A little more than a century ago, before the invention of the television, sports fans living in the United States likely followed their favorite teams or athletes through the radio, newspapers or by attending events in person.
The sports landscape was largely dominated by baseball, golf, the early days of college football, horse racing and boxing.
Near the top of that boxing world in the 1910s was Lancaster’s Leo Houck, who was considered among the best middleweight boxers during that decade. Having lived in Lancaster City his entire life, Houck often fought in Lancaster and Philadelphia, consistently drawing crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands. His in-ring career consisted of an estimated 203 fights from 1902 to 1922, followed by a 27-year career as Penn State’s boxing coach.
Houck, who died in 1950, was later inducted into the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame in 1969, Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1972 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012. A plaque honoring Houck now stands in James Buchanan Park, near Franklin & Marshall College.
A book about Houck’s life and boxing career was recently published by author Randy Swope, a Lebanon County native and Navy veteran who has taken up writing as a hobby after retiring from a lengthy career working for the United States Department of Defense.
LNP|LancasterOnline chatted with Swope to discuss the book. Here’s that Q&A…
Why did you decide to write about Houck? “I had just finished self-publishing my first book about my great uncle. …I was actually recuperating from Lyme Disease. My son said I should start hitting a heavy bag to work my strength back up. I got an interest in boxing. I went to the PA Sports Hall of Fame website, where I found Leo Houck. I was naturally intrigued because Lancaster is close to where I live. I started researching him and, while I found some features, no one had ever covered his entire career. I thought, ‘I’ll try it.’”
In 1911, Houck beat Harry Lewis in front of 10,000 people in Paris in a fight dubbed to be for the, ‘world middleweight championship.’ The next year, Houck beat George Chip, who at the time was the middleweight champion. But Houck was never officially crowned the middleweight champion. Why? “When he fought Harry Lewis, a Philadelphia sports writer tried to publicize it in the United States that Leo was the middleweight champion. But at that time Harry Lewis was the welterweight champ in Europe. So you couldn’t apply that standard. …He beat the best of the day, but you had to knock the guy out. That was the thing back then. If you didn’t knock the guy out, you likely weren’t considered the champion.”
And some of Houck’s managers had trouble lining up championship fights or fights with big paydays, in part because Houck sometimes refused to travel long distances for fights and had a desire to play other sports: “A manager who would have pushed down on Leo to totally focus on boxing would’ve gotten fired because Leo wanted to do other sports. He wanted to play football. He was a semi-pro in baseball. …He was a guy who was not concerned about his legacy. To me, it seemed that way. He was a guy who said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to the best of my ability and we’ll leave it at that. I don’t need to establish myself as a superstar.’”
This isn’t in the book, but a year after Houck’s long tenure as Penn State’s boxing coach ended, Joe Paterno began as a Penn State football assistant: “When he (Houck) got to Penn State and coached, it became evident on how talented he really was in coaching so many teams and boxers to such success. Ed Hauck (Leo Houck’s son) later wrote to Joe Paterno, and Paterno responded with a letter that said, in essence, ‘When I came here, I actually had to fill Leo Houck’s shoes.’ Think about that.”