If price is right, this bell could be a family's savior

Times Staff Writer

One of boxing's rarest collectibles, or so Gloria Haley would have you believe, sits in the cluttered, darkened living room of her Beverly Hills home. A septuagenarian, she cares little for the sweet science.

"I can't stand it," Haley says of boxing. "It's barbaric."

She is the daughter of the late actor Jack Haley, who was the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." Her brother was the late Jack Haley Jr., a producer, director, writer and film historian who was best known for his work on the 1974 film "That's Entertainment!" and was once married to Liza Minnelli.

More germane to this tale, her father-in-law was the late George Parnassus, a promoter who gained fame as a matchmaker for the Olympic Auditorium and is enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.

According to the story Haley says was relayed to her, Parnassus and former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey were drinking together one night in a hotel bar in the Philippines -- exactly when, she does not know -- when Dempsey offered to give Parnassus the available-to-the-highest-bidder prize that now rests unceremoniously in Haley's overcrowded living room: The fight bell used in the legendary Dempsey-Gene Tunney "long count" bout of Sept. 22, 1927.

"I know I'm sitting on a gold mine," Haley says.

The dynamite-fisted Dempsey, of course, was one of the most revered figures of the so-called "Golden Age of Sports" -- "more popular than Babe Ruth," ring historian Bert Sugar says. And the second Dempsey-Tunney bout, Dempsey's last fight, produced perhaps the most famous incident in boxing history.

Dempsey, who had taken the heavyweight title from Jess Willard in 1919, lost it to Tunney on a 10-round decision in 1926, the younger-by-three-years Tunney winning all 10 rounds. And in the rematch, before a crowd of more than 100,000 in Chicago's Soldier Field that included Princess Xenia of Greece and entertainers Al Jolson and Charlie Chaplin, Dempsey appeared headed to defeat again.

But in the seventh round, the challenger unleashed a flurry of punches that flattened the champion, the only time Tunney was ever knocked down in a fight.

Dempsey, though, hovered over the fallen Tunney, ignoring referee Dave Barry's instruction that he retreat to a neutral counter. By the time Dempsey made it across the ring and Barry began his count, it was estimated that Tunney had 14 seconds to recover. Back on his feet, Tunney won the bout by decision.

Dempsey, though, might have won by losing, his popularity soaring because many fight fans believed that he had been robbed.

"The Long Count" had become a part of boxing lore.

Nearly 80 years later, Haley would like to cash in on it.

"When you get a little bit older, you think about your kids," says Haley, who was an actress for a short time and later worked as a researcher for her brother.

"I have a daughter and a son, and I would really like to build up a big account that I could leave them. And I think, 'What do I need looking at this bell every day?' "

She says she attaches no sentimental value to the bell, which according to an inscription at its base seems to have changed hands several times.

She held on to it, she says, "just because of its value."

Years ago, shortly after her father-in-law died in 1975, Haley says that she and her husband, William, a doctor who died in April, were approached by representatives of the Dempsey and Tunney families asking about the bell's availability.

Her late husband, Haley says, wanted to give it to them.

"I said, 'You are a nut case,' " says Haley, who says she has been told that the bell could be worth as much as $1 million. "I said, 'We're not going to do that.' And he said, 'OK, then you take control of it.' I did, and I've kept it all these years.

"I wasn't about to let him give away the family jewels."

Sugar, who authored a book on sports collectibles, acknowledges that Haley's bell, if authentic, would be a one-of-a-kind item, rating it among the "upper echelon" of boxing collectibles. But he doesn't believe it would fetch $1 million.

"Probably in the neighborhood of $100,000," he estimates.

Dan Imler, managing director of SCP Auctions in Mission Viejo, doubts that it would bring even that much.

"I would have to say something in the $10,000 to $15,000 range," he says.

"Boxing is a narrow market, compared to the big four sports, as far as collecting goes, but the people that do collect boxing are pretty passionate about it. If the right people came to the table, it could bring $20,000. Anything can happen at auction, but that's a conservative estimate.

"It's not a six-figure piece."

Of course, nobody really knows for sure. A pair of trunks worn by Muhammad Ali in his first fight against Joe Frazier recently fetched about $150,000, Imler says.

"The problem with one-of-a-kind things is that no price has ever been set on them," Sugar says. "It's give and take, what a person will sell it for and what a person will pay for it....

"There could be somebody out there with a pocketful of money."

For Haley, it seems, anything less would be the Wrong Count.



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