let's look at the evidence and get down to the truth about Toledo's day in the sun.
The Size of the Crowd
The imposing cast aluminum historical marker that stands today in Bay View Park commemorating Toledo's day in the sun is very definitive about the size of the crowd attending the Willard-Dempsey fight:
"On July 4, 1919, at what is now [Bayview] Park, a stadium built entirely of wood solely for this event seating 80,000, housed the Dempsey-Willard fight and 19,000 spectators."
For the casual observer, the marker, installed by the Ohio Historical Society in 2006, should be all the evidence needed to settle any questions about the size of the crowd. On the other hand, if you've been around the block a few times you know that historical plaques are never the final word when it comes to writing history and this particular plaque should be re-written. To explain why, let's get back to my friend, Pete Schmidt. Pete and I worked together on the design of the Toledo History Museum's 100th anniversary exhibit commemorating the Willard-Dempsey fight throughout the fall and winter of 2018 and the spring of 2019. We spent months pouring over film and photographs and researching accounts of the fight. Pete led the curation of the exhibit and the more film and photographs he reviewed, the more compelled he was to dig deeper into the attendance figures. Pete is a sharp guy and while he was sure his estimates of a bigger crowd were accurate based on his review, he knew he had to bring in an expert. That brings us to Steven K. Doig, an American journalist, professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and a consultant to print and broadcast news media with regard to data analysis investigative work. Doig is highly regarded by journalist and well known for his analysis of attendance figures. Pete, being an astute and extroverted local historian, reached out to Doig to see if he would be willing to use his expertise in attendance modeling to estimate the crowd at the Willard-Dempsey fight. Doig agreed to take a look and Pete sent him a package of photographs along with several pieces that documented the construction of the arena, designed by James McLaughlin, a San Francisco engineer.
After reviewing the photographs, stadium designs and other documents, Doig laid out his analysis in an email to Schmidt.
"I looked over the images and did a bit of math. The images show that the arena was pretty well packed; may have been some empty seats way up in the bleachers, but otherwise quite filled. An octagonal arena in which the farthest seat is 290’ from ringside would mean an area of about 254,000 square feet (after subtracting the 400 square feet of the 20x20 ring itself.) This is a tight crowd, where pretty much everyone is shoulder to shoulder, and the person in front of each one is less than an arm’s-length away. I would call that a density of about 5 square feet per person. At that density, 254,000 / 5 = 50,800 persons in attendance. That clearly is within the very detailed design specs used by McLaughlin. He may have built for an overload weight of 80,000 people, but I think that’s just cautious engineering."
In my mind, Doig's conclusion is a bombshell as loud as any Fourth of July fireworks—exploding the myth of the small crowd in attendance on July 4, 1919.
"In sum, I think you can state confidently that there were at least 50,000 in attendance that day."
So why the big difference? How did history get this wrong? The final attendance figure of 19,650 was provided by the promoters, and when you understand what had to happen for this fight to be held in Toledo, you'll understand why they had significant incentive to keep the gate count lower than the actual attendance.
Stork's essay, as well as many other books and articles chronicling the story of this fight, details how difficult it was for the promoters to find a suitable location to stage the heavyweight championship bout. Boxing had an infamous reputation in 1919 due to recent deaths in the ring and the unsavory criminal element and gambling associated with prize fighting. In fact, at the time the fight was announced, boxing was banned in New York and many other states. Canada, Mexico, and Cuba made overtures to host the fight but the promoter controlling the bout, Tex Rickard, wanted to host the clash in the United States and he looked for an open-minded city to serve as the host.
Enter Addison Q. Thacher, a Toledo contractor, politician, and boxing enthusiast who later became mayor of Toledo. Seymour Rothman, a writer for The Blade later described Thatcher as "a rogue" who had a motto: "Take a little, leave a little, and no one will get mad at you." Thatcher visited Rickard in New York and sold him on the strategic location of Toledo and its accessibility via railroad to Detroit, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other populous centers. Rickard was swayed by Thatcher's pitch and Toledo was announced as the venue on May 5 and a vigorous fight to stop the championship bout from coming to Toledo quickly ensued. To give you an idea of just how relentless the protests were, Stork's essay documents a protest from a Toledo church association:
The "prize fight will bring into our borders hordes of the lawless and vicious elements, that it will stimulate gambling on a vast scale, and sanction brutality, and that it will denigrate the fair name of Toledo in the eyes of the rest of the nation to the low level of Reno as a wide-open town.”
