On those rare occasions when someone in my presence dismisses sports as trivial, I have a stock reply, just one tiny example of the many ways in which sports are not just not trivial, but vitally important: It is impossible to understand 20th century race relations in the United States without knowing about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.
Two good new books tell the stories of a pair of America's early black athletic stars, Johnson and Jimmy Winkfield, a jockey whose success just after the turn of the century marked the end of the black dominance of thoroughbred riding that had begun in slave days.
Johnson is by far the better-known figure. Even the most casual of sports fans could identify him as the first black heavyweight champion. Winkfield is virtually unknown. He won consecutive Kentucky Derbies and spent a long, colorful lifetime in racing on two continents, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone but racing history buffs who's ever heard his name.
"Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield" is TV newsman and thoroughbred historian Ed Hotaling's attempt to change that, and it's been successful enough that the New York Racing Association has named a race after Winkfield. The first Jimmy Winkfield Stakes will be run at Aqueduct on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," by Geoffrey C. Ward, is a companion piece to a new Ken Burns documentary, but you'd never know it without reading the acknowledgments. It stands alone as a life of the enormous figure Jack Johnson was, and it does him justice.
Johnson and Winkfield were contemporaries, the strapping future boxer born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, and the tiny future jockey two years later in Chilesburg, Ky., just outside of the equine capital Lexington. They even shared a childhood hero, Isaac Murphy, the greatest jockey of his day and the highest-paid American athlete of the mid-1880s, black or white. The difference was that Winkfield knew Murphy, who lived in Lexington.
Deciding young that he wanted to emulate "Honest Ike," who lived like a king, Winkfield worked as a carriage driver, shoeshine boy, stable hand and exercise boy before making his riding debut at 18. The aggressive style that would soon be his trademark earned him a place finish -- and a one-year suspension!
Winkfield, the last of 17 children of a sharecropper, benefited from the relative racial tolerance of the Bluegrass. The Ku Klux Klan had a hard time getting a toehold in the area, Hotaling writes, because the rich white horse owners weren't about to let their black riders, trainers and grooms come to harm, and the importance of these mostly skilled blacks in the local economy led to a certain level of respect, even if it was grudging.
It wouldn't last. In the first decade of the new century, a combination of anti-gambling laws that closed most tracks and a takeover of the shrinking industry by white jockeys had made the black jockey extinct on these shores. Winkfield, in his prime, had been blackballed in 1903 after a dispute with an owner over money. Except for a brief return, he'd spend the rest of his jockeying career in Europe.
Winkfield's life reads a bit like a picaresque novel from this point. He spent time racing in czarist Russia, then, after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917 -- one year after Winkfield had earned $100,000 -- he escaped with some of the aristocracy to Odessa. When the Red Army came crashing in there, the great jockey led a few of his rich benefactors and more than 1,000 thoroughbreds on a harrowing, 1,110-mile wintertime march across the Carpathian Mountains to Warsaw, Poland. The horses that died were eaten.
Winkfield ended up in France as a trainer, once again hobnobbing with bigwigs, dressing in the finest clothes and eating caviar. Twenty years later he was on the run again, this time with the Nazis at his heels. He ended up back in the States, a dapper, fairly well-known figure in the racing world until his death in 1974, but forgotten by history.
Hotaling's book could and should be a bit quicker. There's a little too much detail about this race or that one, or, say, the mechanics of starting devices in the 19th century. But that's a quibble. Hotaling doesn't fail Winkfield, whose story is so fascinating, so extraordinary, that once it kicks into gear you'll find yourself astounded that you haven't heard it before. How can it be that there hasn't been a movie about Wink?
There have been movies about Jack Johnson, the most famous of which was "The Great White Hope," based on the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning Broadway play. In 1968, Muhammad Ali, who the year before had been stripped of his heavyweight title for his refusal to be drafted, went to the dressing room of James Earl Jones, who was starring as protagonist Jack Jefferson, an undisguised Johnson.
"That's my story," Jones remembers Ali saying. "You take out the issue of the white women and replace that with the issue of religion. That's my story."
It was and it wasn't. As Ward shows, Johnson -- like Ali -- was far too complex to be reduced to a template like "black athlete succeeds, then becomes victim of racism."
