The term “gatecrash” has come to mean sneaking into anything that usually requires proof of access: award shows, movie premiers, press conferences, plays, banquets, weddings, cruise ships, airplanes, and so on.
Sports gatecrashing, however, is a world unto itself, complete with heroes, villains, and myths. While it stands to reason that gatecrashers would keep their stories to themselves—magicians don’t reveal their secrets, after all — some of the all-time greats extensively documented their successes.
Luckily for us, there’s enough reputable information out there that we can induct a first class into the Sports Gatecrash Hall of Fame.
Hopefully, this project will encourage others to come forward with their own stories — or those of others — and the Hall of Fame will continue to grow. If you or someone you know would like to share a story, please get in touch with me via email or Twitter.
Without further adieu …
In 1936, the MLB Hall of Fame inducted its first five players: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Cobb garnered the highest percentage of votes.
James Leo “One Eye” Connelly deserves a similar “first among equals” distinction. Part of it owes to the fact his crashes were widely publicized; his name regularly appeared in newspaper columns during the early 20th century. He was said to know more sports writers than anyone alive, and his gatecrashing a title fight gave a sort of stamp of approval that it was an important event:
“The fight’s official, One Eye Connelly has arrived.” A hoarse voiced announced this at the Willis-Firpo fight at Boyle’s Acres, and the hundreds of fight fans within the sound of the voice applauded vigorously and settled back with highly amused faces. Practically the same announcement has been made at every big sport event in recent years, and it means that “One-Eyed” Connelly, known as the champion gate-crasher of the world, has again triumphed.”
— The St. Andrew’s College Review, Christmas 1925 edition
One Eye also had the foresight to publish a “life history,” called Crashing Thru in 1934. Most of the following information comes from that pamphlet.
He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 12, 1874 but lost his father at the age of 6. At age 9, in bed with the measles, he bet his sister, Mabel, that he could beat her in a race around the house. Both kids caught colds and Mabel died three days later.
His wound up at a juvenile detention center until, in September of 1889, he “walked away from his apple picking job and hooked a ride on a wagon.”
He became a boxer after working for a circus temporarily. During a fight, an untied lace from his own glove whipped into his left eye, causing serious damage. It was removed the next day.
His first big gatecrash came on March 17, 1897 at a boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Corbett in Carson City, Nevada. One Eye somehow learned the name of the fight’s promoter, found him outside the arena, and “told him in an excitable and out-of-breath manner of having overheard a conversation between two tough characters” who were going to rob the box office. The promoter heard the story and reportedly said, “Would you recognize them in the crowd?”
“Sure could,” One Eye responded.
“Come on in,” said the promoter, and One Eye “milled about the crowd for a while before locating a ringside seat” and watching the match.
My favorite of all his crashes took place before the Jeffries-Fitzsimmons heavyweight title fight on Coney Island on June 9, 1899. The Milwaukee Journal told the story in an article published about a week after One Eye’s death in 1953. (It mistakenly attributed this crash to 1906.)
It reports that a one-eyed man approached the head usher, flashing a (phony) deputy sheriff’s badge.
“Sheriff’s office sent me,” explained the one-eyed one. “I’m to keep out any fakers that come around posing as deputies.”
“Bully for you, sport,” said the head usher, admitting him.
There are plenty of crazy stories to follow. For me, there’s no topping the unabashed but subtle genius of that one.
A cartoon in Crashing Thru suggests that for a Gardiner-Devine fight in 1903, One Eye “slipped into the coliseum the morning before the bout, climbed a girder high over the ring, and tied himself on it.” (There was a boxer named George Gardiner at that time, but I couldn’t find one named Devine. We have to take some of these reports with a grain of salt; One Eye loved attention, and reporters love good stories, so I’m sure both exaggerated to a certain extent.)
In Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, before the Jack Johnson-Tommy Burns heavyweight title fight, One Eye apparently walked in with the undercard fighters, carrying a bottle of water and an ice bucket and wearing a towel around his neck.
There’s another account of this same gatecrash—my guess is that it indeed happened, but at a different event. Of course, sucker that I am for gatecrash stories, I more than anything want it to be true. The Milwaukee Journal article reports: “While milling with the fight crowd, he saw a stout fireman lay down his heavy brass helmet to attach a riot hose to a hydrant. Connelly appropriated the helmet it, put it on and was through the gate before the fireman finished the task.”
The St. Andrew’s College Review reports that, at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 14, 1923, before a heavyweight title fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo, One Eye saw a trunk in an alley. He grabbed it and hauled it to the stadium gates.
“Where are you going?” yelled a policeman.
“Got a trunk for the Polo Grounds,” Connelly yelled back.
