(William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, standing, was photographed in his office in the New York Morning Telegraph in 1921 with his friend, Western movie star William S. Hart. Eighteen days later, Masterson died at this same desk after writing his popular column. Photo courtesy of Boot Hill Museum, Inc.; Dodge City, Kansas)
One hundred years ago today — Oct. 25, 1921 — one of New York’s most popular sports columnists, and one of the nation’s leading boxing authorities, suddenly dropped dead of a massive heart attack at his desk in the New York Morning Telegraph just after completing what became his final column.
His byline was W.B. Masterson, the W.B. standing for William Barclay. But his friends knew him — and history remembers him best — by his sobriquet: Bat.
The sportswriter who died a century ago was the self-same Bat Masterson who four decades earlier had become a Western legend as a buffalo hunter, army scout, gunfighter, lawman and professional gambler. As with most legends, much of Masterson’s life and exploits are apocryphal, but there was more than an element of truth behind them.
How did this late 19th century Wild West legend come to spend the last 18 years of his life as an early 20th century journalist in New York City, becoming a mentor for, among others, Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun?
“His evolution between the two [phases of his life] came when he was in Colorado promoting boxing matches and doing PR work for boxers,” explained Michael Sowell, a sports historian, former sportswriter and retired journalism professor at Oklahoma State University.
A later generation remembers him through actor Gene Barry’s “Bat Masterson” TV series from 1958-1961. Much of the series was pure fiction, but the image of Bat Masterson as a dapper dresser topped with a derby hat and wielding a gold-knobbed cane as a cudgel was based on fact. He really did invest in snappy, tailor-made clothes and favored the derby. He began using a cane after he was shot in the groin by a cavalry sergeant, Melvin King, over the affections of a Texas saloon girl, Molly Brennan. King killed Brennan in the melee, and Masterson killed King.
After serving as sheriff of Ford County (Dodge City), Kansas, from 1878-1880, townspeople gifted Masterson with a gold-knobbed cane.
But much of the Masterson legend stemmed from a practical joke. A New York journalist with the National Police Gazette came to Colorado in 1893 to write about colorful Western characters. As a gag, an acquaintance of Masterson’s filled the reporter’s head with wild tales of Masterson’s exploits and claimed he had killed 26 men. Like some journalists today, the gullible Easterner didn’t bother to vet the accuracy of such a wonderful story and ran with it. The myth of 26 notches in his pistol would follow Masterson to his grave.
The truth was colorful enough without embellishment. Masterson was born in Henryville, Quebec, on Nov. 26, 1853. Christened Bartholomew, he hated the name. Somehow it got shortened to Bat. As an adult he began going by William Barclay Masterson. His family moved to Illinois when he was a child, and he claimed all his life he was born there. He was never naturalized as a U.S. citizen, meaning he voted and even held public offices illegally.
As a teenager he drifted to Kansas and Texas, eking out a living as a bison hunter. He participated in the famous Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle in 1874, in which a handful of bison hunters held off hundreds of attacking Comanches. He later served as a scout for Gen. Nelson A. Miles. He then drifted to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, for the gold rush there, but found more financial success at the gambling tables. It was there that he met Wyatt Earp, who became his life-long friend. Earp persuaded him to come to Dodge City, where he was city marshal, and become his deputy. Masterson’s brothers Jim and Ed were already in law enforcement in Dodge.
In 1878, Bat Masterson was elected sheriff by three votes. The same year, his brother Ed, who had succeeded Earp as town marshal, was fatally shot by a drunken cowboy, Jack Wagner. The local papers reported that Ed had killed Wagner in return. Three decades later, Bat Masterson admitted it was he who rushed to the scene and shot Wagner.
After being defeated for re-election, Masterson drifted around Colorado boom towns, supporting himself as a gambler or lawman— sometimes both. He served as city marshal of Trinidad for a year before settling in Denver. He gave up law enforcement for his first love: the sport of boxing. Although he had proven himself handy with his fists in many a saloon brawl, he made a living as a manager, promoter and occasionally as a referee or security guard. During the 1890s he became acquainted with such boxing immortals as John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons.
