The Shakespearean Pugilist

It’s probably a safe bet that there will never be another athlete who visits Yale to lecture about Shakespeare. That’s what reigning heavyweight champion Gene Tunney did on the Bard’s birthday in 1928, at the invitation of his friend, English professor William Lyon Phelps. Phelps, a renowned teacher, had met Tunney not long before. He was impressed when the fighter told him that he read Shakespeare because “He has taught me about life and all that’s beautiful in it.”

Tunney’s fiancée, Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder, some of whose family members had attended Yale, didn’t want him to go, fearing that he would be “eaten alive” by an academic crowd. But Tunney was greeted with great enthusiasm by hundreds of students. He spoke affectingly of how he fell in love with books, especially Shakespeare, who he suggested had “done more for the world, in the way of giving it higher ideals and the appreciation of beauty in life than any other man outside the theological field.” But his appreciation didn’t come easy: he told the students of how he had read The Winter’s Tale 10 times before he felt confident that he understood the meaning. He read to them from Troilus and Cressida and mischievously compared Ajax with heavyweight contender Jack Sharkey—“a great big ambitious fellow, given to extended mouthings.” (At the time, Sharkey was regarded as the next logical challenger to Tunney, but Tunney retired a few months after his Yale appearance and never fought the temperamental Bostonian.)

Tunney’s love of literature was self-taught, and his greatness as a boxer was largely a matter of will and determination as well. Using himself as an example, he told the students: “Nobody has gotten anything in this world for nothing. You can’t develop your muscles by leaving them idle, nor can you develop the brain by not working, or even straining it a little—it won’t hurt it any. Nobody has ever gotten anything in this world without work, nor has anybody gotten any knowledge in this world without studying and working hard for it. . . . I am trying to develop my intellect the same as everyone else.”

Amazingly, Tunney's Yale talk was derided by sportswriters. “Harvard, I trust, will counter by asking Babe Ruth to tell the boys in Cambridge just what Milton has meant to him,” wrote Heywood Broun. “Let’s have prizefighters with harder wallops and less Shakespeare,” sniffed Will Rogers, who also mocked Tunney’s ten readings of The Winter’s Tale. “Is there something wrong with Shakespeare or with Gene?”

It was Tunney’s misfortune that the world—or at least, the sports world in 1928—just wasn’t ready for an athlete, especially a pugilist, who loved books and who genuinely believed in the classical ideal of a sound mind in a strong body.