Subj: The BAWLI Papers No. 54
Date: 99-02-06 13:07:16 EST
The BAWLI Papers
(Boxing As We Liked It)
Edited by J Michael Kenyon
Issue Number 54
Saturday, February 6, 1999
New York City, New York, US of A
IN THIS ISSUE: FRANK GRAHAM WRITES OF HIS LONG FRIENDSHIP WITH JACK CURLEY
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Readers are welcome to submit interesting and otherwise noteworthy articles
concerning professional boxing's long and storied past. The emphasis,
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(ED. NOTE -- Thanks to the kind auspices of sports researcher John Grasso of
Guilford, N.Y., readers of the BAWLI Papers will now be sharing some of the
fascinating articles which used to grace the pages of Ring Magazine in the
publication's 1930s and '40s heyday. The following is a story which mates up
two giants of their respective professionals, New York columnist Frank Graham
and longtime sports promoter Jack Curley, written upon Curley's death in
THE JACK CURLEY I KNEW
(Ring Magazine, October, 1937)
By Frank Graham
It is going to be a long while before I will be able to pass the door of an
office building on Broadway just north of Forty-second Street without feeling
that I ought to turn in and say hello to my friend, Jack Curley. Jack had left
that building and made his pitch in the more elaborate surroundings of
Rockefeller Center a little while before he died but I never got up there to
see him and I will always think of him sitting in his office high above
Broadway and Forty-second Street, leaning back in his desk chair and telling
me stories out of the glamorous and almost unbelievable experiences he had had
all over this country and in many other parts of the world.
"I could tell you a story a day for a thousand days on end," he said to me
He was being conservative. He could have told me a story a day for many more
days than that. And each would have been a good story. For Jack had been
places and seen things and known people -- more places and more things and
more people than it is given to most of us to be or see or know. And he had
the gift of putting words together. He was a promoter by profession but a
newspaperman by instinct. Most successful promoters know a good story when it
bobs up. Jack not only knew it but could tell it -- or, if the opportunity
arose, could sit down and write it.
I think that of all the things he ever did in a crowed lifetime, that of which
he was proudest was an exclusive interview with Eugene V. Debs, at that time
the head of the Socialist party in this country. That was in the long ago and
Socialists were supposed to be very radical and dangerous persons and every
once in a while the Government would put the heat on Debs and he would have to
take himself out of circulation for a time. Now, somewhere and in some
fashion, Jack had met him and Debs had liked Jack -- as who didn't. And once
when Debs was in hiding and newspapermen all over Chicago were combing the
town for him, Jack got a tip that Debs was at an obscure North Side hotel and
would be glad to talk to him. The interview that resulted from that meeting
was slapped across the front page of the Inter-Ocean, on the staff of which
Jack was but a humble toiler at the time, and Jack's rewards for the scoop
were a bonus from his paper and the envy of every other newspaperman in the
When I first met Jack he was reviving wrestling in New York. It was a
difficult job, for it had been dormant for a long time and nobody had any
faith in it. But Jack moved in, got things started and, the first thing
anybody knew, the mat game was thriving. A series of tournaments just about
the time the World War was drawing to a close set the stage for the greatest
wrestling show that New York ever has known: The Joe Stecher-Earl Caddock
match in the old Garden. That one had the genuine Curley touch -- bands,
massed flags, uniforms, floodlights -- and the best people in town in the
That match, cleanly and honestly waged and splendidly promoted, established
Jack in New York. It brought recognition of the fact that wrestling, so long
in ill repute, was in decent and capable hands. The few years that followed
were among the brightest in Jack's career as a promoter. They were marked by
big crowds, big money and good sport. So long as Jack had a virtual monopoly
on wrestling hereabouts, the game flourished. It was when small time rivals
began to chisel in that the troubled years came.
One reason why Jack always held the esteem of the newspapermen was that he
dealt fairly and truthfully with them. When they went to him with a question,
he gave them the answer, fully and frankly. When he gave them a story, they
never had to check up on it to make sure it was true. Many of the stories were
dramatic, astonishing. But they were no fabrications. He had roamed so widely,
lived to excitingly, that even the dullest recital of his experiences would
have made rich and colorful reading.
