The Night Jack Dempsey Bankrupted a Town
Hoping to garner national attention and draw investors to the small town's newfound oil field, Shelby, Montana went broke hosting a Jack Dempsey fight.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
By 1923 moral outrage was the American way of life. The country was three years into the nationwide prohibition of alcohol which had been forced through by the po-faced campaigners of the temperance movement. Yet it was also an age of excess, of decadence, and paradoxically a period in which boozing was more prevalent than ever. The sport of boxing was experiencing success that it never had before and flying in the face of these same moral crusaders. Professional fist fighting has always been on shaky ground morally—even the most eloquent supporters of the sport must admit that they do enjoy watching men try to knock each other unconscious—but the increasing amount of money sloshing around this leisure activity was drawing unwanted attention.
In New York State, prize fighting brought in over five million dollars at the gate through 1922 and at the heart of that was George ‘Tex’ Rickard with his Madison Square Garden Corporation. In 1910 Rickard had promoted the Fight of the Century between black champion, Jack Johnson and returning "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries, but the resulting race riots and ban on fight film had destroyed boxing’s image. Rickard had to rebuild boxing from the ground up and much of this work was done with Jack Dempsey. Where Jack Johnson had driven crowds mad with his slow fighting style and fast mouth, Dempsey fought like a wild man between the ropes, and was the perfect gentleman the moment the fight ended. Dempsey was a box office sensation and when the wily Rickard matched him against the French war hero Georges Carpentier in 1921, the pair were able to produce the first ever million dollar gate. By 1920, Rickard was able to acquire a two year long lease on Madison Square Garden, by 1925 he had moved the Garden to its third site where it would remain until 1966.
But for a brief period in 1922, Rickard was sent reeling. Several girls— young girls—were brought forward who could attest to Rickard taking them to various apartments around New York, giving detailed and accurate descriptions of the interiors of his office and various addresses amid their allegations. A jury found Rickard innocent of any wrongdoing, but he was shaken and his public image had been smeared. Shortly afterwards in February 1923, the head of the New York State Athletic Commission, William Muldoon, tore through Rickard’s earning potential by announcing that no heavyweight title fight would be held in his jurisdiction unless promoters stopped paying those damn fighters so well and opened up more seating to the common man. The idea that top fighters are pampered and that money is ruining the game has been a fixture in fighting from the beginning, and sportswriters are always recalling a romanticized earlier time, but this might be the only recorded instance of an athletic commission turning down a fight for being too profitable.
This left Jack Dempsey and his manager, Doc Kearns, with no meal ticket. By the start of 1923, Dempsey had been inactive for 18 months. Since he blasted Carpentier, he had been living the good life—traveling overseas, visiting various U.S. cities in the capacity of a beloved celebrity—but he had not been putting in the rounds. There is a ticking clock on any fighter who makes it big and Kearns knew this far better than his fast living young charge did. Entertaining any offer that crossed his desk, Kearns managed to book Dempsey into what has to be regarded as the most fecklessly handled fight in the history of the heavyweight championship.
The Shelby Board of Fight Promoters
Shelby, Montana was famous for nothing. It was a junction on the Great Northern railway that the construction team named after Montana Central Railway manager, Peter Shelby. Shelby, not quite flattered by this honor, insisted that it would never be more than a God-forsaken mudhole. In 1921, the vast Kevin-Sunburst oil field was discovered and the town seemed on the verge of a population boom if they could just make the world aware of this opportunity. The wealthy landowners and oil prospectors in Shelby figured that a heavyweight title fight was a magnificent way to get national attention.
James Johnson, the mayor of Shelby, owner of one of its two banks, and one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, led the group. Shelby saw fit to offer Doc Kearns and Dempsey the princely sum of $200,000 to fight in the town. In some retellings the intention was simply to gain national attention by making the offer, and that the Shelby money men could never have imagined Kearns would jump on it. In other retellings the group intercepted a Montana based manager and promoter named Mike Collins, who was barnstorming through the state with several of his fighters at the time, and asked him to approach Kearns on their behalf. This second version of the story is more fun: the businessmen lost faith in Collins and sent state American Legion commander and pilot, Loy Molumby on an aerial pursuit of Kearns across the United States. Either way, it was Molumby who ended up negotiating with Kearns and who was talked up to $300,000. This was to be delivered in thirds: the first on signing the contract, the second in June, and the third on the 2nd July, two days before the fight.
Doc Kearns is universally recalled as unpleasant, and when the respectable Tommy Gibbons was picked as Dempsey’s opponent, things faltered again. Gibbons’s manager was just one of many men that Kearns had made an enemy. Gibbons and his manager wanted the fight, but neither would be in the room with Kearns for the negotiations. Even Dempsey didn’t enjoy Kearns’s company, but he had come along just as Dempsey had needed him. As a young man, Dempsey had travelled to the boxing centers of the U.S.—New York and San Francisco—and still found himself a no-namer with no prospects. After returning to his family home in Salt Lake City, Dempsey received a timely letter from Kearns, who had managed one of Dempsey’s opponents. Kearns found Jack at rock bottom, but after Dempsey gave Kearns a chance things started to turn around for the young Mormon slugger. Kearns was in it for the money but his fate was tied to Dempsey’s success. When the contract for the Gibbons fight was signed Kearns had $100,000 in hand, the promise of $200,000 more, and the opportunity to walk out of the fight with whatever he already had should the Shelby men fall even a cent short of their promise.
