April 11, 2013
There were already whispers that Craig Wood was a bad-luck golfer when, in late March of 1935, he accepted an offer from Bobby Jones to play in his second Augusta National Invitational Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Known as the “Blond Bomber,” Wood had literally made a splash at the 1933 British Open at St. Andrews—he had tied Denny Shute for the lead after 72 holes, but lost in a playoff when his booming drive found the famous Swilcan Burn, a thin channel of water that cuts across the first fairway.
At the inaugural “Masters” (as it would later become known), in 1934, Wood had lost to Horton Smith, who inconceivably holed two long putts on the final holes to win by a stroke. Later that year, Wood finished second in the 1934 PGA Championship, losing once again in a playoff to Paul Runyan, who just a few years before had been his assistant pro at Forest Hills Golf Club in White Plains, New York.
Still, Wood, a native of Lake Placid, New York, was a polished and respected player when he arrived in Augusta in April 1935; a reporter described him as someone “who has so often had the door to opportunity slammed in his face.” By the end of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, however, Craig Wood would be known as the most jinxed golfer the game had ever known. It would happen in a matter of seconds during the final round, when Eugenio Saraceni, the son of an immigrant carpenter and better known as Gene Sarazen, reached into his pocket for a lucky ring, then reached into his bag on the 15th fairway and made a swing for the ages—the “shot heard ’round the world”—and paved the way to another playoff.
Bobby Jones was already a legend: he had retired from competition in 1930, at the age of 28, having dominated the game like no other American for nearly a decade. But after founding the Augusta National Golf Club in his native Georgia, Jones came out of retirement in 1934 to help boost the new Augusta National Invitational, and he would continue to play the tournament on an exhibition basis for years to come. He was not only the biggest star in golf, but also the biggest and most beloved star in all of sports at the time—the only athlete to receive two ticker-tape parades down Broadway in New York City. Perhaps on the strength of his competitive reputation alone, Bobby Jones was the bookie favorite to win the 1935 Masters.
Wood was among the favorites as well, but the smart money was on Sarazen, who was at the top of his game. Although he was just 33, he was considered a crafty veteran, having already won six major tournaments. He also preferred to wear the traditional plus-fours (so called because they’re four inches longer than traditional knickers) when most golfers had opted, he said, for “sloppy slacks.” Sportswriter Grantland Rice played a practice round with the golfer nicknamed “the Squire” and wrote that he’d “never seen him hit the ball any better.” His 65 in a friendly round tied Bobby Jones’ course record.
In the days leading up to the tournament, Sarazen told Rice that the stars seemed to be lining up for him, even though he’d only just played the new course for the first time. “When I came here, I had three cows at home,” he told Rice. “Now I have three cows and two calves. That’s a hunch, and you know how I like hunches. I’m keen about the course, and I never saw any golf battlefield in better shape. I honestly think I can step along here.”
If Sarazen had dreams of victory the night before the tournament, they were interrupted at 4 a.m. by the sound of his hotel room door opening and the sight of a woman’s silhouette in the door frame. He jumped out of bed, picked up his driver and chased her down the corridor until she disappeared into another room. (“I was thinking of the forty dollars I had left on my dresser,” he said. “These are tough days. I can use that forty dollars to feed my four cows.”)
The episode had little effect on his game; he shot a 68 in the opening round, and it could have been lower had a few close putts dropped. Tommy Armour, who was paired with him, told reporters his partner played “one of the greatest rounds of golf I have ever seen. It matched the greatest golf I have ever seen Harry Vardon or Bobby Jones play. It was a masterpiece of golf art. Gene could have used his foot and kicked the ball in for a 65 or 66. I was hitting the ball quite well. I was only one over par, and yet in this round I felt like a hacker.”
By the end of the first round, the “par-wrecking field” saw Sarazen near the top with a 68 and Wood just one stroke behind. Henry “the Hershey Hurricane” Picard led the field with a 67, but Jones posted a 74, seven strokes off the lead.
Following round three on a stormy Saturday, April 6, Wood had taken the lead at seven under par, followed by Olin Dutra, Picard and Sarazen in fourth place, three strokes back. Wood had played spectacular golf in difficult conditions. Sportswriters marveled at his score, considering that he’d hit into a ditch and a water hazard, and missed a four-foot putt on the ninth. Sarazen had managed only a 73, and Jones could not get into contention. As the players teed off on a cold and rain-soaked course for Sunday’s final round, Wood found himself paired with Picard, while Sarazen played with his friend and rival Walter Hagen, who was out of contention and would spend the round reminiscing about old times and “his women,” Sarazen recalled.
Wood put together another solid round. Picard and Dutra faded, and Jones’ erratic putting (he missed a one-footer) kept him from mounting any challenge. When Wood birdied the 14th, 15th and 18th holes for a 73, he went into the clubhouse at six under par with a three-stroke lead over Sarazen—the only player still on the course who had a chance. (Final-round pairings were not based on scores then, so Wood, despite being the third-round leader, had teed off several groups ahead of Sarazen.)