For instance, I defy anybody to mar or make uninteresting his recital of the
events leading up to the meeting of Jack Johnson and Jess Willard in the ring
at Havana. I have written the story several times (I wrote it for The Ring
some seven or eight years ago) and have told it many times. It is a story of
foresight and ingenuity and tenacity in which the fight itself, as important
as it was, was a mere anti-climax. In passing, I might say that Jack always
agrued, and plausibly, that the fight was on the level, no matter what Johnson
has said to the contrary. The match was made on the premise that Johnson,
having lived the life of Riley for so long, would fold up as a result of his
own exertion if he were pitted against a strong young fellow capable of
keeping him moving for more than twenty rounds.
"Johnson still is good enough to beat any man in the world over a span of
twenty rounds," Jack told Lawrence Weber, his financial backer for the fight,
"but if he is compelled to go beyond the twentieth, every round will bring him
closer to defeat, even if the other fellow can't hurt him. Willard is big,
strong and can take the best punch Johnson can throw at him. If I can make
this match, I'll have Willard in shape to fight all day if necessary."
That's why the fight was set for forty-five rounds, or practically to a
finish. Willard wdas in superb condition and Curley always maintained that
while Johnson could have got up in the twenty-sixth round, he was so exhausted
that it would have been folly for him to have done so, since he must have
fallen down again within another round or so.
I defy anybody, too, to make dull reading of Jack's story of the Dr. Roller-
Stanislaus Zbyszko wrestling match in Vienna, part of which concerned a
midnight dash by Curley from Vienna to Cracow in a third-class railway
carriage (and in evening clothes) to almost kidnap Zbyszko and take him back
to Vienna for the match.
Or the story of the time Curley himself, then young and full of vigor, agreed
to fight an aging pugilist who wanted to get money to pay for his daughter's
first communion dress -- and was soundly beaten because the old pugilist
couldn't pull a punch -- not even against a fellow who was doing him a favor.
These and countless other stories, told to me in that little office high above
Broadway, delighted me and, I am sure, delighted countless thousands to whom I
passed them on in print -- not because I wrote them but because Jack told them
so well. All I did was to put down on paper the words that he linked together
in the felling of the tales.
To many newspapermen, not only in New York but all over the country, Jack was
more than a source of interesting stories. He was a friend and a good
companion and we miss him terribly . . . I look the other way when I pass the
doorway of that office building on Broadway, just above Forty-second Street.
Jack Curley was one of the great men of sports. And the chances are he would
have been a greater man if he had not been so big of heart. So that, almost
always when he launched an enterprise, he would take somebody in with him and
share the profits with him. And too many times the other fellow proved
unworthy of him and either checked the progress of the enterprise or brought
about its failure.
Those things that Jack promoted alone, or with the aid of a bankroll man who
was content to remain in the background and leave the details of the promotion
to Curley, were masterpieces . . . The Johnson-Willard fight in Havana . . .
the tour of the Vatican Choir . . . the tour by Rudolph Valentino . . . the
renaissance of wrestling in this town twenty years or so ago, after the sport
had been dormant here for many years and others who had tried to revive it had
been looked upon with suspicion as to either their motives or their sanity.
He had many friends . . . and deserved them. Real friends who asked nothing of
him but his friendship. Friends who rejoiced at his successes, felt badly over
his failures and grieve because of his death.
Jack's life was a story of boyhood adventure come true. He ran away from his
home in San Francisco at the age of 16 to go to Chicago when the world's fair
of 1892 was in progress. There he had a good time, prospered reasonably,
thought that life would always be like that.
Then the fair closed. In its wake it left a horde of drifters. Work was
scarce. Jack's savings soon vanished. He reached a point where he actually was
"But I couldn't stop people on the street and ask them for money," he said
once when he was talking of this phase of his life. "I slept in hallways and
went without food for a couple of days. One night I walked into a grocery. I
thought maybe if I told the grocer I was hungry he would me something to eat,
but when he asked me what I wanted, I lost my nerve. I asked him if he knew of
a family by the name of -- oh, I don't remember, now, what name I used, but it
was an entirely fictitious family -- living in that neighborhood, and he said
no, he didn't, and I thanked him and walked out.
