Baby Jack’s Wild Ride

By Pete Ehrmann on May 6, 2015
Baby Jack’s Wild Ride
“Don’t let any of those wise guys tell you different, either. My guys play no favorites.”

His “shot put punch,” it was written, was considered “the most devastating thing since gun powder was invented…”

The trick to heaving a shot put, said Jack Torrance, who held the world record in that endeavor for 14 years, was to “sort of pop the old wrist on the final lunge.”

He threw a punch the same way, and in the ring it felled his first four opponents in a total of five rounds — though the trick to that turned out to be Mushky Jackson.

At 6-feet-5-inches and 260-pounds, handsome “Baby Jack” looked like Lil’ Abner, the cartoon character introduced by Al Capp in 1934. At Louisiana State University, Torrance was an all-conference lineman in football and captain of the basketball team. But his métier was tossing a 16-pound iron ball farther than anybody else.

“It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Jack Torrance had the same effect on the shot put that Babe Ruth had on the home run a few years earlier,” says Baby Jack’s page on the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame website.

He won three AAU and two NCAA championships, and his 1934 toss of 57 feet, 1 inch wasn’t surpassed until 1948.

Thanks to an injury suffered right before the 1936 Olympic Games, Torrance finished off the podium in Berlin. Then, at 24, he sat down to mull over career possibilities. Torrance told sportswriter John Lardner they included politics, professional wrestling, and boxing.

His choice raised eyebrows. Baby Jack had no prior experience in the ring, and one news dispatch worried that his “usually placid and good-natured” disposition would be a hindrance in the ring. When Torrance came out of his corner smiling shyly at Owen Flynn in his first fight on December 7, 1936, the crowd of 4,000 in New Orleans held its collective breath. But that 11-inch wrist popped at the end of the first right hand the big man let loose, and Flynn dropped like a slaughterhouse steer.

The same thing happened in quick succession to Johnny Saxon and Terry Miller, and by the time Billy Owens toppled over in two rounds on February 1, 1937, Baby Jack was more popular in N’awlins than gumbo and his “shot put punch,” it was written, was considered “the most devastating thing since gun powder was invented.”

Somebody called Jack Willis was supposed to be next on February 10, but he disappeared just before the fight. Arrested in Baton Rouge a few days later, Willis, whose real name was Earl W. Phillips, said it wasn’t fear but an attack of conscience that caused him to vamoose. He could not bring himself to do what Torrance’s previous opponents all had done — take a dive. Those were his instructions from New York City, Phillips said, and he had them in writing on the stationary of the Hippodrome arena to back him up.

The Hippodrome was then the headquarters of the Twentieth Century Sporting Club run by famous promoter Mike Jacobs, whose right hand man, Mushky Jackson, supplied all of Jack Torrance’s opponents.

Torrance’s manager, Herb Brodie, was also arrested on orders of the Louisiana boxing commission, and it was reported that at an emergency hearing chairman Irwin Poche “tried to draw from witnesses that Brodie was merely a ‘stooge’ for a New York boxing syndicate that put Torrance under a 10-year contract at a guarantee of $2,500 a year.”

New Orleans promoter Abe Katz testified that Brodie was associated with Jacobs and Gotham sports editor Ed Frayne, but suggested “there was somebody higher up than Jacobs behind the throne.”

Brodie denied everything except that he had recently borrowed a grand from Jacobs, and that Frayne had “stood good” for the loan.

“I don’t know anything about this affair than what I read in the papers,” said Mike Jacobs in New York. “Somebody’s using my name illegally.”

As for Baby Jack, described as “shy and dazed” on the witness stand, the commission ultimately decided he was “the innocent victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances” while fining Phillips, Brodie and Mushky Jackson $300 apiece.

“I suppose this washes me up with the fight game,” said the glum Torrance.

He wished.

While Gotham sportswriters largely dismissed the scandal as nothing new in boxing (“Variations of ‘tank act’ or ‘build up’ have been practiced in all classes of pugilism since John L. Sullivan offered to lick any man in the house”), noses elsewhere were more sensitive.

