On May 26, 1911, the first White Hope tournament, a motley assortment of eleven barnyard scrappers and dockwallopers, was held at the National Sporting Club in New York City. How such a tournament could be staged with a counterintuitive number of participants in a state where decisions were outlawed is testament to the huckster genius of Tom O’Rourke, ex-boxer, occasional promoter, full-time hustler and glib manager of, among others, African-American greats Joe Walcott and George Dixon. O’Rourke was one of several managers who smelled greenbacks in the pursuit of white fighters during the Jack Johnson era. The national want ads, kick started by millionaire author and amateur Darwinist Jack London, sought any and all able-bodied young Americans to avenge the honor of the white race. And there to sift through potential applicants were the likes of James J. Johnston, Dumb Dan Morgan, Bill McCarney, and Tom O’Rourke.
As the shifty puppeteer of truly gifted boxers like Walcott and Dixon, O’Rourke knew that none of his White Hopes-or any other, for that matter-could touch Johnson, but he also realized that actually getting one of dozens of clumsy aspirants into the ring with the heavyweight champion would be unnecessary. The thrill of the chase would keep the till full for years to come. With that in mind, O’Rourke signed an obscure pug named Al Palzer after watching the powerful bruiser plod through a sparring session in a New York City gymnasium.
Al Palzer was born in Ossian, Iowa, 141 miles southeast of St. Paul, on October 4, 1890. Even now, nearly a century after Palzer last fought, Ossian boasts a population of fewer than 1,000. A glance at the 2000 census figures reveals exactly one African-American among its citizens. As a boy, Palzer worked on the family farm before conflict with his moody father drove him to run away at the age of twelve. In those hardscrabble days, a pre-teen ragamuffin got along as ruggedly as he could, and perhaps this bootstrap lifestyle (which included a stint in the Navy) helped Palzer build the stoicism and endurance needed to absorb the frightening beatings to come.
Heavyweight boxers have been recruited from a variety of odd backgrounds and circumstances. Over the years circus strongmen, sailors, ex-convicts, football players, bouncers, railway firemen, Olympic weightlifters, and cow wranglers have stumbled into the ranks of prizefighting, but Al Palzer may be the only heavyweight in history “discovered” under the dramatic auspices of leaning against a bank in Decorah, Iowa, in 1910. One day a newspaper reporter from Sioux City named O’Brien spotted Palzer in lounge mode and decided that the farm boy turned horse-and-buggy driver for the St. Cloud Hotel was a blue chip fighting prospect. O’Brien convinced Palzer that wrestling would be the perfect line of work for someone whose nickname was “Big Foot.” Palzer agreed and began training in earnest as a grappler. After grunting through a few professional wrestling matches in Minnesota, Palzer set off for New York to further his new career. Instead, he found himself blown off course by a White Hope squall and wound up landing on the wilder shores of boxing, where he promptly stumbled over a wily jellyfish named Tom O’Rourke.
“Size was stressed whenever possible in the exploitation of White Hopes;” wrote John Lardner, “there were Willard, the Pottawatomie Giant; Jim Coffey, the Irish (or Roscommon) Giant; Carl Morris, the Sapulapa Giant; and Fred Fulton, the Giant of the North.” Certainly Palzer, at 6’2″ and just under 230 pounds, fulfilled rudimentary White Hope requirements, and O’Rourke immediately signed the farm boy to a contract. He also renamed his fighter “The Iowa Giant,” not nearly as colorful a moniker as “Bigfoot,” but certainly in keeping with the White Hope zeitgeist.
Palzer made his pro debut on February 7, 1911, a six-round no-decision match against Jim Austin. Three and a half months later, and after losing a newspaper verdict to Frank Moran, Palzer was ready for the tournament O’Rourke had carefully arranged. Not surprisingly, since he was the only fighter tied to the promoter of the show, Palzer was the last man listing on May 26, 1911, and won the inaugural White Hope shindig, copping a decision over the 1-2 Sailor White. But he hardly resembled a star in the making. As John Lardner noted, “Palzer, big but awkward, was so patently not a sound hope that new tournaments were organized straightway, from scratch, with fresh material.” He went on to prove his clumsiness a few months later by letting Tom Kennedy smack him around in a no-decision bout.
Palzer did manage to cause a stir after clubbing Al Kaufman in a savage brawl on December 28, 1911. Both fighters hit the canvas in the opening session. Kaufman twice before Palzer put an end to the melee in the fifth round. Kaufman, still considered a contender after going ten no-decision rounds with a benevolent Jack Johnson in 1909, was coming off a knockout loss to “Fireman” Jim Flynn and was already unraveling by the time he swapped haymakers with Palzer, but to the general public this fight marked Palzer as a legitimate prospect. Palzer, the type of fighter once known as a “Chopping Block,” lost some momentum when he was forced to undergo surgery for a shattered nose in March 1912.
He returned to the ring on June 28, 1912. His donnybrook with British idol “Bombardier” Billy Wells in what The New York Times called “the most sensational bout between heavyweights that has been staged in New York in years” is what really set Palzer on the ephemeral path to White Hope stardom. Wells, the stylish Fancy Dan with nerves of confetti, seemed to have things under control from the opening bell in Madison Square Garden: “The American had his right eye partly closed, his lower lip badly cut, and his face was covered with blood before the bout had gone two minutes.” Wells dropped Palzer in the first round before return fire forced him to collapse from combat fatigue in the third. The Times reported that Palzer “was slow of foot, decidedly wild with his punches, and showed a poor defense,” but a rousing knockout seemingly worked wonders in obscuring his flaws.