“What’s in it?”
“Madison Square Garden.”
“Where’d they tell you to put the trunk?” the ticket man now broke in.
“In the office,” replied Connelly.
“Then why in hell don’t you?” the man shrieked.
One Eye referred to the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier “Fight of the Century” match on July 2, 1921 at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City as his most difficult crash. He said he tried, and failed, to crash 13 separate gates before “lifting a white coat from a concession stand and grabbing a basket of sandwiches and bucket of coffee.” Then he walked by the gate attendant “with the word that he had lunch for the Western Union telegraph operators.”
At another Dempsey title fight, this one against Tommy Gibbons on July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Montana, attendance was low because the location was remote. That would’ve made me hesitate — my strategy involved running past ticket takers, changing clothes, and getting lost in huge crowds of people.
It was no problem for One Eye. He bought a pair of ice tongs and 80 pounds of frozen water from the ice plant and caught a taxi to the ring. He hauled the ice over his shoulder and told the ticket taker he had ice for the press. Once he got in, he melted the ice and, with no beverage sales allowed in the venue, sold the cold water to thirsty fans, making $122.
Before a Soldier Jones-Jack Reddick boxing match in Toronto on July 14, 1924, One Eye learned the Disabled Canadian Veterans, who were at a nearby hospital, would be guests of the promoter, Jack Cochran. One Eye went to the hospital and was “bandaged about the head and arms and with 20 other (really) disabled boys, was placed on a truck and brought to the fight.” One Eye apparently slipped up once he got in by mentioning the promoter’s name. But Cochran found the whole thing funny, and had the announcer present One Eye to the fans as the bandages were removed from his head.
Perhaps his most famous gatecrash took place before a Michigan-Illinois football game in Urbana-Champagne, IL on October 18, 1924. One Eye knew Red Grange, the Illinois football star, and Red asked if he had a ticket to the game.
“No, I don’t need a ticket,” was the response.
“Well, if you crash Zuppke’s [Illinois head coach and, I guess, athletic director/security director of some kind] gate, I’ll give you a keepsake.”
Again, there are conflicting reports. Crashing Thru says only that One Eye used the “high official ruse of checking up on tickets,” which might mean something like: telling a ticket taker he was meeting a friend inside the stadium who had his ticket, and that he would return to have his ticket ripped later.
The Milwaukee Journal, however, says that after One Eye turned down Grange’s ticket offer,
“He appeared in overalls carrying a paint bucket and calmly started painting parking lines on the street. When he had finished, he went up to a gate tender and asked, “What else do I paint?”
“Don’t ask me, go in and ask the boss,” said the gate tender.
The man was brilliant.
On September 23, 1926, before the first Dempsey-Tunney title fight at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia, One Eye said, “As soon as I appeared a fellow called me over and said, ‘Go on in. You’ll get in anyhow.’” (Again, the Milwaukee Journal tells a different story. They have One Eye “picking up an armful of umbrellas and telling the gate guardian he was carrying them to the press.”)
The sources mostly agree on what happened before the Dempsey-Tunney rematch (known in the history books as the Long Count Fight) a year later — September 22, 1927, at Soldier Field in Chicago. One Eye either saw two men arguing with a ticket taker or had two friends stage an argument near the entrance. When a woman walked up with her ticket, and the ticket taker pushed the men aside so he could rip her ticket, behind him “walked the crasher [One Eye], there being no turnstile at this particular gate.”
One Eye crashed Game 1 of the World Series between the Cardinals and Yankees on October 2, 1926 with “blank pasteboard cards,” which I take to mean fake tickets of some kind. (Side-note: While researching One Eye, I loved reading the old-school terms and expressions from his heyday; free tickets to an event were known as Annie Oakleys, for example.)
One Eye also got into a Cubs-Yankees World Series game in 1929: “After an early try, I was successful in the second attempt going through the player’s gate carrying Pat Malone’s [a Cubs pitcher] bag and managed to catch the gate-tender off guard,” he said.
Later that month, on October 29, 1929, Ace Hudkins fought Mickey Walker at Wrigley Field (the one in Los Angeles) for the middleweight title. One Eye somehow hid himself in a group of four other men as they walked through the turnstiles. The fight’s promoter saw him in the stadium and had him thrown out. “They failed to tell me to stay out,” Connelly said. (I once seized on a similar verbal loophole — with much, much less success.) One Eye resorted to “the spider act,” which I’m assuming means he climbed a fence or something to get back inside.
