Hank Kaplan’s Million Dollar Story
Across my lustre-free career, the big ones that got away have outnumbered by four to one the reasonable-sized ones that I barely managed to reel in.
Space and pride forbid my lamenting each one laid out in sequence.
Suffice it to say, if I had landed half the big ones that wriggled off the hook in my career, they would have named a boulevard after me. Maybe they will now too, albeit a cul-de-sac.
In this installment, though, the one that got away was a wondrous example of self-sabotage. A rule in this business and for real life too: Good things happen to those who don’t care too much.
The instructive converse: Invest yourself emotionally and you tempt fate.
Fate, of course, has a sense of humour as cruel and unforgiving as a cop with a toothache, a radar gun, and a quota to fill by the end of the shift.
Winston Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” That is doubtlessly true. Churchill remains revered a half century after his passing, his name marking streets, his image on stamps, and his steely gaze looking out from statues on pedestals—because he penned the script. By way of contrast, a dozen years after his death, Hank Kaplan is little known. Short of my memoir reaching bestsellerdom, he’s a long shot to be revered or even remembered.
This is ironic because Kaplan was a historian. He not only immersed himself in history but also had to avoid tripping over it. Less an archivist than a hoarder, Kaplan stored documents, photos and assorted detritus in boxes throughout his home, his life’s work serving as an obstacle course he negotiated each waking day. His proprietary instincts priced his personal story out of the market of remembrance. As the reader will see, my eagerness to write this story came from the heart, but contributed to his exaggerated sense of self-worth, and an unreasonable valuation of near-intellectual property.
Sometimes you scare people off, but more often you empower them overly when you tell them they have a good story. They will in turn say the story is too good for you. It’s all enough to make me heave a sigh and regret once again my life choices.
If I’m getting ahead of myself here, forgive me. It takes a while for antacid to kick in.
TO understand my emotional investment requires a transport back in time to 1968. In the dying days of the analog age, “gamer” was just a comparative of the adjective “game” or a watered-down version of “gamest.”
Yes, 1968 wasn’t the dawn of the information age but rather the dawn of the idea of the information age. We knew nothing about computers other than what we could glean from the NASA missions, the flight deck of the Enterprise on Star Trek, or the offices of Cogswell Cogs on The Jetsons.
NASA advanced the notion that the agency’s computers were guiding its made-for-TV heroes to the moon and safely back to earth before the decade was out.
On prime time, Gene Roddenberry floated the idea of computers enabling man and Vulcan alike to travel into deep space.
Saturday mornings, Hanna-Barbera followed the travails of a futuristic nuclear family whose paterfamilias reported for work to enter punch-cards into the maw of a state-of-the-animated-art computer, the whirring, buzzing, clicking spawn of IBM.
Whether it was the new frontier, the final frontier, or selling cereal to pajama-clad brats, the message was plain: Life itself would never be the same once we tamed the power of the computer or vice versa. Science fiction delivered Cold War propaganda gains, prime-time ratings, or full ownership of young minds, like that of your then-adolescent correspondent. Everything seemed possible. Computers could do what mere flesh and gray matter couldn’t.
Little thought had been given to sports applications at the time, though I do fondly remember George Jetson getting cleaned out in a game of Space Poker, sitting across the table from his foil UniBlab, the computer at Spacely Sprockets. Outside the animated realm, though, sports games were strictly analog. We had table hockey in NHL team colors, Strat-o-matic baseball with MLB’s heroes and Rock’em Sock’em Robots, the latter not the remotest relations to UniBlab.
The Summer of Love gave way to My Winter of Glove. I loved boxing more than any other sports, even though pacifists were calling it inhumane and lobbying for its abolition.
At any point in time, the best sign of the health of the sport had always been its heavyweight champion, the baddest man on the planet. Sadly, in 1968 the reigning champ of the Tiffany weight class was nobody. Not figuratively, not “a nobody,” but, in fact, nobody at all.
Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title by the boxing authorities for his refusal to report for duty when his draft number came up. He famously rhymed: “On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song. I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.”
The World Boxing Association, which no one had heard of previously, staged a tournament featuring an eight-pack of contenders, pretenders, and dead-enders to inherit Ali’s crown. The New York Boxing Commission declared its title would go to the winner of a bout between Joe Frazier, the 1964 Olympic champion, and Buster Mathis, who beat Frazier at the U.S. Olympic Trials that year before injury forced him to bow out of the Tokyo Games.
Ring Magazine, “the Bible of Boxing” eschewed both and continued to recognize Ali as champion.
Previously, the championship was lineal, beyond dispute. By 1968, though, it was fractured and boxing as a result was in a state of flux.
Enter Murry Woroner, a promoter in Miami with an out-of-the-box boxing idea. With no heavyweight champion to line up for a bout, he planned to promote an event drawing in all heavyweight champions.
Many beers have been spilled on bars over arguments about who was the best ever. Was it Joe Louis? Rocky Marciano? Ali? Woroner’s brain wave was to put such conjecture to the test using the best available tech, that being the National Cash Register 315, a bungalow-sized computer.
Champions would be reduced to data, fed into the NCR 315 and eventually it would spit out a definitive champion of all. It seems far-fetched now, especially considering that the hardware was not as sophisticated as an iPhone 2G. In this way was Woroner a worthy heir to P.T. Barnum, staging a circus without having to pitch a tent or clean up after the elephants.
Boxing isn’t in vogue these days, but you don’t have to love or even follow the sport to understand the attraction: All arguments about the best of all-time would be settled once and forever by sixteen legends going in head-to-virtual-head. Supposedly. Purportedly.
Thus was fantasy sport born, its first participants going all the way back to the nineteenth century.
If you can’t sell fact, sell intrigue.
As hare-brained as it must sound now, most born suckers like pre-adolescent Me presumed the unquestioned infallibility of computer tech and would regard the outcome beyond dispute.
Woroner and his fellow perpetrators might have better understood the entertainment value relative to the science of the enterprise, and the same might have been said of the programmers of the 380 radio stations across North America who aired the weekly syndicated broadcast, a blow-by-blow account of fights scheduled for fifteen rounds.
In the ramp-up, Woroner claimed that the action in the ring was entirely information-based, each round the product of “four-million computations.” He cited the NCR-315’s ability to process 160,000 “memory” positions, taking into account more than 2,000 variables for each champ and making sixty million calculations over the eighteen months of around-the-clock prep work. All this from a computer whose manufacturers boasted of its 20k memory. No misprint, 20k.
Woroner understood exactly what he was pulling: “I'm in the radio syndication business and my job is to sell what I produce,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1968, “Sure, I believe in what I do. I don't peddle garbage. But I don't ordinarily get involved in things deeply unless I'm pretty sure they'll be a successful commercial venture. Period. This mythical thing seems to turn people on. This could open the doors at the U.S. mint. Everybody'll want to buy it. Radio is a wonderful medium. It is the real medium of imagination. It's magnificent what you can do with it.”
Even “this mythical thing” needed celebrity endorsements.
Lending the shows unwarranted legitimacy was the participation of all but one of the living champions in the advance promotion, including the oldest among them, eighty-six-year-old Jess Willard, who had beaten Jack Johnson for title back in 1914. Their availability owed to curiosity, good nature, and low price points.
The only former champ who declined to participate was Gene Tunney, who held the title in the late ‘20s and retired while holding the championship. Tunney had always been a different bird, a self-styled Renaissance man who wrote an eminently readable, even scholarly memoir without the aid of a ghostwriter. Rarer still, he managed to make hundreds of millions after his ring days, calling on his friendship with a former sparring partner, J. Paul Getty, the world’s richest man in his era. Tunney came by his hauteur honestly—he couldn’t be bought to associate himself with such muck.
Even before the tournament, I had committed to memory the names and sequence of heavyweight belt-holders, the way earnest schoolboys would American presidents, British monarchs and the Scout Oath and Law.
My heart went out to those who were not invited to the virtual dance: from ancient times, Tommy Burns, a.k.a. Noah Brusso of Hanover, Ont. who fled to the far side of the globe, twelve time zones, to avoid a fight Jack Johnson; from the dirty ‘30s, Primo Carnera, regarded as a circus freak and a pawn in the mob’s control of the fight racket; from the early ‘60s, Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johanssen, desultory equals who seemed capable of beating no one but each other; and most recently, Sonny Liston, a terrifying puncher whose criminal rap sheet managed to drag even boxing into further ill repute. No one envisioned Burns, Carnera, Patterson, and Johanssen as the greatest ever and anyone who’d make entirely plausible case for Liston was either a subversive or a Mob henchman.
The opening fight of the tournament featured Jack Dempsey, the feral Manassa Mauler, versus Gentleman Jim Corbett, the dandy who held the title when bare knuckles gave way to gloves. I remember tuning in to the first broadcast on my transistor radio, 9:30 p.m., and staying up past bedtime like it was yesterday.
The show opened with whirring and clicking and static, as if a computer were trying to speak out loud. And then the voice came in, a voice owned, it seemed, more by a practiced salesman than a sports-radio announcer. A single word was hung out there, suspended by its significance.
After the listeners’ minds raced, the commentary established the premise and set the scene.
