Town in Montana Was Overmatched : In 1923, Shelby--Population 500--Took On Jack Dempsey and His Manager
Decades later, the principals were in general agreement as to how it all came about, how a little Montana cattle, sheep and oil town came to be fleeced of a couple of hundred thousand dollars by a rascal named Jack (Doc) Kearns.
It seems that two young real estate speculators, James (Body) Johnson and his partner, Mel McCutcheon, were trying to find a way to pull Shelby real estate sales out of a serious slump. Johnson, looking at a Great Falls Tribune sports section, noted that someone in Montreal had offered Kearns, the manager of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, $100,000 to fight there.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 11, 1989 Los Angeles Times Saturday February 11, 1989 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 4 Column 1 Sports Desk 3 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Times story last Sunday about the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons fight in Shelby, Mont., in 1923, it was pointed out that the purse split was $300,000 for Dempsey, $7,500 for Gibbons.
Actually, Gibbons wound up with much more than that, according to his son, Tom Gibbons Jr., who writes:
“After the fight, Dad took me with him on the Pantages Theater (vaudeville) tour for 20 weeks. He made $50,000 plus expenses--in 1923 dollars.
“Dad was sheriff of Ramsey County, Minn., for 24 years. He was elected in 1935 because many were afraid of John Dillinger, the bank robber, and many other crooks. But Dad could stand up to any of them.”
“Mel, why don’t we make an offer for a championship fight?” Johnson said. “Let’s wire Jack Kearns and offer him $200,000.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” McCutcheon said. “But who would Dempsey fight?”
“Darned if I know,” Johnson answered.
Summoned to the conversation was Lyman Sampson, matchmaker for the Shelby American Legion boxing committee, of which Johnson was chairman.
“Tom Gibbons is the logical challenger to Dempsey,” he told them.
And that’s how it started.
Now, 66 years later, it remains one of the most colorful sports stories of the early 20th Century.
It is the story of how a town with no paved streets and a population of 500 built a 40,000-seat stadium for a fight that drew 12,000 people and, in the end, broke a few banks, and some hearts as well.
Shelby lies on the rolling, featureless plains of northwest Montana, 32 miles below the U.S.-Canada border.
In the 1910 United States census, Shelby didn’t exist. Then the Great Northern Railroad built a storage facility there, which grew into a railroad junction. Then it became a distribution center. Then someone built a saloon, then came a small hotel . . .
In 1921, an oil prospector named George Gordon Campbell began poking holes in the earth. On March 22, 1922, he struck oil. Instant boom town.
By the mid-1920s, wells in the Shelby area were producing more than 6 million barrels a year. Shelby folks began calling their town “The Tulsa of the Northwest.”
People were getting rich. But they craved attention, too. They wanted to be on the map.
The possibility of a heavyweight championship fight was bounced off two local power brokers, Shelby Mayor James Johnson--Body Johnson’s father--and Loy Molumby, an American Legion official from Great Falls who promoted boxing shows.
Finally, contact was made with Kearns, at his New York office. Body Johnson sent Kearns the following telegram:
“I am prepared to offer you a purse of $200,000 to be paid $50,000 upon signing of contract and balance when you enter the ring for a 15-round championship fight against Tommy Gibbons, to be held July 4, 1923, in Shelby, Mont.”
Kearns was one of the great sports con men of the century, and one can only imagine the wicked grin that appeared on his face when he read the wire. He wired back:
“Ready to do business immediately provided you have your representative meet me here prepared to pay me $50,000 and post another $50,000 as forfeit upon signing articles. This $100,000 to be paid me as liquidated damages in event you fail through any cause barring Dempsey from holding contest on date selected. Above $100,000 to be part of purse in event contest is held and balance of $100,000 to be paid me prior to contest as we mutually agree upon together with some other details such as percentage privilege. Answer 1465 Broadway, New York. --Jack Kearns.”
Kearns released the telegrams to the New York newspapers, and in short order Associated Press stories about Shelby’s plans were appearing in papers across the country, among them the Great Falls Tribune.
The folks in Shelby thought they would get Dempsey for $200,000, so Molumby was sent to Chicago to meet with Kearns. When he returned, he told folks they had Dempsey--for $300,000. The terms:
--Kearns and Dempsey would get $100,000--which Molumby had already paid--at the contract signing, $100,000 on June 15 and $100,000 on July 2, two days before the fight.
--Gibbons would get $7,500 and $2,500 training camp expenses.
Decades later, Body Johnson said of Molumby’s meeting with Kearns in Chicago: “He was not at all familiar with doing business, particularly with fight managers.”
Translation: In negotiating with Kearns, Molumby found himself in the big leagues.
In any event, the bankers, oil men and real estate speculators of northwest Montana who had pledged to back the fight had an extra $100,000 to come up with. Body Johnson, 23, was put in charge of trying to sell $100,000 worth of tickets to the fight by traveling to every American Legion post in Montana.
Unfortunately, on his third stop, at Livingston, Johnson’s chartered plane flew into a power line on takeoff. He was in the hospital for weeks.
