Sherlock Holmes. "Rather over six feet," in the words of Dr. Watson, "and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller." His eyes sharp and piercing, his nose thin and hawklike. And that superb mind. But you might never suspect from the old movies in which Basil Rathbone portrayed Holmes largely by turning up the collar of his greatcoat that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle conceived of his peerless detective as an athlete, as well as a man who could live by his wits on Baker Street in London and amaze the good Watson by his feats of deductive reasoning, his profound knowledge of rare drugs, secret societies and the criminal mind. Yet it is all there in the stories: Holmes' lightning reflexes, his stamina, his skill as a wrestler and marksman. Even Watson, in his first attempt to appraise his new friend, marks him down as "an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman."
This is an article from the March 19, 1973 issue
Conan Doyle could, without the least difficulty, invest Holmes with a credibly lithe and active image—so unlike many of his fictional descendants, wizards of detection who had no physical resources at all. Doyle himself was a superior amateur athlete. The theme of sport ran through his whole life and much of his writing. If Holmes was Doyle's major and enduring figure, he created others that he loved far better and who had an even greater connection with the active world of sport. Still, many of the Holmes stories are flecked with sport and sport is central to a few of them—the celebrated mystery of the disappearing racehorse and the dead trainer in Silver Blaze, for instance, and the unexplained absence of a famous rugby player from a crucial match in The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter. (Typically, since organized sport was quite outside Holmes' ken, he had never heard of the missing man. "Good Lord! Mr. Holmes, where have you lived?" he is asked.)
The late William S. Baring-Gould, in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, makes note of nearly 150 references in the Holmes stories to polo, billiards, yacht racing, bicycling, poaching, fox hunting, big-game hunting, pheasant shooting, rowing, salmon fishing, hunt meets, fencing, tennis and other familiar and unfamiliar sports. The most exotic of them was baritsu, a form of Japanese wrestling, mastery of which enabled Holmes to overcome that Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty, when the two met on a narrow ledge above Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
Battered ex-fighters occasionally pop up in the Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Sign of the Four, the second story Doyle wrote about the detective, a coachman drives Holmes and Watson to their meeting with the mysterious Thaddeus Sholto. The coachman has penetrating eyes and moves "briskly." No wonder—he is the former lightweight champion of England. In that same story Conan Doyle revealed a little of Sherlock Holmes' notable athletic past. A former fighter, now a porter and bodyguard, recognizes Holmes as a fine amateur boxer who could have become a famous one. Holmes' ring exploits happened offstage, but there can be no doubt of his credentials as an athlete. And with good reason, it turns out, for a super athlete is what Conan Doyle always wanted to be.
When Doyle in later life wrote his literary reminiscences, one of his earliest recollections was of fights he had won between the ages of seven and nine. His father was an amiable if unprosperous artist and civil servant in Edinburgh, where Doyle was born in 1859, and the family lived in modest circumstances on a street where numbers of rich young Edinburghers also lived. "I rejoiced in battle," Doyle wrote, describing how he became the champion of the poor kids against the best the rich could put up from their side of the street. He did not believe in reincarnation (though he thought people should have an open mind on such things) but as he remembered his pleasure in fighting he wondered if perhaps the spirit of some old English bareknuckle prizefighter—someone like Jem Belcher—had briefly taken possession of him.
Young Doyle's days of neighborhood battle were interrupted at the age of nine when he was sent off to Hodder, the preparatory school for the Jesuit college of Stonyhurst. His recollections of life there include an account of how he was hit by a cricket ball batted by one of the finest professional cricketers in the history of England, Tom Emmett, who happened to be at the school showing some of the older students how to bat. One of Emmett's hits caught Doyle, a bystander, on the kneecap. The occasion was made even more memorable for Doyle when Emmett personally carried him to the infirmary. Doyle excelled in swimming, rugby, soccer, hockey and ice skating, and was the athletic hero of Stonyhurst and captain of the cricket team. For a time, what he really aspired to was to become a serious cricketer with the Edinburgh Cricket Club. He was unhappy at school, recognizing—as did everyone else—that he would never ever become a priest. The master of Stonyhurst told him, "Doyle, you will never come to any good!"
