For several years Mrs. William Randolph Hearst's Free Milk Fund for Babies had promoted charity boxing shows at the Garden. The arrangement worked to everyone's benefit: Babies got free milk and, in turn, Garden boxing got lots of free publicity from the two New York newspapers owned by Mrs. Hearst's husband. Three Hearst newspapermen—Damon Runyon, the columnist and short-story writer; Edward Frayne, sports editor of the New York American; and Bill Farnsworth, sports editor of the New York Journal—were in charge of promoting the matches to raise money for the Milk Fund.
But in 1933 the Garden raised the rent on the Milk Fund shows. This gave Runyon, Frayne and Farnsworth the idea of undercutting the Garden while making some money for themselves. They decided to form their own secret corporation to promote Milk Fund boxing. They would continue to support the charity, thus guaranteeing maximum publicity from the Hearst papers, but they would also be profiting from the fights themselves. For help in their tawdry plot, the three made a deal with a ticket scalper and promoter named Mike Jacobs. This was like getting into bed with a rattlesnake.
Jacobs, born in 1880, had grown up in poverty in Lower Manhattan. At a tender age he worked as a "digger"—someone who bought theater tickets for scalpers—and he himself went into the scalping business while in his teens.
By the start of World War I, Jacobs was moderately wealthy, and during the war he made a fortune running refreshment concessions for a number of Army camps. He first got involved in boxing in 1916 when he advanced Tex Rickard money for a heavyweight title fight. In return, Rickard gave Jacobs a block of choice tickets to scalp. They cemented this unholy alliance in 1921 when Jacobs helped Rickard underwrite a $500,000 purse for the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in Jersey City. Other financiers dropped out, but Jacobs stuck by Rickard. The fight grossed $1.7 million, and from then on Jacobs had the inside track to scalp Rickard's choicest tickets. After Rickard died in 1929, Jacobs fully expected to become the promoter at the Garden, but to his great distress the flamboyant Johnston got the job instead.
When Runyon, Frayne and Farnsworth approached him, Jacobs was eager to do battle with Johnston and the Garden. The conspirators formed the Twentieth Century Sporting Club. The stock was all in Jacobs's name. The organization went into the boxing business at the old New York Hippodrome.
What Mike Jacobs needed most to break the Garden's monopoly was a sensational young heavyweight. Black or white didn't matter. In his autobiography Joe Louis remembered, "Mike had no prejudice about a man's color so long as he could make a green buck for him." Jacobs went to Los Angeles in February 1935 to see Louis knock out Ramage in their second meeting. He told Roxborough and Black that Louis was indeed ready to fight in New York. Jacobs went back East to sell the new fighter. His secret partners—Runyon, Frayne and Farnsworth—readily pitched in. The sports pages of the Hearst newspaper empire were soon singing the praises of Joe Louis.
A month later, in Detroit, Louis defeated Natie Brown, a tough, experienced fighter, before a crowd of New York writers imported by Jacobs. After the fight Louis signed on with the Twentieth Century club. Now Jacobs had his heavyweight contender. He also found the perfect opponent for Louis's first fight in New York—the 6'6" Italian behemoth Primo Camera, who had been the heavyweight champion for a year before losing to Max Baer in 1934.
The buildup to the Camera fight, as orchestrated by Jacobs, catapulted Louis into national prominence. He was now barely 21 years old and unlettered, but overnight he had become the most famous black person in America. There was, in fact, very little competition for that distinction. The truly substantial black leaders of the 1930s such as union leader A. Philip Randolph and editor W.E.B. Du Bois were almost unknown to the white public. Blacks rarely appeared in movies or on radio except as stereotypes. Dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson got rich playing the dancing fool. On the radio Amos and Andy and Jack Benny's foil, Rochester, were humorous stereotypes.
Journalistic style of the day revealed how rare it was for whites to write about—or even think about—blacks. If the usual word "Negro" was too prosaic, blacks were referred to as "dusky," "tanned" or "dark." To white sportswriters, the color of Louis's skin was his most salient characteristic. He was "the Detroit Negro," "the dusky challenger," "the colored pugilist." During the 1930s, sportswriters had an inane passion for alliterative nicknames. At one time or another, Louis was called "the dark destroyer," "the sepia slugger," "the mahogany maimer," "the dark dynamiter," "the dusky David from Detroit," "the sable cyclone," "the tawny tiger-cat," "the saffron sphinx," "the dusky downer," "Mike Jacobs's pet pickaninny," "the shufflin' shadow," "the saffron sandman," "the heavy-fisted Harlemite," "the coffee-colored kayo king," "the murder man of those maroon mitts," "the tan-skinned terror," "the chocolate chopper," "the mocha mauler" and "the tan Tarzan of thump."
While Louis went into training for the Camera fight, his managers went about the business of selling their fighter—and his image—to the American public. Jacobs hired armies of press agents, and they, along with Roxborough and Black, spread an idealized image of Joe Louis that would strongly influence public perceptions of the man for the rest of his life. Above all, they wanted to dissociate Louis from the memory of Jack Johnson. They wanted him to appear to be a model of middle-class virtue. Their official explanation of his reticence with white reporters was that he was modest and unassuming. They repeatedly emphasized that Louis did not drink or smoke. At the prompting of one of Jacobs's press agents, Louis's mother sent the boxer a huge Bible, and an ensuing barrage of press releases from Louis's camp spread the fiction that he read the Good Book every night before going to sleep. Another figment of the press agents' imaginations was that Louis was saving his money for the future just as any right-thinking white capitalist did.