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Speculator to honor a gentleman boxing champ

Tuesday, August 26, 2014
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Gene Tunney is pictured training in Speculator.
Gene Tunney is pictured training in Speculator.

— A hundred or so miles southwest of Lake Placid, home to a host of historical sports moments, sits another village that can claim a slice of athletic lore.

The village of Speculator in Hamilton County was once the retreat for many boxing greats in training in the 1920s and ’30s, most notably 1920s champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame member Gene Tunney.

Befriended by local man Bill Osborne while both were in the Marines during World War I, Tunney came north to train for his two epic heavyweight bouts with Jack Dempsey and one with Tom Heeney between 1926-28. (Tunney’s other fights came as a light heavyweight; he would retire after the Heeney bout.) Other boxers followed his path to train in Speculator, including Max Schmeling, Max Baer, Maxie Rosenbloom, Jim Slattery and Knute Hanson.

“He was undistracted in Speculator,” said son Jay Tunney of Chicago. “That was the best part. He could think of things and clear his mind and have things the way he wanted.”

Tunney said his father considered Saratoga Springs for training, but opted to take up Osborne’s offer to come to Speculator for more solitude. “He had all the quietness to do his contemplation that dad liked to do. There was no rowdiness.”

On Thursday, the village will be dedicating Gene Tunney Park, an addition to Speculator Village Park. The addition, which involved the purchase of the property on which Tunney trained, came about entirely through donations north of $200,000. The dedication will take place at 1 p.m. at the park located on routes 30 and 8 on the left as you enter the village.

“We have a group of people who are very interested and excited about the vision we had, and donated the money,” Mayor Letty Rude said. “There were a number of heavyweights who came here to train. [Tunney] was the least likely candidate to be a boxer. He was such a gentleman, so cultured.”

Tunney was an anomaly that way. In the 2010 book, “The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw,” Jay Tunney chronicled the unlikely friendship. Jay Tunney, 78, donated funds for the new park in Speculator and will be at the dedication.

“The thing that made dad stand out, that gave him his luster, besides having just about the best record in history, is the contradiction that surrounded him, not just with boxing but afterward: The boxer reading literature,” the son said. He said sportwriters resented what they saw as a “high-hat” way, in the process turning Tunney’s rival (and later friend) Jack Demspey into a hero.

A tactician in the ring, Tunney went 77-1-1 with one no contest, his only loss coming as a light heavyweight. His two most famous fights came against Dempsey, in 1926 and 1927. The second fight is the infamous “Long Count” fight, during which the referee did not immediately begin a 10-count after Tunney was knocked down. Dempsey did not abide by a new rule requiring him to retreat to a neutral corner before the referee could start his count.

The spot where Tunney trained in Speculator had been vacant, prompting a local effort to purchase the property adjacent to the existing park.

“The lot was for sale for several years. The village and the group got together for several years, and we were able to raise $200,000,” said Josena Turner, who was involved in the effort. “It’s a historic site. We didn’t want anybody to put [up] a structure.”

Jay Tunney, who donated a granite stone that will have an artist’s etching of his father, appreciates Speculator’s fundraising drive.

“It’s a nice communal effort,” the son said. “It showed what Gene Tunney meant to that community.”

 
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