The Admiral looked around all morning, asking several instructors to help him. But they all refused, making superficial excuses. Then, he noticed an unsuspecting plebe working out in the gymnasium. The Admiral handed the plebe a pair of boxing gloves and told him to get into the ring. The poor lad, quavering and unable to refuse an officer of such stature, stood at the center of the ring in obvious fear. At the sound of the bell, the Admiral came at him swiftly, halted before him suddenly, lightly touched his gloves, and announced to the amazed spectators, “That starts boxing at the Naval Academy!”
That happened in 1865. The Admiral was the Superintendent at that time, David Dixon Porter. The plebe to this day remains anonymous. Admiral Porter fostered the beginning of many sports here, but little did he realize that his unique method of commencing boxing would eventually lead us to having the greatest team that any school -- in any sport – would ever be able to claim.
Admiral Porter was an enthusiastic advocate of all sports and he is responsible for starting our athletic program. He presented an evening of boxing and gymnastics to President Grant and the Board of Visitors in 1866, an event which securely placed sports in the curriculum.
Boxing was treated as a casual recreational activity from its beginning in the 1860’s until 1897 when the first championships were held.
PRELUDE TO GREATNESS
During World War I boxing had a great impetus throughout the services. It was this wartime activity and the great influx of ex-servicemen into the nation’s colleges after the war which eventually led to intercollegiate competition. The first dual meet in the United States was between the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State College in 1919.
Boxing on an intercollegiate level began here when Hamilton Murrell Webb joined the faculty on September 5, 1919, when we defeated the University of Pennsylvania by a score of 4 to 2.
Webb began fighting professionally only fourteen years after his birth on April 12, 1889. He fought 115 pro fights as a bantamweight, mostly in his hometown of Baltimore. He won 113 of these fights. At one time after he had knocked out seven straight opponents, Uncle Wilbert Robinson remarked to him, “Kid, you hit like a marlin spike. From now on, your name is ‘Spike’.”
His professional fighting days were a prelude to the colorful life he would always lead. In one fight, in 1916, he not only knocked out his opponent, Battling Kennedy, but the referee as well. In the same year, he had a non-title bout with the featherweight champion, Johnny Kilbone.
During World War I, as a sergeant in the Army, he coached the 23rd Division, famous for beating all the U.S. competition which could be pit before it. Right after the war he coached the American team in the Inter-Allied sports tourney held in Pershing Stadium, Paris.
Spike returned to the states in August, 1919, and the following month was hired to coach our proposed boxing team. From then until his retirement on June 30, 1954, Spike Webb was as much of a landmark at the Naval Academy as Tecumseh. Spike is the father of Navy boxing. The Webb trademarks – a well-won baseball cap, sparkling blue eyes, and a Navy warm-up jacket – were never absent from Macdonough Hall, where the taught mids the famous jabbing, skipaway style that saved Gene Tunney from Jack Dempsey in after his “long count” knockdown in 1927.
THE GOLDEN ERA
Our first season – the first of twenty-two – was successful, but on a small scale. New sports always have a difficult time getting started, and boxing was no exception. Our first meet was held in Macdonough Hall against the University of Pennsylvania on February 21, 1920. We won, 4 to 2, and licked Penn. State, 5 to 1, the following week to complete the first of eleven consecutive undefeated seasons.
Our first captain was Edwin Wright Schell of the class of 1921. “Eppie” was the only man from Navy on the U.S. Olympic team, which traveled to Antwerp, Belgium, that year. The American Olympic team that year won the first of three unofficial team titles while coached by Spike.
Because of Spike’s spontaneous popularity and the hold boxing had obtained on the midshipmen during out first season, over 130 aspirants turned out for the 1921 team. The most important meet that year was the Penn. State. We had shutout Carnegie Tech. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Penn. State was after us. After twice having come up from behind to even the score – once when Captain “Scup” Miller knocked out his man in the first round and again when “Mickey” O’Regan battered his man into fragments – the “King of College Swat”, “Red” Mission, whose reputation as a fine puncher and boxer was well known, came back strongly after a tough second stanza to outpunch Madiera and win the meet for us.