Sarazen could hear the roar that greeted Wood’s final birdie, and as he approached the 15th tee, he turned to his caddie, Thor “Stovepipe” Nordwall, and asked what he needed to win.
“What do you mean, boss, to beat Craig Wood?” Nordwall asked.
Sarazen nodded. Standing on the tee, Hagen began to titter at the thought of a late round charge.
“Oooh,” the caddie mused, looking at the scorecard. “You need four threes, Mister Gene. Three, three, three, three.”
That would be an eagle, par, birdie and birdie. Picturing the four holes ahead, Sarazen didn’t think much of his chances. Back in the clubhouse, Wood was feeling confident. “I knew then the odds were 1000 to 1 in my favor,” he told a reporter later that night. “I felt the tournament was over.”
Sarazen blasted his tee shot down the 15th fairway—but “received a sudden jolt when I saw my lie” on the par-five hole, he would say. “It was none too good.” Most of the fans had been following Wood, so the gallery around Sarazen was sparse. Nordwall suggested a three-wood for the second shot into the green. There would be no laying up—not with Wood in the clubhouse, up by three strokes. Sarazen judged the lie to be “sitting down” and he thought he couldn’t lift the ball with a three-wood, so he “went to the bottom of his leather quiver” and grabbed his four-wood—a new model, the Wilson TurfRider.
Knowing he’d need to carry the ball 235 yards to the pin to give himself a chance at an eagle, he remembered a “lucky ring” that his friend Bob Davis had given him the night before. Davis told Sarazen that the ring had belonged to former Mexican president Benito Juarez. Sarazen thought the gaudy ring was too cumbersome to wear during a round of golf, but the Squire was also superstitious, so he had stuffed the bauble into his pocket that morning. (Davis later confessed that it wasn’t Juarez’s ring; he’d simply bought the trinket in Mexico.)
Now he pulled the ring out of his pocket and walked over to his caddie and began rubbing it on Nordwall’s head for luck. Hagen, who liked to play fast, was eager to finish the round. “Hurry up, will ya? I’ve got a date tonight,” he said.
Inside the clubhouse, Wood’s name had already been inscribed on the winner’s check, and his wife, Jacqueline, was standing by her husband, accepting congratulations. Wood’s lead looked “safer than a dozen Gibraltars,” one reporter observed. It was the couple’s first wedding anniversary, and Wood was hoping to make a “husbandly effort to present this title to his wife,” as well as the winner’s check for $1,500. (The traditional awarding of the green jacket to the Masters champion did not begin until 1949.)
At the same time, Sarazen, described in newspapers afterward as the “swaggering little Roman,” stepped up to address his ball. He slowly began his backswing, then powered down through the ball, which, one reporter noted, “left the face of the spoon like a rifle shot.”
The shot landed on the front of the green. A cheer went up from the spectators—and then a roar as the ball began to roll, tracking slowly toward the pin. Ever so deliberately, it “spun along its way and finally disappeared in the cup for a double-eagle two,” one reporter wrote. “A two on a 485-yard hold where even an eagle three wouldn’t have helped.”
Jones, who had finished his round, saw Sarazen’s miraculous second shot from the fairway. “That was one golf shot that was beyond all imagining, and golf is largely imagination,” Jones said. “From duffer to star we all dream of impossible shots that might come off. This one was beyond the limit of all dreams when you consider all the surrounding circumstances. I still don’t believe what I saw.”
Another reporter observed, “Had anyone other than Sarazen holed a 230-yard [shot] for a deuce on a 485-yard hole, it could easily be set down as a miracle, but coming from the fighting little Italian, it was a manifestation of superb competitive courage, garnished, of course, with a smattering of luck.”
Later that night, Sarazen told Rice he had been “afraid of the lie I had.” When he saw the ball sailing toward the green, he hoped he’d have a short eagle putt. Then he heard the roar of the crowd and discovered he’d made a double eagle. “Nothing else could have saved me,” he said. “When that wild howl went up, I felt, for just a second, like crying.”
Back in the clubhouse, Jacqueline Wood felt like doing the same. She was spotted standing “anxious, trembling and miserable.” As word of Sarazen’s double eagle spread and electrified the grounds, one of the players’ wives approached her and said, “You’ll get used to this, dear.”
With one swing, Sarazen had made up three strokes on Wood. He parred the last three holes, which left him tied for the lead after four rounds. A 36-hole playoff loomed on Monday—another raw day. A reporter wrote that Wood would try to “beat back destiny,” but the end of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational would be anticlimactic. Wood was “hitting perfect figures all the way, while Sarazen was curing two mistakes with as many birdies,” in one reporter’s account. Sarazen won by five strokes.
Wood didn’t express any bitterness about the defeat. He recalled losing the inaugural tournament to Horton Smith, but said, “It never occurred to me that anyone was going to hole a shot of 230 yards to stop me again.”
