Thursday, December 12, 2013

The House That John L. Sullivan Built

Go back, back to when Madison Square Garden was actually adjacent to New York City's Madison Square Park. Back when the "world's most famous arena" was barely known in Gotham. Back when William H. Vanderbilt, son of the late Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, had one of those pesky millionaire's problems.

When Vanderbilt assumed control of the first incarnation of Madison Square Garden in 1879, the building hosted a lineup of masquerade balls, horticultural shows, temperance lectures, revival meetings, and band concerts. P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the new Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show brought in the paying customers, but only for a few weeks a year. To boost revenue, Vanderbilt decided to host more sporting events at his building across from the northeast corner of Madison Square Park. Wrestling matches and billiard tournaments, however, drew only lukewarm crowds. Six-day pedestrian races, which started a minute after midnight on Monday morning and ended at midnight the following Saturday, brought in fans, but spread over the course of an entire week they were not big money-makers.

Like any New York theater owner, Vanderbilt needed a smash hit with a box-office superstar in the leading role.

He needed John L. Sullivan.

He booked the newly christened American heavyweight boxing champion for a grand sparring match against the man who claimed the championship of England—Joe Collins, alias “Tug Wilson.” Not even Vanderbilt, however, could have envisioned the throng that descended upon Madison Square Garden on the sultry summer evening of July 17, 1882. Thousands poured out of the Third Avenue elevated trains and jumped off the Fourth Avenue streetcars as fight time approached. The sweltering swarm with one-dollar tickets in hand pushed, swore, and shoved their ways inside the Fourth Avenue entrance while Manhattan’s oligarchs flashed their two-dollar tickets at the entrance on fashionable Madison Avenue. The marketplace laws of supply and demand pleased the army of ticket speculators, who received as much as five dollars a ticket.

Never had so many passed through the gates of the arena. Twelve thousand people boiled inside the oppressive cauldron of Madison Square Garden as at least two thousand disappointed fans pleaded to be allowed inside. A stagnant haze of tobacco smoke hovered over the crowd and obscured the views from the building’s outer reaches. What struck reporters was not only the size of the crowd, but also its composition. More than the rabble had been roused by the spectacle. “Hundreds of respectable citizens” turned out as well. “From the highest type of respectability to the lowest grade of depravity, every art, profession, vocation, trade, and crime had its representative,” reported one local newspaper.

Sullivan had refused a prizefight against Wilson, instead offering him $1,000 and half of the gate if he could stand up for four rounds. And for four rounds, Wilson infuriated the champion and earned the hisses of the crowd by dancing around the ring and hitting the ground to avoid any of Sullivan's punches. He flopped, hopped, and dropped. He skipped, dodged, and dove. When Sullivan approached, he clenched, hugged, and danced. Wilson wasn't interested in fighting. Diving was the only sport he exhibited in the Garden. Although prostrate for most of the twelve minutes, Wilson remained standing in the ring as time was called at the end of the fourth round. The Englishman had
failed to land one big blow and by some accounts fell twenty-eight times during the bout, yet he emerged the winner under Sullivan’s ground rules.

To Vanderbilt’s joy, however, the gate money for the Sullivan-Wilson fight topped $16,000. John L. left Madison Square Garden disgusted, but—with his share of the receipts—far richer. He raked in thousands for just twelve minutes of work with the gloves, and Vanderbilt found his drawing card. Over the next several years, John L. became a regular draw at MSG, both in four-round gloved exhibitions and testimonial benefits. Sullivan put Madison Square Garden on the American sporting map. The arena would be torn down in 1887 to give way to a second, more glorious incarnation of Madison Square Garden. 

If old Yankee Stadium was the "House That Ruth Built," then the original Madison Square Garden, that other New York sporting cathedral, certainly was the "House That Sullivan Built." 

Read more about John L. Sullivan in Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero. Strong Boy is available on and

Friday, October 25, 2013

John L. and the Red Sox

He may have only sported a brilliant handlebar mustache and not a full lumberjack beard, but no doubt that John L. Sullivan would feel a special affinity for the bewhiskered 2013 Boston Red Sox.

