Joe Holman used to be two sportswriters and a poet, which is a lot for any man. He still turns out verse, but long ago gave up the dual personage. As Bob Thayer on the old afternoon Washington Times, he often would debunk the very reports he had written under the Holman byline for that morning's Herald. By and by, he turned to publicity, to which he has given his whole being.
Joe Holman has publicized everything from the Redskins to Roller Derby to the . . . "Roller Skating Vanities?" "Yes, somewhere in the '50s, at Uline Arena," he says. "Even the floor went wrong. It just collapsed. Damnedest thing I ever saw." Which is mostly everything, including a '40s Washington Capitols-St. Louis Bombers game that was fogged out -- a basketball game yet.
Currently, he's pushing the $125-a-plate Touchdown Club awards dinner Jan. 12 at the Sheraton Washington. What's remarkable is that Holman promoted the first Touchdown Club dinner, in 1935. A ticket was $1.50. For his services, Holman received "$25 and all the ham and cabbage I could eat."
January's dinner will be the Touchdown Club's 50th. Holman is 80 years old. The numbers have grown impressive.
What giant of the sports world hasn't known Holman? He knew Connie Mack when Mack was merely old, and Joe Cronin when Cronin was a skinny new shortstop.
"You say you want me in Washington -- I'll be there." That was what Connie Mack told him on the phone one time, and Mack came. Showed up by himself, and he was well past 80.
And: "Joe Holman. Joe Holman." Holman was walking along Fifth Avenue in New York. "It was Max Schmeling, running up. I had met him in Washington when he could hardly speak English, except when I got through with him he could a little bit. Now he's saying, 'Joe, I speak English now.' I asked him, 'How'd you do it?' " meaning knock out Joe Louis, not learn English. " 'I hit him,' he said. But he made one big mistake: You don't take a rematch with Louis."
Name it, Holman has beaten promotional drums for it. A mere few: the Capitols, Capitals, Bullets, Globetrotters, the "Holman Wonder Five" (which worked out against the Palace Laundry), the Homestead Grays, horse racing, the circus, simulated "computer" fights (Marciano vs. Ali), boat shows and professional wrestling ("I'll bet you didn't know that Gorilla Monsoon was an honor student at Ithaca College?").
Joe Holman is big for his age, which is why if you sit in a sports department you always see him coming. He's 6 feet 4. His white hair is thinned, but the stride remains distinctively long and ever aimed for those who might pass on his up-to-the-minute bulletins.
Always, he's kept an office in the city. He loves the city, where there are a thousand stories to publicize. His address has changed periodically, but it's usually a venerable building, one with an unfailingly polite older woman operating the elevator, always with a little fan in it. The office doors have frosted glass, and the radiators burn hot and clean. Of late, he's been in a place like that on McPherson Square.
The room is decorated in early-to-late Joe Holman. His old Royal typewriter sits on the big desk. Next to it is a magnifying glass, which he uses to read the releases he types. A 1920 poster decorates one wall: "$50,000 World's Championship Wrestling Match: Earl Caddock vs. Joe Stecher -- Positive Finish Match or Your Money Refunded." On another wall: two small wrestlers aiming for headlocks: Sky Low Low and Little Beaver. In an adjacent frame: the late Jimmy Lake, feisty little burlesque entrepreneur and ring announcer. Having fallen from a ring and broken his back, Lake is pictured out of his customary tuxedo with the carnation in the lapel and in a hospital bed being serenaded by Sophie Tucker. Representing the modern era: 7-4, 500-pound Andre the Giant, in almost life-size caricature, squeezing a comparatively minuscule wrestling opponent in a mammoth palm.
But what of all the five-gallon jugs of Polar Water on Holman's office floor? Seven filled, two empty. The elixir of life? No, just one of those things Holman can't quite explain. "For some reason, I'm always afraid I'm going to run out," he says.
Holman used to hang his big sport coat at the Franklin Park Hotel, around the corner from the 14th Street NW strip. The late Vince McMahon, who was the whole Capitol Wrestling Corp., used to have a suite there, where wrestlers would sleep before hitting the road to another one-night stand, in Lancaster or someplace. There was a kitchen in the back when an ex-wrestler named Toots Mondt, who was about 6-2, 260 pounds and known for throwing large guys from rings, would do his own cooking. "He was pretty good in a free-for-all, too," says Holman.