In one of the most famous matches in the Old West, Masterson provided security and acted as gatekeeper for the 1896 match between Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher in Langtry, Texas, arranged by the notorious Judge Roy Bean. The fight had been prohibited at the last minute in El Paso, in Ciudad Juárez across the river, in New Mexico Territory and then anywhere in Texas by order of the governor. Bean set up a ring on a sandbar just on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. The Texas Rangers watched the bout impotently from the U.S. side as Fitzsimmons defeated Maher.
It was at this time that Masterson made his first foray into journalism, agreeing to write an op-ed piece for the Chicago Record defending the sport of boxing, which was banned in most places. “That all this commotion has been stirred up because two men are going to box with five-ounce gloves is utterly ridiculous,” he wrote in part, insisting that boxers face comparatively little danger while “jockeys will be killed, football players mangled and bicyclists maimed.”
Masterson’s next journalistic experience came about in 1899 as an act of vengeance. He and a few others partnered with Otto Floto, the sports editor of the Denver Post, to establish a boxing organization called the Colorado Athletic Association to sponsor matches with promising contenders. Masterson was to be manager, with Floto promoting the fights through his column. When Floto abruptly reneged on the deal and forced out the other partners, Masterson quickly organized the rival Olympic Athletic Club. To counter Floto’s influence, he arranged to write a boxing column for a local paper called George’s Weekly, in which he not very subtly promoted his club and its boxers while belittling Floto’s and needling the rival Post’s somewhat shady publishers, Fred Bonfils and Harry Tammen. Despite his lack of formal education, Masterson displayed an innate talent for translating his thoughts to the written word in an entertaining, if not necessarily objective or ethical, style. He wrote the column until he sold the Olympic Club a year later.
By 1902, Masterson had made more enemies than friends in Denver and abandoned it for New York. In a bizarre occurrence, he was arrested and jailed on his first day in the Big Apple, mistakenly associated with three men who allegedly were running a crooked faro game. Then the cops discovered Masterson was carrying a revolver, the one that had been involved in many a gunfight. The fraud charges were quickly dismissed, but the erstwhile lawman and gunfighter was fined $100 for carrying a firearm. The New York papers went wild reporting the arrest of the legendary figure from the West.
Fortuitously, the publicity also brought Masterson back into contact with the Lewis brothers, the novelist and magazine publisher Alfred Henry Lewis, and William Eugene Lewis, managing editor of the New York Morning Telegraph, a quirky daily that dated to 1836 and proudly opposed reform. The brothers had met Masterson in Kansas City in 1883 and were familiar with his Denver newspaper column and his boxing expertise. Whether they were more impressed with his sports and journalistic skills or with his fame as gunfighter and lawman, in 1903 they offered him a job writing a sports column for the Telegraph three times a week, about 1,700 words each. That he did for the next 18 years, longer than anything he ever did out West.
Masterson adapted effortlessly to both life in Manhattan and his new calling, declaring himself “a Broadway guy.” He relished having a front row seat—literally—in the boxing world. He and his wife, Emma, a former Vaudeville juggler whom he had married in Denver in 1893, lived in a series of fashionable East Side apartments and immersed themselves in Manhattan’s world of high-end restaurants, nightclubs and Broadway shows.
He enjoyed his new life so much he politely turned down an offer from his friend and admirer, President Theodore Roosevelt, to be U.S. marshal for Oklahoma Territory. Instead, in an act of pure cronyism, TR named him a deputy U.S. marshal for southern New York, a post he held from 1905 to 1909 and drew $2,000 a year for performing no apparent duties. President William Howard Taft ended the cushy arrangement.
Initially Masterson’s column ran with just his photo, headline and subhead at the top. In 1914 it was named “Masterson’s Views on Sports Topics.” A year later it became the more generic “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.”
