Babe Herman’s first round knockout loss to Vincent “Pepper” Martin on May 2nd, 1922, was not the end of the road for his career, but it was such an abrupt detour that it can be seen, especially in retrospect, as the beginning of the end. Herman would fight for another ten years, and for a few of those years be considered a top featherweight contender. But he would never again be spoken of as a coming world champion, which is how highly heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey thought of him before this loss.
Herman was controlling the early action in the fight when Martin hit him with a right hand followed by a left hook – two of the three punches Martin would land that night. He rose unsteadily at the count of six to be knocked down by another left hook, where he would lie motionless as the referee counted him out.
Herman was carried to his corner where it would take several minutes for him to be revived, and then burst into tears when made aware of what had happened.
Born on April 7, 1903, Herman J. Sousa was 12 years old when assigned by juvenile court to St. Vincent’s Academy for being beyond control of his parents. He began boxing as a young teenager, being taught by Sacramento favorite Georgie Lee, with whom he would soon be sparring, and not long after that getting the best of their sparring.
Only a year after he was sneaking into the L Street Arena to watch boxing matches, Herman was fighting main events there himself as a bantamweight. He “dethroned the Chinese [Lee] in the eyes of the local fans,” and reporters wrote of him as being “one of the sweetest propositions seen here for a long time,” a boxer who “is unusually clever, and carries a wild kick in either fist.”
Fred Pearl was one of a consortium that ran boxing in Sacramento – a group of five or so who owned the L Street Arena, promoted shows, trained and managed boxers, and even provided officiating. Pearl was regularly described as Herman’s manager, although the phenomenon was too young to sign a contract. Herman’s father, Peter Sousa, negotiated on his son’s behalf, sometimes strongly, once demanding a purse increase the day before the July, 1920, fight with Al Walker, letting the promoters know Herman was ready to walk away if he did not get what he wanted.
The local Sacramento boxing world was shocked to hear in 1919 that Herman had been stopped in the first round in a fight at the Dreamland Rink in San Francisco, only learning later that Sousa the senior didn’t appreciate the funds offered for transportation back to Sacramento after the fight, so the son didn’t show up.
Herman fought in the East Bay city of Pittsburg that night, with the Dreamland Rink promoters substituting for Herman with someone not nearly as talented.
A boxer with Herman’s potential attracts managers and promoters the way blood attracts sharks, and Herman was desirable property, especially so given that he was, due to his age, a free agent. Having trouble with the local authorities allowing a teenager to box professionally, he was soon fighting outside of California, shopping himself around, eventually making his way to the Midwest, where heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns noticed him.
Unable to become the manager of a legal minor, Kearns “hired” Herman as a sparring partner for Dempsey, and Herman traveled with the champion’s camp, fighting on his undercards.
With Herman eventually returning to California, Kearns arranged fights in Sacramento as well as Madison Square Garden for him. Dempsey and Kearns attended fights at the L Street Arena when Herman was on the card. But he fought for the most part in New York. Kearns’ operations were based on the west coast, in Oakland, but he had an east coast partner, Dan McKetrick, who worked out of New York, and was effectively Herman’s manager. McKetrick was not nearly as famous as his partner Kearns, but he more than held up his end of the bargain when it came to chicanery, and had a history with such boxers as Stanley Ketchel and Jack Johnson.
Herman knew he was in good hands, in the sense of having powerful boxing figures guiding his career, writing a letter to his old promoter Pearl saying that in New York a boxer would not have much of a chance without the right people promoting and protecting him.
“Good boys fail to get matches because they are not connected with the progressive promoters,” Herman wrote.
With or without a contract, newspapers both east and west reported Kearns as being Herman’s manager, and the weight Kearns carried involved more than just making the right matches. Dempsey’s first fight following his taking the title from Jess Willard was against Billy Miske in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Kearns wanted James Dougherty of Philadelphia to act as referee, but Thomas Bigger, chairman of the Michigan State Boxing Commission, selected Al Day of Detroit.
Kearns threatened to call the match off and “take Dempsey out of town” if Dougherty could not be the referee. Day eventually “agreed to withdraw in favor of Dougherty,” and Commissioner Bigger agreed “at the last minute” to grant Dougherty a Michigan referee’s license.
