From Civil War to the NFL, Donovans went the distance


Because Mike Donovan died in 1918, there's no earthly way he can attend his induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame. Grandson Arthur, the first Baltimore Colt to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will be his living substitute. The Donovan between them, Arthur Sr., already is in the Boxing Hall of Fame, located in Canastota, N.Y. A grand family honor. Unprecedented.

Three generations, spanning well over a century, have now achieved Hall of Fame status. All hail the Donovans. More than an accident. They're achievers, making all the rest of us believers. The genes asserted themselves.

The Donovans, endowed with amiable ways, have evidenced strong allegiance to their country, willing to stand up and fight for it, a fact thoroughly documented. Grandfather Mike enlisted in the Union Army at age 14, an orphan, and fought throughout the Civil War; Arthur Sr., was in the Mexican War and World War I in France with an Army field artillery unit, then was commissioned by the Merchant Marine (at age 51) in World War II; son Art was with the Third Marine Division in the Pacific during the same war.

Art, the Donovan who was to make his reputation in football and wasn't interested in boxing, still holds the massive silver championship belt presented to grandfather Mike by his admirers in San Francisco in 1878 when he was the middleweight titleholder.

Also the two medals awarded his grandfather for service in the Civil War, in which he was in heavy combat and a member of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's army during the "march to the sea."

Asked to discuss his impressive lineage, Art said: "The reason I never talked much about my grandfather is I didn't want to sound as though I was bragging or spreading lies. But, my hand to God, he had to be a tremendous man. Now tell me how in hell did he ever get to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1868 to fight a bout refereed by Wyatt Earp. You could say he didn't drink much, or nothing at all, which I guess makes him different from my father and me."

Grandfather Mike's Civil War experience typified the Irish immigrants' love for their adopted country, since more than 170,000 of them fought as volunteers for the federal cause. They didn't want to see their new country split.

Mike instructed both John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett at various points in their boxing careers. He was a second in the corner of Jake Kilrain when Kilrain opposed Sullivan in Richburg, Miss., in 1889, last of the bareknuckle fights. Kilrain lost in the 75th round when, taking a brutal beating, Donovan threw in the sponge to end the mauling.

After the war -- we're still talking Civil War -- Donovan made his boxing debut in 1866 in St. Louis against Billy Crowley. The bout lasted 92 rounds, or 3 hours, 15 minutes, before Mike lost on a foul.

A clever mover, feinter and counterpuncher, he was known as "Mike the Master." Although outweighed by 30 pounds, he twice met Sullivan. One bout was called an exhibition, the other a draw. But Donovan used skill against power, finesse against muscle.

Donovan was close with President Theodore Roosevelt. He instructed Roosevelt in boxing when he was police commissioner of New York, then governor and, finally, president. Art has the original copies of White House invitations from Roosevelt to his grandfather.

The night before his inauguration in 1904, the president-to-be said he needed a workout and sparred with Donovan for 10 rounds. When, the next day, Roosevelt was having difficulty getting into his tuxedo for the ceremony, it was Donovan who came to his rescue and provided assistance.

The president, talking about Donovan, was quoted as saying: "I got to know him well, both when I was governor and while I was president, and many a time he came and boxed with me. Mike is bTC a devoted temperance man and can be relied upon for every movement in the interest of good citizenship."

Indeed, Roosevelt thought so much of Donovan, he had him teach boxing to his sons. Later, Donovan wrote his second book, which ran 234 pages, titled, "The Roosevelt That I Know."

Sixteen years before, his first book, "The Science of Boxing," was hailed the world over as the best technical explanation the game had yet been given. George Siler, sporting editor of the Chicago Globe, wrote: "I say, without any reserve, it is the best book ever published on the science of the manly art. The descriptions of blows, guards, feints, ducks, are complete, accurate, and yet so brief as to be easily remembered."

The grandfather, then known as Professor Mike Donovan, served 35 years as boxing instructor at the New York Athletic Club, a preserve for dignitaries and the swells of society. The sport then carried a special dignity. Rich men, including members of famous Wall Street firms, were more inclined to box than play golf or tennis.

When Donovan No. 1 retired, he turned the athletic club position over to his son, Arthur, who remained there for 50 years. Meanwhile, Arthur enjoyed a reputation as perhaps the most respected referee in history.

He officiated more than 30 championship fights, 12 involving Joe Louis, and was called by Joe Williams, sports editor of the New York World Telegram, "the best and most honest man in the business." Donovan, reviewing the duties of a referee, said: "He must know the rules by instinct. And when the rules don't apply, he must be fair above all else."

Donovan was strong in the ring, moving fighters around and breaking clinches, staying in total control. He was in exceptional physical shape, due to the fact that he was in the gym every day boxing with students, the same as his father before him.

To young Arthur, there was no interest in the game, "but a lot of times on Saturdays I'd accompany my father when he would go to the homes of wealthy men in Westchester County or out on Long Island to teach them and their sons how to box.

"When I was a Marine, at Parris Island, I was picked to fight at a Friday night boxing show. The captain said I had to represent our regiment. I took on 'Big Stoop,' who had a reputation as being one of the toughest men at Parris Island. He was from Minnesota. I was so scared, I wet my pants before the bell rang.

"Here comes 'Big Stoop' and I couldn't believe it. He held up his hands like a girl. I busted him a couple and he went down. The Marines were screaming. I got carried away and went over and gave him a good kick. They screamed some more. The Marines had me brainwashed. They said one Marine was the equal of three soldiers. I tried that once and just about got killed."

The Donovans, capped by Mike, have made a lasting impression on American sports. Three generations and one from each time period gathering Hall of Fame acclaim. A glorious past.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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