Bat Masterson – western lawman and sports writer

Events like the Gilpin County Fair featured boxing

By Forrest Whitman

The Gilpin County Fair draws most of the community. There was no fair back in the mining days and there was no rodeo either. Public events that drew throngs of people in the mountain towns and Denver were boxing matches. No name meant so much nationwide when it came to boxing as Bat Masterson. That was true until the 1920s. So, why do we think of Bat as a western lawman?

The Press Turns Bat Masterson into a gunslinger

  The legend of Bat Masterson as a gunfighter and killer of bad guys began in August of 1881. It’s a tribute to the power of the press in those days. A writer for the New York Sun was sitting in a bar in Gunnison, Colorado and had a deadline to meet. This correspondent, William Young, asked his bar stool neighbor, a Dr. W. S. Cockrell about western gunslingers. Cockrell told him that a young man in his late twenties had already shot and killed twenty-six men. The name of the young man was Bat Masterson, Deputy Sheriff over in Dodge City, Kansas at the time. Cockrell spun out his tales about Masterson while Young eagerly wrote. Seven of the men were shot to avenge the killing of Masterson’s brother. Two Mexican outlaws were killed for the reward money, but the heads Bat brought back were never properly identified due to sun damage. The stories went on and on and Cockrell wrote them for a believing U. S. public. The legend of Bat Masterson “gun slinger and killer of crooks” was born. Readers here in Colorado appear to have gobbled up the news as it was re-printed in the Rocky Mountain News. It makes interesting reading even today.

Bat’s Actual Lawman period

Masterson was deputy and then Sheriff in a tough county, home of Dodge City, a very lawless western town.  He conceivably could have done many of the exploits written about him, but they were really not true. A researcher, Robert DeArment, has come up with the real story. The number of times Bat drew a gun on any human numbered exactly six. In 1876 he shot and killed an army corporal named Melvin King. King had just killed his girlfriend and when confronted, drew, shot and wounded Masterson. Bat also brought down a cowboy who was riding through town and shooting wildly. This he did by shooting the cowboy’s horse. In April of 1878 two men, Jack Wagner and Alf Walker shot and killed Bat’s brother. Bat killed Wagner on the spot and later led the posse which killed Walker. He also wounded the leader of a wild shoot out in the Dodge City Plaza, and later nicked a man in a polling place riot. The popular press had him shooting that many men in any good day’s work. Bat took it all with a wry sense of humor. When asked directly about all of his gunfights, he’d usually respond with something like, “That’s what they write about me.”

Bat: New York Newspaperman

  Maybe it was because he was born in eastern Canada, or maybe he always had eastern printer’s ink in his veins. For some reason Bat loved New York City. He lived twice as long there as he lived anyplace in the west. He loved writing about sporting events, especially boxing. When he died at age 50 in 1921, he was at his New York City desk.  He also liked Colorado a lot. He began sports writing at Denver newspapers and often returned here, covering matches all around the state. He liked the mountain towns and covered minor bouts in these parts. The Trinidad, Colorado, paper said they were pleased when he visited their city, and called him “an easy and graceful writer of great journalistic ability.” It was New York that he most like to cover, however. There he was the star. When he went to places like San Francisco or Chicago he was always introduced as the dean of New York sports writers. He loved that title. However, he did not like to write about football. He called the game “organized rioting.” Once, when asked to cover the Yale-Harvard game, he said he’d seen illegal riots back in his lawman days and had no desire to watch a legal one.

  Bat was remarkably right in his prize fight predictions. Since he bet on most fights this put him in easy money for most of his life. Prize fights during this early period were fought under London Prize Ring rules. The contestants usually wore skin tight gloves, and some even fought bare knuckled. They fought until one fighter gave up. That meant Bat had to constantly change the odds and betting the odds was a very difficult skill.

That all changed after the Marques of Queensberry rules came in. Now boxers wore padded gloves and fought in three minute rounds with one minute rest periods. A knocked down fighter had ten seconds to get back on his feet. Under these rules the seconds assisting in the corner became more important. They were much more able to coach their fighter in the regular breaks. Bat was born for this. He seconded Denver Ed Quinn against the Australian heavyweight champ Joe Goddard. Bat put his money on Denver Ed who was listed to lose by everybody. Ed knocked out the big Australian in round 17. When Bat was your second you had a fine chance to win the bout.

Masterson and Teddy Roosevelt

  Teddy Roosevelt was a fight fan, so naturally he invited Bat to the White House often. After his first visit to the White House, Bat was asked what they talked about. What else but boxing? Roosevelt was especially interested in how Bat had managed to get Denver Ed psyched up to beating the hugely favored Australian Joe Goddard. Bat and the President had a pleasant evening discussing prize fighting. Shortly afterward Bat was appointed Deputy U. S. Marshall for New York City. There were almost no duties, but a salary came with the post. Bat held the cushy job for four years. Bat continued to cover fights for The New York Telegraph and rarely showed up in his office, except, (as one wag reported) on pay day. After Roosevelt was out of office and President Taft took over, that sweet job came to an end. Bat, always the gambler, just said that everyone knows a flush of good luck will eventually end.

Bat’s gambling prowess was legendary. He seemed to have a knack for betting large sums of money, often against the odds, and winning. Bat bet on everything, even politics. He was a big promoter of Ben Daniels and thought Daniels should easily win Senate confirmation to a second term as Arizona Marshall. He hadn’t reckoned on the opposition of Senator Henry Teller, Central City’s golden son. One of the congressmen working on getting Teller’s vote was exasperated. He though Teller was just looking for a chance to slap at Roosevelt. He called Teller a, “Senile statesman from the Rockies.” In the end Daniels was approved and Bat had won again.

Bat Masterson’s Blind Side

  It can be instructive for anyone to consider his or her blind side. Bat had that blindness for the second Jack Dempsey. Possibly that was because Otto Floto, Bat’s nemesis at the Denver Post, loved Dempsey. Floto once gloated when a race horse named Bat Masterson died on the home stretch. Masterson shot back the day a horse named Otto Floto ended up dead last with, “How could a horse with a name like that win any sort of a race? Poor defenseless horse!” For whatever reason, Bat was blind to Dempsey’s abilities. Perhaps that was because Bat had known the original Jack Dempsy, (known as the “Nonperiel”) back in the 1880s bare knuckle days. This new Jack Dempsey, William Harrison Dempsey, was the future heavyweight champion of the world, but Bat bet against him. Bat lost badly.

What Happened to Prize Fighting?

  It’s hard for us today to imagine the excitement prize fights held back in the 1920s, even the 1950s for that matter. Today the sport is mostly in eclipse, but there was a day when all Gilpin County could talk about was what Bat wrote about boxing.

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