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Hoff Huffed and Puffed, but His
Case Against Tunney Went Poof
by Parry Desmond
Philadelphia always has been a great boxing town, and not just because the
City of Brotherly Love has produced many champions and top contenders. It also
has been the home of many colorful characters who were connected with the sport.
One of them was Max "Boo Boo" Hoff, who "had the appearance of a
candy store owner, not the part bon vivant, part ruthless gangster the papers
often portrayed," wrote one journalist in retrospect.
Although he never smoked or drank, Hoff was a major East Coast bootlegger,
racketeer, and nightclub and speakeasy owner in the 1920s and 1930s. He also was
reputed to be Al Capone's "Philadelphia connection."
Hoff "was often arrested but never jailed, often accused but never
convicted," wrote a New York Times reporter. Although several of his
henchmen were jailed, Hoff avoided prison by not signing documents connected to
his illegal operations. That's what lawyers and other surrogates were for.
In fact, Hoff testified in a seven-month grand jury expose' in 1928-1929 that he
"was never connected to the liquor industry in any way, shape or
form." He claimed that his vast income was the result of managing boxers
and boxing promotions.
Although he used his involvement in boxing operations as a front for his other
activities, boxing played an important role in Hoff's life.
One highly publicized example of his involvement in the boxing game is the
$350,000 lawsuit Hoff filed against Gene Tunney in 1927. Hoff's suit claimed he
was owed 20 percent of Tunney's earnings in championship fights.
Even the first attempt to serve Tunney with the suit papers took a comic turn.
Congressman Ben Golder, Hoff's attorney, claimed that plans called for the suit
papers to be served on Tunney when he attended the Penn-Harvard football game in
Philadelphia. Although Tunney apparently attended the game, Golder told a
reporter that the ex-champ "must have worn a false mustache and
carried a cane" because he was able to slip by the Philadelphia County
sheriffs stationed by Golder that day at all the entrances of the University of
Pennsylvania's Franklin Field.
Despite frequent run-ins with the law, Hoff was able to use sheriffs for such
personal needs because he had hundreds of law enforcement and judicial personnel
on his payroll. And one Christmas he spent $100,000 (which be more than $1
million today) on gifts to cops and judges.
The suit was based on an agreement, which Hoff claimed was signed by Tunney and
his manager, Billy Gibson, the day before the former Marine's first fight with
Dempsey in 1926. Tunney won the historic battle, fought in a driving rainstorm
before a crowd of more than 120,000 fans at Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial
Stadium (subsequently known as Municipal Stadium and JFK Stadium before it was
Hoff said he agreed to loan Gibson a $20,000 advance to bind the initial, oral
agreement. According to some newspaper accounts, Hoff and Gibson signed the
contract, but Tunney wrote "Eugene Joseph Tunney" on the document. His
real name was James Joseph Tunney. Abe Atell, a former fighter and a gambler,
who was connected with the "Black Sox" baseball scandal in 1919, was
one of the witnesses to the deal. He had driven to Tunney's Stroudsburg, Pa.,
training camp in the Poconos several
days before the fight, and learned that Gibson and Tunney were
"broke," and needed $20,00 right away because they owed thousands of
dollars to Tex Rickard, who promoted the fight and had loaned them the money to
cover training and other expenses, according to a newspaper accounts. Hoff and
Gibson worked out the agreement and arranged the loan the day before the fight
in Rickard's hotel room. They had not been on speaking terms for several years
because Gibson had reneged on an oral agreement to have Benny Leonard fight at
South Philadelphia's Shetzline Park where Hoff was the boxing promoter. Despite
that disagreement, Hoff apparently found the opportunity to receive 20 percent
of Tunney's championship fight earnings and be joint-manager with Gibson in
exchange for the $20,000 loan very appealing. However, in an "open
letter" Dempsey sent to a Chicago newspaper before his unsuccessful attempt
to regain the heavyweight crown in 1927 in Chicago, Dempsey charged that Hoff
would only get the 20 percent cut if Tunney won the fight, and the loan wouldn't
be repaid if Tunney lost.
Dempsey's "letter" also asked why Gibson made the $20,000 advance deal
with Hoff "when you had ten times that amount due you at Tex Rickard's
office around the corner." When Hoff was asked later what Gibson really
needed the $20,000 for, he
responded to a reporter: "That is the crux of my case in court, and that it
is why I can't tell it now." Despite his insistence that he had a strong
case, Hoff mysteriously dropped the suit in 1931, reportedly without negotiating
or discussing a settlement with Tunney's lawyers.
Hoff died broke in 1941, at the age of 48, of a heart attack. Among the small group who attended the private funeral
service were Leon Rains, chairman of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, and
Herman "Muggsy" Taylor, the well-known fight promoter.
Parry Desmond, a magazine editor, is doing research for a book on "Boo
Boo" Hoff. If you have ANY information about Hoff and his activities,
please contact Desmond at Parry37@aol.com
or call him at (W) 610-205-1062 or (H) 610-269-8037.