Georgie Lee Fulfilled His Exotic Potential
Most people in Sacramento today know of Ancil Hoffman because of the local park and golf course named in his honor. Hoffman was a very successful businessman, served on the County Board of Supervisors for multiple terms, and left behind a valuable civic legacy.
I, however, remember Ancil Hoffman as the manager of former heavyweight champion Max Baer, and Max’s younger brother, the heavyweight contender Buddy.
But before all this, before he became a civic leader and local politician, Hoffman had already lived one full and exciting life bridging the city establishment of which he aspired to be, a part to the world of ethnicities and struggles on the other side of the tracks, where hard times were ever present but good times were less rationed.
Hoffman made his first pot of money operating a string of restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs that ran from Sacramento proper, the white part of town, all the way to the west end of the city bounded by the riverfront. He was also the manager of Georgie Lee, the local bantamweight who competed internationally and fought five world champions.
Lee would not become a champion himself, but Hoffman spoke of him as one of the better boxers of his time, rating only Max Baer above him among the boxers Hoffman worked with.
Born in Illinois, Hoffman would make his way to Sacramento via Oklahoma with his father in 1890, following his mother’s death when he was six years old. The father ran a saloon at the corner of 7th and K, while the son attended school and sold copies of a local newspaper on the streets.
He played on a baseball team that met the Boston Bloomer Girls, in a game held at Snowflake Park at 29th and R. This is how he became friends with Nellie Bly, who would become one of America’s earliest, and most renowned, female journalists.
Moving back to Oklahoma with his father while a teenager, Hoffman was frustrated because he missed Sacramento’s city life, especially the lower end of the city. Before eventually hopping a train to Sacramento, he secured a position as equipment manager for the Boston Bloomer Girls through his friendship with Bly. When one of the players was not available for a few games, Hoffman – being barely over five feet tall and able to pass for a girl with his youthful face – took her place.
Back in Sacramento, Hoffman worked at his uncle’s grocery store, making extra money by selling discarded ice he found near the Southern Pacific rail yards to saloons. This business ended when the saloon keepers realized where the ice was coming from.
Hoffman boxed at the Sacramento Athletic Club at 6th and M, but claimed his license was revoked because he punched too hard.
22 years old when he opened his first tavern at 1801 M Street, Hoffman followed that with the Schlitz Café at 708 K, above which he maintained an office from which he would administer a growing list of operations. The direction of Hoffman’s business growth was westward, from the “clean” side of the capitol building on the 1800 block to his Hof Brau at 514 K.
His “white” businesses were intermingling with black jazz clubs just as the patrons of these clubs – of various ethnicities – were mixing, as well. Hoffman offered the kind of entertainment that formerly only played in black establishments. Al Jolson would perform at the Schlitz, with Hoffman and Jolson becoming friends. The authorities did not care much for this.
Matchmaker for the Sacramento Athletic Club’s boxing shows until the building in which they were held was converted to a theater, Hoffman would promote fights in the back rooms of some of his clubs until he and a few other investors bought an old warehouse on L Street, between 2nd and 3rd – right in the middle of Japantown – that became known as the L Street Arena.
Boxing was a segregated sport, not unlike baseball, and black professional boxers operated in what was virtually a league of their own. The L Street Arena, however, with Hoffman’s involvement, would promote mixed race bouts. Most of these fights were between whites and blacks and Latins, but Hoffman was attracted to the exotic potential of Georgie Lee.
George Washington Lee was born in 1900, to a Chinese father and Mexican-American mother in San Francisco, but the family moved to Sacramento after the 1906 earthquake. He learned how to box at age 10, handling himself pretty well against the “white guys” in town, and began fighting professionally in 1917.
Being regarded in those times as an “Oriental,” Lee had difficulty being considered as more than a novelty act in boxing. It wasn’t until Hoffman began managing him that Lee became a legitimate main-event fighter. Always a promoter a heart, Hoffman did exploit Lee’s racial differences, but he did not treat Lee as a sideshow. He presented him as the main show. Hoffman saw playing on the racial stereotypes of the public as good business, as a way to squeeze as much money from the public as possible.
Lee would pose for publicity photos with a queue attached to the back of his head, and enter the ring wearing “beautiful oriental robes,” but would always be uncomfortable with being known as “The Yellow Peril of the Prize Ring,” as Hoffman marketed him.
