The King of Jacobs Beach

By Mike Casey on January 15, 2014
The King of Jacobs Beach
While Rickard was a maverick and gambler, Mike Jacobs was a meticulous man of reason.

When Tex Rickard and Jack Dempsey faded away, along came Mike Jacobs and Joe Louis. Not a bad substitution…

If you were a member of the boxing brotherhood and heading for the beach in the mid-1930s and 1940s, chances are you were going to Jacobs Beach. You might even be seeing the king of the beach himself, Mike Jacobs – known to all as “Uncle Mike.”

There was no sand at Jacobs Beach, nor indeed any definitive boundaries. Much like Area 51 or baseball’s strike zone, the limits of Uncle Mike’s domain were in the eye of the beholder. It was a hub of storybook characters, a field of dreams and deals for the good, the bad and the ugly.

There was always something going on, always something in the air in this magical kingdom of the world’s greatest boxing promoter. When Tex Rickard and Jack Dempsey faded away, along came Mike Jacobs and Joe Louis. Not a bad substitution, and chock full of top quality in the form of a golden supporting cast that would include Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong.

Some years ago, writer David Margolick gave us a nice little definition of Jacobs Beach in his fine article, The Beach of Jowly Men: “Viewed most expansively, Jacobs Beach, a.k.a Bashed Beak Boulevard, a.k.a Cauliflower Canyon, measured just one city block, the stretch of West 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. At its western edge was boxing’s mecca, Madison Square Garden; at the other, at least for a time, was Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. In actuality, the Beach amounted to little more than the sidewalk in front of Jacobs’s ticket office at 225 West 49th Street, spilling across the street to the lobby and offices of the Forrest Hotel.
“The Beach took shape in 1935, when Jacobs, then branching into fight promotion, signed up an electrifying young heavyweight named Joe Louis, who single-handedly revived a sport laid low by the Depression and a sudden shortage of charisma.

“With Louis leading the way, Jacobs soon had a stranglehold on the business: By one estimate, during the next 15 years he staged 471 fights that drew over five million spectators and $25 million in gate receipts.

“Jacobs Beach was the place for deal-making, and before television relegated people to their Barcaloungers, there were plenty of deals to be made; on any given weeknight New York had seven or eight fights, at long-forgotten venues like the Sunnyside Gardens, St. Nicholas Arena and Ridgewood Grove. New York was a boxing town – the boxing town.

“When the young Louis fought Max Baer at Yankee Stadium in September 1935, 95,000 people filled the place, its largest crowd for any sporting event. ‘I’m going to see Heifetz,’ a man tells his friend in a joke from the time. ‘Oh, yeah?’ the friend replies. “Who’s he fighting?”

“Of Jacobs Beach today, there is not a trace. Though some of the buildings are the same, amid the hotels, theaters, cyber cafes and offices, nothing marks what once was. The only blood on the block is at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, where Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is currently slitting throats nightly.

“One of Jacobs’s first acts was signing up Louis, then a young professional in Chicago.“Uncle Mike,” Louis called Jacobs. “The Brown Bomber,” folks called Louis. Until Louis came along, no fight that hadn’t involved Jack Dempsey had ever produced a million-dollar gate. Uncle Mike and the Bomber brought them back.

“Jacobs Beach – a reference, perhaps, to the portable chairs some of its habitués favored, or to the way they held their faces skyward to catch some rays as they hondled – was born. Jimmy Cannon attributed the name to Runyon, and that made sense: whenever the cartoonist Ham Fisher, who drew Joe Palooka, portrayed the Beach, his characters – with their garish striped suits, fat cigars and mangled syntax – seemed straight from Guys and Dolls.

“But more likely, the name came from one of two prime sportswriters of the era, Frank Graham of The New York Sun or Sid Mercer of The New York American.”

Hialeah Park

It happened very suddenly in January, 1953, and Michael Straus Jacobs was no great age at 72 when he died from a heart attack at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. Mike had been spending an enjoyable day at the Hialeah Park races when he began to feel unwell.

“He’d been feeling great right up to about 3 pm,” said his widow Josephine. “It didn’t seem like anything at first. We took him home from the track and then called a doctor.”

Jacobs was rushed to Mount Sinai at 5:40 pm EST and placed in an oxygen tent. He died at 6:15.

There would be other great promoters and other great champions to follow him. Jacobs was always very philosophical about that simple fact. Where on earth would he be, someone asked him in the summer of 1937, if Tommy Farr upset the best laid plans and knocked Joe Louis off the heavyweight throne?

