Last week’s Friday Footnote focused on the FFA basketball teams and tournaments that were at the height of their popularity in the 1950s. In response, I received a note from Tim Davis, an agriculture teacher in Missouri who asked if I had heard of FFA Boxing teams. He said his school had an FFA boxing team in 1952. I must confess that I had not heard of FFA Boxing Teams.
The extent of my knowledge of FFA and boxing was based on the 1932 novel “The Greenhand.” Two boys settled a dispute on an FFA camping trip by putting on boxing gloves and duking it out. It seems this was standard practice for that era since the chapter had boxing gloves with them. When the novel was made into a movie in 1939, that scene was found in the movie.
During my adolescence, I was familiar with the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. It ran from 1942 to 1960 on the radio and television. It is primarily remembered for Friday night boxing matches. Boxing was a popular sport during this era. The names of boxers like Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Jake LaMotta were common household names. Boxing was a very popular sport.
Tim’s question about FFA Boxing teams piqued my curiosity. So, I engaged in some historical digging. Here is what I learned.
The Golden Age of Boxing
The golden age of boxing coincides with the beginning and formative years of the FFA. According to the American Experience website from National Public Radio “Americans loved boxing in the 1920s and '30s. Every immigrant neighborhood had its champion, and boxing was a flag of racial or ethnic pride.” That era had famous boxers like Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, James Braddock, Max Baer, Joe Louis, and Max Schmeling.
Building on the popularity of professional boxing, a series of amateur boxing matches were started in the late 1920s in Chicago. This idea, known as the Golden Gloves, was adopted in other cities and soon spread across the nation.
The popularity of boxing during the 1930s was exemplified in a comic strip – Joe Palooka. Joe was a heavyweight boxing champion. The comic strip started in 1930 and was carried in over 900 newspapers (it was published until 1984). The cartoon strip inspired a CBS radio series, 12 feature-length films, nine short films, a television series, a board game, comic books, a wristwatch, a lunchbox, and assorted other merchandise. Joe Palooka was the forerunner of the superheroes, preceding Superman, Batman, and the like. During World War II Joe Palooka was depicted as fighting the Nazis in the comics (If you own a Joe Palooka comic book or other Joe Palooka items, they are worth a good bit of money).
Figure 1. Joe Palooka comics
With the popularity of boxing in the 1920s and 1930s, the introduction of Golden Gloves amateur boxing, and the popularity of the All-American Joe Palooka, it should be no surprise to learn that boxing was embraced by FFA chapters and members in the early days of the FFA.
The newspaper heading above appeared in the Pampa (TX) Daily News on February 6, 1941. The first line of the article was cute and informative – “Future Farmers will swing leather instead of a hoe tonight in the high school gymnasium when boxers of the Pampa and Miami high school Future Farmers of America boxing teams meet here at 8 o’clock.” The article continued “The boxers are not the regular high school boxing teams, but from the FFA classes of the two schools. Admission will be 15 and 25 cents.”
Initially, FFA boxing was used at the chapter level to raise funds to support chapter activities. Since boxing was a popular form of entertainment, FFA chapters would stage amateur boxing matches involving students and charge admission. L. L. Scranton, State FFA adviser in North Dakota, gave several examples in his 1934 book Fun and Work for Future Farmers:
- In 1931 the Manson, Iowa chapter had a boxing match and charged 25 cents for admission. They raised $38.80 (p. 51).
- The Granville, North Dakota FFA chapter sponsored a Farmer’s Stampede in 1933 and made “a nice sum of money.” One of the events at the Stampede was six 3-round bouts of boxing that “aroused much enthusiasm” (p. 49).
- The Granada, Colorado FFA put on a successful carnival in 1933 and netted $26. “The feature of the evening was two lightweight boxing bouts staged with local boys pitted against foreign talent” (p. 50).
In Scranton’s book (1934, p. 48) he provided suggestions as to what to include in the FFA Chapter Program of Work. In the section on “Ways and Means of Raising Chapter Funds” he suggested holding “Boxing and Wrestling matches.” The excerpts listed above reinforced his suggestions.
The Blackwell (OK) Journal-Tribune (April 11, 1939) in an article titled “Second FFA Boxing Card Tuesday night” reported “The purpose of the boxing matches is to raise money to be used by the chapter for staging a banquet later in the year and for other miscellaneous expenses. At the first boxing match held in March the chapter realized a good revenue.”
Figure 2 (below) shows typical advertisements from newspapers promoting FFA boxing matches. Top left – Springview, Nebraska (1955), Top right – Milton, Louisiana (1948), Bottom left – Newkirk, Oklahoma (1938), Bottom right – Uintah, Utah (1946).
Figure 2. Advertisements for FFA Boxing Matches
At first, the boxing matches were between FFA members in the same school. The matches were primarily for entertainment purposes. It was not uncommon for the combatants to be lacking in boxing skills. An article in the Harrison Nebraska Sun (April 3, 1947) stated, “The FFA boxing matches in the high school gymnasium drew another capacity audience Tuesday night.” Then the paper reported the younger boxers were using “windmill tactics” with “the older ones giving some indications of being able to handle themselves well in the squared circle.”
Figure 3. An FFA boxing match featuring FFA members from the same school in California. February 8, 1953.
According to the 1950 census Thomas, Oklahoma has a population of 1,171 (10 less than today) and is located in rural Custer County. So, I was somewhat surprised to read an article in the March 4, 1948 edition of The Thomas Tribune titled “Large Crowd Attends Finals of FFA Boxing Tourney.” The article started “Over 200 boxing fans were on hand Monday night for the FFA boxing finals that wound up four vicious nights of fighting that started out with a record entry of 66 boxers.” Where did all those boxers come from?