“From the magic city, the fun and sun capital of the world, Miami, Florida. Through the incredible speed of the NCR-315 computer, Woroner Productions proudly presents the All-time Heavyweight Championship Tournament. This is Murry Woroner from the Miami Convention Hall for the first fight in the fifteen-fight, all-time heavyweight tournament …”
Woroner then acknowledged his co-conspirators:
“… made possible by the City of Miami, Mr Nat Fleischer, the publisher of Ring Magazine; Chris and Angelo Dundee and Mr Hank Kaplan, former president of the World Boxing Historians Association.”
The broadcast lasted about ninety minutes, with commercial breaks. The opening fight of the tournament was no classic like Dempsey pulverizing Gentleman Jim, but it didn’t matter. The premise was established: Fighters whose careers were far from overlapping would meet in dream matchups made possible through the wonder of technology.
This was a fit with an era when all previously impossible stuff was made imaginable if not yet possible by technology.
I wouldn’t classify any of the fights in the first few weeks as a classic. Hard to get excited by a turn-of-the-century champ such as Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons—never captured on film, only known through hyperbolic newspaper accounts and photos. Harder still to be rooting for Jack Sharkey and Jim Braddock, transitory figures who served as placeholders until brighter legends emerged—although the latter, who gained fame in Russell Crowe’s portrayal in Cinderella Man, seemed like a delightful man when interviewed on the broadcast. With his accent, Braddock could have blended in as Leo C. Gourcey’s sidekick among the Bowery Boys.
A month in, the single disappointment was the match-up between Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano, two men who had retired as champions having never lost a title fight.
Per the NCR-315, Marciano, the fearless brawler, won a one-sided decision over Tunney, a master boxer and technician. It didn’t ring true to fans versed in ring lore. How Tunney felt about it, or even whether he listened to it, we’ll never know. It’s not outside the bounds of possibility that the computer took his embargo into consideration.
The one complete head-scratcher was Max Baer, a physically gifted but undisciplined brawler, somehow won over fifteen rounds against Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the heavyweight crown. Nat Fleischer, The Ring’s resident wise man, had long ranked Johnson as the best he ever saw, but I never read an editorial that disputed NCR-315’s findings, possibly because Fleischer was on Woroner’s payroll.
Form mostly prevailed in the quarterfinals. Dempsey knocked out O’Sullivan, Marciano knocked out a stubborn Baer, and Joe Louis, the favourite of many, pummeled Fitzsimmons.
The lone fight that went the distance caused a bit of an uproar—both with the canned jeers from, ahem, the convention centre, and the flesh-and-blood losing side.
Despite being soundly outpunched, Jim Jeffries, another turn-of-the-century figure was given a fifteen-round decision over Muhammad Ali, as if being stripped of his title wasn’t indignity enough for the Greatest.
Credit the NCR-315 for building bad decisions into the programming.
When Ali called Jeffries “history's clumsiest, most slow-footed heavyweight” and sued the producer for a million dollars, claiming defamation, well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The most awaited fight of the tournament was the semi-final between Dempsey and Louis, who held the record of most title defenses and made former champions look over-matched in their attempts to win the title back. Dempsey hit the deck twice but also put Louis on the canvas four times and won a narrow decision.
In the other semi, Marciano scored a fourteenth-round knockout over Jeffries despite giving away about thirty pounds—perhaps the NCR-315 had come around to Ali’s way of thinking.
In the final installment, Marciano brutalized Dempsey, scoring six knockdowns on the way to a thirteenth-round KO.
Interviewed on air in the aftermath, Marciano seemed almost sheepish about the victory: “He was always my idol. I copied everything from him.”
For his part, Dempsey was unbowed, saying “It's only a computer” and establishing himself as the era’s first late adapter. Doubtless it didn’t hurt business at the Manhattan bar named after him.
WORONER’S production was a decent-sized success and he set up an all-time tournament with champions of the middleweight division—same format, same experts, and same computer.
I was disappointed by the way it played out. Carmen Basilio didn’t advance from the preliminaries, getting TKO’d by Marcel Cerdan. In no way as accomplished as Basilio, the Frenchman cast a romantic enough figure given his wartime heroics and tragic early death in a plane crash, so maybe the NCR-315 was a sucker for sentimentality.
In the epic final for the 160-pounders, Sugar Ray Robinson beat Stanley Ketchel. The same Ketchel per John Lardner who at age twenty-four was shot in the back by the common-law husband of the woman who was cooking his breakfast.
The promoter also brought together a transistorized version of the greatest thoroughbreds in history for a dream race and talked up the idea of expanding into team sports, pitting the greatest football and baseball teams in history against one another.
Though it hadn’t been on his radar in the work-up, Ali’s million-dollar lawsuit served as a catalyst for Woroner’s legacy production. He convinced Ali to abort the case by giving him $10,000 and a title shot at the computer tournament’s champion, Marciano.
