The 1915 World Series and the Rise of the Modern American Sports Fan


We´re History  November 3, 2015
Boston Royal Rooters return to Boston, 1903 World Series

Boston Royal Rooters return to Boston, 1903 World Series. (Photo: Boston Public Library)

One hundred years ago, the Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1915 World Series. The victory occurred in the midst of a dominant run for Boston’s baseball teams, which won five championships between 1912 and 1918. This success even brought national recognition to the city’s most vociferous baseball fans, a group that called themselves the Royal Rooters. Both these teams and the Rooters have been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and even songs, but their involvement in the 1915 World Series in particular has generated little interest from sportswriters or historians.

The lack of attention paid to the 1915 Series may be due to the dominant pitching and limited offense that was typical of baseball’s “dead-ball” era. Yet if events on the field represented their time, what happened off the field was new. Record crowds and celebrity guests indicated professional baseball’s increasingly respectable status in the nation’s northern cities, and a public battle over accommodations for the Rooters revealed that their cheering had become more than just a leisure activity. For these mostly prosperous and ambitious men, it had become a means of gaining political and economic influence.

The Royal Rooters had been accompanying Boston’s professional baseball teams on crucial late and postseason road trips since 1897. It appears they were the first group of fans in the United States to display this level of devotion, and their journeys to Baltimore that year, to Pittsburgh in 1903, and to New York in 1904 received substantial coverage in the Boston media and the sporting press. Much of the coverage focused on the Rooters’ gambling and rowdy behavior, an editorial decision that reinforced the idea that professional baseball, both on and off the field, was the realm of men who drank, gambled, and fought. This justly earned reputation made ballparks disreputable places that genteel women and children attended infrequently.

The Rooters’ behavior in many ways affirmed this tradition, even as several of them brought wives and daughters on these trips. Yet for the group’s leaders, fandom also reflected a belief that public allegiance to professional baseball in Boston could have political, economic, and social value. Connections existed between professional baseball and urban politics prior to the existence of the Rooters, but earlier politicians tended to avoid publicizing their sporting affiliations. In contrast, when Royal Rooter John F. Fitzgerald, a former U.S. Congressman and future Mayor of Boston, attempted to buy the Americans (soon to be known as the Red Sox) in 1904, he did so largely to keep his name in the paper between elections. When the Huntington Avenue Grounds opened in 1901 to house the newly formed Americans, Rooter Michael T. McGreevey moved his Third Base Saloon next to the park and fervently publicized his association with the team for the next two decades. McGreevey advertised on the park’s outfield walls, and made sure he appeared in published photographs with Red Sox players and management at spring training in Arkansas and California, at the 1912 groundbreaking for Fenway Park, and at World Series games throughout the 1910s. This strategy helped to facilitate McGreevey’s rise from poor laborer to prominent business owner, a path that John Keenan and Charley Lavis – the two men who led the Rooters during the 1915 World Series – also traveled.

When the Red Sox launched Boston’s decade of preeminence in professional baseball by reaching the 1912 World Series, the Rooters’ devotion to the team transformed from a regional into a national story. Their fandom received coverage in newspapers from the Tampa Morning Tribune to the Idaho Statesman, even prior to the near-riot that occurred before Game 7 of the Series when the Red Sox neglected to reserve the group’s usual seats.

The response to that fracas further reflects the influence that the Rooters’ popularity had gained them within baseball’s power structure. Although some observers have marked this moment as the beginning of the Rooters’ decline, the Boston press widely criticized the team for this incident. Moreover, American League President Ban Johnson immediately pronounced his admiration for the Rooters, and in 1913 the Boston Herald suggested that the subsequent departure of owner James McAleer and team treasurer Robert McRoy was a “direct result” of the episode. When the Boston Braves won their World Series championship in 1914, the Rooters once again traveled along, cheering the team and remaining a popular story in newspapers across the country.