Masterson was not timid about deviating from boxing into such “timely topics” as social or political issues, with little care about the blowback from irate readers. He responded to the frequent hate mail with equal vitriol, dismissing his critics as “vermin.” He loudly objected to a New York state law restricting boxing matches to “private clubs.” He squawked about the anti-gambling law and the Sullivan Act, which banned firearm ownership in New York State in 1911. He was on the right side of history predicting Prohibition would fail and lead to increased lawlessness, but on the wrong side opposing women’s suffrage, predicting it would lead to more political corruption as he claimed it had in Colorado.
Sowell said he read between 100 and 200 of those columns when he was researching his master’s thesis at Oklahoma State on Masterson’s sportswriting career. He said he was struck by Masterson’s “Old West analogies.”
“When he would cover a boxing match he would use these gunfighting terms,” Sowell said. “He would describe a boxing match like it was a gunfight.”
Masterson covered some of the most famous fights in history, but his prognostications were wrong about as often as they were right.
He found himself caught up in the so-called “Great White Hope” era between 1908 and 1915. Jack Johnson had emerged as the first Black heavyweight champion in 1908, succeeding the undefeated Jim Jeffries, which didn’t sit well with lots of White boxing fans. When the New York Boxing Commission banned interracial bouts, Masterson denounced it as “an obnoxious rule.”
“The Negro is entitled to the same rights under the law as the white man, and it isn’t within the province of any man or set of men to make a rule that deprives him of his rights,” he wrote in 1913. In 1916, the rule was rescinded.
His last-ever trip to the West was to Reno, Nevada, in 1910 to cover the much-hyped bout between Johnson and Jeffries, who had been coaxed out of retirement as the latest “Great White Hope” to recover the crown. Among the other sportswriters covering the fight was novelist Jack London for a Chicago news service. Masterson interviewed both contestants and after watching them spar separately incorrectly predicted Jeffries would reclaim the title. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 14th round. Masterson contritely admitted he had misjudged Johnson’s power.
Johnson held the title until he lost it in 1915 to the last ‘White hope,” Jess Willard. The fight was in Havana, Cuba, because Johnson had fled to Europe to escape prosecution for an apparently trumped-up charge that he had taken a young woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Willard knocked Johnson out in the 26th round. Masterson was there, and this time he had predicted the outcome correctly and expressed satisfaction over the result. Masterson biographer Robert K. DeArment suggested Masterson was glad to see Johnson lose not because of his race as much as for his public braggadocio, which Matterson found offensive and which he compared to loud-mouthed gunslingers in the Old West. Yet, when Johnson returned to the States to surrender and answer the charges, Masterson defended him in his column, arguing that he had been wrongfully accused by “a woman scorned.”
Although Masterson insisted he was not a reformer, whom he regarded as “clerics and hypocrites,” he was passionate in his column against what he perceived as fixed fights, corruption in the boxing commission or collusion between promoters or managers and his fellow sportswriters. More than once his accusations led to changes in regulations and even state laws.
In 1919, Masterson expressed his suspicions, as did other sportswriters, that the young Jack Dempsey had concealed a piece of metal in his left fist when he trounced an opponent. He also taunted Dempsey as a “shirker” who had evaded the draft during World War I. Yet, as he had done with Johnson, when Dempsey was indicted for draft evasion Masterson called for his acquittal, saying in was unjust to prosecute him because of his fame when so many others had gotten away scot-free. He was acquitted.
“You can’t compare the sportswriting then with that now,” Sowell noted. “The 1920s were called the Golden Age of sportswriting. It was so unlike sportswriting today. They were very opinionated. They were much more descriptive in those days before radio and they had better access to the athletes. The athletes were really just blue-collar workers who didn’t make any more than the sportswriters did.”
Masterson tended to play down his Wild West background, which he never quite escaped, but he was not above playing it up if it suited his interests. He agreed to write a series of biographical sketches for Alfred Henry Lewis’ monthly magazine Human Life of some of the Western characters he knew personally, including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson, Luke Short, Bill Tilghman and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. But Lewis could never persuade him to write an autobiographical sketch.
