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The name of the lodge official who ' first thought up the idea is buried somewhere in the files of the Grand Aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. He suggested a prizefight as free entertainment for the delegates to the 1941 convention in Milwaukee, but he really did not know what he was starting. What was intended as an evening's diversion for a few thousand conventioneers drew the greatest fight crowd in history.
The Eagles, big in Milwaukee (they still throw an annual athlete-of-the-year dinner in that city), suggested the idea to the Pabst beer people, who liked it. Tony Zale was a big favorite in the Midwest, and he was the first name to come to mind. Fighting for the local promoter, Billy Mitchell, Zale had knocked out Tony Martin that New Year's Day. Milwaukeeans rode the North Shore line down to Chicago whenever the former steel worker from Gary, Ind. put on one of his windmill performances. Zale was the NBA's middleweight champion, having beaten Al Hostak the previous year. For $2,000, he agreed to fight anyone the Eagles could book.
They scouted around and came up with a journeyman mixer out of Colorado named Billy Pryor. Pryor agreed to 10 rounds worth of Zale for $750 and a couple of round-trip tickets from Barberton, Ohio. Jack Dempsey took the refereeing assignment for $500.
On the night of Aug. 16, a Saturday, the Eagles were ready with their free show in Milwaukee's Juneau Park. The arrangements committee figured 10,000 seats would do it. All it missed by was an estimated 125,000.
From every section of Milwaukee and from every suburb, people converged on the park. Local police officials had never seen anything like it. They were afraid so huge a crowd might get out of hand. It flowed like heavy syrup around the raised ringside area, spread out for a quarter of a mile in the natural amphitheater, oozed up the hill to the drive where the buses arrived and filled every inch of the bluff overlooking the scene.
There were a few underneath bouts, fours and sixers, and then Zale-Pryor. Before it went on, the crowd got an unscheduled belly laugh. A Chicago announcer had been imported for the occasion, supplanting a local man who was aggrieved at being out of pocket and the limelight. The Chicago announcer, introducing celebrities, found the name of the Wisconsin governor, the late Julius Heil, on a slip in his hand. He bent over a ring rope and asked the first man he saw how it was pronounced. The man was the fellow whose job he had usurped.
"Pronounce it "heel' "he was advised. He did, and the roar could be heard halfway up to Green Bay.
The fight was a good one, with the underdog knocking the champ down twice. A Zale on the canvas was not a Zale finished for the evening, as a great many fighters who came after Pryor were to learn. For every time Pryor knocked him down, Zale floored him 4.5 times, an unfortunate ratio. No title was at stake (or anything else except a kindly feeling toward Pabst beer), and the freeloading crowd got more than its nonmoney's worth. In the ninth round, Pryor was knocked down for the ninth and last time.
Fireworks on the lake followed and then the greatest mass movement in Milwaukee's history began. Those who had been stuck with an inferior view were out first; the people close to the ring had to wait almost an hour until they could leave.
There were no incidents, and the police went home to bed and an occasional nightmare about panic sweeping a crowd of 135,000.