Uncle Mike’s answer was typically forthright and logical: “What difference would that make? A champion is a champion. If it isn’t Louis, it is Farr. If Farr wins, he becomes just as valuable to me as Louis. Of course, it would have to be a good fight.

“Just so long as I am able to continue along present lines and have the challenger as well as the champion signed up, I don’t have to worry about who has the title. The champion is the big asset. That is why, from the day I started promoting, I always had an option on the challenger fo one more fight. That gave me first crack at him if he should become the new champion. Then we went on from there.”

By that time, Uncle Mike had everything down pat, with a wealth of experience behind him. He hadn’t merely rubbed shoulders with his great predecessor, Tex Rickard. Mike had been Tex’s student confidant and often his advisor. Yet there were marked differences between the two men in the way they went about their business. While Rickard was a maverick and gambler, Jacobs was a studious and meticulous man of reason.

Just about the only thing Rickard wasn’t prepared to gamble on was the weather. Tex’s rigid allegiance to The Farmer’s Almanac constantly fascinated Jacobs. “Tex never set a date for a big outdoor event without consulting me. However, if my choice was not supported by the almanac, he would overrule me.

“If, on studying the almanac, he found that a certain date had a record for rain, he could not be persuaded to pick it. The Farmer’s Almanac was Rickard’s bible. So accurate was the almanac as his guide that in all the years of his big promotions, he never ran into a postponement on account of rain. The closest he came to one was with the Jess Willard-Floyd Johnson fight in New York at Yankee Stadium. It rained during the morning, but right after noon it cleared and the fight was put on in bright sunshine.”

Rickard could always make Jacobs smile. One day, Uncle Mike found Tex with his feet up on his desk, puffing on his cigar and consulting the trusty almanac. “Mike,” he said, “I am hunting up the records on June 24 to see if it is rainproof for a Dempsey fight.”

Rickard’s almanac bug infected Jacobs when he succeeded Tex as the world’s biggest and most influential boxing promoter. Superstitious nonsense? Not a bit. After Uncle Mike had set the date for the Louis-Farr match for August 23, unforeseen circumstances forced him to shunt it back to August 26. On August 23, there was unrelenting sunshine. On August 26, it rained. The fight was postponed until August 30.

That Dempsey man

The name of Jack Dempsey always got Jacobs animated. Uncle Mike was fortunate enough to see the Manassa Mauler up close – sometimes dangerously close. “That Dempsey man,” he said in 1950, during a bout of reminiscing. “What wouldn’t he be worth in the current heavyweight picture? Imagine a heavyweight like Jack coming along now!

“When was there a boxing thrill like the one we got the night Luis Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring into Bunk Macbeth’s typewriter at the Polo Grounds in 1923? Will anybody who saw Dempsey and Firpo ever forget a second of that fight?

“I was sitting in the first row behind Jack’s corner. When that big ox from South America crashed that wild right hand to Dempsey’s jaw and lifted him out of the ring, I came near swallowing my cigarette.

“Dempsey was the big thrill merchant. Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Harry Greb and Paul Berlenbach. They always gave the crowd a run for their money and then some. I would have gone to Siberia to see Leonard. Henry Armstrong was another smaller guy who appealed to me.”

Dempsey, Leonard and Greb are well celebrated, but boxing fans of today might be less familiar with New York’s Paul Berlenbach, known as “Oom Paul” and the “Astoria Assassin,” who reigned as light heavyweight champion in the Roaring Twenties. Berlenbach was a tremendous puncher who won the championship from Mike McTigue in 1925 and defended successfully against Jimmy Slattery, Jack Delaney and Young Stribling before being dethroned by Delaney in 1926.

All these men were exceptional talents and all-time greats. Slattery was a good time boy who never took his marvelous talent seriously, but he was a gifted, slippery boxer who dangled his hands by his waist forty years before Muhammad Ali. Stribling, sadly remembered by most casual fans for his defeat to heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, was another masterful boxer whose finest work came among the light heavies.

Berlenbach could never master Jack Delaney, the brilliant Canadian known as “Bright Eyes,” who beat “Oom Paul” three times out of four. The careers of both men have become largely forgotten over the years due to their fleeting time in the light heavyweight division, where there was little money to be made. Both moved up to the heavyweights and neither made a successful transition.

Mike Jacobs certainly saw some great fighters and experienced a lot of thrills. “Oh, it’s hard to list them,” he admitted. “You pick a few, then twenty-four hours later, you say, ‘How did I ever forget that fight between Leonard and Charley White at Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1920?’ White, who could hit like a piledriver, knocked Benny out of the ring. But Charley did not have the mental equipment with which to take advantage of his golden opportunity. Leonard could think. I loved the man.”

