– Gameness til the End
March 27, 1961
Robert H. Boyle
Some 600 cockfighting fanciers from all over the U.S. packed a pit in a southern town last week to watch the ‘World Series of Long Heel Competition’
In the southeastern U.S. last week millions of people watched or talked about the first spring baseball exhibitions, but elsewhere in Dixie some 600 of their fellow citizens were preoccupied with a far more unusual sporting spectacle. They were eager witnesses to the’ ‘World Series of Long Heel Competition,” the top event of its kind in cockfighting.
The World Series took place in a converted green barn on a private estate outside a southern town. Delicacy and the law forbid closer identification of the locale. Ordinarily, the local fathers are very tolerant, as they are in many rural areas where death in the barnyard is a common occurrence. Recently, however, a nearby pit was raided for running on the Sabbath, and the promoter of the World Series, a courtly cocker known as Eddie Fulldrop, feared naming the town would prompt a raid on him.
Cockfighting is legal in only three states—Florida, Kansas and New Mexico—but it goes on in almost all. Devotees number more than 100,000, and they range from the poorest Alabama farmhand to the Wall Street broker who belongs to the superexclusive, supersecret Claymore Club, restricted to only nine members. Nowhere are cocks as good as they are in this country. Each year professional breeders export 12,000 birds to the West Indies, Latin America and the Philippines, and business is brisk enough to support four monthly magazines, Grit and Steel, The Gamecock, The Feathered Warrior and Game Fowl News. Advertisements, reports of fights and memoirs of gallant days gone past cram the pages. Cockers are a sentimental lot who put much by tradition. The cover of the December issue of Game Fowl News bore a photograph of a crèche with the admonition, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Cockers are also proudly patriotic. “The most peaceful nations on earth are devoted to cockfighting,” Mr. Fulldrop wrote a few weeks before the Series, “and those that aren’t are the worst warmongers. Russia wouldn’t know a fighting cock from a Leghorn, and there is no cockfighting in Germany, and those have been the worst troublemakers on earth. In England at one time cockfighting pushed horse racing back to second place. Since 1849 cockfighting there has been killed almost entirely. And what happened to England? It’s been going downhill ever since! Mexico and all of Latin America are cockers, and with few exceptions have been quite peaceable. France and Belgium were devoted to the game in a small way and have never been bad nations. India too is something of a cockfighting nation. Italy is another nation that doesn’t fight cocks, although they did back in Roman days and have been slipping ever since. Spain is another cockfighting nation and rather peaceable except for the revolutionaries who pop up.”
Raising cocks for an event like the Series requires money and land. A cocker can invest thousands crossing strains and end up with “dunghills,” the term cockers use to describe quitters or ordinary poultry. At an early age a cock’s comb and wattles are “dubbed” (cut), so an opposing bird can’t grasp them with his beak. Until a bird is a year old he is known as a stag, and he may be fought even then. (The Claymore Club’s annual tournament in the late spring, which is by invitation only, is for stags.)
The cockfighting season runs from late November to early June. The birds molt in the summer and fall. When not fighting, a cock is put on a “walk,” which generally means a farm with free range, with some hens. There is only one cock to a walk since two would fight until one was killed. Some owners who fought in the Series had cocks scattered on farms running for hundreds of miles over two or three states.
Last month the owners gathered their cocks for training. They reduced the birds to fighting weight and toughened them with conditioning exercises. They had the cocks spar with traditional small muffs on their spurs (from this came the idea for boxing gloves). In the Series the cocks wear “gaffs,” steel spurs rounded on the edges and pointed at the ends. In the East gaffs are an inch and a quarter long. In the South they go up to two and three-quarter inches. Hence the “long heel” appellation.
The Series drew 17 owners, who paid a fee of $500 apiece. Each was to fight 12 cocks, weighing between four pounds eight ounces and six pounds two. Every bird fought had to weigh within two ounces of his opponent, and the fights stretched over a three-day period, starting with the lightweight cocks and ending with the heavyweights. Most of the cocks had fought before; a fine cock is good for three, maybe four fights.
