THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY

JULY 2015 BOOK REVIEW

This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2014, Volume 60, Number 2)

GUNFIGHTER IN GOTHAM – Bat Masterson’s New York Years. 

By Robert K. DeArment.  Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2013.  xi + 294 pages, inc contents, illustrations, introduction, footnotes, bibliography and index.  Hardcover.  ISBN 978-0-8061-4263-0  £17.00

Originally published as ‘Broadway Bat’ in Hawaii (2005) as a limited edition, this volume marks a chronological conclusion to DeAment’s studies of Bat Masterson. 

Masterson had used Denver as his base for many years while touring the country as gambler, boxing manager and referee. Having fallen out with the owners of the Denver Post, Bonfils and Tammen, and their sports editor Otto Floto, he moved east, arriving in New York on 5 June 1902.

Bat was no slouch at writing ‘letters to the editor’ and had for a short time contributed a regular feature on boxing to George’s Weekly when in Denver. In 1903 he was appointed as a sportswriter with the New York Morning Telegraph, featuring as the writer of a three times a week column specialising in boxing. Given very much a free hand, Masterson chronicled his life as a man about Times Square sharing with his readers his views on sport, life and politics. This weekly narrative was an invaluable resource in charting his progress in the big city.  

This last phase of Masterson’s eventful life serves to emphasise his uncompromising nature. A staunch Republican and Conservative, Masterson fought ‘reformers’ – prohibitionists, woman’s suffragists, the anti-boxing, anti-smoking and anti-gambling brigades - and corruption in boxing, while championing racial tolerance in sports, Theodore Roosevelt, military service in the Great War and the preservation of his own good name.   

Masterson was a loyal friend but a bitter enemy. His attitude badly distorted his judgment particularly in matters of the ring - his heart often overruling his head. His reputation as a connoisseur of fistic talent and a picker of winners in the ring was considered first rate. However, closer scrutiny shows that his predictions in the heavyweight division - the only one that really counted – were as often as not wrong.  His close friendship with Charlie Mitchell and Jim Corbett and a fractious relationship with Bob Fitzsimmons led to many wrong calls. 

Bat’s was a combative nature - never slow to take offense.  Though unconcerned at his reputation of having killed a couple of dozen men, in 1911 he sued Frank Ufer for libel. Ufer had suggested that he was ‘an alleged bad man and gun fighter who made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.’ Masterson won damages of $3,500. 

Most damaging to Masterson’s sporting reputation was his long lasting feud with Otto Floto. In 1899 the pair had gone into partnership in establishing the Colorado Athletic Association in Denver. With Floto’s local contacts, access to free publicity through the Post and Masterson’s contacts with the top boxers and managers the Association seemed a guaranteed success. However before ink was dry on the agreement, Floto gained financial backing from his employers, Bonfils and Tammen, and took personal control of the club. Masterson organised his own rival Olympic Athletic Club which initially was a success. However after a continuous stream of bad publicity in the Post, a comic opera confrontation between the feuding principals in a Denver street and the alleged contracting of James ‘Whispering’ Smith to shoot Masterson or run him out of town, Bat sold his club and went back on the gambling circuit until finally quitting in 1902.              

In 1917 a young Colorado heavyweight named Jack Dempsey started making a name for himself in California before heading east. When Masterson found that Dempsey was friendly with Floto, and had indeed been managed by him for a while, Bat took against him and refused to acknowledge quality in the youngster even after he had won the world championship. Masterson launched a dogged campaign against ‘slackers’ in his column and his prejudice against Dempsey seemed justified in his own mind when he found that Jack had avoided military call up as sole support of his wife, parents and siblings.  Partly due to Masterson’s oft repeated slacker charges, Dempsey was brought before a Federal Grand Jury and in February 1920 was indicted for draft evasion. A jury dismissed the charge within fifteen minutes. Though love was never lost between the pair, Masterson was finally forced to admit that Dempsey was a champion deserving of ranking with the great heavyweights of the past.         

After boxing had achieved a grudging acceptance in New York and a commission established to regulate it Masterson become disillusioned with the first three chairmen appointed and campaigned vigorously against them. The fourth appointee, William Muldoon, met with Bat’s approval only for him to veto a mixed race match between Dempsey and the leading contender, negro Harry Wills. Though the veto was abhorrent to Masterson and he voiced his disagreement, Muldoon was accepted as an utterly incorruptible champion of the sport and his decision gained widespread agreement from public and fans who feared a repetition of the race riots and deaths which followed the victory of negro Jack Johnson over Caucasian Jim Jeffries in 1910.           

Masterson’s move to New York amounted to his rejection of the west, more specifically Denver. When the west intruded in the person of such as Denver Post sports reporter Gene Fowler or Californian Bob Edgren they were rejected. Former law officer Richard D. Plunkett, who had known Bat in Dodge City, came with a Texas newspaper reporter in tow intent on debunking him. Bat dealt swiftly with the giant and his side-kick in the elegant café of the Wardolf-Astoria Hotel. Others such as old pal Bill Tilghman and former Denver Post journalist Damon Runyon were greeted with open arms.

Masterson rarely buried the hatchet. One instance cited by DeArment was that of Mike Sutton a former close friend of Dodge City vintage with whom Bat had fallen out in the aftermath of the shoot-out with Peacock and Updegraff in 1881. A shared liking for the spa at Hot Springs and support for Roosevelt rekindled their friendship in the days before WW1.   

Masterson had become a highly respected member of the New York newspaper world when on 25 October 1921 he suffered a fatal heart attack while at his typewriter, having finished his final column.

I detected only one significant error of fact on page 45. Recent research into contemporary newspapers show that Kid McCoy relieved Tommy Ryan of his claim to the world’s middleweight championship on 2nd March 1896 not the welterweight..  

This work is well up to DeArment’s usual high standard of historical research and writing. Since his definitive biography ‘Bat Masterson – The man and the legend,’ published in 1979, DeArment has published numerous articles on the subject, this latest volume is a fitting culmination to his researches.

K. R. Robinson

 

 

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