Before Palzer could enjoy his new celebrity status, though, he was on the outs with O’Rourke. “I know why George Dixon died a pauper,” he said cryptically. Apparently O’Rourke could add “creative accounting” to his bulging list of talents. The duo were in court most of the summer of 1912 when Palzer decided to patch things up in order to ensure a fight with Luther McCarty, “The Cowboy from Driftwood Creek,” for “The White Heavyweight Championship of the World.” Even then McCarty, son of a sideshow charlatan and part Native American to boot, was considered the best fighter the White Hope movement ever produced, but this distinction became tragically moot when McCarty died in the ring against Arthur Pelkey in Calgary after less than a round in May, 1913. He was twenty-one years old.
On January 1, 1913, McCarty and Palzer met at the Vernon Arena in Vernon, California, before a crowd of nearly 11,000. If all prizefights were as hideously one-sided as the McCarty-Palzer match appeared to be, reform groups of the day might have had a better chance at barring boxing across the States for the public good. A wire report sated that “For nearly eighteen rounds” McCarty “used the frame of the Iowan as a punching bag.” Like Billy Wells six months earlier, but with more zeal, McCarty easily outboxed Palzer, and battered the Iowan from bell to bell.
Although The Los Angeles Times claimed that “For none of his other fights has he trained more than a few days,” Palzer took his preparation for McCarty seriously, working under the watchful eye of Frank Newhouse, baseball umpire and ex-journeyman lightweight. Newhouse later earned notoriety for thrashing an unruly player with his facemask during an exhibition game in 1913 in Zanesville, Ohio. Fred Merkle, better known in baseball chronicles for the “Merkel Boner,” suffered a TKO at the hands of the scrappy umpire. “Newhouse hit the New York first baseman over the head with his mask,” reported The New York Times, “and brought blood from the gash.” If only Newhouse could have slipped his mask to Palzer at some point during his fight with McCarty. By the tenth round, Palzer resembled the victim of wagon train disaster. To make matters worse, Palzer kept eyeing Tom O’Rourke at ringside. O’Rourke, in a stroke of perversity that might have inspired the Keystone Cops or Buster Keaton, shouted instructions through a megaphone, giving McCarty the added advantage of knowing every move Palzer would make before he even made it. “McCarty landed at will and with accuracy that became monotonous,” read the wire report. Eventually the monotony was such that referee Charles Eyton halted the butchery during the eighteenth round. Palzer wept when the match was halted.
A few days later “The Iowa Giant” spoke to reporters during a layover in Chicago. With the braggadocio of Ad Wolgast or Battling Nelson, Palzer insisted that McCarty “hit me as hard and as often as he pleased, but he never knocked me off my feet,” and that he could whip the Nebraska cowboy in a rematch. Newly re-estranged Tom O’Rourke would soon shatter that heroic front in an interview with Boxing News in February, 1913, claiming that Palzer was actually terrified of McCarty. “During the two weeks preceding the ring battle,” O’Rourke told a reporter, “Palzer was intermittently a nervous wreck, and would frequently lie at full length on a bench in his training quarters and cry like a baby.” If that was not embarrassing enough, The Chicago Tribune reported this droll tidbit: “Palzer came from the coast on the same train with Frank Chance, ex-manager of the Cubs. The P.L. [Peerless Leader] saw the fight and said Palzer is one of the worst fighters he ever saw.”
Unfortunately, prizefighting is not a pursuit that tolerates a steep learning curve. Things would only get worse for Palzer. After convalescing for eight months, Palzer returned to the ring in September 1913, and was knocked unconscious by Frank Moran. Three weeks later he lost a newspaper decision to Charley Miller. Then, with mulish insistence, Palzer ducked through the ropes once more, only to be walloped by Dan Daily in two. His last win, over Fred Fulton, was so taxing that Palzer did not fight again for over a year. In his comeback bout, on December 21, 1915, Palzer was knocked out in the first round by Andre Anderson, a fighter with a record of 0-3 at the time. It was his last fight. Al Palzer retired at the age of twenty-five with only eighteen fights on his record. He finished his brutal career 9-4 with five no-decisions.
Life outside the ring would not prove any easier. Like something out of Flannery O’Connor, Palzer returned to the family ranch in Minnesota only to be murdered by his father on July 29, 1917. Henry Palzer stumbled home one night in a drunken rage and tried to settle an argument with his wife, Martha, with a rifle. In trying to disarm his father, Al Palzer took one slug and died after running, mortally wounded, nearly two miles to the nearest hospital in Perham. He was twenty-seven. Henry Palzer was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.
As for Tom O’ Rourke, he lived on until 1936, when he died of a heart attack in the dressing room of Max Schmeling just before Schmeling was due to enter the ring in Yankee Stadium. O’Rourke was there dispensing shrewd advice to Schmeling, who went on that night to score a 12th-round knockout of Joe Louis.