- Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown
In 1922 prospectors struck oil near Shelby, Montana. Instead of increasing the fortunes of the area residents, however, it led to a series of decisions that made the town and its citizens laughing stocks. As Jason Kelly skillfully recounts in Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown, Shelby boosters decided to put their newfound oil wealth into staging a heavyweight boxing title match between the champion, Jack Dempsey, and a little-known challenger named Tommy Gibbons. While boxing enthusiasts were treated to a surprisingly competitive match, few fans actually paid to see the fight. By the time the cuts and bruises had healed, the fight’s backers were in financial ruins and the little town became a “national joke.” In the following years, people approached Dempsey’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns and said, often with a mix of awe, envy, and accusation: “You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.” The sly Kearns eagerly corrected them: “We broke four” (pp. 189–190).
The idea of bringing Dempsey and the title fight to Shelby started out as a stunt to produce national attention for the boomtown. The goal was simply to make a few headlines across the country and then retract any offers. Somehow, though, the canard morphed into serious ambition. Kelly convincingly contends that Shelby became infected by a “boisterous spirit of boosterism,” as residents convinced themselves that they could and should pull off a real event. They began to believe their own bluster, and soon the “confidence became contagious” (pp. 52–54). The fervor outmatched consideration of the logistical and financial details, as locals became enthralled with the idea that Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion and American celebrity, was coming to Montana. As the former boxing manger William A. Brady noted, “You have a boomtown where men are ready to take a chance on anything which promises success, and I know the men are of the type who would wager a lot of money on the turn of the card” (p. 96). The wily Kearns fueled the town’s exuberance by telling Shelbyites what they wanted to hear, claiming that “Shelby is in a position to become the fight capital of the nation” (p. 107).
Eventually the fiscal and organizational realities began to set in, but not before the $200,000 payment to Dempsey mysteriously ballooned to a crippling $300,000 through the maneuverings of the scheming Kearns. In addition, Shelby had no stadium, infrastructure, restaurants, and few hotel rooms. One skeptical promoter noted the city had “nerve,” but “little else” (p. 49). Shelby was forced to import labor and lumber, creating “suffocating construction costs” and unforeseen problems such as the presence of the International Workers of the World. Locals bought up blocks of tickets in advance to ensure the fight’s viability, hoping to resell them to the mass of boxing devotees expected to materialize via rail from Los Angeles and New York to fill the ridiculously expansive 40,000-seat octagonal arena. In the end, only about 8,000 paying customers showed, in part because of justifiable fears over whether the fight would actually happen. Gate crashers [End Page 150] flooded in after cutting through the barbed wire fence circling the stadium, as men and women, some with babies, ignored warning shots from sheriff’s deputies. At the match, the ringside announcer paged a “Mr. Leonard Diehl.” A cry from ringside said it all: “Page Mr. Raw Deal!” (p. 5).
As Kelly shows, the neophyte leaders of Shelby’s “hasty crusade” were highly vulnerable to sharks like Doc Kearns (p. 42). The ostentatious Kearns, who was advised early in his promoting career to “be a showman all the time,” emerges as the most colorful character in this tale. He was introduced to sporting hustles from the start; his first win as a fighter was via the fix. Though the business of sports...