The University of Penn was easily defeated the next week. Boxing had arrived at the Naval Academy. To Spike Webb goes the credit for early establishing the reputation of the Navy team, so magnificently making good the proverbial first impression. The impression was soon felt by other schools throughout the country, and we eventually became the policy leader in intercollegiate boxing for the entire nation.
The 1922 season, our third undefeated one, saw the start of our series with the Canadian Intercollegiate Stars, which lasted for six consecutive years (we won them all). This was the first time that Canada had ever sent any team to participate in an intercollegiate event in this part of the country. The season saw such veterans at work as Zotti, O’Regan, Sebald and Lotta.
The 1923 team was built around a true Irishman, “Mickey” O’Regan, class president, captain of the boxing team, star in football, baseball, and track, and future admiral. His inspiring leadership and amazing fistic prowess led us to victories over Penn. State, M.I.T., the Canadians, and Pennsylvania.
In the 1924 season we were again undefeated, but, in fighting our first away meet, we had our first tie, after we had defeated M.I.T., Colgate University, the Canadians, and Penn. State. The tie was with Yale. We tied by bouts, 3 to 3, which was the official way to score; but if they had used points, we would have won, 13 to 9, since we had two knockouts and one decisions to Yale’s three decisions. It was in the Yale meet that Jack Charleson came from behind to knockout Peet of Yale in what Spike calls the “most astonishing comeback I have ever seen in boxing.”
On March 22 of that year we fought in the Eastern Intercollegiate Championships at Penn State, placing six men in the finals, two of whom won titles (Hayes and Lyon).
In 1925 we beat six teams, Notre Dame and Catholic University for the first time. Our first win was over Notre Dame on February 14; while it has always been difficult to beat the Irish in football, we had no trouble out-fighting the men who, by tradition, have a fighting heritage, by a score of 6 to 1.
We swept the Intercollegiates at the University of Penn. with 23 points that year. All of our men qualified and seven went into the semi-finals. Of the, five made the finals and four – Charleston, Rogsdale, Henderson and Lyon – became intercollegiate champions. According to Spike, “Hop” Lyon was the greatest all-time boxer at the Naval Academy. In winning his second intercollegiate title in this tournament, he concluded a college career of 17 wins, 1 loss, and 1 tie.
When McClernan of Penn. State, the newly crowned bantamweight king, handed “Hop” the giant silver loving cup and our first intercollegiate team championship, it ended out best season up to that time. We had just completed six years undefeated in dual meet competition with twenty-three victories, one intercollegiate team championship, and six individual championships to our credit. Boxing was at an all-time high at the Naval Academy; the attendance at the meets was second only to that at football games. And the man responsible for it all was a short, spirited scrapper named Spike.
Three of the intercollegiate champions graduated in 1925, so Spike had quite a job to rebuild the team in 1926. He worked his famous miracles, and we were again undefeated (beating Notre Dame once more, after which they dropped the series with us) and won the Intercollegiates held in Macdounough Hall with 23 points.
The 1927 season was as successful as all the precious ones with six wins and one tie. We had three intercollegiate champions in Capt. Collins (whom Spike still claims as his greatest bantom-weight), Gerin (whom Spike calls his best welterweight), and Weintraub, but we lost the team trophy by one point to Penn State.
We made up for this the following season – our ninth consecutive year with an undefeated record. Penn State, the precious year’s intercollegiate champions, held us a draw in the opening meet, but from then on we swamped U. of Virginia, U of Penn., Georgetown and Syracuse with a team that starred Gerin, Chapple, Ricketts, Moffett, and Renard. By the time we got to the Intercollegiates, which were held on St. Patrick’s Day, we were unbeatable. By wining our third intercollegiate title in four years, we gained permanent possession of the Intercollegiate Boxing Trophy. Gerin completed two years as an undefeated welterweight, having won 17 bouts (6 by knockouts).
1929 saw Ricketts captaining us to our tenth undefeated season. We licked M.I.T., Georgetown, and Virginia, but the best meet was with Western Maryland, which saw four bouts go into extra rounds to be won by the better conditioned Navy men. Although we did not win the Intercollegiates this year, Navy’s best feather-weight, John Fitzgerald, won an individual trophy, defeating Penn State’s Julas Epstein in the finals. “Fitz” loved fighting, as all true Irishman do, and battled beyond the point of logic for the sake of the fight itself. He won 20 out of 24 fights as a college boxer.