He eventually became the first golfer to lose all four major championships in extra holes—a distinction that lasted until Greg Norman came along. Unlike Norman, however, Wood rebounded from his defeats in Augusta; in 1941 he won the tournament in wire-to-wire fashion. He then removed the “jinx” label by winning the very next major—the 45th U.S. Open—in what is widely considered one of the greatest years any golfer has ever had.
Sarazen didn’t win much after the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, but he could be counted on to return to Augusta to hit the ceremonial opening shot, along with Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, right up until his death, at age 97, in 1999. In 1955, the Augusta National Golf Club built the Sarazen Bridge at the edge of the pond in front of the 15th hole in honor of the Squire and his double eagle. “It was the greatest thrill I’ve ever known in golf,” he said just after his 1935 feat, “or ever expect to again.”
Books: Gene Sarazen and Herbert Warren Wind, Thirty Years of Championship Golf, Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1950. David Owen, The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, Simon & Schuster, 1999. Ken Janke, Firsts, Facts, Feats, & Failures In the World of Golf, John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Robert McCord, Golf Book of Days: Fascinating Facts and Stories for Every Day of the Year, Citadel Press Books, 1995. Matthew E. Adams, In the Spirit of the Game: Golf’s Greatest Stories, Globe Pequot Press, 2008. Tim Glover and Peter Higgs, Fairway to Heaven: Victors and Victims of Golf’s Choking Game, Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Ltd., 1999. Tom Clavin, One for the Ages: Jack Nicklaus and the 1986 Masters, Chicago Review Press, 2011. Julian I. Graubart, Golf’s Greatest Championship: The 1960 U. S. Open, Taylor Trade Publications, 2009. Robert Sommers, Golf Anecdotes: From the Links of Scotland to Tiger Woods, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Articles: “Amazing Accuracy Brings Sarazen Victory Over Wood in Playoff of Masters’ Golf Tournament,” Boston Globe, April 9, 1935. “Sarazen’s 144 Wins Masters Golf Playoff,” by Charles Bartlett, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 9, 1935. “Sarazen Ties Wood for Masters’ Title,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 8, 1935. “Wood Cards 68 to Top Golfers,” Washington Post, April 7, 1935. “Craig Wood Conquers Elements and Par to Snatch Lead in Augusta Open Golf,” by Grantland Rice, Hartford Courant, April 7, 1935. “Wood Cards 68; Leads Masters’ Tourney,” by Charles Bartlett, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 7, 1935. “Henry Picard Shoots 67 to Lead Par-Wrecking Field in Augusta National Golf,” by Grantland Rice, Hartford Courant, April 5, 1935. “Still Feared by Golf’s Greatest,” by Grantland Rice, Daily Boston Globe, April 3, 1935. “Jones Prince or Hosts, but Stars Fear Sarazen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 3, 1935. “Gene Sarazen Ready to Recreate Famous Double Eagle at Masters,” by Jim Achenbach, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 11, 1984. “Mystery Man was a Champ,” by Garry Smits, The Florida Times Union, November 10, 2008. “Early Decision Set the Stage for Drama,” by John Boyette, The Augusta Chronicle, February 9, 2012. “Golf Dress Sloppy, Says Gene Sarazen,” by Oscar Fraley, The Tuscaloosa News, February 11, 1965.
April 3, 2013
Bat Masterson spent the last half of his life in New York, hobnobbing with Gilded Age celebrities and working a desk job that saw him churning out sports reports and “Timely Topics” columns for the New York Morning Telegraph. His lifestyle had widened his waistline, belying the reputation he had earned in the first half of his life as one of the most feared gunfighters in the West. But that reputation was built largely on lore; Masterson knew just how to keep the myths alive, as well as how to evade or deny his past, depending on whichever stories served him best at the time.
Despite his dapper appearance and suave charm, Masterson could handle a gun. And despite his efforts to deny his deadly past, late in his life he admitted, under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. It took a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, to get the truth out of Masterson. Some of it, anyway.
William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was born in Canada in 1853, but his family—he had five brothers and two sisters—ultimately settled on a farm in Sedgwick County, Kansas. At age 17, Masterson left home with his brothers Jim and Ed and went west, where they found work on a ranch near Wichita. “I herded buffalo out there for a good many years,” he later told a reporter. “Killed ‘em and sold their hides for $2.50 apiece. Made my living that way.”
Masterson’s prowess with a rifle and his knowledge of the terrain caught the attention of General Nelson Appleton Miles, who, after his highly decorated service with the Union Army in the Civil War, had led many a campaign against American Indian tribes across the West. From 1871-74, Masterson signed on as a civilian scout for Miles. “That was when the Indians got obstreperous, you remember,” he told a reporter.
Masterson was believed to have killed his first civilian in 1876, while he was working as a faro dealer at Henry Fleming’s Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. Fleming also owned a dance hall, and it was there that Masterson tangled with an Army Sergeant who went by the name of Melvin A. King over the affections of a dance-hall girl named Mollie Brennan.