The fact is, Toledo was already a "wide-open town" and a championship fight was not going to sully its reputation any more than the crime, graft and gambling that were already staples of the Toledo scene in 1919. Need convincing? Check out Toledo's "tenderloin" on my Unholy Toledo Tour.
What tipped the scales in favor of Toledo hosting the event? Money. When Thatcher visited Rickard to persuade him to hold the fight in Toledo he convinced the promoter to give 7% of the receipts to Toledo's poor. A win-win for everyone! The problem was Rickard controlled the ticket receipts and he had a substantial amount of money to gain by slimming down the paid attendance figures. How much? The final gate was reported as $452,224 (a record at the time) with $28,751 going to the city of Toledo and $82,732 in profits going to the promoters. Do the math. The actual attendance figure is more than double what was reported. Rickard made out like a bandit! Do you know what he did with the money? He secured exclusive rights to promote live events at New York's Madison Square Garden and launched the "golden age" of boxing.
Today, Doig concurs with this argument for why the crowd estimates were so low in 1919.
"Finally, it looks like Rickard was trying to make a buck by claiming losses. The crowd looks to be well over twice as large as the 20,000 he claimed."
I hate to see Toledo come away from what was the biggest sporting event in history with a black eye. The fact is, the crowd was much larger than recorded in the history books and might have been much bigger had it not been for the July heat wave that brought temperatures of over 100 degrees on the day of the fight. The false numbers provided by the promoter were deflated in order to inflate a larger profit margin. Hold your head up high, Toledo! The Willard-Dempsey fight was not the dud history would like us all to believe. Thank you Pete Schmidt for putting this myth to rest and helping correct the history of this famous Toledo event!
The Myth of Dempsey's Loaded Gloves
One other urban legend that gets knocked around when discussing the Willard-Dempsey fight is the myth of Dempsey's loaded gloves. As the story goes, Willard's beating was so severe it was not possible for Dempsey to serve it up without some kind of illegal advantage. How bad was the beating. Damon Runyon, one of 200 ringside reporters who covered the fight described the final minute of the bout this way:
“Squatted on his stool in his corner, a bleeding, trembling, helpless hulk, Jess Willard, the Kansas giant, this afternoon relinquished his title of heavyweight champion of the world, just as the bell was about to toss him into the fourth round of a mangling at the paws of Jack Dempsey, the young mountain lion in human form from the Sangre de Christo hills of Colorado. The right side of his face was a pulp where the fists of the Indian brown boy from the Centennial state had been landing for nine minutes with fearful force. The right eye of the champion was completely hidden behind that bloody smear. His left eye peered over a lump of flesh in grotesque fashion. The great dough-like body of the giant was splotched with red patches."
To this day, heated arguments rage on social media about Dempsey's plastered hands or an iron spike hidden in Dempsey's glove. Let's look at the facts. How did this urban legend get started?
Jack Dempsey’s manager, Doc Kearns, had a major falling out with the champ later in their relationship after the fight in Toledo. The two men never made up and Doc did his best to paint Dempsey as a loser who was nothing without his guidance. Doc's last attempt to maim Dempsey's reputation came from beyond the grave. Shortly before he died, he handed over the manuscript for his autobiography to Sports Illustrated. In his account of the Willard-Dempsey fight, Kearns described how he had doubts about the $10,000 he bet on a first-round Dempsey victory, so he decided to better his odds. Unknown to Dempsey, Kearns wrote that he sprinkled the wrappings under Dempsey's gloves with Plaster of Paris and then doused them with water before lacing on Jack’s gloves. Dempsey knew nothing about this until Sports Illustrated published the story in January 1964, after Kearns had died, with the sensational headline, “DEMPSEY’S GLOVES WERE LOADED.” Dempsey promptly sued for libel and the magazine quietly settled with him out of court.
