An imperfect union

By Pete Ehrmann on October 17, 2014
An imperfect union
“All the boys have plenty of muscle," Mitchell complained, "but not in their foreheads.”

“The (CCAC) promoters are high-hatting the local boxers to death, and we have been forced to organize for our protection…”

For most of the decade known as “The Roaring Twenties” there was no bigger story in Milwaukee sports than the knock-down, drag-out feud between the Cream City Athletic Club, the city’s top promoter of professional boxing, and a consortium of boxers, managers and rival promoters who formed their own labor union and went out on strike against the CCAC.

The protracted war, wrote A.J. Schinner of The Wisconsin News, “almost wrecked the boxing game here.”

When Otto Borchert became president of the CCAC in early 1919, it had been Milwaukee’s premier boxing promotion outfit since the sport was legalized in Wisconsin in 1913 and the Queensbury Athletic Club – it changed its name to Cream City Athletic Club a year later – was granted a license to promote boxing at the Milwaukee Auditorium.

The guiding force behind the CCAC was newspaperman Thomas Stora Andrews. In those days nothing prevented journalists from having a hand in creating the news they reported on, and Andrews – sports editor of The Evening Wisconsin and later The Milwaukee News – openly promoted boxing cards. He was also one of boxing’s first record-keepers, recognized globally in the early 1900s as an authority on the squared-circle.

While other boxing clubs promoted fights elsewhere around town, thanks to its exclusive lease on the downtown Auditorium the CCAC dominated the field and made Milwaukee as renowned a fight town as New York City at a time when boxing and baseball were the deluxe entrees on the sports menu.

The 12,000-seat Auditorium was key to its success. “It is a dream,” wrote C.J. Murray in the Buffalo (NY) Commercial newspaper in 1914, “the last word in construction – luxurious to the extreme, a wonderful paradise for boxing fans.”

When realtor Otto Borchert succeeded retiring Milwaukee Journal sports editor J.A. Ermatinger as president of the CCAC in 1919, he was identified as a “100% (boxing) fan, having attended local fistic attractions for some 20 years.”

Less than a year after Borchert came on board, CCAC secretary and matchmaker Tom Andrews left for a two-year stint in Australia with a troupe of American boxers. He recommended that Borchert hire a temporary matchmaker to run the CCAC in his absence, but instead Otto took on the job himself. At the end of that year Sam Levy, the Journal’s boxing writer, hailed the “proverbial self-made man” for his “colossal success.”

In 1920, Borchert bought the Milwaukee Brewers (then of the minor-league American Association), and a familiar face joined the boxing promotional wars. Frank Mulkern had promoted and managed boxers in Milwaukee in the first decade of the century. Now he was getting back into boxing with the intention of grabbing a piece of local boxing’s crown jewel – the Auditorium.

Over the years the CCAC had used its political clout to keep other boxing clubs out of the Auditorium. But Mulkern had connections, too, and one of them turned out to be Otto Borchert, whose objections to letting Mulkern in were strangely muted. Breaking precedent, the Auditorium’s board of directors granted Mulkern’s National Athletic Club access to the building in 1922.

Tom Andrews was not happy to come home and find Mulkern with his foot in the door of his formerly exclusive bailiwick. Suspecting collusion between Borchert and Mulkern, Andrews sold his controlling shares of the CCAC to Borchert for $3,500, and in mid-‘22 Andrews opened up shop at the Castle Ice Garden on the western edge of town.

Over the next year boxing flourished in Milwaukee as the rival clubs presented popular cards featuring such local talent as Richie and Pinkey Mitchell, Joey Sangor, Joe Jawson and Johnny Mendelsohn. 1923 was the third most lucrative year for boxing in Wisconsin since 1914.

Andrews’ suspicion that Mulkern and Borchert were in bed together was confirmed when Mulkern suddenly dissolved the National Athletic Club and became matchmaker for Otto’s club, making the CCAC once more the Auditorium’s exclusive boxing tenant.

No doubt thanks to the glut of boxing cards, in 1924 attendance fell off dramatically. Reasoning that fans had grown tired of seeing the same old faces –and complaining that local pugs wanted too much money anyway – the CCAC began importing out-of-town boxers for its cards.

In June, Tom Andrews shuttered the Castle Ice Garden and said he wanted to promote again at his old downtown stomping ground.

