It was a Wednesday afternoon, December 2nd, 1896, and J.J. Groom and his associate, John Gibbs hurriedly walked across the busy San Francisco street, dodging horses and carriages as they made their way to the Baldwin Hotel. The two men were desperate and were hoping that one of the hotel’s guests would be able to help them out.
Groom and Gibbs were boxing promoters and had arranged for the Heavyweight Championship boxing match to take place that very night between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. There hadn’t been a championship bout since the reigning champ, James Corbett, retired the previous year.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, baseball was only about fifty years old; the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton had been played only thirty years ago and a new game that was being called “Basketball” was still in its infancy. Boxing, however, had been around as a sport for thousands of years. And this fight between Fitzsimmons and Sharkey was the most anticipated boxing match in the country.
The two boxing promoters had obtained San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Pavilion as the venue for the match, and nearly fifteen thousand tickets had been sold. The only problem – and the thing that had Groom and Gibbs so desperate – was that they still did not have a referee for the fight. They had made numerous attempts to obtain someone to judge the contest, but so far had been unable to get someone that both sides would agree to. After all, not only was there a ten thousand dollar purse on the line for the winner, but as was always the case with sporting events, there was considerable money being bet on the side on each of the two participants; Fitzsimmons being the heavy favorite, drawing three-to-one odds in the days leading up to the fight.
As the two men made their way to the lobby of the Baldwin, they spotted their man sitting in a chair reading the newspaper. They had heard that he was staying at the hotel and were feeling hopeful that they would be able to persuade him to lend a hand with their problem.
He was a forty-eight year old with the unusual name of “Berry” who was currently working as a private security consultant. He had in the past worked as a miner, a gambler, and had even done some work as a lawman. But most importantly, he had officiated at a number of other boxing matches, and he had a reputation as being fearless, cool-headed and honest.
The two boxing promoters laid out their predicament to Mr. Berry. Would he agree to referee the match that evening? After a few minutes of thought, Mr. Berry related that he really wasn’t interested in the job, but he did tell Groom and Gibbs that he would be dinning that evening at Goodfellow’s Restaurant across the street from the pavilion, and if they couldn’t find anyone else, they should come and get him and he would referee the fight for them.
Groom and Gibbs did not find anyone else. So, only minutes before the opening bell was scheduled to ring, they retrieved Mr. Berry from his dinner.
As he parted the ropes and stepped in to take his place in the center of the ring, Mr. Berry removed his jacket to reveal a .45 caliber Colt Navy revolver sticking out of the pocket of his trousers.
San Francisco Police Captain, Charles Whitman, who was watching the fight from ringside, climbed into the ring and informed Mr. Berry that it was illegal to be carrying a weapon in town. Mr. Berry promptly turned over the weapon to Captain Whitman and the fight began.
It was pretty clear to most in attendance that evening that Fitzsimmons was dominating his opponent from the first round. He was taller and quicker than Sharkey, and he had a combination left-hook/right-uppercut that had proved devastating to his previous challengers.
By all accounts, Mr. Berry did a good job with his responsibilities as referee, making sure that each boxer adhered strictly to the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
Suddenly, in the eighth round, the two boxers came at each other with vigor; exchanging blows so quickly, and with such fury, that it was difficult to see which boxer was prevailing. Then Fitzsimmons landed his combination left-hook/right-uppercut and Sharkey went down. Fitzsimmons stood over his opponent who was sprawled out on the canvas, “limp as a rag,” as some witnesses described him.
Then referee Berry did the unexpected. He called the fight. Reaching down and grabbing Sharkey’s arm, he raised it up into the air, declaring him the winner. He said that Fitzsimmons had landed an illegal punch below the belt which automatically disqualified him.
The spectators were in an uproar. For his own safety, Mr. Berry had to quickly exit the ring and leave the pavilion before the angry crowd fully realized what had taken place.
The uproar had not diminished by the next morning. If anything, it had increased in intensity and scope. Fitzsimmons’ manager got an injunction against distributing the prize money, and the papers were calling for an investigation to determine if the fight had been fixed. Within a week, Judge Sanderson from Oakland began hearing testimony in the incident. Mr. Berry, who a few days earlier had to appear in court and pay a fifty dollar fine for wearing his revolver into the ring, testified that he was never offered money to throw the fight and that had he been asked to do so, he would have refused. He added that anyone who knew him would not doubt his word.
Finally, on December 17th, Judge Sanderson ruled that the evidence presented to show that the fight was fixed was insufficient and was all hearsay. Furthermore, as it turned out, boxing exhibitions were illegal within city limits and the city supervisors had no right to issue a license for the event. Therefore, because it wasn’t a properly sanctioned fight, it was not something worthy of the courts consideration. In the end, Sharkey was issued the prize money, but his title to Heavyweight Champion was disputed and would have to wait for some future date to be settled.
Although he was never officially found guilty of being involved in fixing the fight, Mr. Berry was never fully vindicated of any wrong doing. Furthermore, the story had been reported not only throughout California, but across the country by the Associated Press. He became a pariah and as much as thirty years later, his name became a synonym for “crooked referee.”
Not able to bare the ostracism that the un-forgetting and unforgiving public bestowed on him, Mr. Berry eventually moved to Alaska and only returned to California years later.
It’s funny which events history decides to hold onto, and which events slip into obscurity and out of the collective national conscience.
Although hurt and humiliated by the incident that first brought him into national scrutiny in 1896, most people today don’t remember the Heavyweight Boxing Championship fight of December, 1896, or Mr. Berry’s part in the scandal that followed. Instead, they remember an earlier incident from his life; a rather insignificant incident of only local importance. It happened more than fifteen years earlier when Mr. Berry was working as a lawman in Arizona. It was a mere thirty seconds of history in the town of Tombstone, when Wyatt Berry Earp got in a little scuffle behind the OK Corral.