Don't call me honest," begs Jack Hurley, sipping Cordon Bleu cognac and preparing to eat one of his favorite Chinese meals. "You'll ruin me."
It is cruel and unfair to stigmatize a boxing figure as "honest," and no one knows this better than Jack Hurley, the lean and dour manager-promoter who has made a career out of converting third-rate fighters into first-rate attractions. In the weird world of boxing a certain amount of dishonesty is not only expected but almost demanded. One can, for example, tell the public that one's fighter has had 46 straight victories, conveniently leaving out the fact that he was kayoed in Pocalello and decisioned in Amarillo and actually has a string of one straight, and this against a fuzzy-cheeked lad just out of the Southwest Iowa Golden Gloves.
This is a standard kind of dishonesty, and it has never attracted Jack Hurley. He has, instead, gone to the top of his odd craft as manager, promoter and all-round publicity man by telling the truth, with only occasional side excursions into what might be called "the fringe truth." It was true, for example, that Hurley's fighter, Harry Matthews, had won 35 straight fights, 28 by knockout, and looked like the only logical opponent for Rocky Marciano. It was so true that the Houses of Congress rang with polysyllabic demands for the fight and for congressional investigations of those opposing it. During all the hubbub, no one ever heard Jack Hurley pointing out the rest of the truth—that Matthews had run up his string almost entirely against bindle stiffs and novices carefully selected by Hurley either because (a) they could not fight, or (b) their styles were perfect for Matthews.
Yet Hurley did not lie, and he does not lie. Such steadfast refusal to avoid the flat untruth is what has made Hurley, now 63 and hustling the road as a press agent, one of the most respected figures in boxing today. Newspaper sportswriters like Red Smith, Frank Graham and Shirley Povich find it almost impossible to write about him in anything but superlatives. Damon Run-yon once said that he had known only two honest fight managers in his life: "One is Jack Hurley, and I forget the name of the other one." Wrote Jimmy Cannon: "When Hurley again shows up in a corner, cranky and cynical, tall and wise, that will mean the racket's again a sport." In England Hurley was tagged "The Heavyweight Champion of the Word." One British journalist wrote: "I only wish there were more Hurleys in this world." In his adopted home town Hurley is called "the conscience of Seattle."
May 14, 1961
Certainly he is most of these. But mainly Jack Hurley is a walking anachronism, and always has been—a living epitaph for boxing as it might have been but almost never was, when a good fight manager handled his warrior like a son, told him when to fight and whom to fight and when to quit, took care of his finances and showed him how to behave in and out of the ring. "I don't say I'm honest," says Hurley. "I never take part in a big swindle, though I might take part in a small one. But my word is accepted in boxing, and that's good enough for me." He quickly recovers himself when he realizes he is tootling his own kazoo and adds: "Just say that my occupation is traveling about from town to town telling lies."
Hurley in action contradicts these last words. Now "between fighters," he sometimes travels the cities of the Northwest as advance man for the Harlem Globetrotters, building up gates and planting favorable stories—this in spite of the fact that he has hardly ever seen the Trotters in action. One year he witnessed their opening game in Chicago (because he happened to be there) and their closing game in Seattle (because he lived there), and absolutely no others. He called on a sportswriter and began one of his patented spiels: "Those Trotters, they are turrific. You should see that Meadowlark Lemon on the pivot. Why, he has the biggest hands I've ever seen. The way they set up their defense, you can't get within 30 feet of the basket. Layups are impossible against the Trotters."
The sportswriter interrupted: "What do you know about the Trotters, Jack? How often do you ever see them play?
Who knows what a lesser man would have answered? Hurley, exploiting the fringe truth, said simply: "Every chance I get."
On a few occasions, Hurley's sometimes sharp tongue has provided some uncomfortable moments for others. In 1957 the restaurateurs of Seattle arranged a testimonial dinner for the man who had brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into their town with his promotions. They gave Hurley a $400 vicu√±a coat and assorted gewgaws and then made the awful mistake of asking him to say a few words. Hurley drew himself up to his full 71 inches of acerbity and said, tongue in cheek and dead pan, "I've been connected with a few swindles in my time, but this one tops them all. Fifteen bucks a smash. Hell, I only charged $20 to see the heavyweight champion of the world." He complained about the weather (a terribly sore point in rainy Seattle), and closed by pointing out that the city's restaurant food was so bad that "I have to make two trips a year to the Mayo Clinic." Some of the audience thought he was serious, and squirmed. But Hurley's true feelings were given away as he walked out. Visibly touched but trying not to show it, he said: "Now I suppose I'll have to stay in this town forever."
Food is one of Hurley's few passions. In 1934 two-thirds of his ulcerated stomach was removed. A man with a third of a stomach can't store up food; he is always hungry. Hurley now eats six meals a day. "I'm slowly going broke against a knife and a fork," he says. His last big meal is at midnight, after which the waitress brings him a carton of milk and a few bananas for a 4 a.m. snack.
"I'm a firm believer in eating before you go to bed," says Hurley. "Otherwise you might wake up in such a weakened condition that you can't get down to breakfast." Chinese food is his favorite; on some days his entire mood will depend on the quality of the sweet and sour sauce. His first act on arriving in a strange town is to find out where the Chinese restaurants are. But, alas, an hour later he is hungry.
Hurley is a creature of the indoors and the dark. He never in his life slept well, which he attributes to rheumatism, sinusitis and various other ailments. His working day begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 a.m. His home is Room 679 of Seattle's Olympic Hotel. Room 679 is not one of the Olympic's larger rooms; one can almost reach out and touch both walls simultaneously. When Hurley is promoting a fight his room becomes a bedlam of claustrophobic chatter. Here will come a broadcaster from Peoria, bearing his tape recorder, and Hurley will take him into the bathroom for an "exclusive" interview. A mob of sports-writers will be sprawled all over the bed and the two trunks, leafing through stacks of press clippings and handouts prepared by Hurley, and each of the writers will somehow have been given the impression that his stack is exclusive to him. Always there will be a box full of tickets on the bed. Cash customers periodically will knock at the door to buy direct from Hurley. Visions of good $5 tickets will fill their heads; they will leave the room happy to have been given the privilege of purchasing $15 tickets.
For the 1957 Pete Rademacher-Floyd Patterson fight (an incredible pro-amateur affair which could only have been promoted by a necromancer, and was) Hurley peddled $74,000 worth of tickets out of the box on his bed. He stuffs the money in his pants pocket; the box is his ticket office, the pocket is his safe, and the bathroom is his recording studio. He handles every last flyspeck detail of every event he promotes. He sells tickets, goes on radio and TV, writes the publicity on a 20-year-old Corona portable, handles all business arrangements, personally supervises the erection of the ring and lays out the seating arrangements.
But an eager-beaver compulsion to handle all details can produce as many failures as successes, especially in boxing. What has made Jack Hurley a success (and made his mediocre fighters wealthy men) has not been mere hard work but a genius for public relations, a rare ability to combine the colorful quote with a bland look and thus to get columns of free publicity. He sounds like Samuel Johnson talking through the mouth of Buster Keaton, and he invariably gets "printed." Out roll the aphorisms in sonorous succession: "Putting a fighter in the business world is like putting silk stockings on a pig." "The only reward for a married man is death." "I think that every young man should have a hobby. Learning how to handle money is the best hobby." His countenance remains sourly unchanged, but one suspects that inside he is laughing and looking forward to the next day's sports pages with their Hurleyisms and puffs for the promotion.
When Hurley and his fighter would arrive in another city to begin training, reporters would carefully keep one ear cocked toward Hurley even while they were interviewing his fighter, and often his asides would make an entire column the next day. When Harry Matthews was training at Jack Solomon's seedy gym in London, British reporters tried to mine Matthews for quotes. "Are you doing any sightseeing, Harry?"
"No, I just can't seem to get interested in that stuff."
"What do you plan to do when you retire, Harry?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Do you do any reading, Harry?"
"No, I never could find anything that would hold me."
Matthews put on his clothes and began to leave the gym. "Hey, Harry," said a reporter, "Aren't you going to put on your tie?"
Matthews reached for his neck, said, "Oh, I thought I had it on."
