No individual played a bigger role than promoter extraordinaire “Natty” Nate Druxman in popularizing boxing in Seattle and the Northwest.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
In 1909, in a two-pronged attempt to clear the Puget Sound area of its cesspool of undesirables (Seattle Times), the state Legislature passed two laws (among a myriad of others): One that outlawed betting on horse races; the other made illegal the staging of prize fights for profit.
Neither proved popular with denizens who eked out livings from ponies and fisticuffs, nor did they sit well with the many thousands of amateur gamblers who were only too happy to back up with bucks their opinions on potential winners and losers.
But the Legislature felt compelled to act, not only on moral grounds but practical ones: Gambling losses forced many Washington families into bankruptcy, placing a burden on the state (see Wayback Machine: Joe Gottsteins Racing Revival) to provide public assistance.
The law that shut down parimutuel wagering sent thoroughbred racing into eclipse until the early 1930s, when the state re-legalized it in order to seize a slice of the betting handle.
The Great Depression drained state coffers and betting money became a convenient grab for lawmakers starved for cash.
Boxing never really went away; it simply went underground, no man making more of the circumstances than Natty Nathaniel Druxman, son of Moses Druximan and Sara Cohen, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.
Born March 25, 1892, in the family home above his father’s furniture store it may have been a second-hand or even a jewelry store — near Second Avenue South and Yesler Way, Nate Druximan attended Seattle Public Schools, first the old South School and then Pacific School.
Druximan made it as far as eighth grade, at which point he quit and went to work for Schwabacher Brothers, one of the landmark retailers in Seattle history.
The Schwabacher family, or at least part of it, had arrived in Seattle in 1869, when the city had about 1,000 residents, and opened what has been described as a general store.
In October, 1872, the family business achieved enough success that it built Seattles first brick building, on the west side of Commercial Street (First Avenue S.), just south of Mill Street (Yesler Way).
According to the Puget Sound Dispatch (a newspaper of the day), the Schwabachers sold an immense stock of goods, purveying everything imagine a merger of Nordstrom, Ace Hardware, Safeway and Army Surplus — from sewing needles to anchors, including dry goods, groceries, crockery, clothing, boots and shoes, liquors, shipping supplies, iron, steel, nails, glass just about every merchantable commodity the company could get its hands on, even tobacco.
As Klondike outfitters, Schwabachers also maintained a presence of the wharf, which placed the company in an advantageous position when the gold rush began.
Schwabacher’s wharf received much local newspaper publicity in July, 1897, when the steamship Portland, carrying Yukon gold, docked there, igniting the rush to Alaska.
Nate Druximan, who legally changed his surname to Druxman before going to work at Schwabachers (brother Harry, later a prominent Seattle jeweler, also changed the spelling of his last name), specialized in peddling cigars.
There is no way to tell exactly why Druximan became Druxman, but what we do know is an interesting tale, true or not.
On July 11, 1920, a Seattle second-hand dealer named Moses Druximan (Nates fathers name) was convicted of receiving stolen property mainly boots and shoes swiped from the Northern Pacific Railway Co. — and running an elaborate fencing operation out of his store.
Sentenced to three years, Moses Druximan spent less than two in stir, and his early release prompted the Post-Intelligencer to whip up a major editorial stink.
Shortly thereafter, Nate Druximan dropped the i from his last name, becoming Nate Druxman.
The question is whether the Moses Druximan that went to prison is or is not Nate Druxmans father. Seems like he probably was, but the available evidence neither confirms nor refutes.
The only evidence pointing to it are the Feb. 2, 1936 and Feb. 8, 1936 issues of The Seattle Times and Argus of Seattle, respectively, both of which reported that a Moses Druxman, 77 and father of Nate, died.
While Druxman sold stogies, he also played semi-pro baseball for an Elks Club team that briefly employed Charlie Otto Schmutz and Charlie Mullen, both of whom starred for the Seattle High School baseball team that made a famous tour of America in the summer of 1907 (see Wayback Machine: Seattles First Ambassadors).
Both also went on to play in the major leagues, Schmutz with the Brooklyn Robyns, Mullen with the White Sox and Yankees.
Baseball was my first love and, for a while, I thought I was going to be a big league player, said Druxman, who, in his youth, had shagged balls for Dan Dugdale at Dugdale Park (see Wayback Machine: Seattle Struck Gold In Dugdale) and peddled popcorn at the Old Liberty Ballpark at 14th and Jefferson.
