Fifty years after boxer Davey Moore's death following a fight ignited a worldwide debate and inspired protest songs, he is being honored with a statue in Springfield. His widow, Geraldine, and their five children will be there, proud as ever of the 'Little Giant.'
His widow, Geraldine, and their five children will be there, proud as ever of the 'Little Giant.'
Her black wavy hair is now flecked with gray. Her shoulders are somewhat stooped. She doesn't drive as often as she used to.
But make no mistake: Some 50 years after the sudden death of her husband stunned the nation and left her a young widow with five young children, Geraldine Moore is a vivacious 77-year-old who refuses to be defined by tragedy.
"It was challenging after my husband died," Geraldine says. "It was very unfortunate and very sad. But what are you going to do? Being sad about it wasn't going to bring him back."
Her late husband, Davey Moore, was the featherweight champion of the world-and the pride of his hometown of Springfield, Ohio-when he climbed into the ring at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to face challenger Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos in March 1963.
In the 10th round, Moore was knocked down. The back of his neck snapped against the ropes as he fell to the canvas. He spoke to reporters briefly before collapsing in the locker room, about a half-hour after the fight ended. He never regained consciousness.
It was an accident. It was a tragedy. And, after photographs taken just moments before Moore lapsed into a coma were published in Life magazine, it became a political football.
Pope John XXIII called for the abolition of boxing, as did many national sportswriters. Bob Dylan penned a protest tune that excoriated everyone-including the fans and the media-for Moore's death. At the song's heart was a wrenching, unanswerable question:
Who killed Davey Moore,
Why and what's the reason for?
A half-century later, the city of Springfield is poised to honor Moore's accomplishments in the ring with a bronze statue created by Urbana sculptor Mike Major. "The Little Giant" will soon stand, some 8 feet tall, on a peaceful grassy spot along South Limestone Street, near where the old high school once stood.
Its presence will bring a kind of peace to Geraldine and her family. "When they put the statue up, when they stand it up," she says, "you can't help but see David from everywhere."
David Moore and Geraldine Welch were childhood sweethearts. Both were born in Kentucky-David in Lexington, Geraldine in Harlan County-and both moved to Springfield when they were young. Davey was the youngest of nine; his father was a Pentecostal minister. Geraldine was an only child; her father worked at Ohio Steel (later known as Ohio Teledyne).
They met cute. Davey played football with a gaggle of boys in a neighbor's yard. They used to walk by Geraldine's home on Grand Avenue and beg for cold water. She complied, especially when Davey was doing the asking. Soon, they were going steady.
"He took a liking to me, and I took a liking to him," she says. "I thought he was a cute little fellow. He sort of caught my eye."
Davey was a pint-sized stub of a man. At 5 feet 2 inches and 125 pounds, he was too small to play football beyond the streets. But against amateur opponents in boxing rings from Springfield to Dayton, he found his fists held explosive power. (One of his sparring partners in Springfield was Johnny Lytle, who later became a world-renowned vibes player.)
In 1952, the same year he and Geraldine were married, Davey won the national amateur bantamweight title and fought his way onto the U.S. Olympic team that won five gold medals in Helsinki. He was part of an impressive squad that included future heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson.
Moore did not make the medal round and returned home with few job prospects. With Geraldine expecting their first child, he took temporary construction work before deciding to turn pro in 1953.
He began notching victories on the Midwest fistic circuit, in arenas and halls in Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Akron and Portsmouth. He was dubbed "The Springfield Rifle" because he "hits like a .30-06 bullet," one sportswriter quipped.
Frustrated by the lack of national acclaim and the small purses he was receiving, Moore signed with an experienced manager, Willie Ketchum, a well-connected insider capable of steering Moore through the shady thicket that controlled which boxers got to fight for a title. The move paid dividends as Davey climbed the rankings and built a reputation as a "Mexican killer," defeating opponents named Valdez, Salas, Delgado, Moreno, Camacho, Garcia and Corona, all the while dodging bottles, firecrackers, rocks and flaming newspapers from boxing fans who rooted passionately for their hometown heroes. Moore was the ultimate outsider: A Midwesterner who plied his trade on the West Coast, a black boxer who fought in the lighter weight divisions that were increasingly dominated by Latino fighters.
