I published this, my favorite Christmas story, in 2012. It reminds you of a better or at least more inspiring time.
A few years ago, sports journalist Rick Reilly wrote:
You can take all of your tiny tims and grinches and wonders on Whatever Street and cram them into your stocking. The best Christmas story is about a boxer.
The day begins in 1918 when a doctor tells a slim heavyweight named Billy Miske that his bum kidneys will give him five years to live if he’s lucky. It turns out he is dying of Bright’s disease. This is bad news for Billy, who is only 24 years old and not half bad in the ring.
But that’s the end of the story. Let’s go back to the beginning.
In the early years of the 20th century, St. Paul, Minnesota was a hotbed for boxing. The most famous St. Paul boxers of the era are the Gibbons brothers Tommy and Mike. (The Gibbons family is still there; the great grandson of one of the brothers, I’m not sure which one, is a friend of one of my daughters.) But Billy Miske was in the same league. For several years he was a top contender in the light heavyweight and heavyweight division. In its heyday it weighed between 180 and 190. Miske could box, punch like a pole driver, and take a punch. Known as a gentleman and an athlete, he was widely popular in the boxing world. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010.
Until recently, I wasn’t aware of Billy Miske. My son is a fan of boxing and friends with some of the best fighters in this part of the world. At Christmas he gave me a copy of the newly published Billy Miske, the St. Paul Thunderbolt by Clay Moyle, which was registered with me by the author. Not only does Moyle’s book chronicle Miske’s brief life, it is a fascinating history of boxing from around 1914 to 1923.
Boxing in Minnesota was actually illegal when Miske started fighting. His career coincided with the rise of boxing to become one of America’s most popular sports. Boxers must have been incredibly tough in those days. They often fought with only a few days between bouts; In 1918 Miske fought 17 times. He rose steadily in the light heavyweight division and in the heavyweight division and fought against Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight championship in 1920 in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
When he was fighting for the title, Miske was already on the death sentence. Doctors had told him in 1918 that he had Bright’s disease, an incurable kidney disease, and had no more than five years to live. Billy didn’t tell anyone but his manager, not even his wife, how dire his situation was. However, knowing that his health was deteriorating, he invested most of his ring earnings in a car dealership in Elgin in 1919. Unfortunately, Billy must have been a poor businessman because the dealership was losing money and taking in more and more of its profits.
So Miske kept fighting. After losing to Dempsey in 1920, he continued a winning streak: in 1921 and 1922 he was 19-1-1, with his only loss to Tommy Gibbons. By the end of 1922, however, his health had deteriorated significantly. The five years his doctors had given him in 1918 were almost over. He fought a fight in January 1923 – which he won in a first round of TKO – and was then too sick to train. For most of the remainder of 1923 he rested, hunted, and fished. And watching what was left of his savings went up in smoke.
By fall, Billy knew that he would only see one more Christmas party. He wanted to enjoy his last Christmas party with his wife Marie and their three young children. He also wanted to leave Marie something other than debt. There was only one way out: Miske needed one last fight. Many years ago a friend of a sports journalist recorded Miske Billy’s conversation with his manager Jack Reddy:
“Jack,” said Billy, “get me a fight.”
“You must be kidding, you are in no condition to fight,” Jack replied.
“Bring me a fight anyway!”
Jack shook his head. “I will not do it.”
“Look, Jack,” Billy pleaded, “I’m broke. I know it won’t be long now, and I want to give Marie and the children a Merry Christmas before I check out. I won’t be there for someone else. Please get me another payday. I want to make Christmas this year something Marie and the children will always remember me for. “
“Look,” said Jack, “you know as well as I do that if you fight in your current state, you could be killed.”
“Sure, but I’m a fighter and I’d rather die in the ring than sit in a rocking chair at home.”
Jack pulled out his wallet. “Let me help you. How much do you need?”
“No way,” Bill raised his hand like a wall. “I’ve never taken a handout and won’t start now.”
“Here’s what I’ll do,” said Jack. “You go to the gym and start exercising. When you get into reasonable shape, we’ll talk about getting you a match. “
“You know I can’t,” answered Billy. “It’s impossible for me to train, but I still have a fight for my family’s sake. Please do it for me You’re welcome.”
Jack sighed. “I will live to regret it.” He stuffed his wallet back into his pocket. “Let me see what I can do.”
Reddy made a fight in Omaha, Nebraska, with a contending heavyweight contender named Bill Brennan, whom Miske had previously fought. On November 7, 1923, a dying Billy Miske – he would be dead in 55 days – climbed the ropes one last time, hoping to stay on his feet long enough to bring home a purse worth $ 2,400.
He has. And out of sheer willpower, Billy stayed until Christmas, the most festive that the Miske household has ever seen. Billy bought a piano for Marie, who was an accomplished singer, and many gifts for his three children. The next day, Billy called Jack Reddy and asked Jack to take him to the hospital. On the way, Billy Marie said for the first time that his prognosis was hopeless. Billy Miske, 29, died on New Year’s Day 1924.
But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s give the word back to Rick Reilly:
That’s really it. However, if you ever drive around Omaha and come across a classic car, ask them about the price war that day that gave Billy Miske the desired goal, knocked out against Bill Brennan in four rounds.