When Druxman failed to meet with significant baseball success, he turned to boxing as a lightweight, which did not please his boss at Schwabacher Brothers, who apparently deemed the fight game a nefarious activity that would bring shame upon the company.
It didn’t last long, Druxman said of his boxing career. “Jim Goldsmith, president of Schwabachers, took a dim view of my boxing. I was 18 and needed the job, so I quit and devoted full time to being a cigar salesman.
In those days (post-1900), Lonnie Austin (born 1880 in Wisconsin) emerged as one of Seattles leading trainers and fight promoters. In 1907, the Seattle Athletic Club hired Austin as its boxing director (he had briefly fought as a professional), and he put on his first card at the Pike Street Theater in 1909.
Austins top boxers included Pete Muldoon, (see Wayback Machine: Hockey Icon Pete Muldoon); Steve Reynolds, a red-haired Seattle fireman who moonlighted as a heavyweight and won (20-19) as many times as he lost; Johnny OLeary, a lightweight who was shot dead on a Seattle street March 10, 1922, and, while he lasted, Druxman.
Austin eventually formed a partnership with rival manager-promoter Dan Salt, in which Austin trained fighters and Salt created matches.
When Austin and yet another rival promoter, Biddy Bishop, who quit his job as sports editor of the Tacoma Daily News to enter the fight game, got into a dispute they could not resolve, Druxman took advantage of their impasse, becoming Seattles leading promoter.
Druxman ran boxing shows all over town, notably at Dreamland Arena, also a roller skating rink and “dime-a-dance” establishment on University Street, where University of Washington rowing coach Ed Leader worked as a part-time bouncer, and at Ajax Hall, at 85th and Greenwood in the Crown Hill district north of downtown.
In 1914, Druxman began promoting (no word on what Goldsmith thought about it) boxing shows at the Seattle Elks Club on Fourth Avenue and Spring Street with two partners, sports writers Portus Baxter, the Post-Intelligencer sports editor (since 1889) who preceded the legendary Royal Brougham, and Eddie Hughes.
At the time, which coincided with the heyday of Gil Dobie and Hiram Conibear (see Wayback Machine: Hiram Conibear’s Rowing Legacy) at the University of Washington, boxing was, as the Legislature mandated, illegal in the state.
However, the 1909 statute carried an exception: Nothing in this section,” the statue said, “shall be so construed as to interfere with members of private clubs sparring or fencing for exercise among themselves, or for the enjoyment of their fraternal brothers.
As a result of the loophole, Seattles numerous boxing cards took place at Elks clubs, American Legion posts, Knights of Columbus halls, Moose lodges and various for members athletic establishments such as the Northwest Athletic Club, National Athletic Club and (by 1925), the Druxman Athletic Club (Seventh and Pike). Some of Druxmans biggest shows were held at the Crystal Pool on Second Avenue and Lenora.
Built in 1915, in an Italian Renaissance design by architect B. Marcus Priteca, who also designed the Coliseum Theater and Longacres Race Course, Crystal Pool (the façade is still there) featured a large saltwater swimming pool (water pumped in from Elliott Bay, then filtered, chlorinated and heated) and a large boxing venue first utilized Nov. 5, 1917, when Austin and Salt leased the south end, drained the pool and installed a ring platform and bleachers that seated 2,000.
The boxing matches at Crystal Pool, and elsewhere, usually involved four- to six-round affairs, with no title at stake, and with the fighters bashing each other for “training expenses.”
Druxman (and other promoters) could not pay the fighters directly, since that would prove professionalism. Rather, Druxman paid the fighters’ managers, who paid the fighters, preserving the thin fiction of non-professionalism.
“We called these shows ‘smokers,'” Druxman told The Seattle Times. “We’d pack ’em in at a dollar a head.”
(Boxrec.com defines a smoker as a fight conducted under the auspices of a private, charitable club in jurisdictions which prohibited prize fighting; the site says smoker may have originated from the clouds of tobacco that swirled above the ring during these bouts.)
Throughout the 1920s, numerous attempts by many were made to legalize professional boxing, especially after the new Civic Ice Arena opened in 1927. But all efforts failed because too many boxers died of injuries sustained in the ring.
Druxman supplied a big impetus to legalize boxing Aug. 26, 1931 when he brought former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey to Seattle for a series of exhibition bouts with Portland journeyman Denny Lenhart that, as Druxman hoped, filled Civic Arena. But a bigger impetus to re-legalize boxing came from the Great Depression.
