Boxer Beau Jack got his start at Augusta National

March 17, 2009

THE FUTURE CHAMPION started out at Augusta National, though he didn’t play golf. He woke before sunrise and walked to town from his family’s cabin in the woods, a three-mile journey in the dark. Shined shoes on the sidewalk all day. Sidney Walker was his name, but they called him Beau Jack, a pet name his grandmother bestowed on the youngster who charmed everyone with his sweet disposition and, occasionally, late at night, leveled grown men with his fists.

IN THOSE days wealthy sportsmen would pit half a dozen blindfolded black men against each other, all at once, in a bloody spectacle called the battle royal. The last fighter standing was showered with coins. Fifteen-year-old Beau never lost a battle royal after he figured out a trick. “I stayed in a corner with my back to the ropes,” he told Sports Illustrated years later. “Those other bigger fighters were busy trying to knock each other out. Whenever one of them backed up near me I slammed him good and knocked him out. One time my brother John Henry was in a battle royal with me, and we were the last two left. So I knocked him out, too.”

His biggest battle came during one of the first Masters. “All those rich people who’d come to Augusta to see the tournament had to be entertained at night,” Jack said. “So the club put on this big battle royal in the dining room of the Bon-Air Hotel.” The brawl came down to “me and one last big feller.” Jack threw a long, looping bolo punch that knocked the man out. Now the men around the ring threw not coins but 10- and 20- and 50-dollar bills. He took $1,000 home that night.

The steward at Augusta National gave Jack a job shining shoes at the club, where many of the golfers treated him as if he were invisible. “Only Mr. Bobby Jones had time for me,” Jack told boxing writer Harry Zambelli.

Jones, one of the club’s founders, called the young man aside one day. “Beau, I spoke to the members,” he said, “and 50 of them will give you 50 dollars apiece to begin your boxing life.” With that $2,500 stake from Jones, Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts, sportswriter Grantland Rice and 47 others, Jack followed the club steward north to Longmeadow Country Club in Massachusetts, where he did some caddying while training for his first pro bout.

What were his chances? Somewhere between slim and squat, like the 5′ 6″, 133-pounder himself. Yet he had qualities no trainer can teach: heart, guts and quick hands that seemed to speed up in the late rounds. “Beau Jack was an action fighter — he threw punches nonstop,” says Nigel Collins, editor in chief of The Ring, “and he became a great, iconic figure in the forties.” The pint-size puncher went 24-2 in his first two years as a pro, then knocked out Tippy Larkin at Madison Square Garden on December 18, 1942. Three years earlier he’d been a shoeshine boy; now he was lightweight champion of the world.

TIME magazine described the “little brown upstart” in the racially fraught fashion of the day. He was “the happy-go-lucky, flat-faced ragamuffin” who “became the mascot of Jones and his friends…. His favorite costume consists of a yellow-checked coat, peg-top pants, green porkpie hat, purple tie, yellow shoes.” His colorful manager Chick Wergeles, a Broadway press agent with a loose rein on the English language, crowed, “Beau loves to fight. If he didn’t get no pay he’d still want to fight, just to relieve the monopoly.”

The Garden’s fight-savvy crowds practically adopted the new champ. “They loved me,” he said, “because they found out I would fight every second of every round and never give up.” He headed a record 21 fight cards at Madison Square Garden, bringing sellout crowds to their feet with flurries of jabs, right hooks and the occasional bolo punch.

“Beau Jack was a crowd-pleaser without equal — even more than Ali,” says boxing guru Bert Sugar, who ranked him 52nd in his book Boxing’s Greatest Fighters. “Tremendously popular with fans, he was good for other fighters, too. He may have helped integrate the sport.” Before Jack, white boxers routinely ducked black opponents unless the fix was in. “But fighting Beau,” Sugar says, “meant a shot at the title in front of a big crowd — every boxer wants that.”

Jack lost the lightweight crown to rugged Bob Montgomery in a hair-thin decision, won it back in a rematch, then lost to Montgomery again in 1944. All three bouts with Montgomery were 15-round decisions. Jack had yet to be knocked out, or even knocked down, in five years as a pro.

In 1944, he and Montgomery entered World War II as U.S. Army privates. Two days later they faced off once again in an exhibition at the Garden. The event raised more than $35 million in war bonds — still the richest gate in boxing history — but neither fighter earned a cent. They donated the purse to the war effort. “That was for the country I live in,” Jack told a reporter after winning the fight. “That was the proudest thing that could happen to me.”

He got another title shot after the war, but lost to Ike Williams, a 135-pound slab of sinew. One of their three matches was an epic draw, leaving the title in Williams’ gnarled hands. By then Jack was hobbled by a left knee he’d shattered during a 1947 bout, when his foot caught a seam in the canvas. He fell for the first time, only to clamber back to his feet and fight on, his kneecap broken in five places, until the referee stopped the fight.

The ex-champ trained like a madman for a last rematch with Williams, to no avail. “The better shape I was in, the worse he beat me,” he said. Jack retired in 1951, feeling older than a man should at age 30. After four years of running a drive-in barbecue stand near Augusta he unretired, plodding through a quartet of flat performances, his legs gone. Then it was over. He finished 88-24-5, unbeaten in battles royal, beloved by fight fans, and running out of money.

AFTER shuttering the barbecue joint, Jack moved to Miami and worked at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Shining shoes. He spent 30 years manning a shoeshine stand in the hotel, buffing the wingtips of men who tossed him a coin when he was through. He never complained. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain. I was champion of the world,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I’ve worked hard all my life, and I’m happy.”

“For a black man of his day, he was prosperous,” says Sugar, the boxing expert. “Everybody felt sorry for him when they heard he was shining shoes at the Fontainebleau, but he owned that shoeshine stand and made a hell of a living…for a while. His money problems came at the end.”

Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon paid a visit to the Fontainebleau shoeshine stand one day. “Some of his customers still call him the Champ,” Cannon reported. “But many address him as boy. They couldn’t have seen him fight, because there was never more of a man.” Jack was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. His left knee ached that night. It ached until the day he died, nearly penniless, in a Miami nursing home nine years ago.

There is no trace of Beau Jack at Augusta National. No boxing gloves in a display case. No photo on a locker room wall. No evidence that a world champion got his start there. Shining shoes.