Bat Nelson and the Toledo Whammy
By Aaron Lloyd
Former World Lightweight Champion “Battling Nelson,” known for his wild ring wars and even wilder antics outside the ring, attracted some rather “unwanted” press coverage of his own while reporting on the heavyweight title bout between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio on July 4th, 1919. Nelson, whose own fighting career had ended in 1917, was covering the fight for the Chicago Daily News, and being as tightfisted as he was, decided to set up camp outside of Dempsey’s training headquarters rather than yield to the disbursement of “travel expenses” as most sportswriters did. So, living out of a big blue tent, aptly labeled “Bat Nelson,” the Durable Dane proceeded to fulfill his journalistic duties, all the while disregarding societal norms regarding personal hygiene and appeals to cleanliness.
To make matters worse, beginning in late June of that year, the Toledo area was struck by an almost unprecedented two-week heat wave that had residents and vendors scrambling to find creative ways of dealing with the triple digit heat. Food rotted, ice cream melted, and even the pine seats of the custom-built stadium oozed sap, forcing spectators to bring (or purchase at $.50 apiece) cushions in order to avoid getting the annoying sap on their clothing. Perhaps no one was more indirectly affected by the heat, however, then the poor lemonade vendor, who, after word of a “Bat Nelson-related contamination,” suffered the most dramatic sales decline of all.
It all started on July 3 (the night before the fight), when Nelson, determined to beat the heat, snuck out of his tent and decided to go for a dip in nearby Maumee Bay, just as he had done the previous night. Nelson went searching for the same swimming trunks he had “borrowed” from Dempsey’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns the night before, but unbeknownst to him, the trunks had been burned after Kearns got wind of their previous unauthorized appropriation. Undeterred, Nelson decided to venture out into the night wearing just his underwear and the strong scent of alcohol on his breath. On his way to the Bay, Nelson came across six liquid filled zinc tubs that, oddly enough, were meant to hold a syrupy lemonade concoction and not the stinking, unclean body of someone looking for a little relief from the heat. Nevertheless, Nelson climbed the ladder into the vats and plunged headfirst into the syrupy mixture anyway, quickly realizing that the contents in the container were more lethal than refreshing. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Nelson began flailing and screaming for help, and were it not for the quick response of a few close good Samaritans, might well have drowned in a sweet and citrusy grave.
Unfortunately, this story, while ending happily for Nelson (he lived until 1954), was a financial disaster for the individual who had paid $1,000 for the rights to sell lemonade during the fight. In fact, when word got out that Nelson had taken a “bath” in the vats (arguably the only one he ever had), even those with the most unquenchable thirsts were not willing to accept the one in six odds that Nelson had not been dredged from the vat that their particular glass of lemonade originated. As a result, sales tanked, and despite the 114 degree temperatures at ringside, the lemonade vendor sat patronless; just another victim of the “Toledo whammy.”