The largely forgotten life of America’s first black boxing champion
Published: July 11, 2012
Growing up in Baltimore, William Gildea was a boxing fan, and yet, he had never heard Joe Gans. This even though Gans, who became the first African-American boxing champion in 1906, grew up just a few miles from him, on Eastern Avenue. As an adult, Gildea became interested in Gans—not only his boxing career, but his life—and why such an important figure in sports history remained largely unknown. Gildea, who was a Washington Post correspondent for 40 years covering boxing, among many other things, before retiring in 2005, recently released The Longest Fight, which looks at the boxer’s life, from his success in Baltimore’s brutal battles royal (in which groups of black boys fought until only one was left standing, a phenomenon also described in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) to his death from tuberculosis at the age of 35, through the lens of his epic, 42-round 1906 fight against “Battling” Nelson. Thorough research led Gildea to troves of period data, making it a fascinating read not only about Gans, but about Baltimore and race relations at the turn of the 20th century.
City Paper: Why were you inspired to write about Gans?
William Gildea: I’ve known vaguely about Gans since 1966, and I always thought that he might be a good subject, and I always kept it in the back of my head. I started in 2004. I’m embarrassed to say it took as long as it did, but I didn’t have an editor hounding me to hand the thing in. I’ve done some books while I was at The Washington Post, kind of with my left hand, and I knew that this would take a lot more care, a lot more attention, full-time effort, and it turned out to be that way. I couldn’t have done it unless I was retired or, I guess, unless I took time off from the paper, and I couldn’t afford to do that.
CP: The time paid off. How did you find so much period detail?
WG: The main source of information was at the Library of Congress. I took a one-evening class about how to go about doing research at the Library of Congress and the general message was, if you come back, be patient, and bring in something to read while you put in your requests. I was amazed that little had been done on Gans in all this time. I got to know him first as a boxer, watching the film of him fight. I was amazed at how modern a fighter he was. He was like most fighters today: He bent forward, he had all the moves, really quick hands, could block punches, throw punches. And then I was amazed at the intensity of the discrimination that he and other blacks faced. Some days you found something, and other days you wondered whether you were doing the right thing. I always had that doubt, until about two or three months into the research, when I was able to confirm that Gans was in the San Francisco earthquake. I just had a feeling that he was, because he fought there before and he fought there after.
CP: That’s a great story, about how he ran out into the street and ran into opera star Enrico Caruso.
WG: I never found out precisely what boarding house he was running from, but he ran into the same street as Caruso, who was living palatially in this wonderful hotel. I found it ironic that they were both running for their lives in the same street. And later on, Gans apparently took a ferry across the bay and was in a bread line in Oakland, so he didn’t have any money at that point.
CP: Why has so little been written about him? When he was alive, he was a pretty famous guy.
WG: He was. I think it was three things. One, he was a lightweight champion, not heavyweight champion, but I think that’s the least of it. Two, he died in 1910, so he had very, very little post-fight life. I’m not sure he would ever have become a spokesman for the black cause, but we don’t know. We don’t know what he would have done. The third one, and I think the most important one, is that Jack Johnson follows quickly after Gans, and white America was so intent on punishing Johnson that they forgot about Gans. Some people remembered. Hemingway, as a high schooler, wrote a little bit about Gans. And Paul Muni donned black face and played Gans in the movies. But it was only sporadic, and he just dropped from sight. The only people that really seemed to remember him were boxers. [Trainer] Cus D’Amato taught Mike Tyson about Gans, and Tyson visited Gans’ grave site at Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Baltimore. Archie Moore loved Gans. He wrote a book in which he said he considered himself a pest because he was always asking his elders about Gans.
CP: He seemed to be a victim of his personality type.
WG: Yeah, he was the opposite of Johnson in personality type. He was a mentor to Johnson while he lived, and Johnson asked him to be one of his trainers for the big fight with [James] Jeffries, and I think that fell through because Gans was too ill to be there. In fact, when that fight came, Gans was very much fighting for his life. He was a very gentlemanly type, and I think he earned the respect of whites because he not only observed all the rules of the ring, he went beyond that: He learned from [his trainer Bob] Fitzsimmons to pick up fallen opponents.
CP: Baltimore doesn’t come off too well in the book.
WG: I knew a little bit about that because I grew up there, and I went to high school downtown, but it was an all-white high school.
CP: What school?
WG: Calvert Hall. I went to Calvert Hall [College] High School when it was downtown, on Cathedral and Mulberry. My father used to drop me off because he worked downtown and we used to go through the black neighborhoods, down Druid Hill Avenue. It was a segregated city, there’s no question about that. I don’t think Baltimore was any different than most American cities, at least in the North. When I joined the army in 1961 and got off the train in Atlanta, it was the first time I’d ever seen four restrooms, you know? That came as a shock to me. I didn’t mean for Baltimore to come off badly, but it was a fact that blacks made up a large portion of the population, and they had a much smaller percentage of the area. Looking back, I wish I had heard about Gans as a kid. I never did, and I think that’s one reflection of whites and blacks in the ’40s and ’50s, when I was a kid. It was a segregated place. I never saw [Roy] Campanella, who played for the [Negro League’s Baltimore] Elite Giants, or Junior Gilliam. I came to regret not growing up in a more enlightened area of town. I grew up in a working class area, and it was segregated.
CP: Some of the incidents in the book, like Gans getting beaten by a Baltimore cop for no reason or the brutal battles royal, are really shocking.
WG: It is shocking. I think that’s a pretty good way to describe it. I’d re-read Ralph Ellison’s bit about it [in Invisible Man]. That was the only way for a black kid to make it into boxing. It’s a reminder, I think, of where we were, I guess, and how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
CP: Why did you decide to frame the book around the fight in Goldfield, Nevada?
WG: I had a secret weapon. I had a fella who was an editor at The Washington Post, who edited my chapters as I went along. He suggested I start in Goldfield, and that made sense to me. You don’t want to start, “He was born here or there,” you want to start at the high point of his career, and, often, the high point of a boxer’s career comes late in life, as it did with Sugar Ray Leonard, when he fought Hagler. He had been away from boxing for a long time, but he succeeded because he put in this tremendous amount of work. And that’s how it was with Gans. He had seen his better day by the time he fought Nelson in ’06, but he had fought this tremendous amount of rounds with Kid Simms. He knew how hard it was to knock out Nelson. What makes that fight all the more remarkable was that he likely had that tuberculosis germ in his body at that point. There’s no question that he had full-blown tuberculosis when he fought Nelson the second and third times. He just fought those because he wanted to leave something for his family, which he did. Most boxers didn’t at that time, but he left quite a bit.
> Email Evan Serpick