By 1915, other politicians had begun to realize the value of publicly associating themselves with major league baseball. For example, James Michael Curley, Fitzgerald’s successor as mayor and chief political rival, had never displayed a previous interest in baseball but began pronouncing his support for the Red Sox that year. More nationally significant was the appearance of President Woodrow Wilson and his new fiancée, Edith Bolling Galt at Game 1 of the 1915 World Series. This occasion marked not only the first time a sitting President attended a World Series game, but also Wilson’s first public appearance with Galt. The fact that the president and his advisors perceived this game as an appropriate setting for presenting his betrothed to the American people just eighteen months after his wife’s death indicated professional baseball’s growing status as a reputable, family-friendly pastime.

So too did the 1915 World Series’ unprecedented popularity. In Boston, where Fenway Park was only three years old, the Red Sox borrowed newly opened Braves Field for their home games because they correctly anticipated fans would fill its larger seating capacity. Game 3 set a new major league baseball attendance record with 42,300 people packed into the stands, and Game 4 nearly matched that total with 41,096 spectators. Boston newspapers crowed over this achievement, and their simultaneous cautioning that readers should leave extra time to get to the park and anticipate challenges in navigating the crowds indicates that such attendance numbers were newsworthy.

Even before the Series started, the Rooters were at the center of another controversy that affirmed the game’s booming popularity would not endanger their status as professional baseball’s preeminent fans. Since 1897, opposing teams or league presidents had always reserved a block of tickets for them, but this time Phillies president William Baker refused to extend this courtesy, offering only scattered seats instead. In response, Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin pronounced that he would refuse to let the Red Sox play if the Rooters did not get their customary accommodations. Both executives’ proclamations were public relations gambits, and the Series was never in jeopardy, but the fact that the league commissioners stepped in to provide the Rooters’ tickets indicates their continuing influence within the baseball hierarchy.

These trailblazers continued to enjoy their celebrity role for a few more years; they attended the 1916 and 1918 World Series with the Red Sox, and even received tickets from the league for the 1917 Series despite the fact that neither Boston team reached the championship contest. After 1918, though, the Rooters largely disappeared from prominence, a decline that probably resulted from a combination of Prohibition and the collapse of both Boston baseball teams during the 1920s.

Baseball’s popularity continued to grow through much of the twentieth century, and in some ways the Rooters’ impact was temporary. It seems that no subsequent groups of fans in other cities emerged to parlay their hometown professional team’s success into personal improvements in their social and economic status. On the other hand, while the explicit material benefits of fandom dissipated after World War I, the “dead-ball era” was when the practice of rooting for professional baseball began to enter the cultural mainstream. Thus for those who wonder why today, as Jerry Seinfeld famously said, we “root for laundry” when we cheer for our favorite professional teams, perhaps we should consider whether our practice originates at least in part from our great-grandfathers’ efforts to improve their financial and social standing.

About the Author

Paul Ringel

Paul Ringel is Associate Professor of History at High Point University. He is the author of Commercializing Childhood: Children’s Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the ideal of the American Child, 1823-1918 (2015). He is also the Director of the William Penn Project, a service learning initiative through which students explore the history of High Point’s African-American high school during the Jim Crow era. His current research project is an exploration of the Royal Rooters, a group of celebrity baseball fans in early twentieth-century Boston.

A Somewhat Forgotten President: The Legacy of James K. Polk

James K. Polk

James K. Polk.(Photo: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

James K. Polk was not a man given to frivolity on his birthday. When he turned fifty-three on November 2, 1848, the eleventh president of the United States reflected gloomily in his diary. “I am solemnly impressed with the vanity and emptiness of worldly honours and worldly enjoyments,” he wrote, “and of the wisdom of preparing for a future estate.” After brooding over his waning time on earth and on the impending end of his term in office, Polk noted that he had spent the day, as he had spent so many others, “busily occupied in my office.”