The 17-year-old Doyle chose medicine as his profession and attended the medical college of the University of Edinburgh. There he became a forward on the university rugby team. He was at the time a hearty, open, ruddy-cheeked fellow, well over six feet and weighing about 225 pounds. He loved to box and gladly put aside such matters as the dissection of cadavers for an hour with the gloves. A common love of sports led to what turned out to be an unfortunate friendship with a fellow medical student named George Budd, whose reputation as a rugby player had made him known all over the country. Budd was a violent and pugnacious man who had trouble holding his liquor and was credited with having survived a jump out of a three-story window while escaping an irate husband. Budd ran off with a very young girl and, to evade her parents, disguised himself by dyeing his blond hair. The dye somehow misfired and Budd wound up with spectacularly gold-and black-streaked hair, like the plum age of a tropical bird. Not one to abandon a friend in trouble, Doyle became one of the few regular visitors Dr. and Mrs. Budd had when they settled down to domestic life, or a reasonable facsimile of it.
One of Doyle's professors at medical school was Dr. Joseph Bell, who liked to dazzle his students by making lightning long-range medical diagnoses and equally instant deductions about the personal lives of patients brought before him in the lecture room. "This man," he might say after glancing at a subject, "is a left-handed cobbler." Dr. Bell would then point triumphantly to the inconspicuous but telling physical characteristic on the unfortunate individual that led to the deduction. Sometimes Dr. Bell's accuracy was so mystifying that his students suspected he had primed himself by secretly examining the patients ahead of time. But Dr. Bell's medical opinions were sometimes wrong and, though Doyle made him one of the models for Sherlock Holmes, he always had an equivocal attitude toward the value of instant analysis in his own practice of medicine.
His father's health failed, and at 20 Doyle became head of the family. Without money to complete his medical education he went to work as a doctor's assistant in Sheffield and Ruyton. He was underpaid, exploited, humiliated and insulted by established practitioners, and regarded with suspicion by the tough and battered miners who were sent to him. But he discovered he had something in common with them. They were as interested as he was in rugby, cricket and prizefighting: "Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love of sport is still one of the great agencies which makes for the happiness of our people," Doyle wrote. At night, after an evening spent "listening to the throb of the charwoman's heart or the rustle of the greengrocer's lungs," he began to write short stories. Chambers' Journal in London paid him three guineas for The Mystery of Sasassa Valley. Then London Society bought The American's Tale. He went on to write Our Derby Sweepstakes (never published) and had worked on a novel and several other stories by the time he was 21.
That same year he got a lucky appointment as a ship's doctor on a whaler bound for Greenland, ¬£2 10s (about $12.50) a month plus a share of the whale-oil money. On the first night out he boxed for the crew with the steward, Jack Lamb, whose proficiency with cakes and other delicacies later won him an appointment as Queen Victoria's personal baker. Doyle relished the voyage and, characteristically, wrote about it in sporting terms. He was allowed to harpoon a whale, and he recalled the world of perpetual daylight, the deep blue sea, the exhilarating air and the chase of the monster: "Who would swap that moment for any other triumph that sport can give?" His first post after taking his degree in 1881 was as ship's surgeon on a small steamer bound for Africa and, here again, during the worst three months of his life, Doyle described his own nearly fatal illness in non-medical terms: "fighting with death in a very small ring and without a second."
When he returned to England, George Budd offered him a share in his practice at Plymouth and, out of his lingering regard for Budd as a fellow athlete, Doyle accepted—against his better judgment. Half genius and half madman, Budd was making a fortune with a kind of assembly-line medical service characterized by casual diagnosis and unconventional dosages of drugs that dismayed other physicians. Budd had become increasingly difficult, with his violent temper and a sardonic liking for horseplay and practical jokes. Coroners' inquests sometimes followed Budd's treatment of his patients. Relations grew strained between the two doctors and one day Budd abruptly dissolved the partnership.
