It’s an embedded piece of Montana folklore. In the summer of 1923, a handful of wide-eyed local boosters in Shelby managed to lure the world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, and a leading title contender, Tommy Gibbons, to their tiny, isolated prairie boomtown. Here, on July 4, on the most unlikely of stages, a memorable 15 round boxing match took place. The story of the Dempsey-Gibbons fight has been retold in countless articles and at least one novel, Deirdre McNamer’s “One Sweet Quarrel.”
Now, thanks to the work of Chicago author Jason Kelly, we have a book-length page-turning narrative of the entire fiasco. And even though Kelly’s account reads like a novel, it is based on solid contemporary source material and manages to dispel a number of myths surrounding the event.
Contrary to some accounts, the idea to stage a title fight in Shelby was not hatched in a late-night haze of alcohol and cigar smoke. Rather, it emerged in the full light of day from the real estate office of James Johnson Jr. and his partner Mel McCutcheon. Johnson, the son and namesake of Shelby’s chief founder and wealthiest citizen, became the driving force behind the scheme, but he had plenty of help. As the author points out, Johnson and his fellow boosters initially had no intention of holding a championship fight. They regarded the entire plan as nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to garner some national attention for Shelby in hopes of reviving a sagging local real estate market.
But once the Shelby businessmen sent a telegram to Jack Dempsey’s manager, Doc Kearns, they unwittingly launched a series of events that left many of them bankrupt, caused four area banks to fail, and gave their town the kind of publicity that they neither sought nor expected.
In Doc Kearns, the Shelby leaders encountered a fellow gambler and speculator, but one who was much more ruthless and clever than they could ever have imagined. Kearns clearly comes across as the villain of Kelly’s piece, but he is a colorful, almost likable bad guy. Among Kelly’s many well-chosen accounts of Kearns by contemporaries, probably the most succinct noted: “He seemed to enjoy living in a hailstorm of lawsuits, wild parties, practical jokes and newspaper headlines. He was a smiling guy with larceny in his heart who seemed to be able to go without sleep indefinitely and drink endlessly.” In other words, he was a character tailor made for America’s “roaring ’20s.”
In retelling the tale of Kearns’ rise to prominence, which included stints as a gambler in Alaska and a boxer in Montana, Kelly should have included a cautionary note to readers that much of the story is based on Kearns’ own memoir. And Kearns was, in Kelly’s words, a man who “told so many lies even he lost track of the truth.”
The bulk of the narrative chronicles how Johnson’s publicity stunt led to an iron-clad contract in which the Shelby promoters promised to pay Kearns $300,000 before his man Dempsey would even enter the ring. Kearns repeatedly threatened to cancel the fight whenever it appeared that the promoters might not raise the necessary funds. This, in turn, led to widespread speculation that the bout might not take place at all. And this caused many would-be customers to cancel their travel plans to remote Shelby, Montana.
In the end, the hastily-built, 40,000-seat wooden arena that dwarfed the town wound up less than half full at fight time. Half of those who watched the bout had rushed through makeshift barriers without paying admission. Needless to say, the local promoters lost a fortune. In the end even Kearns did not rake in his full guarantee, since he had agreed at the last minute to accept most of the gate receipts in lieu of his final payment.
Kelly provides a vivid almost blow-by-blow retelling of the fight itself. Gibbons, the game underdog from Minnesota is depicted as a metaphor for the resilient underdog hamlet of Shelby.
As exciting as it was, the bout comes as an anticlimax to the complex, unlikely chain of events leading up to it. Prior to the fight, Gibbons moved his family to Shelby where he trained and became a local favorite. Dempsey preferred the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of nearby Great Falls. Both fighters readily adapted to Montana’s lifestyle. Dempsey went fishing on the Missouri and later scaled a rock precipice to kidnap a young eagle. He added it to his camp menagerie that included two bulls and a coyote. Gibbons punctuated his training with hunting excursions on the surrounding prairie – first for gophers, later for rattlesnakes.
Kelly skillfully weaves in fascinating anecdotes about a variety of colorful bit-players. There was Ben Wray, Dempsey’s seven-foot-tall sparring partner. Observers shouted “timber” when the champ knocked him out during a training session. One reporter sought out Esmeralda, a local fortune teller, to get her prediction of the fight’s outcome. In describing another local talent, a musician named Patricia Salmon, a contemporary wrote: “Hair-tinted and beauty lotioned, she was not a bad looking girl, but she could not dance, sing or act. However she could yodel, which wouldn’t have been so bad if she had yodeled well.”
Historians, no doubt, will be troubled by the book’s lack of an index and the casual arrangement of the bibliographic end notes which are not numbered. The text is punctuated with lengthy quotations unattributed to their source.
I also wish that the author would have provided a bit more background information on the famous sports writers Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun and Grantland Rice. At a time when virtually everyone relied on the printed page for their news, these men were national celebrities-some of the finest writers of their era. And all three were in Shelby on July 4, 1923.
Still, Jason Kelly has given us a scintillating retelling of one of Montana’s most amusing, unlikely events. It is less a story about boxing than a tale of the ongoing, blindly optimistic pursuit of the American dream.
Don Spritzer is a historian and a former research librarian for the Missoula Public Library. His book reviews appear periodically in the Missoulian.