Essay: Remembering Joe Gans

Former Lightweight World Champion, Joe Gans 
(photo / public domain) 
BALTIMORE Joe Gans is a name known to relatively few beyond boxing historians with a gaze fixed on the early 20th century. 

The Baltimore fighter some consider the greatest lightweight in history died on August 10, 1910. He’s buried in the city’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery, a once prominent African-American graveyard that is slowly, imperceptibly, fading into fallow urban acreage. Beyond an exterior wall, only a rambling hillside expanse of headstones clearly affirms its original 1872 intentions.

The cemetery sits on the edge of Westport, a neighborhood hard by the Patapsco River whose most famous resident until recent years was an enormous reinforced concrete power plant, once the world’s largest. Demolished well after it was outmoded, in its stead is a fenced off industrial beach of sand, cattails, and broken concrete and asphalt. The tenuous promise of future development hovers around it.  

Nearby another industrious neighbor is forgotten in plain view. The site of Westport Stadium, a ballpark where Willie Mays once graced centerfield as a member of the visiting Birmingham Black Barons lies just several hundred yards away. In its waning years, after baseball integrated in 1947 and the Orioles arrived in 1954, the stadium became a decidedly low-wattage venue on the stock car circuit. 

It sat below grade and in doing so unwittingly became an ideal landfill when its useful life was deemed over more than a half-century ago. Parts of its steel structure undoubtedly still sit intact under a prominently visible mound of trash and dirt.

That Joe’s final neighbors held fast until their demise is fitting. The fighter passed away at 35 after a long battle with tuberculosis, a young age that helped time forget history’s first African-American world champion.

Joe’s nickname was the Old Master, as he fought hundreds of amateur and professional bouts and garnered the experience, if never the age, that merited it. Gans fought for 11 years before he first won the world lightweight crown in May 1902, when he deposited reigning champ Frank Erne on the canvas in round one of an Ontario fight.

In an era hardly welcoming to black boxers, promoters would insist that the new champ let less-talented white fighters go the distance with himHe would often “cut” or reduce weight rapidly right before bouts, as random and often arcane weigh-in protocols were spontaneously produced to weaken him and diminish his odds of winning. Both undoubtedly contributed to compromised health and firm purchase for the onset of tuberculosis. 

Gans was already sick as early as September 3, 1906 when he defended his lightweight title against Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada. Gans won the match when Nelson deliberately fouled him in the 42nd round. Nelson, whose real name was Oscar Nielsen, so frequently fouled Gans that an almost entirely white crowd reportedly called for “three cheers for the courageous Joe Gans,” and vehemently booed his white opponent. It was clearly a near-surreal scene in 1906 American life. 

In a rematch with Nelson in San Francisco on July 4, 1908, a disease-weakened Gans was knocked out in 17 rounds. 

Out of financial need, Gans fought up until a year prior to his death, with tuberculosis by then severely wracking his body. Like many, he sought relief from the disease in a drier climate and in his last months traveled to Prescott, Arizona. As it became clear Joe would not be recovering, the ailing fighter traveled east via rail back to his hometown in Baltimore.

As word of his car reached passing towns, boxing fans gathered at train stations across the country to see the final passage of the boxer who those of the era knew to be their greatest.   
Joe Gans grave, Mt. Auburn Cemetery (photo / T. Flynn)