Doyle left town to begin a modest, conservative practice for himself at Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth. When he opened his own office he was 23, and one of the first things he did was join the local soccer club. The Portsmouth team was a highly respected amateur organization, and as back and then goal Doyle shared in its glory when it reached runner-up for the County Cup. "I was too slow to be a really good back," he said, "but I was a long and safe kick." His modest fame as a soccer player led to his joining a bowling club and several cricket clubs. He also played billiards between his house calls, the billiards room of Bush Hotel being only two doors away from his office. (He never achieved his lifelong ambition of breaking 100, though he often topped 80, or even 90.) After a game or two of billiards or a few hours on the cricket field he hurried off to see his patients—there were not many of these despite his growing athletic reputation—and at night he wrote more short stories. In his first year his practice brought him ¬£154.
Writing was lonely work for Doyle. It would be two years before he came to know other writers, four before he invented Sherlock Holmes and nine before Holmes made him famous. True, some of his early stories, modeled on Henry James, were published in Cornhill Magazine but they did not affect either his literary or medical reputation since all contributions to Cornhill were anonymous. However, as a result of these he was invited in 1884 to a dinner for Cornhill contributors. His first literary gathering! The dinner was at the Ship in Greenwich, and the young doctor was one of the first to arrive. He hurried up to James Payn, the editor of Cornhill, a thin, intense, gloomy-visaged and unenthusiastic individual widely known for his novels, Not Wooed, but Won and What He Cost Her, and waited in awe for Payn to make some weighty remark. The editor, however, had noticed a crack in one of the restaurant windows and, aside from expressing his wonder as to how it got there, had nothing to say. Doyle moved on to another chap, thin and seedy-looking, with drooping melancholy mustaches. This turned out to be an illustrator, George du Maurier, later famous as the author of Trilby, but du Maurier likewise failed to offer anything memorable. Still, others at the dinner were more congenial and Doyle got along gloriously. At South-sea he had learned (after an experience at a late ball) that it was unwise for a young physician to be seen drinking too much in public, but here among these emancipated bohemians he felt under no such restraint, and the evening ended with Doyle and his new friends reeling happily homeward under the Adelphi Arches.
Five years would pass before Doyle was invited to another literary gathering, but heady memories of the first helped keep him writing. He did not think of himself primarily as a writer; he was first of all a fine cricket player, a soccer star, a billiards expert—a sportsman—and a conscientious physician in such time as sports left him. After he married he also was distinguished by his everlasting concern for his wife (who was frail) and his own farscattered and needy family.
Significantly, he was on his way to becoming one of the keenest Americanophiles in English literary history. He believed American literature to be in many respects superior to English, and he knew American literature better than did most Americans. He venerated Francis Parkman, for instance, for his deep immersion into the life of the period he wrote about; he thought no other historian had ever done as much. Doyle considered Oliver Wendell Holmes a better essayist than Charles Lamb—perhaps not a better stylist but, because of his background as a physician, possessed of a wider and deeper knowledge of the world than Lamb. Doyle probably named Sherlock Holmes after Oliver Wendell Holmes.
So he lived—a big, gusty man both simple and profound, enjoying most of all his memorable days on the cricket pitch (once he scored 111 not-out for Portsmouth against Artillery). Then one night in March 1886 he conceived of a character—a detective with unrivaled powers of deductive reasoning. The result was A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story. Much of it was laid in America, where Doyle had never been, but he had not the slightest uneasiness on that score. During his boyhood he had read everything by Mayne Reid, the British author of dime novels about the Rockies. So well did he know Mayne Reid that he felt he knew the Rocky Mountains "like the back of my hand."
Doyle sent A Study in Scarlet to his old friend Payn at Cornhill and Payn rejected it. Another publisher kept it for three months and returned it unread. Others returned it quickly, but at least they read it. At last Doyle sent it to a publisher of cheap and sensational literature who offered him $125 for the copyright. This was a terrific comedown for Doyle. He had intellectual aspirations, a desire to be known among the contributors to the serious literature of his time. Also, in a curious way, Doyle knew that he was giving up something of value in selling the copyright of A Study in Scarlet. (Eventually he bought it back for $125,000.)
