It didn’t pack the historical punch of the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight whose golden anniversary is February 25. But history was nevertheless made 88 years ago this month when for the first and only time the son of a sitting U.S. president put up his dukes in the ring.
John Coolidge didn’t float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, and the decision in the “White House Hope’s” February 22, 1926 bout went to his more experienced opponent, Matty Silverman, known as “Little Benny Leonard.” (Big Benny Leonard, lightweight champion of the world from 1917-’25, was the Muhammad Ali of his era, a fabulous boxer as facile with his fists and tongue as the former Cassius Clay.)
Afterwards, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed any more fights for his first-born son, while Silverman received lucrative offers to capitalize on the widespread publicity attending his defeat of America’s First Son by turning professional.
The Coolidge-Silverman bout was in the lightweight (135-pound) division in the annual boxing tournament held at Amherst College, where both were sophomores.
“Faculty members say boxing makes students more self-reliant and fits them for business battles after they leave college,” noted the Milwaukee Journal in 1915 as the sport gained traction on American campuses. Boxing’s popularity at the collegiate level really took off after instruction in the Sweet Science proved so useful in training American doughboys during World War I.
John Coolidge picked up the ring bug in the summer of 1923 when he enrolled in the Citizens’ Military Training Camp near Boston. He was there when his father, then the vice president, became the 30th Chief Executive of the United States of America upon the death of President Warren Harding.
Helping to put the young trainees through their paces at Camp Devers was Freddie Welsh, who was world lightweight champion from 1914-’17 (he lost the title to Benny Leonard). A masterful boxer himself, Welsh gave John Coolidge pointers during sparring sessions.
A year later, John enrolled at Amherst, his father’s alma mater, in western Massachusetts.
John and Calvin Coolidge were not close. Calvin Jr., born a year-and-a-half after John, was their father’s favorite.
“Loving but stern, (Coolidge père) laid down strict rules about how the boys should dress, study and even pray,” writes Coolidge biographer David Greenberg. “On at least a few occasions he hit them.”
As president, Coolidge later wrote in his autobiography, “It was my desire to maintain about the White House as far as possible an attitude of simplicity and not engage in anything that had an air of pretentious display.” According to Amity Shlaes, another Coolidge biographer, he once upbraided his wife for going horseback riding and “forbade her to go again.”
“I think you’ll find you’ll do well in this job if you don’t try anything new,” the president advised the First Lady.
The Coolidge boys were allowed to use the tennis courts built on the White House grounds by Teddy Roosevelt, and during a match on June 30, 1924, Calvin Jr. developed a blood blister on his right foot. A week later he died of blood poisoning.
“When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” Cal Sr. later wrote.
“Suddenly the only child, John, bore the heavy weight of his parents’ anxieties,” writes Shlaes. And of their expectations.
“I want you to keep in mind,” wrote Coolidge to his son at Amherst, “that you have been sent to college to work. Nothing else will do you any good. Nobody in my class who spent their time in other ways ever amounted to anything.”
Under the circumstances, it’s not the wildest of guesses that John didn’t tell his father beforehand of his intention to box. If old Cal objected to his wife’s horseback riding, he surely would have frowned on John’s participation in a boxing match—especially given that boxing by its nature presented more risks than tennis, which less than a year earlier had snatched away Coolidge’s favorite son.
The three-round fight wasn’t close. “Matty was just too fast for me,” said Coolidge afterwards. “I outweighed him by three pounds and had a big advantage over him in reach, but Matty is a regular whirlwind. I never saw so many fists in my life. I don’t feel badly about my defeat because I was whipped by one of the best boxers in college.”
Silverman called Coolidge “one of the gamest boxers I ever faced,” and prepared to meet William Hughes for the school’s lightweight championship as well as the demands of instant celebrity.
Promoter Lew Raymond offered him $5,000 ($67,000 in today’s money) for three professional matches at New York’s Pioneer Athletic Club. Jack Kearns, manager of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, called Nathanial Silverman, Matty’s father and a Brooklyn dress goods manufacturer, and offered to take Matty under his wing.
Nothing doing, said the elder Silverman: “Matt is a good boxer, but he’s going to be a lawyer, not a prizefighter. If he should happen to meet the President’s son again, it won’t be in a ring but probably before the bar or in politics, who knows?”
Two days later, interest in “Little Benny Leonard” fizzled out when Matty lost a decision to Hughes in the Amherst tournament finals.
As for reaction at the White House, the president “undoubtedly knows that John lost a three-round bout to another student,” reported the Associated Press on February 26, “but apparently has decided not to disclose his opinion of collegiate boxing and his son’s first appearance in the ring.”
Not publicly, anyway.
After initially stating his intention to compete in the 1927 Amherst tournament, in an interview published October 16, 1926, John Coolidge revealed that his boxing days were over “because of parental disapproval.” To enforce the presidential ban on boxing and other extra-curricular distractions, Col. Edward Starling of the Secret Service was dispatched full-time to Amherst to, in the words of the United News report, “accompany (John) to and from school, to advise about his friends, censor his amusements and protect his health.”
The last one was no small consideration. In the wake of the publicity surrounding John’s bout with Silverman he had received death threats in the mail.
Upon graduating from Amherst in 1928, John Coolidge became a businessman and was, up to his death in 2000, a loyal, God-fearing Republican like his dad.
Always in the opposite corner, Matty Silverman became a labor lawyer and, according to James F. Gill, who gave the eulogy at Silverman’s funeral in 1988, an atheist on “the far left of the political spectrum.”
After he won the heavyweight title in 1964, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. John Coolidge got a new name, too, after his fight. For the rest of his collegiate days he was known as “Butch.”
If Butch Coolidge sounds familiar to boxing cognoscenti, it’s because in the classic 1993 noir film Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis plays a boxer by that name who accepts a gangster’s bribe to take a dive in a fight but then flattens his opponent instead.
Is there any significance that he had the same name as Calvin Coolidge’s boxing son? Not according to the celluloid Butch.
“I’m an American, honey,” he tells his French girlfriend. “Our names don’t mean squat.”