Dempsey and Ruth – Kings of the Roaring Twenties

By Daniel Attias on April 7, 2014
Dempsey and Ruth – Kings of the Roaring Twenties
“The public is what keeps you going. Look at me, I never felt better. You gotta go to bat.”

The Roaring Twenties were a time of great prosperity in America and they played host to two of the biggest sporting stars the world had ever seen…

February 1929, Palm Beach, Florida; Jack Dempsey, the former king of the heavyweights, the “Manassa Mauler,” is showing his true class in the ring. He avoids the blows being thrown by his opponent and easily takes the first round.

Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat,” comes out for the second round, baseball bat in hand and swings for the fences as he charges at Dempsey. The former champion is out of the ring as quickly the time the Argentinean, Luis Angel Firpo, sent him flying through the ropes, except this time Jack leaves of his own accord to the cheers of a crowd who paid up to $5000 for a box to see the two legendary sports figures entertain. It seems the Babe had Dempsey covered, thanks to his once rumored colossal 54-ounce hickory bat which no doubt packed a bigger wallop than any of Dempsey’s previous opponents.

The Roaring Twenties were a time of great prosperity in America and they played host to two of the biggest sporting stars the world had ever seen. The golden age of sports shone bright due to the brilliance of Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. It was also a time of immense change. America’s wealth would double between the years of 1920 and 1929 and the nation’s people were introduced to a “mass-culture” of consumerism.  This “mass-culture” would just happen to coincide with the Jazz Age, the automobile and a kind of lavish lifestyle and carefree attitude that was unheard of before the ‘20s.

With such a cultural change, the sporting landscape would be forever changed. Dempsey would go onto to break many records for earnings in the prize ring much like Ruth, who would become baseball’s highest paid player.

Jack Dempsey won the world’s heavyweight championship in 1919 when he savagely mauled the gigantic Jess Willard in one the most one-sided title bouts the sport has known. He would go on to become, arguably, the biggest sports star in the world during his reign from 1919-26 with only Babe Ruth to contend with for that honor.

Ruth began his amazing career in 1914 and by the time he retired he was considered the greatest baseball player of all-time and a pioneer of the long ball. It’s fair to say he was responsible for baseball’s great rise as America’s pastime.

Such was the relationship between these two behemoths of their chosen professions that it was Ruth who was a major player in getting Dempsey back into the ring for his rematch with Gene Tunney in 1927.

The Park City Daily News ran an article on September 28, 1983 that gave insight into the way in which the great “Bambino” encouraged Dempsey to climb back into the prize ring for one last shot at the greatest prize in boxing; the heavyweight title.

“Hey, Babe, you big tub of lard”, said Dempsey, “how are you doing?”

“I miss you champ”, said the Babe. “Pals of mine are asking why you’re holin’ up and what you’re doin’ and here you are walkin’ sideways and bumping into yourself. You owe it to them to give yourself one more chance.” “I don’t know whether I’ve got what it takes,” replied Dempsey.

“One way to find out,” said Ruth. “Does the title mean anything to you?”

“It means everything,” said Dempsey.

“Then get it back,” urged Ruth. “The public is what keeps you going. Look at me, I never felt better. You gotta go to bat.”

Ruth would go on to hit a record 60 home runs in 1927, a record that stood for 34 years, whilst Dempsey would win a tune-up fight over Jack Sharkey before losing his rematch with Gene Tunney in the infamous “long count” fight.

1927 was a great year for Ruth and conversely a year of disappointment for Dempsey. It was a year diametric to 1922 whereby Ruth had arguably the worst season of his big league career while Dempsey was on top of the world following his victorious title defense over French champion Georges Carpentier in 1921.

Ruth would be suspended for the first six weeks of the 1922 season for barnstorming during the 1921 World Series; it would be Dempsey, like Ruth in ’27, who refused to believe his friend was anything but capable of coming back from such a thing.

In an article by the champ himself, in The Pittsburgh Press on August 27, 1922, Dempsey described that his faith in Ruth had never dissolved despite many claiming that he had lost something from his game after the suspension and a slow start.