Herman fought underneath the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, and Kearns was grooming the “dashing little Californian” who was a “pocket edition of the big champion” for a shot against featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane. But the fast-track fantasy Babe Herman was living was about to fade. At one time seemingly indestructible – in a car accident in which Herman drove off the road and his vehicle overturned in a ditch, he stepped away from the wreck unscathed – he became ill in the second half of 1921, which led to cancellation of fights and week-long bouts of bedrest.
Eventually diagnosed with appendicitis, and prescribed more rest after surgery, Herman began training in Kearns’ Oakland gym after a short recuperation with his family. Eager to return to the title picture, Herman began fighting again in the fall, losing to Darryl Edwards while weighing 134 pounds, and then losing to Danny Edwards, the “Negro Flash.”
He drew with Sacramentan Danny Nunes in December before returning to New York.
Everyone could see the appendicitis had diminished Herman, but the hope was the diminishment, like the appendicitis, was curable.
The papers mention another first round loss only three days after the loss to Martin, when Dan “Kid” Cupid stopped Herman with a “heart” punch in his professional debut. This was a joke, however, playing on the idea of Herman being floored by love. He and Edna Reedy married on May 5th and established a home in Long Island.
Complications from the appendicitis might not have been Herman’s only problem. When Kearns first brought Herman to New York, he arranged for a private training session at Jack O’Brien’s gym for the “newspapermen.” All the writers agreed – however impressed they might have been with his potential – that Herman was never going to see 118 pounds again.
Kearns had hoped Herman’s power would carry with him as he grew, but he couldn’t steamroll the larger guys as he had bantamweights. He was growing into a natural lightweight who would pare down to the featherweight limit, but was soon no longer “the house afire” that people couldn’t take their eyes off.
Inconsistency is how to best describe the remainder of Herman’s career. He was still a skilled boxer, one with a name, but he would lose fights that he would not have earlier. Larger competition was not only more challenging because Herman was effectively less powerful, but because he couldn’t always take the heavier punches, either. He would be stopped now and then, becoming a cautious fighter. Babe Herman had not made his name by being cautious, but it is how he learned to survive.
Herman would recover from the KO loss to Martin enough to function as an effective featherweight, remaining a contender for the crown, but it is a tribute to how good he was when young and a bantamweight that the erratic performances for which he became known were still good enough for him to remain world-ranked, with his former ability lamented while he still fought.
He fought on the undercard of the title fight between Johnny Kilbane and Eugene Criqui, and beat British featherweight champion Joey Fox on the undercard of the Benny Leonard fight with Lew Tendler. Herman was not powerful enough a puncher to stop Fox at 126 pounds, but he landed his punches “at will.”
He would split five fights – three draws and a decision victory each – with the future featherweight champion who he would eventually challenge for the title, Louis “Kid” Kaplan. But Herman would draw with Mickey Travers fighting at over 130 pounds, and lose every round to Sammy Handell.
While visiting his parents in California, Herman took a bout with local favorite Tommy O’Leary to stay in shape. But he was, according to the Sacramento Bee, “not at his best,” and his decision victory was a gift. One reporter wrote of Herman as having “grown to be a slow, spiritless feather.” He lost a fight he was winning against Kid Sullivan when Sullivan broke his ribs.
The New York Daily News described Herman as “scarcely the wonderful little fighter he appeared to be two years ago,” adding that “It is hard to conceive of a fighter going back as far as Herman.” Boxing people commented that he often rose to the level of his competition, but no more.
“He is a fellow who, when right, is a champion, but when wrong is all wrong,” one manager said. “Babe can go into the ring for one fight and there is nobody in the world who can beat him. In his very next appearance he will look like the worst boxer of his division.”
But he was still considered to be in the mix as a title contender when Johnny Dundee relinquished the championship because he could no longer make the weight limit, and would eventually receive a shot against champion Kaplan in Kaplan’s home of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Herman got himself in perfect condition, weighing in at 124 ½. But the odds were 10-7 in Kaplan’s favor, with The New York Daily News writing “Unless the Babe lays in the crusher, we can’t see a chance to get any better than a draw.”
And that is exactly what happened, with the referee Jack Sheehan raising the arms of both men at fight’s end. But Herman had more to contend with than the third man in the ring. The weigh-in was held at Joe Shugrue’s gym in Waterbury, with Kaplan quickly hopping from the scales as soon as his weight was announced at 126 pounds.
Reporters had not been allowed to verify the weight, and Herman’s manager, Jimmy Kelly – ironically the man who managed Pepper Martin on the night Herman’s career was altered – became irate, claiming that Kaplan weighed 126 ½. His concerns were dismissed.
Kelly was “in a violent mood,” and “tore his way through the crowd over to an assemblage of newspapermen and announced that he claimed the title for Herman.”
He threatened “to send his boy home without a fight,” and nearly came to blows with Kaplan’s manager, Scotty Monteith. The proceedings were on the verge of becoming a riot, with Kelly arguing “there was considerable monkey-work with the scales,” and that “he had received the well-known works.”
“I feel that I got all the worst of it,” a dejected Kelly said, as the situation calmed. The worst was yet to come.
The originally scheduled referee, New Haven’s David F. Fitzgerald, was replaced at six o’clock the evening of the fight by Jack Sheehan of Boston. Sheehan explained later that he had come to watch the fight “without the least idea that he would be asked to appear in it.”
Fitzgerald, who thought Herman had won the fight, would relinquish his referee’s license in protest of the corruption. Most ringsiders agreed Herman had a commanding lead going into the 14th round of the fight, in which Kelly twice circled the ring to protest to officials that some rounds were being shortened for the benefit of Kaplan. These claims were not addressed during the fight but were later verified.
With the draw, Kaplan kept his title. The country’s top writers considered the outcome to be a robbery. An investigation was promised but, in the end, several Connecticut regulators received promotions.
A rematch was held four months later, in December, because the New York Athletic Commission – so appalled by the administration of the Connecticut authorities – would not allow Kaplan a license to box in New York, and make the size of purses that come with fighting at Madison Square Garden, until Herman received another chance.
But the initial title fight in August was Herman’s last hurrah. He made the 126-pound weight limit but appeared drained. He fought that way as well, losing a clear decision to Kaplan.
Herman would fight for another seven years, but these years would be a slow, steady decline from what was once his promise. He would progress from losing occasionally, to losing as often as he won, to losing – in the last couple years – more often than he won.
Injuries and indignities would further compromise Herman’s career. He would at times fight as heavy as 140 pounds, and was once fined by the Pennsylvania Commission for “unsatisfactory work” when he “couldn’t” continue after being fouled by Bobby Garcia.
Fights would be cancelled due to a damaged shoulder or for surgery to clean boils.
Herman was swindled in 1927 and filed fraud charges with the police when he paid $2,800 for what he thought were “smuggled” diamonds that turned out to be chipped glass.
He lost a 1928 rematch to Minnesotan Richie Mack in Sacramento, claiming that illness had weakened him in their first fight. But, as the Sacramento Bee reported, illness was not the reason Herman lost on either occasion, as “…Father Time, who slows legs and dims eyes, conspired with the Minneapolis boxer.”
Being knocked unconscious for five minutes by Justo Suarez in Buenos Aires – with ringside physicians providing injections in the hope of reviving him – was not enough to convince Herman to retire in 1930, and an October, 1931, Sacramento Bee headline read: “Babe Herman Still Boxing; Loses Match.”
There were some laughs along the way. A summertime fight with Chick Suggs at Braves Field Ballpark in Boston was rescheduled due to rain. Herman was staying at the Hotel Brunswick, where the studio of radio station WBZ was located, and he was invited for an interview on the evening of the postponement.
Four men who had planned on attending the fight together decided to go out anyway. The wives stayed home and listened to WBZ, their usual evening entertainment. Each of the men arrived home after a hard night out only to find their wives awake and interested in the outcome of the fight.
When Fred Pearl notified the local papers of Herman’s Las Vegas death in 1966, the Sacramento Bee gave him two -sentences, referring to Herman as “one of Sacramento’s greatest lightweights.”