On June 12, 1930, before the Jack Sharkey-Max Schmeling bout at Yankee Stadium, One Eye simply “Passed through the turnstile at the height of the rush with a party of six men.” When the ticket taker asked the men about their seventh ticket, One Eye slinked away. The gatecrasher, probably overwhelmed, “dropped the issue in favor of handling the crowd.” The same thing, by the way, could and does occur nowadays. It happened to me on more than a few occasions during my four years as a ticket taker at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Exactly how One Eye made money, we’re not sure. He could travel for free, as you might imagine.
Crashing Thru calls him a steeplejack (a person who climbs tall structures to do repairs) and a newspaper hustler in Boston. Apparently he worked as a chef and an elevator operator in Chicago at some point after 1931. We also know that he (very) briefly worked as an usher.
According to the book The 1945 Detroit Tigers, during the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field, the “crowd engineer,” a man named Andy Frain—who has a fascinating story himself—who went around the country overseeing security for big events, got sick of losing to One Eye so often. He offered Connelly a job as a gate attendant.
Proving that law-breakers are often the most conscientious law-enforcers, when a man tried to hurry through the gate, One Eye responded, “Where do you think you’re going, buddy?”
“To my office. I’m Phil Wrigley, the owner.”
“Baloney,” Connelly snapped, “they all give me that line.”
It turned out the man actually was Phil Wrigley, and One Eye was out of a job.
One Eye crashed more than sporting events. He got onto ships, into theaters and political conventions — but sports were his most frequent target, and they are what made One Eye who he was.
His presence at an event was a good indication that the event was important enough to warrant his presence. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard, whose matches often succumbed to One Eye’s ingenuity, actually supported the great gatecrasher.”
“This certifies that One Eye Connelly is considered to be the World Champion Gate Crasher and is entitled to this diploma from the School of Hard Knocks,” reads a document signed by Rickard, Ban Johnson (then-president of the American League), and H.G. Salsinger, sports editor of the Detroit News.
When One Eye died in December of 1953 outside of Chicago, his old frenemy, Andy Frain, paid him the ultimate compliment. According to the November, 1961 issue of Popular Mechanics, Frain said, “He must have crashed the Pearly Gates.”
One Eye probably crashed hundreds of sporting events with stories we’ll never hear about. He’s said to have kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, documenting his exploits. If anybody out there possesses or has seen this document, PRETTY PLEASE WITH A CHERRY ON TOP get in touch with me!
But in addition to the gatecrashes described above, here are the other crashes of his to which I could find reference:
· A boxing show in El Paso, Texas in 1892 that included the fighter Tilly “Kid” Herman. Supposedly, the promoter dared One Eye: “I’ll test your skill with the strong guard I have hired for my front gate.” One Eye “spied a Times street circulator, whom he knew, sending in newsboys with the evening edition.” He grabbed some papers and went through the gate.
· Battling Nelson vs. Joe Gans; September 3, 1906, Casino Amphitheatre, Goldfield, NV. (And what a fight this was!)
· Jack Dempsey vs. Bill Brennan; December 14, 1914, Madison Square Garden
· Jack Johnson vs. Jess Willard; April 15, 1915, Oriental Park, Havana, Cuba
· The Kentucky Derby, May 7, 1921 (One Eye said in 1934 “I’ve attended 27 runnings of the Derby,” but he recalled specifically the 1921 edition.)
· The Rose Bowl: University of California vs. Washington & Jefferson Presidents College; January 2, 1922, Tournament Park, Pasadena, California (One Eye allegedly disguised himself as a player with a borrowed uniform.)
· Jack Sharkey vs. Young Stribling, February 27, 1929, Flamingo Park, Miami Beach. The story goes that Jack Dempsey sent him a pass for the fight, but he returned it, explaining that he didn’t want to be insulted. One Eye then got in by posing as secretary to Chicago millionaire George Getz. Connelly said his explanation worked because he “looked like a million dollars” after buying a tuxedo, hat, shoes, and monocle.
· Kid Chocolate vs. Eddie Shay; August 4, 1932; Chicago Stadium
· Jimmy Slattery vs. Charley Belanger; August 22, 1932, Bison Stadium, Buffalo, NY
· Max Baer vs. Max Schmeling; June 8, 1933, Yankee Stadium
· An undated, weekly boxing show at Biscayne Arena in Miami. One Eye “noticed a back gate, used as an emergency exit, with a rusty lock attached.” He bought a 1-cent lock and borrowed a hammer, broke the old lock, and replaced it with his own. When the first bout was about to start, One Eye unlocked the back gate and instructed someone to lock it after he entered.
· Georgia Tech vs. Florida; November 11, 1933, Grant Field, Atlanta
· Max Baer vs. Primo Carnera; June 14, 1934, Madison Square Garden Bowl, Long Island City, NY