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A century after his death, boxer Joe Gans finally getting his due

At a time when a fellow Baltimorean named George Ruth was barely in knickers, Joe Gans was the biggest star in town. Along with Cardinal James Gibbons — the Cardinal Gibbons — Gans was one of the most famous people in the country. Maybe even the world.

Boxing fans knew Gans, who died a century ago Tuesday, as the world's first African-American champion, but he was more than that. Those in Baltimore knew Gans as the proprietor of the city's hottest nightclub who tooled around the cobblestone streets in Henry Ford's newfangled automobile.

With the money he earned from his 42-round title bout in 1906 against Oscar Matthew "Battling" Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., Gans opened a hotel named after the gold mining boomtown. Inside was what was believed to be the first integrated black-and-tan club in the country, a place where Gans gave a 20-year-old local musician named Eubie Blake a job playing piano. Blake later wrote a tribute to Gans called "The Goldfield Rag."

When he died of tuberculosis in August 1910, thousands of his friends and fans gathered at his mother's house on Argyle Avenue and followed the horse-drawn hearse holding Gans' casket to the church where he was memorialized and eventually to Mount Auburn Cemetery, where he was buried. Gans was just 35.

The 100th anniversary of Gans' death will be marked in his hometown this week. It will be the first time in 50 years that Gans has been recognized, in this case with a permanent reminder of his place in history.

After a two-year crusade by local actor Kevin Grace, who first heard about Gans while working on a Washington movie set, Gans will be celebrated with a ceremony Sunday at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, memorial services at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church and Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the naming of a Baltimore street in his honor.

"He should be as synonymous to Baltimore as Muhammad Ali is to Louisville," Grace said.

In a congressional resolution last week honoring Gans, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin spoke of the fighter's accomplishments in and out of the ring.

"Gans' achievements became a beacon of hope for the African-American community," Cardin said. "The prominent preacher and civil rights leader Francis J. Grimke once remarked that the great Booker T. Washington had done much for African-Americans, but he 'never did one-tenth to place the black man in the front rank as a gentleman as has been done by Joe Gans.'"

But Gans is mostly forgotten, even in his hometown. When Colleen Aycock was researching her book about Gans at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, she would ask people on the street outside whether they had heard of him. None of them had. They knew about other famous Baltimoreans such as Ruth and Billie Holliday, as well as other African-Americans who became world champions.

"Everyone knows Tex Rickard, the father of Madison Square Garden and all of his million-dollar gates, but his first great 'Fight of the Century' was with Joe Gans," said Aycock, who learned about Gans from her father, a boxer himself, and co-wrote a biography that was published in 2008. " Jack Johnson was so impressed with the grandeur of the Goldfield, located at East Lexington and Colvin streets, that he started his own club that became the Cotton Club."

Marvin McDowell, a former fighter who runs Umar Boxing on North Avenue, said Gans was overshadowed because his career and life weren't as controversial as Johnson's and that lightweights have never received the same attention as their heavyweight counterparts. That Gans died young also played into his being forgotten.

"He sort of slipped under the radar," McDowell said. "He was a quiet guy, not like a Jack Johnson, but he was one of the greatest African-American boxers that ever put the gloves on. He wasn't only the first African-American boxing champion, he was the first African-American champion in any sport."

Even Carolyn Butler, one of two surviving great-great-granddaughters, was unaware of the man in the picture that had been taped to her refrigerator for years.

"He wasn't a blood relative," Butler said of Gans, who married her great-great-grandmother Florence Desmond but didn't have any children with her. "He's still part of my family. It's an interesting story, and he was the first to do a lot of things."

Boxing analyst and historian Al Bernstein said Gans "didn't get the recognition almost from the get-go. … He never achieved that legendary status that he should have." Bernstein said the passage of time has made Gans' career "more of a folklore kind of thing."

'Hit like a mule'

Competing first under the name of Joe Gant — the last name belonged to the Baltimore woman who adopted Gans at the age of 4 after he became orphaned — Gans fought 155 times between 1891 and 1909, losing only eight bouts. Elected to Ring Magazine's Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, Gans could, according to legendary heavyweight John L. Sullivan, "hit like a mule kicking with either hand."

In watching films of the 5-foot-61/2, 133-pound Gans, Bernstein said what stood out was his ability to box as well as punch.

"You can see the fighters back then who had a modicum of technique and who didn't, and Joe Gans did," Bernstein said. "A lot of the old-timers said he was a cut above, and he was. He was a real craftsman."

