One of the more memorable golfers to play Eastmoreland was none other than the Champion Boxer Joe Louis. Known as the "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis became an avid golfer towards the end of his boxing career, becoming a scratch amatuer and companion of many great black golfers that broke through the race barrier of the PGA tour in the 1950's and 60's. He was welcomed to a match at Eastmoreland and we have a first hand account of Ron McPike, who followed the foursome for most of the match, as a young 15 year old fan.
First, some historical context:
Joe Louis was first introduced to the game at age 22 in 1935 by TV personality Ed Sullivan just a few months before a fight with Max Schmeling in 1936. He even left his Lakewood, N.J., training camp two weeks before the fight to spend a day at that year's U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Instead of discussing boxing during a conversation with a Detroit sportswriter before that fight, Louis talked "all golf: stances and grips and hooks and slices." The result was a stunning defeat, which he later attributed to his fascination with golf. "He was spending more time on the golf course than training for the fight." according to his son Joe Louis Barrow Jr. in an interview with golf sportscaster Jim Nantz in 2012. He later avenged the loss in a 1938 rematch with Schmeling with a knockout in the first round after 124 seconds.
Joe exemplifies why so many professional athletes gravitate towards the game during their playing career and for a lifetime after. Golf requires intense practice and mental fortitude which are precisely they talents and discipline required for professional athletes. He was known to play 36 holes a day, often as many as 54 holes in the summer. He loved that the game required the practice and focus to succeed... and his love of the game helped bring the entire game forward by elevating awareness of the best black golfers of his era.
"He loved the individual nature of golf," says his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., now the executive director of The First Tee, a golf and life-skills learning program for youngsters. "He loved that your success is up to you." Golf Digest
Joe Louis also has the honorable position to be the first ever black player to compete in a sanctioned PGA event the 1952 San Diego Open. By winning the UGA Amatuer title in 1951, he was invited to play in the Pro-Am which caused a bit of a scuffle with the PGA, because unbeknownst to many, had a bylaw limiting the field to "caucasian-only." For many of us in the present day it can be hard to imagine such a rule existing, yet, the fact remains that even in 1952 racial segregation truly was the law of the land.
The San Diego Open sponsors of the tournament were thrilled to have Joe Louis but had not counted on the PGA. "The week before the tournament began, the PGA ruled that Louis could not play at San Diego, and it also rejected Bill Spiller, the black pro who had made it into the tournament by competing in qualifying rounds." See Caucasian-Only - by Thomas Jones Bill Spiller was a top golfer, having tied Ben Hogan, the eventual winner, with a 68 in the first round of the Los Angeles Open in 1948.
In what Joe called "the fight of his life" he challenged the PGA head on. Eventually Joe punched through this barrier and was granted an exemption. Unfortunately,even though the PGA relented, they steadfastly refused to let Bill Spiller play as a pro. Reluctantly Joe Louis agreed, despite Spiller's frustration, and made the important first step. Joe made the fight for inclusion in the PGA a lifelong cause. He continues to support the careers of many up and coming black pros - including Charlie Sifford, known as the "Jackie Robinson of golf", who received a tour card after the PGA desegregated in 1961.
Back to 1957... Eastmoreland Golf Course
Ron McPike worked in the clubhouse restaurant when Joe Louis comes into looking for a game - and with plenty of the Eastmoreland Wolves around there was a game to be found. According the Ron, the guys who came to play were John Merhar - who owned the 82nd Drive in movie theater - immaculate dresser. Always wore sharp two toned shoes a known gambler at Eastmoreland a long gone course Top o' Scott and the track. He would never just bet the bet - always made sure he had an edge.
Legend has it that the match was for a cool $5,000, which in 1957 would have bought not just one, but two brand new 1957 V8 Bel Air convertibles. Whether this amount of money was actually on the line is just conjecture. Though it was no secret that Joe Louis played the game for cash, like most celebrated players of that day (and many today). The legendary Titanic Thompson, the most famous golf gambler and by some account, the greatest golfer that never played in any PGA event ("because I'd take a pay cut") played for closer to a tune $25,000 with Joe Louis.
In 1958 however, Joe Louis was in the midst of a battle with the IRS so he was not as flush as during the boxing years and explains the reason he was in in Portland: He was invited by the Portland Boxing Commission to be the guest referee. They originally sought wither Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey.