Masterson had been entertaining Brennan after hours and alone in the club when King came looking for Brennan. Drunk and enraged at finding Masterson with her, King pulled a pistol, pointed it at Masterson’s groin, and fired. The shot knocked the young faro dealer to the ground. King’s second shot pierced Brennan’s abdomen. Wounded and bleeding badly, Masterson drew his pistol and returned fire, hitting King in the heart. Both King and Brennan died; Masterson recovered from his wounds, though he did use a cane sporadically for the rest of his life. The incident became known as the Sweetwater Shootout, and it cemented Bat Masterson’s reputation as a hard man.
News of a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota sent Masterson packing for the north. In Cheyenne, he went on a five-week winning streak on the gambling tables, but he tired of the town and had left when he ran into Wyatt Earp, who encouraged him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, where Bat’s brothers Jim and Ed were working in law enforcement. Masterson, Earp told him, would make a good sheriff of Ford County someday, and ought to run for election.
Masterson ended up working as a deputy alongside Earp, and within a few months, he won election to the sheriff’s job by three votes. Right away, Masterson was tasked with cleaning up Dodge, which by 1878 had become a hotbed of lawless activity. Murders, train robberies and Cheyenne Indians who had escaped from their reservation were just a few of the problems Masterson and his marshals confronted early in his term. But on the evening of April 9, 1878, Bat Masterson drew his pistol to avenge the life of his brother. This killing was kept apart from the Masterson lore.
City Marshal Ed Masterson was at the Lady Gay Saloon, where trail boss Alf Walker and a handful of his riders were whooping it up. One of Walker’s men, Jack Wagner, displayed his six-shooter in plain sight. Ed approached Wagner and told him he’d have to check his gun. Wagner tried to turn it over to the young marshal, but Ed told Wagner he’d have to check it with the bartender. Then he left the saloon.
A few moments later, Walker and Wagner staggered out of the Lady Gay. Wagner had his gun, and Ed tried to take it from him. A scuffle ensued, as onlookers spilled out onto the street. A man named Nat Haywood stepped in to help Ed Masterson, but Alf Walker drew his pistol, pushed it into Haywood’s face and squeezed the trigger. His weapon misfired, but then Wagner drew his gun and shoved it into Masterson’s abdomen. A shot rang out and the marshal stumbled backward, his coat catching fire from the muzzle blast.
Across the street, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson reached for his gun as he chased Wagner and Walker. From 60 feet away, Masterson emptied his gun, hitting Wagner in the abdomen and Walker in the chest and arm.
Bat then tended to his brother, who died in his arms about a half hour after the fight. Wagner died not long afterward, and Walker, alive but uncharged, was allowed to return to Texas, where Wyatt Earp reported that he later died from pneumonia relating to his wounded lung.
Newspapers at the time attributed the killing of Jack Wagner to Ed Masterson; they said he had returned fire during the melee. It was widely believed that this account was designed to keep Bat Masterson’s name out of the story to prevent any “Texas vengeance.” Despite the newspaper accounts, witnesses in Dodge City had long whispered the tale of the Ford County sheriff calmly shooting down his brother’s assailants on the dusty street outside the Lady Gay.
Masterson spent the next 20 years in the West, mostly in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro in clubs and promoted prize fights. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a singer and juggler who remained with Masterson for the rest of his life.
The couple moved to New York in 1902, where Masterson picked up work as a newspaperman, writing mostly about prizefighting at first, but then also covering politics and entertainment in his New York Morning Telegraph column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” A profile of him written about him 20 years before in the New York Sun followed Masterson to the East Coast, cementing the idea that he had killed 28 men out west. Masterson never did much to dispute the stories or the body count, realizing that his reputation did not suffer. His own magazine essays on life on the Western frontier led many to believe he was exaggerating tales of bravery for his own benefit. But in 1905, he played down the violence of his past, telling a reporter for the New York Times, “I never killed a white person that I remember—might have aimed my gun at one or two.”
He had good reason to burnish his reputation. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York—an appointment he held until 1912. Masterson began traveling in higher social circles, and became more protective of his name. So he was not pleased to find that a 1911 story in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser quoted a fight manager named Frank B. Ufer as saying Masterson had “made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.”
Masterson retained a lawyer and filed a libel suit, Masterson v. Commercial Advertiser Association. To defend itself, the newspaper hired a formidable New York attorney, Benjamin N. Cardozo. In May 1913, Masterson testified that Ufer’s remark had damaged his reputation and that the newspaper had done him “malicious and willful injury.” He wanted $25,000 in damages.
In defense of the newspaper, Cardozo argued that Masterson was not meant to be taken seriously—as both Masterson and Ufer were “sporting men” and Ufer’s comments were understood to be “humorous and jocular.” Besides, Cardozo argued, Masterson was a known “carrier of fire arms” and had indeed “shot a number of men.”
