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Town in Montana Was Overmatched : In 1923, Shelby--Population 500--Took On Jack Dempsey and His Manager

February 05, 1989|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

SHELBY, Mont. — Decades later, the principals were in general agreement as to how it all came about, how a little Montana cattle, sheep and oil town came to be fleeced of a couple of hundred thousand dollars by a rascal named Jack (Doc) Kearns.

It seems that two young real estate speculators, James (Body) Johnson and his partner, Mel McCutcheon, were trying to find a way to pull Shelby real estate sales out of a serious slump. Johnson, looking at a Great Falls Tribune sports section, noted that someone in Montreal had offered Kearns, the manager of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, $100,000 to fight there.

"Mel, why don't we make an offer for a championship fight?" Johnson said. "Let's wire Jack Kearns and offer him $200,000."

"That's not a bad idea," McCutcheon said. "But who would Dempsey fight?"

"Darned if I know," Johnson answered.

Summoned to the conversation was Lyman Sampson, matchmaker for the Shelby American Legion boxing committee, of which Johnson was chairman.

"Tom Gibbons is the logical challenger to Dempsey," he told them.

And that's how it started.

Now, 66 years later, it remains one of the most colorful sports stories of the early 20th Century.

It is the story of how a town with no paved streets and a population of 500 built a 40,000-seat stadium for a fight that drew 12,000 people and, in the end, broke a few banks, and some hearts as well.

FOR THE RECORD - Los Angeles Times Saturday February 11, 1989 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 4 Column 1 Sports Desk 3 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Times story last Sunday about the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons fight in Shelby, Mont., in 1923, it was pointed out that the purse split was $300,000 for Dempsey, $7,500 for Gibbons.
Actually, Gibbons wound up with much more than that, according to his son, Tom Gibbons Jr., who writes:
"After the fight, Dad took me with him on the Pantages Theater (vaudeville) tour for 20 weeks. He made $50,000 plus expenses--in 1923 dollars.
"Dad was sheriff of Ramsey County, Minn., for 24 years. He was elected in 1935 because many were afraid of John Dillinger, the bank robber, and many other crooks. But Dad could stand up to any of them."

Shelby lies on the rolling, featureless plains of northwest Montana, 32 miles below the U.S.-Canada border.

In the 1910 United States census, Shelby didn't exist. Then the Great Northern Railroad built a storage facility there, which grew into a railroad junction. Then it became a distribution center. Then someone built a saloon, then came a small hotel . . .

In 1921, an oil prospector named George Gordon Campbell began poking holes in the earth. On March 22, 1922, he struck oil. Instant boom town.

By the mid-1920s, wells in the Shelby area were producing more than 6 million barrels a year. Shelby folks began calling their town "The Tulsa of the Northwest."

People were getting rich. But they craved attention, too. They wanted to be on the map.

The possibility of a heavyweight championship fight was bounced off two local power brokers, Shelby Mayor James Johnson--Body Johnson's father--and Loy Molumby, an American Legion official from Great Falls who promoted boxing shows.

Finally, contact was made with Kearns, at his New York office. Body Johnson sent Kearns the following telegram:

"I am prepared to offer you a purse of $200,000 to be paid $50,000 upon signing of contract and balance when you enter the ring for a 15-round championship fight against Tommy Gibbons, to be held July 4, 1923, in Shelby, Mont."

Kearns was one of the great sports con men of the century, and one can only imagine the wicked grin that appeared on his face when he read the wire. He wired back:

"Ready to do business immediately provided you have your representative meet me here prepared to pay me $50,000 and post another $50,000 as forfeit upon signing articles. This $100,000 to be paid me as liquidated damages in event you fail through any cause barring Dempsey from holding contest on date selected. Above $100,000 to be part of purse in event contest is held and balance of $100,000 to be paid me prior to contest as we mutually agree upon together with some other details such as percentage privilege. Answer 1465 Broadway, New York. --Jack Kearns."

Kearns released the telegrams to the New York newspapers, and in short order Associated Press stories about Shelby's plans were appearing in papers across the country, among them the Great Falls Tribune.

The folks in Shelby thought they would get Dempsey for $200,000, so Molumby was sent to Chicago to meet with Kearns. When he returned, he told folks they had Dempsey--for $300,000. The terms:

--Kearns and Dempsey would get $100,000--which Molumby had already paid--at the contract signing, $100,000 on June 15 and $100,000 on July 2, two days before the fight.

--Gibbons would get $7,500 and $2,500 training camp expenses.

Decades later, Body Johnson said of Molumby's meeting with Kearns in Chicago: "He was not at all familiar with doing business, particularly with fight managers."

Translation: In negotiating with Kearns, Molumby found himself in the big leagues.

In any event, the bankers, oil men and real estate speculators of northwest Montana who had pledged to back the fight had an extra $100,000 to come up with. Body Johnson, 23, was put in charge of trying to sell $100,000 worth of tickets to the fight by traveling to every American Legion post in Montana.

Unfortunately, on his third stop, at Livingston, Johnson's chartered plane flew into a power line on takeoff. He was in the hospital for weeks.

The second $100,000 payment to Kearns was pulled off on the strength of a $50,000 commitment by James Johnson, president of the First State Bank of Shelby.

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