Hurley, sitting quietly in the corner, peered through his rimless glasses, his face locked, and said: "Feel around, Harry, and see if you're still in bed."
When all other means have failed Hurley is not above perpetrating an honest hoax on reporters. Before the amateur, Rademacher, was to be fed to the professional, Patterson, the press excoriated Promoter Hurley, and all but accused him of pronouncing a death sentence on the poor neophyte. This was followed by an embargolike newspaper silence. Hurley broke through the blockade by sending out a release announcing that the "Friends and Relatives of Pete Rademacher Society, of which I am president," would bar reporters from the fight. An awful din went up, most of it on page one of the sports sections. Hurley followed this bomb with a release stating that the "Friends and Relatives"' had relented at his request, had set up a screening committee and that applications for press tickets would be accepted "if accompanied by one favorable story." Among many others, Bill Corum fell for the gag and announced huffily that he would go fishing during the fight. "Ain't that a bitch?" exclaimed Hurley, slapping his side. When the furious publicity had worn itself out Hurley sent tickets to every accredited boxing writer, just as he had always intended.
The immediate result of this sort of brouhaha is that Hurley winds up getting more publicity than the fighter, but the final result is a bigger gate for the fight. Many have come to look on Hurley as a man who is publicity mad, like a Hollywood starlet, but the opposite seems closer to the mark. Hurley wants publicity for Hurley only when he is involved in a big promotion and the promotion will thereby benefit. At all other times, he is as publicity-shy as a Chicago gangster. Once a reporter, against Hurley's wishes, traveled from New York to the West Coast to do a story on Hurley at a time when Hurley had nothing going in the ring. For three days, at high expense, the reporter followed him all over the Northwest. Finally, Hurley called the reporter in. "Look, kid," he said. "You know I didn't want this in the first place. Now what I'm gonna do is pay all your expenses for the whole trip out here, and you go back to New York and tell your editor I'm too dull for a story. O.K.?"
Hurley came by his space-grabbing ability at an early age. He began promoting fights in his home town of Fargo, N.D. in his early 20s, after giving up a career as a boxer, "because I didn't have the physical equipment." The editor of the local newspaper looked on boxing as an evil and refused to give Hurley's promotions any publicity. Hurley promptly announced the creation of a free newspaper, to be written and edited by himself. ("And me with an eighth-grade education. Why, I couldn't even spell 'newspaper.' ") The plan was to drop the free paper in barbershops, pool halls, cigar stores and Elks' clubs—"any place where there were people sitting around doing nothing." Within three days Hurley sold $300 worth of advertising and soon had published his first edition, whereupon the editor of the daily paper called Hurley in, promised plenty of coverage and asked him to abandon his idea. "So I said O.K.," Hurley recalls, "and after that, this guy gave me so much space that it was embarrassing. My first show had drawn $700 and my second show—with the aid of the free newspaper—sold $1,600. Then the daily began giving full coverage, and the third show drew $3,200. I was so embarrassed at all the publicity he gave us I asked him to cut it down a little."
Early in the promoting game Hurley ran into the resistance of his widowed mother and her brother. "Uncle Dan told Ma that boxing wasn't a nice business, and he said I was disgracing the family name. I said, 'Ma, I am not going to disgrace the family name. I have an ability to teach fighters, and I'm gonna develop a fighter from this town that'll make the town proud of the town, not of me.' I said, 'Ma, as long as I don't get in any trouble and don't steal any money why don't you let me have a shot at it?'
"So reluctantly she let me go ahead. So now I run a coupla shows, and one morning I come home and I drop 100 $1 bills on the table loosely, and Ma ran and pulled down all the blinds. She said, 'We'll be robbed.' I said, 'That's for you.' She said, 'I don't need anything.' She already had one dress. So she hid the money in dishes and closets and other places. If anybody'd robbed us it woulda taken him three weeks to find all the money.