The Sherlock Holmes story created no big stir in England. But it was widely pirated and read in the United States, where it attracted the attention of Joseph Stoddart, the new editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Stoddart wanted to meet the author of A Study in Scarlet, and so it came about that Dr. Doyle was invited to his second literary gathering. Stoddart, on a visit to London, asked Doyle to a dinner at which the young Oscar Wilde, then little known, was present. "This was indeed a golden evening for me," he wrote. "The American proved to be an excellent fellow." Stoddart asked him to write another Sherlock Holmes story. This one, The Sign of the Four, was published simultaneously in 1890 in the U.S. and England. But it was not until the next year when A Scandal in Bohemia appeared in Strand Magazine that Holmes achieved his phenomenal popularity. A torrent of Holmes short stories followed. He became a figure, a name, a personality, a universal symbol, like Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver. Of all the rare achievements in fiction, the creation of such a personality is probably the rarest.
The golden years of Conan Doyle's life now began. He could command almost any price he asked. He found that he could turn out a Sherlock Holmes story in a week for fees that gradually increased from $175 per story to $5,000. The dramatized version of Sherlock Holmes' adventures, put together by William Gillette—a fine actor but a hack dramatist—ran for months in New York. At the end of the third act Holmes, smoking an unaccustomed cigar, is trapped by Moriarty's thugs. Suddenly he knocks out the only lamp. In total darkness the glowing cigar moves across to a window at stage right; the audience hears the smash of glass. One of the criminals finds a light as the others rush the window. Lights up finds Holmes by an unguarded door at stage left. "If you want that cigar," he says, "you'll find it in a crevice in the window." Exit the detective.
The play also ran in London after its New York triumph and continued in road productions throughout Conan Doyle's long life (in one road show Charlie Chaplin got his start in the theater). If Conan Doyle had so chosen, there was no financial need for him to write anything more. But he was growing bored with Sherlock Holmes. When Gillette cabled to ask if he might have Sherlock Holmes marry at the end of the play, Doyle cabled back, "Marry him or murder him or do anything you like with him."
Toward the end of The Sign of the Four, Doyle advanced the notion that the pursuit of justice was a sport, a great sport, more daring and adventurous than any other—"I have coursed many creatures in many countries during my chequered career," says Watson, "but never did sport give me such a wild thrill as this mad, flying manhunt down the Thames"—but in fact active sports did not conform with the picture he had drawn of Sherlock Holmes.
Sport may be thought to be at the opposite pole from the deadly pursuit of murderers (even when prefaced by the familiar, "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot"). Sport's contests are inconsequential: the loser is not killed and is innocent of any wrongdoing—apart from not scoring as much as his opponent. The end of sport is not life or death; it is a momentary happiness or sorrow, likely to be reversed by the next encounter on the field of play. Almost every day in the life of Conan Doyle affirmed this philosophy, and Sherlock Holmes grew increasingly irksome to him. He had, besides, other writing projects on his mind and he occasionally became careless in details. One of the few sports Doyle did not like was flat racing. Steeplechasing was all right with him, but in flat racing, he believed, everything depended on the horse. "Sport is what a man does," he said, "not what a horse does." Nevertheless, the first Sherlock Holmes story devoted entirely to sport was a racehorse tale. And for Conan Doyle personally, it was a disaster. Silver Blaze is one of the most durable of the many Sherlock Holmes favorites. It remains an absorbing story even now, summoning up a vanished, hit-or-miss racing world and displaying Holmes at the peak of his powers. But it has about as much to do with the realities of racing as a weekly episode of Marcus Welby has to do with medicine. It takes Holmes only "a few hours" to inspect the muddy hollow where Silver Blaze's trainer was killed, to track down the missing horse and to make sure that it will remain missing until the day of the great race. Then he stages his dramatic climax: the horse appears at the track and the murderer is exposed—the horse!