Willard helped perpetuate the story when he was quoted in a January 9, 1964 New York Times article:
“I've been trying for almost 45 years to get the story printed but nobody would believe me. They thought it was just a loser complaining. I'm glad Kearns has finally admitted it. My jaw is still caved in from the beating that fellow gave me with cement on his hands.”
In a piece published by American Heritage in April 1977 entitled, "Doc Kearns's Last Dirty Trick," Dempsey described how evidence flooded in to support his case that the loaded gloves story was a complete fallacy.
"One man turned out to have the actual bandages, which he had picked up off the floor of Dempsey’s dressing room and kept for a souvenir. Another fan, an ex-fighter, had kept the gloves Dempsey wore in the fight. Manufacturers of Plaster of Paris wrote to say that it would take about five layers of their product to create a rock-hard wrapping, and that anyway there had not been time for it to set. Various doctors and experts assured Dempsey that had Kearns’s charge been true, he would have broken all the bones in his hands, let alone every bone in Willard’s face. In short, the story seemed preposterous."
Dempsey summed up the Kearns story this way:
“Jack Kearns had managed to give me one more good swift kick in the butt. The man was not to be believed!”
A 2011 Los Angeles Times sports blog post written by Brian Cronin, a free-lance writer who focuses on sports urban legends, among other things, provided more details to knock out the Kearns "Plaster of Paris" story.
"There are a few notable problems with Kearns' story. One, he is a terribly unreliable narrator, as Dempsey had fired Kearns in 1923 because he felt that Kearns was skimming money from Dempsey. Kearns unsuccessfully tried to sue Dempsey a number of times. So Kearns clearly was not someone that you would just take at his word when it came to Dempsey, especially an 81-year-old Kearns reflecting back on a match from forty years earlier. Beyond the credibility issues regarding Kearns, though, his story just made no sense. Every other person in the room denied that Dempsey's hands were covered in Plaster of Paris and more importantly, Boxing Illustrated tested the idea out and saw that the plaster would crack the first time that you hit someone, leaving you with cracked plaster within your glove. At best, this would make punching your opponent extremely painful and at worst, it would break your hands. Dempsey's hands were not broken and he punched Willard with ease during the match. The manufacturers of Plaster of Paris even stated that their product could not be used in the manner Kearns described. Perhaps most importantly, there is film of the fight and it shows Willard looking at Dempsey's taped hands before the bout! Clearly, he would notice if Dempsey's hands were covered in Plaster of Paris. Even Sports Illustrated issued a statement in 1965 noting that they felt that Kearns' statements were not true (granted, after Dempsey first filed suit against them for libel)."
Cronin also addressed the issue of the hidden spike in Dempsey's glove. According to the legend, still told today, Dempsey used an iron spike hidden in his glove during the first round and then discarded it. As the story goes, a thin dark object is seen on film on the ring apron while Willard is being counted out at the end of the first round. This was supposed to be the iron spike that Dempsey used to knock Willard down seven times in the most brutal first round of any boxing match in the history of professional boxing.
"In the film of the bout, Dempsey pushed and held Willard with an open hand with the glove that supposedly had an iron spike in it. That does not make sense. Nor does it make sense that Dempsey would be able to drop an iron spike in front of everyone without anyone noticing it. Finally, if Dempsey was using an iron spike, why the heck would Kearns not just say that if he wanted to argue that Dempsey was using a loaded glove?"
In the end, the urban legend of Dempsey's loaded gloves is just another example of a story circulated as true so many times that some people can't help but believe it. 100 years later, I think its time to give Dempsey the credit he deserves. He beat Willard fair and square. If anyone tells you different, don't believe it!
Jack Dempsey's victory over Jess Willard heralded the dawn of a new era in sports and was a prelude of big things to come in boxing. It was also an enduring symbol of the birth of the roaring twenties. Toledo's day in the sun was such an epic event, the least we can do on this 100th anniversary is keep the records straight.
If you care to do your own research on the size of the crowd and the question of Dempsey's loaded gloves, check out the film of the fight here.