For all his life, Lee would describe himself as being Eurasian, given that his mother was of Castilian Spanish descent. He was an American, the son of a cook in the U.S. Navy, proud of his Chinese and Mexican ancestry.
He wanted to be known as more than a “Chinaman.”
Hoffman wanted to take Lee on a world tour in 1920. The problem was that, since Lee’s mother had died in 1917, he had been caring for his younger brothers and sister, making sure they ate and attended school. He worked at a department store – Weinstock, Lubin – and would go home on his lunch break to make a meal for them.
He couldn’t leave on the tour until he found someone to care for his siblings.
Reporters wrote about how family responsibility was getting in the way of Lee’s chance for fame and fortune, but not until 1921 would he be comfortable leaving them, when Lee would travel to Mexico, Europe, Canada, China, Japan and the Philippines, where he fought world flyweight champion Pancho Villa in 1922, losing a 15-round decision.
Lee was a huge underdog going into this fight, with heavy betting that he would not get past the sixth round. And Lee quickly realized he had never come across anyone like Villa before. But he was a quick study and worked his way into the fight, earning everyone’s, including Villa’s, respect. This performance, along with an earlier fight with Midget Smith at Madison Square Garden, helped support the argument that Lee was a championship caliber boxer.
He had been promised a fight with the world bantamweight champion Joe Lynch if he beat Smith, but was stopped on a cut. He impressed wherever he fought, though.
As Hoffman said years later about Lee, “Georgie was a tough little fighter. He tore into his opponents and was like a windmill.”
What limited his success, Hoffman explained, was Lee’s “only drawback…short arms.”
Regardless of how much Lee would speak of his diverse ethnic background, the press had classified him for reporting purposes. Called by one paper “unquestionably the cleverest boxer ever developed in the Chinese of the race,” and the “Chinese Champ,” the “Chinese Bantamweight Champ of the World,” and the “bantam king of the Orient” by others, people wanted to see Lee because “…a real fighting Chinese is a good attraction anywhere.”
And then there was the awkwardness that arose when Chinese followers, the “top tong men,” as media referred to some of them, would hold gatherings to celebrate Lee and he could not communicate with many of those honoring him because he did not speak Chinese.
“My mother was white and we never spoke Chinese in our home in San Francisco,” Lee would have to explain. “There were seven of us children and we always spoke English.”
Lee’s commitment to boxing would also be questioned. If not his physical courage, then his lack of a fighting heart. “He doesn’t love the fight game,” one reporter wrote. “He does not love the gore and does not revel in victory.”
But Lee, although his limited official record is not that impressive, remembers – with his memory corroborated by others – as having fought close to 300 bouts.
“I fought for 10 years,” Lee said, “and I recall many times when I fought two or three times a week.”
Lee’s return to his home country after the tour was not without its difficulties because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, designed to limit, to the point of prohibition, Chinese immigration.
Being allowed re-entry to the U.S., even though he was an American citizen, required completion of government forms, a family biography, and witness testimony.
Three members of the police department, including chief Ira Conran, testified they had known Lee since childhood. With the growing temperance movement and eventual prohibition against alcohol in America, Cuba – which was not suffering from temperance – had become increasingly attractive to Hoffman, who, although continuing to manage his restaurants, would lose his cafés and dance halls to the alcohol ban.
Hoffman regularly spoke of taking Lee to Cuba to fight. He and an L Street area partner were arrested in 1924 for violation of prohibition when their concessionaire was caught selling “intoxicating liquor” during a fight promotion. He would occasionally be cited for serving alcohol in his restaurants. Other conflicts with the law would include converting a river boat to a dance hall upon which Hoffman would sell alcohol during cruises on the Sacramento River, which separated Sacramento and Yolo Counties and, to Hoffman’s thinking, was in the jurisdiction of neither county.
Having the means to retain attorney and state senator Jim Inman, Hoffman would escape serious punishment for these offenses. Other, less connected proprietors, however, would be less fortunate.
Local authorities were not pleased to see all the “intermingling” of races when people would come together to enjoy music and dancing. The Churchill Club, a black-owned dance hall, would have its license revoked for allowing racial integration.
Many in that part of town felt the prohibition laws were enforced arbitrarily and inequitably.
Letters in local newspapers expressed this opinion. The Churchill was also a polling site, but city leaders wanted to relocate the polling to a more “respectable” location, one less intimidating to the city’s white women, regardless of how inconvenient this would be for residents of the West End.
