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"Prize Fighting In Its Heyday" When Boxing Legends Roamed Alameda by Brian Higgins (originally published in the March/April 2005 issue of Alameda Magazine, Photograph By: Illustrator Nataliya Bellony)

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento in 1848 launched the rush upon which San Francisco and the Bay Area were built. But it was the discovery of silver in the hills of western Nevada—the Comstock Lode—11 years later that made James Graham Fair an exorbitantly wealthy man.

“Slippery Jim,” as he came to be known, parlayed his fortune into a U.S. senatorial seat representing Nevada in 1881. It was in Alameda, however, that Fair established his empire. The senator’s pet project, the Southern Pacific Coast Railroad, originated at the corner of Central Avenue and Webster Street at the foot of the city’s thriving bathhouse resorts.

But it was prizefighting, not railroading, that would forge the legacy of the crossroads.

Fair surrounded the entrance of his railroad with its own Garden of Eden, Neptune Gardens. This gazebo-filled park contained, among other attractions, an animal menagerie of monkeys, eagles, raccoons, badgers, foxes and bears.

But Slippery Jim was a financier, not a marketer, and for years he kept his association with Neptune Gardens purposefully vague. So the senator went looking for a shrewd, energetic promoter to manage Neptune Gardens. He found his man at one of his favorite dining spots, the Union Pacific Restaurant on lower Washington Street in Oakland.

“How would you like to come to Alameda and work for me?” Fair proposed in 1883 to the restaurant’s proprietor.

`“Where’s Alameda?” replied John G. Croll.

That was the last time Croll would require directions to the city in which he and his family were to make an indelible mark. Pugilism had gained its foothold in Alameda.

Fortuitously, boxing had recently been banned in New York. Croll ensconced his family in the West End and immediately seized the opportunity to tout Alameda, specifically Neptune Gardens, as an ideal training grounds for boxers. It wasn’t all that tough of a sell: the weather was exponentially better than it was on the East Coast; Neptune Gardens (which soon became known and referred to as Croll’s Gardens) was a wonder-land for outdoor exercise; and more than a few of the sport’s rising stars were coming out of the West Coast anyway. One of them was a San Francisco-reared heavyweight who would come to fame as “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.

Prizefighting in the 1880s was undergoing a metamorphosis as the sport attempted to distance itself from its barbaric, bare-knuckle image—the very image that got it banned in New York. Boxing began to embrace the Queensbury Rules that govern the sport today. Queensbury Rules limited rounds to three minutes, invoked a 10-second count for fallen fighters and, most impor-tantly, promoted the use of boxing gloves.

Bare-knuckle legend John L. Sullivan of Boston, America’s first sport icon, also became the heavyweight division’s first “gloved” champion in 1885. But the brawler milked his fame over the ensuing years, traveling the country and fighting mostly exhibitions, and, after a full three years without taking part in an official bout, Sullivan was dethroned in a 21-round title fight in 1892 by Corbett, a young, agile, technical boxer who weighed 34 pounds less than the champion.

Sullivan and Corbett are intertwined in Alameda lore as well as boxing history. Although Sullivan was largely an East Coast inhabitant during his glorious career, he ventured to San Francisco for several fights. The second such occasion was a Nov. 13, 1886, bout with Paddy Ryan, whom Sullivan knocked out in three rounds. The following day, Sullivan arrived in Alameda for a scheduled $500 appearance as a celebrity umpire in a baseball game between two local semi-pro teams.

Organizers, however, were woefully unprepared for the reception that turned out for a glimpse of the champion. The baseball field, built at Croll’s Gardens earlier that year with Southern Pacific Coast railroad money, was designed to hold just 1,500 spectators. By the time the game started at 2:15 p.m., the crowd had swelled to 18,000, according to the Oakland Enquirer and the Encinal, an Alameda newspaper. “It was, undoubtedly, the largest crowds that ever witnessed a game of baseball on this coast,” reported the Encinal. “It is surprising that no accident occurred as the housetops, fences and every other position that afforded a view of the grounds were covered by men and boys who seemed to hang on to their positions much after the manner that a fly walks on the ceiling.”

The game, by most accounts, couldn’t be completed because of the crowds engulfing the foul lines. Sullivan is reputed to have invited everyone across the street to have a beer at Croll’s bar.

In any case, the throngs told Croll all he needed to know about his adopted hometown: Alameda loved its sloggers, as prizefighters were then known.

Corbett, who trained at Croll’s Gardens, bathed Alameda in national acclaim six years later when he took the wildly popular Sullivan’s title. By then, however, Croll’s enterprise and reputation as a manager were solidly established within boxing circles. Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey­ (not to be confused with the Jack Dempsey who held the world heavyweight title from 1919-26) brought Croll his first title when the former Dempsey won the world middleweight championship in 1884.

Over the ensuing two decades, the titles poured in. The heavyweight division’s first four champs of the Queensbury Era—Sullivan (1895-92), Corbett (1892-97), “Ruby” Bob Fitzsimmons (1897-99) and Jim Jeffries (1899-95)—all had ties to John G. Croll. After managing the building at the corner of Central and Webster for eight years, Croll bought it in 1891, and it still bears his name today.

Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Jeffries actually lived in the building, which opened as the Britt Hotel in 1879, at varying junctures of their careers. Corbett kept a private shuffleboard table in the first-floor tavern, which has survived 125 years largely intact. The bar re-opened in 2004 as a restaurant, The New Zealander at Croll’s.

Fitzsimmons, a Brit who also claimed world titles in the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions, was fond of parading along Webster Street in his high hat and opera cloak, accompanied by his white bulldog. He kept a pet kangaroo at Croll’s Gardens.

Jeffries is perhaps best known for a 1910 bludgeoning by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Johnson, who was later imprisoned for escorting his white wife across state lines, is cited as a Croll’s patron on a historic plaque commemorating the era outside of the Croll’s Building. Jeffries had been urged out of a three-year retirement to “win back the title for the white race,” as it was largely reported at the time. After being pummeled, Jeffries told the Reno, Nev., crowd, “I could never have beat Jack Johnson at my best. I could never have reached him in a thousand years.”

Johnson’s association with Croll’s is a bit vague, although he did fight in San Francisco seven times from 1902-09.

Croll reportedly closed the property to boxers after the notorious 1906 earthquake rocked the Bay Area, but he continued to manage fighters until 1914 or so. That may be the source of some historic ambiguity; the Central Avenue bench plaque which cites Johnson (along with Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Jeffries) dates Alameda’s boxing era from 1883-1914.

But during Croll’s heyday, champions abounded on the Island. Light-heavyweight Jack Root, middleweight Tommy Ryan, two-time welterweight titlist “Mysterious” Billy Smith, lightweight Joe Gans (an Alameda native) and welterweight “Terrible” Terry McGovern were familiar sights to locals.

Sloggers kept in shape by running up and down the shore, stoking the engines of local trains and ferries or by pumping handcars around the narrow-gauge tracks. They sparred in the Neptune Gardens Pavilion (demolished in 1891) and its successor, the octagonal-shaped “Wigwam.” There were even exhibition fights on the barroom floor at Croll’s, where John G. Croll would simply extend ropes from each end of the mahogany bar to the opposite wall to form a ring. Often, the two combatants would raise a toast together after the match.

The fighters ate like champs as well. Croll and his wife, Ellen, provided a substantive training table for their boarders. In a 1978 interview with the Alameda Times-Star, the late Ralph Croll, ­who succeeded his father and brother (Johnny “Doc” Croll) as the bar’s owner, ­fondly recalled the era.

“We ate like the fighters did,” Ralph Croll said. “Lots of nourishing food, fruits and vegetables, no junk stuff, mind you. Grease and sugar were out, too.”

Ralph Croll’s nephew, Warner Croll, is one of two surviving grandchildren of John G. and Ellen Croll. A lifelong resident of Alameda, he admits he’s been to the former family establishment just “five or six times” in his 81 years. The era of pugilism had ended by the time he was born in 1923, but Warner Croll insists that the bonds between pugilist and manager transcended a business relationship.

“The fighters trained at the garden and lived at the hotel and my grandmother cooked for them,” he says. “All those people were personal friends of my grandfather and grandmother.”

By 1917, Croll’s Gardens had been enveloped by a new operation, the Neptune Beach amusement park, and another era was underway in Alameda. John G. Croll died in 1931, but his legacy ­and the building, which served a generation of boxing legends at 1400 Webster St., ­lives on.