When questioned by his attorney, Masterson denied killing any Mexicans; any Indians he may have shot, he shot in battle (and he could not say whether any had fallen). Finally, Cardozo rose to cross-examine the witness. “How many men have you shot and killed in your life?” he asked.
Masterson dismissed the reports that he had killed 28 men, and to Cardozo, under oath, he guessed that the total was three. He admitted to killing King after King had shot him first in Sweetwater. He admitted to shooting a man in Dodge City in 1881, but he wasn’t certain whether the man died. And then he confessed that he, and not his brother Ed, had shot and killed Wagner. Under oath, Bat Masterson apparently felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Well, you are proud of those exploits in which you killed men, aren’t you?” Cardozo asked.
“Oh, I don’t think about being proud of it,” Masterson answered. “I do not feel that I ought to be ashamed about it; I feel perfectly justified. The mere fact that I was charged with killing a man standing by itself I have never considered an attack upon my reputation.”
The jury granted Masterson’s claim, awarding him $3,500 plus $129 in court costs. But Cardozo successfully appealed the verdict, and Masterson eventually accepted a $1,000 settlement. His legend, however, lived on.
Books: Robert K. DeArment, Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Articles: “They Called Him Bat,” by Dale L. Walker, American Cowboy, May/June 2006. “Benjamin Cardozo Meets Gunslinger Bat Masterson,” by William H. Manz, New York State Bar Association’s Journal, July/August 2004. “‘Bat’ Masterson Vindicated: Woman Interviewer Gives Him ‘Square Deal,’ ” by Zoe Anderson Norris, New York Times April 2, 1905. “W.B. ‘Bat’ Masterson, Dodge City Lawman, Ford County Sheriff,” by George Laughead, Jr. 2006, Ford County Historical Society, http://www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/batmasterson.html. ”Bat Masterson and the Sweetwater Shootout,” by Gary L. Roberts, Wild West, October, 2000, http://www.historynet.com/bat-masterson-and-the-sweetwater-shootout.htm. “Bat Masterson: Lawman of Dodge City,” Legends of Kansas, http://www.legendsofkansas.com/batmasterson.html. “Bat Masterson: King of the Gunplayers,” by Alfred Henry Louis, Legends of America, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-batmasterson.html.
November 15, 2012
Despite the promoters’ best efforts, the 1922 light-heavyweight fight between the popular European champion Georges Carpentier and an obscure Senegalese brawler named Amadou Mbarick Fall, better known as “Battling Siki,” wasn’t supposed to be much of a fight. In the run-up to the September 22 event, newspapers confidently reported that fight fans could “expect to see the French idol win inside of six rounds.”
And yet more than 50,000 Parisians flocked to the Buffalo Velodrome, creating the first “million-franc” boxing match. Carpentier was a war hero beloved by his countrymen, and even though he had a lackluster record, Battling Siki was more than willing to help stir up interest in the fight. He was billed as the “Jungle Hercules,” and reporters described him as a man who fought “like a leopard,” with “great muscles” rippling under his dark skin and “perfect white teeth so typical of the negroid.” Siki had taken a hit on the head with a hammer, one paper stated, “and scarcely felt it.”
Even Siki’s own manager, Charlie Hellers was quick to point out the fighter’s “gorilla’s skill and manners” to reporters. “He’s a scientific ape,” Hellers said. “Just imagine an ape that has learned to box and you have Battling Siki.”
For his part, Siki told reporters that he was going to knock Carpentier out in the first round because he had plans to fight the world heavyweight champion next. “Tell Jack Dempsey he’s my next meat,” Siki was quoted as saying.
In truth, the fighter was born and raised in the Senegalese city of Saint-Louis and moved to France as a teen. “I have never even seen a jungle,” he would say later. He was often spotted around Paris dressed in expensive suits and fancy hats, sometimes with his pet monkey perched on his shoulder. His training, it was said, consisted of “caviar and cognac,” and he preferred doing his “roadwork on a dance floor.”
On the afternoon of September 22, fight fans packed the velodrome to see Carpentier defend his title. Nicknamed the “Orchid Man” for the corsages he often wore with his tailored suits, Carpentier had been fighting professionally since he was 14. Although he was coming off a failed attempt to win Dempsey’s heavyweight title, he’d helped secure boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Fighting again as a light-heavyweight, the Frenchman’s future was still bright—so bright that Carpentier’s handlers were taking no chances. They offered Battling Siki a bribe to throw the fight. Siki agreed, under the condition that he “didn’t want to get hurt.” What followed was one of the strangest bouts in boxing history.
Although Siki later admitted that the fight was rigged, there’s some question as to whether Carpentier knew it. Early in the first of 20 scheduled rounds, Siki dropped to a knee after Carpentier grazed him, and then rose and began to throw wild, showy punches with little behind them. In the third, Carpentier landed a powerful blow, and Siki went down again; when he got back on his feet, he lunged at his opponent head first, hands low, as if inviting Carpentier to hit him again. Carpentier obliged, sending Siki to the canvas once more.