But the bookmakers in Silver Blaze shout odds quoting fractions that were never heard at any racetrack. And if anyone had actually contrived to sneak a horse into a race as Holmes did with Silver Blaze, half the people involved would have been jailed, and the other half—including Sherlock Holmes—would have been warned off the turf for life. That fiendish trainer, trying to maim Silver Blaze invisibly before the horse killed him with a kick on the forehead, was attempting an anatomical impossibility—you cannot cut a racehorse's muscle just a little bit.
Very discreetly, writers in racing journals pointed out the improbabilities (or the impossibilities) in the story, and what they said shocked Conan Doyle. There was a certain amount of Colonel Blimp in him. Confronted with the glaring errors in Silver Blaze, he said huffily, "I have never been nervous about details, and one must be masterful sometimes." But in the end he conceded that in racing matters, "my ignorance cries aloud to heaven."
Doyle never quite lived down the embarrassment of Silver Blaze. Columnist Red Smith periodically raises the charge that Holmes, though he may have been a good detective, was also a thoroughgoing scoundrel, and cites the matter of the Wessex Plate, in which Holmes "so rigged the odds that he got 15 to 1 on a legitimate 3-to-1 shot." (Such contributions to Sherlock Holmes literature are generally regarded as "unfortunate" by Sherlock Holmes fanatics.) But even before Silver Blaze was printed Doyle had decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes. He had already written The Final Problem and was enormously relieved to describe the great detective and Professor Moriarty disappearing from the chasm's edge. It worried him, however, when readers, and especially his mother, insisted that he must have made a mistake, that Sherlock Holmes must still live.
By now Doyle's wife had contracted tuberculosis, and they lived for a time in Switzerland. Doyle appeased his restlessness by crossing a high pass in the Alps on skis, the first such crossing ever recorded, and then busied himself laying out the first golf course in the Alps at Davos. Moving on to the warmth of Egypt for his wife's health, he played golf frequently with the head of the Egyptian intelligence service. It was exotic stuff: the caddies carrying golf bags were really spies from the Sudan and, at the remote greens, communicated information to British agents playing golf, thereby evading the scrutiny of the Caliph's counterintelligence.
Obviously, British intelligence was trying to give Doyle real material for the next Sherlock Holmes stories. But Doyle did not want any more of that. What did he really want? In 1894 he had invented Brigadier Gerard, the dumb, conceited, brave and unforgettable hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Sherlock Holmes had been too perfect. Brigadier Gerard had no such flaw. He was honored by Napoleon himself as having the thickest skull and the stoutest heart in the entire French army. Doyle enjoyed writing about Brigadier Gerard. With his artless (or witless) self-disclosures, Brigadier Gerard revealed how totally unaware he was of the deplorable situations in which he often found himself. In How the Brigadier Slew the Fox, young Brigadier Gerard is ordered to ride around Wellington's army during the siege of Torres Vedras in the Peninsular Campaign to ascertain what the enemy is up to. But on the way he comes upon a group of English officers on a fox hunt. What with the excitement, the hounds, the hallooing and the fox, the Brigadier, without quite meaning to, gets caught up in the hunt. But since he is a superb rider—as he never fails to remind the reader—he soon outdistances the English and, since he does not understand the mores of fox hunting, he kills the fox. Now he expects to receive the cheers of 50 British officers. And there was indeed a considerable outcry. "They would not go away," says Brigadier Gerard. "They shouted and waved their hands at me. No, I do not think that it was in enmity. Rather I think that a glow of admiration filled their breasts...."
Along with the first volume of Brigadier Gerard stories, Doyle also wrote Rodney Stone, a blustering, fast-moving tale of bareknuckle fighters in the days of the Prince Regent, sometime before 1820. Doyle loved this book as he never loved his Sherlock Holmes stories. To begin with, he did an enormous amount of research on prizefight history. No one was going to correct his mistakes on this one. He knew more than the experts. Historical figures appeared: Daniel Mendoza, for instance, supposedly the best in the world in his time. The details had to be absolutely right: the ring was 24 feet square and was enclosed by a second ring eight feet outside it. Within this second ring were the beaters-out. These men were experienced prizefighters equipped, for championship fights, with horsewhips, and their function was to drive back the partisans who tried to storm the ring when their man was losing.
