Jimmy (Baron) Dougherty

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Sam Langford & Baron Dougherty

Delaware County Daily Times (November 26, 1976)

The most celebrated boxing ring in Delaware County (PA) history was the one in back of the Colonial Hotel in the section once known as Leiperville [1]. It was the Baron's. The ring was taken down many years ago, the hotel was destroyed by fire in recent times, and James J. (Baron) Dougherty has been dead for over a quarter century.

The Baron was a big, six-foot redheaded Irishman who trained fighters and promoted fights, ran a hotel which had a 75-foot-long bar and took a colorful fling at politics.

He was personable and so big hearted that he'd literally give you the shirt off his back. He was perhaps the most colorful sports personality the county has known in this century.

He obtained perhaps his greatest national attention in 192[3] as the third man in the ring for the Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons heavyweight championship fight at [Shelby], Mont.

Later, he was the referee for Dempsey's title bout with Billy Miske at Benton Harbor, Mich.

He promoted many outstanding fights, including the non-title bout between Johnny Kilbane and Benny Leonard July 2[5], 1917, at Shibe Park [2]in Philadelphia.

But it was Damon Runyon, the great sports columnist, who built up the Baron's national image with frequent columns he wrote about him. It was Runyon who first called him "the Baron of Leiperville".

Runyon often stayed at the Colonial Hotel, where he could see the likes of Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson, Luis Firpo, Jack Blackburn, Mickey Walker, Kid Chocolate, Joe Gans, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tony Canzoneri and Billy Conn.

Any fighter who had any reputation at all usually made an appearance in the Baron's ring. Around the hotel--and the riverfront taprooms and shacks --Runyon also could see many of the characters he used in his short stories later in life. He reportedly did much of his writing on the "Little Miss Marker" story at the hotel. Shirley Temple later starred in the tearjerker movie version of the story with Adolph Menjou.

Runyon did his last column about the Baron early in 1946. The gist of the column was that the Baron, nearing the end of the trail, had found a kid he felt was a cinch to be the next heavyweight champion of the world.

Harry Lenny, whom Dougherty once managed, had visited the Baron in Leiperville and relayed the information to Runyon. Lenny, without ever identifying the heavyweight hope, was quoted as saying: "The Baron has got a big box of live house flies and he has a fellow letting these flies out of the box one at a time and the kid has to stand there and grab at the flies with his left hand. That's to teach him a fast left hand. You know you have to grab fast to catch a live fly with one hand."

Dougherty was forever dreaming of finding a heavyweight champion. He thought he once had him in the ponderous George Godfrey but that dream was shattered. Runyon died of cancer in the same year he wrote his last column about Dougherty. The Baron died three years later.

From left: Wad Wadhams, Dougherty & Lou Daro (wrestling promoter)

Dougherty was born Dec. 16, 1868 in Chester, the son of Owen and Anna Dougherty. His boyhood home was in a poor section known as "Stone Row" in the area of 17th and Chestnut Sts. "It was not much more than a hovel, "he once said.

As a young man, he was strong and tough, and with an Irish temper. He reportedly earned his first dollar as a wrestler. He often pinned laborers at a brickyard where he once worked. To show people how strong he was, he used to put a big Belgian granite block on his chest and let people smash it with a sledgehammer. Early in life he adopted a philosophy of "It's who you know, not what you know that counts."

He was an opportunist who in his lifetime rubbed elbows with celebrities in all walks of life. He entertained them lavishly, particularly the sports writers. He once sipped champagne with Queen Marie of Romania, one of his favorites, and he had dinner in the White House with Teddy Roosevelt [3]. Marie McGettigan, once a high fashion model in Philadelphia who often mingled with the celebrities at the Colonial Hotel, was reminiscing about the Baron and his hotel a couple years ago when she was 73. "Everybody was there on Sunday afternoon, "she said. "Anthony Drexel Biddle [4], Mickey Cochrane [5], Damon Runyon, H. L. Mencken [6], Jack Dempsey, Estelle Taylor [7]. It wasn't a very high class place. It was like an old western hotel with a long, long bar alongside the railroad tracks. But all the celebrities were there. They all loved the Baron."

Connie Mack [8], the venerable manager of the Philadelphia Athletics; Samuel D. Riddle [9], owner of the great racehorse "Man o' War" [10], and Postmaster General Jim Farley could be seen there on the beautiful porch of the hotel. Mrs. Elizabeth Dwyer, one of the Baron's daughters who was a clerk in the office of former Chester Police Chief Joseph M. Bail, remembered that actress Zazu Pitts [11] was among celebrities at the housewarming the Baron had at the big home at 101 Chester Pike, Ridley Park, as well as Grace Kelly's [12] father.

The Baron's bar at the hotel was fabulous. The top of the bar was two and a half inches thick and was built of the finest wood obtainable. It had a brass rail and a water trough running around the bottom of it. The floor was of solid marble tile. There was a mirror the size of an entire wall, which was reportedly worth $1,000. The room had a stone fireplace, a soup and lunch counter, and a piano that took a beating.

