Oh, Henry! A tale of two columns

By Pete Ehrmann on March 10, 2016
Oh, Henry! A tale of two columns
“King Levinsky’s legs went first. Then his middle. Then his chin dropped to his chest.”

“I hate to make these confessions about a columnist, but there are times that a columnist just has to dream up things…”

In the 1930s there was, for my money, no better sports columnist than Henry McLemore, whose literate work for United Press International appeared in hundreds of newspapers. At his best, McLemore ranked alongside Westbrook Pegler and John Lardner as a stylish and trenchant observer of the boxing scene, its ribald personalities and rapacious nature.

“Boxing may not be the most underhanded of sports,” McLemore wrote in ’37, “but it’ll run one-two-three with any you can name. Since Jim Figg’s day to this boxing has been a business of hustlers, for hustlers, and by hustlers. Men have gone into it for their health, but they never lasted long or got very far. Boxing’s coat of arms is the interlocked double-cross, rampant on a field of broken promises. It is a business of haggle and wrangle, wiggle in and wiggle out. It has more angles than a pagoda, and is strictly a business of the survival of the unfittest.”

McLemore died in 1968, and today there are no anthologies of his work nor reminders of his contributions to the craft of sports writing other than the “Henry McLemore Motorsports Journalism Award” handed out annually (the last four years of his life he did publicity for the Daytona International Speedway). 

I suspect that McLemore has not been forgotten so much as willfully consigned to oblivion thanks to his ex post facto politically incorrect bugle call a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to send all Japanese natives in America to internment camps.

“Personally, I hate the Japanese,” wrote McLemore, then a general features columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain. “And that goes for all of them. Let’s quit worrying about hurting the enemy’s feelings and start doing it.”

It was the prevailing view of that time, and under liberal icons Franklin Roosevelt and Earl Warren Japanese-Americans were herded into camps for the duration of World War II. Today comparably bare-knuckled sentiments are voiced on the presidential campaign trail every day.

It’s a totally different McLemore column that has me scratching my head. Written in December 1962, it was a first-person recollection of the Joe Louis-King Levinsky fight on August 7, 1935, at Comisky Park in Chicago. McLemore was at ringside, sitting next to Barney Ross.

First, here’s the account by McLemore that appeared in newspapers around the country the day after the fight:

“…The bell rang. Louis, his face a mask, shuffled out, his hands cocked. Levinsky, his skin an unhealthy white under the floodlights, plodded out with the hesitating step of a condemned man walking the last mile.

“I turned to Barney Ross, the welterweight champion, sitting on my left. ‘Levinsky looks Godawful scared to me,’ I said. ‘He’s paralyzed,’ Barney said. ‘It won’t go a round.’

“As he spoke Louis, from in close, threw a left hook. It traveled no more than a foot, and with the speed of light. It landed with a nasty crack, flush on the jaw.

“’Oh my Lord, it’s over,’ Barney said. ‘He’s got him.’

“Levinsky’s mouth flew open. He sagged all over. But he didn’t go down. Somehow he managed to keep his balance and, mechanically, stumbled in towards Louis, hoping for a sheltering clinch. The Negro, expressionless as a Buddha, shoved him off, and circled, looking for an opening.

“You felt as though you were watching a hunter circling a stricken beast. Suddenly Louis saw his target. He shot his right. He hooked a wicked left. He threw another right. Another left. Levinsky, nailed and nailed again, began falling apart. His legs went first. Then his middle. Then his chin dropped to his chest.

“’God, I can’t watch it,’ Ross said. ‘Those punches hurt too much.’

“Levinsky poured out on the floor…”

Prepare now to be as gobsmacked as Levinsky was that night. Thirty-eight years later, this is how the same Henry McLemore remembered the fight in his syndicated column:

“(Referee) Arthur Donovan called Louis and Kingfish to the middle of the ring, had them shake hands, and gave them their instructions. Then, in an unusual gesture, Levinsky went back to his corner and sat down, instead of standing up waiting for the opening bell.

“The bell rang and Louis came out in that catlike shuffle and moved across the ring. Levinsky sat as if he were a graven image outside a Bangkok temple. Louis moved directly in front of him. Still the Kingfish sat motionless.

