When a man with a national reputation for cheating tells you his life story, should you believe him?
James Connelly said he crossed the American continent 102 times to attend sporting events. And he never once paid admission.
Using deception, distraction, and bluff, James “One-Eyed” Connelly was probably the first man to be famous for gate crashing.
He had trained to become a professional boxer but gave it up after losing his sight in one eye. But he still loved the sport, and when John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett fought for the heavyweight title in 1892, Connelly travelled to New Orleans to witness the event.
He arrived without money for a ticket. So he told the gatekeeper he was bringing a message from Sullivan’s brother. He was conducted to the champ’s dressing room where he confessed his deception. Sullivan admired Connelly’s nerve and allowed him to stay.
That early success led to a 40-year career of sneaking into major sporting events like the World Series, Kentucky Derby, prizefights, and, later, political conventions.
He had an inexhaustible supply of ruses for getting in. He’d forge press credentials. He’d dress up as an ambulance driver responding to an emergency call. He’d carry a block of ice on his back, allegedly for a concession stand.
He once pretended to be a painter working on the stadium. He approached the gatekeeper and asked what to paint next. The man told him to go inside and ask the boss.
Connelly survived by occasionally taking odd jobs like elevator operator, waiter, or newsboy. But he’d never spend his money on admission, or on travel; he always rode the rails to events.
His reputation and his distinctive looks made gate crashing more difficult. But he was persistent. At the Dempsey-Carpentier match in Jersey City, he was turned away at 13 gates but got through the 14th by carrying a jug of coffee and basket of sandwiches borrowed from stadium workers.
As Connelly’s reputation grew, so did the determination of promoters to keep him out. In Milwaukee, one promoter swore Connelly would never get in. According to Trevor Kraus, Connelly simply sneaked in the night before, climbed to a girder in the ceiling, tied himself securely to it, and slept. When he was spotted during the boxing match, he was given an ovation by the crowd.
Some of his techniques seem to have been thought up on the spur of the moment. In the 1920s, he got into the Democratic convention by carrying a door that he’d removed from a nearby café.
In 1924, a policeman caught him trying to enter a convention. As Carl Sifakis tells it in his book American Eccentrics, he handcuffed Connelly to a bench outside the building. When the cop had gone, Connelly picked up the bench, carried it to the gate and explained, “They want this on the speaker’s platform,” and was allowed in.
John R. Schmidt, in his Chicago History blog, notes that, in 1945, the security chief at Wrigley Field hired him to be a ticket taker. Connelly knew a lot of the dodges that gate crashers used, so when a man tried entering by claiming to be the team’s owner, Phil Wrigley, Connelly told him to get lost. It was Connelly’s first and last day on the job; the man really was Phil Wrigley.
Struck by ill health after four decades of gate crashing, Connelly quit the game. It was just as well, he said. The romance had gone out of it. “Now they’ve got dames on a lot of the gates,” he said, “and no gentleman would take advantage of them.”
Featured image: Fox Movietone news story from February 6, 1928, showing Connelly (left) and a guard who caught him gate crashing. (Courtesy University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections, Fox Movietone News)
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