Leo Patterson - A.E.F. Boxing Lightweight Champion
On a Thursday evening in early July 1920 spectators crowded into Sacramento’s L Street Arena. The popular sports venue mostly catered to amateur boxers hoping to make it big, and the night’s headliner, Leo Patterson, was no different. What was different that night was his billed opponent: “Kid Mystery”, whose identity wouldn’t be revealed until the end. The fighters were unevenly matched. Kid Mystery had a “left of lightening rapidity” and “jabbed [his opponent’s] face at will, alternating a right to the body which shook the welterweight each time it landed.” In the middle of the third round matchmaker Don Shields took the unusual step of stopping the bout and passing around a box with an engraved medal inside. Its simple inscription revealed Kid Mystery’s true identity: “Leo Patterson, First Place in the Lightweight Division, American Expeditionary Forces [A.E.F.], 1919.” The orchestrated stunt had been hastily arranged by the real Leo Patterson (Kid Mystery) after he learned an impostor was boxing under his name. The pride of the A.E.F was now in California, and he was looking for matches. But first he had an impostor to dispatch.
This highly theatrical event was Sacramento’s introduction to a wartime boxing hero, Leo Patterson, otherwise known as the “Joplin Shadow”. Despite his widely used moniker, however, Patterson was not a native son of Missouri. Rather, he came into the world to a widowed mother, Mattie, in the East Texas town of Marshall in 1895. By 1910 a teenaged Patterson had drifted to Dallas and found work as a porter in a pool hall. How he ended up in Joplin is unclear. One account has it that a “frail little” Patterson turned up at a club run by the great boxing manager and promoter Jimmy Bronson and pleaded with him to take him on board. Whether true or not, his career appears to have been kick started in Joplin and quickly spread to St. Louis.
When war came to America in 1917 Patterson was employed by the Future City Athletic Club and was boxing in venues throughout Ohio. His attempt to secure a draft exemption for having “weak eyes” and being hard of hearing came to nothing. By September 1918 he was at Camp Dodge, near Des Moines, Iowa, and seeking a boxing instructorship similar to the one awarded fellow boxer Leo Kelly at Camp Greenleaf. That came to nothing, too. Within a month Private Leo Patterson, now of Company H of the African American 809th Pioneer Infantry unit, was on his way to France. For the men aboard the U.S.S. President Grant it would prove a harrowing experience. Influenza ravaged half of the 5,000 on board during its 14-day voyage, resulting in numerous burials at sea. Once they reached France, seventy-five unlucky men in the 809th were selected to unload the remaining bodies.
The arrival of the beleaguered President Grant was described by two African American women in France volunteering with the Y.M.C.A., Kathryn Johnson and Addie Hunton: “We were never quite so glad to see any soldiers as we were the 809th Pioneer Infantry… We met them first as they rested on the beautiful ocean boulevard of St. Nazaire. Life flowed into us once again as we flitted among them welcoming them to our camp and hot chocolate. Even then, many of them looked very worn and ill, but we hardly dreamed of the tragedy of that October transport…influenza is raging—hundreds of men have died on the voyage—the hospitals are crowded, so are the barracks. Sick men could hardly be left in “pup” tents in the deep mud and constant rain of that season…”
Patterson survived and lived to see the war end a month later. With the fighting over, the American Expeditionary Force had a new problem on its hands: how to keep its increasingly bored and restless army out of mischief. Sporting competitions were an obvious answer, and boxing proved to be one of the more popular diversions. Single elimination bouts consisting of two-minute rounds were organized starting at company level and progressing all the way to A.E.F. championship games. These military-organized games were supplemented, if not surpassed, by those of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), which sponsored 400,000 boxing matches in the first six months of 1919. Between August 1918 and April 1919 an astonishing six and a quarter million spectators had viewed U.S. military boxers fight in the ring. A (now) Corporal Patterson was one of their rising stars.
This rise to boxing prominence would at times be marred by the racial politics of early twentieth century America’s color line. Most notably, Patterson’s scheduled match with Gene Delmont was won by default after the latter refused to fight. The Memphis resident pleaded illness and produced doctors’ certificates, but military officials publicly shamed him by accusing him of having “cold feet”. No doubt suspecting his real reasons, they took the official step of banning him from competing in future A.E.F. tournament matches. This indignity bothered many Americans, especially Delmont’s fellow white Southerners. Coyle Shea, the former sports editor of Memphis’ The News Scimitar (and himself an enlisted man in the A.E.F.), chose to publicly set the record straight. He wrote to his old newspaper: “Delmont is not afraid of anybody living. The reason he was barred was because he refused to fight a negro named Leo Patterson, and because he refused to fight he was accused of being scared and was barred. Delmont, being a Southern boy, couldn’t see his way clear to box a smoke…” What many in the boxing world already knew was that Gene Delmont’s “Southern boy” credentials were dubiously acquired. His birth name was actually Ernest Barrasso and his parents were Italian immigrants.
The unpleasantness with Delmont was not enough to eclipse what arguably became Patterson’s career highlight. The A.E. F. tournament finals opened on April 26, 1919 to a mixed audience of between eight and ten thousand people packed into the Cirque de Paris, the city’s largest indoor arena. The Paris Peace Conference had drawn government dignitaries from all over the world, including royalty, with no less a person than the Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium attending the match. American military royalty in the form of General Pershing sat ringside, flanked by most of the general staff and high officers of the allied military forces. A rowdy contingent of American doughboys made up the rest. Patterson’s match with Bushy Graham especially thrilled the assembled spectators. Described as a “thriller, slam-bang all over the ring” event, the evenly matched men kept the audience on edge for ten two-minute rounds. The judges finally called it: Patterson was the winner. Gene Tunney, who was boxing in the same tournament, described what happened next:
“[The men] were in an uproar. The place was a pandemonium, an ear-splitting din of protest, boos, cat-calls, wrathful shouts and yells, almost mutiny and insurrection…[all] hell broke loose. The soldiers thought the Brooklyn Irishman had won, but the decision and lightweight championship of the A.E.F. went to the Missouri Negro. The doughboys shrieked and howled, thousands of throats bellowing in a deafening unison. They wouldn’t stop. They kept on and on.”