Older men who were usually short and wore hats and smoked cigars, assorted friends of the Capitol Wrestling Corp., would assemble in McMahon's suite to review unique promotional stratagems. Phil (The Little Giant) Zacko, who now works out of Harrisburg, Pa. And little Willie Gilzenberg. "When Willie died," says Holman, "he could afford to." Sam the Mumbler's duties were hard to fathom because he didn't speak so one could understand. But Evil Eye Finkel had defined talents: He used to put the hex on opposing fighters. His zinger or double-whammy, mythical hexes though they were, stimulated ticket sales at boxing and wrestling matches in the '30s and '40s. He also was known for his $55 overcoat, which he got in a 1926 trade, even up, for a fighter. "The Eye" liked to say, "I never could have made that kind of money with the fighter. I still got the overcoat and the fighter has been dead for a long time."
McMahon, a distinguished-looking man who almost always wore a blue suit and cuff links, usually presided while drinking coffee in a cardboard cup. McMahon was the wrestling promoter in the eastern United States because he made a lot of right decisions. Like changing Andre Roussimoff's name to Andre the Giant. One day when he was told that a friend of Holman's and Finkel's and The Mumbler's was down on his luck, McMahon leaned forward in his chair, concern showing, and said, "Put me down for a thousand."
Before that, Holman frequented the haberdashery Goldie Ahearn ran at Ninth and E streets NW. Ahearn had a pay phone there and a hammer to hit it with so he wouldn't have to put in a nickel.
"Goldie was a pretty good boxer," says Holman. A southpaw featherweight, Ahearn was known as a "cutie," which referred to his finesse, not his looks. "Only one guy hit him, that was Al Foreman," says Holman. "That was when Helene, who would be his wife, told him, 'Goldie, you're going to get out of boxing. You're going to promote it.' " Ahearn wasn't so sure, but then again he didn't like the way he had been hit.
"Of course," adds Holman, "there was a lot of Yogi Berra in Goldie. He addressed one group, 'Gentlemen of extinction . . . ' "
In the '40s, Holman and Ahearn teamed up to promote a women's baseball game at Griffith Stadium. "Goldie and I made a pretty good bundle out of that," says Holman. "Betty Foss was a big girl, she could hit a ball."
So they tried it again, and Holman says that's when they learned a fundamental principle in promotion: You can't overexpose the product.
He was luckier with Satchel Paige. During the war, crowds of more than 20,000 would come to Griffith Stadium to see Paige, of the Kansas City Monarchs, against the Homestead Grays, with Josh Gibson. One night -- it was the summer of '43 -- it rained hard and the wind howled but almost 25,000 were in the seats, waiting. To make matters worse, Paige had pitched nine innings in some town the night before.
"What are we going to do?" the Monarchs' owner asked Holman as the rain came down.
"Play," replied Holman.
"And," added Holman, "you've got to start Paige."
"Because we advertised him."
Paige started what was to be a brief appearance since his arm was tired but got caught up in the game and went 12 brilliant innings, losing, 2-1. "You're the most persuadingest and convincingest man I've ever known," the remarkable Paige told Holman.
Clearly, Holman was born to be a promoter, though he liked writing sports, and Arthur Godfrey used to read his poems on the radio. He broke into newspapers here in 1920, not long after arriving from his native Fayetteville, Tenn. In 1928, he was assigned to cover the Senators' spring training for the Washington Herald. "A $30 weekly salary, with no fringe benefits. I was ordered to limit my long distance calls and to, wherever possible, use the mail and not Western Union while submitting my copy."
In 1929, a dull Senators season though they all weren't then, Holman wrote under two bylines: his own in the morning Herald and that of Bob Thayer in the afternoon Times. He made $40 a week as Holman and $30 a week as Thayer. "Holman and Thayer clashed frequently," says Holman. Once the Herald failed to run a Holman story because of space, so he had it printed in the Times under the Thayer byline. "I turned it over to my other self," says Holman. Said the man who had tipped Holman on the story, "I'll never understand how you could pass up a good story and leave it to Bob Thayer, a complete stranger."
In May 1931, in the midst of one of the Senators' western swings, the Depression caught up with Holman in the form of a message from the Times' office: "You should get a job somewhere."
In 1933, the Washington Daily Sun started up, with Holman as its sports editor. "The Sun set in six weeks," he says.
Holman's new career in publicity dawned. It still was going strong last January when the Touchdown Club honored him at its 49th dinner. "Damn nice of 'em," he says.
The honors haven't slowed him. Since then, he has been working on the 50th: visiting people, mailing out or personally delivering his bona fide original press releases -- he uses no duplicating machine, no carbons. Some of the releases come affixed with the note, "Possibly useful in some instances."
They always are.