Much as Polk ignored the occasion in favor of carrying out his administrative duties, most Americans will neglect to observe the 220th anniversary of Polk’s birth this week. There will be no presidential speeches in his honor, no parades, and no celebratory dinners, because in the popular imagination Polk has largely faded from memory. Indeed, Polk’s fame has faded to such an extent that only 17% Americans recently asked to rank past presidents based on “memorability” could even identify Polk as a president, let alone describe what he accomplished in his term in office. This placed Polk’s “memorability” somewhere between James Garfield and Warren G. Harding, two presidents most famous for dying while in office. Unlike those presidents, however, Polk left behind a slew of legislative accomplishments and a deeply fraught and complicated legacy.

In 1844, James Polk, then a little-known congressman from Tennessee, somewhat surprisingly won the nomination of the Democratic Party, and promised that given the divisions within the party and his relatively young age of forty-nine, he would only serve a single term in the White House if elected. Upon winning a closely contested national election against Whig candidate Henry Clay, Polk became the youngest man to hold the office of the presidency to that point in American history. But Polk’s relative youth and inexperience did not prevent him from fulfilling his presidential goals. He settled a festering boundary dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, secured passage of the Walker Tariff that amounted to a major reform, and helped establish the independent treasury system that lasted into the twentieth century. Polk’s most enduring accomplishment, however, was the waging of war against Mexico and signing the stunning treaty that marked its conclusion.

When running for office, Polk had pledged to annex Texas – which had broken away from Mexico nearly a decade before – to the United States at the earliest possible moment. His attempt to bring Texas into the Union promptly led to a boundary dispute with Mexico, a conflict that escalated into warfare when Polk ordered American troops into the disputed region. Polk then demonstrated himself an aggressive commander-in-chief, ordering a full-scale invasion of Mexico that ultimately led to the capture of Mexico City and demanding at the conclusion of the war more than a mere boundary adjustment. In February of 1848, the United States effectively imposed upon Mexico the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which added an additional 525,000 square miles to the United States and stripped Mexico of nearly half of its territory. Between this acquisition and the territory added by resolving the dispute over the Oregon Territory, Polk added over one million square miles to the United States, more than any other single president before or since.

Despite reforming the tariff and the treasury and expanding the nation’s reach to the Pacific Ocean, Polk’s legacy is hardly an unambiguous triumph. Surely one reason that Polk has faded from the popular historical memory is that Americans tend to downplay events from our past that do not reflect the nation in the most positive light. We often forget the imperialist impulse that helped produce the war with Mexico, the fact that the growth of the United States into a continental power came directly at the expense of other nations, and that it was immigrants pouring into the Mexico from the United States rather than the reverse that caused the borders to shift and triggered a war. Simply put, Polk’s legacy can be difficult to assess because unlike a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, the chief accomplishment of his administration is one that cannot be remembered without acknowledging important moral questions.

Perhaps the most realistic way to remember James Polk on the 220th anniversary of his birth is to see him as representative of the tumultuous decade of the 1840s. Polk has sometimes been portrayed, both in his time and since, as a Machiavellian manipulator who engineered the Mexican-American War to cement his own place in history. But throughout his term in office, Polk remained constrained and limited by the powers granted to him. It is hard to blame Polk for the Mexican-American war, or for the blatant land grab at its conclusion, without noting that the American people voted for him in 1844, asked for the annexation of Texas, and generally supported the war when it erupted. We might fault Polk for using whatever means he deemed necessary to achieve the goals that he set for himself from the very beginning of his term, but he himself simply believed that he was carrying out the will of the American people. Whatever one believes about Polk, however, he deserves at the very least to be remembered. Arguably, no one-term president ever accomplished as much as he did.

About the Author

Daniel Burge

Daniel Burge is a PhD candidate at the University of Alabama. He holds a master’s degree from University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is currently working on his dissertation, which examines opposition to manifest destiny and the ways in which the opponents of manifest destiny appealed to the American public, beginning in the Oregon Debate of 1846 and ending in the attempt to annex Santo Domingo (1872). He is interested in opposition to imperialism, broadly defined, and especially how individuals utilized humor to offset and counteract the arguments of the imperialists.


