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Out of the Board Room – And into the Pit By Charlie Nelson from The Gamecock Magazine, July, 1982
A silver haired secretary stepped silently before the polished desk.
“Your wife is calling, Mr. Gowdy,” She said, and disappeared..
“Sam, have you seen the late edition of the GAZETTE?” Hope wanted to know.
“No, what is it?”
“Your picture is on the front page.”
Sam Gowdy glanced at the clock on his office wall; 4:00 p.m. – he supposed he should wait another hour, but to hell with that nonsense. At the corner newsstand he hurriedly bought an evening paper. A banner headline read, “COCKFIGHT FLOURISH IN PHOENIX.” A large photograph proved the point, and – sure enough – right in the center of the pit was Sam Gowdy refereeing the fight. The year was 1950.
Those few of us who have just chanced into a bar at some time in our lives may have seen a sign hanging on the wall, “Work is the Curse of the Drinking Man.” Although rightly proud of his record as a corporate executive, Sam Gowdy found his business responsibilities and frequent transfer of location interfering some with his cocking. In the March issue of THE GAMECOCK we wrote of Herbert Trautman and his retirement from active participation in our sport. Samuel Henry Gowdy’s retirement from professional responsibility now gives him the opportunity to return to the pit with greater enthusiasm and dedication than ever.
But Sam always found a way to make cock fighting a part of his life. (Well, perhaps we would have to make an exception of the four years he spent in the Navy during WWII.) Gowdy was born and reared in Phoenix, Arizona. Like Trautman, Gowdy’s introduction to game fowl resulted from his paper route. Sam delivered papers to a part of Phoenix named Franklin Village, or better known in the 1930’s as Poverty Park. Driven out of California by a strict new anti-cocking law, a famous gaff maker, J. W. Wisecup, moved onto Sam’s route and remodeled his garage into a shop. Wisecup also kept a few game fowl, and his paper boy was fascinated. Soon Sam was giving up his Saturdays to work with Wisecup; he never tired of the excitement of the master gaff maker pull a piece of heated steel from the forge and pound the metal into the die which the lad held for him.
Wisecup paid his apprentice with roosters and soon was taking the boy to fights with him. The older man was noted for always using a 2 – 3/8” gaff, and soon Sam was holding while Wisecup heeled his birds. It was only natural Gowdy would start raising stags of his own, at first handled by Wisecup, and finally in the pit himself. To this day Gowdy remembers his first opponent in the pit, another youngster name Ben Stockton. The pit was located on the Stockton Dairy Farm west of Phoenix. “Ben had a lot more experience than I,” Sam recalls; “I went to the drag pit with him and he beat me.” Ernie Stroebel, a neighbor of Sam’s in the 1940’s but now living in Brownwood, Texas, taught the lad much about conditioning and handling roosters. Unfortunately – before he had much time to put his newly gained knowledge into practice, Japan was banging in our door. Sam gave away his roosters and enlisted in the Navy. Looking back, it seems ironic a man who was to become nationally known in the sport for championing the cause of his Jap roosters should have his life so arbitrarily interrupted by another sort of “Japs.”
Returning to Phoenix with his old company following the war, Gowdy was eager to return to cock fighting. Unfortunately he had no room at his own home which would permit him to raise roosters. A Phoenix car salesman named Vicory fought game birds and asked Sam to handle for him. Sam was back in the pit again – now he knew he was really home. At this time fights were held regularly at Safford, Arizona as well as at Phoenix.
Vicory wear white coveralls to one of the fights and managed to get them somewhat bloody before night was over. Following the fights Gowdy and Vicory stopped by a coffee shop; sight of blood alarmed the waitress no end. The quick thinking Gowdy said, “Oh, this man is a race car driver and was in a bit of an accident this evening.” The waitress became very solicitous and expressed repeated concern for the state of health of the poor, battered Mr. Vicory.
Just as Sam was becoming established again in his favorite sport in Phoenix, he transferred to Denver. Here Gowdy crossed paths with a well known cocker named Clarence Shears. Shears had acquired a black Asil cock from a flyer stationed a Lowry Air Force Base in Denver; the young officer had flown the rooster back from India in his plane. Shears bred this Asil blood into his basically Roundhead fowl to develop Shears Reds. Shears and Gowdy became a team, fighting in Cheyenne, Wyoming one week and Rocky Ford, Colorado the next. Gowdy heeled and handled and Shears provided his own breed of Reds; together they became the terror of two States, one night at Rocky Ford derby winning 15 out of 16 fights.
So the black Asil, from India, courtesy of Air Force transit, provided Gowdy’s introduction to oriental blood. It was Doug Hughes, a yound home builder in Denver who introduced Sam to Japs. Doug and Sam rented a large chicken house and Doug brought materials from his construction project. The two men build pens inside the chicken house, teamed up for several derbies and Sam was once more in business as a chicken fighter. An then he was transferred to Boise, Idaho.
On this move Gowdy purchased a home on a small acreage and, for the first time in several locations, was able to have his own roosters. To help him start again, friend Doug Hughes (now in California) sent him some Chets – a breed of fowl carrying the name of the man who developed them – a cop on the Los Angeles police force named Chet. Doug also sent a trio of Hatch Clarets; Same crossed these breeds and produced roosters which gave a good accounting of themselves on many occasions in Idaho. Cock fighting in that State was a quiet matter, the fights held first on one farm, then on another, often in potato cellars. A 1 ½” gaff was favored. Sam later teamed up with Doug and Ray Sherder of Missouri to form the “Palm Springs” entry at Phoenix “Copper State” 12 cock derby. They had an entry every year up to the flood a couple years ago that destroyed the pit and terminated this great annual derby.
For the best interests of Sam’s cock fighting, he was probably too good at his regular job. Another promotion came along and a transfer back to Denver, his company’s headquarters. But once more there was no acreage and no place to have roosters so another team was born, Gowdy with Ed Weldon. It was at this stage in his pit career Sam acquired the first Japs of his own. He purchased 8 stags from Andy Jones in Santana, Kansas for $25.00 a piece. The birds were ½ Jap and ½ Miner Blue.
The following year Gowdy took his roosters to a large derby sponsored by the West Nebraska Game Club at Kimball, Nebraska – and won! He was so pleased, and so appreciative of his birds he send Jones a healthy bonus. Jones then sold Gowdy a pair of pure Japs and Sam has been breeding these fowl ever since.
Another in the long series of team partners with whom Sam Gowdy has been associated over the years was a Denver oil man named Bob Metcalf. Metcalf acquired fowl of a number of different breeds which Gowdy successfully crossed with his Japs: Greys from Cecil Davis, Hatch and Blues from Art Hefner, Roundheads from George Wood, Cart Davis and Billy Abbott and Brown Reds from Willard Hibbs.
Gowdy fight Japs in both gaffs and slashers with 5/8, ½, 3/8 or ¼ cross and is proud of their performance in all these circumstances.
On one occasion my sone, Lance, went to Kansas with Sam where Gowdy won a slasher derby in straight fights. When the birds were uncrated at Averyhurst on the way home, they, scarcely looked as though they had been in a fight.
After the long line of distinguished enthusiasts of our sport who have teamed with Sam Gowdy over the years. I feel privilege to now have my name added to that list. Sam and I have tied or won 5 derbies this year as of the date of writing – May 1.
In reminiscing about all this, I reminded Same he had not told us his wife’s reaction to his picture on the front page of the Phoenix GAZETTE. “Oh, Hope has always been supportive of me,” he said, “even though we were married for 25 yeas before Hope went to her first cock fight. That was a derby at Santana, Kansas promoted by the well known Hard Rock Davis. I won that derby and my wife decided maybe chicken fighting had its good points after all. “We have no pangs of conscience about the sport. TO UNDERSTAND COCK FIGHTING, YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE COCK.” Gowdy continued, warming to his subject, “A game cock’s main goal in life is to fight another cock. Once you understand this, the sport is no longer a bloody, brutal exhibition. It is a contest; it is true sport.”
“You’ve had a brilliant career in the pit, Sam. Any helpful words for the rest of us?” I asked.
“Yes, Charlie, a couple. One, it’s great to be retired and be able to spend my time the way I want. Two, our athlete – the rooster – is like any other athlete; he must stay condition. In two weeks you can’t bring up a good cock; if you haven’t taken care of him all year it’s impossible to win. God year ‘round care – there is no substitute for it.”
What I’ve written above is information which I have wheedled out of Sam over the years we have worked together. But I must share one of my own memories of Sam Gowdy with you or this article wouldn’t be comlete. The time and place of this incident will not be mentioned – for obvious reasons – but the rest of it is Gospel truth. Sam and I were both busy looking after our roosters during a derby when, suddenly we heard someone shout at the top of his voice “POLICE!” We both grabbed our gaff boxes and ran out the back door of the barn where a temporary pit had been set up. In no time at all our path was blocked by an impressive six foot board fence topped by barbed wire. I was up and over, dropping down into a corral filled with feeder cattle. Sam wasn’t quite as fortunate, getting his britches entangled in the barbed wire. Held securely on top of the fence. Sam hollered to me, “Charlie, Charlie, don’t leave me! I’m caught – help me off this damned fence.”
I raced back to the fence and managed to disengage Sam. We headed off across the extensive feeding pens, Sam now streaking out ahead of me. He may be six inches shorter that I and a generation older, but that rascal can flat cover the ground when the motivation is right.
We sat out the raid in the muck and ooze of a muddy corral whose ground had been turned into soup by perhaps a hundred head of milling cattle. When next we were seen by the likes of mankind, our attire left something to be desired. In some circles we have been known ever since as “Dirty Charlie” and “Slippery Sam.”
But after all, what is cock fighting anyway? It’s love of sport, a love of beautiful birds with a lot of guts, a love of competition. Yes, it’s all of that but it’s more. It’s also the companionship of some very special people, some of the best people I’ve ever known.