At that point, the action in the ring turned serious. Siki later told a friend that during the fight, he had reminded Carpentier, “You aren’t supposed to hit me,” but the Frenchman “kept doing it. He thought he could beat me without our deal, and he kept on hitting me.”
Suddenly, Battling Siki’s punches had a lot more power to them. He pounded away at Carpentier in the fourth round, then dropped him with a vicious combination and stood menacingly over him. Through the fourth and into the fifth, the fighters stood head to head, trading punches, but it was clear that Siki was getting the better of the champion. Frustrated, Carpentier charged in and head-butted Siki, knocking him to the floor. Rising to his feet, Siki tried to protest to the referee, but Carpentier charged again, backing him into a corner. The Frenchman slipped and fell to the canvas—and Siki, seemingly confused, helped him get to his feet. Seeing Siki’s guard down, Carpentier showed his gratitude by launching a hard left hook to Siki’s head just before the bell ended the round. The Senegalese tried to follow Carpentier back to his corner, but handlers pulled him back onto his stool.
At the start of round six, Battling Siki pounced. Furious, he spun Carpentier around and delivered an illegal knee to his midsection, which dropped the Frenchman for good. Enraged, Siki stood above him and shouted down at his fallen foe. With his right eye swollen shut and his nose broken, the Orchid Man was splayed awkwardly on his side, his left leg resting on the lower rope.
Siki returned to his corner. His manager, Charlie Hellers, blurted out, “My God. What have you done?”
“He hit me,” Siki answered.
Referee M. Henri Bernstein didn’t even bother counting. Believed by some to be in on the fix, Bernstein tried to explain that he was disqualifying Siki for fouling Carpentier, who was then being carried to his corner. Upon hearing of the disqualification, the crowd unleashed a “great chorus of hoots and jeers and even threaten[ed] the referee with bodily harm.” Carpentier, they believed, had been “beaten squarely by a better man.”
Amid the pandemonium, the judges quickly conferred, and an hour later, reversed the disqualification. Battling Siki was the new champion.
Siki was embraced, just as Carpentier had been, and he quickly became the toast of Paris. He was a late-night fixture in bars around the city, surrounded by women, and he could often be seen walking the Champs-Elysees in a top hat and tuxedo, with a pet lion cub on a leash.
Carpentier fought for a few more years but never never reclaimed his title. Retiring from the ring, he toured the vaudeville circuits of the United States and England as a song-and-dance man. Battling Siki turned down several big fights in the United States to face Mike McTigue in Ireland. That the bout was held on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was likely a factor in Siki’s losing a controversial decision. He moved to New York City in 1923 and began a downward spiral of alcohol abuse that led to countless confrontations with the police. By 1925, he was regularly sleeping in jail cells after being picked up for public intoxication, fighting and skipping out on bar debts.
In the early hours of December 15, 1925, Amadou Mbarick Fall, aka Battling Siki, was wandering through the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York’s West Side when he took two bullets in his back and died on the street. Just 28 years old, Siki was believed to have been killed over some unpaid debts, but the homicide remains unsolved. Adam Clayton Powell presided over Siki’s funeral in Harlem, and in 1991, the pugilist’s remains were brought back to Senegal.
Books: Peter Benson, Battling Siki: A tale of ring fixes, race & murder in the 1920s, The University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
Articles: “Dempsey’s My Meat,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 18, 1922, “Knocked Out, Battling Siki is Borne From Ring of Life Forever,” The New Amsterdam News, December 29, 1925. “Siki Scientific Ape, Says Manager,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 1, 1922. “Siki Like a Leopard,” Boston Daily Globe, September 25, 1922. “Million Franc Gate For Carpenter’s Bout with Battling Siki,” Boston Daily Globe, September 22, 1922. “The Sidewalks of New York,” Boston Daily Globe, November 29, 1925. “Saki is a Gorilla, Says Manager,” New York Times, September 26, 1922. “Carpentier Crumbles Before Negro Wonder; Flattened in Sixth,” The Hartford Courant, September 25, 1922. “Negro Tumbles Idol of France,” Boston Daily Globe, September 25, 1922. “The Fix Was In—but Then Battling Siki Got Mad,” by Roy McHugh, Sports Illustrated, April 24, 1989.
September 12, 2012
At the dawn of the 20th century, cycling was the most popular sport in both America and Europe, with tens of thousands of spectators drawn to arenas and velodromes to see highly dangerous and even deadly affairs that bore little semblance to bicycle racing today. In brutal six-day races of endurance, well-paid competitors often turned to cocaine, strychnine and nitroglycerine for stimulation and suffered from sleep deprivation, delusions and hallucinations along with falls from their bicycles. In motor-paced racing, cyclists would draft behind motorcycles, reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour on cement-banked tracks, where blown bicycle tires routinely led to spectacular crashes and deaths.