I found a 1969 Thomas High School yearbook and there were only 81 male students in the high school and there were only 37 students in the FFA photo. I would guess there were fewer students than that in 1948. So, I am scratching my head about the participation in their boxing tournament. This just shows how popular FFA boxing was – four nights of boxing in a small rural school that attracted 200 fans to the finals.
It was not long before boxing matches were arranged with neighboring schools. These matches promoted school spirit and pride and almost certainly increased the gate receipts. When schools started competing against each other, FFA chapters started selecting members to be on the FFA Boxing Team. The best boxers in each weight class would comprise the FFA chapter’s boxing team.
The Walnut Hill (Florida) FFA seemed to take on all comers. Between 1944 and 1946 they bested the Molino 4-H boxing team, the Atmore (AL) FFA boxers, Tate FFA, Pensacola YMCA, Molino FFA, and the Baker FFA. The lineups for the match between Walnut Hill and Tate in 1945 are shown below.
Figure 4. Source - Pensacola (FL) News Journal, November 15, 1945
The article below from the Wellington (Texas) Leader (March 28, 1946) about a boxing match between two schools is typical of newspaper articles from that era.
Figure 5 Wellington (Texas) Leader (March 28, 1946)
If fighting another school drew a good crowd, then having an invitational tournament would draw even more people. The Iola (KS) FFA sponsored a boxing “show” in 1941 with Chanute, Cherryvale, LaHarpe and Iola participating. The Iola vo-ag students sold tickets to the show. There were 15 bouts.
In 1942 the Lusk, Wyoming FFA sponsored a boxing tournament and invited FFA chapters from Cody, Sundance, Worland, Greybull, Buffalo, Newcastle, Douglas, Wheatland, Sunrise, Lingle, Torrington, and Edgemont from South Dakota.
One of the biggest FFA Boxing Tournaments was staged in Louisiana. The Milton FFA organized the tournament which involved FFA boxing teams from seven parishes (i.e., counties) in the third congressional district of Louisiana. The tournament, staged in the 1940s and 50s, lasted for two days, food was available for purchase from the Future Homemakers of America, and hotel rooms were booked for the out-of-towners.
Figure 6. Scenes from the Milton tournament that appeared in the Lafayette, Louisiana Daily Advertiser. March 10, 1949.
At times wrestling matches were held along with boxing matches. The Humboldt (CA) Standard (March 9, 1957) reported on the FFA Boxing-Wrestling Tournament sponsored by the Fortuna FFA Chapter. There were six boxing matches, four tag-team wrestling matches, and one single wrestling match. This event was not for the faint of heart. It was reported that (p. 8):
More than 500 fans watched Boyles earn the distinction of most outstanding boxer for the second year in a row, as he pounded out a bloody three round decision over Wayne Veysey, a 160 pound junior. The aggressor all the way, Boyles carried the fight to Veysey from the opening seconds, bringing blood to his opponent’s nose midway through the first round.
The article went into great detail about each match and indicated the top boxers and wrestlers would receive their awards at the school awards assembly in June. The photo below accompanied the article.
Figure 7. From the Humboldt (CA) Standard (March 9, 1957)
The Newkirk (Oklahoma) Reporter had an “interesting” article (and interesting is a mild term for the article) on February 5, 1938. A special page of the newspaper titled “The Gold and Blue” was printed every Saturday. It contained news about Newkirk High School and was written by students at the school. The article (see Figure 8 below) was titled “Tournament Plans Near Completon (sic)” but the sub-heading was “Negro Battle Royal Promises Spills Galore.” The article was about an FFA-sponsored boxing match.
The article indicates each match was for three rounds, each lasting one minute. Here are some excerpts from the article:
Another thing that will be very interesting will be the negro battle royal in which several colored boys will participate. The boys will be blind folded and each will have one boxing glove. The last man that is left in the ring will be the winner.
The two Crowder twins are both in good shape, it is said, and we promise these two chocolate covered whirlwinds will give the crowd plenty of action as both claim to be the better of the two.
The local whites are all training to become more efficient in the art of handling those little gloves…
Come one, come all, and bring your best girl. If you don’t have one, bring the other feller’s girl and we will all participate in the fights.
I just shook my head when I read this article. I couldn’t believe it. But the article was written by students, and this was in a southern fringe state in the 1930s. I don’t think the African Americans in the article were enrolled in the high school. I have looked at several yearbooks (1921, 1946, 1953) from Newkirk High School and can’t find a single African American student. The current demographic for this county is around 2% African American. While my research focused on FFA boxing teams I couldn’t just ignore this article because the message was more than just boxing. It gives one pause.
Figure 8. From the Newkirk (Oklahoma) Reporter - February 5, 1938
The FFA Boxing matches were not as numerous or as widespread geographically as the FFA Basketball competition we examined in last week’s Footnote. When I searched Newspapers.com for “FFA Boxing” seven states accounted for 78 percent of the 245 hits. They were Oklahoma (50), Louisiana (36), Nebraska (28), Missouri (23), Texas (20), Utah (18), and California (15).
I am not advocating we return to FFA boxing matches. They did provide a form of recreation which has historically been one of the aims of the FFA. However, times change and what was acceptable in the past might no longer be acceptable today. Yet, this is part of our history.
A question to ponder is “How will history judge all of us in the future based upon what we are doing today?”