At 11 o’clock Thursday morning the grounds around the barn were aswarm with people. Several hundred cars with license plates from 30 states were parked on the grass and down a dirt road. Some fans had come from as far away as Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii.
To get in, one passed through the door of a shed built onto the barn. Immediately inside was Mr. Full-drop’s daughter, an attractive girl, selling tickets for $5 each. Mrs. Full-drop, a jolly grandmotherly woman, was near by, greeting old friends with a smile. On the right was a refreshment stand where local ladies served sandwiches, soft drinks, milk and layer cake. In the center were a dozen tables for diners, and on the left a drag pit where cocks that took too much time in the main arena would finish their matches.
Two doors at the far end of the shed led to the big pit. At either one attendants took admission tickets and stapled pink slips with a printed “T” (for Thursday) on shirt fronts. The pit, measuring 20 by 20, was sunk in the floor. White lines known as “scores” were chalked on the tan-bark eight feet apart. On all four sides tiers of seats rose to the rafters. About 500 persons were present, 30 or 40 of them jammed into the pit “talking chicken.” There were Texans in cowboy hats and boots. (Dick Kleberg of the King Ranch family dropped dead in town the day he was to fight his cocks in the Series a few years ago.) There were a scattering of women dressed as if for a church social, the owner of a bordello, a surgeon, an auto salesman from Michigan, an elderly nightclub owner from El Paso and a Catholic priest in mufti. (“I want to see what it’s like,” he told Mr. Fulldrop. “Go ahead, Father,” said Mr. Fulldrop, a Catholic, giving him a pass.)
Several representatives of the trade press were present, among them dapper Dave Marburger, who used to work for King Features Syndicate and now edits The Gamecock, and affable William Courtney White Jr., columnist for Grit and Steel, who drives 90,000 miles a year covering fights. “Suh,” said White, “should you evah happen to be in Ware Shoals, South Carolina, Ah would be honored if you would stay with me.”
The competing cockers ranged from young Bobby Joe Manziel from Texas, whose late father, a onetime boxer who made $60 million in oil, brought Jack Dempsey to see the Series, to graying Duke Hulsey from Louisiana, dressed in khaki to handle his own birds.
The public address announcer called the first fight. It was between entries 2 and 12. (Entries were numbered for anonymity before the matches were made so there could be no charge of favoritism.) No. 2 was Harold Brown of the Blackwell and Brown entry from Alabama. He entered the pit carrying his bird, a Hatch claret. Twelve was Eight Pines of Mississippi. The Eight Pines handler brought in a gray cock.
A babble of betting arose. The most common cry was, “100 and 80!” That meant that the man who was calling out 100 and 80 was willing to bet $100 against $80. When another man agreed to bet $80, the man who bet the $100 picked the cock he wanted to back. The $80 bettor took the other one. The big bettors, who have been known to go as high as $10,000 on a fight, spoke to one another quietly.
The two handlers, each carrying his bird, met with the referee in the center of the pit. The handlers held the cocks out at arm’s length and let them peck at one another to arouse their ire. This is called “billing.” The handlers, still carrying the cocks, then retreated to the score lines, where they swung the cocks forward at one another in a graceful arc—and as the referee shouted “Pit!” set the birds on the scores, facing each other. The cocks, wings beating, feathers ruffling, met in a furious burst in mid-pit. The claret sank his gaffs deeply into the gray, so deeply in fact that he “hung,” unable to disengage. The referee shouted “Handle!” and the two handlers quickly seized the birds and separated them. “You got to handle when they’re hung,” said White. The handlers took the cocks back to the scores for 10 seconds rest. The odds shifted to 100 to 60 on the claret.
The cocks were pitted again, and the claret rushed out to riddle the gray. They hung again, and the handlers darted in. They were pitted a third time, and they hung again. The cocks for the second fight were ready, and the claret and gray went to the drag pit.
When the claret won, the bettors settled up with one another. No one had written anything down, and no one held stakes. A cocker’s word is his honor. Everyone present was presumed to be a lady or a gentleman, and general behavior was exemplary, with no swearing, no drinking and no arguments.