Rodney Stone was a success and would have been enough to make Doyle's reputation even without Sherlock Holmes. So it exasperated Doyle that people kept demanding ever more Sherlock Holmes stories. He wanted never to have to write about the detective again. It may be too much to say that he hated him, but he certainly tried to keep from adding to the Holmes mystique.
Doyle now had a new house at Hindhead in Surrey, outside London, with a large billiards room. He owned two motorcars and a motorcycle. About the time he was knighted (1902) he made his first balloon ascent, rising a mile and a half and drifting for 25 miles. His son Adrian, not the sportsman Doyle Sr. was, wrote of Sir Arthur's knighthood, "Titles meant less to him than reducing his golf handicap." True, Adrian and his father were sometimes at odds—Adrian accidently shot the gardener, wrecked his old man's automobile and set fire to the billiards room—but in this case Adrian was right.
Sir Arthur remained very active in sport. He boxed with first-rate amateurs of his day. He knew many of the celebrated fighters of his time—John L. Sullivan, Tommy Burns, Bombardier Wells, Georges Carpentier and Jimmy Wilde. But Conan Doyle was never a literary man awed by famous sports figures. He was a fine athlete awed by literary men.
In this period he was deep in first-class cricket, an occasionally effective batsman and a steady and reliable bowler, finally reaching his peak with The Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's. (Earlier, when Sherlock Holmes was riding the first wave of popularity in 1891, Doyle was not even around to enjoy the success. He was touring Holland with a British cricket team.)
Doyle occasionally made a modest mention of his cricket achievements. He wrote, with undue self-disparagement, that he was always on the fringe of really top-ranking competition, "a second-rater in all things." In matches against Kent and Derbyshire and Warwickshire he averaged 32 runs. He enjoyed his gleams of success with the spiritual home of cricket, The Marylebone Cricket Club, particularly on the day he got three consecutive clean-bowled wickets (the hat trick) against the Gentlemen of Warwick. He got a century in his first game at Lord's for the club—i.e., Marylebone—against Kent. He once had the good fortune to capture the wicket of W. G. Grace, "the greatest of all cricketers." But Grace got a speedy revenge by bowling him out. "There was nothing more childlike and bland," Doyle wrote of Grace, "than that slow, tossed-up bowling of his, and nothing more subtle and treacherous." It was no joke for Doyle to be bowled out, even if he was bowled out by the top cricketer in history. "One feels rather cheap," he wrote, "when one walks from the pitch to the pavilion, longing to kick oneself for one's own foolishness all the way."
"There does not seem to be anyone who has a complete record of Doyle's cricketing achievements," reports a London authority who looked into the matter recently. "On his 40th birthday  he wrote in his diary, I played cricket today, made 53 out of 106 made by the whole side, and bowled out 10 of my opponents.' His opponents were either 'a London Club' or 'a dragoon regiment at Norwich.' He bowled out his 10 opponents when playing both these clubs.
"Doyle did take seven wickets for 61 runs for the MCC against Cambridge on August 30 and 31, 1899, and it was considered the finest playing of his career. There seems to be no record of Doyle clean-bowling W. G. Grace. However, in a match at Crystal Palace on August 23, 24 and 25, 1900, Doyle had Grace caught at the wicket. Grace was playing for London County. This means that Doyle was bowling"—and Grace, in effect, fouled out to the catcher.
By this time, Doyle would probably never have written another Sherlock Holmes story had it not been for sport. He went on a golfing holiday at the Royal Links Hotel in Norfolk with the journalist Fletcher Robinson. (Nobody has since heard of Fletcher Robinson, but Doyle, characteristically, regarded him as a significant literary figure.) While there Doyle heard the story that gave him the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles, and in 1901 his great detective was back on the literary scene. Doyle carefully set the tale before Holmes' "death," but it was no use. The pressure was too great and he finally acceded and brought Sherlock Holmes back to life officially.
