– Gameness til the End
June 29, 2014 | Joy Wallace Dickinson, Florida Flashback
In some Orlando circles, July 4 once meant more than patriotic celebrations of our nation’s birth. It also marked the end of the cockfighting season.
In 1948, the season’s biggest tournament even made Time magazine, although “no word of it appeared in Florida newspapers,” the report noted. Then, “Florida was the only state in the union where cockfighting was legal,” but the heavy betting that accompanied the matches was not — hence the secrecy.
The crowd of about 400 at one match included a Texas oil millionaire, a Philadelphia income-tax lawyer and a reputed professional gambler from Memphis. The Philadelphia man crowed that he trained his champs on a special diet of “such highfalutin food as cakes with French brandy, oysters, apples, sprouted oats, plain oats, eggs and flint corn,” according to Time.
The fans weren’t all men. “Come on, red rooster, kill him,” one woman yelled from the crowd during a match.
Fowl arrived by air, rails
These underground tournaments took place west of Orlando in Orlo Vista, according to the 1939 Federal Writers’ Project guidebook to Florida, which described the “pit” as “a barnlike structure with a seating capacity of more than 1,000” at Lake San Susan.
The season began in Thanksgiving and ended July 4, and its highlight — the big annual tournament in January — had “become in its field what the Kentucky Derby is to followers of the turf.”
In 1948, some of the gamecocks arrived by private railroad cars. The heaviest hitter among the “chicken men” was former boxer Bobby Manziel from Texas, according to Time. Manziel had struck it rich wildcatting for oil on $700 borrowed from his pal Jack Dempsey. His birds arrived in a special plane.
The action began when the referee addressed the crowd: “Gentleman, please clear the pit.” Then, as Time described it, “The men began to drift off the dirt-floored circle; the chanting of bets continued. . . . The usual bet was $100. The big ones — $1,000 and up — were made more quietly, by a whisper, a nod, a flick of the finger. On the wall was a sign saying ‘No profanity allowed.’ ” A young mother in the crowd nursed a baby with a bottle.
One of the most winning chicken men was John Kehoe, a tough old Pennsylvania bird who cheered on his fighting fowl from his wheelchair, according to Time.
“I fight chickens, you know. I’m proud of it — keeps me alive,” he bellowed to the Time reporter.
At the tournament’s halfway mark, Kehoe’s chickens had won seven fights without losing one.
“Their owner chortled from his wheelchair, ‘The way they’re dropping, you’d think I was using a shotgun on them.’ ”
Cockfighting is now illegal in all 50 states (it isn’t in Puerto Rico), but it also continues to be widespread despite lawmakers’ efforts to ban the raising and trading of fighting animals. In February, more than 3,000 fighting roosters were rescued as part of a New York bust dubbed “Operation Angry Birds,” according the New York State Attorney General’s office and ASPCA officials.