During the following season the powerful grip that boxing had on the Regiment was reflected in the enthusiastic support of the team during three close meets we had. We were behind in the U. of New Hampshire match, 2 to 3, when Captain “Pat” Moret beat Wagerman, an A.A.U. Champion, to tie it up. “Goose” Swan knocked out his man to win it for us. We beat M.I.T. and U. of Penn before our next closer call with Georgetown; they forfeited two bouts to us but still threatened our ring supremacy until Moret and “Moon” Chapple came through with victories. In the Penn State meet our best men, Chapple and Dempsey, were upset by McAndrews and Epstein, respectively, but the team saved it for us. We made up for these close ones in the next meet with Syracuse, with Cooke being our only loser.
This completed our eleventh consecutive undefeated year with a record of fifty-four wins, and three ties.
END OF THE REIGN
The fatal 1931 season started well, with defeats over M.I.T., U. of Penn and West Virginia in that order, all by a score of 6 to 1. In the West Virginia meet “Duke” Crinkley, compensating for having been forced into inactivity for two weeks due to forfeited bouts, smashed Hawkins to the canvas in the second round. “Duke” waited until the third round in his bout with Skoberne of Penn State to knock him out.
“From out of Syracuse came a routine telegram which to our consternation carried the message: ‘Syracuse defeated Navy in boxing, four bouts to three.’” To the Navy and to Spike Webb it meant the break of an eleven year era of perfection in the squared ring, then interspersion of a lone cross mark on an otherwise clean slate.
The inevitable defeat of a Navy team occurred on March 7, 1931. It came when “four Syracuse boxers in the Archbold Gymnasium at Syracuse, New York, ended Navy’s eleven year reign in the ring that day, by scoring a four to three victory (sic) over the midshipman in a dual meet, the first ever recorded against (sic) a Navy teams in such a contest.” Syracuse rang up decisions in the three lighter classes Vicari and Wolamin winning from Wright and Wallace, respectively, and Fitzgerald losing a close one to Wirthemir. Hall gave us hope with his decision over Ross. In the deciding bout, “Killer” Joe Moran scored his thirteenth straight knockout in the third round over Bert Davis. Andrews won his light heavyweight bout but we were already beat. But “Duke” didn’t care. He was out to avenge our loss as much as he could and that he did. He mustered all the fistic ability that had delighted Annapolis fans so often and rang down the curtain on the meet by knocking out MacMacheimer cold in the first round.
The Regiment -- in fact, the entire Navy -- was shocked beyond the understanding of an outsider. We had actually lost a meet. All our competitors rejoiced, for one of them had accomplished the impossible, but even they were surprised that their dreams had actually come true.
The team was mentally incapable of doing their best the following week, and, in the final match of the season with Western Maryland, we tied. Herb Fullmer, in his first college bout, knocked out Western Maryland’s captain, Doug Crosby, twice intercollegiate champion, in what Spike calls the “most sensational fight ever held at he Naval Academy.” In the deciding match Crinkley and Pincura slugged to a draw.
This draw was equivalent to a defeat for “Duke” and he avenged himself in the Intercollegiates the next week, when he flattened Pincura to become the Intercollegiate Heavyweight Champion. Herb Fullmer found himself with the responsibility of a championship on his shoulders when he repeated his win over Crosby in the third bout he had ever fought. In this tourney Bert Davis avenged his loss in the Syracuse meet by winning a clean decision over Moran. This was the only time in his college career that Moran was defeated.
The 1932 season left little to be desired in that we were not in the Intercollegiates and, for the first time, we didn’t fight Penn State. Although Fullmer was our only returning veteran, Spike developed such stalwarts as McNaughton and Wright, and we proved that our fighting ability was not diminished at all by a clean sweep of six teams. We revenged ourselves on Syracuse by reversing last year’s score against almost the same team that beat us. It looked like we were back on the throne of victory after merely a short hiatus.
