When It Came To Pulling On The Gloves, His Name Was Golden In The '20s, Fight Promoter "Baron" Dougherty Put Old Leiperville On Maps.

Posted: August 20, 1995

It was the Golden Age of sports in America, the decade of the Roaring Twenties, and one Delaware County man, by the sheer force of his personality, managed to draw some of the color and characters of that flamboyant era to a tiny Ridley Township community once known as Leiperville.

He was James F. "Baron" Dougherty, fight promoter, politician and proprietor of the Colonial Hotel and boxing emporium in Leiperville from 1907 until his death in 1949, two months short of his 80th birthday.

The "Baron of Leiperville," as he was dubbed by legendary journalist Damon Runyon, put that whistle stop of 600 residents on the map, only to have it disappear when the U.S. Postal Service opened its nearby Crum Lynne branch.

Forever chasing the dream of finding a heavyweight champion, the affable red-headed Dougherty built a gymnasium behind his hotel on Chester Pike, then a boxing ring with a tent cover, and finally in the late 1920s an open arena seating about 5,000 spectators.

It was there that some of the greatest fighters of the day trained and fought, men such as Jack Dempsey, George Godfrey, Jack Johnson, Maxie Rosenbloom, Billy Conn, Benny Bass, Tony Galento, Mickey Walker, Fritzie Zivic, Johnny Kilbane and Joey Maxim.

There were also local favorites such as Popper Stopper, Young Ketchell, Bobby Barrett, Billy Angelo and Billy Richie. Richie saved his money and purchased the hotel from the Dougherty family in 1954, operating it for 20 years. It was sold again in 1974 and burned to the ground the same year.

Runyon was among a score of writers who periodically converged on the Leiperville boxing mecca to cull material for their sports columns. Invariably, Dougherty would oblige with interviews and opinions that made print and added to his colorful image.

All of which contributed to the success of his hotel.

Runyon always checked into Room 7 on the third floor, sometimes bringing along his rifle and hunting dogs for a try at reed birds in the nearby marshes.

It is generally believed that he wrote "Little Miss Marker" in that room, the tearjerker story about a dimpled, curly-haired girl and a sad-eyed bookie who accepted her as payment on a $20 bet. It became a 1934 movie starring Shirley Temple and Adolph Menjou.

Workers from nearby factories also flocked to the Colonial bar after their shifts to catch a cold one and perhaps a glimpse of some of the sports luminaries frequenting the hotel.

When Dempsey was still a heavyweight hopeful out of Manassa, Colo., he waited on tables at the hotel and slept in the kitchen. Dempsey's manager, Doc Kearns, and the Baron were lifelong friends.

The hotel was a three-story stone edifice built on the foundation of an old textile mill dating back to colonial times - thus the name. It was situated along Chester Pike just east of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone Borough.

It had 14 rooms, three baths, a separate dining hall, a barroom and, facing the pike, an open porch where one might spot the likes of former Gov. William C. Sproul of Chester; horseman Samuel Riddle, who owned Man O' War; Olympic sculler John B. Kelly Sr.; or baseball immortal Connie Mack sitting and relaxing.

The barroom featured a 75-foot-long bar, said then to be the longest on the East Coast, as well as a marble floor, a stone fireplace and walls paneled with imported Philippine mahogany. Twelve bartenders worked around the clock, according to Ridley sports historian Rich Pagano, and 100 barrels of beer were delivered each day by John J. McClure's old Chester Brewery.

Factories paid their workers in $20 gold pieces and silver dollars in those days, Pagano said, and baskets were used to carry the heavy load of coin to the bank. A boxing buff and collector of sports memorabilia, Pagano interviewed Dougherty's son, Howard, shortly before the latter's death in 1992 at age 88.

Howard was one of eight children born to the Baron and his wife, Mary. Three daughters survive. Elizabeth Dwyer, 87, and Margaret Stull, 75, reside in Ridley Park, and Mary Damico, 85, lives in Ocean City, N.J.

Pagano said Howard Dougherty shared his father's interest in boxing and traveled extensively with him, sometimes even promoting his own matches. He was able to recount for Pagano some of the Baron's more colorful escapades.

One had to do with the 1923 heavyweight championship fight between Dempsey and challenger Tom Gibbons in Shelby, Mont. Dempsey had taken the title from Jess Willard four years earlier, and a group of Shelby businessmen advanced him $300,000, built a 20,000-seat arena, and paid Dougherty $5,000 to serve as referee. They had hoped to put Shelby on the map and make a fortune.

Dempsey won the one-sided fight, but only 7,202 spectators showed up, leaving the take at the gate well short of even the champ's purse. The promoters and four banks went broke, and the angry townspeople faced heavy losses. Howard related that he, his father, Kearns, Dempsey and Runyon, who had accompanied them on the trip, had to run across a field to their waiting Pullman car after the fight "to avoid a confrontation."

On another occasion, Dougherty shot a man in the leg after he fled with a ballot box that the Baron felt contained the votes needed to win him a local election. He later apologized, and the two remained friends.

Dougherty, a Republican, served in a number of offices in Ridley, including justice of the peace, township supervisor and tax collector. After a feud with GOP boss McClure, he changed parties and served two terms as a Democratic county commissioner, retiring from politics in 1947 after returning to the GOP fold.

Many senior citizens from the Crum Lynne area still remember the Baron for the many picnics and boat rides he sponsored when they were children during the lean Depression years, for the helping hand he extended to needy families, and the down-and-out ex-fighters he housed in his hotel.

"He could have been a millionaire with all of the money that passed through his hands," the late Vince Mallon of Woodlyn, a close friend, once observed. "That was his trouble - he was always buying food for this family or sending a ton of coal to that family."

In the end, the Baron did have troubles, the money kind, and he was forced to sell the family mansion at 204 Chester Pike in Ridley Park and move into the hotel.

Thus the man who often declared, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," who mingled with the mighty and dined in the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt, was dead broke, "as flat as a dime on the barroom floor, back where the hell I was when I came into this world," he confessed to friends.

The Baron was born in a poor section of Chester at 17th and Chestnut Streets on Dec. 22, 1869, one of 11 children of Owen and Ann Dougherty. He attended the Oak Grove School on 24th Street and never went past the sixth grade.

Shortly after moving into the hotel he suffered two strokes, then pneumonia, and died on Oct. 5, 1949. Honorary pallbearers at his funeral included Jack Dempsey, Samuel D. Riddle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Connie Mack.

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