Lawmakers who in 1909 had made the sport illegal, had been replaced by lawmakers desperately seeking new sources of revenue.
Just as they had legalized parimutuel wagering in order to share in the betting handle, they legalized boxing in order to rake off a tax on the sale of boxing tickets. Professional boxing in the state became a legal public activity again on June 8, 1933.
Slightly more than a month later, July 11, 1933, Druxman produced the first legal fight in Seattle (and state) in 17 years, which also happened to be both the first championship and 15-round bout in Seattle history: Featherweights Abie Israel, a Portland native, and Cincinnati southpaw and defending titleholder Freddie Miller at the Civic Arena.
Boxing being boxing, the show did not go off without controversy, as The Seattle Times reported:
Abie Israels solar plexus, Abies courage, folded up in the critical moment as his quest for the featherweight championship of the world ended, his nose in the resin of the Civic Arena ring with 7,000 fans to judge the finish.
Freddie Miller knocked Abie out with a crashing right uppercut to the chin in the fourth round, but it was a terrific left, driven wrist deep into Israels stomach in the third, that finished the Seattle Jewish boxer, threw the huge crowd into an uproar and brought charges of fouls, hurried examinations and wild confusion at ringside.
Around the cigar stores and restaurants last night the topic of conversation was foul or not fouled. ISRAEL WAS NOT FOULED!
In the third round, Israel claimed foul when he was flattened with a left uppercut.
Israel writhed and rolled on the canvas while many of the 7,000 onlookers shouted “foul,” but referee Tommy McCarthy ruled otherwise and ordered Israel to continue after a six-minute rest.
Times reporter Alex Schults offered a lengthy explanation for why Israel hadnt been fouled, sharply criticized McCarty for allowing Israel to rest and quoted Miller to the effect that he feared he would lose on a home-town decision.
Im going east, Miller said, just as fast as the trains can carry me.
Said Israel, whom Druxman had nurtured from preliminary boxer to title contender: Everything went black when he hit me. One chance in a million, and I flunked it.
This is how Schults assessed the first title fight in city (and state) history following re-legalization: The bout was a mild financial success. Betting odds of 2-to-1 on the champion (Miller), laid in downtown cigar stores late yesterday, killed last-minute ticket sales.
“There has been very little wagering on boxing bouts here, and the promoters and state commission will be wise to curb it immediately. Promoter Druxman made a determined effort to stop gambling on this fight, but the last-minute flurry was out of hand.
The Israel-Miller set-to became the first of 11 world title fights promoted by Druxman, who almost single-handedly made boxing one of the most popular spectator sports in the citys history, remarkable given that the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression.
Druxman was able to draw big crowds throughout the 1930s because he promoted major boxing talents such as Barney Ross (world champ in three weight divisions), Freddie Steele (middleweight champ), Al Hostak (middleweight champ), Babe Risko (middleweight champ) and Gorilla Jones (middleweight champ) and was quick to slash ticket prices when he felt interest in a fight waning. The 11 title fights Druxman promoted:
|Year||Date||Result / Title|
|1933||July 11||Freddie Miller KO 4 Abie Israel (NBA Featherweight)|
|1935||April 9||Barney Ross UD 12 Henry Woods (World Lightweight)|
|1936||Feb. 18||Freddie Miller UD Johnny Pena (NBA Featherweight)|
|1936||July 11||Freddie Steele UD 15 Eddie Risko (NBA Middleweight)|
|1937||May 11||Freddie Steele KO 3 Frank Battaglia (NBA Middleweight)|
|1937||Sept. 11||Freddie Steele KO 4 Ken Overlin (NBA Middleweight)|
|1938||July 26||Al Hostak KO 1 Feddie Steele (NBA Middleweight)|
|1938||Nov. 1||Solly Kreiger MD 15 Al Hostak (NBA Middleweight)|
|1939||June 27||Al Hostak TKO 4 Solly Krieger (NBA Middleweight)|
|1939||Oct. 20||Henry Armstrong TKO 3 Ritchie Fontaine (NBA Welterweight)|
|1940||July 19||Tony Zale TKO 13 Al Hostak (NBA Middleweight)|
The fourth of the 11, held July 11, 1936, attracted to Civic Stadium 27,000 fans, who watched Steele of Tacoma record a unanimous decision over Risko, a victory that made Steele the world middleweight champion.