“I can give Milwaukee the best cards in the country if I have the facilities,” he declared. “I was the first promoter to hold bouts in the Auditorium, and nothing should prevent me from having a second lease on the building.”

The Sentinel’s George Downer agreed, writing on November 12: “Every day emphasizes the need of another club to promote boxing in Milwaukee. The existing Auditorium club has taken a high hand with boxers who have asked more for their services than the promoters in their wisdom (?) have deemed fair. There are today several boxers in Milwaukee who are practically banned from employment here because they have, by asking for what they deemed a fair payment for their services, offended the big club bosses” (Borchert and Mulkern).

“…Cutting out the local lads, in the manner in which it has been done here, is distinctly unfair, but so long as one club holds a monopoly of the local promotion field, there is nothing to be done about it.”

Less than a week later, the Sentinel reported that “Managers of practically all the professional boxers in Milwaukee met last night at the Republican Hotel to form an organization for the protection of their interests and for the advancement of boxing in Milwaukee.”

Passed at the November 18 inaugural meeting of the American Boxing League was a resolution charging that Otto Borchert “has openly boasted that he can make or break any local boxer that he desires”; that boxers “have been deprived of their purses” by the CCAC; and that Borchert and Mulkern had “entered into contracts with contestants and modified them at will to satisfy their selfish demands.”

Heading the new union, which soon filed for affiliation with the American Federation of Labor, was Billy Mitchell, manager of his boxing brothers, Richie and Pinkey. “The Fighting Mitchells” had butted heads with Otto since 1919, when Borchert decided that Richie – Milwaukee’s most popular fighter and a top lightweight contender – was no longer welcome to fight at the Auditorium unless he agreed to take a cut in his percentage of the gate receipts from 33 1/3 to 25.

“Monopoly always leads to abuse,” Billy Mitchell told the press after the first meeting of his union. “The (CCAC) promoters are high-hatting the local boxers to death and we have been forced to organize for our protection.”

Two weeks later, members of the American Boxing League voted unanimously to go on strike against the Cream City Athletic Club.

Borchert took the high road, at least publicly. “We wish it understood that no matter what’s said or published in contravention, the arena of the Cream City Athletic Club is open to any local boxer,” he said. “We are always willing to talk terms and it is our endeavor to reach an amicable agreement with any of the local boxing fraternity.”

On December 18, Tom Andrews formally applied for a license to promote fights at the Auditorium. The boxers’ union heartily endorsed his application. The Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce recommended its approval, as did Mayor Daniel Hoan.

But Andrews’ bid was rejected. Auditorium Manager Joseph Grieb said the policy regarding boxing clubs was no different from the one that allowed just “one radio show, one auto show, and one home builders’ exposition in the building each year.”

Within days, Billy Mitchell appealed directly to Gov. J.J. Blaine, and that’s when the three-man Wisconsin Athletic Commission, which oversaw boxing since its legalization, intervened in what Journal sports editor Manning Vaughan called “nothing but a mud-slinging contest.”

A formal hearing was scheduled at the commission’s Milwaukee office on March 10 and 11. Two days before, Otto returned to town from the Brewers’ spring training camp in Sanford, Florida. Though he complained that the hearing had been purposely timed to inconvenience him, Borchert said, “I would have come from China had the boxing commission ordered it. If there is anything wrong with our way of doing business and if it is not legal, we want to hear of it and we want it rectified.”

The hearing was run just like a trial, with Borchert and Mulkern as defendants. Heading up their legal defense team were high-powered attorneys Henry Killilea, J.V. Quarles and Raymond Cannon. They called the charges against the CCAC “trivialities and nothings.”

On the witness stand, Otto flatly denied ever saying that the boxers would accede to his terms or he would “starve them out.”

He was loud and clear about one thing: “I shall protect the interests of my club. No one else will get a lease in the Auditorium while I have a club in it, and while those who sold their interests to me are trying to get back in the building.”

On behalf of the American Boxing League, Atty. Frank Fawcett urged the commissioners, “Let it not be said that after you have rendered your decision that the prophecy that ‘Otto Borchert can do anything with the commission’ be held true.”

Commission chairman A.J. Schinner – also sports editor of The Wisconsin News – personally favored opening the Auditorium to a second club, but wrote, “The whole affair is as sordid on one side as on the other, with none of the principals so vitally interested in the dear, patient public that it would not harpoon the hoi-polloi to gain what it wants.”