"I am sure that if I had told him I was hungry he would have fed me. But I
just couldn't ask him . . . I never have refused a beggar on the streets,
because I always think of that night. Maybe many of them are fakers . . . but
maybe some of them are even more desperate than I was . . . and have gone
through the same struggle I did before they could ask anyone for help." Jack
finally found a job washing dishes in a cheap restaurant. It meant three meals
a day and a room over the kitchen in which he could sleep. Things became
better after a while. He got a job as an office boy on the Chicago Inter-
Ocean. And began a long climb to fame.
From Chicago he drifted to St. Louis, where he became manager of Frankie Noel,
Ed Lally and Gus Fredericks. Then he hopscotched around the Middle West as the
impresario of "Dutch" Neal and Billy Layton. He got acquainted with Billy
Stift, Tommy Ryan, "Australian Tim" Murphy and became their trainer and
He drifted back to Chicago and ran the Illinois Athletic Club with Paddy
Carroll as matchmaker and gymnasium manager, handling all the late Manager
Bang's fighters, such as Johnny Reagan, Tommy Sullivan and Kid Carter. Then he
fell in with Al Herford, who in a most friendly manner paid him well for
helping the great Joe Gans in his training and in various other ways.
By this time he had quite a stable of fighters in Chicago, such fine boys as
Tommy Cody, Harry Forbes, the "Twin" Sullivans, Jimmy and George Gardiner and
many others. When boxing was shut down in Chicago he took up wrestling,
promoting some big matches. Among those he managed and staged were the John
Rooney-"Farmer" Burns, Dan McLeod-Burns, George Hackenschmidt-Frank Gotch and
Curley promoted the Jim Flynn-Jack Johnson match, which took place at Las
Vegas, N.M., and arranged the Jess Willard-Jack Johnson fight at Havana.
As one of the promoters of the Johnson-Willard fight, he got nothing much more
out of it than trips to London and Havana, a collection of new friends and
additional photographs in his office. But his name went down in the history of
Fistiana as the promoter of the event -- Jack Curley, the man who brought
back the heavyweight championship to the white race.
He knew -- well, just about everybody, everywhere he went. He told one story
in this connection of an incident that gave him a terrific bang.
"I was sailing for Europe with some friends of mine," he said, "and I met a
number of people, down to see others who were sailing, and who greeted me
before the ship sailed. My friends remarked about the number of people who
came up to speak to me and, after the ship sailed, there were many among the
other passengers who knew me. We went to London first and then to Paris and
then to Berlin. In each of these cities I had many acquaintances, and
constantly was running into them, and my friends remarked that I must know
"One day we were motoring out of Berlin and were in a farming district when we
lost our way. There was a fellow picking cherries in a tree by the roadside,
and I pulled up under the tree and called up to him in German, asking him if
he could direct us. He parted the branches and looked down, and when he saw me
"'Well, I'm a son-of-agun, if it ain't Jack Curley!'
"My friends howled with surprise. Of course I was as much surprised as any
one. The fellow in the tree was a fighter from around Chicago who was home on
a visit to his folks."
Curley's friends were always bobbing up in strange places, or strange
circumstances. In the days leading up to the Johnson-Willard fight in havana
there was strong opposition to it expressed in this country by the reform
element, especially as Jack unwittingly had scheduled it for Eastern Sunday.
Sunday was a big sports day in Havana and was the logical day on which to hold
the fight, but Jack didn't realize until the uproar started here that the
Sunday he had selected was Easter Sunday.
Among those few who were unfriendly toward him in Havana was a representative
of the American State Department and as this man had considerable influence in
Havana, he was a source of worry to Jack. Moreover, the outcry against holding
the fight on Easter supplied Jack's foe with additional ammunition, and
although Jack hurriedly set the fight back as soon as he heard of the protest,
the gentleman in the State Department refused to be appeased and seemed bent
on dirving the fight out of Cuba, despite the friendly attitude of the Cuban
In the crisis Jack suddenly thought of a man who once had been his guest as a
wrestling match and whom eh subsequently managed on a lecture tour. So, he
sent a cable to this man, the difficulty speedily was ironed out, and the
fight went on without further objection. Jack's friend was William Jennings
Bryan, at that time Secretary of State.
