James J. Corbett is best remembered for being the heavyweight-boxing champion from 1892 to 1897. Nicknamed “Gentleman Jim,” Corbett has been called the “Father of Modern Boxing” because of his innovations in fighting style. The college-educated Corbett also acted, and had leading roles in several plays. Erroll Flynn portrayed Corbett in the 1942 film “Gentleman Jim.” 1
But Corbett would also go down in the history of Milwaukee. It was his visit to the young Milwaukee Press Club in 1898 that started a tradition that lives on to this day – the signing of autograph plaques.
Corbett penned his named to a wall in the old press club meeting place on Feb. 9. 1898, and returned on Dec. 28, 1908 to sign another.
His initial plaque signing was followed up with the April 13, 1899 wall-signing visit of presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.
Both of those signatures are now displayed at the club’s current meeting place, the Newsroom Pub, at 137 E. Wells St. in downtown Milwaukee. They are part of collection of more than 1,200 signatures of presidents and princes, famous journalists and entertainers, athletes and other greats who have visited the Milwaukee Press Club – the oldest continuously operating press club in the Americas.
As the signature collection grew in the club’s early years, the club started the current practice of signing on matte board, but still in chalk as had been originally done. The signatures on the walls were eventually cut out and removed when the club switched meeting quarters.
The club moved a number of times thereafter, but eventually settled in the Fine Arts building on East Wells Street, where it met for many years. But a series of moves following the departure from the Fine Arts building put the signature collection at risk; the handling and less-than-ideal storage conditions threatened the plaques.
That situation prompted the club, in 1999, to donate the entire collection of signatures and other memorabilia to the Urban Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Archives properly catalogued the collection, and now holds the items in archive-quality storage. Those archived files are open to the public for viewing. Click here to see a list of the records.
Sotheby’s auction house has called the collection one of the most impressive autograph collections in the world.
The signatures on display at the Newsroom Pub are on loan back to the club and Newsroom.
The club continues to add to the collection, requiring, except in rare cases, that the plaques be signed at the Newsroom Pub by persons visiting the Press Club.
1: “Corbett, James J..” Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
<http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9026242> [Accessed January 17, 2006].