“Donovan said, ‘Get up and fight.’ No reply, no move from Levinsky. ‘Go ahead and hit him,’ Donovan said to Louis. ‘I ain’t gonna hit that man while he is sitting down,’ Louis said. ‘Make him get up and I’ll pop him.’

“Donovan again told Levinsky to get off his stool and fight — he might just as well have been talking to a marble man. Kingfish, confronted by Louis in the flesh, had frozen. He couldn’t move.

“’Okay, Louis,’ Donovan said, ‘you got to hit him.’

“’No, sir,’ said Louis.

“Donovan then worked out a plan that suited the courteous Louis. ‘Double up a fist and hit him on top of the head,’ Donovan advised. ‘Anything to get him off that stool.’

“Louis agreed. So Joe doubled up his right hand and, using it like a hammer, banged Levinsky smack on top of the head.

“Levinsky rolled off the stool — with relief on his face, it seemed to me — and was counted out.”

Huh?!

McLemore’s second account of the fight is, of course, patently untrue, absurd and totally preposterous. (For one thing, when did Joe Louis ever talk so much?) Maybe the explanation is that by then Henry was, as King Levinsky famously said of himself that night in the ring with Joe Louis, “in a transom.” Or maybe it was like McLemore told Groucho Marx on a 1956 episode of “You Bet Your Life”:

“I hate to make these confessions about a columnist, but there are times that a columnist just has to dream up things.”

There’s not much boxing in McLemore’s pretty good 1953 autobiography, but its title applies to his two Louis-Levinsky columns: “One of Us is Wrong!”

I still like him a lot, but to boxing fans and aspiring Henry McLemore Motorsports Journalism Award winners I recommend his columns from the 1930s, because what Henry wrote after Louis wiped out Max Schmeling in 1938 also applies to even the best writers:

“Schmeling’s defeat was not something one would like to see again. The utter disintegration of an athlete is painful to watch, even when it takes years.”

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Joe Louis vs King Levinsky



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  1. andrew 01:17pm, 03/12/2016

    Sorry Eric, I guess I’m too old to know WTF the Burn is.

  2. Pete 07:13am, 03/12/2016

    I don’t know how they did it, Bob. Thank you.

  3. Bob 03:41am, 03/12/2016

    Great work as usual, Pete. First class read. You would have been a good 1930s columnist churning out three columns as did the trio mentioned in your opening paragraph.

  4. Eric 07:42pm, 03/11/2016

    Oopsie. Sorry about the typos. Late day. “or MILLIONAIRES” = are MILLIONAIRES. Class dismissed.

  5. Eric 07:36pm, 03/11/2016

    andrew… Too bad, simpleton Andrew because I am in better shape at 54 than nearly 98% of the sad pathetic milleninial dweebs like yourself, not too mention I at least know who just a tad more about history than you inculcated morons. Speaking of “Geritol,” hows the “Burn” doin? The commie geezer has been in Washington since 1988 and YOU DWEEBS think he’s actually worth a sh*t? Do you friggin’ MORONS know that COMMUNISM IS ACTUALLY CAPITALISM ON STEROIDS? Do you idiots know that a CAPITALIST named Jacob Schiff bankrolled the Bolshevik takeover in Russia? Of course you don’t.  Do you naive freaks know that communism/socialism produces more poverty while putting money into the pockets of an even smaller percentage than the 1%ers? Do you know that people like your hero, the Burn, or MILLIONAIRES?

  6. Pete 12:40pm, 03/11/2016

    Thank you, Sean. Wish someone with more energy than me would do it.

  7. andrew 09:40pm, 03/10/2016

    Drink up your Geritol and be nice, Eric. The good old days are gone.

  8. Sean Matheny 11:40am, 03/10/2016

    Great article, Pete!  I’d love too read his boxing columns from the 30’s.  Too bad there’s not an anthology of them available.

  9. Eric 09:41am, 03/10/2016

    “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war,” spoken by none other than FDR. Along with Woodrow Wilson, FDR is easily one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. These two bankster controlled POTUS are just as bad if not worse than goobers like Dubya, Carter, or the clown we have now. TRUMP 2016!!!!!

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