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Rickard, George Lewis ("Tex")

RICKARD, George Lewis ("Tex")

(b. 2 January 1871 in Kansas City, Missouri; d. 6 January 1929 in Miami Beach, Florida), Jazz Age fight promoter who helped turn boxing into a major American spectator sport.

Rickard, known to his parents as "Dink," was the second child and first son born to Robert Woods Rickard, a chronically ill and unemployed millwright, and Lucretia Rickard, a homesteader with as much spirit as her son. She would later tell reporters that the supreme showman of ring violence had been born during a shootout between the James Gang, her nearest neighbor, and the Pinkertons. When Rickard was four the family crammed into a covered wagon and settled in Sherman, Texas. A year later their wagon wheeled into Cambridge, a two-year-old frontier town in the Texas panhandle at the edge of Comanche country. Five of the town's first nine businesses were saloons, and Rickard made his money outside one of them by shining cowboys' boots.

When Rickard was ten the six-member family moved to neighboring Henrietta, where they lived in a dirt shack, ate corn pone, turnip greens, and sowbelly, and settled into what Rickard later described as "the somber melancholy of poverty." At eleven Rickard left home for good and became a hired hand at a grown man's wage of $10 a month. Within a year his father died, and the rancher who had taken him in was shot and killed in a saloon fight. While still a teen Rickard was a $30-a-month cowhand. At one point while on the trail to Honeywell, Kansas, a friend died, and Rickard sat guard all night fending off wolf attacks against the corpse.

By the age of nineteen Rickard was a six-foot, straight-backed, dark-eyed veteran trail driver making $50 a month. He returned to Henrietta and became town marshal. He married Leona Bittick, who died soon thereafter. In 1895 he left for the Klondike in northwest Canada, searching for gold, but instead found fifteen months of uninterrupted insolvency as a $20-a-day bartender, faro dealer, and front man in a variety of Dawson City saloons. In the fall of 1898 he opened a saloon of his own in Rampart at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Along with buddy Rex Beach, soon a bestselling author of Alaskan adventures, he promoted his first fight, which ended when one combatant was knocked out from a head butt.

Rickard had a half interest in Cape Nome's Great Northern Saloon, which opened in May 1900. The business made $100,000 its first year and $500,000 during Rickard's four years in Nome, Alaska, a period that saw more than $30 million in gold mined from the Seward Peninsula. Rickard served on the city council and put on fight cards at the Standard Theater in Nome. On one memorable night, veteran heavyweight Paddy Ryan took on a jilted bridegroom at the Standard, and they entertained miners by simultaneously knocking each other out. With the $65,000 Rickard made from his sale of the Great Northern, he sailed to South Africa in search of a secret diamond mine. A year later he returned to San Francisco, busted.

Rickard earned a modest salary as a faro dealer and married Edith Mae Myers, an eighteen-year-old who had played piano in the Great Northern. He opened a saloon in Seattle that failed when he refused to pay protection money to organized crime figures. In 1906 he took his wife and adopted daughter to the Nevada gold fields, thinking it his "last chance to make a fortune." He rebuilt his gambling business and became a one-man chamber of commerce in Goldfield, Nevada. He promoted a fight for the lightweight championship of the world between Battling Nelson and Joe Gans by placing the fight's $30,000 guarantee in $20 gold pieces in his saloon front. The Associated Press reported the publicity stunt. On 3 September 1906 Gans won and so did Rickard, pocketing $13,000 in fight profits.

In 1909 Rickard sold his saloon and began publicizing his $101,000 guarantee of a heavyweight championship bout between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, set for Independence Day 1910 in San Francisco. A stadium was built and $300,000 in tickets sold for the long-awaited clash between the black champion and white challenger. When California governor James Gillett bowed to political pressure and blocked the bout, Rickard staged it in Reno, Nevada. Johnson's fifteen-round knockout of the previously unbeaten "surly bear of the Sierras" touched off street fighting and race riots nationwide. The film of the fight was banned in several states. Rickard left the country to raise cattle on a 5,000-acre ranch in Paraguay but returned to the United States in the summer of 1915, broke again, though eager to resume his ring career.

Rickard parlayed a $10,000 loan into a title fight between Jess Willard, who had defeated Johnson for the heavyweight crown, and Frank Moran in New York City's Madison Square Garden on 25 March 1916. The $152,000 gate was the largest in sports history for an indoor attraction. Backed by John Ringling's money, Rickard sought a white challenger he could promote into a "killer" contender. He found him in Jack Dempsey, a skinny-legged fighter from the West with a high-pitched voice and an unremarkable fight record. By the time Dempsey stepped into the ring against the aging Willard on Independence Day 1919, he looked and acted the part of the "Manassa Mauler." His brutal beating of the "Pottawatomie Giant" coincided with the close of World War I and the beginning of a decade of prosperity. Greatly aided by Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Paul Gallico, and other highly paid and widely read sports columnists, Rickard created a golden age in boxing that repositioned the sport as a civic spectacle. As head of a new and expanded Madison Square Garden, Rickard heralded many "battles of the century," some of which were too big to be staged in the building. Dempsey's four-round demolition of French war-hero Georges Carpentier at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 2 July 1921 produced a record-shattering gate of $1,625,580. Eighty-eight thousand fight fans, including Hollywood stars and members of President Coolidge's cabinet, cheered Dempsey's second-round dispatch of Luis Firpo, the "Wild Bull of the Pampas," in September 1923 at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Dempsey's fights with Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927 each earned over $2 million and were carried nationwide on the infant NBC and CBS radio networks. Even Rickard's nontitle fight between Dempsey and Jack Sharkey in July 1926 produced a $1 million gate.

Rickard's second wife died in 1925. He married Maxine Hodges in Lewisburg, West Virginia, in October 1926. In January 1929 they were living with their one-year-old daughter in Miami Beach, Florida, where Rickard was preparing to open a casino and resort, when he was stricken with appendicitis. He died from an acute infection and was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in New York City.

A teary-eyed Dempsey told the tabloids that "boxing's lost the best friend it's ever had." Twenty thousand mourners filed past Rickard's casket in Madison Square Garden. The New York Times editorialized that Rickard's "name will long remain identified with an extraordinary social development in the United States." Writer Paul Gallico praised Rickard's "Midas touch" at promotion. Will Rogers thought Rickard would be remembered for his "gorgeous imagination." He considered Rickard "one of the very few outstanding personalities of our time" and spoke for many when he added, "I wouldn't a missed knowing him for anything."

Rickard's widow, Maxine Hodges, coauthored, with Arch Obeler, Everything Happened to Him (1936), a fanciful biography of Rickard's life and career. A more careful chronology of his life and achievements is Charles Samuels, The Magnificent Rube: The Life and Gaudy Times of Tex Rickard (1957). Rickard's role in cultivating sports writers and readers is the subject of Bruce J. Evensen, When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Heroes, Hokum, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age (1996). Rickard is remembered by one of the most perceptive writers of the Jazz Age in Paul Gallico, The Golden People (1965). His contribution to the world of sport and celebrity is captured in Jack Kofoed, "The Master of Ballyhoo," North American Review (Mar. 1929). Lengthy tributes to Rickard are in three issues of the New York Times following Rickard's death (8, 9, and 10 Jan. 1929). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Jan. 1929).

Bruce J. Evensenm

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