One underdog celebrates another

Harry S. Truman's upset 1948 presidential victory spurred another underdog, James J. Braddock, to send congratulations, ESPN producer William Weinbaum explains

Originally Published: June 12, 2005
By William Weinbaum | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: June 13 marks the 70th anniversary of James J. Braddock's upset victory over Max Baer for the world heavyweight title. Braddock's victory galvanized a nation in tough economic times. ESPN television producer William Weinbaum has uncovered a connection between Braddock and President Harry Truman, two celebrated underdogs.

James J. Braddock went broke and was on relief during the Great Depression.

Some Braddock-Truman facts
•  James J. Braddock, 1906-74
•  Harry S. Truman, 1884-1972
•  June 13, 1935 James J. Braddock def. Max Baer, 15-round decision, Long Island City, NY
President Truman, campaigning for Adlai Stevenson, Brockton, MA, 10/18/52:
"I am happy to be here this morning in this city which is famous for its shoes, and for its great boxing champion, Rocky Marciano. I imagine that if you were to have your 'druthers 'as we say in Missouri, you would much rather see Marciano than to be listening to the President make a speech. This reception at this time of day, however, is a real knockout. And this makes me feel that we are going to knock out the Republicans just as we did in 1948."
(Stevenson lost the election the next month to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Harry S. Truman started a haberdashery after World War I and went bankrupt.

In 1935, Braddock pulled off boxing's greatest upset, taking the world heavyweight championship from Max Baer. In 1948, Truman staged the biggest electoral upset, retaining the U.S. presidency by defeating Thomas E. Dewey, though a Chicago Tribune headline famously proclaimed Dewey the victor.

The parallels in the paths to the top taken by the two men in their respective professions apparently didn't escape the attention of Braddock. An unpublished Dec. 6, 1948 letter he wrote to the president, five weeks after the stunning election, is on file at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo.

In Braddock's note, typed on the letterhead of "James J. Braddock Salvage & Marine Equipment" of New York City, he wrote the following (with a unique style of capitalization, punctuation and usage):

James Braddock's letter to Harry Truman
Dear Champ: Will you please excuse me for not congratulating you sooner, as I did not want this letter to get lost in the shuffle. Knowing you to be a boxing fan, I think you will remember a few years ago, when every newspaper in the country said I was a has been, all washed up, and I couldn't make the grade. With all that I went on to win the Heavyweight Title of the world. Price don't mean a thing when you know you are right or you have it in you to win. Which we both did. I sure know how it feels.

Well Champ, do you think you can take me on for a few rounds? I think you can, the movies show you to be in excellent condition.

Congratulations again and Keep Punching. And as they say in the boxing game, "Protect Yourself at all times."

Lots of luck and Best Wishes.

Sincerely,

Jim Braddock (former Heavyweight Champion)

PS: If you have just a few minutes to spare, I would like to come to Washington and shake hands with a great Champ. Expecting to hear from you. Jim

On Dec. 9, 1948, Secretary to the President Matthew J. Connelly wrote back, conveying thanks for the congratulations and good wishes, but regrets that Braddock's request for a meeting would go unfulfilled. The Connelly letter – a carbon copy of which is housed in the Truman Library – said, "I am sure you will understand. … that due to the President's schedule from now until well after the Inauguration, we have found it impossible to add any further commitments for some time to come."

Letter from President Truman's office to Braddock

Truman
Truman
Braddock
Braddock

According to Truman Library Archivist Randy Sowell, the president was "not a passionate follower of any sport," but there is documentation of Truman's attending amateur boxing matches.

In World War I, Truman commanded an artillery battery in France. As he was waiting to go home after the Armistice, Captain Truman's unit was matched against a rival battery. Truman wrote to his future wife, Bess: "My Sergeant Meisburger lost the decision over a gorilla named Hamby, and I lost 1,000 francs. … the other fellow had to be carried from the ring and my man walked out."

On Aug. 6, 1945, President Truman attended bouts held by the crew aboard the USS. Augusta while crossing the Atlantic. According to the president's trip log, he attended a "most delightful program of entertainment and boxing" on the ship's well deck at 1530 (3:30 p.m.) and "the afternoon's program came to an abrupt end when the ring posts collapsed during the last boxing bout." One seaman, a spectator, suffered a slight injury from the falling post and went to the sick bay, where he was visited by the president.

Harry Truman
AP Photo/Byron RollinsTruman's victory moved Braddock to write the president.

If that Aug. 6, 1945 date seems familiar, it's for good reason.

Earlier that day, while the president was eating lunch with the crew, he was informed that the first atomic bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. "It may seem strange that the president and his party attended boxing matches after learning of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima," Sowell says, "but at the time there was a feeling of relief and even jubilation aboard ship at the realization that the war might end sooner than anyone had dared hope."

On a much less momentous day two years later, President Truman, while returning from a conference in Rio de Janeiro, also attended a boxing match aboard the USS Missouri.

Even if Truman wasn't a serious boxing fan, he knew when a line from a boxer had the right ring to it.

1948 U.S. Presidential Election
• Harry S. Truman, (D), 24,179,345 (49.5%), 303 electoral votes
• Thomas E. Dewey, (R), 21,991,291 (45.1%), 189 electoral votes
•  J. Strom Thurmond, States' Rights, 1,176,125 (2.4%), 39 electoral votes
• Henry Wallace, Progressive, 1,157,326 (2.4%), 0 electoral votes

In the '48 campaign, Dewey's strategy as the heavy favorite was to avoid potential damage from engaging Truman. During a speech in Philadelphia less than a month before election day, Truman cited the line, "He can run, but he can't hide," with attribution to Joe Louis, whose 12-year reign as heavyweight champion began when he defeated Braddock in 1937.

Truman cashed in on Louis' winning line and Braddock profited from Louis' winning ways. Braddock and his manager shrewdly hedged their bets for Braddock's first and only title defense, that '37 loss to Louis. As per the contract terms, the dethroned Braddock would reap a percentage of the promotions for Louis's subsequent title fights. Braddock's son, Howard, said he never knew of his father's letter to Truman but that his dad later had a brief political foray of his own; an unsuccessful candidacy for Hudson County, N.J., freeholder.

The former champ, like President Truman, ran as a Democrat.

William Weinbaum is an ESPN television producer based in New York.

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