The fifth, between Steele and Frank Battaglia, drew more than 7,000 to Civic Arena and produced a gate of $25,000.
The ninth, between Hostak and Solly Krieger June 27, 1939, drew 16,000 to Civic Stadium and produced a gate of $45,000. The last, between Tony Zale and Hostak July 19, 1940, drew 9,000 to Civic Stadium.
At the time of the Hostak-Krieger fight, the big local news concerned city prosecutor B. Gray Warners attempt to re-enforce many of the Blue Laws enacted in 1909, when the Legislature banned horse racing at the Meadows and all forms of public prize fighting.
Warner didnt want to take matters that far, but he wanted to put an end to Sunday Seattle Rainiers games and Sunday racing at Longacres. He also wanted to close all movie houses on the Sabbath and halt the numerous dice games in downtown Seattle cigar stores. He succeeded in getting pro wrestling banished from public view for five years, but that was about it.
Druxmans biggest boxing show by far occurred July 26, 1938, when a Seattle record 35,000 fans jammed Civic Field to watch Steele take on Hostak (see Wayback Machine: Freddie Steele vs. Al Hostak) in a world middleweight title fight that ended stunningly in the first round when Hostak scored a knockout (Druxman promoted three more middleweight title fights involving Hostak, the last July 19, 1940).
Druxmans career as Seattles leading boxing promoter came to an end with the outbreak of World War II, when he went to work for the special services section at the Point of Embarkation.
During the war, Druxman sold several million dollars worth of war bonds and helped recruit fighters to enlist in the armed services. His effort resulted in a presidential citation (Druxmans wife, Jessie, whom he met while playing Elks Club baseball, also had a prominent role in the war effort, producing care packages for military personnel).
After the war, Druxman opened Nate Druxman Realty Co. on 24th Avenue, specializing in single-family homes (Nate Druxman Realty ran thousands of classified ads in Seattle newspapers promoting his properties) and became a long-serving member of the Seattle Real Estate Board.
Druxman made enough money that he and Jessie were able to build a home at 2158 East Shelby St. on the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and later moved into an even nicer one at 5025 Pullman Ave NE near Sand Point Way.
The 77-year-old Druxman died Nov. 21, 1969, following a long illness, and was interred at Bikur Cholim Cemetery, leaving an athletic void that was never filled.
A boxing mecca during Druxman’s heyday, Seattle was never really the same after he left the game. In the 1950s, iconoclastic promoter Jack Hurley stirred interest when he made matches on behalf of White Center’s Harry “Kid” Matthews (see Wayback Machine: Jack Hurley And Kid Matthews), and created a 1957 world heavyweight title extravaganza at Sicks’ Stadium featuring Pete Rademacher and Floyd Patterson.
If not for George Chemeres, a fast-talking, demonstrative Greek who learned under Seattle’s Jack Kearns (Dempsey’s manager) and Hurley, Seattle would have become a boxing wasteland after the Rademacher-Patterson fight.
An old-school guy who invested 72 of his 86 years to boxing, Chemeres was so devoted to the sport that he once visited Shelby, MT., site of the Tommy Gibbons-Jack Dempsey fight July 4, 1923, in the same spirit as an art lover might wander around the Louvre.
Chemeres developed, trained, managed and promoted Eddie Cotton through the 1960s, getting him two title shots that didn’t pan out for Cotton. Boone Kirkman became a popular heavyweight contender from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, and a pair of Tacomans, Sugar Ray Seales and Leo Randolph, won Olympic gold medals in the 1980s. But Chemeres did the most to keep boxing’s flame lit locally.
This was the kind of promoter Chemeres was: Arriving for a Cotton match in Glasgow, Scotland, Chemeres held a news conference and demanded that three potential Scottish referees take eye exams from a reputable ophthalmologist. The British press erupted in indignation. The publicity made for a packed house.
Chemeres ran his Cherry Street Gym until the mid-1980s, when he trained and managed his last big-name fighter, Auburn’s Greg Haugen, a two-time IBF lightweight champion. As late as 1999, Chemeres had John-John Palaki headlining cards at Rochester’s Lucky Eagle Casino en route to becoming a top-10 lightweight contender.
But by then, the business of boxing had changed. Seattle’s biggest flirt with it was left irretrievably in the past, Nate Druxman’s time.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org