We resigned from the Eastern Intercollegiate Boxing Association in 1932 due to interference with our academic schedule. In the eight tournaments in which we participated we won four times and had twenty-six individual titles.
THE LEAN YEARS
The next season indicated that we actually had been toppled from our crown. We lost to Virginia and Syracuse. Our loss to Syracuse in Macdonough Hall was our first home defeat and our worst loss ever, 2 to 6. Our best meet that year was the U. of New Hampshire when we won seven bouts. Slade Cutter won his first varsity bout in this meet by a first round knockout.
We had a fairly good team in 1934, losing only to Virginia on their home-ground. In this year Cutter won all his fights by knockouts, except in the Syracuse meet, which was tied 3 ½ to 3 ½ when his decision cinched it for us.
With the loss of four lettermen by graduation, the 1935 season offered a strong challenge to Spike. He formed a great team that won six meets, losing only to Virginia in a match that saw Slade Cutter take but thirty-eight seconds to knockout his man.
Webb had to build the 1936 team from only three returning lettermen: Blitch, Hemenway, and Hocker. It was too much of a job for even the greatest college boxing coach, and we reached out nadir that year. It was the only season when we were winless. Captain Blitch lost his first fight of the year in the Penn State match, and although Price, Hemenway, and Giffen won, we were defeated by Richter’s decision over Ferrara. We also lost to Syracuse and Virginia that year by scores of 3 ½ to 4 ½ and 2 to 6, respectively; we tied Western Maryland 4 to 4.
In 1937 Navy returned to the position of eminence we had vacated the year before. Returning first classmen were Captain Hocker, Thompson, and Taming. With second classmen Luby and Giffen helping them we won three out of four, losing only to Penn State and beating Virginia for the first time in five years.
In 1938 we had a 2-2-0 record. Ed Luby ended a three year undefeated career as an intercollegiate boxer in the Syracuse match, which we lost 3 to 5. We lost the movement to stop boxing on an intercollegiate level which had received its impetus at the Academy.
With five regulars back and many youngsters from last year’s undefeated plebe team, we were without a loss in 1939. The Virginia series was at its height at this time. “The Navy-Virginia meet is to boxing what the Army-Navy game is to football.” While the talks to end boxing at the Academy were being conducted, we fought and defeated a new foe, the University of Toronto, with Jack Dempsey acting as referee.
“Boxing meets are colorful but almost cold-bloodedly formal -- in full dress, white ties and tails, and evening dresses, dams silently watch the scantily-clad mulers.”
In 1940, we tied Cornell with seven of out eight fighters boxing for the first time. We lost to Virginia after leaving Western Maryland scoreless. Then we closed the season with a 5 to 3 win over Syracuse.
1941 was out last year in the intercollegiate competition. We beat Virginia and North Carolina and lost to Syracuse and Cornell. The end of the Cornell Meet on February 22 ended twenty- two years of intercollegiate boxing at the Naval Academy which had started on February 21, 1920, with a four to two victory over the U. of Pennsylvania. We had amassed a record of 93 wins, 14 losses, and 8 ties. No school has ever surpassed this record, and I’m pretty sure no school ever will.
The stories of why we dropped boxing at the Naval Academy are numerous -- some clear, some obscure, most unfounded. The true story is buried in the files of the Naval Academy Athletic Association. The gist of it is presented here for the reader’s evaluation.
The most significant meeting in this series was held on St. Patrick’s Day, 1939. At this meeting the Commandant of Midshipmen, Captain Draemel, gave many reasons for boxing’s elimination as an intercollegiate sport. Some of them were:
Intercollegiate boxing sprung from a background of professional pugilism. Practically every other sport was begun in college and subsequently adopted professionally.
Many young officers in the Navy were reputedly “punch drunk.” The major cause of this was attributed to boxing.
While the Naval Academy boxers were known for their clean fighting, competitors from other schools were equally famous for their dirty tactics in the ring.
When a man graduates from a civilian college, his association with that school is practically terminated. A young officer just beginning his career will have an association with the Naval Academy for the rest of his life. This, therefore, makes necessary a different attitude at the Naval Academy toward boxing than at other schools.