Saturday Night Massacre

Maestros cubanos en Harvard, una historia a rescatar

Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court Case that Redefined the Role of Sports Heroes in American Culture: Part 1

HNN    October 4, 2015

Over 40 years have passed since the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Clay, aka Ali, v. United States, which was argued before the Supreme Court Justices on April 19, 1971. On June 28th of the same year, the High Court ruled in favor of the petitioner Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.), the boxing heavyweight champion of the world, who was stripped of his title by various boxing commissions when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Ali claimed exemption due to the fact that he was a Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) minister. The fact that he did so when the U.S. was involved in a war — Vietnam — angered many people.

The idea that sports stars in the U.S. were infallible athletic gods walking among us mere mortals was always disputed by some and with good reason. Ty Cobb, according to many accounts, was a virulent racist and Babe Ruth spent most of his adult life in an alcoholic stupor. For decades, beer companies supplied free samples of their beverage to National Hockey League (NHL) players and beer is not the ideal beverage if one is a professional athlete. Before the days of million dollar contracts, the beer companies employed these same athletes as salesmen during their off-season free time. The Molson Brewing Company once owned the Montreal Canadiens. Since World War Two, the National Football League (NFL) team owners have had to deal with the fact that gambling on NFL games happens and in the long history of the league, occasionally NFL players have been found guilty of betting on their own team. Regarding gambling, Major League Baseball (MLB)’s all-time hit accumulator, Pete Rose, received a life-time ban on participating in the sport when he admitted to betting on baseball games. For much of American boxing history, the sport was controlled by mobsters, who made sure that the outcome of bouts was fixed beforehand.

Yet what Muhammad Ali stood for somehow superseded all of the above. He was a 6’4,” 235 pound bombastic personality named after the 19th century abolitionist and anti-slavery newspaper editor, Cassius Clay. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., was a talented artist and sign painter who was proud of his black lineage. Odessa Clay, Ali’s mother, was born of mixed blood and was part Irish — and so, of course, is her famous son. Born a Christian, Clay converted to the Black Muslim faith 24 hours after he won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1964. At first he told reporters that he wanted to be known as Cassius X, but then amended that to the name of Muhammad Ali. He began boxing at the age of 12, won the 1960 Olympic Light Heavyweight gold medal, and did not retire from the sport until he was badly beaten by Trevor Berbick in a December, 1981 match held in the Bahamas. Until Parkinson’s Syndrome had begun to stop his speech (he actually began to shown early signs of the disease at the time of the Berbick fight), Ali was always talkative and displayed a colorful and outgoing personality.

So during the 1960’s, here came a brash, young (he was only 22 when he won the heavyweight title), prolix man on the world stage. The fact that he publicly renounced Christianity, and took up the Nation of Islam religion (in 1975, he would convert to Sunni Islam) at a time when the American power structure (legislative; judicial; presidential; media and press; corporate; military) was run either by Christians or Jews baffled Americans. At the press conference where Ali made his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, he famously said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Influential newspaper sports columnists Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith belittled Ali in their columns.

The day after Ali returned from a trip to New York with his then good friend Malcolm X (Ali would later stop following Malcom X’s beliefs and devote himself to Black Muslim founder Elijah Muhammad’s tenets) at a Muslin rally, he “received a notice to report to the Armed Forces Induction center in Coral Gables, Florida to take a military qualifying examination,” wrote Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace in their book, published in 2000, entitled Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Clay v. The United States of America. Bingham was Ali’s long-time personal confidante and personal photographer. Later, on March 20, 1964, Ali’s military aptitude test results were made public. He failed the test, and especially had trouble with the mathematical questions on the test.

For once, the talkative Ali (who had barely graduated from the public high school that he attended in his native Louisville, Kentucky) was quiet; frankly, he was embarrassed by the disclosure that he flunked the test. “I said that I was The Greatest [a title he bestowed on himself previously], not The Smartest. When I looked at a lot of them questions, I just didn’t know the answers. I didn’t even know how to start about finding the answers,” confessed Ali.