"So now Uncle Dan tells Ma that he wants a free ticket to the next fight. I say, 'Ma, Uncle Dan can never get a free ticket; nobody gets free tickets except the press.' She looked like she was gonna cry; so I put $3 down on the table and said, 'He can buy a ticket with that, but he can't have a free ticket.' "
Soon Hurley was developing fighters and running a gym, charging local boys $2 a month for the facilities. A steady customer was his little brother, then about 15. "One night I got a show scheduled, and I gotta be referee and timekeeper and everything else, and one of the fighters don't show up. In comes my brother and he's just had supper. I said, 'Get your clothes on, Hank, you got a fight.' He says, 'I just had my supper.' I says, 'I don't care, you got a fight.' He says, 'I'll tell Ma.' I says, 'I can't help it. Get your clothes on.'
"Well, he made it through this four-round no-decision fight, and then he got sick to his stomach. The next morning I come down to breakfast, and Ma doesn't say a word to me. I says, 'What's the matter?' She says, 'You're a nice fellow.' I says, 'What'd I do now?' She says disgustedly, 'Making Henry fight!'
"Then Hank comes in, and he says, 'O.K., I fought, now give me the dollar you're supposed to give.' I says, 'What d'ya want me to do, jeopardize your amateur standing?' So a week later I took him down and bought him a suit and an overcoat."
Hurley hadn't asked his brother to do anything that he himself hadn't done many times. One night in North Dakota he took a promising young welterweight named Russie Leroy into a strange town for a fight, and the opponent failed to show. Rather than lose the purse, Hurley suited up, took the name Doyle and prepared to go into the ring against his own fighter. "I say to this Leroy that if he dares to hit me in the body I will carve him into thinner slices than you get in a clip joint, but Leroy buries his fists in my body up to the elbow. Somehow I went the whole six rounds. While Leroy is bowing to the four corners like an ambassador, I crawl back to my dressing room. However, at least I get all my purse money on account of I have no manager, but I most certainly cut Leroy right down the middle for his purse."
In those early years of the 1920s it was often touch and go for Hurley and his energetic career as a manager, teacher and impresario. "When we'd get a fight out of town the promoter would always send round-trip coach tickets for me and my fighter, and we would always turn in the tickets for cash and ride the rods to the fight. I can remember many a night, sleeping with my head on a hunk of coal on the tender. But that little extra money was important. We thought nothing of beating our way on the rods all the way to Des Moines, 500 miles away, and back again."
Hurley soon learned that there were many ways to build gates. He developed a "boo fighter," the prototype of the present-day wrestling phonies who play the villain's role. "He used to butt and gouge and kick and everything else," Hurley recalls, "and pretty soon he was selling the place out, they hated him so much. He won a whole string of fights, and everybody there is dying to see him licked. So Jack Dempsey comes into town, and I arrange an exhibition. Dempsey carries the guy for two rounds and then knocks him cold. It was a great card."
Hurley also developed two Masked Marvels. The first was a professional pitcher named Lynn Nelson, who would play ball in the daytime and go into the ring at night, masked so his baseball manager wouldn't spot him. "He could have been one of the greatest middle-weights ever," says Hurley. "He had 21 fights and scored 21 early knockouts. So one day I said to him, 'Lynn, you gotta decide. Baseball or boxing. You can't go on like this.' A week later he told me he thought he had a better future in baseball." Nelson's ability at self-appraisal is measured by the fact that, although he became a major league pitcher, he was soon immortalized as "Line Drive Nelson."
Hurley's second Masked Marvel was a strong young amateur from Virginia, Minn. named Handsome Picca. Hurley tells the story: "Russie Leroy was going great guns then, and this kid Picca had the same physique as Leroy. I had an old pair of Leroy's green boxing tights that I used to play handball in, and I took this kid and I swore him to secrecy and I gave him Leroy's tights to wear and I schooled him real careful in how to imitate Leroy, even to the way he walked and carried his towel into the ring.
"Then I matched him as the Masked Marvel against a tough-looking kid who couldn't take a punch, and Picca knocks him out in one round. Now the papers get interested, and I swear to them that the Masked Marvel is a local amateur who has never had a pro fight (which is true), and I swear that I'll unveil him as soon as he loses.
"Well, the sports editor comes to me and he says, 'You got a hell of a nerve. We oughta run you outa town. We know who that Masked Marvel is; he's Russie Leroy; he's an experienced professional, and you're putting him in against these kids.' I said, 'Please believe me, this isn't Leroy,' but I tried not to say it too convincingly.