Yet one of the first sports superstars emerged from this curious and sordid world. Marshall W. Taylor was just a teenager when he turned professional and began winning races on the world stage, and President Theodore Roosevelt became one of his greatest admirers. But it was not Taylor’s youth that cycling fans first noticed when he edged his wheels to the starting line. Nicknamed “the Black Cyclone,” he would burst to fame as the world champion of his sport almost a decade before the African-American heavyweight Jack Johnson won his world title. And as with Johnson, Taylor’s crossing of the color line was not without complication, especially in the United States, where he often had no choice but to ride ahead of his white competitors to avoid being pulled or jostled from his bicycle at high speeds.
Taylor was born into poverty in Indianapolis in 1878, one of eight children in his family. His father, Gilbert, the son of a Kentucky slave, fought for the Union in the Civil War and then worked as a coachman for the Southards, a well-to-do family in Indiana. Young Marshall often accompanied his father to work to help exercise some of the horses, and he became close friends with Dan Southard, the son of his father’s employer. By the time Marshall was 8, the Southards had for all intents and purposes adopted him into their home, where he was educated by private tutors and virtually lived the same life of privilege as his friend Dan.
When Marshall was about 13, the Southards moved to Chicago. Marshall’s mother “could not bear the idea of parting with me,” he would write in his autobiography. Instead, “I was dropped from the happy life of a ‘millionaire kid’ to that of a common errand boy, all within a few weeks.”
Aside from the education, the Southards also gave Taylor a bicycle, and the young man was soon earning money as a paperboy, delivering newspapers and riding barefoot for miles a day. In his spare time, he practiced tricks and caught the attention of someone at the Hay and Willits bicycle shop, which paid Marshall to hang around the front of the store, dressed in a military uniform, doing trick mounts and stunts to attract business. A new bicycle and a raise enabled Marshall to quit delivering newspapers and work for the shop full-time. His uniform won him the nickname “Major,” which stuck.
To further promote the store, one of the shop’s owners, Tom Hay, entered Taylor in a ten-mile bicycle race—something the cyclist had never seen before. “I know you can’t go the full distance,” Hay whispered to the terrified entrant, “but just ride up the road a little way, it will please the crowd, and you can come back as soon as you get tired.”
The crack of a starter’s pistol signaled the beginning of an unprecedented career in bicycle racing. Major Taylor pushed his legs beyond anything he’d imagined himself capable of and finished six seconds ahead of anyone else. There he “collapsed and fell in a heap in the roadway,” he wrote, but he soon had a gold medal pinned to his chest. He began competing in races across the Midwest; while he was still 13, his cycling prowess earned him a notice in the New York Times, which made no mention of his youth.
By the 1890s, America was experiencing a bicycle boom, and Taylor continued to work for Hay and Willits, mostly giving riding lessons. While white promoters allowed him to compete in trick riding competitions and races, Taylor was kept from joining any of the local riding clubs, and many white cyclists were less than welcoming to the black phenom. In August 1896, Taylor’s friend and new mentor, Louis D. “Berdi” Munger, who owned the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts, signed him up for an event and smuggled him into the whites-only races at the Capital City Cycling Club in Indianapolis. He couldn’t officially compete against the professionals, but his time could certainly be measured.
Some of the other riders were friendly with Taylor and had no problems pacing him on tandem bicycles for a time trial. In his first heat, he knocked more than eight seconds off the mile track record, with the crowd roaring when they learned of his time. After a rest, he came back on to the track to see what he could do in the one-fifth-mile race. The crowd tensed as Taylor reached the starting line. Stopwatches were pulled from pockets. He exploded around the track and, at age 17, knocked two-fifths of a second off the world record held by professional racer Ray MacDonald. Taylor’s time could not be turned in for official recognition, but everyone in attendance knew what they had seen. Major Taylor was a force on two wheels.
Still, Munger’s stunt angered many local cycling officials, and his rider was quickly banned from that Indianapolis track. By that point, it didn’t matter; Taylor was on his way. Later in 1896, he finished eighth in his first six-day race at New York’s Madison Square Garden, even though the hallucinations got to him; at one point he said, “I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.”
Munger, keen to establish his own racing team with the Black Cyclone as its star, took Taylor to Worcester and put him to work for his company. He was in Massachusetts when his mother died in 1898, which led Taylor to seek baptism and become a devoted member of the John Street Baptist Church in Worcester. Before his teenage years ended, Taylor became a professional racer with seven world records to his name. He won 29 of the 49 races he entered, and in 1899, he captured the world championship of cycling. Major Taylor was just the second black athlete to become a world champion, behind Canadian bantamweight George “Little Chocolate” Dixon, who had won his title a decade before.
Taylor’s victory earned him tremendous fame, but he was barred from races in the South, and even when he was allowed to ride, plenty of white competitors either refused to ride with him or worked to jostle or shove him or box him in. Spectators threw ice and nails at him. At the end of a one-miler in Massachusetts, W.E. Backer, who was upset at finishing behind Taylor, rode up behind him afterward and pulled him to the ground. “Becker choked him into a state of insensibility,” the New York Times reported, “and the police were obliged to interfere. It was fully fifteen minutes before Taylor recovered consciousness, and the crowd was very threatening toward Becker.” Becker would be fined $50 for the assault.
It was abundantly clear to Munger and other friends that Taylor would be better off racing in Europe, where some of the strongest riders in the world were competing and where a black athlete could ride without fear of racially motivated violence. His advisers tried to persuade him to leave the United States, but Taylor would have none of it. The prestigious French events held races on Sundays, and Taylor’s religious convictions prevented him from competing on the Sabbath. ”Never on Sundays,” he insisted.
Still, the money to be made overseas was a strong lure, and the European promoters were eager to bring the Black Cyclone to their tracks. Promoters shifted events from Sundays to French national holidays to accommodate the American. In 1902, Taylor finally competed on the European tour and dominated it, winning the majority of races he entered and cementing his reputation as the fastest cyclist in the world. (He also married Daisy Morris that year, and continued to travel. When he and Daisy had a daughter in 1904, they named her Rita Sydney, after the city in Australia where she was born.)
Taylor raced for the rest of the decade, reportedly earning $30,000 a year, making him one of the wealthiest athletes of his day, black or white. But with the advent of the automobile, interest in cycling began to wane. Taylor, feeling the effects of age on his legs, retired in 1910, at age 32. A string of bad investments, coupled with the Wall Street crash in 1929, wiped out all of his earnings. His marriage crumbled, and he became sickly. After six years of writing his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, he self-published it in 1929 and spent the last years of his life selling the book door-to-door in Chicago. “I felt I had my day,” he wrote, “and a wonderful day it was too.” Yet when he died, in 1932, at the age of 53, his body lay unclaimed in a morgue, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Chicago.
When they learned where Major Taylor’s grave site was, some former racing stars and members of the Olde Tymers Athletic Club of the South Wabash Avenue YMCA persuaded Frank Schwinn, owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, to pay to have Taylor’s remains exhumed and transferred to a more fitting location—the cemetery’s Memorial Garden of the Good Shepherd. There, a bronze tablet reads:
“Worlds champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way—Without hatred in his heart—An honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete. A credit to his race who always gave out his best—Gone but not forgotten.”
Books: Andrew Richie, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Marshall W. Taylor, Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds, Ayer Co. Pub, 1928. Andrew M. Homan, Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr., Potomac Books Inc., 2011. Marlene Targ Brill, Marshall “Major” Taylor: World Champion Bicyclist , 1899-1901, Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.
Articles: “Major Taylor—The World’s Fastest Bicycle Racer,” by Michael Kranish, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, September 16, 2001. “‘Worcester Whirlwind’ Overcame Bias,” by Lynne Tolman, Telegram & Gazette, July 23, 1995. http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/whirlwind.htm “Draw the Color Line,” Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1898. “Trouble on Taunton’s Track,” New York Times, September 24, 1897. “Taylor Shows the Way,” Chicago Tribune, August 28, 1898.
August 7, 2012
America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism. Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats—among them a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, and mud slinging—for the amusement of Caucasian spectators. Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.
A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted “oddities.” Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites. Another American, Fred Lorz, did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, and earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a “special five-mile race” sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Among the leading oddities were ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban national and former mailman named Félix Carbajal, who raised money to come to the States by demonstrating his running prowess throughout Cuba, once trekking the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he lost all his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. At five feet tall, he presented a slight but striking figure at the starting line, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret and a pair of street shoes. One fellow Olympian took pity, found a pair of scissors and cut Carbajal’s trousers at the knee.
On August 30, at precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents. In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Hicks, one of the early American favorites, came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant, and at the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge the runner’s condition.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”
Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. “Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.”
He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without the aid of anything but his legs.
Books: Susan Brownell, The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008; David E. Martin, The Olympic Marathon. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. George R. Matthews, America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005; Pamela Cooper, The American Marathon. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998; Daniel M. Rosen, Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports From the Nineteenth Century to Today. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2008; Charles J. P. Lucas, The Olympic Games, 1904. St. Louis, Mo: Woodward & Tieran Printing Co., 1905.
Articles: “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2004; “Marathon Captivated Crowd at 1904 Olympics.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 2003; “New York Athlete Wins Marathon Race.” New York Times, April 20, 1905; “1904 Set Record for the Unusual.” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1984; “The 1904 Marathon Was Pure Torture.” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 3, 2008; “Marathon Madness,” New Scientist 183 (August 7-13, 2004); “St. Louis Games Were Extremely Primitive By Today’s Standards.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2004; “One Man’s Poison In a Brazen and Forgotten Incident of Doping.” Boston Globe, February 22, 2009.