By Geoffrey C. Ward
Special to ESPN Book Club

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey C. Ward Copyright (c) 2004 by The American Lives II Project, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In September, Johnson returned to California, the scene of his first important victories. George Little came with him on the train. So did Hattie McClay, now back in his good graces and traveling as Mrs. Johnson. But soon after he and she had settled into their rooms above Webb's saloon in the black section of Oakland, he sent money to Belle Schreiber asking her to come west as well. She rented a room at the Athens Hotel as "Mrs. Jack Leslie," and over the next few weeks Johnson moved back and forth between the two women as the mood suited.

He had signed with Sunny Jim Coffroth for two fights at Colma: the potentially big one with Stanley Ketchel in October and a sort of warm-up against Al Kaufmann on September 9. Kaufmann was a burly former blacksmith who hit hard but moved slowly. Johnson did not take him seriously, scoffing after a visit to Kaufmann's training camp that to use his uppercut against him would be "cruelty to children." More than mere self-assurance may have been in play. George Little would later claim to be in possession of a document, signed by himself, Johnson, Kaufmann, and Jim Coffroth, showing they had all agreed that the fight should go the distance in order to build the box office for the Ketchel contest: if Johnson seemed unable to defeat Al Kaufmann decisively, maybe the middleweight champion had a real chance -- or so they wanted potential ticket buyers to think.

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Certainly, Johnson didn't seem to try very hard on the afternoon of the fight. "Kaufmann had no more chance of blocking my left than a turtle has of running down a Bakersfield jack rabbit," Johnson recalled. "When we went into a clinch, I would playfully tap Kaufmann with my right uppercut, pin his hands, shove him away, and then wing my right and left to his jaw." Little later alleged that several times between rounds he'd had to warn his fighter to hold back for fear he'd overdo it and send Kaufmann to the canvas, and Johnson did seem unusually reluctant to close in when he had his opponent in trouble. Though most ringsiders agreed that Johnson had won all ten rounds -- a writer for the San Francisco Bulletin counted just six punches landed by Kaufmann in the whole fight -- the referee refused to declare a winner.

The crowd hissed the champion before and after the bout, but the next day he sauntered down Market Street wearing a rose in the buttonhole of his fawn-colored overcoat and without a mark on his smiling face, as if he'd won a great victory and couldn't wait to fight again. Where was Jeffries? he asked. Why couldn't they do battle right away? A passerby suggested that Jeffries would kill him. "Bring him along," he said, laughing. "I'm perfectly willing to be killed."

To prepare for Ketchel, Johnson and his entourage took over several rooms on the second floor of the Seal Rock House, a handsome, rambling hotel overlooking Ocean Beach. "With the waning of the day the parlors blaze with electric lights," one visitor noted, "the wood leaps bright in the wide open fireplace, the entertainers play, the wine flows." Both Belle Schreiber and Hattie McClay were in residence and, if Johnson's memoir can be believed, things didn't go well between them, at least in the beginning: "Naturally, there was a state of warfare between Hattie and Belle which threatened to break out into open and disastrous hostilities at any moment. . . . I slipped in and out of the hotel in a manner that would have aroused newspaper reporters to much excited speculation . . . had they known of my maneuvers."

Because Stanley Ketchel was white and Jim Coffroth was determined to sell the upcoming bout as a racial contest, the newspapers emphasized the differences between Ketchel and the heavyweight champion, not the similarities. In fact, they had a lot in common. Each was supremely self-confident: Ketchel routinely sent a wire to his father before his fights announcing that he had won, because, he said, he was afraid he'd forget to do it afterward. Both men loved racing cars and gambling, alcohol and the limelight: after making his New York debut, Ketchel drove up Fifth Avenue wearing a pink bathrobe and throwing peanuts to passersby just to draw a crowd. Both had what the writer John Lardner called "a dim sense of property rights in regard to women." And both men enjoyed flirting with danger: Ketchel rarely dined in public without a blue Colt revolver across his knees and once deliberately drove his roadster into a San Francisco fruit stand just to see the limes and lemons fly.