"So the sports editor blasted hell out of me in the papers, and this doesn't hurt the gate any. Finally, he realized that the Masked Marvel wasn't Leroy, but he kept on trying to expose me. He discovered who the Masked Marvel was six different times, only he never had the right guy. One thing that threw them off—I always made Picca work out in the gym the same day the Masked Marvel was due to fight. Now who ever heard of a fighter working out on the same day he was fighting?
"But one night I noticed the referee was taking an extra good look at the Masked Marvel, and I figured he was getting wise. They all knew Handsome Picca, and they all knew he had blond hair and blond eyebrows, but I had him in a black stocking mask that covered everything but his eyes. So in the next fight I cut the mask to expose a little more of the eyes, and I put mascara on his eyebrows. The next day that same referee came to me and he said, 'You know, Jack, I would have been willing to bet the Masked Marvel was Handsome Picca, but he's not. Picca has blond eyebrows, but this guy's are black.' "
To this day Hurley swears that the Masked Marvel should not have lost the one fight which finally undid the act. "I had schooled him to take a count of eight when he's knocked down. So one night he's knocked down and the referee counts 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-out. He left out the nine. So my boy has to be unmasked, and I lose a good thing. And he'd won 12 straight, too."
But all was not gimmicks for Hurley. He had an extraordinary ability to teach young fighters (experts have called him the best boxing teacher ever), and he soon built up seven boxing clubs in seven cities. He would send a home town boy out on the rest of the circuit, match him against easier rivals and bring the fighter back home the winner of six straight fights, a local hero. Thus the fighter would become that most valued commodity in the boxing world—a "card."
Before long Hurley had a real "card" going for him, a tough young lightweight named Billy Petrolle. It may be said retrospectively that Petrolle was the only first-class fighter Hurley ever had. Petrolle, who fought for Hurley from 1922 to 1934, never won the championship, but he drew bigger and bigger gates because of a crowd-pleasing brink-of-disaster style of boxing taught to him by Hurley. Petrolle never had a dull fight in his whole skein of 255. He went up against Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross, Jimmy McLarnin, all the great lightweights and welterweights of the era. People who have forgotten Petrolle's name have never forgotten his appellation, The Fargo Express. Hurley had made good on his promise to develop a fighter who would make his home town famous.
The two—Petrolle and Hurley—had a close relationship. The financial split was 50-50, as have been all Hurley's splits (contrasted to the usual one-third for the manager). In return, Hurley does everything for the fighter except trim his fingernails. "I never wanted to see one of my fighters hurt," he says. "I never wanted one of them to fight even one more fight than they should have. One time I saw a fight in Miami where they brought in a lot of former champions to introduce, and they looked so pathetic up there with their cauliflower ears, grasping at their last limelight. And it made an impression on me that I didn't ever want to see one of my fighters wind up like that." Paul Gallico once wrote: "The only man I ever knew who ever had any feeling for his fighter was Jack Hurley."
Late in his career, Hurley's meal ticket, Petrolle, had an operation for elbow chips, and his deadly left hook became a nothing punch. "He fought Barney Ross in New York one night after that," Hurley recalls, "and he lost the decision. Petrolle came back to the corner at the end of the fight, and I said, 'You got plenty of money, haven't you?' He turns to me and he says, 'How about you?' I says, 'Never mind about me. Now you said you'd leave it up to me to decide when you quit, right?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'O.K., let's get outa here.' Then I went right over to the press section and announced that they had just seen Billy Petrolle's last fight."
Petrolle took his $200,000 and went into business in Duluth, where today he is a director of a bank. Hurley went into the hospital for his stomach operation and then picked up his hat and moved on to Chicago.
There, he managed and promoted at the Chicago Coliseum for five years. Later he became matchmaker at the Chicago Stadium; one of his shows, Zale-Graziano in 1947, established a world's indoor record gate of $422,000. Chortles Hurley: "The IBC tried ever since then to beat that record, and they couldn't do it. They tried La Motta and Robinson, and Graziano and Robinson, and Marciano and Walcott, but the record still stands." Not that Hurley, like all matchmakers, didn't make his mistakes. Once he matched Lee Savold and Arturo Godoy who played after-you-dear-Alphonse until the referee threw them both out in the ninth round and pronounced it no contest. The boxing commission held up the purses and called Hurley in for a discussion. Did he think there was anything wrong with the fight? "Yeh," Hurley said, "it stank. They were both too cute." Would he match them again? "Not after seeing them in action," Hurley admitted.
