Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.
The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.
In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.
The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.
After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.
Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.
Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”
Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.
When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”
Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.
“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”
Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.
Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.
Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”
The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.
The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.
“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”
Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”