The memories flooded back almost too fast for Jacobs to spit them all out: “How about the Long Count scrap between Dempsey and Tunney in Chicago? How about the first fight between Jimmy McLarnin and Billy Petrolle? The first set-to between McLarnin and Canzoneri? The Petrolle-Bat Battalino carnival of gore?

“I never will forget how Louis belted Schmeling almost to death in one round and took me off the hook with those people who had protested against my letting the German fight in New York. The Louis victory over Jimmy Braddock, the Louis knockout of Baer, Dempsey’s quick victory over Willard – these stand out strong in my recollections.

“So does the fight in the old Garden in which Richie Mitchell sat Benny Leonard down on the floor and Benny came back and belted Mitchell out.”

The Louis-Baer fight, at Yankee Stadium in September, 1935, which Uncle Mike promoted, held especially fond memories for him. “I had a contract with Joe when he climbed through the ropes that night. I had staked a fortune on the outcome. I was sure Joe would win. I saw in him the greatest draw since Dempsey. Well, you know what happened. Louis far exceeded my expectations. He belted Max all over the place and stopped him in the fourth round.

“Those who saw Louis that night saw where he was headed – right for the top and a place among the greatest fighters of all time. What with the attendance of 84,831, a gate of $932,944 and a rich take from the movies and radio, that was a colossal success for me.”

Jacobs would never say a derogatory word against Louis and would wince when someone asked him the big question: Who would have won a fight between Louis and Dempsey? “That sort of stuff leads you into a lot of headaches,” he once said. “How high is high? How low is down? I’m not trying to give you the runaround. What wouldn’t the game give for another man like Joe? But Jack Dempsey stands number one on my list, Louis is number two.”

British masters

Like every successful entrepreneur, Mike Jacobs was a true cosmopolitan who had an eye for all talent and kept tabs on fighters throughout the world. As a younger man, he developed a special affinity for several British aces who became giants on the American stage.

“Jimmy Wilde, Owen Moran, Jem (Jim) Driscoll and Freddie Welsh were marvelous boxers and to watch them was a real treat,” said Uncle Mike. “You don’t see that kind of work today because the boys are taught to hit, not get scientific. The customers want it that way.

“It’s not just in boxing that fans demand more and more attack. See how baseball has changed since the days when Matty (Christy Mathewson of the old New York Giants) pitched and we had so many 2 to 1 games. Now the fans want home runs and 12 to 10 battles.”

Few boxers in history could match the aforementioned Jim Driscoll for cleverness. Driscoll managed the seemingly impossible feat of outclassing reigning featherweight champion Abe Attell, a master in his own right.

Nat Fleischer wrote of that battle: “Driscoll took on one of the craftiest boxers of modern times in Attell. The fight took place on February 19, 1909, and Driscoll won that handily. That bout is still discussed when old timers get together. It was a masterpiece in boxing art.

“It was a bout in which the finer points of boxing were exhibited as seldom before in New York. Attell, wily, a master feinter, a good hitter, seldom made a false move, was pitted against another crafty boxer, faster, more nimble, a sleight of hand artist.

“With an official decision banned under the law then in existence in New York, Jem and Abe fought ten of the most scientific and thrilling rounds it had been the good fortune of New York fans to see.”

Vocation

Boxing was Mike Jacobs’ calling and promoting his vocation. Like Jacobs Beach, its special little New York acre, the sport was worrying, thrilling, frantic, uniquely anarchic, downright criminal and constantly surprising. What else would Uncle Mike have done in life? He was made for his time. His fantastically dynamic era was built on men of his charisma, verve and character.

He was always philosophical about it. “Once the date for a fight is fixed, I stop worrying,” he said. “I am a fatalist when it comes to promotions. I know that once I have made the match and set the time for it. Nothing I can do outside of normal promotion methods will affect the gate.

“The fans are (either) attracted to a fight or they don’t like it. Sometimes their motives and angles puzzle the promoter. I know that a certain school believes in what the boys call bicycle pump promotion. That means forced ballyhoo. Rickard used to go for that. I do not believe in it. A fight has to stand on its own.

“I never worried about what was written about a match. I always was able to figure accurately what a fight would draw. I could tell, two weeks before a fight, how it would do, within a few hundred dollars. My gauge was the advance sale among the important people. If they got their tickets well in advance, things looked good.

“Being a promoter has its compensations. It also has its high blood pressure. One is always worried about weather and the gate. You never know the fight is on until the bell rings and they begin socking. Then you sit back and heave a sigh of relief. Is it worth the anguish? Sure. It’s a terrific game.

“The biggest drawbacks come from the ticket moochers. The last 48 hours before a fight, you have to keep in hiding, away from the Annie Oakley mob.”