The “Boston Strong Boy” was a huge baseball “crank,” as fans were known in the late 1800s. As a boy, Sullivan rooted for the National League’s Boston Red Stockings and attended games at the nearby South End Grounds. During his boxing days, Sullivan would stand at home plate before games as Boston left fielder Joe Hornung threw balls as hard as he could at the champion standing on home plate. John L. hardly flinched as he let the baseballs bounce off his prodigious chest.

Sullivan, a decent ballplayer himself, played on numerous semipro teams. He boasted that he turned down a $1,300 contract offer from the Cincinnati Red Stockings to play with them during the 1879 and 1880 seasons, although a sporting newspaper reported years later that the team president could not recall such an offer. During Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champion, big-league baseball teams such as the Philadelphia Athletics hired the champ for a day to pitch for their teams in exhibition games in return for half the gate. In 1883, 4,000 fans came out to the Polo Grounds to watch as Sullivan, clad in a white flannel uniform and pillbox hat, took the field with the New York Metropolitans.

After his fighting days were done, Sullivan periodically showed up at Boston’s ballyards to watch the Braves and the new American League franchise, which would become known as the Red Sox. Sullivan was in attendance at the first World Series in 1903 as Boston defeated Pittsburgh. He sat in the dugout before games with Boston manager Jimmy Collins.

The “Boston Strong Boy” even took to the emerald lawn of Boston’s new ballyard, Fenway Park, in 1917 as an honorary first-base coach at an all-star benefit game for the family of recently deceased Boston Globe baseball scribe Tim Murnane. Will Rogers entertained the 17,000 fans by galloping around Fenway demonstrating rope tricks before the Red Sox took the field against a team of all-stars that included “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Tris Speaker. As Sullivan took to the coaching box for the all-stars, he stood on the same field as another noted athlete, Sox phenom Babe Ruth, who toed the rubber as the starting pitcher after easily winning the pre-game hitting competition by launching a ball 402 feet. Sullivan had little work to do as Ruth scattered just three hits in five scoreless innings against a pantheon of baseball legends. On Fenway’s emerald turf, the lives of the greatest American sports superstars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries briefly intertwined.

As a Boston boy partial to facial hair and a “crank” of the highest order, no doubt John L. would have a message for everyone today: “GO SOX!”

Read more on John L. Sullivan in Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero.

Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, John L. Sullivan?

On October 15, 1858, John L. Sullivan was born in Boston's South End. 

Or was he?

John L. always gave his birthday as October 15. His mother and father did the same. Instead of a Bible, the Sullivan family recorded the birth dates of John L. and his siblings in the front of Life of the Blessed Virgin and Life of Christ. The date recorded inside is also October 15. 

Yet, the city of Boston birth certificate for John L. Sullivan lists his birth date as October 12, 1858, as you can see here. 

City records from the 1800s were susceptible to errors. Sullivan's death certificate, for instance, listed his incorrect age when he passed away. I would chalk the discrepancy up to a city error except for John L. Sullivan's baptismal record. According to the record I received from the Archdiocese of Boston, Sullivan was baptized on October 13, 1858, at St. Joseph's Church in Roxbury. Below is an older record of Sullivan's baptism:

So who's right? God, country, or the "Boston Strong Boy"? I think in this case, church and state have got it right. October 12 is Sullivan's birthday.

Friday, September 27, 2013

John L. Sullivan and the Wayback Machine

Oh, that Hollywood, always taking artistic license with real history. Take that smug, pipe-smoking canine, Mr. Peabody, and his redheaded sidekick Sherman. In a 1960 episode of "Rocky & Bullwinkle" Mr. Peabody and Sherman enter the Wayback Machine to witness "the most titanic struggle in boxing history," the championship bout between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.

Well they got the description right, but the rest of the episode was "Peabody's Improbable History" indeed. In spite of setting the bespectacled dog setting Wayback Machine for July 8, 1888 (one year too early) and Richburg, Massachusetts (off by one critical letter in the postal abbreviation; it took place in Mississippi), Sherman and Mr. Peabody find themselves at Sullivan's camp where his trainer O'Hara (oops, it was William Muldoon) is talking on a phone (anachronism) to put down money on Kilrain because the red-headed (oops) Sullivan can't get train because his mustache was too thick (anyone who knows John L. knows that only booze, not facial hair, put him in a condition where "he couldn't punch a clock"). Someone has to call out that pun-loving pooch before he blurs all lines between fact and fiction. Where's that Mr. Know-It-All, Bullwinkle, when you need him? Someone needs to go back into the Wayback Machine and hand him a copy of Strong Boy to get his history right.

