I Was Never a Bum
“Sure I rode the rods. Sure I was a hobo. But Kearns has the facts dead wrong. I was a hobo all right. But I was never a bum…”
Jack (Doc) Kearns was one of the most illustrious, and least principled, managers in boxing history. Kearns was born John Leo McKernon in Iron Mountain, Michigan, on August 17, 1882, and he and his parents settled in Seattle in 1886. McKernon quit school at 14 and stowed away on a freighter, the Skookum bound for Skagway, Alaska, to stake a claim in the Klondike Gold Rush. Among the 100,000 “stampeders” who completed the arduous trip to the Yukon and back was an indefatigable teenager named John Leo McKernon.
Having failed to strike it rich in the Yukon, but having learned that gamblers, hustlers, grifters, conmen, and floozies were his natural constituency, McKernon returned to Washington state where he worked as a dognapper and helped smuggle Chinese laborers across the Canadian border into the U.S.
According to Kearns’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Gate, co-authored with co-fabulist Oscar Fraley in 1966, he worked on a whaling ship, in a lumber camp, and as a cattle rustler. He was also a bouncer, barkeep and faro dealer. McKernon went from being a cowpoke and human smuggler to getting his feet wet in boxing in 1900, when he had his first pro fight in Billings, Montana, under the name “Young Kid Kearns.” (When the promoter asked the 18-year-old if he could fight, Kearns said, “Stick out your chin and find out.”)
San Francisco was the Mecca of boxing in those days — Kearns described it as “a rowdy Las Vegas with kerosene lamps, hairier chests and much larger muscles” — so he hightailed it to SF and found a home for himself in the fight game.
Kearns fought as a welterweight and claimed to have had 60 pro bouts, including a loss to Mysterious Billy Smith. (Kearns said Smith “was always doing something mysterious. Like he would step on your foot, and when you looked down he would bite you on the ear”). Kearns was interested in many sports and played semi-pro ball in the Pacific Coast League as a pitcher. But his ultimate calling was as a fight manager. In 1907 William A. Brady, who had managed Gentleman Jim Corbett and Jim Jeffries, suggested Kearns hang up the gloves and try his hand at managing.
One of Kearns’ first fighters was Louis (Kid) Scaler. There’s not much known about Scaler, but the March 12, 1909 Tacoma Daily News reported that he and Kearns had been arrested, at Scaler’s saloon in Spokane, for selling liquor to a 15-year-old named Pearl Ohman.
Kearns first met Jack Dempsey in 1916, when one of his fighters, Joe Bonds, fought the future heavyweight champ. A short time later, Dempsey came to Kearns’ aid in a bar fight. At the time Dempsey was, wrote Kearns, “thin, haggard, and run-down… His face was gaunt and hollow-cheeked, and you could have played his ribs like a xylophone.” But Dempsey, however skinny, could fight (he had a record of 30-3 at the time), so the wily manager fattened him up and added Dempsey to his stable. “I got him going,” said Kearns. “But before I came along, he was a bum.” To which Dempsey replied, “Sure I rode the rods. Sure I was a hobo. But Kearns has the facts dead wrong. I was a hobo all right. But I was never a bum.”
Dempsey had his first fight under Kearns’ aegis on July 25, 1917. Kearns kept Dempsey busy with six more fights in 1917, 21 fights in 1918 and six fights in 1919, leading to Dempsey’s bout against Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, for the heavyweight champion of the world. That was fight for the ages. Dempsey dropped Willard seven times in the first round, broke Willard’s nose, ribs, eye socket, jaw, and eardrum. He also knocked out four of his teeth.
Dempsey returned to the ring in 1920 to fight Billy Miske and Bill Brennan, which set up a bout with Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City. Kearns and Tex Ricard, another world-class rascal, co-promoted Dempsey-Carpentier, which was the first title fight ever broadcast on radio, and the first million dollar gate.
Dempsey fought once in 1922 and twice in 1923, first against Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana – a town the light-fingered Kearns succeeded in bankrupting. (Thirty years later a reporter told Kearns, “I hear you broke three banks with that one.” “That’s a lie,” said Kearns. “A contemptible lie. I didn’t break three banks with the Shelby fight. I broke four.”) Then Dempsey fought Luis Angel Firpo at the Polo Grounds, in which there were 11 knockdowns in two rounds, and from which Dempsey emerged victorious.
Dempsey and Kearns parted company after Dempsey-Firpo. The champ and his paramour, the actress Estelle Taylor, accused Kearns of mishandling Dempsey’s finances. The New York State Boxing Commission decreed that a manager’s cut couldn’t exceed one-third of the fighter’s gross, and Kearns was taking 50% of Dempsey’s purses. Kearns also maintained that he was owed a third of Dempsey’s future earnings. He sued Dempsey three times, for close to a million dollars, however unsuccessfully. Many years later Dempsey told Peter Heller in In This Corner that “Kearns was a very funny guy. He used to drink a lot and throw all the money away. He never had no money. Never had nothing…He would lie to me all the time. He was handling all the money and the result of it is we never had no money.”
Although Kearns’s greatest success was with Dempsey, he also managed and/or promoted over 80 fighters, including Abe Attell, Harry Wills, Mickey Walker, Archie Moore, Joey Maxim, Jackie Fields, Benny Leonard, Battling Nelson, Bob Satterfield, Soldier Barfield, and Dick Hyland.
Seemingly one step ahead of the law for the length of his long and larcenous life, the March 23, 1945, Tacoma News Tribune reported that Kearns had been indicted in New York City on 26 counts of mail fraud. One of his co-defendants was an astrologer, and her name was Princess Zulieka.
In the 1950s, Kearns spent five years as matchmaker of the notorious International Boxing Club. When the Kefauver Committee went after Frankie Carbo, de facto head of the IBC, Kearns was subpoenaed to testify. The 79-year-old Kearns denied he was in the mob, and dug deep into his bag of tricks to regale the senators with stories of Jack London and Wyatt Earp.
Kearns remained active as a fight manager until his death on July 17, 1963, and was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
“In more than sixty years of boxing, I have never been involved in a fixed fight – fixed, that is, where I lost a fight. But I will admit this,” said Kearns, “I’m a winner, not a loser. I’d do anything to win, but I won’t lose. And you can draw your own conclusions.”