"I don't have no rooters," he told one reporter. "I'd like to have someone out there say, 'Come on, Davey!' I'd like to hear a word or two of encouragement from the crowd. But they don't come out to cheer for poor old Davey."
With an excellent record and the weight of Ketchum's reputation behind him, Moore got his title shot in March 1959 against Hogan "Kid" Bassey in Los Angeles. Moore's tonsils were infected, and he had a fever. He twice fell to the canvas after swinging and missing with punches. But in the sixth round, he unleashed a barrage that staggered Bassey. He pounded away until the fight was halted.
At 26, Davey Moore was champion of the world. He returned to Springfield, to Geraldine and the kids, with a gaudy championship belt.
He climbed into the ring 23 times over the next four years, establishing himself as one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters. "You gotta make that bread while you can," Moore told the Los Angeles Times. "Man, boxing is a business. I'm in it to make money."
In 1961, he used his earnings to buy a two-story trophy home in Columbus, on Franklin Park South. He and Geraldine needed the space for themselves and their five children-Denise, Ricardo, David, Lynise and Davia.
The couple made plans for the future. Approaching 30, Davey would fight a couple more years, just long enough to have the money to invest in other businesses. Then he would retire, spend more time at home and gorge on Geraldine's cooking. His favorite meal: Polish sausage sandwiches and Pepsi-Cola.
"My husband loved boxing," Geraldine says. "That was his livelihood. He didn't like being away from the family, but he made a nice living for us. We had pretty much all that we wanted."
First things first: Davey was scheduled to meet Sugar Ramos, a young challenger from Cuba who had lost only one fight, in the first boxing card held at the newly opened Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Moore's purse was a reported $40,000-more than $300,000 today.
Geraldine rarely accompanied her husband to his professional fights. But she left the kids in her mother-in-law's care and flew to L.A. this time. "David wanted me to come out," she says. "He knew that I didn't want to see him fight, but he wanted me there for the festivities after the fight."
She wasn't feeling particularly worried. "I knew about the injuries [in boxing]," she says, noting Davey had suffered a detached retina and a broken jaw. "But he had people who worked on him and took good care of him, so nothing really lasted very long."
Moore, with a record of 59-6, was established as the 2-1 favorite over Ramos. He sounded confident before the fight. "I'm gonna win," he told one reporter. "But I'm not Cassius Clay. I won't pick the round. I'll take any round."
On March 21, 1963, a crowd of 26,142 fans descended upon Dodger Stadium. Walking to the ring, Moore wore a maroon-and-gold robe emblazoned with a golden "K," representing Keifer Junior High School in Springfield.
He started briskly, stunning Ramos with double right hands. The Cuban countered, his left jabs stinging Moore and keeping him off-balance.
Ramos' jab began to dictate the pace. He cracked Moore's mouthpiece in the fifth round and sent it flying. Moore was swallowing blood, but the champ rallied, his brisk attacks finding openings. Ramos' left eye closed.
The end came in the 10th round, as Ramos pelted Moore with a series of unanswered blows that sent the champ reeling. As he fell, the back of his neck struck the lowest of the three steel cables stretched around the ring.
He got to his feet. Ramos kept attacking. At the bell, Moore's head and upper torso were bent awkwardly through the ropes.
Moore managed to walk to his corner, but his trainer signaled that the fight was over. Sugar Ramos was the new featherweight champion.
A white towel covered Moore's head as he gave a brief TV interview. "It just wasn't my night," he jabbered. "I can fight much better. I think I can knock him out. I just couldn't get myself together."
Moore returned to the dressing-room and sat on the rubdown table. His mouth was cut, but his face was unmarked. His eyes were slightly unfocused.
Suddenly, he slumped over. "My head, Willie!" Moore cried to manager Ketchum. "My head. It hurts something awful."
He was rushed to a local hospital. Geraldine was at the home of a friend, waiting for a phone call from her husband. That call never came. Instead, friends took her to the hospital.
"I was standing there, but he didn't know I was there," she says. "They had him packed in ice. To see your husband lying there like that, that's a sight I won't ever forget."
A tearful Ramos came to apologize. "Lo siento," he said repeatedly, tears squeezing through puffy, blackened eyes. "I'm sorry."