With the loss of his businesses, Hoffman would apply an increasing amount of time to boxing matters, even after Lee retired in 1927.
This is when Jolson invited Hoffman to Los Angeles to watch Max Baer fight. Baer, one of the more powerful punchers in heavyweight history, was an aggressive fighter whose defensive lapses could leave him dramatically vulnerable to his opponent’s punches.
Hoffman immediately realized that Baer, a born entertainer, could become a major star, a celebrity who would transcend boxing. Hoffman relocated Baer and his brother Buddy to Sacramento to be managed by him and trained, for a while, by Lee.
With his money Hoffman also invested in real estate, realizing the suburban development surrounding California’s larger cities would eventually come to the capital as well. He bought land in towns with resident-ready names such as Citrus Heights, Orangevale, and also Carmichael, where the park and golf course can be found. This was the same year Hoffman bought the Nippon Theatre building, in Japantown, which provided the second-floor location of the Eureka Club.
The Eureka Club was a black establishment chartered to operate similarly to the Sutter Club, the members of which were prominent white men. The Sutter Club took a rather selective approach in determining who could be entertained on the premises, but the Eureka Club opened its doors in more egalitarian fashion, selling drinks to anyone willing to pay.
It also had a history of bailing out women arrested for “vagrancy.” Hoffman allowed the tenants to remain, and the businesses to continue as they had. He operated on both sides of the spectrum in this way, the “complete legitimacy” of his real estate ventures balanced by his operations in boxing and entertainment in the West End.
1924 was also when Lee’s four-round rematch with Pancho Villa in Sacramento attracted the largest attendance the L Street Arena would ever hold.
The fight was scheduled for only four rounds because California law limited the length of boxing matches then, but 5,000 fans packed the 3,300-seat building to watch.
Many of those who attended the fight were Filipino, drawing from the substantial population of immigrants engaged in agricultural labor in central California.
Already the world flyweight champion, Villa was touring the U.S. with his eyes on the bantamweight title. (Learn more about Pancho Villa from this story.) Hoffman exercised his promotional and political muscle to bring Villa to town for one of only a couple west coast appearances. He managed fighters on the card as well as promoting it, and received the concessions revenue, as well. It was an extremely lucrative night for Hoffman and his partners.
Extensive newspaper coverage of the fight wasn’t even necessary.
Fellow promoter Fred Pearl estimated 300-500 Filipinos were at the Golden State Gym on Front Street to see Villa train every day. Everyone involved knew the gate was going to be massive. The normal price of ringside seats was doubled to three dollars. Many local regulars complained about this, what they considered to be gouging, but Pearl and Hoffman and the other arena owners argued they had to raise prices to cover Villa’s guarantee and percentage of the gate demands.
The fifty percent increase in arena capacity was not solely due to the substantial standing room only crowd. Pearl admitted, knowing most Filipinos were small of stature, to packing more chairs on the arena floor than normal.
“I just made them sit closer together,” Pearl said.
Hoffman reveled in his selling “2 seats to 3 people.”
Five hundred potential customers were waiting entry when the fire marshal closed the doors. “So I told them to meet me in the alley,” Pearl said. “I let them in the back door for $1.”
In what seems like a convenient way to secure work, referee Fred Bottaro, another arena investor, officiated the fight, which Villa won by decision.
Lee would manage and train boxers for a while after retiring. He was in the army during WWII, stationed at Geiger Field in Washington State, where he promoted fight cards for GIs to watch in Spokane. After the war, Lee worked at the state printing plant until retirement. He never married, and lived with his dogs in the southern part of Sacramento, attending fights, which were held, upon the closing of the L Street Arena in 1945, at J Street’s Memorial Auditorium.
Hoffman left boxing in 1942, shortly after Max Baer retired, and concentrated on his real estate business before beginning his long run as county supervisor.
Lee said he spent his ring earnings “as I went along,” but a friend acknowledged that Lee had contributed to the support of his brothers and sister, and even helped some through college.
But Hoffman, who would die in 1976, had set up an annuity for Lee to help provide for his later years. “Ancil and Maudie [Mrs. Hoffman] are wonderful people,” Lee would say.
When he died in 1992, at age 92, he was buried in the same Mount Vernon Memorial Park as the man he called “Pop.”
Read more by Glen Sharp, like this story, by clicking here.