Not even the pleas of the chief athletics officer, Colonel Wait C. Johnson, and the presence of Pershing and other important dignitaries could quiet the unhappy crowd. The protest continued for somewhere between five minutes and half an hour, according to differing media accounts. Graham left with “his face splattered with blood, a lacerated eye, cut lip, and bleeding nose.” Patterson was luckier. He got away with just a split lip, delivered in the opening round.
After the championship the victors embarked on a Y.M.C.A. funded boxing tour of occupied Germany. Patterson joined eight French fighters, the heavyweight champion Bob Martin, and other exhibition winners on a multi-city tour throughout Germany, France, and Italy. It was in Neuenahr that Patterson wound up in the American papers again (and in newsreels of the day), this time for something other than a controversial boxing outcome. He was officially the first American to bathe in the ex-Kaiser’s palace bath tub. His probably apocryphal verdict? “It’s a pretty good tub.” Years later, this lighthearted and patriotic news story would be referenced in a Cincinnati Enquirer article in a very different way. The 1930 piece “quoted” Patterson telling a fellow African American boxer that he wasn’t afraid of the Kaiser cutting his head off with a sword: “Dar wuz no need to fear about dat. I took ma bath Thursday. De Kiser never used de tub only on Saturday night.” Efforts such as these in the interwar years to present African American contributions to the military in a cartoonish light started soon after the war ended. They wouldn’t properly be put to rest until World War II, and African Americans once again answered their country’s call to serve.
Due to a broken bone in his hand, Patterson had to give up his spot in the inter-allied tournament that took place in June 1919. Upon his release from the military two months later Patterson drifted to the American west coast in search of matches, but the “color line” made it difficult to find sparring partners. Despite making it known in newspapers that he was willing to fight anyone, much of white America remained unwilling to fight him. Sacramento, and especially the L Street Arena, offered a fresh start and he had a productive run. He found a training partner in George Lee, a popular Chinese-American boxer competing nationally, and made a name for himself on the local boxing scene. Then, in May 1921, a major opportunity beckoned.
Men from all over the world had begun flocking to Australia’s lucrative boxing scene where “big house” stadium fights had become a popular feature. In what must have seemed like a stroke of luck “Pat”, as his friends called him, and the bantamweight/featherweight Lawrence Hawkins were approached by the Australian company Stadiums Limited. They agreed to do a series of high profile bouts on the Australian boxing circuit. Both no doubt realized a lot was riding on their performance. From the beginning, Patterson in particular struggled. In his first big match in front of 5-10,000 spectators at Sydney Stadium, he went down for seven seconds in the first round. Within twenty seconds of the second round he was knocked down again but groggily stood up, clutching the ropes. The referee called the match, declaring his opponent, Sid Godfrey, the winner. He fared better in his next match, knocking out Ray Weekes at the Hippodrome after nine rounds, but by then the damage was done. Australia’s press smelled blood. In his third and final match he was knocked out in the second round, or after 3½ minutes, as one headline stressed. It was a particularly brutal fight. His opponent, Havilah Uren, had to be reprimanded for grabbing Patterson around the neck two or three times and drawing him close, a clear breach of boxing rules.
Less than a week later, Patterson and Hawkins were back on the S.S. Ventura sailing for San Francisco. Little notice had been given to authorities or their employers, and Hawkins had abruptly pulled out of a scheduled match to accompany his friend. It had taken less than three months for Leo Patterson’s grand Australian adventure to come to an end. The hasty departure no doubt added fuel to the fire raging in the Australian press. Various newspapers had described Patterson’s performance as a “pathetic spectacle” and a “joke”, and Patterson himself as “anything but a star representative of the colored people.” The Sydney Sportsman went further by mocking the “de cullud lite-wate champeen ob de wurrid” and wondering how he had managed to beat Ray Weekes when he had shown in two of his matches that “he couldn’t beat an egg.” The Mirror was perhaps the cruelest of all. Their coverage was simple and brief: “Gone from town, two coons—Mistah Leo Patterson and Mistah Larry Hawkins.”
The two boxers might have taken comfort from knowing that not everyone in the press was glad to see the Americans leave. The Referee noted that a “broken hearted” Patterson with “tears cours[ing] down his cheeks” had stopped by their offices to say goodbye. They painted a sympathetic portrait of a “mild mannered” man grappling with shame at having let his country, and perhaps himself, down. The paper also shared the secret that had blighted Patterson’s time in the ring: namely, the persistent vomiting and diarrhea, caused by flu gastritis, that he had been experiencing since he arrived.
Patterson continued to box throughout the 1920s, but by 1930 his professional career was winding to a close. Not much is known about his post-boxing life. He settled down in St. Louis and seems to have led a quiet life, taking up work with the Shapleigh Hardware Company. He apparently never married. When he died in Arkansas in 1950 his body was brought back to Marshall to be buried. A simple military headstone marks the final resting place for Corporal Leo Patterson of the 809th Pioneer Infantry. No such marker exists for the “Joplin Shadow”—or for the lightweight champion of the American Expeditionary Forces.
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