Ronald McIntyre of the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote that the Torrance revelations “indicate that boxing now is pretty well controlled by a New York ring and that few promoters and matchmakers outside of New York, Chicago and a few other spots, have much to say about matches involving an outstanding fighter controlled by the ring… It is, to say the least, a very serious situation that, in time, may kill the game in all sections of the land.”

To squelch such notions the New York boxing commission launched its own investigation into the tempest in the Pelican State. The chief witness was the man who, it was said, “murders the King’s English as no one ever has murdered it before.”

Mushky Jackson’s ringing protestations of innocence, replete with hilarious malapropisms, so bedazzled (or benumbed) the boxing solons that they ignored the Hippodrome stationary with Earl Phillips’ diving orders written thereon and declared the whole thing one big misunderstanding.

That night Jackson and Madison Square Garden matchmaker Jimmy Johnston got into a brief dust-up at the Hippodrome after Johnston upbraided Mushky for his clumsy job of fight fixing.

“I’m an American citizen and no guy can talk to me like that,” said Mushky. “Besides, the New York commission exhilarated me at its meeting today.” He probably meant “exonerated,” but maybe not.

That wasn’t all the commission did. It also cleared the way for Jack Torrance to make his New York boxing debut at — where else? — the Hippodrome. Talk about exhilarating.

Unfortunately for Baby Jack, the guy in the other corner there on April 28 was no set-up. Future heavyweight contender and world title challenger Abe Simon knocked the clueless ex-track star down several times before finishing him off in the second round.

“The fight game must be sorely pressed for talent to have to recruit such men as Torrance for its attractions,” wrote columnist Henry McLemore, calling the Louisianan “awkward and utterly lacking in the killer instinct” and advising him to “return to the delta and the quiet life” while he could still remember his own name.

“I couldn’t do a thing,” moaned Jack in his dressing room. “Couldn’t throw a punch. I think I’m better than that. I’ll keep on fighting. I ain’t goin’ to quit now.”

After three quick KOs over opponents for whom the term “nondescript” would be giving them the best of it, Torrance was knocked out by Murray Kanner and went home. He worked as a cop, and in ’39 went back to the gridiron for two seasons with the Chicago Bears. He died in 1969.

Mushky Jackson came clean, sort of, in a 1939 article in Collier’s magazine titled “My Fighters Lose.”

In the piece translated into English by Jimmy Cannon, Mushky said:

“I’ll tell you why you can make a dollar with a fighter who has a weak chin. Guys are always falling in love with heavyweights. They get a heavyweight and they think he’s something. If you throw a young heavyweight in with a guy with a strong chin, the young heavyweight is liable to get discouraged when he hits him and he doesn’t go. So what does he do? You get in touch with me because you know I got a heavyweight with a weak chin…

“A lot of jealous guys went around and said my fighters had weak chins by appointment. They said that they had strong chins if they wanted to, but against certain fighters they got weak. They insisted something was whacky.

“That’s a lie. There is something wrong with every heavyweight in the country. Some got bunions or backaches or falling arches or lumbago. The only thing wrong with my fighters is they have weak chins. Don’t let any of those wise guys tell you different, either. My guys play no favorites. They have weak chins for everybody.”

Mushky didn’t mention Jack Torrance or Mark Phillips then, but when he ran Joe Louis’s training camp for Mike Jacobs six months earlier and a reporter brought up the Louisiana mess, Mushky summed up his feelings on the subject in a single sentence:

“Divers ain’t got no class anymore.”

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  1. Kid Blast 06:20pm, 05/07/2015

    OK, I agree

  2. Eric 12:14pm, 05/07/2015

    KB…I was talking about the period from ‘78-‘85. By 1978, Ali was shot and other name fighters like Norton, Lyle, Young, etc., had slipped quite a bit. For a good part of that year, you had Leon Spinks, all of 200lbs, as the linear champion. Can you picture even a 39 old Wlad losing to Leon? Look at some of the “contenders” from that era, fighters like, Alfredo Evangelista, Ossie Ocasio, Tex Cobb, Lorenzo Zanon, Lucien Rodriguez, Renaldo Snipes, Scott Frank, Marvis Frazier, David Bey, Leroy Jones, etc. Both Klits would have dominated in this era.

  3. Kid Blast 10:39am, 05/07/2015

    Eric, Heavyweights in the 70’s were fantastic and very deep. They eroded in the 80’s but there is a reason the 70’s are called the Golden Age of the Heavyweights. Todays Heavy’s are beginning to make a real statement out there and I too believe they could compete with any era. They are monsters. It started with Lewis and Bowe and has only gotten bigger.

  4. Eric 08:44am, 05/07/2015

    Heavyweight boxing was in such disarray in the late 70’s and early 80’s, that you had football players (Alzado, Jones) entering the ring or thinking about changing careers. There were even rumors of an Alzado vs. Leon Spinks fight after Alzado boxed an exhibition with Ali.  I would stack up the heavyweights of today against the motley crew of contenders from the late 70’s to mid 80’s any day of the week.

  5. Mike Silver 07:17am, 05/07/2015

    Funny, funny! Mushky Jackson’s line “The only thing wrong with my fighters is they have weak chins. Don’t let any of those wise guys tell you different, either. My guys play no favorites. They have weak chins for everybody.” is classic. That “logic” also explains the ridiculously high knockout percentages of today’s arm punchers. Boxing, in its way, is proportionately more corrupt than ever. Too bad the 6’5” 260 pound Jack Torrence is not fighting today. He’d be a “legitimate” heavyweight contender for sure.

  6. Kid Blast 07:08am, 05/07/2015

    I’m heading for the hills. Wait, I’m already in the hills.

    As for shot-putting, this lad used the old approach but once they discovered the spin, all bets were off.

  7. Clarence George 06:45am, 05/07/2015

    Consider yourself lucky that my knee is singing (an old gridiron injury, don’t you know).  Otherwise, I’d be in New Hampshire this minute, well-oiled Louisville Slugger in hand.  And I’ll thank you not to engage in any Freudian commentary.

  8. Kid Blast 06:35am, 05/07/2015

    Grew up vs, Born. Grew up wins. Otherwise, Obama comes into play. Please apologize

  9. Clarence George 06:30am, 05/07/2015

    Born in Belzoni, Mississippi, KB.  I await both an apology and a check.

  10. Kid Blast 06:18am, 05/07/2015

    cg, Ernie grew up in Chicago. Went to grad school, HS and did GG’ there. He even died there. You must be full of self-loathing to have missed this one.

  11. Eric 05:38am, 05/07/2015

    I remember hearing rumors back in the day that shot put legend, Brian Oldfield, was going to take a stab at boxing. Oldfield was 6’5” 280lbs of muscle, had great speed despite his bulk. I’m guessing Oldfield would have found out just like others before him, that strength, size, athletic ability doesn’t always guarantee success in the ring.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:05am, 05/07/2015

    Mushky was a specialist….an entrepreneur during the depths of the Great Depression. He saw a need for “weak chins” and he filled it….he was delivering a product that enabled his clients to win.

  13. Clarence George 03:06am, 05/07/2015

    About as obscure as it gets, though I’d actually come across his name while researching Arthur Huttick.

    I can think of a few boxers from Mississippi, including Henry Armstrong, Buster Mathis, Ernie Terrell, and Obed Sullivan, but almost none from Louisiana.  Henry Hank, Clifford Etienne, and…that’s it.  Oh, and Harry Wills and Quantis Graves.  That’s four each, so no one need write in to complain that I was playing favorites.

  14. Bob 02:14am, 05/07/2015

    Another wonderful tale that I knew nothing about prior to now.  While the business of boxing was sordid as ever back then, the writing sure was great, with lines such as the following: “the most devastating thing since gun powder was invented.” Nice piece, as usual.

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