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Cauliflower and the Champ

Published June 1, 2003

What first caught my eye at the antiquarian book fair in Florida was the book cover, an image of a brown boxing glove punching its way through a stack of newspaper headlines. Joe Louis: American was the title and Margery Miller the author. The back of the dust jacket told a story almost as interesting as the one inside the book.

The biography of the "Brown Bomber" was published in 1945. The author, Margery Miller, was only 22 years old, a recent honors graduate of Wellesley College, and a devotee of the sweet science, having seen her first championship prize fight at the age of 15. The accompanying photo shows a sweet-faced young woman with full eyebrows, her chin tilted toward the future.

I purchased this first edition for only $15, a bargain, it turns out, since the same edition was being offered at five times that rate online. But my investment carried a much more valuable dividend: the discovery of a pioneering sportswriter, a woman grudgingly recognized as one of the most knowledgeable boxing journalists of the 20th century, her work drawing praise from fans as disparate as Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe Louis himself.

Here's what I've learned about her, mostly from newspaper clippings stored in the Wellesley archive: Miss Margery Whitney Miller became interested in boxing in 1935 as a 12-year-old girl living in small-town Vermont. While so many other girls played jacks and jumped rope, Miss Miller read about the fights of Joe Louis and listened to bouts on the radio. She studied the work of boxing historian Nat Fleischer, to whom she would dedicate her book. In 1938, she attended her first heavyweight championship fight, the return bout between Louis and the German icon, Max Schmeling.

While Miss Miller's prose, as a young writer, is straightforward and analytical, her description of the end of this legendary bout at Yankee Stadium is exuberant:

Schmeling went down three times. When he got up the third time, his legs were sand and his hands hung useless at his sides. He looked like a grotesque drunk who could neither think nor act - "Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe!" The crowd now came near to having only one voice. It howled and shrieked. It stood on its chairs and tore its hats to bits. It jumped up and down in its frenzy. "Oh, Joe. Oh, Joe." It drowned out the formal announcement of Louis' victory. Seventy thousand people had gone insane.

Whatever fascination the young Margery Miller had with boxing until that moment, it transformed itself to passion with the Louis demolition of Schmeling.

White racists in the America of the 1930s were hard pressed to choose between Louis and Schmeling, between the Negro and the Nazi. White Americans did not like black champions. They had proven that with their endless search for a "white hope" when the arrogant Jack Johnson reigned as champ. For a pugilist of such prodigious power and speed, Louis was a modest and unassuming athlete, less threatening to the white sensibilities of the time, more accommodating, more Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. DuBois. While revisionists have come to downplay the political or racial animosity between Louis and Schmeling, the two fighters became part of American sports mythology, like Jesse Owens in his victories during Hitler's Olympic games of 1936.

In 1942, Miss Miller carried her passion for boxing onto the campus of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and eventually into the composition classroom of professor Edith C. Johnson. By then she had developed a reputation of something slightly unnatural, a dancing bear, a young woman who earned the nickname "Cauliflower" from her college friends, not for her cooking, but in honor of the deformed cartilage of a prizefighter's ear. Miss Miller, whom the New York Times described as "slim, pretty, brunette," wore the nickname like an orchid corsage.

She chose the life of Louis as her senior thesis, and it was published by the time she graduated in 1945. She developed the work upon a strong hypothesis, that Louis was more than a great fighter and a huge public celebrity.

"My brother used to kid me about my theory," Miss Miller told the Daily Argus of Mount Vernon, N.Y., in a 1975 interview, "but I made up my mind come hell or high water I was someday going to write about Louis. My message was going to be that if one poorly educated Negro, with little opportunity, were able to handle being a celebrity gracefully, what might we expect if we recognized ability, race and color."

While Miss Miller does not ignore the champ's flaws - and cannot foresee the later, sadder stages of Joe Louis's personal life and professional career - her narrative reads like hagiography, with one daring difference. The saint is a black man, and the author is a young white woman, writing a full decade before the Montgomery bus boycott.

For its time, Miss Miller's writing on race and America seems remarkably progressive, as in this description of the crowd at the first fight between Louis and Schmeling: "A large Negro delegation from Harlem arrived early to occupy the cheaper seats and await the appearance of their hero. They drank their pop and read their programs in high spirits. One of them, their boy, was going to fight and win before the forty-two thousand customers in (Yankee) stadium. They identified themselves with him. Each success he had scored in the past had given them a new measure of self-respect. Most of them didn't mean to boast about Joe, any more than he himself would boast. But they could cheer for him, couldn't they? They could worship him as the living proof that a Negro could succeed against white opposition, if given half a chance."

There was more gritty and determined writing about sport and race in 1945, to be sure, but it takes a combination of archaeology and sociology to unearth it. African-American author Richard Wright writes the unwriteable about pent-up black rebellion in 1935, after the victory of Joe Louis over Max Baer inspires spontaneous joy on the streets of South Chicago:

"Two hours after the fight the area between South Parkway and Prairie Avenue on 47th Street was jammed with no less than twenty-five thousand Negroes, joy-mad and moving so they didn't know where. Clasping hands they formed long writhing snake-lines and wove in and out of traffic. They seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street, a fluid mass of joy. White storekeepers hastily closed their doors against the tidal wave and stood peeping through plate glass with blanched faces."

Such images were too threatening to the American mainstream, so Wright was content to have them published on the pages of New Masses, a communist periodical.

Even if Miss Miller could not approach the sizzling insight of a "native son," she should occupy a place in journalism history accorded only to the true trailblazer. As her contacts in the fight game might have said back then, the kid had moxie.

Current Books published 10,000 copies of Joe Louis: American, a work that would be translated into six languages and would earn praise from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, who testified she had stayed up all night reading it. Miss Miller was probably the only author interviewed by the New York Times who was asked her weight. Her answer reveals a lot about her character, sense of humor and devotion to her craft: "I myself weigh 112 pounds - a flyweight."

Miss Miller covered boxing for the King Features Syndicate from 1945-47, then turned her talents to editing trade books for E.S. Barnes & Co. in New York. In 1953 she became one of the founding writers for Sports Illustrated and overcame many jeers from unenlightened colleagues about her reporting from the locker room.

A classy and grateful Joe Louis sent her this message, according to her sister Marilyn Willey: "You tell Miss Miller that if she will call me in advance, I'll be sure to be wearing my terry cloth robe and she can come back any time."

Impressed by her book, the editors of the Christian Science Monitor asked her to write a weekly sports column, which she did from 1946-1961. And she once revised the section on boxing for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

She met her husband, Samuel Welles, in 1954. Welles, a Rhodes scholar, was a foreign correspondent for Time-Life, which owned SI, and he had a tip about a boxing scandal. He was surprised and delighted when the sports magazine's boxing expert turned out to be Miss Miller. Their engagement and marriage a year later were covered on the society pages of the New York Times. They produced three children.

My lingering impression of Margery Miller is as "Cauliflower," the Wellesley student who'd visit the training camps in Boston while most of her classmates were in the library or going to parties. "I'd call up Jack O'Brien, who used to promote fights at Mechanics Hall and the Boston Garden," she told the New York Times shortly after her college graduation. "And he'd say, "You'd better come in. There's a good mob here.' "

In 1985 Margery Miller Welles died, after a long bout with cancer, in Charlotte, North Carolina at the age of 61.

- Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists that owns the stock of the St. Petersburg Times.

[Last modified June 1, 2003, 02:05:26]


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