When Ad and Packey almost got it on

By Pete Ehrmann on September 19, 2015
When Ad and Packey almost got it on
Prize fighting was considered an affront to decency and a corrupter of public morals.

Acting Gov. Morris, Sheriff Arnold and District Attorney Zabel received hosannas from church groups for their zealous protection of public sensibilities…

The National Basketball Association is blackmailing the State of Wisconsin into mulcting taxpayers for half the cost of a new $500 million arena by threatening to have the Milwaukee Bucks vamoose if it isn’t built. The GOP-controlled state legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker (whose presidential campaign finance co-chairman is a Bucks owner) have approved the plan, and the local Babbittry insist the new arena will lure millennials to the graying old burg. Wait ‘til they get a load of our crumbling infrastructure and record murder rate.

I wouldn’t watch a Bucks game if it were played in my basement, but I wish the attitude that professional sports are integral to a city’s image and progress was in vogue in 1911. Then ring historians wouldn’t have had to spend the last millennium arguing about who’d have won if Ad Wolgast and Packey McFarland fought each other.

Back then, politicians and Bible-thumpers prevented a Wolgast-McFarland bout in Milwaukee because prize fighting was considered an affront to decency and a corrupter of public morals.

It also happened to be technically against the law, although up to then the statutory proscription against boxing had been enforced sporadically, and bouts were openly held in Milwaukee and other cities around the state. In 1908 there’d even been a middleweight championship fight here (Ketchel-Papke I).

The last-minute decision to stop the world lightweight title fight between Wolgast and McFarland from going on as scheduled at the Milwaukee Auditorium on September 15, 1911, cost local merchants an estimated $100,000 in revenue ($2 million-plus in today’s economy), and fight fans the chance to witness what The Milwaukee Journal called “the scrap which has been the cause of more heated arguments and talk than any lightweight battle in the last 10 years.”

Wolgast-McFarland was as eagerly anticipated as the “Battle of the Century” in Reno between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries the year before.

That Milwaukee would host the mega-event had been rumored for months. “It argues well for the manner in which the boxing game has been conducted in Milwaukee that a match like this may be here consummated,” preened an editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel the previous May. “Sportsmen and legal authorities the country over have recognized, to the credit of this city, that Milwaukee has conducted a reasonable line of boxing matches and that most of the objectionable features of the game have been entirely eliminated.”

An editorial in the Milwaukee Free Press stated the opposition’s case.

“These shows have been held under what are probably as good auspices as any boxing events in the country; still, they have been sources of injury to the community. Let those who incline to a challenge of that statement go to the police department. They can learn there of scores of boys and young men whose downfall is directly traceable to these fights. They can learn there that during the day and night of every such fight disorder and crime reach a top notch in the city of Milwaukee…

“Where there is a fight, whatever its character, the dregs of society — the degenerate, the criminal, the irresponsible — are bound to foregather.”

Ringside seats for the Wolgast-McFarland fight went for a whopping $10, with general admission at $2 for the event whose date was picked in hopes that out-of-towners attending the Wisconsin State Fair that week would take in the championship bout before heading home. But it was soon apparent the fight was in a class by itself as an attraction.

Just a week after promoter Frank Mulkern closed the match on July 21, the Sentinel’s A.J. Schinner reported that “interest in the match throughout the country…has reached a stage scarce[ly] believable.” And ticket orders weren’t coming in just from the degenerate, the criminal and the irresponsible.

“MDs, lawyers and other professional and business men who have never taken in a boxing match before have called for reservations of the best seats,” wrote Schinner, “and all of the local elite will go to make up one of the ‘classiest’ gatherings that has ever attended an event of like nature in this state, or in truth, in this section of the great U.S.”

By September, Promoter Mulkern envisioned a sellout crowd of 12,000 in the Auditorium, and a gate of $40,000.

Big crowds watched the lightweight champion train at his camp five miles out of town. A native of Cadillac, Michigan, Wolgast had gotten his start in boxing in Milwaukee. When he went downtown one afternoon to visit old haunts, several hundred people followed him around. McFarland trained in Chicago, and did his part to fan the publicity flames by vowing to make Wolgast crawl out of the ring.

Boxing actually had its own season in Milwaukee then, starting in September and running through May. The 1911 season officially opened September 1 when a large crowd attended a card at the Terminal Building headlined by a 10-round bout between Jimmy Clabby and Mike Gibbons. No lawman breathed a word of protest about that, so it was a shocker when Sheriff William Arnold notified Frank Mulkern on September 9, less than a week before the scheduled championship bout, that he intended to prevent it from happening because “information has reached me that both participants in this coming fight are men of national reputation as ‘prize fighters’ and that they are coming here to fight each other on the day in question with intent to do each other bodily harm for large financial reward.”

District Attorney Winfred Zabel issued an opinion seconding Arnold. “One of the essential elements of such a contest is the participants intend to do physical violence to each other, and the mere fact that it may be called a friendly bout for scientific purposes, does not change the character of the contest, which is in all other respects a prize fight.”

Mulkern argued that the fight would be no different from ones allowed in the past, and said going through with Wolgast-McFarland amounted to an economic imperative.

“The business interests here want the match because it will bring more money in Milwaukee than any other event that could be staged here,” he said. “From a financial standpoint it far outclasses conventions and public gatherings. Why, I feel safe in saying that those who will come here to see the contest will spend at least $100,000 in the two days that they will be here. The bout will not be attended by the rougher element, as many fear. Instead, some of the best-known men of the country will be present. Why, I have already reserved boxes for the mayors of Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.”

The next day, Acting Gov. Thomas Morris ordered Sheriff Arnold to halt the fight.

When the veto of “the biggest sporting event ever held in Milwaukee or Wisconsin” (Journal) was announced, “indignation was expressed in the street and in every hotel lobby and rendezvous in the city” (Sentinel). Most comments echoed the sentiments of H. Stanley Green, manager of The Plankinton House hotel:

“If the bout was to be stopped on the grounds of law, why was it not stopped months ago? Those who now claim they are compelled to interfere should have interfered the very day the match was announced.”

There was talk of seeking an injunction overruling the fight-stoppers, but when Sheriff Arnold warned he would consider it an “act of anarchy,” Mulkern realized the futility of pressing ahead and the day before the fight he cancelled it.

Acting Gov. Morris, Sheriff Arnold and District Attorney Zabel received hosannas from church groups for their zealous protection of public sensibilities, but within two years boxing was legalized by the state legislature.

Ironically, the Free Press’s long-ago concern that “many a young fellow, who was living a sober and industrious life, has been tempted into the ring by amateur conquests only to degenerate into a loafer and debauchee” now applies to many a young, sober and industrious fellow who goes into politics and the seminary. (Not to mention professional hoops.)

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  1. Clarence George 01:08pm, 09/20/2015

    Thanks, Pete.  When I saw that Father O’Donnell was S.S.C, I said to myself, “Aha!  What else can one expect from an Anglo-Catholic?”  But I then realized that an S.S.C. priest wouldn’t be president of Notre Dame and did a little research.  Father was C.S.C.  The bad news is that there was therefore no excuse for his insufferable priggishness.

  2. Pete 06:55am, 09/20/2015

    It was the Protestants this time, Clarence. But the Catholics have gotten in their licks against boxing. From the Milwaukee Journal of 12/13/31: “The Rev. Charles L. O’Donnell, S.S.C., president of Notre Dame, refused to speak on the recent ‘Rockne memorial eulogy’ broadcast from Yankee stadium before the Army-Notre Dame game because of the presence of Gene Tunney on the program, the magazine New Yorker says in its current issue. Father O’Donnell informed the committee in charge that while he was sure Tunney was ‘an excellent gentleman,’ he did not feel it was becoming for him to appear on the same program with a ‘former professional pugilist.’”

  3. Clarence George 06:19am, 09/19/2015

    Dem sisters were tough.  When I was but a lad, there was one (a Benedictine, I think) who always sought alms at the Lexington Avenue entrance of Bloomingdale’s.  There was another—all 4’6” of her—doing the same at the Lexington Avenue entrance of Grand Central.  She wielded a fearsome ruler, I have no doubt.  And probably a clicker-clacker, to boot!

  4. NYIrish 05:25am, 09/19/2015

    Best left hand I ever came up against was Sister Marion Patrice. She could hook off the jab.

  5. Clarence George 04:38am, 09/19/2015

    Well done, per uje.  I say McFarland outpoints his formidable opponent.  But who were these prissy church groups?  Hasn’t Milwaukee always been predominantly Catholic?  Surprised and disappointed if the Church had objected.  Prior to the sissification brought on by the egregious Second Vatican Council, every Catholic schoolboy and his brother were taught how to box, usually by no-nonsense priests.  And let’s not forget Sister Mary Benedict’s worthy tutelage of young Eddie in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”:



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