Dear Vance: When I worked at the Claridge Hotel in the late 1950s, there was an ex-prize fighter who hung around the place called Shifty Logan. What can you tell me about him?
— D.C., Memphis
Dear D.C.: There's a good reason I rarely write about so-called "prize fighting" in this column. The topic dredges up one of the lowest moments of my life. Some years ago, when I was a precocious tyke — oh, I was barely 29 or 30 years old — my parents, in a rare burst of civic involvement, decided to put on a boxing match in the Lauderdale Gymnasium for the benefit of the neighborhood orphans. Watching from the sidelines, the matches looked like great fun, and in a moment of madness, I clambered into the ring to go a few rounds with one of the toughest kids from the neighborhood. As soon as the assembled crowd spotted my flat chest, sticklike arms, and generally ill-proportioned figure, they began shouting, "Look, it's Gumby! Hey, Gumby!" Swinging those hefty gloves, and skipping about the canvas like a ballerina, I managed to last almost half a round before I was sucker-punched and knocked out.
That was the hardest-hitting Girl Scout I have ever encountered.
"Shifty" Logan had a bit more luck than I did, so I don't mind writing about him here, especially because he was such an interesting character. For one thing, "Shifty" wasn't his real name. He was born Logan Hipp in 1903, and he acquired his distinctive moniker because of the energetic way he bounced and bobbled as he dodged opponents' blows, much as I did. In fact, one sportswriter described his boxing style in this manner: "There was never anything else in heaven or earth quite like this crazy gyration, but if you can picture the frantic antics of a kangaroo which had just experienced the misfortune of sitting on an anthill, you will get a faint idea."
Logan's early days are lost to history. What is known — to me at least — is that he decided he could box, and he liked to tell how he picked up 75 cents by winning his first match in the old Phoenix Athletic Club downtown. He took part in almost 300 bouts all over the country, winning about two-thirds of them. As a result, he said, he came out even: "I was broke when I started boxing, and broke when I finished."
He might have done better, but he had two problems. According to Press-Scimitar sports columnist George Bugbee, Logan had "a couple of chinks in his fistic armor." For one thing, he wasn't a very strong boxer, and "his fists, albeit fast, lacked knockout power." The other problem, though, was that Logan just hated training for a match. His standard regimen, in fact, was to take a long nap under a favorite persimmon tree by the Overton Park golf course before any round. For these and other reasons, in the 1930s and '40s, Logan became a pretty well-known character around town.
"Shifty's world encompassed the street and the ring," wrote Bugbee, obviously a friend and a fan. "Twin stages whereon, with unfailing wit and good will, he played the character role of sidewalk philosopher and, in his more madcap moments in the ring, the slapstick comedian of all times."
In 1933, Logan persuaded former world champion Jack Dempsey to battle him in an exhibition match at a downtown theater. The "Manassa Mauler" toyed with Logan for a round or two, as Shifty jumped this way and that, even landing a few punches on Dempsey's noggin. That was enough. A reporter at the match said, "Dempsey's incomparable right then flicked out, and this time Shifty was carried away literally as well as figuratively." When he came to, he asked why Dempsey had hit him so hard.
"I didn't want to do it," Dempsey explained, "but I didn't know if he was going to hit me or kick me." Logan and Dempsey became pals, and they put on some 30 more matches over the years.
Even so, Logan seemed to have a knack for running into odd situations. One night, he found himself pitted in the ring against a fighter who was deaf and dumb. His opponent had a nasty habit of punching away at Logan long after the bell had rung between each round. When Logan complained, the ref said he couldn't do anything; the poor fellow couldn't hear the gong.
Logan told a reporter the rest of the story: "Each time, the guy made noises of apology, but that didn't help my chin any." It went on — third round, fourth round. Then he called the ref over. "How come," yelled Logan, "that guy can hear the bell opening the round, but somehow can't hear the one ending it?"
The ref put a stop to the shenanigans, and Logan won that match, but not many more of them. Throughout his career, he claimed the most he ever pocketed for a fight was $1,500. Since he couldn't make a decent living as a boxer, Logan became a firefighter in Memphis, but the job didn't suit him; he griped that he was bored playing checkers all day, waiting for a fire. His task was to handle the steering on the back end of a hook-and-ladder truck. One time, he said, "We were going to some little punk two-dollar fire somewhere, and we turn a corner, and I get the back wheels stuck in a wet street-car track." He got flipped off the fire truck and was knocked unconscious. When he finally came to, he apparently thought he was back in the boxing ring, because he started thrashing around, yelling, "I ain't out yet!" Later, he explained what happened with the truck: "Just because your front end gets around the corner, ain't no sign your back end is going to make it."
Logan eventually lost his fireman's post when he and a dozen others tried to organize a union. So he got on with the city's sanitation division, eventually becoming supervisor of the Southeast District.
But he was better known as the head of a local civic group called the "Bums Club." No Lauderdales were members of this group, I assure you, and I'm not entirely certain what they did. But the Bums held many benefit events and roasts, and the Press-Scimitar said, "He was a born comic. Logan's battle-scarred features lent something to his act, but he didn't need those props. His wits — no number of punches could extinguish them — were as fast as his mitts."
Reporters knew Logan was always "good copy." If they wanted an opinion on a local politician, his prediction of a football game, or his take on a horse race, they turned to him for advice and commentary. One day he was asked about the upcoming Kentucky Derby. He began to tout the virtues of a long-shot horse with the unfortunate name of Xalapa Clown, when he was asked how the nag would fare on a muddy track.
"Does he like mud?" Logan asked the reporter. "Does that s.o.b. like mud? Well, you put a bucket of mud in this hand," indicating his right hand, "and a bucket of oats in this hand, and he'd go for the mud every time!"
Logan was a big hit with local politicians, who often employed him to work for their campaigns or help with the voting booths (as shown in the photo at left; the photo above shows him in his younger days). In the late 1960s, he was so well-known there was a move to put his name on one of the alleys downtown, but nothing came of it. In 1967, a reporter asked why he hadn't left his sanitation department job; he had been eligible for retirement for years. "Ah, I'm better off working," Logan told him. "If I retired, with nothing to do, I'd just go from one beer joint to another."
In his later years, as his health declined, he moved to San Antonio to live with his son. As I pored over the newspaper clippings filed away on him at the library, I was surprised that nowadays so few people — and I was one of them — even know his name. But when he died in Texas in 1977 at the age of 74, the Press-Scimitar noted, "If Memphis should ever establish a hall of fame for its most colorful personalities, Shifty Logan almost certainly would be among the first inductees."