In the later Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle continued to introduce sports into the action, as he had done earlier. At the same time he was writing his second fight novel, The Croxley Master: A Great Tale of the Prize Ring, which was set in the relatively recent past. A young medical assistant in a mining town—much like Conan Doyle before he went into practice for himself—is underpaid by the physician with whom he is training and insulted by the top-ranking roughneck among the miners. At last he lets fly a straight drive to the roughneck's chin, discovering an unexpected pleasure in so doing. After the fight he learns he has felled a professional prizefighter. Shady characters drop by, suggesting that there was money to be made in the ring. All this contributes to the young man's dilemma of a dual existence as he conceals his ring career and goes on to fight the middleweight champion of North England. Conan Doyle was intensely serious about this book. He believes that the love of sport was a factor in English history—"it lies very deeply in the springs of our nature," he wrote. (With some reservations, he was willing to include Americans in this judgment.) When the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries was being promoted, Irving Lewis, the managing editor of the New York Morning Telegraph, cabled Doyle an invitation to referee, saying that the best class of American sporting men knew Doyle's work, his splendid stories of the ring and "your admiration of the great sport of boxing." Conan Doyle wanted to accept, and did so tentatively, but some of his family objected on the grounds that he would be killed in the race riots that were expected to follow the fight.
His stronger reason for refusing was that he was producing his prizefight play, an adaptation of Rodney Stone. He wanted to make it a gigantic stage spectacle, almost as elaborate as the movie extravaganzas that came much later. The play had huge crowd scenes, more than 40 speaking parts and a third act consisting of the championship fight itself. The play had almost the air of a sporting event; London papers sent prizefighters to review it. And it might have succeeded had not the expenses been so heavy that it barely broke even with the house sold out. After four months Doyle reluctantly closed it.
Road racing now absorbed him. In 1911 Prince Henry, the Kaiser's only brother, was promoting the Prince Hein-rich Automobilfahrt—50 German drivers of the Imperial Automobile against 40 drivers of the Royal Automobile, 150 miles a day, the course through Germany for the first half, and then from Southampton through Oxford, Leamington, Edinburgh, Windermere, Shrewsbury, Cheltenham and London. Penalties were assessed for breakdowns, accidents and other troubles and each car carried an officer of the army or navy of the other country to verify performance. Doyle and his wife—he had remarried after his first wife's death—had drawn Count Carmer, Rittmeister of the Breslau Cuirassiers (the highest ranking of the German military observers), to ride with them in their 16-hp Lorraine-Dietrich. Doyle's first impression of the Count was that he was inhumanly stiff-necked and haughty.
Most of the German cars were 70-and 80-hp Benzes and Mercedes. Prince Henry himself was driving a new white Benz. Doyle did not complain, except to mention the inhospitable reception in some German towns, or the reverse, when overenthusiastic crowds pelted the drivers with flowers. "Even a small bunch of flowers received in the face when you are traveling at a high speed may become a dangerous missile," he wrote later, adding with asperity that he had personally seen huge German racing machines force a small English-driven car off the road. In any event, Count Carmer so thawed out during the race as to become virtually a British partisan.
The English eventually won the three-week race though Doyle, since he never mentions the matter, was probably not among the leading finishers. In any case, he was skeptical about the benefits of the competition. As an effort to better international relations, Doyle said, "The race was a great failure."
American baseball, on the other hand, had his unreserved admiration. There is often a dutiful quality to an Englishman's expression of interest in American sports, just as there is apt to be with an American's inquiries about cricket. Something rings false. But Sir Arthur was genuinely fascinated by baseball. As a young amateur bowler he had felt that the Marylebone team, with its heavy admixture of professionals, had an advantage: the superior fielding of the professionals, their all-round excellence at bowling, batting and catching, was more than amateurs could overcome by bowling or bat alone. On his second American visit in 1914 the skill of Connie Mack's pennant-winning Athletics in the field—at catching, as he called it—amazed him. But Sir Arthur was no baseball snob; on off days during his lecture tour he went to minor-league games with the same interest. He had become an American baseball fan.
