"Way to go, Willie," I chortled to myself as I hurried off to the future that lay in wait. "Way to go!"
I only dimly perceived that what I had just seen was, in a sense, history. I had no idea that the future I was about to embrace so ardently would include a "sports world" of staggering immensity, or that TV, that flickering screen, would capture and illuminate it so insistently.
Television may have breathed life into some sports, notably professional football, but it killed minor league baseball and mortally wounded boxing. Minor league baseball had an attendance of 42 million in 1949; in 1973 it was 11 million. In the same period, the number of teams dropped from 488 to 144. The fans had become accustomed to watching big-league games for free on TV. Boxing seemed at first to thrive on television coverage. The Wednesday-and Friday-night fights were prime-time attractions and name boxers were created overnight—Chico Vejar, Chuck Davey, Ralph (Tiger) Jones. But the constant exposure ruined the boxing clubs that had been the training ground of champions. There were 300 clubs in 1952, fewer than 50 only seven years later. Then televised boxing reached the limbo of overexposure. By the end of the decade, save for the high-priced theater broadcasts, boxing had all but vanished from the air.
The Richmond Auditorium across the bay from San Francisco was a tidy, greenish building, not at all like the decaying, smoke-filled arenas of fight-game legend. High school basketball seemed more appropriate to these congenial surroundings and, indeed, when the boxing crowd was not there that was the auditorium's principal attraction. And yet the Richmond fight club was successful in the '50s and, like the others, it cultivated its own crop of local favorites. The one I will always remember was Eddie Machen, a heavyweight who later became a leading contender.
Machen was the king of Richmond in the mid-'50s, a powerfully muscled, handsome black man with the air of a champion. His clothes—gaudy, brilliant, luminous combinations—were at least 10 years in advance of male fashion. He was seldom without a dazzling beauty on his arm, and his arrival in the Richmond Auditorium would invariably signal a standing ovation.
Machen would later be knocked out by Ingemar Johansson, then an unknown, and he would take a terrible beating from Floyd Patterson. Finally, he would suffer a nervous breakdown, be embarrassed by several bizarre altercations with the police (one involving a gun) and, at the age of 40, a broken, sad wreck of a man, he would die mysteriously from a fall off his apartment deck in San Francisco's Mission District.
I cannot say for certain if Machen was in the auditorium on April 10, 1956, the night I saw Archie Moore fight there. He probably was, for in those days he seldom missed an opportunity to be introduced in the Richmond ring. But even if he had been there he would have been overshadowed, since it was rare for the local promoters to book a celebrity of Moore's stature. Moore was still the light heavyweight champion of the world, and only seven months earlier he had fought a gallant heavyweight title match with Rocky Marciano before succumbing in the ninth round. But he had knocked the champion down early in the fight and he remained a champion in his own right. The knowledgeable fight fans in Richmond flocked in great numbers—maybe 3,000—to see this venerable warrior meet an obscure local heavyweight, one Willie Bean.
I was covering the fight for the
Berkeley Gazette. I say "covering," although that is not an accurate description of what I was doing, since boxing was a beat I had created for myself. I had been hired away by the Gazette from a public-relations job—for which I was monumentally unsuited—to cover high school sports in the East Bay. Boxing was definitely not part of that assignment. The Gazette, a parochial college-town paper then, had ignored the sport, presumably in the belief, later confirmed, that it would go away. Boxing also happened to be just one of many sports of which the then sports editor knew nothing and cared less.
As a fight fan, I felt the Gazette had been derelict in eschewing the Richmond matches, and I was determined to compensate personally for that neglect. So I appeared at ringside every week, utilizing credentials that had once been passed on to typographers.
I was there, as usual, to see Moore's Richmond debut. Actually, I had seen him fight eight years before in Oakland, when he had lost in a single round to a local hopeful, Leonard Morrow. This brief encounter raised many eyebrows, since Morrow was young and promising, a potential contender, and Moore, who had already been fighting a dozen years, was in the trial-horse period of his career. Rumors, always unfounded, persisted that the older combatant had been handsomely compensated for excusing himself early from the hostilities.