A few years ago, when he celebrated his fortieth year as a sports promoter, I
sat in his office and for almost three hours he kept me interested in "the
good old days."
"I could stand here several more hours," he said, "and recite stories that
would give you thrill after thrill. I could give you reminiscences of the days
when 'fights were fights and he-men ruled the roost.'
"I could stand here for hours and recount wild experiences that we of the old
school were forced through by the minions of the law when we tried to carry
out our program of sport. I could keep you open-mouthed as I recounted many of
the thrilling chases from county to county by the eagle-eyed sheriffs who were
ever ready to take a pop at us when we pitched tent to stage a mill. And how
those same wild-eyed guardians of the law, after the ring was pitched and the
stakes were driven, became our best ringside customers.
"My career has been a hectic one, but I would not care to trade what I've been
through. The famous Doyle-Flint fight, the Lavigne-Myers battle, the Maher-
Fitzsimmons, Ryan-Murphy, Ryan-smith, Corbett-Fitzsimmons contests were among
the thrillers in which I took some prominent part.
"Delving into the past, I slected Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher as the
hardest hitters of modern fistiana; Jim Corbett, the cleverest fighter of all
time; Jimmy Barry, the greatest champion, pound-for-poundy; John L. Sullivan,
the champion of champions, the most popular fighter that ever lived and the
man who popularized fisticuffs in America; George Hackenschmidt, the greatest
wrestler of all times; and Tommy Ryan, without doubt, the greatest fighter of
his weight the sport has ever seen," concluded genial Jack Curley.
Jack's fortune usually was to meet the great figures of the world informally.
He met the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria while jogging through the grounds of
the Archduke's palace in Vienna, which he had mistaken for a public park . . .
When Warren Harding was President of the United States, Jack sat with him on
the stairs in a private apartment in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington and
answered the President's eager questions about the great fighters he had known
. . . Once when Georges Carpentier was his house guest in Great Neck, Georges
brought a young chap home with him in the early hours of the morning after a
party . . . And when Jack, as a gesture of hospitality, took their breakfast
up to them the next morning, he discovered that Georges' friend was the Prince
of Wales, now Duke of Windsor.
These men enjoyed Jack's company as thoroughly as did any of the newspapermen
and sporting figures in this town . . . and in many towns around the world.
For he was a good companion.
(ED. NOTE -- Although the above article touches briefly on Curley's early
days, it does not mention his time in Alaska -- was there an aspiring promoter
who did not leap into the Gold Rush days with fervor? -- and early, turn-of-
the-century experiences as a heavyweight fighter in the logging camps of
Western Washington . . . nor, for that matter, his experiences promoting the
likes of Sullivan vs. old nemesis Jake Kilrain in exhibitions at the 1909
Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, as well as wrestling matches at
the same venue involving Dr. Roller and Bob Managoff Sr. (then billed as the
Terrible Turk). It does, however, give us -- via the fights he was involved
with -- some idea of the places and times in which Curley's travels can be
charted. George Kid Lavigne and Eddie Meyers (Myers) fought in Dana, Ill, in
1893; the first of the Tommy Ryan-Whispering Billy Smith bouts was at
Minneapolis in July, 1894; the second of three Peter Maher-Bob Fitzsimmons
goes took place in February, 1896, outside Langtry, Tex., and Corbett-
Fitzsimmons transpired at Carson City in 1897. Ryan and Tim Murphy fought at
Kansas City in February, 1902, and not long after Ryan was in with Billy Smith
and Billy Stift at the same locale. Later in the year, Ryan tested Kid Carter
in a title bout at Fort Erie, Ontario. In other words, from his native San
Francisco to Chicago to various travels around the Heartlands, back out to the
Pacific Northwest and Alaska, then back to the Midwest, and back again to the
Northwest -- those were the trails made by Jack Curley before he came into
prominence as a result of the Willard-Johnson fight of 1915 in Havana.
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