Geraldine immediately absolved him. "You are the lucky one," she told him. "It was God's act."
She stayed by Davey's side and prayed. But even as Moore lay comatose, government officials and journalists were calling for the abolition of "this barbaric spectacle." From Vatican City, a scathing editorial in the Osservatore Romano newspaper decried the disregard for human life: "Here is another crime committed in the name of the boxing idol; another moral taint on our civilized usages which do not agree to dutiful prohibitions and prefer to serve the childish myths of certain largely instinctive and often unconsciously savage crowds."
In New York City, Bob Dylan was busy recording The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. He quickly wrote "Who Killed Davey Moore?", repeating the question over and over. The "answers" are a series of disavowals disguised as verses, beginning with the referee:
"Not I," says the referee,
"Don't point your finger at me.
I could've stopped it in the eighth
An' maybe kept him from his fate,
But the crowd would've booed, I'm sure,
At not gettin' their money's worth."
Another folk singer, Phil Ochs, also weighed in. His song, "Davey Moore," offered a solemn chorus:
Hang his gloves upon the wall,
shine his trophies bright clear,
another man will fall before we dry our tears.
For the fighters must destroy as the poets must sing,
as the hungry crowd must gather for the blood upon the ring.
Neither song got heavy airplay. Soon enough, the outrage over Moore's death dissipated. Reforms to the sport were minimal: Boxing officials added a fourth rope around the ring and better padded those ropes, with the aim of avoiding injury.
After a memorial service in Los Angeles, Geraldine Moore flew back to Ohio with her husband's body. More than 10,000 people paid their respects at the funeral home in Springfield, including the entire student body of Keifer Junior High School.
She was suddenly a widow at 27, and she soon discovered another harsh reality. Without her husband's earning power, her finances were limited. She sold the big house in Columbus and moved first to an apartment, then to a smaller house. Gov. Jim Rhodes, a Springfield native, promised help and, with Geraldine's previous work experience at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, landed her a job as a notary clerk for the state.
Her children were her biggest concern. She worried how the five kids-ages ranging from 10 to just over 2-would react to the new reality of growing up without their father. She told one reporter, "It will take a long time before we get used to the idea that there will never be another call from Daddy."
She was able to lean on her parents and Davey's family for assistance. "They were solid rocks," she says. "We had a wonderful support group."
Geraldine remarried in the early 1970s, but the marriage was short-lived. She kept her job with the state for more than three decades before retiring in 1995. She then moved back to Springfield to care for her aging father.
Still, she thinks about Davey every day. "I don't have sad feelings because it's been such a long time," she says. "Life goes on. It just moves on."
Today, she lives with her eldest daughter, Denise, in Springfield. Her two sons live nearby; her two other daughters, now married, live in Columbus. Family and church remain at the vital center of her life. She dotes on her five children, nine grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild-not to mention numerous cousins, nephews and nieces.
"The Moore family survived and is doing OK," she says. "We don't get along all the time. We have our moments, but we come together, and everybody falls right in line."
This year, on the 50th anniversary of her husband's death, she has dared to look back. She recently viewed a tape of the fateful fight. It was the first time she had ever seen it. "When it got to the last round, I kind of closed my eyes," she says. "What can I say? It was sad. But he was quite a fighter. He had a lot of class."
She also has reconsidered the meaning of Bob Dylan's song about her husband. "I don't really like the title-'Who Killed Davey Moore?'-because nobody killed Davey Moore. I don't mean to make Bob Dylan sound like a bad guy. I just don't like the idea of it."
The upcoming unveiling of the statue, she says, offers a fresh, if belated, opportunity to celebrate the life of one of Springfield's finest athletes. The monument has been in the works for years, only to be delayed by the economic downturn. "We're very proud," Geraldine says. "David was a person that met no strangers. Everybody was crazy about him. It's been a long time coming, and it's finally here. We're anxious to see it."
She is aware that Sugar Ramos, now 71, has announced that he will come to Springfield from his home in Mexico City to attend the opening ceremony. If Ramos shows, it will mark the first time in 50 years that Geraldine has encountered the man whose fists led to her husband's death.
"If he comes, that's fine with me," she says. "I'm not mad at anybody. There's no anger in me, no animosity. What happened was God's will."
David Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine, and his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.