Ketchel won the undisputed middleweight championship in 1908 and the following year chose as his manager Willus Britt, an alcoholic former featherweight who was both one of the game's shrewdest operators -- he had guided Battling Nelson to the lightweight title -- and one of its most shameless. He was also a realist. There was no way to get around the fact that Ketchel was merely a middleweight, at least thirty pounds lighter and more than four inches shorter than the heavyweight champion. ("Why he's just a little fella," Jim Jeffries said when he learned that a Johnson-Ketchel fight was in the offing.) And, as W. W. Naughton wrote, for all Ketchel's courage and knockout power, he remained a "rusher," while Johnson was the acknowledged master of "reach and range and farawayness."

See Jack Johnson's story on PBS
"Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" is the latest film from Ken Burns. It premieres Jan. 17 and 18 on PBS (check local listings for times).

Burns, who previously directed the documentaries "Baseball" and "The Civil War" was interviewed by Page 3's Miki Turner about Johnson and the movie.

  • Interview with Ken Burns
  • Read the Page 3 review of the movie
  • If boxing fans were going to buy tickets, they had somehow to be convinced that the fight was not a mismatch. Before the two men were photographed together, Britt had a cobbler build cowboy boots for Ketchel with four-inch heels and dressed him in a long, specially padded overcoat to disguise the difference in their sizes. Then, he invited the press to come see his man work outand made sure all three of Ketchel's lumbering heavyweight sparring partners went down for the count in full view of gullible reporters.

    But Britt was not content with that. He didn't fix the fight, exactly. "There is a great difference between a fix and a deal," Johnson would helpfully explain, but "we did have a deal." According to him, Britt set it forth at their first meeting. "Let's be practical, Jack," he said. "We all know you can murder Ketchel. I'm not kidding myself. I wouldn't let him get into the ring with you for a million dollars unless I had your word that you wouldn't hurt him." Johnson shook hands on it, or so he later said.

    But there was another more compelling reason for Johnson to agree to prolong the fight than Willus Britt's solicitude for his fighter's well-being. Johnson and Ketchel were to split 40 percent of the proceeds for the films of this fight. The longer it went -- the longer the doughty little white man seemed able to hold his own against the far larger black champion -- the bigger the film's box office was sure to be. And so, to "make the pictures snappy and worth seeing" -- and more profitable -- Johnson said, he agreed to let Ketchel "make a good showing" for at least twelve of the twenty scheduled rounds.

    The two men met on the afternoon of October 16 before ten thousand fans at Jim Coffroth's arena at Colma. Ketchel's normal demeanor just before the bell rang was grim and stoic; this was the time when he worked up hatred for his opponent. But this afternoon he was seen weeping as he waited on his stool. All sorts of explanations for this emotional display were offered later: some said he'd simply been overwhelmed by the responsibility of bearing the standard of the white race into battle; others thought he was unhappy at taking part in a contest in which he was expected to give less than his best; still others claimed he'd just been told Johnson would be fighting in earnest, not merely coasting.

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  • For eleven rounds the bout went more or less the way the Burns fight had gone. Johnson towered over his opponent, picking off his punches, smiling and chatting with ringsiders, landing just often and just hard enough to cause Ketchel's mouth and nose to bleed but to do no more serious damage. Several times Johnson simply lifted the smaller man into the air, feet dangling like an oversized rag doll, and put him down just where he liked. One ringsider called it "a struggle between a demon and a gritty little dwarf."

    Then, midway through the twelfth, Ketchel strayed from the script. He and Willus Britt, crouching below his corner, had evidently planned a double-cross. As Johnson sent yet another long, lazy jab toward Ketchel's face, Britt shouted, "Now, Stanley, now!" and the middleweight champion lunged forward with an overhand right. It landed just behind the champion's left ear. Johnson's feet went out from under him. He caught himself with one hand, then sprang up again, a sheepish grin on his face.

    The crowd was stunned. So, evidently, was Ketchel, whose gaze remained fixed on his manager. Perhaps he was waiting for further instructions. In any case, Johnson hit him in the mouth so hard with his right hand that the force of the blow sent both men to the floor.