All of this took place during the time of the civil rights movement for blacks and also the American military build-up in Vietnam. Both of these events created emotional turmoil for Americans, so Ali’s growing discovery of his true self (i.e., his religious conversion, and his inchoate reflections about the world), which he was always glad to share with reporters and audiences, made for yet another spicy ingredient in the American societal stew.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Senators, and others in the 1960’s federal government power structure refused to believe that Ali failed his military aptitude test. When the FBI began an investigation they found that Ali was at best a sub-par high school student. For some months Ali himself believed that all of this meant that he was stupid, but his former high school teachers, reporters, and others who knew him well have noted that he was a highly intelligent person. The military aptitude test was as flawed as the standard IQ test. Author Norman Mailer (who attended Harvard, and was certainly no mental midget) knew Ali well and told of Ali being wise and intelligent on a number of subjects. After Ali’s retirement from boxing, he acted as a Goodwill Ambassador. He knew numerous world leaders well, ranging from Cuba’s Fidel Castor to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. He personally designed many of the buildings at his personal; boxing training camp. Citizens, irate that Ali was preparing himself not to be drafted, wrote letters to President Lyndon B. Johnson asking him to do something about the situation.

A lesson that professional athletes learned from Ali is that, thanks to a progression in communications, they can voice their comments and ideas on any topic in the world and they will be known throughout the world. Furthermore, the more famous and talented the athlete, the more people will somehow react when he or she voices said comments and ideas. Thanks to a boom in satellite technology, and also other media and press technology, which began in the 1960’s, Muhammad Ali became the world’s first truly international sports star. People from Atlanta to Zanzibar could see Ali daily in television news reports and also watch his boxing matches. Ali became a hero to other famous black American athletes of the 1960’s (most notably football’s Jim Brown and basketball’s Lew Alcindor, who would become known as Abdul-Jabbar). They saw that — contrary to notable American black athletes of the past — they were free to offer their opinions on anything they wanted. Both Brown and Abdul-Jabbar also took note that Ali spent much of his free time doing charity work and also kept busy with other altruistic activities and so Brown and Abdul-Jabbar began to do so as well.

In April of 1964 Ali went on a tour of numerous countries in Africa. The tour was scheduled previous to his military draft imbroglio. Tens of thousands of Africans came out from their homes, shops, and places of work to see and hear the boxing heavyweight champion of the world. By a strange twist of fate, Ali just happened to notice Malcolm X, from a distance, walking in a city square in Ghana. He did not attempt to get Malcolm X’s attention for by this time, Ali and Malcolm X’s friendship was null and void. Ali had decided to follow the beliefs and tenets of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad rather than those of Malcolm X. As Ali was preparing to defend his heavyweight title against Liston in a 1965 rematch (which Ali would win by a knock out in the first round), Malcolm X was publicly predicting to CBS-TV’s Mike Wallace and other reporters that he, Malcolm X, would be assassinated due to his conflicts with Elijah Muhammad. In 1965 he was, and ever since Ali had feelings of remorse about his and Malcolm X’s failed friendship. After Malcolm X’s murder, five FBI agents were assigned to bodyguard Ali.

Numerous polls taken during this time period of the mid-1960’s show that the majority of Americans supported the U.S. military activities in Vietnam but, ever so slowly, this was beginning to change. President Johnson announced that 17,500 more men would be drafted and additionally, he ordered another 50,000 more troops be assigned to Vietnam. In November, the Pentagon issued a directive in which any person who took a military induction test and had a recorded score of 15 could be eligible to be drafted. As Ali’s score was 16, this now meant that, by the unit of measurement of a sole point, he could now be drafted. Numerous prominent athletes of the 1960’s served in the military. The most notable was Roger Staubach, who won the 1963 Heisman Trophy after successfully quarterbacking the U.S. Naval Academy to a winning season. So Ali’s upcoming refusal to be drafted was something that U.S. citizens, of all creeds, races, and religions, were thinking about.

This simple fact — that a prominent athlete was by his conduct outside of his work place (in Ali’s case, a boxing ring) — virtually forcing a country’s people to confront a major issue of enormous controversy — was, and still is, quite rare. Ali was, in essence, defying the federal government and the military during a war.

Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based author/historian/reporter. Previous employers include United Press International (UPI); Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA); Inter Press Service (IPS); The Economist, and the Xinhua News Agency (XNA). He is currently at work on a non-fiction book of reportage about China, which will be the second in a planned series of non-fiction books of reportage about the countries and regions of the world.

Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court Case that Redefined the Role of Sports Heroes in American Culture: Part 2 

HNN   October 11, 2015

Muhammad Ali was boxing heavyweight champion of the world for much of the 1960’s. During this decade he was admired internationally, but not in his native country of the United States. Chief reason for this was his vocal opposition to serving in the U.S. Army, or any other branch of the military which, as fate would have it, was the same time period as the U.S. military intervention into Vietnam.

Ali was controversial ever since becoming famous. This applies to both his boxing style (in which he moved away from his opponent’s punches and also specialized in moving laterally, rather than the conventional method of moving toward an opponent’s punches and vertically) and also his behavior outside the ring (such as his proclamation that he was renouncing Christianity and his given name and was joining the National of Islam). Looking to Ali as an example, more and more athletes the world over, and especially American black athletes, began to become influential members of society. No longer would athletes be silent automatons mindlessly providing sports entertainment.

While in Miami in 1966 awaiting word from his draft board when to report for induction, Ali was told by a news wire reporter that he was eligible for the draft. Not long afterwards, many television news reporters arrived in their television station trucks, parked outside of Ali’s home, and began annoyingly asking for him to step outside and make a statement. What happened next was, and still is, unclear. For we reporters who have covered stories in which numerous reporters place numerous microphones in front of an interviewer and ask him or her to speak, we know that, despite technological advances, something can be said and not fully understood. This now happened with Ali. Reporters were asking him many questions and he clearly began to lose his temper. After he was asked the question “What do you think of the Viet Cong ?” many reporters quoted him as saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” However Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times and some other reporters who were present noted that Ali answered with “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong.” In either case, whatever Ali said began a series of social and politically vindictive attacks.

Here we have another first, in this two-part story, that resonates with today’s times. If the reader is a professional athlete, the lesson is the following: Be careful and deliberate what you say in public and furthermore, be honest and sincere in said speech. With the gift now of hindsight, we now know that Ali did not do the first, but did the second. Also, whatever one’s opinion of Ali and his refusal to be drafted, one cannot deny Ali’s courage in standing up for his religious convictions. It would have been very, very easy for him to simply move to Canada to live and avoid the draft (as thousands of men did) — and thus be able to obtain boxing licenses in other countries and to fight for millions of dollars — but as Ali often said, “The United States is my home country. I don’t run away from home.”

Something else needs to be recorded here, even though the following is slightly off our narrative: many Americans — such as liberals, Democrats, and especially hippies — took up Ali’s cause with gusto, but Ali frequently did not reciprocate their feelings. For example, the piously religious Ali (he has never smoked or drunk a drop of alcohol in his life, and, as per Muslim custom, he avoids all pork products and prays five times daily) was repulsed by the hippies’ fondness for recreational alcohol and drugs. Even though Ali is now quite aware that due to his Parkinson’s Disease he must take medications, he still, after all of these years, dislikes taking these medications and also putting any sort of chemicals into his body. Many “long-hairs” (to use a popular word of the 1960’s and 1970’s) spent much of their time doing the polar opposite. Ali strongly disliked long hair on men and scorned men who burned their draft cards. Even when he spoke before audiences composed mostly of young people, he was always well groomed (he has always been narcissistic about his appearance) and wore a well-cut suit and matching tie.

After Ali heard black leader Stokely Carmichael say “ain’t no Viet cong ever called me nigger,” Ali borrowed this saying and modified it for himself to be “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The Illinois Athletic Commission (which issued boxing licenses in that state) ordered Ali to appear before them and publicly apologize for his anti-war remarks. Usually Ali avoided such orders, but this time he did appear before the commission and publicly refused to apologize.

