Shelby Vision of Fight Fame May Ruin Men Whose Money Backed Dream

Damon Runyon

El Paso Times/June 26, 1923

Damon Runyon Finds in Montana Town Tragedy of “Big Idea That Failed to Grow Up,” as Loyal Villagers Face Heavy Financial Losses

Civic Pride to Put Up Last Dollar for Bout

Citizens Pledge Their All to Guarantee Dempsey-Gibbons Contest, After Early Payments of $224,000 to Ensure July 4th Program

SHELBY. MONT., June 25. Something that strikes the writer as touching on tragedy is going on in this little Montana town, still in the blood raw of municipal life. It is the tragedy of a big idea that failed to grow up. If you ever had an idea that so failed you, that is indeed tragedy. Sitting in a small room in a frame hotel last night, we heard the story from the lips of some of the men who conceived the idea, from the dreamers of the dream of staging a world’s championship fight in this place. And having heard it, we can now understand their motives, We have looked into the mystery that has been puzzling the east the mystery of “why Shelby?” It seems reasonably certain as this is written that the Dempsey-Gibbons fight will take place in Shelby on July 4th, just as scheduled, but present indications are that it may take place at terrific sacrifice to many loyal men. It may leave some of them “broke.”

Financial Fizzle Expected

It may be one of the greatest battles for the heavyweight title in the history of the prize ring. It will have an amazing scenic setting. Yet the present indications are that it will be a financial lizzie, and therein lies the tragedy. As we sat listening last night a cold rain was falling outside. You could hear it pattering softly in the puddles of water in the clay streets, already ankle deep in mud. The men who talked wore heavy boots. They were fine, upstanding men, strong western types. They spoke with great candor. They pretended no sophistication. They admitted that they were babes in the pugilistic woods in the beginning, and that they wandered around until they got lost.

Through an open window we could see the lights of Shelby gleaming vaguely from the doors of restaurants and stores. Solly Harris, the pugilistic promoter who has achieved fame as the occupant of the only room with bath in Shelby, sat at our elbow, corroborating with nods the statements of the talkers.

Shelby’s Growth Amazing

Solly came here five years ago to assist the promoters of the fight. He is now a Shelby pioneer, and can tell amazing tales of the startling growth of the town which rose from 700 to 4,500 inhabitants in a few months. Silent city-wise, brought up on Manhattan, always indigenous to the big town, Harris speaks of the boom of Shelby with pride.

Five weeks of life in a new town, where day one sees houses springing up on barren lots, new businesses blossoming on every hand, where every day there is visual evidence of progress, have tinctured his blase blood with the spirit of the new town, the spirit that makes every man at heart a booster, a boomer.

The Dempsey-Glbbons fight goes back to this spirit.

A small group of men in Shelby wanted to do something big, wanted to attract attention to their little town, which they believe to be one of coming big towns of the west, what every western man with a spark of vitality in him believes of his own town.

They had nothing in particular to sell. Oil has been discovered near Shelby, several paying wells are now flowing, but oil will sell without a ballyhoo. The impression that the advertising of the oil fields was behind the Dempsey-Gibbons fight seems to be entirely erroneous.

What the Shelby men wanted to do more than anything else, as the writer gathers, was to attract attention to their part of the state by putting over an apparently impossible feat, feeling that the world would then say of them, if they could do that, they could do anything.

A Vision of Achievement

Then, although this seems to have been a dream quite in the background, some of them felt that they could eventually put over a $10,000,000 irrigation project, long planned and long discussed, which would make this section of Montana boom like a garden.

This is a dry farming region. For six years they have had no crops. Most of the farmers are broke after putting in some of the best years of their lives here.

This year, few of them bothered to put in crops, mainly for the reason that they could not go to the expense. Ironically enough, rain has been falling off and on for weeks. This is part of the tragedy.

You must not definitely connect the Dempsey-Gibbons fight and the irrigation project which would be the salvation of the farmers, save in that they were all fragments of the general dream of doing something big, something that would bring Shelby up from the dead level of mediocrity among towns. So it all started with a telegram from Sam Sampson, one of the citizens of Shelby, to Jack Kearns, manager of Jack Dempsey. The telegram never reached Kearns, but was opened by Kearns’ New York representative, Dan McKetrick. The writer happened to be in McKetrick’s office when he got the telegram, and remembers Dan’s laugh as he tossed the message over.

Collins Takes Kearns’ Trail

McKetrick didn’t take it seriously, and Kearns didn’t take it seriously when he heard of the matter. They thought it was one of the usual telegrams managers of champions receive from small town “bugs” bidding on big fights. Sampson eventually faded from the proceedings, but other citizens of Shelby took up where he left off and kept wiring Kearns.

Their insistence finally aroused Kearns’ interest, especially when they engaged Mike Collins, former manager of Fred Fulton, now editor of the Boxing Blade, and a well-known boxing promoter of Minneapolis, to dicker with him for them. Collins was in the room last night while the talk was going on, a handsome Irishman, with a serious expression. He will get little out of this thing save thanks.

Loy J. Molumby, one of the state officers of the American Legion, also entered the proceedings and it was Molumby and Collins who finally closed the match after following Kearns to Salt Lake. Through Molumby and Collins the little town of Shelby agreed to terms that everyone In the boxing world thought impossible for anyone except the biggest boxing promoters, part of the terms being the immediate payment of $144,000 to Kearns and Dempsey. It was all easy enough so far, and Shelby went about building a splendid arena and advertising the fight with great confidence.

Prospects Brighten

Then came the date of the second payment of $100,000 to Kearns, and a delay in raising the money. It is said that enough tickets had been sold on the outside to take care of this second payment, but the money is held in escrow and could not be released.

The hitch compelled some of the original promoters of the fight to drop into the background. It was necessary to bring in new financial blood. The delay, and the talk over the delay, undoubtedly hurt the gate receipts. It gave rise to doubt as to the fight coming off. Cancellations of reservations began coming in.

Things have looked brighter the past few days, but the most optimistic doubt if the fight will draw enough money at the gates to “break even.” It seems a great pity. There is nothing humorous to the writer in the potential financial failure. He would like to see it averted. These men of Shelby are fine, courteous men. Even at a time when it does not look any too happy for them they find time and occasion to manifest their hospitality to visitors.

To Pay Final Installment.

They are determined that the fight shall come off if it takes the last dollar In town. They expect to pay over to Kearns and Dempsey the final installment within another 24 hours and thus relieve all suspense in that direction. With a certainty that the fight will take place, who knows but a miracle will occur, and the great arena, now awaiting occupants will fill to the brim, leaving something for the men who have staked so much as a matter of civic pride?

It Is nothing to laugh at.

You look at Shelby, and seeing it with the eyes of casual observer, you see only a muddy little town with clapboard houses, and store buildings erected with great haste.

You look at Shelby, straggling along the railroad tracks, and you see just another town like scores of other towns dotting the prairies of the west and you may possibly wonder that anyone could find civic pride in such a place.

You may think possibly that the civic pretensions of such a town futile—foolish. You see the citizens of Shelby in raincoats and boots, bending their heads to the drizzle and you may think of them as dull, prosaic. But if you could look into the hearts of the men at Shelby, and into their minds, you would find there the loyalty, born of honesty of purpose, and the pride of race that has made America.

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