I never lost confidence in my friend. I knew that Babe had the stuff and that it would only be a matter of time when he would be hitting them out as well as ever. I was talking to Babe the other day and asked him what he thought of the rumors that he wouldn’t be the champion swatter this year.

“Jack”, he said, “that kind of talk looks silly to me. They cannot down me this year. I probably won’t make as many home runs as I did last year, but when the curtain rings down on the 1922 baseball season you will find me at the top, just as I have been the last few seasons.”

The ebbs and flows of both men’s careers were always going to cross paths at some point but the way in which each man was prepared to “go to bat” for each other was indicative of a friendship forged in greatness.

Jack Dempsey will always be remembered amongst boxing fans as the hard hitting, relentless fighter who came from nothing to become one of the richest and most popular champions the prize ring has seen. His record stands at 54-6-9 and he held the world’s heavyweight title for seven years.

Babe Ruth finished his career as baseball’s all-time home run leader and won an amazing seven World Series titles while averaging an amazing .342.

Some 90 odd years after these two greats amazed the world it’s Ruth whose name lives on more than that of his close friend Dempsey. Ruth is a household name today, even in countries where baseball is a relatively unknown. Dempsey, in contrast, has suffered the same fate of many of boxing’s greats from yesteryear; he has been forgotten in the mainstream. This can be attributed to the decline in the popularity of the sweet science, whereas baseball grows exponentially as each year passes. It’s amazing to think that Ruth earned around $50,000 a year in the 1920s while Dempsey’s earnings were roughly three times that for each title defense. 

Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, two giants of their sports, two towering figures in a time of pure decadence, oh what a sight it must have been to witness these men forge their amazing sporting legacies.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard (1919)

Jack Dempsey vs Luis Angel Firpo (Sept 1923)

Gene Tunney -vs- Jack Dempsey I 1926 World Heavyweight Championship (Restored Full Fight))

Jack Dempsey vs Jack Sharkey 1927-07-21

Gene Tunney -vs- Jack Dempsey II (Rare 16mm Long Count Film)


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  1. bikermike 08:03pm, 04/14/2014

    eric….too true about the Mantle life style…..I read Jim Boutin’s BALL FOUR…where one of the stories goes that ...on a road game….Mantle came in late ...with some help from these two nice ladies…..and went up to his room…in the early hours of the morning of game day….
    During the game ..Mantle fans his first two at bats..and then connects ..out of the park…and he gets out of the dugout to take his hat off to a crowd wildy cheering his blast….....” you know….those guys don’t know just how hard that really was…’...mutters Mantle…with a smile frozen on his face….looking up at the crowd

  2. bikermike 07:57pm, 04/14/2014

    Clarence George has made a very important point.
    Many fans are not aware of anyting that they haven’t seen on the screen….LATELY.
    IT is true that the decline of popularity ..and watering down WORLD CHAMPION by dividing this so called Title into what ...three…four parts.. All this have had an effect on number of competive match ups….
    Armstrong held THREE TITLES ..AT THE SAME TIME FFS half weights…legitmately beat the Title Holders of the time…just to mention ONE of the greatest of all time…casually !...all of these guys had well over sixty fights…many had well over a hundred pro fights

  3. George Thomas Clark 12:33pm, 04/09/2014

    Yes, Eric, the Babe wouldn’t have been a great grappler.  My joke was simply an illusion to his girth…

  4. Eric 09:00am, 04/09/2014

    George Thomas Clark, The Babe was top heavy and had bird legs, not a good base for rasslin’, The Manassa Mauler would’ve destroyed the Bambino even in a wrestling match.  Grappling takes even more cardio and muscular endurance than boxing, and the Babe probably didn’t have much endurance or conditioning. Judging by how baseball players and boxers fared in the old “Superstar” competitions, neither the baseball or boxer “superstars” ever showed much athletic talent outside of their chosen sport.

  5. George Thomas Clark 07:27am, 04/09/2014

    Hefty Babe may have been able to out-wrestle sleek Jack…

  6. Mike Silver 10:27pm, 04/08/2014

    Very enjoyable read Daniel. FYI, the opening photo of The Babe and Dempsey having breakfast took place the day after Jack’s 2nd round demolition of Firpo. Note the discoloration under Jack’s left eye—compliments of the Wild Bull of the Pampas big right fist.

  7. Tex Hassler 07:37pm, 04/08/2014

    The world seldom sees two sports heros of the standing of Dempsey and Babe Ruth. We may never see the likes of those two again. Wonderful article Mr. Attias.

  8. Eric 06:07pm, 04/08/2014

    @George Thomas Clark,  That reminds me of an article back in the “steroid era” featuring Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew was asked how many homers he would hit in a season if he were playing “today.” Killebrew said that he would probably connect with about 30 homers or so, but to remember he was over 60 years old. I think Bonds would have still been a legit 500 homer guy, McGwire maybe 400 or so,  Griffey was legit, and if not for injuries would’ve probably broken Aaron’s record. Jim Thome ended up with over 600 home runs with probably less fanfare than anyone I’ve ever seen. I believe Gehrig, unlike Ruth and Mantle, actually took care of himself and was somewhat of a fitness buff. Amazing what Ruth and Mickey Mantle accomplished while living the lifestyles they did.

  9. George Thomas Clark 02:18pm, 04/08/2014

    Eric - Regarding Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, and Aaron - Imagine what they’d do with modern training and diet.  And on steroids…

  10. George Thomas Clark 02:15pm, 04/08/2014

    It’s amazing how little young people - under age 40 - know about history, any history.  As an adult ESL teacher in California I often ask rooms full of Latino students, many of whom are boxing fans, if they’ve heard the name Roberto Duran.  Fewer than 20 percent know who he is.  Amazing…

  11. Eric 08:33am, 04/08/2014

    It probably helps that Ruth had a candy bar named after him, oops, that was Ruth Cleveland aka “Baby Ruth” and not the Bambino. No matter, most people think instantly of the Sultan of Swat when they see the candy bar and not Grover Cleveland’s daughter. The Bambino legend has been kept alive for decades, first when Maris and Mantle were chasing his single season home run record in ‘61, then again in the 1970’s when Hank Aaron broke his record of 714 career home runs. Even though Ruth no longer held the career or single season record for home runs, his name was constantly being brought up during the McGwire, Sosa, and Barry Bonds record setting years. In the 1920’s baseball and boxing were easily the two most popular sports, no longer is that the case today. Football is the most popular sport in America, and baseball is a very distant second. Boxing has slipped even further, it has almost become a third tier sport in America. I do think athletes get better with time. I think Babe Ruth would’ve had trouble hitting a Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson heater the same as Dempsey would’ve had difficulty with a 220lb Mike Tyson’s speed and power.

  12. Daniel Attias 03:44am, 04/08/2014

    I guess my perspective on the whole ‘household name’ thing is a little skewed. Being from Australia I find that the average person here would definitely know who Babe Ruth is despite baseball being of very little importance in this part of the world. As far as the fighters of old are concerned, there would be very few who could name anyone from eras that are pre-Ali.

    I also think that we, as writers and ardent fans of the sport, often overplay the impact that boxing has on modern society. Sure, its easy to say that it was a huge part of everyday life in years gone by but today it’s not what it used to be. Just an opinion and again it may be more to do with where I live. I don’t claim to know what kind of hold the sport has on mainstream America, though I have an idea.

    Also if Floyd is the greatest of ‘all time’ then I may as well just find another sport to follow. There will always be those who choose to ignore the greatness of those that went before them, quite narrow minded. Best thing you done was to give up on that argument!

  13. Clarence George 03:24am, 04/08/2014

    I thought that at least a handful of boxers from long ago (well before usual suspects Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard) were still pretty much household names today:  John L. Sullivan, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and, yes, Jack Dempsey.  But perhaps I’m wrong.  I recently had a discussion with a guy who told me that Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the greatest fighter of all time.  Fatuous, I told him, given guys like Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep, and Harry Greb.  I doubt he recognized the names, but there was a glimmer that they were from previous eras.  He told me that I was living in the past, and that Mayweather was the greatest fighter of all time now.  Here is wisdom:  Never bother arguing with a guy who doesn’t know—literally doesn’t know—what “of all time” means.

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