Billy Miske Jr. has these memories of Christmas 1923: the sight of a new baby grand piano downstairs in the living room of his parents' home on St. Paul's Fair-mount Avenue, and the sound of his father laughing upstairs when the weight of Billy Jr.'s grandmother proved too much for her dressing-table chair.
Billy Jr., who was 5½ years old, didn't know then that the Christmas tree, piano, train and other presents were paid for from the purse of his father's last fight.
Late on that Dec. 25 afternoon, heavyweight boxer Billy Miske called his manager, Jack Reddy, and said, "Come and get me, Jack. I'm dying." Reddy rushed over and drove Miske to St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis. On New Year's Day, Miske died from the kidney ailment then known as Bright's disease, but it wasn't until Billy Jr. was seven years old that his mother, Marie, told him the story of his father's courageous self-sacrifice.
"My mother was so proud of what he'd done," Billy Jr., now 68, says of that Christmas, "she wanted us to know about it as soon as we were old enough."
The story Marie Miske told began in 1918, when doctors told the then 24-year-old Miske he had five years to live because of his rapidly deteriorating kidneys. The doctors advised Miske to quit fighting, but they didn't know he'd accumulated debts of $100,000 while operating an auto distributorship in St. Paul. "He was too generous in his business," says Billy Jr., a retired insurance agent in St. Paul. "He trusted his friends too much. But he paid back every cent of that money before he died."
After the doctors had given him his death notice, Miske fought some 30 times. Among the bouts was a 1920 heavyweight title fight in which Jack Dempsey knocked Miske out in three rounds. By early 1923 Miske realized he was too weak to fight and that it would be his last Christmas. He was also concerned that because of his financial losses, the holiday would be a barren one for his family. Although Miske hadn't fought since January of that year, he told Reddy, "Get me a fight, Jack." Reddy gave in when Miske told him the touching circumstances. When George Barton, a Minneapolis sportswriter and boxing ref, heard that Miske was going to fight again, he was furious—until he, too, was let in on the secret.
When the fight with Bill Brennan, who later would go six rounds with Dempsey, was signed, Miske went into hiding so that no one would see his weakened condition. "I remember he had been eating almost nothing but boiled fish all that year," says Billy Jr. But Miske was determined to win, and on Nov. 7 he "knocked out" Brennan in the fourth round in Omaha.
Fans at the fight had suspected that a fix might be on, especially in the fourth round when Brennan hit the canvas without much encouragement from Miske. The cries of "make them fight—throw them out—this is murder" went up as Brennan went down. Both boxers were suspended after the bout, and Brennan left Omaha two days later without his $2,100 share of the purse. A few weeks later, Brennan was killed by a mysterious gunman in New York City, so his explanation of whether he took a dive died with him.
But Miske was awarded his purse, and his family had little, if any, reason to think there was anything amiss in the fight. "I think he got about $15,000 from the fight," says Billy Jr. The money was enough to provide a last wonderful Christmas for the Miske family.
One of Miske's most memorable fights was his third with Dempsey, that 1920 title bout in Benton Harbor^ Mich. While looking across the ring at Miske before the fight, Dempsey realized he was fighting a sick man. Dempsey decided to finish things as quickly and painlessly as possible. "During a mix-up in the third round," Dempsey told Barton years later, "I drove a terrific right to Miske's heart that dropped him for a count of nine. In the short span of nine seconds, a purple spot the size of a baseball appeared on the skin over Billy's heart. But Billy still got up. When he did, I put every ounce of weight into a right to the jaw that put him down for the full count. His seconds were several minutes reviving him. I was scared stiff I'd killed him." But Dempsey's devastating punch couldn't kill Miske. He collected $25,000 from that championship bout.
His father's experiences didn't sour Billy Jr. on boxing. He became a heavyweight fighter, although his decision to do so was determined more by circumstances than preferences. "My house had burned down, it was the Depression and I had no job," Billy Jr. recalls. "I fought 66 times between 1936 and 1943 and was good enough to get a fight with Lee Savold right after he'd knocked out Lou Nova and was contending for the title. [Savold knocked out Miske in the third round.] I was fairly good, not great like my dad who fought more than 400 times and met the best. Dad's knocking out of a giant like Fred Fulton with one punch in 1922, when Dad weighed only 185, was just fabulous."
Perhaps another parental quality rubbed off on his son. "Dad wanted Mother to be a singer," Billy Jr. says, "and become an opera star." Maybe Billy Sr.'s unfulfilled wish for Marie or the Christmas gift of the baby grand piano is the reason Billy Jr. directs a band and plays the trumpet and organ at his winter residence in McAllen, Texas. "I like to keep busy," he says. So did his father—almost to his dying day.