Well, I guess it is pretty good entertainment all the same. And you've got to love someone bringing their own corned beef and cabbage to a bareknuckle boxing match. Check it out!

John Sullivan by MistyIsland1

Friday, September 6, 2013

How John L. Sullivan Changed America

He was America’s first sports superstar. He was the gold standard of his sport for more than a decade. He was the first athlete to earn more than a million dollars. His rise from the working-class city streets epitomized the American Dream. He had a big ego, big mouth, and bigger appetites. He ate and drank with reckless abandon. He was loud and vulgar. His womanizing, drunken escapades, and constant police-blotter presence were godsends to a burgeoning newspaper industry.

He wasn’t Babe Ruth.

He was John L. Sullivan.

Nearly four decades before Ruth donned a baseball uniform, Sullivan ruled as heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892. Born to Irish-American parents who fled the horrible potato famine that gnawed away at Ireland, the larger-than-life boxer rose from a working-class Boston neighborhood to become the most recognizable man in America.

Far from being a bygone, sepia-toned relic, Sullivan’s story is a familiar one. Everything we know of modern sports—the hype machine, the press coverage, the hero worship by fans, the pitfalls of celebrity, the endorsements, the greed and ungodly sums of money, the gambling, the intersection of show business and athletics, and the gossip—all appear in Sullivan’s tale. The man known as the “Boston Strong Boy” starred in theatrical productions, sought political office, owned his own bar, and shilled products for advertisers, activities that all seem commonplace for athletes today.

John L. Sullivan’s left his imprint on American culture in three significant ways:

1. John L. Sullivan was the first American sports hero.
If sports are America’s secular faith, Sullivan is not only among the pantheon of athletic gods, he is our Zeus. His decade-long reign coincided with the birth of American mass media, and his oversized personality gave birth to America’s celebrity obsession with athletes. Long before athletes’ private lives became fodder for TMZ, Deadspin, and ESPN, there was Sullivan’s dirty laundry being aired in Richard K. Fox’s National Police Gazette and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

2. John L. Sullivan was the first Irish-American idol.
The legendary spirit of the fighting Irish that was made flesh in Sullivan transformed him into a hero for tens of thousands of sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle who had felt emasculated in the wake of the Great Hunger. At a time when millions of Irish Americans sought respect in their new homeland, Sullivan earned it with his fists. His strength and self-confidence were elixirs for a people who had suffered from malignant shame after the famine, and it transformed him into an Irish-American idol. “Because he meant so much as a minority champion, he prefigured Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and the many other athletes who became genuine heroes to the people they represented,” says illustrious sportswriter Frank Deford. “The Great John L. is as important a cultural figure as he was a sports idol.”

3. John L. Sullivan modernized the sport of boxing.
The last of the bare-knuckle champions and the first of the gloved title-holders, Sullivan was a transcendent figure in boxing history. By insisting on fighting with gloves under the newly developed Marquis of Queensberry Rules, he revolutionized the sport from barbaric, outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today. “The Boston Strong Boy” pulled boxing from the back woods onto the front pages.

My latest book, Strong Boy, tells the story of the self-made man who personified the power and excesses of the Gilded Age. In vivid detail, the 368-page book offers readers ringside seats for Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain and his cross-country barnstorming tour in which he literally challenged all of America to a fight. Strong Boy also chronicles Sullivan’s battles outside the ring with a troubled marriage, wild weight and fitness fluctuations, and raging alcoholism. While he struggled with personal demons, his life story is ultimately a redemptive one.

Even those who aren't boxing fans will be entertained by Sullivan’s incredible exploits both inside and outside of the ring as they learn about America’s sports-obsessed culture, the seedy underbelly of Victorian society in the Gilded Age, and the rise of Irish America in the latter 1800s.

While Sullivan is referred to in some quarters as the “Babe Ruth of boxing,” Strong Boy readers will discover that in truth, Ruth was the “John L. Sullivan of baseball.”

Copies of Strong Boy, which will be available November 5, 2013, can be ordered online at Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. For more on John L. Sullivan, visit the Strong Boy web site at and keep watching this blog.

Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress