Writer Margery Miller Welles deserves to be the first woman in the Boxing Hall of Fame Author of the book ‘Joe Louis: American,’ she was a rare woman writing about sports and race
The International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) has a category of inductees called “Observers.” The group currently has 38 writers, artists and journalists, including the likes of Howard Cosell and W.C. Heinz. All 38 are men.
It is time for a woman to join their ranks, and I have someone in mind. Her name is Margery Miller Welles, one of the unsung pioneers of boxing journalism. I have called and written letters to the IBHOF without results.
With this essay, an update of one I wrote in 2003, I am upping the ante. Margery Miller Welles should be invited into this Hall of Fame, not just as the first woman but as someone whose life story and life’s work should be an inspiration for all those who would tell powerful stories about the “sweet science” of boxing. She was also willing to talk about the connection between sports and racial justice in America — and she did it two years before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line into the major leagues.
What first caught my eye at the antiquarian book fair in Florida was the book cover, an image of a brown boxing glove punching its way through a stack of newspaper headlines. Joe Louis: American was the title, and Margery Miller was the author. The back of the dust jacket told a story almost as interesting as the one inside the book. This biography of the “Brown Bomber” was published in 1945. The author, Margery Miller, was only 22 years old, a recent honors graduate of Wellesley College and a devotee of boxing, having seen her first championship prizefight at the age of 15. The accompanying photo shows a sweet-faced young woman with full eyebrows, her chin tilted toward the future.
I purchased this first edition for only $15 — a bargain, it turns out, since the same edition was being offered at five times that rate online. But my investment carried a much more valuable dividend: the discovery of a pioneering sportswriter, a woman grudgingly recognized as one of the most knowledgeable boxing journalists of the 20th century, her work drawing praise from fans as disparate as Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe Louis himself.
Here’s what I’ve learned about her, mostly from newspaper clippings stored in the Wellesley archive: Margery Whitney Miller became interested in boxing in 1935 as a 12-year-old girl living in small-town Vermont. While many other girls played jacks and jumped rope, Margery read about the fights of Joe Louis and listened to bouts on the radio. She studied the work of boxing historian Nat Fleischer, who took a keen interest in her work and to whom she would dedicate her book. In 1938, she attended her first heavyweight championship fight with her father, the return bout between Louis and Max Schmeling, the German icon.
While Miller’s prose, as a young writer, is straightforward and analytical, her description of the end of this legendary bout at Yankee Stadium is exuberant:
“Schmeling went down three times. When he got up the third time, his legs were sand and his hands hung useless at his sides. He looked like a grotesque drunk who could neither think nor act … ‘Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe!’ The crowd now came near to having only one voice. It howled and shrieked. It stood on its chairs and tore its hats to bits. It jumped up and down in its frenzy. ‘Oh, Joe. Oh, Joe.’ It drowned out the formal announcement of Louis’ victory. Seventy thousand people had gone insane.”
Whatever fascination the young Margery had with boxing until that moment, it transformed itself into passion with Louis’ demolition of Schmeling.
White racists in the America of the 1930s were hard-pressed to choose between Louis and Schmeling. White Americans did not like black champions. They had proven that with their endless search for a “white hope” when the arrogant Jack Johnson reigned as champ. For a pugilist of such prodigious power and speed, Louis was a modest and unassuming athlete, less threatening to the white sensibilities of the time, more accommodating, more Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Du Bois. While revisionists have come to downplay the political or racial animosity between Louis and Schmeling, the two fighters became part of American sports mythology, like Jesse Owens in his victories during Hitler’s Olympic Games of 1936.
Miller carried her passion for boxing onto the campus of Wellesley College in 1942 and eventually into the composition classroom of professor Edith C. Johnson. By then, she had developed a reputation as something slightly unnatural, a dancing bear, a young woman who earned the nickname “Cauliflower” from her college friends, not for her cooking but in honor of the deformed cartilage of a prizefighter’s ear. Miller, whom The New York Times described as “slim, pretty, brunette,” wore the nickname like an orchid corsage.
She chose the life of Louis as her senior thesis, and it was published by the time she graduated in 1945. She developed the work upon a strong hypothesis: that Louis was more than a great fighter and a huge public celebrity.
“My brother used to kid me about my theory,” Miller told the Daily Argus of Mount Vernon, New York, in a 1975 interview, “but I made up my mind come hell or high water I was someday going to write about Louis. My message was going to be that if one poorly educated Negro, with little opportunity, were able to handle being a celebrity gracefully, what might we expect if we recognized ability, race and color.”
While Miller does not ignore the champ’s flaws — and cannot foresee the latter, sadder stages of Louis’ personal life and professional career — her narrative reads like hagiography, with one daring difference. The saint is a black man, and the author is a young white woman, writing a full decade before the Montgomery bus boycott.
For its time, Miller’s writing on race and America seems remarkably progressive, as in this description of the crowd at the first fight between Louis and Schmeling:
“A large Negro delegation from Harlem arrived early to occupy the cheaper seats and await the appearance of their hero. They drank their pop and read their programs in high spirits. One of them, their boy, was going to fight and win before the forty-two thousand customers in [Yankee] stadium. They identified themselves with him. Each success he had scored in the past had given them a new measure of self-respect. Most of them didn’t mean to boast about Joe, any more than he himself would boast. But they could cheer for him, couldn’t they? They could worship him as the living proof that a Negro could succeed against white opposition, if given half a chance.”
There was more gritty and determined writing about sport and race in 1945, to be sure, by the likes of African-American author Richard Wright, but it takes a combination of archaeology and sociology to unearth it. Even if Miller could not approach the sizzling insight of a “native son,” she should occupy a place in journalism history accorded only to the true trailblazer. As her contacts in the fight game might have said back then, the kid had moxie.
Current Books published 10,000 copies of Joe Louis: American, a work that was translated into six languages and earned praise from the likes of Roosevelt, who testified that she had stayed up all night reading the book. Miller was probably the only author interviewed by The New York Times who was asked her weight. Her answer reveals a lot about her character, sense of humor and devotion to her craft: “I myself weigh 112 pounds — a flyweight.”
Miller covered boxing for the King Features Syndicate from 1945-47, then turned her talents to editing trade books for E.S. Barnes & Co. in New York. In 1953, she became one of the founding writers for Sports Illustrated. I own a copy of the first issue of SI, and the first piece on boxing in the history of the magazine, a short feature on Rocky Marciano, was written by Miller.
Along the way, Miller overcame many jeers from unenlightened colleagues about her reporting from the locker room — a foreshadowing of the terrible treatment female sports reporters would receive in later decades.
A classy and grateful Louis sent her this message, according to her sister Marilyn Willey: “You tell Miss Miller that if she will call me in advance, I’ll be sure to be wearing my terry cloth robe and she can come back anytime.”
Let’s focus in on this almost shocking bit of history. In the 1980s, as more women took up sports journalism as a profession, they struggled for equal access to athletes. That included reporting from the locker room. The stories of verbal abuse and invective against those female journalists, by athletes and other journalists, remain horrific. It appears that Miller was able to negotiate this controversial territory more than 30 years before it became a major social issue!
Impressed by her book, the editors of the Christian Science Monitor asked her to write a weekly sports column, which she did from 1946 to 1961, covering the sport of boxing from the careers of Louis to Muhammad Ali. Such was her expertise and her skill as a writer that she was asked to revise the section on boxing for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
She met her husband, Samuel Welles, in 1954. Welles, a Rhodes scholar, was the Chicago bureau chief for Time Life, which owned SI, and he had gotten a tip about the boxing underworld that he wanted to pass along. He was surprised and delighted when the sports magazine’s boxing expert turned out to be Miller. Their engagement and marriage a year later were covered on the society pages of The New York Times. They had three children.
My lingering impression of Miller is as “Cauliflower,” the Wellesley student who’d visit the training camps in Boston while most of her classmates were in the library or going to parties. “I’d call up Jack O’Brien, who used to promote fights at Mechanics Hall and the Boston Garden,” she told The New York Times shortly after her college graduation. “And he’d say, ‘You’d better come in. There’s a good mob here.’ ”
Miller died in 1985 in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the age of 61 after a long bout with cancer. She deserves enshrinement into the IBHOF.
I’ll give the final words to her granddaughter Donna Welles, who is based in Washington, D.C.: “Joe Louis was a great man. My grandma is remarkable because she saw this before others did and acted without fear. Sportswriters don’t make athletes great; they explain to people who don’t understand why they’re great.”
Donna Welles, who studied international affairs at Georgia Tech, has written about sports, including boxing, for the website Global Voices Online. Her grandmother would be very proud of her.