Friday, September 22, 2017

Brains vs. Brawn: 90 years ago Tunney v, Dempsey shocked Soldier Field


     Nobody could hear.
     The roar of 100,000—or 120,000, or even 140,000, depending on what figure you believe—people was so loud that all that could be heard on the radio was a continuous howl.
     Few could see. A $5 ticket bought a seat on a bench up to 200 yards away. Those in ringside seats—which cost $40 and extended 100 rows back, stretching the concept of "ringside"—jockeyed to see Jack Dempsey, with a right hook followed by a flurry of six punches, send Gene Tunney sprawling in the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world of boxing, a sport which had become legal in Illinois only the year before, about the same time construction was completed at the venue, Soldier Field.
     It was Sept. 22, 1927.
     Tunney's back hit the canvas. Dempsey hovered nearby, right arm cocked.
     The "Long Count" as it became known is perhaps the most famous 14 seconds in boxing, if not all professional sport. But why it mattered, why those people were screaming so furiously, deserves remembering too.
     Dempsey was considered a brute, a caveman, "The Manassa Mauler" who boxed with a three-day growth of beard to enhance the effect. He won the heavyweight champion in 1919 from Jess Willard, breaking his cheekbones, and became part of 1920s celebrity culture, alongside Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bobby Jones. His fights were legend: Dempsey, knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo in 1923—a moment captured in oils by George Bellows—pushed back by newsmen and going on to win the fight.
     But Dempsey was also reviled as a "slacker"—he had avoided military service in World War I—until he first met Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926. Tunney battered him, and won the fight on a decision, taking all 10 rounds. But Dempsey won the hearts of sports fans with a single quip.
     "What happened?" wailed Dempsey's wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, rushing to him afterward.

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  1. A brutal sport that should be abolished but an interesting article nonetheless.

  2. Not only was this a fine column, it taught me several things about which I was absolutely clueless. I'd always heard that Dempsey was the boxer and Tunney the slugger--my understanding was that the saying "Always bet on the slugger" originated with this fight.

    More strikingly, I didn't have the least inkling that Tunney 1) had intellectual aspirations and 2) got slammed for that. What a pure illustration of American anti-intellectualism. Imagine getting hated and ridiculed for saying something as innocuous as "I am trying to develop my intellect the same as everyone else." Shame on Heywood Broun and the rest of them.

  3. A fine column, indeed. This is the kind of thing I can never keep straight, anyway, so I can read a piece like this almost as if I'd never heard of it. "The long count" - sure, I've heard of that. "Dempsey-Tunney" - check. "Fight with over a hundred thousand people at Soldier Field in the 20's" - yep. The fact that they all refer to the same event? - uh, sadly, no. The framing of how Tunney was hated for caring about developing his mind is telling, and resonates so much with regard to today's America that it makes me want to scream.

    Side note: The "Official Souvenir" program pictured in the S-T says the event is at "Soldiers' Field." I wonder if it was sponsored by The Jewels over by there, perhaps. ; )

    1. I noticed the Tribune referred to it consistently as "Soldiers' Field." They either didn't realize the difference or, more likely, felt their version was the correct one, its actual name be damned.

    2. "More likely" is right. This was after all in the days of Col. McCormick, a man who tried to single-handedly alter the English language.

    3. That's interesting. I wonder when they changed that S.F. policy to reflect reality. I had thought R. J. Daley was the main promoter of Soldiers' Field, but if the Tribune did it for years, that seems like a bit of an excuse for him, to me.

      "Tho" the way the language and punctuation are abused these days, I suppose they deserve credit for putting the apostrophe in the right place, at least. I "definitly yern" for the days when "hocky" was spelled without an "e" by the "staf" and "burocracy" of the Kernel's Trib during that "bazar" project. ; )

  4. Great history lesson, Neil.

    My grandfather boxed in Chicago back in the 20's. At that time his handler wasn't interested in promoting a Sicilian, so my grandfather fought as Kenny Galati instead of Tony.

    1. I'm glad this story rolled around again. I need to correct my comment. My dad informed me that his father's fighting name was Kenny Roberts. Not Kenny Galati. Not that it matters to anyone reading this, but there ya go.

  5. Don't know if admiration of Dempsey vs. Tunney was entirely one sided. I remember asking my mother's uncle about the famous fight and he said Dempsey was a thug and deserved to lose.

    I think I ate in Dempsey's Manhattan restaurant before it closed. Kind of down at heel as I remember.


  6. As a kid, I remember reading a full-page Daily News spread that ran on the 25th anniversary of what was supposedly Soldier Field's biggest crowd ever for a sporting event. That would be the Austin-Leo Prep Bowl game, also known as the Chicago Mayor’s Charity Game, on Nov. 27, 1937, which pitted the champion of the Chicago Catholic League against the champion of the Chicago Public League. The attendance of 120,000, according to the USA Today ranking and other sources, still stands as the largest ever for a football game in the U.S.

    That crowd still tops any college contest, as well as the largest attendance figure for any professional game ever held (112,000 at a Dallas vs. Houston contest in Mexico City in 1994). The story also included a panoramic view of the enormous throng, taken from the top of the stands. When I showed it to my father, he remarked: "Of course I remember that game. I was 17, and I was there."

  7. Jakash disappear again? He came out for a while.

    Grizz, I like your olden days memories posts.

  8. Olden days? Gosh, thanks mister. I'm just a kid. I'm not even 75 yet.


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