“What a splendid humanitarian organization the boxers’ league would be,” he added, “if it had any viewpoint in mind other than to increase the percentage of its membership through the medium of a second club at the Auditorium!”

The commission’s decision on April 14 exonerating the CCAC was a Grand Slam for Otto. Frank Fawcett called it a “triumph for trickery” and said, “The commission has a double standard – one for the promoter with wealth, one for the boxer without.”

Down but not out, the boxers’ union lobbied in Madison for a bill that would allow outdoor boxing in Wisconsin. On June 24, Gov. Blaine signed one into law, and with Frank Fawcett in charge the Badger State Athletic Association was formed to promote boxing at State Fair Park in West Allis, a western suburb.

A week before the first card there on August 14, Tom Andrews left Milwaukee for Los Angeles to become matchmaker for the new Olympic Auditorium.

“My opponents in the promotion field here think that I have thrown the towel into the ring – that I intend to give up my fight for another lease in the Auditorium,” he said before departing. “But they’re wrong. They’ll wake up some morning before next New Year’s afternoon and discover another boxing club in the downtown arena.”

The two cards promoted at State Fair in August and September were financial busts, and the site was written off as a poor fight venue. But the eight Auditorium cards promoted by the CCAC since January 1 hadn’t done very well, either.

When Frank Mulkern put out the word that the CCAC would use any local boxer who wanted to work, several members of the American Boxing League defected from the union to fight on Auditorium cards, including Joey Sangor.

On March 31, 1926, Tom Andrews returned to Milwaukee and announced his intention to “obtain a lease on the Auditorium, with intention of running a fight club.”

Otto Borchert had a better idea. He granted the Badger State Athletic Association a lease to promote fights at Athletic Field, home of the Brewers, that summer, and didn’t even object when Tom Andrews was made matchmaker.

But the three cards held at the ballpark were not moneymakers, and in November Andrews bought an existing boxing franchise at the Empress Theater in downtown Milwaukee. He made it clear, though, that he would keep pressing for a lease at the Auditorium.

“I’ll fight them to the end,” he said, “and if there is any word like ‘justice’ left in the dictionary, I’ll beat them.”

On it went until April 27, 1927, when Otto Borchert dropped dead while giving a speech at the local Elks club.

On August 24, Andrews bought controlling interest in the CCAC from Ruby Borchert, Otto’s widow, and moved back into the Auditorium.

“Followers of boxing in Milwaukee are hoping that the new arrangement in the Auditorium club means the end of the promoters’ feud that has held back the sport for nearly a decade,” wrote Jim Delaney in The Wisconsin News.

Not for long. In 1929, Billy Mitchell started promoting fights in the ballroom of a local hotel. After a few months he applied for a lease at the Auditorium. But, egged on by Tom Andrews, the Auditorium directors turned Mitchell down. “Within the desired portals again, Andrews was as interested in protecting his rights as Borchert ever was,” said the News.

The American Boxing League wasn’t around to protest the injustice of it, having faded away after Andrews retook the CCAC. Rallying the boxing proletariat wasn’t Billy Mitchell’s forte anyway, as he had demonstrated when, anent the difficulty of getting members of his union to write for its monthly publication, “The Tinear,” Mitchell complained, “All the boys have plenty of muscle, but not in their foreheads.”

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  1. Dave Van Deusen 08:08pm, 10/17/2014

    Great Article Pete. Nice job uncovering a visceral part of the broader backstory of American Boxing.  While the American Boxing League seemed limited in its scope, I finding it fascinating that they applied for membership in the AFL. It was an idea before its time.

    Today, Boxers, more than any other professional athletes, need their own Labor Union; one interested in their health and retirement.  Most boxers get paid a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a fight, have no heath insurance, and no retirement.  What percent becomes a Mayweather? Its a percent so small there is not enough zeros to even call it a number.  And of the tiny amount that eventually earn a belt and make some money (less than 1%?), how many end up less like Ray Leonard, and more like Iran Barkley.  And modern monopolies?  How about Showtime, HBO, Golden Boy, Haymon, and Arum?

    Anyway, great article. 

  2. Pete Ehrmann 01:13pm, 10/17/2014

    I erred in saying Tom Andrews worked for the Wisconsin News. After his stint as sports editor of The Evening Wisconsin, Andrews went to the Milwaukee Leader, the socialist daily newspaper founded and edited by Victor Berger.

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