Through a bit more research I discovered the results of the match which occurred the night of June 16 and published in the Tuesday paper the next day. It was an interesting match - with a grizzled veteran versus an "undefeated" hometown boy Phil Moyer, a Central Catholic graduate. As you can see, the veteran gave "the Portland youngster a first class lesson in ring warfare" (see Green Box)
What I loved about this research is side by side in the Sports top headlines is the results from the 1958 Oregon Junior Championships. Now you might remember that we covered the OGA Juniors a few months ago with the bracket results for Eastmoreland's very own boy wonder Dick Estey. What caught my eye in this event were some of the names, which I still hear bandied about among top golfers. Specifically one named jumped to my attention is John Hedlund - who played Oswego Lake most of his life and longest running member there. I had the pleasure to meet John a few weeks ago and he's Oswego Lake's historian and helping me get more details on Paul C. Murphy, who after he donated the land to build Eastmoreland - went on to build Oswego Lake. (See Red Box)
Back to the Money match - Merhar gets the call
Golf was how Joe Louis lost much of his money. "He loved to play golf, he loved to bet, and he lost thousands." With that legendary fame in place - getting a game together at Eastmoreland was not much trouble at all. They pack that hung around weren't called the Wolves weren't for nothing... many were gamblers a match with Joe Louis was right up their alley...
or drive-through window... as the case may be. Because the man that got the call was John Merhar, who along with his brothers ran a hamburger drive through joint up on Powell and 82nd.
It's fair to say the match was for some real cash - if not $5,000 and we ascribe "fairy-tale inflation" by a factor of 10 - then the match could have been for $500. Again - that buys you 1/4 of a 1957 Chevy - or an entire full set of brand new MacGregor Irons, Woods, Leather Bag and a sharp outfit to match.
Which apparently both John Merhar and Joe Louis, of course, were known for in their respective circles. According to Ron McPike, Merhar was always sharply dressed in "two-toned shoes that you don't see anymore." He was known as a good golfer and brought in a partner, by the name of Miller, though Ron can't exactly remember who he was... and most likely the discussion of playing for money involved some discussions and negotiations for stokes... or just straight up.
Merhar was known as a great golfer, though not one of the best, and his name never adorned the City Championship. What he was better known for was a big time gambler, especially on bets where he had an edge. Some of the current men's club guys fondly remember playing with his though rarely for money matches.
How about Joe Louis? According to golf digest he was a player:
Louis never had an official handicap, so opinions vary on how accomplished a golfer he was. He is described now as having been "almost scratch" to "a 3 or a 4" to shooting "around 80; he'd have a lot of pars and then a blowup hole." He mostly played at public courses, often with the best black golfers of the post-World War II era, sometimes in money matches for $1,000 a hole, sometimes in United Golf Association tournaments such as the Negro National Open, sometimes in his own Joe Louis Open in Detroit, but he always was the same unpretentious competitor he had been as heavyweight champion. Golf Digest 2006
Golf also provides ample opportunity for players to use handicaps - or the giving of strokes to even up a match - and of course the pressure of playing for high stakes is exactly the kind of action professionals are used to... a channel to the thrill of competition.
According to Ron McPike, Joe Louis had a black pro touring with him... and by all accounts it was probably either Bill Spiller or perhaps the younger Charlie Sifford - who had just won the 1957 Long Beach Open and would go on to earn a PGA tour card a few years later in 1961.
Ron was so excited that Joe Louis was playing the course, he skipped out of the restaurant. "Somebody could have come in and taken all the money." John Merhar had some of his bus boys from the drive-in come to caddy for him.
Did anything memorable happen? Once they all get over to 12th tee (now the 13th), the famous Par 5 that Walter hagen once called the nest he'd played in 1922. The tee shots go up close to the waste area and old creek. Merhar showing some concern lett's Joe Luis
"Listen Joe this is kind of a hidden hole I'll send one of my boys up to the top of the hill and make sure your ball is in play...to watch for your ball."
"Nope." Joe stopped the boys in their tracks "You just keep your boys right here. We don't need any help."
Smart move, of course, because any bus boys working for Merhar might just as likely kick the ball out of bounds. Golf is one the purest forms of sports, with the player calling all their own penalties, so everything should be on the up and up. Just the same, when the stakes are high - it's best to keep a close watch on nefarious ways the scales might be tipped for an advantage.
Who was winning as the foursome rounded the final stretch?
McPike can't be sure because he wasn't following the hole-by-hole tally - just watching from a distance. Plus with the potential that some pops (free shots) were given one way or the other the actual scores may not tell the story.
One hint of the potential outcome was a special display on the the 17th green (current 18th green).
A drink to savor a satisfying win or soothe the loss? We may never know for sure.
"The only difference," Louis told him, "is that in boxing you recover from a punch. In golf, it's on the card to stay."
Joe Louis play of Eastmoreland is one of the coolest stories of golf and a celebrity that truly impacted the game of golf.
Did you know that Joe Louis was founding and instrumental supporter of the start of "The First Tee" program to introduce golf to all youth at a early age. Louis' son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., is the Chief Executive Officer of The First Tee, an organization dedicated to teaching junior golf. The program is world class and supported by the PGA, USGA and many pros, the most notable being Tiger Woods.
What I love about Joe Louis love of golf is that it's no different than any other competitor who gets hooked. Once you start swinging away at balls, there's something compelling about coming back for more.