For one thing, Johnson didn't think of himself as a black boxer but merely a boxer. Though he knew he was a hero to his race, he really wasn't interested in the racial politics that dominated his career and life. Like Winkfield, Johnson had grown up in a relative oasis of tolerance. Galveston, like rival Gulf seaports Mobile and New Orleans, was segregated and ruled by whites, but was more relaxed about race than most other Texas and Southern towns. Johnson wrote that as a boy, he ran with a gang of white kids. Except when he was in exile, Johnson considered Chicago home as an adult.
As with Winkfield, the culture of Johnson's hometown seems to have given him the notion -- mostly foreign to blacks in late-19th century America -- that he need not limit his choices in life. About the accommodationist Booker T. Washington, who was something of an enemy, Johnson wrote, "I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist."
This admirable idea had already cost him dearly when he wrote those words in 1927.
Johnson spent two years chasing heavyweight champ Tommy Burns all over the world, first to France, then to Australia, before Burns finally agreed to fight him in 1908 for $30,000, an unheard of amount he probably figured no one would ever pay. Johnson would pointedly use it in negotiations once he became champ.
Burns had won the title from Marvin Hart, a journeyman who had been more or less declared champ by Jim Jeffries, who retired undefeated in 1904 rather than become the first modern champ to break the color line and meet a black challenger, a number of whom existed, Johnson the best of them.
Johnson knocked Burns out -- a policeman stepped in in time to save Burns and avoid the spectacle of a white man being knocked unconscious by a black man -- and then beat Jeffries in the so-called Battle of the Century in 1910. Jeffries had been convinced to come out of retirement by fans and newspaper writers who wanted him to win the title back on behalf of the white race. The Great White Hope. Johnson toyed with the over-the-hill ex-champ before knocking him out too.
But Johnson looked at these and other victories not as wins over whites, or the white race, but as wins in matches between two athletes. He simply refused to see himself as a black man living in a white world. And that was his downfall.
His fondness for traveling with white women, who were often former prostitutes and whom he always introduced as "Mrs. Jack Johnson" -- which they occasionally were -- outraged whites. His taste in fancy clothes, fast cars and saying what was on his mind didn't help. Even some blacks turned on him for doing more harm to the cause of race relations than good.
Eventually he ran into a federal vendetta against him and was prosecuted under the new Mann Act. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, but fled to France through Canada. He remained in exile for seven years, during which time he lost his title to Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915, before homesickness and diminishing prospects led him to turn himself in in 1920. He did his time at Leavenworth.
He spent the rest of his life doing this and that, some fighting, some vaudeville and tent shows, and died in a car wreck in 1946, on his way from Texas to New York to watch the second Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight.
Johnson's relationship with Louis is illustrative of how difficult he is to pin down. Though Johnson and Louis are often teamed up in historical accounts much as I did in the first paragraph of this column, they couldn't stand each other. A young Louis was thrilled to meet Johnson, but after Johnson was rebuffed in an attempt to become Louis' trainer, he turned on the younger man and never missed a chance to criticize him in public.
Johnson took to offering his services to Louis' opponents, including champ James Braddock, whom Louis knocked out to win the title. None took him up on it. "Nobody likes a poor, sore-ass loser," Louis wrote in his autobiography.
This is all just scratching the surface of Johnson's life. With little education, he was a wit and a fine public speaker. He regaled reporters with performances on his bass violin. Fancying himself an auto racer, he once challenged the great Barney Oldfield to a match race, which he lost embarrassingly.
And always, despite Johnson's beliefs, there was race. Johnson's success led to the banning of boxing films. His public associations with white women led to a wave of new anti-miscegenation laws, about which, by the way, it's impossible to read without thinking of the current wave of anti-gay-marriage statutes.
As great as Johnson was as a boxer -- he was dominant -- he's best remembered as a symbol, as the first black champ, the one who was hounded by racists and forced into exile and prison. He was more than that. He was a giant, a giant of skill, courage and ambition, but also a giant of hubris and self-destruction.
"Unforgivable Blackness" makes him walk and talk. It's a great read.
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