The second $100,000 payment to Kearns was pulled off on the strength of a $50,000 commitment by James Johnson, president of the First State Bank of Shelby.
At this point, June 15, the Johnsons, Molumby and everyone else trying to put the fight together came to realize that they would get no breaks from Kearns. Dempsey’s manager was loudly asking where the third $100,000 would come from.
For a 1964 Sports Illustrated article about the fight, Body Johnson wrote that reporters also began asking: “ ‘What about the third $100,000?'--and we never heard the end of that until the day of the fight.”
And there was one other little problem. Shelby had no stadium.
A lumber agent, John Humphrey, was hired to supply the lumber and hire 200 carpenters to build a 40,000-seat wooden stadium south of the Great Northern tracks. The result was an octagonal, all-wood stadium, 40,268 seats, with rows of bleachers going right down to ringside. Cost of construction was $82,000.
As the structure was going up, Shelby residents bid on the lumber so that after the stadium was torn down, they could build homes.
But as the stadium rose, the promotion came tumbling down.
“Our problem was, Kearns would not state publicly that there would be a fight,” Body Johnson recalled.
“And since Shelby was difficult to get to, if there was any doubt at all among the ticket-buying boxing fans of Seattle, Chicago and New York, well, we started getting more cancellations than ticket purchases.”
Around Shelby’s train station, the Great Northern Railroad put down 35 miles of extra siding, where the hoped-for chartered trains from points east and west could park.
A month before the fight, the Los Angeles Times reported that the L.A. Athletic Club was offering a package tour to the fight, by steamship from San Pedro to Seattle, and by charter train to Shelby. Price, including tickets for $150.
And although the promotion seemed to be falling apart, Dempsey continued to live in a large rented house in Great Falls--paid for by the promoters. He trained outdoors in Great Falls. Gibbons was similarly living in a Shelby home, training at his fenced training camp, and doing very well, charging 50 cents a head admission.
Sometime late in June, official word was out that the promoters were having trouble raising the third $100,000. Someone asked Kearns if he would take 50,000 sheep instead of the $100,000.
“What the hell am I going to do with 50,000 sheep in New York?” he barked, at a Great Falls news conference. “I want these people to live up to the terms of their contract. If I don’t see $100,000 on July 2, Dempsey will not fight.”
On July 1, Kearns actually said that the fight was off. Read an L.A. Times headline:
“Battle at Shelby Collapses After
Last Desperate Efforts to
Raise Funds Fail”
There was a final scramble, then, including a shake-up of the promotional team. James Johnson leased most of his cattle and his oil properties, borrowed the rest, and somehow came up with the final $100,000.
So the fight was officially on.
But it was all too late. Shelby was looking at a disaster, and everyone knew it.
A panoramic photo taken the afternoon of the fight shows scattered parked cars, pitched tents, a few horses, and a couple of trains parked at the station.
And seas of empty seats.
Originally, ringside seats were priced at $50--in an era when you could buy a pair of shoes for $2. On fight day, all ticket prices were reduced 20%.
Actually, if you’d been paying attention that day, you wouldn’t have had to pay anything. When the bell rang for the first round of the main event, reporters wrote, all the ticket sellers ran inside to watch the fight. So did everyone in line.
Attendance estimates that day range from 8,000 to 12,000, and a substantial number of spectators were gate-crashers.
Author Randy Roberts, in his book, “Jack Dempsey--The Manassa Mauler,” described the composition of the crowd as “a mix of oil millionaires, Blackfoot Indians, cowboys, shepherds, hookers and sportswriters.”
As for the fight, Dempsey found himself in an unexpectedly tough battle with Gibbons, who was really a light heavyweight.
Gibbons, at 5-9, was a masterful defensive boxer. Each time the 6-2 Dempsey tried to work inside, the challenger held him. For 15 rounds, his clinches frustrated the champion’s charges. But Gibbons never mounted much of an offense. The film of the bout shows it to have been a relatively dull fight on a hot summer afternoon. Men in both corners held umbrellas over their boxers. Sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote that it was so hot he couldn’t touch the steel frame of his typewriter.
By the last rounds of the fight, the fighters were casting 12-foot shadows on the canvas.
At the end of the film, when the ring announcer points to Dempsey as the decision winner, both Dempsey and Kearns abruptly disappear from view.
Films of the fight, incidentally, are part of the story.
Kearns, who knew that interstate transportation of boxing films was illegal under an obscure federal law (it was repealed in 1940), learned early in negotiations with the Shelby people that they were ignorant of the law.
He gave all future film revenues to the promoters, who only later learned that such a concession was worthless.
“We all thought we could recoup a lot of the losses from film distributors, but of course that never happened,” Body Johnson said.
There are numerous descriptions of Kearns’ departure from Shelby that day. The best one is the version that has Kearns leaving the stadium for a waiting car and driver. He supposedly was driven to the train station, carrying two canvas sacks containing somewhere between $30,000 and $80,000 in cash from the live gate. Kearns was taken to a locomotive connected only to a caboose.
He had paid the locomotive engineer $500, so the story goes, to be ready for an immediate departure for Great Falls. That night, Kearns slept in the basement of a Great Falls barber shop, clutching his money bags. He departed the next day for Seattle.
Dempsey went on to one of the most memorable bouts of his career after Shelby. Two months later in New York, in a wild brawl, he knocked out Luis Angel Firpo.
Gibbons made $7,500, plus a considerable sum he was said to have earned from paid admissions to his training camp. Afterward, he was signed to a 20-week vaudeville tour at $2,500 a week.
And the attention from his showing against Dempsey earned him a much bigger purse against Frenchman Georges Carpentier, in 1924.
At least two banks closed soon after the fight, the Stanton Trust & Savings Bank of Great Falls, and the First State Bank of Shelby.
In later years, Kearns joked about “the banks Jack and I broke in Montana.”
Dempsey died in 1983, at 87.
Gibbons died in 1960, at 69. He had served as sheriff of Cass County, Minn., for 24 years.
Doc Kearns managed fighters for the rest of his life. He died in 1963, at 80.
James Johnson died in 1938.
Body Johnson is 89 and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.
“Make sure you get it right,” he told a reporter who called recently. “There’s been a lot of inaccurate stuff written about that fight.
“My Dad and I lost $169,000 on the fight, but no one else lost anything. Kearns was a crook. He did us in. Every time he opened his mouth, he lied to us.
“It all started as a publicity stunt, then got out of control. The whole thing would’ve been a success if Kearns had just said publicly that Dempsey would fight. Early on, we had ticket orders coming in from all over the world.”
It’s 9 a.m., on a cold Sunday morning.
No cars are moving on Shelby’s 3-block long downtown. You walk carefully along an icy sidewalk, and your footsteps echo off the old brick buildings across the street.
You begin the search for a person or a structure that might have been around on July 4, 1923. “I don’t know anything about a fight,” says the waitress at the coffee shop. “I’ve only lived here 7 years.”
You walk two blocks to the train station, where three people are waiting for the arrival of Amtrak’s east-bound. There’s no sign of the 35 miles of extra siding put down for the chartered trains from Chicago and Seattle.
A whistle wails. A long freight train, bearing Japanese pickup trucks, rumbles through town, rolling east.
The station master. He’s old. He must know something. He says the train station isn’t the same one. And all those extra tracks were torn up when World War II started.
He points toward the freeway.
“The Arena Motel was built where the stadium was,” he says. “I’ve always heard it was built with the lumber in the stadium.”
The Arena Motel is a dilapidated, boarded-up hulk. The sign out front says: “Site of the Dempsey-Gibbons Fight, July 4, 1923.”
Back to the train station.
“Go over to Hogan’s Tap Room, next door to the Capitol Cafe,” the station master says. “The bell is in there--the bell for the fight.”
Hogan’s Tap Room, it turns out, is now just the Tap Room. Hogan sold it a couple of years back to Jack Stokes, who is pouring last night’s quarters from a keno machine into a canvas bank bag.
For an instant, the image of Doc Kearns racing through town with the two canvas money bags surfaces.
Above the bar is an old brass bell, mounted on a polished wooden board. A chain hangs beneath, with a wooden knob. The triphammer. Beneath the chain is a sign: “Official Bell--Dempsey-Gibbons Fight, Shelby, Mont., July 4, 1923.”
“Could you ring the bell?” Stokes is asked.
“Sure,” he says, grasping the chain and giving it a hard yank.
The sound is gorgeous , a rich, wall-knocking clang that shouts at you from the 1920s.
“How about another one?” Stokes asks, grinning.
“Make it a double.”
Turns out that the bell was last used for the last world title bout held in Montana, the Gene Fullmer-Joey Giardello middleweight bout at Bozeman, in 1960.
The front page of Shelby’s newspaper, the Shelby Promoter, from July 4, 1923, is framed and hanging on the wall. Next to the fight coverage is an article that shamelessly promotes Shelby.
Excerpt: “Shelby is to be the Tulsa of the northwest.”
The bell, the motel, the newspaper.
Is that all there is? “They’ve got an exhibit at the Shelby Museum,” Stokes says. “They’ve got a little model of what the stadium looked like, and an aerial photograph. But that’s about it.”
A quick phone call. The museum is closed. It’s open only on Tuesdays, in the winter.
Does the house still stand where Gibbons lived, and charged admission to his workouts?
“I don’t know,” Stokes says. “I don’t think anyone’s still around who would know where the house was. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone left who was at the fight.”
Leaving Shelby (pop. 2,500), you drive around the Arena Motel one more time, then drive the 2 miles to Interstate 15.
Driving onto the freeway, you spot a small billboard you didn’t see coming into town: “SHELBY: Crossroads of Western America.”
You head south, toward Great Falls, and smile, thinking of the line in the 1923 Shelby Promoter: " . . . Shelby is to be the Tulsa of the Northwest.”
Shelby is still Shelby.
Come to think of it, why not Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield here? All they need is another stadium . . .
‘My Dad and I lost $169,000 on the fight, but no one else lost anything. Kearns was a crook. He did us in. Every time he opened his mouth, he lied to us.’
--BODY JOHNSON, one of the fight’s promoters