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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Joe Louis vs Tommy Farr



Jack Dempsey vs Luis Angel Firpo (Sept 1923)



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



Jimmy McLarnin vs Tony Canzoneri I (Highlights)



Jim Braddock vs Joe Louis



Max Baer vs Joe Louis (September 24, 1935) -XIII-



1919-07-04 Jack Dempsey vs Jess Willard (ALL ROUNDS)



Jimmy Wilde vs Joe Symonds 1916-02-14



Jim Driscoll vs Frank Robson (Highlights)



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  1. Clarence George 02:47pm, 01/18/2014

    Poignantly expressed, Charley Jr.  There’s damn little left of boxing (or any other kind of) history in Times Square or the environs.  No New Yorker goes there, just tourists.  I’ve written about this a couple of time—Stillman’s Gym, the Neutral Corner…both long gone, and the block itself is unrecognizable. 

    Haven’t been to Gallagher’s since the renovation.  Wonder what they did—replaced the wood with Formica and the racehorse photos with Basquiat reproductions, probably.

  2. Mike Casey 12:18pm, 01/18/2014

    Ted, it has long been my dream to find that gem! To outclass Abe Attell as Driscoll did that night - what a feat!

  3. Ted Spoon 11:45am, 01/18/2014

    Cool article, Mike. Ah what I’d give to see that fight between Jim Driscoll and Abe Attell. If I had the power to resurrect just one film it would be very high on the list.

  4. cnorkusjr 07:05am, 01/18/2014

    I worked in the firehouse on 48th and 8th for many years-now retired. Every now and then, before or after work I would take a stroll around the corner to 49th St. hoping to put myself into the time and era for nostalgia for Jacobs Beach. Save your time and money. With Worldwide Plaza now filling the cavernous block where the Garden once stood at one end and a now deposed Record Store where Dempseys was at the other, even the sidewalk was not the same.  I thought maybe a plaque placed on the Plaza Bldg telling the tourist that this was just one of the Gardens of yore. Forget it, I walked up to Gallagher’s and sat down and had a beer.

  5. Humean 04:30pm, 01/16/2014

    Jacobs was great for boxing if you want to shut your eyes to corruption and how badly he fleeced fighters. Jacob’s reign would have been the epitome of the bad old days if he hadn’t been succeeded by Norris and the IBC. Only compared to the octopus does Jacobs seem decent.

  6. Ted 10:21am, 01/16/2014

    Jim Crue, your post sure brought back some memories. Spider Webb. Holy moley!

  7. Mike Casey 09:09am, 01/16/2014

    Kind thanks to all my pals here. Writing about the great Uncle Mike is always a lot of fun.

  8. The Fight Film Collector 09:01am, 01/16/2014

    I really enjoyed this one, Mike.  A vivid portrait of the man.

  9. Jim Crue 07:25am, 01/16/2014

    Great piece Mike, really well done
    I have a book of pieces written by the great Budd Schulberg. I’m sure some some of you guys do also, and his profile of Mike Jacobs was also excellent. What a character Jacobs was.
    I think it difficult for the young people who look at this site to understand what a major sport boxing was. Everyone knew who the heavyweight champion was even if you did not follow the sport. And while I was not around in the 30’s I remember our small apartment in Chicago being packed with cigarette smoking neighbors to watch Ray Robinson fight Bobo Olson when Robinson came out of retirement. And for years before that I was watching with my grandfather guys like Kid Gavilan, Yama Bahama, Ralph Jones, Spider Webb, a Chicago boy and on and on. Like many of you I devoured Ring Magazine and Boxing Illustrated each month. Oh, and Bob Satterfield!!!  Holy cow
    thanks again Mike and I hope you keep this excellent pieces coming.

  10. Mike Silver 11:11pm, 01/15/2014

    Your brilliant writing is addictive Mike! Wouldn’t it have been great for the sport if a Mike Jacobs had come on the scene in the 1970s? Everyone I ever spoke to from those days who managed fighters had good things to say about Jacobs. Yes he was a hard nosed businessman but he was always fair, had an open door policy, and would not play favorites. Boxing was so damn fortunate to have him.

  11. Clarence George 07:46pm, 01/15/2014

    Well?  Who was Heifetz fighting that night?  You never say, Mike, and I’m afraid that’s a huge hole in what was otherwise a characteristically excellent article.

  12. Ted 07:26pm, 01/15/2014

    “Thrill merchant” I’ll be using that one.

  13. Ted 04:51pm, 01/15/2014

    Going out for dinner but as soon as I come back, I’ll read this one for dessert.

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