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The Old Master

The first black American boxing champion has been largely forgotten, especially in his native Baltimore

Courtesy Chris Rothe
Vintage illustration of Joe Gans

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 2/17/2010

He was the first black American to win a world boxing title, and one of the country's first black sports heroes. H.L. Mencken called him "probably the greatest boxer who ever lived," and heavyweight champ Jack Johnson said he moved around the ring "like he's on wheels up there." More than 7,000 people were on hand to mourn his death, an event marked by a funeral procession 104 carriages long. Yet Joe Gans--or the Old Master, as he's known to boxing aficionados--has been largely forgotten, especially in his native Baltimore.

The average resident can reel off the names of hometown heroes like Billie Holiday, Thurgood Marshall, and Babe Ruth, but few have heard of Joe Gans. Madison Square Garden has a statue of Gans, and a painting of him hangs in The National Gallery of Art, while a plaque in tiny Goldfield, Nev., commemorates the historic fight Gans won there in 1906. But Baltimore has no street signs or historical markers in his honor. The lightweight champion's boyhood home on Argyle Avenue is long gone, and the hotel he owned at Colvin and Lexington streets--where jazz great Eubie Blake got his start--was razed in the 1960s. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture has one photo of Gans--in formal attire--with a brief write-up, and the Maryland Historical Society even less.

As the 100th anniversary of Gans' death on Aug. 10, 1910, approaches, some fans and boxing historians are trying to resurrect his story. A Gans biography came out in 2008 and another is set for release in the next year or two. At least one screenplay is looking for a home, and rumors are afoot about a documentary film. But Joe Gans' most vocal booster isn't a writer or a filmmaker or even much of a boxing fan. He works in ground operations for Southwest Airlines at BWI.

Kevin Grace, a friendly, fast-talking Baltimore native in his early 40s, is also a part-time actor. (He delivered one line in the first season of The Wire: "What the fuck?" "It was easy to remember," he says.) And in his scant spare time, Grace is an amateur historian and an advocate for those who've slipped unfairly through the fumbling fingers of history. Several years ago, he spearheaded a campaign to get Little Current, a legendary 1970s race horse who fell into obscurity, inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame. A long-time racing enthusiast who worked for the Maryland Racing Commission at the time, Grace became obsessed with Little Current after watching footage of him winning the 1974 Preakness. Grace felt that the fame of the illustrious Secretariat--born a year before Little Current--had overshadowed an equally deserving horse. So he lobbied racing writers, networked with jockeys and former trainers, and paid numerous visits to Little Current himself. "I would do anything for that horse," Grace said at the time. The horse was never inducted, but he got what Grace considers well-deserved media attention. ("A Current Affair," Charmed Life, May 15, 2002.)

Then, in 2007, Grace found his next project. He was reading a biography of boxer Jack Johnson and came upon the name Joe Gans. Grace learned from a friend that Gans was from Baltimore, and he became intrigued. He began haunting local archives and the Enoch Pratt Library's microfiche collection, scanning turn-of-the-century newspapers for Gans' name. He tracked down landmarks like the hotel Gans owned and his boyhood home, only to find them gone without a trace.

And so began his campaign to resurrect the boxer's legacy. For months, Grace made phone calls, filed papers, knocked on doors, and leveraged friendships in the hopes of waking Baltimore--and the world--up to Joe Gans. He sought support from local boxers, City Council members, and community organizations; learned the bureaucratic channels that lead to street namings and city sculptures; and put together a short documentary about Gans to accompany his pitch. He had business cards made for the Friends of Joe Gans, an organization with a membership of one. He dreamed of grand gestures like a commemorative stamp, a statue, historical markers, and an honorary street naming. Grace is matter-of-fact about his unusual dedication. "I don't have a vested interest," he says. "I'm just a concerned citizen, and if I don't do it, nobody will."

So far Grace has struck out on stamps and statues, so he's decided to focus his considerable energies on a relatively cheap and bureaucracy-free memorial: a Joe Gans figure for the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. (Coincidentally, a 1929 film called Seven Faces depicts Joe Gans--along with the likes of Napoleon and Don Juan--as one of several wax figures who come to life.) Grace's offer came as a bit of a surprise to the museum.

"Whenever we do any sort of wax figure, it's done by corporate sponsorship," says Jon Wilson, deputy director of operations for Great Blacks in Wax. "But this young man Kevin was very passionate and it's a story we want to tell."

Joe Gans was born in 1874, and raised by a foster mother in a segregated African-American community known as Old West Baltimore, on the edge of what is now Upton. He worked as an oyster shucker at Broadway Market in Fells Point, according to Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion, by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott. Gans got his start in boxing the way many black boxers of the time did, in brutal bouts called "battle royals." Several young black men were blindfolded and put in a ring, as entertainment between legitimate boxing matches. There were no rules and the winner took the purse, generally about $5, the equivalent of a week's wages.

