Jim Caple  - St. Paul Pioneer Press - November 1, 1999

Kahn's book sheds new light on Dempsey

When Roger Kahn toured schools and colleges around the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's big-league debut, he found that everyone knew who the great baseball player was and why he was important. But when he asked who had heard of former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, few people had.

``And I began to think,'' Kahn said last week, ``it's important for him to be remembered. He was an extraordinary person.''

In fact, in his new book on the boxer, ``A Flame of Pure Fire,'' Kahn writes that ``More than any other individual, Dempsey created big-time sports in America.''

Most people (myself included) give that credit to Babe Ruth, who made such an impact he still might be as famous as when he played in the 1920s and '30s. Kahn, however, argues that Ruth benefits from a sport that still promotes the player a half-century after his death.

Indeed, baseball embraces and applauds its past like no other sport, with last week's unveiling of its All-Century Team just the latest example.

Then there's boxing, which sometimes can't decide on the current champion, let alone publicize a past champ.

``With the sad state of boxing, Dempsey is drifting more and more toward obscurity,'' said Kahn, who knew the boxer well. ``Dempsey himself said you only spend so much time in the spotlight before they change the bulb. He had a very clever way with words.

``If you read these amazing sportswriters of the past, Dempsey was by far the dominant figure of the time. But it's as if his language is done. No one speaks boxing anymore.''

How big was Dempsey? Years before Ruth famously earned more than President Hoover (``I had a better year than he did''), Dempsey was taking in $500,000 to $700,000 a fight (though much of it went to his promoters). Everything included, he earned more than $1 million a year during his prime, back when that bought considerably more than a left-handed middle reliever.

Decades before Michael Jordan, Dempsey appeared in movies, endorsed everything from ``Nuxated Iron'' to automobiles and opened his own restaurant.

And all this without benefit of TV or a swoosh (his manager did negotiate for newsreel fees).

Kahn's book concentrates on Dempsey during his reign in the '20s, putting his career in context with the rest of the decade's figures and history, effectively ending the story with the second Dempsey-Tunney bout in 1927. Along the way, Kahn covers early corruption and racism in boxing (and America), as well as the sometimes scandalous and occasionally brilliant sportswriting of the time.

There also is an entertaining part of the book on St. Paul's Tommy Gibbons, who got a bout with the champ in an oil boom town called Shelby, Montana. Promoters were so eager to arrange the bout that they paid Dempsey and his manager $300,000 up front, with Gibbons to get fixed percentages of the gate above the first $300,000. The bout was a financial disaster, taking in only $80,000 -- not even Dempsey could draw people to Shelby, Mont. -- and Gibbons didn't receive a dime for lasting 15 rounds with the champ (he wound up making some money on the vaudeville circuit by recounting the fight).

The Dempsey book is neither the best sports book of the year (that honor belongs to Joe McGinniss' spectacularly readable ``The Miracle of Castel di Sangro'') nor in the class of Kahn's classic loving tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers teams he covered, ``The Boys of Summer.'' But as everyone compiles lists of the century's most important figures, this is an interesting read about a largely forgotten athlete who deserves to be better remembered.

Jim Caple may be reached at jcaple@pioneerpress.com.


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