Further, the two fighters would act-out their “fight” in a television studio, with the production going out to 1,500 theatres on closed-circuit in North America and Europe for a one-time-only showing. Ali and Marciano would earn a cut of the gate. Woroner knew keeping the outcome a mystery was key to the draw, so the two boxers fought seventy-five scripted one-minute rounds, which would be patched together to best approximate the NCR-315’s blow-by-blow.
As noted, Ali was in the middle of his exile from the ring and a court battle, so the cash was going to come in handy. For his part, Marciano embraced the idea whole-heartedly. At age forty-six, he shed fifty pounds and donned a toupee to best approximate the version of himself who had last entered a ring in 1957.
The producers ratcheted up the intrigue, floating rumors that Ali had absorbed significant bodily harm from a seemingly rejuvenated Marciano.
The computer came up with something like a split decision—Marciano winning by a thirteenth-round knockout in North American theatres, while, in another version of the fight that aired in Europe, Ali won by a decision.
Tragically, Marciano would never know the outcome nor read the good reviews. He died in a plane crash just a few weeks after he threw his last punch in simulated anger. Thus did the broadcast have a more than faintly ghostly air.
The closed-circuit production earned about five million dollars worldwide but generated no significant follow-up.
When Woroner found that copies of Marciano’s win were being shown after the original date, he had them destroyed, and over time, the fantasy tournaments and the Super Fight became footnotes to history.
It was around 2005 when a surviving print of the film was discovered. Shortly thereafter, I set about writing about this primitive, forgotten curiosity that anticipated computer sports.
Though Woroner had shuffled off this mortal coil, and speech had become a near-impossibility for the infirm Ali, I managed to track down one of the key principals, Hank Kaplan. If one man could speak to it, no one was better than the fella who provided the data to be processed. He was effectively the godfather of computer sports.
WHEN Kaplan picked up the phone in his home in Miami, I could scarcely contain my enthusiasm. “I think your story will be great,” I told him.
“Who’ll see it?” he asked.
“Our magazine has a circulation of more than two-million, I said, which was both true and a bit of fast-passing publishing history.
“I’ll do it … for one-million dollars.”
This exceeded my budget by a million dollars minus a meal for two at Denny’s. Even a dessert would attract an internal audit. I was prepared to give him a blank check but I just couldn’t sign it.
There was no convincing him.
“My story is going to make a lot of money for you,” he said. “I want my fair share.”
Now, Mr. Kaplan was of an advanced age. I’m not sure he would have the time or energy to spend a million bucks, but he was determined to take on the challenge if presented him.
I stayed in touch with him, but he never budged.
I made a few more calls. I even braced him at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., hoping that I could make my best intention more explicit. No dice. (Hopefully, Carmen Basilio caught up to him at some point to talk about getting stopped by Marcel Cerdan.)
It was going to take a million-dollar check, immediately payable, to keep him on the line to talk for the purposes of a magazine story. I can only suppose he would have put me on hold until he’d deposited it, and it cleared.
It even occurred to me to try a different gambit: offer to ghost-write his authorized biography for a million dollars, and then meet him halfway.
The clock ran out on my enterprise. Kaplan died in December 2007, just months after our last, brief, terse conversation in Canastota. In the coverage of his life and times his generosity was duly noted. “One of the nicest things that happened to the sport of boxing was Hank Kaplan,” said Angelo Dundee, who had met Kaplan more than 50 years before. “I know he did favors for millions of people.”
I guess I fell one favor short.
UPON Mr. Kaplan’s death, his family donated his immense archive to the City University of New York. Its description on a CUNY library’s webpage reads:
Because of Hank Kaplan's devotion to collecting the stories that often went untold, and his commitment to obscure and ephemeral objects, the scope of the collection is vast. The collection features 2,600 book titles, 500,000 rare prints and negatives, hundreds of linear feet of newspaper clippings from 1890-2007, more than 300 audiotapes and videotapes, over 1200 posters, approximately 200 boxes of publications, dozens of scrapbooks, reams of correspondence, and over 100 boxes of memorabilia items. Examples of memorabilia include autographed money, a heavy bag Cassius Clay punched before renaming himself Muhammad Ali, a gold cigarette case that Max Baer gave his trainer Izzy Kline, and the very scissors that Kaplan used to cut up the hundreds of thousands of newspaper clippings spanning the last century of boxing history.
Kaplan rarely purchased items for his collection, instead amassing items mostly through donation and trade. Much of the material will make the researcher wonder how Kaplan ever received them. A good example of this is the large amount of plaster mouth casts and rubber mouth guards.
No mention of the heavyweight-champions tournament on syndicated radio, nor the Super Fight that played out in the theatres, nor his role in birth of computer sports. The story went untold—by virtue of being out of my price range.
Gare Joyce is a resident of Canada, an author, and former ESPN The Magazine contributor. Subscribe to his Substack here