"They would put them in a pen like they were chickens," amateur-boxing judge and referee Paul Lazzati says. (Lazzati--a self-proclaimed "boxing fanatic" and the first to get Grace excited about Joe Gans--has an agent who's shopping around his screenplay about the boxer.) "It was horrifying."

Gans showed promise in these bouts and was picked up by a local bookie named Al Herford, who began to promote his skills. By 1895, news of Gans' wins started appearing in the press. (Boxing, along with horse racing, was the era's most popular sport. The Baltimore Sun devoted a regular column to it.) At a little over 5-foot-6, and hovering around 135 pounds, Gans was light on his feet. But more importantly, he was calculating.

"A lot of the boxers of his time were swarmers, aggressive types that would come at you," says Illinois-based boxing historian Monte Cox, who considers Gans the greatest lightweight boxer of all time. "Gans was a scientific fighter. They used to say he was able to anticipate what his opponents were going to do before they did it." (When asked how he did so, Gans reportedly said, "I guess I just see what you're thinking and when the thought gets down around the elbow I just reach out and stop it.")

"[Gans] could slip and move and duck and move around real nice," says former professional boxer Marvin McDowell, who runs Umar Boxing, an academic tutoring and boxing-training program on North Avenue ("Glove Story," Feature, July 19, 2000). McDowell portrayed Gans for a Black History Month event a decade ago, and owns a rare piece of Gans memorabilia, a practice mitt. "But if he wanted to knock you out, he could."

Gans knocked out boxer after boxer, a crucial skill in the era of the "finish fight"--bouts with no time limit. When Gans and legendary lightweight champion Frank Erne met in the ring in 1902, Gans knocked the champ out in the first round. Gans thus became the first black American to win a world boxing title, one he went on to defend against dozens of competitors.

How many years Gans succeeded in defending his title is an open question. The official record books say Gans held the world lightweight boxing title from 1902 to 1904 and 1906 to 1908, but many boxing historians claim he actually held it straight through, from 1902 to 1908. Newspaper accounts of the time don't show that Gans ever lost the title, but his rival Jimmy Britt did for a time claim he was champion. Record-keeping was a murky business at the time, and in the absence of hard proof, disagreement persists. "It's very tough to research [Gans] because there's a lot of conflicting stories," says former Washington Post sports writer Bill Gildea, who is writing a book about Gans. "In his time, there was no one to put the story down accurately."

Gans' most famous bout was predicated on this squabble over who held the lightweight title. Oscar "Battling" Nelson, who had beaten Britt in 1905, claimed he was the title-holder, though neither boxer had beaten Gans. The resulting drama led to a highly publicized fight between Nelson and Gans, under the desert sun of Goldfield, Nev. (Before the bout, the emcee read several telegrams aloud to the crowd. In one missive, Gans' foster mother urged him to "bring back the bacon." According to Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion, it was here the phrase was coined.) The event was marked by record ticket sales, and across the country people waited breathlessly for updates at newspaper and telegraph offices. They had a long wait; it took 42 grueling rounds for Gans to finish Nelson off and confirm his title--or regain it, depending on one's perspective.

The title debate wasn't the first controversy in Gans' boxing career. Before he ever held the lightweight title, he became notorious for the Chicago fight fix of 1900. Some 10,000 people had come to watch Gans fight featherweight champion Terry McGovern, only to see Gans go down for the count in the second round. Afterward, many--including the referee--thought the fight had been fixed. Most boxing historians agree that Gans threw the fight, but some argue that he was threatened into doing so. It's certainly true that boxing was treacherous sport for turn-of-the-century African-Americans. Sports columns of the time referenced "Mistah Gans" and warned of a "black rise against white supremacy." News of Gans' wins shared column space with racist editorial cartoons and reports of lynchings. Whatever his reasons, Gans gained a reputation for fakery from the fight, and boxing was subsequently outlawed for decades in Chicago. (Amazingly, you can watch flickering footage of the century-old fight on YouTube [search "Joe Gans vs. Terry McGovern"] and judge for yourself. Nearly 100 commenters have already weighed in.)

By previous agreement, Gans took home only a third of the purse from the Goldfield fight, despite winning. But the money--$11,000--was enough to bankroll the Goldfield Hotel, which opened in 1907 on the corner of Lexington and Colvin, where the main post office now sits. The bar downstairs, adorned with boxing photos of Gans, was the real attraction. Local ragtime legend Eubie Blake played there regularly, and the ever flashy Jack Johnson frequented the hotel when he was in Baltimore. Gans himself became quite the man about town; he was married three times and is rumored to be the first African-American in Baltimore to have owned a car.

But Gans was not able to enjoy the good life for long. In 1908, he lost the lightweight title to his old nemesis, "Battling" Nelson. Some say Gans' poor showing was due to encroaching tuberculosis, the disease that was to kill him two years later, at the age of 35. Days before his death, he was put on a train home to Baltimore from a convalescent home in Arizona, where he'd been taking in the "dry air," then a common prescription for tuberculosis. Crowds waited at stations along the way, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boxer, who made it home to Baltimore weighing less than 100 pounds. He died days later. His grand funeral came and went, his stardom faded, and his story slowly receded from the city's collective memory.

Boxing historians have a number of theories about why Gans descended into obscurity. "He was somewhat forgotten in America's obsession to punish Jack Johnson," Gans biographer Bill Gildea says. Johnson, who rose to prominence just after Gans, scandalized the country with his brashness and his marriages to white women. Gans, on the other hand, was by all accounts a mild-mannered man with no taste for the spotlight. "Joe Gans was the complete opposite of Jack Johnson," biographer Colleen Aycock says. "People knew him as a gentleman and he was touted by the sports writers for being modest." Gans was also a lightweight, and heavyweights tend to get more ink in the history books, according to Monte Cox. "In his day, he was extremely popular," Cox says, "but over time, popularity fades."

Kevin Grace will need to raise $25,000 for the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in order to pay for a wax figure of Joe Gans. To that end, he's holding a fundraiser at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards on Feb. 26, mostly at his own expense. He hopes to lure in guests--at $50 a pop, or $100 for "VIP" status--with celebrities. So far he says he's convinced actor Clayton LeBouef from Homicide: Life on the Streets, Showtime ringside analyst Al Bernstein, former Baltimore Colts' running back Lydell Mitchell, and several Negro League baseball players to attend. (He hopes to pin down a few Ravens and Orioles players as well.)

Colleen Aycock will also be on hand. "To me, Kevin Grace is a saint and Joe Gans is looking down smiling," she says. Aycock, who lives in New Mexico, came to Baltimore a couple of years ago in the course of researching her book. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I said where are the street signs? The school names? The statue?"

Grace has managed to assemble a loose assortment of helpers for the fundraising event, a group he calls "Team Gans." A friend of his, blues musician Chaz DePaolo, will provide entertainment, and another has painted a portrait of Gans for auction. Chris Rothe, a local book manufacturer and life-long boxing fan, is providing free binding and graphic design help for the event's printed materials.

"Joe Gans has been kind of a fascinating figure for a long time for me," Rothe says. Serendipity brought Rothe and Grace together about a month ago. Rothe had been researching Gans and heard about "this one-man band" fighting to get Gans some recognition. "I'm trying to ease some of the burden on Kevin," Rothe says. "I don't even know how he sleeps at night."

But not everyone in the local boxing community is so sanguine about Grace's efforts. Frank Gilbert, past president of International Ring 101, Maryland's division of the Veteran Boxers Association, is skeptical. "As far as I'm concerned, [Grace] means well, but he's not going about it the right way," Gilbert says, "I would like to see a business plan, a proposal. This is all easier said than done."

Gilbert has done his own work to honor Gans' memory. In 2005, he spearheaded the renovation of Joe Gans' grave in South Baltimore's dilapidated Mount Auburn Cemetery. It had, Gilbert says, been marked by a "filthy and listing" headstone that made no mention of Gans' boxing accomplishments. Ring 101 spent over $4,000 righting the stone and having it engraved with his boxing record--the official version, with the gap in title between 1904 and 1906. The group also mows and tends the plot, making it the best kept spot in Mount Auburn. (Kevin Grace drops by regularly, often with a bouquet of plastic roses.)

Still, Grace does have allies on the inside. Maryland Boxing Hall of Famer Marvin McDowell, of Umar Boxing, is one of them. "It's just kind of crazy that more people don't know who [Gans] was," McDowell says. "Kevin don't really know anything about boxing, but the zeal that he has is gonna get it done."

If Grace is successful, he will have done something generations of Baltimoreans have failed to do, though efforts have been made before. Baltimore's oft-remembered native son H.L. Mencken had this to say about Gans in his autobiography, published in 1943: "It always amazes me how easily men of the highest talents and eminence can be forgotten in this careless world," he wrote. "Some years ago I heard talk of raising a monument to Joe . . . but the scheme faded out."

Grace has spent the weeks leading up to his fundraiser in an organizational frenzy, hoping his efforts don't suffer a similar fate. He's hawked ads, hounded celebrities, and wooed guests, all while working a full-time job. "By the time I get to work, I'm exhausted," Grace says. "But there will be time for a dirt nap sooner or later." Besides, he adds, "If the man can go through a 42 round fight, I guess this pales in comparison."

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