His old reputation and his rectitude toward boxing also resulted in a celebrated libel suit. In 1911, a wealthy Oklahoma oilman named Frank Ufer was grooming a young boxer, Carl Morris, to be one of the “White hopes” against Johnson and matched him against a veteran named Jim Flynn for a bout in Madison Square Garden. Ufer touted Morris a “sure thing.” Masterson, who knew Flynn was the superior fighter, called the match “a piece of Limburger.” According to biographer DeArment, Masterson actually confronted Flynn at his hotel and demanded to know how much Ufer was paying him to take a dive. The flustered Flynn confessed: $7,500. With the fix exposed, Flynn fought clean and bludgeoned Morris in 10 rounds.
Outraged, Ufer sent a letter to the boxing writer for the New York Globe, calling Masterson “an alleged bad man who made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.” The Globe ran the quote. Masterson sued Ufer for $10,000 and the Globe for $50,000.
Ufer settled out of court, but the suit against the Globe went to trial in 1913. Representing the Globe was Benjamin N. Cardozo, a future Supreme Court justice, who on cross-examination asked Masterson pointblank how many men he had killed. Under oath, Masterson said “about three:” King, Weaver and a wanted Texas murderer while he was sheriff in Dodge City. He said he could not be sure if he had killed any Comanches at Adobe Walls because of the fog of battle, and certainly couldn’t tell if any of them were drunk. He had never shot any Mexicans, or anyone else, in the back, he testified. In the end, the jury agreed Masterson had been defamed but awarded him only $3,500 in damages and $129.50 in court costs.
While making his share of enemies, Masterson also had a tight-knit coterie of friends and admirers. Among his young co-workers at the Telegraph were future journalism icon Heywood Broun and a young woman assigned to cover the new medium of motion pictures and its celebrities: Louella Parsons. She would go on to become William Randolph Hearst’s syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist. She remembered Masterson as “a kind-hearted old man, a grand newspaper crony.”
But no one was closer to Masterson than a young Denver sportswriter and reporter who had followed Masterson’s trail to New York a few years behind him: Damon Runyon. With a 27-year age difference, the two developed almost a father-son relationship, even though Runyon wrote for Hearst’s rival New York American. They also disagreed on the merits of Jack Dempsey. Twelve years after Masterson’s death, Runyon wrote a short story titled “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” One of the protagonists was named Sky Masterson, clearly patterned after Bat. Four years after Runyon’s own death in 1946, the story was adapted as the hit Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls.”
Masterson maintained contact with some of his surviving Western comrades, who would occasionally visit him in New York, including Earp and Tilghman. He also became friends with and adviser to early Western movie star William S. Hart, who visited Masterson in his Morning Telegraph office on Oct. 7, 1921. Eighteen days later, co-workers found the man who had survived dozens of shooting scrapes out West slumped over dead at his desk about noon, just after he finished his column. He was one month and one day short of his 68th birthday.
That final column itself became part of the Bat Masterson legend. Instead of boxing, it was a social commentary on what today would be called income inequality. It read in part: “There are those in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed, for example, that we all get about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime and the poor get it in the winter.”
Runyon kept an all-night vigil next to Masterson’s casket at the funeral parlor. Five hundred people attended the funeral on Oct. 27, the day his last column appeared. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In something of an exaggeration, his gravestone proclaims, “Loved by everyone.”
Asked why Masterson is worth remembering a century after his death, Sowell reflected that Masterson was just one symbol of an entire era worth remembering.
“I think of all those characters back then,” he said. “They are a window into that time in our country’s history. By knowing about these people we understand what our country was like as it developed over time. Bat Masterson is an interesting character, and he’s an example of how we embellished some of the people of that era.”
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a retired journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and vice president of the Louisiana Pro Chapter.