As the fight neared, Dempsey took up residence in Great Falls, a couple of hours' train ride out of Shelby, and seemed delighted to be back in action. The sparring sessions were frequent and brutal but the visitors to his camp were a constant stream of star struck well-wishers. Dempsey loved the public and he loved the wilderness. It was a change of pace to be out of the city come fight time. But the mood of the public began to sour as Shelby’s financial drama began to play out in the newspapers. When the time came for the second payment, James Johnson confessed that the group of backers had only been able to stump up the underwhelming sum of $1,600. Kearns was irate, but the Shelby men had already hired a small army of carpenters to build them a fifty thousand seat arena. Johnson and Molumby scrambled for alternatives. The first suggestion was that Kearns take the gate receipts in full, but he wasn’t in the business of promoting fights and he knew that there was no certainty of the turnout.
Then he was offered fifty thousand head of sheep instead—a valuable commodity, no doubt, but worthless to a man who rarely left the city and had no intention of investing in a farming operation—the same was true of the ranch that the businessmen then offered. Finally wealthy patrons from all across Montana were brought in and the matter was framed as one to do with Montana’s honor, rather than a mistake on the part of the Shelby men. The new backers included George Stanton, owner of the Stanton Bank and Trust Company, and Dan Tracy, a hotelier from Grand Falls. After the second installment was scraped together, Tracy was tasked with scouring through the books to find a way that the third instalment could be raised. Tracy ran the numbers and promptly exited the sinking ship.
Hours before it was due to start, the fight was still in limbo. The final $100,000 couldn’t be raised and Doc Kearns was ready to skip town with what he had. Finally, Kearns was talked into letting the fight go ahead in exchange for the entirety of the gate receipts. Tommy Gibbons, Dempsey’s opponent, had been fighting for a percentage of gate receipts over $300,000, it now appeared that he was only fighting for the heavyweight title.
It quickly became apparent that the money wasn’t what motivated Tommy Gibbons. Against the most fearsome knockout artist in boxing, Gibbons went the full fifteen rounds. In doing so he became the only fighter to go the distance with Dempsey since 1918. Gibbons, who had been staying in Shelby throughout his camp, walked home to his family with a trail of fans cheering him. Dempsey would later say of Gibbons that hitting him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind. Many of the sportswriters present would heap praise on the pace of the fight and the skill that both men showed, but for the most part the performance was given to empty seats.
Doc Kearns had taken Dempsey out of New York because the commission had insisted that ticket prices be lowered. Tickets for ringside seats at Dempsey-Gibbons (which had to be purchased from the Shelby tobacconist) were fifty dollars and by the time the fighters entered the ring, Kearns had slashed prices in desperation. Just seven thousand people paid to attend, with a few thousand more hopping the fences to get in.
Tex Rickard had made this business look effortless. Kearns would have loved nothing more than to not need Rickard, but in every aspect of fight promotion Rickard was the master. He had pulled off big fights in Reno, Goldfield, and Toledo. Rickard had proven that people will go to the fight, but they have to have a way to get there. Shelby had no paved roads and was miles removed from any—it was a stop on the Great Northern Railway but it didn’t have fifty thousand people running through it each day. In anticipation of the fight, the Great Northern and other railway companies had organized additional services to Shelby, often bundled in with a one-off payment that got you fight tickets and a stay in their sleeper cars because Shelby had no way to accommodate fifty thousand people. Crucially, Tex Rickard would never have been stupid enough to publicly announce the fight was off while posturing for more money. Two days before the fight, as the last payment fell short, Kearns declared that Dempsey wouldn’t fight. He was won over and the fight was announced to be back on—but the headline appeared in all the newspapers, which were churning out column inches on the continuing debacle. Once that headline went out, cancellations poured into the train lines, and they in turn cancelled their services. After Kearns had publicly changed his mind half a dozen times, the fight finally did take place but the average person would not book their cross country travel and expensive ticket to a world title fight based on the off chance that it might happen
"The Sack of Shelby" took place on July 4th 1923. A week later, four banks in Montana had been put out of business by the fight. This included the bank that George Stanton owned in Grand Falls and both banks in Shelby—one of which was owned by Mayor Johnson. Johnson himself was out $150,000 which he had personally invested into Kearns’s payments and the stadium. When Dempsey and Kearns returned to Rickard, they were reminded what they had been missing. Dempsey’s next four fights—the last of his career—each drew a million dollars at the gate. That didn’t stop Doc Kearns from taking an odd pride in bankrupting the town of Shelby whenever the press asked him about it in years to come.