World War I, in which his oldest son Kingsley died, virtually ended Sir Arthur's sporting life. He had always been interested in psychic phenomena, and he now became a convert to spiritualism, devoting his time, his writings and his fortune to proving the existence of the spirit world. He covered 25,000 miles in lecture trips across the U.S. and Canada in the early 1920s, displaying to large crowds his collection of psychic photographs in which the ghostly features of the dead were plainly visible in the air above living figures.
What a strange experience it was, and how careful he was to record every aspect of it. In the days when H.L. Mencken and the rest of the iconoclasts were ridiculing spiritual hypocrisy and fakery, Doyle went patiently from town to town and hall to hall, talking with mediums, mystics, visionaries, table rappers, people who believed in ghosts, people who had seen spirits, people who sensed a spirit world hovering over and around them all the time. He must have known more American crackpots than anyone in history. He liked them. He liked them for their simplicity and earnestness and for their unworldliness. A portly, benign, much-ridiculed celebrity, worn out by lecturing on spiritualism to 250,000 people, he still had the patience to listen to anyone who came to him with news from the other world.
How could he keep his hold on reality? The American outdoors helped him maintain his touch with the physical world. He tramped in the redwood forests of California. He made a pack trip to the headwaters of the Athabasca River in Canada. He attended an "international match" between Minneapolis and Winnipeg. It was minor-league ball, he recognized, but "both sides seemed to me to be surprisingly good, and the fielding, catching and throwing-in were far superior to that of good English cricket teams."
And always the spirits hovered over him. In Chicago he was visited by a 20-year-old medium named Bruce Kemp. While Doyle and Kemp were quietly discussing baseball with the younger Doyle boys, Kemp's communicant from the other world suddenly took over. The spirit was an Iroquois Indian chief who wanted to talk about the Five Nations. Kemp's voice changed to an explosive roar. "No sane person could imagine that the tremendous sound we heard came from the gentle American lad," Doyle wrote later. Sir Arthur yelled back: "I am not in my own wigwam. We must not talk too loud!"
At full volume the spirit answered that he was a good Indian who never frightened anyone. The talk that followed was "so deafening and pitched in so strange a key that it was inaudible [sic], but when I could catch the words they were innocent enough, for they were to the effect that my boys were baseball fans."
In the end, sports served Sir Arthur in his spirit inquiries just as they served Sherlock Holmes in his stories—as a tangible background that brought mysteries back to everyday life. It was thoroughly consistent with Conan Doyle's life and writing that shortly before he died in 1930 at the age of 71, he achieved one more ambition. He drove a racing car around the Brooklands track at more than 100 mph.
There is a footnote for horse lovers to Doyle's literary life. Four years ago John Hislop, an English racing writer and horse owner, found himself with a promising colt which he named Brigadier Gerard. "I had no difficulty at all in deciding on a name," Hislop said. "As a small boy in school The Adventures of Gerard and The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard were two of my favorite books."
Brigadier Gerard—the horse—was unbeaten in four starts as a 2-year-old. He began as a 3-year-old by defeating Mill Reef—previously unbeaten—in the 2,000 Guineas, and by fall had made it 10 straight by taking the Champion Stakes by a short head in a rainstorm. "The Brigadier has some guts!" said Mrs. Hislop, which is the sort of remark readers made when they finished one of Doyle's stories about Brigadier Gerard's narrow escapes. As a 4-year-old this past season Brigadier Gerard—the horse—won the Lockinge Stakes, the Prince of Wales and the Eclipse. Until last August he was unbeaten in 15 starts. One more and he would have a place in history along with Citation and Ribot, the only other moderns to win 16 in a row. A loss to Roberto, the Derby winner, ended that hope of immortality, but the Brigadier came back in September to take the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. A month later Brigadier Gerard won the Champion Stakes for the second time and was retired, another addition to the list of wonder horses, and in a way a final vindication of Brigadier Gerard—the soldier—who lived so long in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes.