Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Hall of Hate

Before Jerry Krause became the NBA's most-reviled man, other sports figures were on the hot seat

By Frank Sennett

AUGUST 3, 1998:  He was vilified for forcing out the most popular man in his sport. Fans and reporters disliked his antagonistic style, so they attacked him without mercy. He was an interloper, a braggart, an embarrassment to the game-and an unfit physical specimen besides. He simply did not belong.

Ninety years before Jerry Krause found himself the most despised general manager of a six-time NBA champ, boxer Jack A. Johnson became the first black man to win the world heavyweight crown. And like Krause, Johnson heard no cheers. After he beat Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, on Christmas Day 1908, Johnson unleashed a torrent of racist hatred that would follow him to his grave. On the eve of the title fight, one Australian paper provided a glimpse of things to come when it reported that "citizens who never prayed before are supplicating Providence to give the white man a strong right arm with which to belt the coon into oblivion."

A growing sense that Krause, Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and coach-in-waiting Tim Floyd are being subjected to unreasonably high levels of media and fan vitriol-for, at worst, hastening the re-retirement of a beloved athlete by one season-leads me to seek Johnson's grave. Maybe there I'll be able to figure out why Chicago sports figures are drawing more enmity now than at any time since Johnson's day.

It's a hot, peaceful morning in Graceland Cemetery just above Irving Park Road at Clark Street. A hearse pulls up to the office, the driver looking for tour brochures. Further inside the graveyard, landscapers loll in the shade. A young girl bounds across a lawn full of headstones while her grandmother looks for the site of a long-dead relative.

Armed with a photocopied map, I find the six-foot gray granite monument that looks over the boxer's family plot, an unshaded patch of grass two roads east of the cemetery chapel. "Johnson," the stone says, in six-inch raised letters. A rectangular block with a peaked top, it is smooth save for some simple leaf ornamentation and a shallow, thumb-size divot to the right of the name. A tiny red ant races for the shadows under the monument's lip. I step back toward the road and take in a small granite headstone to the right that looks like an upended hand lathe. This is the final resting place of "Etta, Beloved Wife of Jack A. Johnson, 1861-1912." I'm suddenly aware I must be standing right on top of her husband's grave. It's hard to tell, though, since his plot is unmarked. It was probably best not to give would-be desecraters a target for their rage against the champ. After all, Johnson was one cocky son of a bitch. Not only did he break the taboo against blacks fighting in the heavyweight class, but this 1878 product of Galveston, Texas, dressed sharply, lived fast, bought himself a cabaret in Chicago and-worst of all-slept with white women. In addition to his two white wives, Johnson was romantically linked with Mae West and Mata Hari. When he heard white men were convinced he had a huge penis that hypnotized his sexual prey, the champ reputedly wrapped his endowment in gauze and wore form-fitting trunks to fuel the rumor.

"Certainly there was no other famous black American of his day who so utterly resisted racial barriers, no other who so openly assaulted white middle-class attitudes," wrote Randy Roberts in his 1983 history, "Papa Jack" (Free Press). "It is only in his private world that one glimpses Johnson's otherwise invisible scars, the marks caused by humiliation and degradation and painful abuse. It was always nigger this and nigger that and the world champion's a nigger in the newspapers and at every fight."

The quiet of the boneyard is broken by a roar from Cubs Park. I suspect, and later confirm, that Sammy Sosa has done something good and the stinking Mets are down for the count. Which reminds me that there is such a thing as fun hatred in sports. Chicago has a great tradition of it. Sox fans hate Cub backers, who in turn are split between the Bleacher Bums and the yuppie box-seat holders. Bears fans used to loathe boosters of the Chicago football Cardinals. Cubbie fans booed Bruce "I never made a call I didn't like" Froemming after the umpire turned a 1-2 count on what should have been the final batter into the six-pitch walk that ruined Milt Pappas' 1972 perfect game against the Padres. And Bulls fans have railed against Hue Hollins throughout the nineties for picking on Jordan and Pip. Jerk managers such as the White Sox's Terry Bevington and the Cubs' Bleacher Bum-bashing Lee Elia fall under this category-as does a certain hockey owner who hates putting his games on free TV.

And then there are the guys we know we should hate, but we love instead because they're on our side. Dirty players like the Bears' late-hitting Dick Butkus, the Bulls' head-butting Dennis Rodman, spikes-up Cubs legend Rogers Hornsby (whose autobiography is titled "My War with Baseball") and any number of high-sticking Blackhawks enforcers. And don't forget abusive skippers like the Cubs' Leo "Nice Guys Finish Last" Durocher, the Blackhawks' fiery Mike Keenan and old Iron Mike Ditka.

The sun, setting my black shirt collar afire against my reddening neck, prompts a visit to the tree-shaded pink granite grave marker of Robert Fitzsimmons about a hundred yards south. Fitzsimmons' marker bears the legend "World Champion"-he beat Gentleman Jim Corbett for the title on St. Paddy's Day 1897. Jack Johnson would beat the tar out of him in 1907, yet Fitzsimmons is the one with the fancy headstone.

Johnson's refusal to play the role of servile black man outside the ring spurred the white establishment to search for a "great white hope" who could put him in his place. After Johnson won the championship from Burns-who had only agreed to fight a black man because the guaranteed purse was an unheard-of $30,000-the novelist Jack London spoke for chagrined whites everywhere in his New York newspaper account. "The battle was between a colossus and a pygmy," London wrote of the 200-pound Johnson's pummeling of his 175-pound opponent. "Burns was a toy in his hands. [Retired champ] Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."

But Johnson wore the crown for seven years, even knocking Jeffries down for the first time in his career during a 1910 title defense attended by ex-champs Fitzsimmons, Gentleman Jim and John L. Sullivan. By April 1915, when the "Kansas Giant" Jess Willard outlasted Johnson to win a twenty-six round title fight in Havana-the longest pro bout of the gloved era-Johnson was 37 and carried a large fat roll around the ring with him. He also carried memories of the race riots his 1910 bout with Jeffries had incited, leaving nineteen dead. And in 1913, there had been the White Slave Traffic Act sham conviction in Chicago for taking a white woman across state lines "for immoral purposes." He later married her. In 1920, after going on the lam in Europe and Latin America, he returned to the States and served his sentence at Leavenworth, Kansas. "For [his] transgressions, Johnson paid dearly," the Boston Globe's Steven Marantz wrote in 1987. "Outwardly, he was composed, urbane and hail-fellow-well-met. But he was not a happy man. He was isolated, self-centered, prone to brooding and violent outbursts, usually directed at women." Johnson died in 1946 in a high-speed car accident in Raleigh, North Carolina. He left behind a lifetime's worth of ill will.

But what contemporary society took away, the judgment of history gave back. When the Boxing Hall of Fame was created in 1954, Johnson was elected a charter member. In the play and movie "The Great White Hope," he was played as a pure hero by James Earl Jones. Miles Davis recorded a tribute album to the champ. And in the late eighties, Ring magazine named Johnson the second-greatest heavyweight of all time, behind only Muhammed Ali.

Obviously, Jerry Krause never will be afforded comparable honors. Nor, in the estimation of reasonable observers, should he be. But Krause does deserve something better than the unrelenting personal attacks he endures from Bulls fans and sportswriters.

To be sure, there is such a thing as righteous sports hatred, like that directed against Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the judge who sentenced Johnson under the Mann Act and, as baseball commissioner, banned Shoeless Joe Jackson for life and conspired (along with Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley) to keep blacks out of the major leagues. It also seems fair to harbor a genuine dislike of 1919 Black Sox precipitator Charlie Comiskey and other legendarily penurious owners who drove players to desperate acts, or at least to desperation.

But when our sports hatreds reach such a fever pitch that we attack our enemies for their skin color-or even for their weight, their lack of social graces, their less-than-handsome looks or their inability to get along with a popular player and coach-we've gone too far. Those are the times, I think as I make my way back to Jack Johnson's unmarked grave, that we'll only have ourselves to hate in the morning.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Arts & Leisure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Newcity Chicago . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch