Never mind Tom Brady or Ted Williams. John L. Sullivan may have been the biggest sports hero Boston ever had.
“People like to say that John L. Sullivan was the Babe Ruth of boxing, but they’ve got it backward,” said Christopher Klein, author of “Strong Boy,” a new biography of Sullivan. “Ruth was the Sullivan of baseball. He was that big.”
Klein will discuss his book Monday at 9:30 a.m., at Beverly Public Library at 32 Essex St.
Sullivan was champion from 1882 to 1892 and was originally a bare-knuckle boxer, which was illegal. But he promoted the use of gloves and the Marquis of Queensbury Rules that still govern the sport, Klein said.
“There was no such thing as a professional boxer before Sullivan came along,” he said.
While modernizing boxing, Sullivan also helped create the modern idea of a sports hero, along with the kind of celebrity that now dominates popular culture.
“He found different avenues of fame,” Klein said. “He owned a sports bar in Boston. Professional baseball teams would pay him to pitch in exhibition games, and he’d get half the gate. A vaudeville circus hired him, put him in tights and white powder, and he posed as Greek statues.
“He was constantly touring and made money from box-office receipts. Sullivan traveled so much, he was one of the most-seen people in America.”
He also drank so much that he was given last rites three times, and like any modern celebrity who falls from grace, he swore off his vices and became a temperance speaker.
The last biography of Sullivan was 25 years ago, Klein said, and the Internet has opened up archives from regional newspapers that were previously hard to access.
“I don’t see it as a boxing book,” he said. “What appealed to me was these cultural and historical aspects of Sullivan’s story.”
Klein is especially drawn to the role Sullivan played in the “Irish coming of age in America.”
“You have this generation that came over in the potato famine,” he said. “They came to Boston and were snubbed by Yankee elites.
“But for the generation born here, Sullivan becomes a symbol of the most powerful man in world, with Irish blood in his veins.”