    Ketchel stayed there, flat on his back, arms outflung. Four of his teeth were strewn across the canvas. The grim-faced crowd fell silent as the referee counted him out. Johnson stood, one arm along the top rope, the other on his hip, peering down anxiously for some sign that his opponent would revive. It took several minutes. The photograph that appeared in most newspapers the next morning captured both the black champion, standing over his unconscious white opponent, and a lone black spectator amid the grim-faced whites at ringside, struggling to contain his glee. It only served to fuel white fervor for Jeffries' return. So did black jubilation at Johnson's triumph: at Memphis, for example, the Associated Press reported that steamboat traffic had come to a halt as "deck hands, picked exclusively from the negro race," remained onshore, first to hear the telegraph bulletins from ringside and then to celebrate the good news.

    * * * * *

    A few days later, San Francisco began a five-day, citywide celebration meant to honor the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Don Gaspar de Portolá, the first European visitor to San Francisco Bay in 1769, and to mark San Francisco's "renaissance from ruin" after the earthquake of 1906 as well. A highlight of the festivities was to be a parade of sixteen hundred decorated automobiles down Market Street. Both sides of the street were hung with flags, bunting, and the red and yellow colors of Catalonia, Portolá's homeland. Thousands lined the sidewalks as the long line of vehicles awaited the signal to start their engines. Suddenly, a big sixty-nine-horsepower Thomas Flyer roared down the middle of the empty avenue ahead of everyone, with Jack Johnson waving from his elevated seat behind the wheel. Some cheered. Many booed. When he slowed for a crossing, a policeman leaped onto the running board and ordered him to stop. "At the police station," one paper reported, "he was flippant and gave his occupation as 'lawyer.' " It took a crisp hundred-dollar bill to get him out on bail, but it had been worth it. He had enjoyed himself.

    "Jack Johnson is running wild," Beany Walker wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, "and the only man that figures to tame the negro is on the ocean waves battling against seasickness and homesickness. Jim Jeffries is rushing to America as fast as steam will bring him. The sooner the big boy arrives home, the better it will be for the peace of mind of the fight followers of this country."

    The stakes were higher than that, the editor of the British magazine Boxing told his readers: Jack Johnson threatened the power and status of all white men everywhere.

      With Johnson's decisive decision over Stanley Ketchel, the road is cleared for the long expected battle between the black champion and the great hero, the only man to whom we can look to wrest back the title for the dominant race. It is not so much a matter of racial pride as one of racial existence which urges us so ardently to desire the ex-boilermaker's triumph.

      The coloured races outnumber the whites, and have hitherto only been kept in subjection by a recognition on their part of physical and mental inferiority.

      But a great change has come over the situation of late years. The Russo-Japanese War proved that a coloured people could conquer a white nation in war even under modern conditions and ever since there have been signs of unrest among the subject nations, displaying itself in India, in the Philippine Islands, and elsewhere. Then came Jack Johnson's great triumph over Tommy Burns and White and Black stood before the world in suddenly inverted positions again.

      Here we are, the hitherto dominant race, compelled to recognize that an American negro, the descendant of an emancipated slave, is the principal figure, our acknowledged master at the one great physical sport in which actual personal superiority can ever be authoritatively tested. Does anyone imagine for a moment that Johnson's success is without its political influence, an influence which has only been checked from having full vent by the personality of Jim Jeffries?

      Jeff may smash Johnson when they meet . . . and by so doing restore us to something like our old position. We shall never quite regain it, because the recollection of our temporary deposition will always remain to inspire the coloured peoples with hope. While if, after all, Johnson should smash Jeffries -- But the thought is too awful to contemplate.

    The New York Times was more succinct:

      Even those who have an absurdly exaggerated horror of prize fighting as a "brutal" sport should gently warm in their sensitive minds a little hope that the white man may not lose, while the rest of us will wait in open anxiety the news that he has licked the -- well, since it must be in print, let us say the negro, even though it is not the first word that comes to the tongue's tip.