"The Baron had 12 bartenders around the clock," said Nick Hayes, an oldtime Philadelphia whiskey salesman. "They hauled the whiskey up from the cellar in buckets and poured it day and night. The Baron bought whiskey five barrels at a time. I know. I was a salesman for Gibson whiskey." Things really jumped at the bar during the noon hour, and on Friday nights after the workers at the nearby Baldwin Locomotive Works had been paid.

The bar room often was packed solid from the bar to the wall, with beer passed chain fashion to customers unable to get near the bar.

Howard Dougherty, one of the Baron's sons, said 100 half barrels of beer were delivered daily by the Chester Brewery.

Joe McElwain, one of the bartenders, estimated 18 to 20 blocks of ice weighing 300 pounds apiece were also delivered daily. Employees at the locomotive works were paid in $20 gold pieces and silver dollars in those days. Hundreds of workers left and reentered Baltimore & Ohio Railroad trains at the stop beside the Colonial Hotel. Most of them cashed their gold pieces at the Baron's, with baskets used for the transactions. It wasn't unusual to see $20,000 to $25,000 in cash on the bar, Howard Dougherty said.

The workers apparently were carefree with their silver dollars. Charles Price, a black man hired by the Baron to keep the brass rail polished and the water trough cleaned out, estimated he found 50 to 60 silver dollars in or near the water trough every Saturday night after the bar had closed.

The Baron was full of gimmicks. Once, it is said, he had his employes coat the adjoining railroad tracks with goose grease. The locomotives pulling the coaches then slid backward instead of negotiating the upgrade hill. The workers then rushed to the Baron's for a drink.

Dougherty's hotel was built of imported stone and it had a beautiful porch. There were 14 rooms and three baths, separate dining hall and the bar room. The Baron had his office on the second floor. Runyon always occupied room No. 7 on the third floor.

Dougherty always felt he had contributed, partially at least, to the fistic glory won by Dempsey and Joe Louis. He had taken in a hungry Dempsey and provided him a job waiting on tables. Dempsey slept in the room that became the kitchen when Billy Ritchie acquired the hotel in later years. Dempsey trained at Leiperville for his 1918 fight with Battling Levinsky.

Dougherty.jpg

The Baron claimed he was instrumental in getting Jack Blackburn released from Eastern Penitentiary [13]. Blackburn of course, is the man credited with taking Louis to the top.

Dougherty did so many things for Leipervllle. He organized a fire company, sponsored sports teams, was a civic worker, served two terms as a Delaware County commissioner, and even tried to get Samuel Vauclain [14] elected president of the United States.

He loved to do things for the kids. It was an annual occurrence for him to gather hundreds of youngsters and take them on picnic outings to Willow Grove or some other park. Vauclain was perhaps the dearest friend Dougherty had. He was another great civic worker. He was president of the locomotive works at the time. The fire company was named for him.

The Baron started a boom for Vauclain at one Republican National Convention, even going so far as to have lapel buttons with Vauclain's picture manufactured and distributed among delegates.

Dougherty had been a Republican early in life, switched to the Democrats and then returned to the GOP in his waning years. The Baron enlivened many an election fight. He once shot but did not halt a man who grabbed an election ballot box and fled with it as the polls were closing. "I know that if the ballots in that box had been counted I'd have won the election," the Baron ruefully recollected. Once, after losing an election fight, he took a bag of cats to the Media Courthouse and turned them loose "to get the rats hiding in the courthouse."

All his life, Dougherty was a champion of the needy and the down-and-outer.

"That was his trouble," Vincent A. Mallon, who became a justice of the peace In Ridley Township, once said, "He was always buying food for this family, or sending a ton of coal to that family. He was a promoter who never stayed on the job at the hotel. He could have been a millionaire."

When Battling Nelson went blind, the Baron kept the old fighter at Leipervllle for a decade or more.

A year before he died, Dougherty declared he was broke "as flat as a dime on a bar room floor — and back where the hell 1 was when 1 came Into this world."

As his financial troubles mounted, his beautiful big home in Ridley Park was sold at auction. Among many things, Dougherty said he had paid off hundreds of notes he'd signed for friends who failed to meet their obligations. "He was a real friend of the down-and-outer,"the late Judge William R. Toal once said. "Many, many times out of his pocket would come $5 for someone when it was most needed."

Three years before he died, the Baron was saddened by the death of his pet terrier, Mickey, named for the fighter Mickey Walker. Dedicating his 1946 Christmas message to Mickey, the Baron wrote: "Mickey died last March but in my memory he will live on forever as the truest friend man ever had. Life, as It was for Mickey, is for all of us uncertain. We who are left on this earth should be thankful. Sometimes we think we have suffering and hardship too heavy to bear. But we must remind ourselves of the millions of others whose burdens are heavier than our own. And so in this Holy Season, let us offer up our thanks to God."

Dougherty died in his hotel Oct. 5,1949, after suffering two strokes and then developing pneumonia. He was 80. Near the end he whispered to a reporter: "The spirit is here but the body's at Clancy's," in reference to the late John L.Clancy, who operated the funeral home at 8th and Upland Sts. Honorary pallbearers included Jack Dempsey, Samuel D. Riddle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Connie Mack. Dempsey was among hundreds at the Baron's viewing, which Clancy allowed as the biggest demonstration of respect for a man he'd seen in 30 years.