A tale of two Harleys

By Pete Ehrmann on March 23, 2015
A tale of two Harleys
A few seem to have more in common with Butterbean than the great Stanley Ketchel.

“We pleaded with him to stop and let us out — alive. He only laughed at us and said, ‘Have no fear…’”

Stanley Ketchel celebrated his 10-round victory over Billy Papke in the 1908 Milwaukee kickoff of their epic middleweight championship series by spending $2,700 of his $7,000 purse on champagne. Nowhere was it reported that Ketchel also triumphantly zipped around town on one of the motorized bicycles William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson started manufacturing in Milwaukee five years earlier.

You’d think that would have been Ketchel’s speed. Frank Mulkern, one of the promoters of Ketchel-Papke I, recalled the time he and Jimmy Clabby ran into “The Michigan Assassin” in New York City. Ketchel had just bought himself a $6,000 automobile and insisted on taking Mulkern and Clabby out for a spin. He drove so fast, Mulkern said, that “we pleaded with him to stop and let us out — alive. He only laughed at us and said, ‘Have no fear.’”

By the time Ketchel was murdered in 1910, Harley Davidson was the hottest thing on wheels — but not the hyphenated motorcycle then competing for market traction with The Indian and The Flying Merkel.

Harley Davidson the roller skating champion of the world.

The human Harley Davidson was “without a doubt one of the greatest athletes that ever lived,” extolled The Milwaukee Journal in a 1915 article reporting that the 44-year-old Davidson “has broke more records and entered more events in the different branches of sport than any other athlete in the world today” — including “running, swimming, track, boxing, baseball, bicycle racing, lacrosse, wrestling, (and) ice and roller skating.”

No boxing record for Harley Davidson exists, but among his exploits cited in a February 14, 1912 Milwaukee Sentinel item was that the native of St. Paul, Minnesota “acted as a training partner for Stanley Ketchel, the pugilist.”

Davidson was most celebrated as a roller skate racer, and in 1909 he defeated 150 skaters in front of 14,000 fans at the Olympic Track in London for the world’s speed skating championship and the diamond medal and $2,000 in gold that went with it. After more than 3,000 victories Harley retired from competition in 1916 but continued showing his stuff in “fancy skating and dance exhibitions.”

As the Harley-Davidson motorcycle brand took off and roller skate racing’s popularity and his own fame waned, Harley Davidson sometimes claimed a connection with the Milwaukee company that didn’t exist. Some sources say he raced motorcycles at one time, but the internal-combustion engine ultimately was Davidson’s downfall personally and well as professionally. He died in 1946 after a long invalidism caused by injuries suffered in an automobile accident.

Harley Davidson endorsing Harley-Davidson seems like a natural, but in 1934 when the motorcycle company wanted to rev up enthusiasm for that year’s model it summoned the ghost of Stanley Ketchel. A full-page advertisement in Popular Mechanics magazine featured an ethereal drawing of Ketchel behind a guy riding a Hog. “Stanley Ketchel had a FIGHTING HEART,” proclaimed the ad. “So has the 1934 Harley-Davidson.”

“Ketchel — ‘The Assassin’ — had the punch, speed, and FIGHTING HEART that world’s champions are made of,” the ad continued. “So has the 1934 Harley-Davidson. Its new TNT motor delivers 36 horsepower at 46000 R.P.M. Think about what that means in punch and speed! Pit it against tough hills and hub-deep mud. You’ll find it a true FIGHTING HEART, like Ketchel’s — and the tougher they came the better he liked it!”

Nowadays it’s Harley riders who claim special kinship with the hell-for-leather, don’t-fence-me-in Ketchel ethos, although most probably never heard of him and quite a few seem to have more in common with Butterbean than the great Assassin.

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  1. Eric 08:43pm, 03/23/2015

    NIce article. Never heard of the human version of Harley Davidson, he looks to be even more versatile than the famed Jim Thorpe. Back in the day, kids played multiple sports depending on the season. Fall and winter meant football, late winter/early spring meant basketball, late spring/summmer meant basketball. In between there was wrestling, maybe tennis or track and field. People became well rounded athletes. You don’t see that in these days of specialization. Makes me think of Paul Berlenbech who became a world champion in boxing but he was a nationally ranked AAU wrestler as well. The Jim Thorpes, the Bo Jacksons, the Jim Browns, the Dave Winfields, etc., seem to be a thing of the past.

  2. NYIrish 07:29pm, 03/23/2015

    Sweet !

  3. Bob 07:09pm, 03/23/2015

    Pete, you’re on a roll. Keep em coming.  What an entertaining history lesson here.

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