“There’s fellowship and sportsmanlike conduct,” said White. “This is a place where a man can take his son and not have him exposed to the swearin’ and the drinkin’ he’d see at a baseball game. It’s a sport, that’s what this is!” White allowed that a memorial derby for Sweater McGinnis was coming up soon in Florida. Sweater, a famed handler, died a year ago, leaving a wife and children. The proceeds of the derby are to go for the education of Sweater’s children. “No matter what a cocker’s station, we’re all equal here,” Mr. Fulldrop had remarked earlier.
Fight followed fight, and sometimes the outcome varied. Frank Cutsinger of Oklahoma fought a gray against a Duke Hulsey claret. The gray quickly downed the claret, and the referee counted to 10 as the bird lay on the tanbark. Twice more the pair was pitted, and each time the referee tolled 10 over the inert claret: The referee then marked two new score lines on the tanbark 22 inches apart. The gray flew at the claret, and this time the referee counted to 20 for the knockout. Mr. Fulldrop, above the crowd on a catwalk, noted the result on the scoreboard.
At 3 o’clock intermission came. Mr. Fulldrop came down from his perch to mingle with the crowd. “It’s just natural for them to fight,” he said of the cocks. “They’d rather fight than eat. It’s just instinct.”
The cocks are all descended from Gallus gallus, a breed of Asian jungle fowl brought to Greece by the Persians in ancient times. Before the Athenians defeated the Persians at Salamis, Themistocles used two fighting cocks to exhort his men: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty, or the safety of their children, but because one will not give way to the other.”
The Romans introduced the birds into Britain. Henry VIII built the first pit in London, and under the Stuarts the sport flourished. James I attended fights twice a week and appointed a royal cockmaster. Charles II presented a pair of spurs to Nell Gwyn. The greatest cocker of all was the Earl of Derby, after whom the race is named. At one time he supposedly had 3,000 cocks on walks. (“He fought mains all over the country,” a writer recently noted in theGame Fowl News, “but perhaps his favorite spot was Preston, where he had built the best appointed and most commodious cockpit in the kingdom. I hear that it is now a temperance hall. This is bad enough, but other cockpits have had a sadder fate, they have become chapels.”)
George Washington fought cocks, and so did Jefferson and Jackson. Franklin Roosevelt attended fights. “This was before his political days, when he was at home in Hyde Park,” Mr. Fulldrop said. “The late General Marshall was interested in the game at one time.” Bernard Baruch used to attend fights with the late Sanford Hatch, a New York investment broker, who ranks, along with Colonel John Madigin, a shiny blade from Buffalo, as the greatest American breeder. “Practically all the cocks here have Hatch or Madigin blood.” Mr. Fulldrop said, before returning to the scoreboard.
On Saturday, when all the cocks had finished fighting, three entries—the Jackson Club of Jackson, Tenn., Bill Ruble of Ohio and Lloyd Miner and Son from Illinois and California—had tied for first-place money with nine wins and three defeats each. They split the total $8,500 in entry fees.
Everyone was delighted. The birds had been tough and the competition keen. “The best we ever had,” said Mr. Fulldrop. “That was a very unusual happening in young Miner winning. Hauled those chickens 2,000 miles from California and wins! You wouldn’t see that but once in a thousand times—travel usually takes a lot out of chickens.”
And what of the cocks themselves? The winners went back home in triumph to be fought again, perhaps, or bred to pass on the blood and bone of victory. Some gallant losers which lived went home, too—they might have had bad luck. Cocks that were killed or badly wounded had their heads chopped off, and each day they lay outside the barn on the grass, waiting for the garbage collector, who made special calls. A few fishermen in the crowd slashed off hackle feathers for flies.
The dead cocks occasioned much emotion. “I’ve tried to eat ’em,” snuffled Earl Myers, an elderly gentleman from up Indiana way who had just come to watch, “but I just couldn’t eat a bite. Just too much sentiment. I choked up. I don’t even like to see ’em killed. Just like tryin’ to eat one of your own kids.”