SI Vault
Gerald Holland
August 16, 1954
For world-wide interest, for widespread participation, for shattered records, for thrilling triumphs of the human spirit, this is the greatest sports era in history
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August 16, 1954

The Golden Age Is Now

For world-wide interest, for widespread participation, for shattered records, for thrilling triumphs of the human spirit, this is the greatest sports era in history

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Willie Mays, by himself, is almost enough to make it that. At 23, Willie is already being talked of as one of the all-time greats. It is not only Willie's performance in the field and at the bat; it is Willie's Way. For Willie is, above all, happy to be playing baseball and he makes everyone who sees him feel happy, too. And it is important to remember that in no other age of sport could Willie play on a big-league ball team. Indeed, less than twenty years ago, a Willie Mays could not have purchased a ticket to sit in the grandstand in many major-league parks. No Negro could.

If sports were late in breaking down the color barrier, still they were years ahead of the United States Supreme Court. And, even before, sports offered the youth of America their best opportunities for overcoming class distinctions. For striking examples, turn back the clock to 1910. In Boston, Mass. there is a caddy who works part time in a downtown dry goods store. In Baltimore, there is a boy in a school for wayward, delinquent children. In Lakeview, Colo. there is a wild boy of the streets, associate of hoodlums, in grave danger himself of being dragged down into the underworld. The three boys in 1910: Francis Ouimet, 17, who won the National Open three years later and started golf's big boom; George Herman Ruth, 15, who came out of the Baltimore school to become baseball's greatest hero; William Harrison Dempsey, 15, the boy of the Colorado streets, destined to become boxing's greatest champion.

In order to appreciate the effect the three boys of 1910 had on their games, it is necessary to go back a little and set the stage for their entrances.


The oldest game is Jack's game, for long before men began hitting things with sticks, they were hitting each other.

The history of boxing is primarily the story of the big boys, and the first to make a reputation for himself was Theagenes of Thasos. He took on all comers in Greece during the Fifth Century, B.C., and for durability no one has matched him since. He ran up a string of 1,425 victories, all to the death, and?wearing leather thongs fitted with metal spikes on his fists?sometimes disposed of 10 opponents in a single day.

Next big boy of note was James Figg, who appeared on the boxing scene in England in the 18th Century with muscles of iron and a head that was bald as an egg but filled with ideas for the improvement of the game. He popularized bare-fist fighting and spurned the use of wrestling holds.

It was the Boston Strong Boy, John L. Sullivan, who was destined to popularize the Marquis of Queensberry rules and make the transition from bare-knuckle to gloved fighting. John was not afraid to face the bare fists of any man alive but he saw, with others, that the gloves might help to bring the fight game out of the back rooms of saloons and place it beyond the concern of police raiding parties.

John, alas, was also conducting a running battle with the Creature, as whiskey was known among the Irish in his home town of Boston, and although he probably was the most popular champion of all time he was soft and pitifully outclassed when he faced James J. Corbett in 1892. Gentleman Jim introduced defensive science and artful boxing, and years later the best talents of both Sullivan and Corbett in their prime were fused in the person of Jack Dempsey.

If Francis Ouimet, the golfer, and Babe Ruth, the home-run king, seemed to have poor chances of becoming national heroes as they were growing up, Jack Dempsey seemed to have none at all. Born into poverty, he had only a few years of formal schooling, then went to work digging ditches, picking fruit and toiling in the mines of Colorado and Utah. He fought almost constantly, for in his circles a boy had to.

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