Over the past 22 years, our History Book Club has read more than 130 books, and three of them have been about boxing and heavyweight champions of the world:
• King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick — a wonderfully thoughtful biography of Ali that sets his story in the context of the two fighters who came before (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) and of the revolutionary times in which he fought.
• Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, and a World at the Brink by David Margolick — a meaty book that examined the careers of Louis and Schmeling and their titanic fight in 1938 in the context of a key moment in world history.
• Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward — a well-researched biography of a larger-than-life figure whose career was hampered but not crippled by American racism.
None of us is a boxer, as far as I know. We’ve read these books because of what they had to say about race relations over the past century. Sports is a useful lens for such an endeavor.
We all knew, to some extent, Johnson, Louis, Paterson, Liston and Ali, and we’d all seen their televised fights or could view them on YouTube. They were star athletes, competing on a field of battle where, corruption aside, the best man won. Yet, they lived in a culture that didn’t provide equal opportunity to African-Americans.
Through their sport, they could rise above those cultural limitations, those discriminations, in ways that others of their race couldn’t. Even so, they operated in a white-dominated world — which explains, for instance, Patterson’s mildness and the great controversies over the outspoken Johnson and Ali.
By looking at their stories in these three books, we got glimpses into the black experience in America.
Too many fights
I read Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan — America’s First Sports Hero with the hope that it would be a worthy addition to our book club’s boxing list. Sullivan, after all, was first generation Irish in the late 19th century when the Irish were at the bottom rungs of U.S. society and faced discrimination that was akin to, if not equal to, that faced by African-Americans.
Alas, it doesn’t measure up.
Part of it is that Klein spends too much time detailing essentially every one of Sullivan’s fights and recounting other less-than-compelling aspects of his career, such as mentioning every stop on the eight-month “knocking out” exhibition tour that Sullivan and his associates conducted in 1883-84.
Ward had a similar problem in Unforgivable Blackness, but, even with that flaw, his book looks closely at the racist attitudes of Jack Johnson’s era and how he rose above or simply ignored them, ultimately to his peril. Ward benefited as well from the fact that Johnson’s personality was flamboyant in the extreme. He would have been an interesting subject even if he had been an insurance salesman.
A boorish drunk
Not so with Sullivan — or, at least, with Klein’s telling of Sullivan’s story.
In Strong Boy, the last of the bare-knuckles heavyweight champions comes across as a boorish drunk. Indeed, Sullivan is drunk for most of the book. And for many of his exhibitions, and some of his fights.
And he was an ugly drunk. Consider this scene of the champ and his friend Billy Hogarty arriving at a saloon in a sleigh drawn by two horses:
As Hogarty went inside, Sullivan remained at the reins, making the horses uneasy. They jerked and tipped over the sleigh, which sent John L. into a fury. He kicked one of the horse three times under the ribs with his right foot and then for good measure punched the other equine in the face.
The champion continued his physical abuse inside the saloon. He struck head waitress Rose Booth over the head with his wet, heavy sealskin glove. Then he kicked her as she fled to the kitchen and struck her between the eyes with his big right hand.
He was just as churlish a few days later:
Sullivan’s abhorrent drunken behavior reared itself again on January 3, 1886, on a stop in New York. Outside the Gilsey House, he reportedly struck newsboy Tommy Lee with a heavy umbrella after he asked the scowling champion if he wanted to buy a copy of the Sunday Daily News….
The newspapers were quick to point out that the twelve-year-old victim, who was scared to press charges, was as “sickly and inoffensive” that he actually passed for nine or ten.
And he was racist. It’s noteworthy, in the context of the success that Johnson and the other African-American fighters had immediately following Sullivan, that Sullivan refused to fight a black. And his racism was worse when he was drunk.
When fellow fighter “Sailor” Charles Brown walked into Curley’s bar a few nights after losing to the up-and-coming black heavyweight sensation Peter Jackson, Sullivan made his views on interracial fights clear. “So you’re the fellow who fights n—–s, are you?” he slurred to Brown. The two exchanged blows before Sullivan’s friends whisked him to safety in the saloon’s backroom.
So the champion Klein presents is a boorish, racist drunk.
Let me be clear: Sullivan’s story should be told. But it deserved to be told well.
Klein is hampered by his over-reliance on newspaper stories, and by the belief that, by dropping in a paragraph or two which says, for instance, that the Irish were oppressed or that most Irish were racists, he’s done enough to give perspective to his story.
To tell Sullivan’s story, a writer would have to answer some deeply important questions, such as: Why did Sullivan drink so much? Were other fighters as much of an alcoholic as he was? How did his drinking fit into the drinking of Irish-Americans, in general? (There must be more than a few books on that subject.)
In Beyond Glory, Margolick makes clear how significant the success of Joe Louis was to the African-American community. Klein says Sullivan was a hero with the Irish, but he doesn’t look at that in depth. And how much more or less of a hero was he with the non-Irish.
The fact that many people today still know the name of John L. Sullivan says something.
Sullivan deserves a biography that explains why.
Patrick T. Reardon