Commander O.O. Kessing, the Officer Representative for boxing, made an eloquent plea for the continuation of the sport on an intercollegiate level. He pointed out that Navy has always been the leader in intercollegiate boxing policy and, if we were to quit, boxing on the east coast was doomed. He showed that the morale of the midshipman was the highest at a boxing match and that 265 men came out for the team that year alone. He emphasized the detrimental effect our dropping boxing would have on the Fleet and its popular boxing program. Mostly, he stressed how boxing teaches individualism, poise, confidence, and self-reliance. It was largely do to this speech that, when a vote was taken, 14 members of the Committee voted to continue intercollegiate boxing for a year and then reconsider it, and 8 members voted to drop it immediately. A later meeting on April 4th confirmed this vote.
This proved, however, to be a mere stay of execution, as, on March 3, 1941, Captain T.S. King, director of Athletics, formulated a recommendation via Captain D.B. Beary, Elective Member, Executive Committee and Captain F.A.L. Vossler, Senior Member, Executive Committee, (both of whom approved it) to the Superintendent to eliminate intercollegiate boxing at the Naval Academy. This was approved, and, on March 22, 1941, the Superintendent, Rear Admiral Russell Willson, signed “Notice 199167” which said in part: “…boxing is eliminated as an intercollegiate sport at the Naval Academy, but will be continued as an intramural sport.”
The official public announcement was released to the press on April 1, 1941. It said:
“Rear Admiral Russell Willson, Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy announced today that with the close of the present boxing season the Naval Academy will discontinue boxing as an intercollegiate sport.”
This ended the story of intercollegiate boxing at the Naval Academy. It was a great era. No school in the country can claim as spectacular a record -- in any sport -- as we can in boxing. It is truly Navy’s Greatest Sport!
There was naturally a wave of protest and inquiry from other colleges, Congress, the Fleet, alumni, the press, and other interested parties. For the most part they were answered by a letter first sent to Mr. D.S. Bible, Director of Athletics, University of Texas, on April 23, 1941, by Captain T.S. King, which stated our reasons as:
Boxing stands alone in all recognized sports, where the final objective is the incapacitating of an opponent. In al other sports, any incapacity is an inherent possibility, but is definitely not the objective.
The keen competition within a boxing squad, and the long period of training which is interspersed with meets subjects the individual to such a continued pummeling that some felt the competitors received permanent injury, usually considered as ‘punch drunk’.
The increasing difficulty in arranging meets in which the competitors were of comparable experience and ability.
The possibility of meets away from the Naval Academy was lacking proper supervision and hence the chance of competitors receiving permanent injury.
The fact that regardless of supervision, ‘weight-making (type of starving oneself) often was practiced to the detriment of growing youngsters.”
The impact of out dropping boxing had far-reaching effects. This letter was sent out for many years. The last record of its use is when it was sent by Captain E.B. Taylor to Roger L. Treat, Sports Columnist, Chicago Herald-American on May 17, 1948.
Spike Webb, boxing coach at the Naval Academy for 35 years, retired at the age of 65 on June 30, 1954. The men he coached and loved (many of them now admirals) attended a banquet in his honor arranged by O.O. Kessing and A.J. Rubino to pay final homage to the great little man who contributed so much to their success. Present at this dinner were Rear Admiral W.V. “Mickey” O’Regan, Rear Admiral Harry H. Henderson, Samuel Mosberg, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Col. Harvey L. Miller, Rear Admiral David M. Tyree, Commander Slade Cutter, and Captain “Moon” Chapple. Telegrams were sent by Secretary of the Navy, Charles Thomas, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Vice Admiral John H. “Babe” Brown, Eddie Eagan, and many others who were unable to attend in person. Everyone paid homage to Spike.
Spike, sorrowful at his forced retirement, said that he was facing “the hardest round I ever fought.” But Tony Rubino, Spike’s closest associate since 1948, said, “Spike, you will never retire from the brigade of midshipmen.” And that is so. Although he has a room in Annapolis, it is only that, for Spike still makes Macdonough Hall his home. He can be seen over there anytime, giving hints to “his boys” and inspiring the midshipmen by his mere presence.
The Naval Academy officially displayed its love and high esteem for Spike when he reviewed the final fall parade of the Brigade in 1954.