by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s remarkable how so many aspects of American life in the 1920s served as a template for the future. Whether it is transportation (the growing use of aviation, for example); communications (for instance, the development of radio); or entertainment (the worldwide effect of motion pictures), we can see some very important transformations brought about that helped lay the groundwork for how we would live in subsequent decades.
Another major component were celebrities. Radio and recordings helped make musicians like George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, as just two examples, major cultural figures. Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in spring 1927 launched him as a (somewhat reluctant) national hero. Certainly, any number of movie stars became mainstays of media attention and fan worship, whether they include Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, or many more.
In the sports world, celebrity athletes rose dramatically in stature during the Roaring Twenties, as well. Tennis players Bill Tilden and Helen Wills, golfer Bobby Jones, swimmer Gertrude Ederle, and football star Red Grange were some of the most popular sports figures of the time, but the two biggest celebrity athletes of the decade were perhaps baseball’s Babe Ruth and boxing’s Jack Dempsey.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph from this day in 1927 showing a large mass of fans and onlookers welcoming Dempsey to Los Angeles. The image looks to have been taken at the Southern Pacific depot, also known as Central Station, which opened at Alameda and Fifth streets in 1914.
A caravan of at least three open cars slowly makes its way through the horde, which looks to be about 95% male (and it seems like about half of them sport the popular straw hats of the day). Most are gawking, but one of the few hatless gents, a little above center is yelling and raises his right arm with his fist clenched. Others are smiling and laughing, perhaps because the former heavyweight champion, standing in the car at the center, has said a few words to the crowd.
Presumably, those words included something along the lines of “I’m gonna get my title back,” because Dempsey was in the midst of preparations to try to regain the heavyweight crown against one of the great boxers of the period, Gene Tunney. Known as the “Manassa Mauler,” after his hometown in Colorado, Dempsey was from a poor family that moved frequently. Converted to Mormonism at age 8, Dempsey was residing in Utah when he became a professional boxer.
On 4 July 1919, the 6’1″, 185-pound slugger went up against the massive Jess Willard, who was about five inches and nearly sixty pounds heavier, for the championship. To the surprise of virtually everyone, Dempsey floored the massive Willard seven times in the first round. As noted here in a recent post, the fight has been called among the most brutal in history and there were claims that Willard was seriously injured, though those stories look to have been greatly exaggerated. Still, Dempsey’s stunning victory after three rounds made him a champion and a big name in boxing.
After two successful defenses of his title in late 1920, Dempsey’s next big profile fight was with French pugilist Georges Carpentier on 2 July 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey. The bout was witnessed by over 90,000 people and was the first million dollar gate in the sport’s history. Carpentier broke a thumb during the fight, which gave an opening for the champ, who won the battle in the fourth round.
Two years elapsed before Dempsey entered the ring again and he struggled to win a 15-round decision against Tommy Gibbons in a Montana match. In September 1923, the first Latino, Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina, challenged Dempsey for the heavyweight crown. Firpo landed a good punch early, through Dempsey floored his rival seven times in quick succession. Amazingly, Firpo knocked the champ out of the ring, but Dempsey, despite a cut on the back of his head from hitting a table, climbed back in and then knocked out the powerful Firpo in the second round.
Another three years went by before Dempsey went back to the ring to defend his title and he continued to court celebrity, including celebrity endorsements, a number of film roles and marriage to actress Estelle Taylor. His next fight, in September 1926 in Philadelphia, then celebrating the sesquicentennial of American independence, was against former Marine Gene Tunney.
Whereas Dempsey was known as a power puncher and brawler, Tunney was a masterful strategist, more likely to wear down an opponent methodically than seek a quick knockout. The bout was fought in heavy rain before a massive crowd of 120,000 people and Tunney’s patient and calculated approach frustrated Dempsey, whose attempt to knock out his rival was in vain. Tunney scored a staggering upset and took the crown. Reportedly, Dempsey told Estelle Taylor, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” a line co-opted by President Ronald Reagan when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt.
While Dempsey thought about quitting boxing, he decided to seek a rematch with Tunney, but had to take on an elimination bout against future title-holder Jack Sharkey. The 21 July 1927 battle at Yankee Stadium had Sharkey in control for most of the contest, but, when he turned to complain to the referee that Dempsey was scoring hits below the belt, he left himself open and Dempsey delivered a knockout blow, ending the fight in the seventh round.
Two weeks later, Dempsey rolled into Los Angeles, disembarked from the train and was greeted by the horde of well-wishers, fans, and the curious shown in the photograph. A caption pasted down on the reverse reads:
The great throng which greeted Dempsey filled the streets and blocked traffic and only by the aid of police and firemen was the former champion’s car able to make its way out of the crowd. Dempsey is shown here in the center automobile.
On 22 September 1927 before just under 105,000 spectators at Chicago’s Soldier Field with a new record of nearly $2.7 million in gate receipts, the two pugilists faced off. As in the Philadelphia bout, Tunney was in control through the first six rounds, but in the seventh Dempsey went on the offensive and trapped his rival in a corner and against the ropes.
Landing a serious blow on Tunney’s chin and then four quick blows that dropped the champ to the canvas, Dempsey was, according to a newly established rule, to return to his corner before the ten-count by the referee was to begin, but he stood over Tunney as he was used to doing. Dempsey finally returned, some seconds later, and this delay gave the champion time to get up as the count reached nine.
From then on, Tunney kept his distance, though he did knock Dempsey to the floor once. He maintained control over the rest of the ten-round fight, which he won by unanimous decision. Dempsey was said to have told the champ, “you were best. You fought a smart fight, kid,” but the bout was known as the Long Count Fight and some assert that Dempsey would have won if he had gone to his corner immediately after he floored Tunney.
After this legendary bout, Dempsey retired (Tunney fought just once more, winning a tenth round technical knockout in September 1928 and retiring a champion) from the sport and continued to develop and enjoy his celebrity. Among his projects was a luxury hotel in Ensenada in Baja California that was best known as the Playa Ensenada (Ensenada Beach) and which opened in fall 1930. It was not a success, however, and the project soon folded. There are a few photos of Walter P. Temple and his business partners, attorney George H. Woodruff and manager Milton Kauffman, visiting the site, perhaps as investors and those will be shared in a future post.
Dempsey owned a popular restaurant under his name in New York for nearly forty years, served as a Coast Guard reserve commander during World War II (he tried to enlist in the First World War but was classified 4-F and not allowed to serve), and even promoted the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Tunney’s son, John V. Tunney in 1970. He died in New York in 1983 at age 87 and was an inaugural inductee in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which is in upstate New York.