Though a statue of Gans has stood outside Madison Square Garden in New York for more than 50 years, it is no longer in a place prominent enough that boxers touch it for good luck as they go into the building, as happened at the arena's previous location. The only reminder of Gans in his hometown is a burial plot right inside the front gate of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Southwest Baltimore.

His death came a month after Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries in a 45-round fight that decades later spawned a Broadway show and movie titled "The Great White Hope." Gans was supposed to serve as Johnson's cornerman for the fight but was too ill to attend while trying to recuperate in the mountains of Arizona from a long battle with tuberculosis.

Five days after returning to his mother's home on Argyle Avenue — a section of which will become known as Joe Gans Way after a ceremonial renaming — the fighter called "The Old Master" was dead.

Despite being considered by boxing historians among the greatest lightweight champions in history — legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called Gans the top lightweight up until then, as did Ring Magazine publisher Nat Fleischer — Gans is barely remembered.

Because he was such a dominant fighter — he won his first 19 bouts and took the lightweight title in 1902 by knocking out Frank Erne in the first two seconds of the opening round — most of his losses were suspected to be fixed. One in particular — a 1900 fight against Terry McGovern in Chicago where Gans took an apparent dive — led to boxing being banned in that city for nearly 25 years.

Even some of his wins were said to be shady — gamblers would bet on when Gans would end the fight or have him prolong it in hopes that it was competitive enough to book a rematch. Aycock believes that tarnished Gans' legend, contributing to his career being overlooked.

"He was certainly a controversial figure, and that has caused a lot of ill will toward him still to this day by some boxing historians who refuse to give him the full credit," Aycock said. "But show me a fighter who didn't [fix fights] at that time."

Too good to get a fight

There is some debate about his reign as lightweight champion. Some say Gans held it uninterrupted from 1902 to 1908, but because he wasn't always able to get fights, others have written that Gans did not hold the title between 1904 and 1906.

"Gans could not get any fights; he was too good," Aycock said. "If you're too good, nobody is going to bet on you. Nobody would hire him, and he wound up penniless and homeless on the streets of San Francisco."

That is when Rickard came into Gans' life. With the city trying to recover from a devastating earthquake earlier that year, and its banking establishment closed, those running the silver and gold mines in Nevada were hoping to stir the local economy, which included boxing. Rickard needed a fighter to pit against Nelson, considered the white lightweight champion. A San Francisco boxing writer recommended Gans.

The 42-round bout, which ended when Nelson was disqualified because of repeated fouls, made Gans the undisputed world champion and a celebrity.

"He came out of that fight loved by everybody," Aycock said. "Even people who lost money on him, including Tex Rickard, loved him. Everybody thought there would be riots if Joe Gans won, but it didn't happen. He was revered after that. The only thing I can compare it to is the reverence people had for Muhammad Ali."

That reverence led to Gans' becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the world. He was, according to accounts, a shrewd businessman. During a three-year period after he left his manager, a Pimlico bookie named Abraham Lincoln "Al" Herford, to manage himself, Gans made more than $100,000.

But tuberculosis took its toll. Gans kept fighting after contracting the disease, and kept winning, until losing a rematch to Nelson in 1908. It would be Gans' last title fight. When he died, his estate was said to be worth around $80,000, a substantial figure at that time.

Grace said he believes there was some sort of divine intervention — or at least from the boxing gods — in choosing him to find a way to reintroduce Gans in Baltimore. Grace, who works full time for Southwest Airlines, first saw mention of Gans in a book he was reading about Johnson. A fellow actor named Paul Lazzati filled him in, and Grace's obsession with Gans began.

"I was chosen to do this," Grace said.

Now his mission is to have Gans remembered by everyone in his hometown.

"It's been a struggle," Grace said earlier this year.

One that a long-forgotten fighter from Baltimore would appreciate.

don.markus@baltsun.com


Schedule Sunday

10-11:30 a.m.: Service at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.

2-4 p.m.: Celebrate the lives of Joe Gans and Henrietta Vinton Davis at Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, 847N.Howard St. Tickets are $25.

Monday

7 p.m.: Joe Gans book signing and discussion by author Colleen Aycock at Towson Library, 320 York Road.

Tuesday

Noon: Graveside service, Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2630 Waterview Ave.

2 p.m.: Honorary street naming at Perkins Square (Hoffman Street and Argyle Avenue).

7 p.m.: Gans book signing and discussion by Aycock at Enoch Pratt Free Library (Central Library), 400Cathedral St., 410-396-5430.

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