But what Hurley wanted to get back to was the care and feeding of fighters, and he was constantly on the lookout. "No able-bodied man is safe," he announced. In 1948 he got wind of a tough young half-Indian from Omaha who had won 15 out of 16 fights in the ring and countless others in bedrooms and barrooms. This was Vince Foster; Hurley took him back to a smelly, smoky two-ring "gymnasium" two flights above Chicago's rummy West Madison Street, and a tragedy slowly began to unfold. For month after month Hurley trained Foster in ring technique, without ever matching him against a fighter. Foster had a tendency to box in too wide a stance; Hurley solved this in workouts by connecting a strip of inner tube between his ankles. He told Foster, "Any time two guys get in the ring, one is the garner of the two. Vince, you must always be the gamer of the two."
Soon Foster was ready for a main event. "That first big card drew $51,000, and we had only started to scratch the surface," says Hurley. Foster won, and now he had a little money and began going wild. During his first year with Hurley the 21-year-old Foster got drunk, broke training, disappeared frequently and blew a total of $14,000. One day Hurley and Foster were riding in a streetcar past the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, and Hurley observed that it seated 4,000.
"Why don't somebody get it for a fight?" asked Foster.
"Are you crazy?" Hurley said. "It's a church."
The next Sunday Foster was prowling the North Side barrooms when he passed the same church, wandered in and got religion. He telephoned Hurley and said, "I'm not going to be in on Sundays anymore." Said Hurley: "Don't give me any of your fresh talk. You make sure you get here."
Twenty minutes later, Foster walked into the gym. "I take one look at him," recalls Hurley, "and I take off my cheaters. I figure he's gonna belt me, but all he does is say, 'I just wanted to show you I'm not drunk. I'm saved.' "
Foster renounced jitterbugging and the movies, gave religious testimonials, sang in choirs, carried a Bible. His wife, who had left him, came back. Hurley observed: "He was such a little louse. Now it's a pleasure to be around him." None of this publicity was harmful to Foster's status as a "card," and soon Hurley matched him in Madison Square Garden against Tough Tony Pellone, a journeyman fighter who went into the ring a 12-5 favorite, was knocked out and woke up mumbling, "I never been hit so hard." Boxing was in its IBC doldrums in that year of 1949, and the writers became poetic over the Bible-toting Nebraskan. The New York Sun proclaimed: "Foster not unlike Dempsey," and added that "he may provide the tonic that boxing needs." Lester Bromberg in the World-Telegram called Foster the "best-looking young fighter to break in at the Garden in years." Bill Corum of the Journal-American wrote, "What boxing here in New York has been needing is Vince Foster." Clutching his Bible, the modest young fighter said, "It was the work of the Lord." And all the while Jack Hurley was sitting in his office, thinking cynical thoughts. "I hope it's true," he confided to a friend, "but a leopard don't change its spots. The larceny will come out." Three weeks later Foster was picked up on a rape charge in St. Joseph, Missouri, and a $100,000 fight with Charlie Fusari had to be canceled. Said Hurley: "He's a married man. He's got that Bible in his pocket. He knows right from wrong. You know what he deserves. He has it coming. You build a Frankenstein, and he rises up and ruins you."
Foster, out on bond, returned to the church and explained, "The Lord did this to put me in my place." The rape charge was dismissed for lack of evidence (it was the girl's word against Foster's), the Fusari fight was rebooked, and before 14,000 fans at Madison Square Garden Foster was knocked out in two minutes and 26 seconds of the first round. Two months later he was killed in an automobile accident. Hurley remembers him with charity: "At his funeral in Omaha he filled the church to capacity. He was a draw right to the finish."
In Part II Hurley finds a new tiger, teaches him how to box and gets him a big-money fight with Rocky Marciano.