Thus another lesson to be learned from this complicated story. To wit: if a sports commission tries to mandate how an athlete conducts their personal life, the commission is likely to face criticism.

In February of 1966, Ali’s attorneys filed their famous client’s first request for military draft exemption status. The exemption was mostly based on finite, picky legal grounds. However three weeks later, in mid March, the lawyers adopted a new legal tactic. They argued that since Ali was a minister of the Nation of Islam, and since as per the Holy Koran, pious Muslims could only fight in holy wars, Ali should be exempted from the legal draft. To many Americans, this latter legal tactic sounded dubious. How, they wondered, could Ali proclaim that his religious belief in international brotherhood and peace made him exempt from the military draft when he beat people up for a living? This particular draft exemption was denied, and then his team of lawyers filed an appeal. However as per federal law, before the appeal could be heard (before ae state appeal board), the U.S. Justice Department had to review the case and decide whether or not Ali was sincere in his beliefs. A retired judge named Lawrence Grauman heard the case.

Ali’s fate rested in this judge’s hands. To most people’s surprise, but not to Ali himself, Grauman ruled in Ali’s behalf. “I recommend that the registrant’s claim for conscientious objector status be sustained,” wrote Grauman. Despite the ruling, the federal government pressed onward, ordering Ali to report for military induction in Houston, where he had moved to lead a mosque.

On April 28, 1967, Ali went. When an Army officer said, “Mr. Cassius Clay, you will please step forward and be inducted into the United States Army,” Ali refused to do so. “Furthermore, Ali faced imprisonment for his action and was barred from boxing while his case was litigated. He called himself ‘The People’s Champion’ and continued to be recognized as the world heavyweight title holder in Great Britain and Japan,” reads a paragraph of Ali’s biography in the 1999 reference book, The Boxing Register International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book.

From this time, the late 1960’s to today, athletes would no longer mindlessly do what their bosses, and other well-established institutions (military, political, religious, etc.) told them to do if they disagreed. Atop that, if these athletes refused to do so, they would try to make their points in the courts. Major League Baseball St. Louis Cardinals star outfielder Curt Flood’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court (which he would lose) proclaiming that the reserve clause in baseball is illegal is but one example.

From this point onwards, Muhammad Ali was considered a pariah to millions of Americans. Denied a right to make a living in his home country, he did all sorts of things: spoke for fees on college campuses, starred in a Broadway musical titled “Buck White” (where he surprised all by displaying a very melodic and pleasant singing voice), and doing pro-bono work for charities. He continued to make his case to anybody who cared to listen. The day of the quiet, taciturn sports star was over. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon neatly captured frustrated Americans views about pushy athletes with the line, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” in the 1968 song “Mrs. Robinson.”

Ali’s case wound its way upwards through the judicial system all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States after the Fifth Circuit confirmed his June 20, 1967 conviction (on a felony charge of refusing to be drafted). He remained free on appeal. From March 1967 to October 1970, due to his military draft problems, he was inactive in boxing. The case got to the Supreme Court in January of 1971 and Justice William Brennan convinced his colleagues to grant certiorari (approval to hear the case). As Justice Thurgood Marshall had been Solicitor General when Ali was originally convicted, he recused himself. (Another reason he did so, known to his colleagues and their respective law clerks but less well-known to the general public, was that he despised the Black Muslims.)

In their 1971 book The Brethren: Inside The Supreme Court, Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward write that “On Friday, April 23… the [Supreme Court Justices’] conference decided, 5 to 3, that it agreed with [Solicitor General Erwin N.] Griswold. Ali was not really a conscientious objector and should go to jail.” Yet Ali didn’t. This was thanks to Justices John Harlan and Potter Stewart (though Ali didn’t learn this for years).

Harlan was assigned to write the majority opinion by Chief Justice Warren Burger, but before he did so, Harlan (who had served in the military during World War II) read the Nation of Islam treatise book, Message To The Black Man in America, at the suggestion of his law clerks. In it was stated that Black Muslims could fight holy wars, but the fact that Ali obviously disapproved of ALL wars convinced Harlan to change his vote. This now dead-locked the Justices vote at four for conviction and four for Ali’s freedom. If the court stayed deadlocked Ali would go to jail, but as it is long tradition that deadlocked cases do not come with written legal opinions by Supreme Court Justices, Ali would never know why he lost the case and never would really know why he went to jail.

Justice Stewart came up with a solution: he and his law clerks discovered that a state appeals board gave no reason for the denial of Ali’s conscientious objector status. With this in mind, and also considering that there are three legal grounds a claimant must meet for conscientious objector status, it would therefore be impossible to determine on which of the three legal grounds the U.S. Department of Justice decided to proceed with its case against Ali. Therefore, went this legal argument, Ali should go free. In a unanimous 8-0 decision, that is the legal conclusion that the eight Supreme Court Justices came to.

Ali heard the news that he had won when he was shopping in a grocery store in Chicago and a grocery clerk came over and hugged him and told him the news. Ali then thanked Allah and the Supreme Court, in that order, then immediately went to a South Side gym to work out.

Angelo Dundee, Ali’s life-long boxing trainer, was interviewed many times by this reporter and, when reflecting on Ali’s career, told me, “We never saw Muhammad Ali at his peak. He was out of the ring for three and a half years and those three and a half years [in Ali’s case, when he was just short of age 25 to the age of 28] are primary years for most boxers. Who knows what he could have done?” Herewith our final lesson: whenever a prominent athlete takes issue with a government agency — or worse, as in Ali’s case, the federal government and the military — he or she will somehow, someway be punished—even if the punishment isn’t just.


Websites: www.aavw.orgwww.oyez.orgwww.scotus.comwww.hbo.com.

Books: “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Clay v. The United States of America” by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace; “The Boxing Register International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book, 1999 Edition”; “The Brethren: Inside The Supreme Court” by Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward; “The Muhammad Ali Reader,” Edited by Gerald Early; “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest” by John Hennessey; “The Greatest: My Own Story” by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham; “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Of All Time” by Robert Cassidy, “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” by David Remnick.

Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based author/historian/reporter. Previous employers include United Press International (UPI); Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA); Inter Press Service (IPS); The Economist, and the Xinhua News Agency (XNA). He is currently at work on a non-fiction book of reportage about China, which will be the second in a planned series of non-fiction books of reportage about the countries and regions of the world.

The First World War and the US State Dept.

Imperial and Global Forum   September 22, 2015
Cross-posted from the Office of the Historian (US Dept. of State)

Dept. of State*To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Office of the Historian and U.S. Embassy France have carried out a study into the role of the U.S. diplomatic corps stationed in France during 1914–1918. In contrast to the well known record of U.S. actions after it entered the war in April 1917, the stories of U.S. diplomats, consuls, and their family members—particularly during the early months of the crisis (August-December 1914)—were long forgotten, overshadowed by subsequent events of the tumultuous twentieth century. By researching U.S. Government and Government of France records, memoirs, personal papers, and newspaper archives, this study presents a fascinating account of how actions spearheaded by U.S. diplomats—and American citizens—significantly strengthened Franco-American relations in unique, unparalleled ways.

The Office of the Historian has released this electronic preview editionof Views From the Embassy: The Role of the U.S. Diplomatic Community in France, 1914 (PDF, 818 KB). Over the upcoming months, this preview edition will be superseded by a more complete version. The material complements U.S. Embassy France’s WWI Centennial page. Readers may view full copies of several documents referenced in “Views From the Embassy” through links on the Embassy’s WWI Interactive Timeline.

The material in “Views From the Embassy” differs substantially from documentation printed in the Foreign Relations of the United Statesvolumes covering World War I, which focus upon high policy decisions and matters of international law rather than on-the-ground operations. Readers may access Foreign Relations of the United Statesvolumes, such as the 1914 War Supplement volume, through the Office of the Historian website. [to continue reading and download the PDF, click here.]