At the start of the school year of 1936-1937, Harvey L. “Heinie” Miller (1888 – 1967) was hired as head coach of the varsity boxing squad and professor of journalism by the University of Maryland, College Park. Miller was the right man for the job. He knew every aspect of the sport from personal experience and had spent 20 years writing about it. He put his stamp on the boxing program that same year: the team won the Southern Conference championship, and team boxer Ben Alperstein won the lightweight title in the National Inter-Collegiates. Under Miller’s direction, the terrapin tappers would twice more capture the Southern Conference title.
Miller was no stranger to the neighborhood. He had been involved with the Sportland boxing ring that opened in Berwyn Heights in 1922. At the time, boxing was illegal in the District of Columbia, and the action took place in nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. At Sportland, Miller initially was a referee and, in 1923, became the matchmaker. He staged several high-profile shows before Berwyn Heights Town commissioners clamped down on the entertainment. Among the star performers boxing under Miller’s promotion, was young Goldie Ahearn of Washington D.C., who would go on to become a nationally known boxer and promoter himself.
When the Sportland arena ran into difficulties obtaining permits for boxing shows, Miller promoted at Kenilworth Arena that opened in 1924. The boxing arenas stirred up a considerable amount of controversy in the still half-rural communities where they were located. The fights drew a lot of city folk that did not always behave in an exemplary manner. Berwyn Heights residents Jean McConnell and Jerry Anzulovic, who grew up in Berwyn Heights in the 1930s and 40s, remember hearing stories about “more fights taking place outside the arena than inside,” and “marshals regularly being called in to keep the peace.”
Reportedly, Kenilworth arena even was the target of a robbery by the notorious Candy Kid Gang of Baltimore. Miller told the Evening Star, when he was promoting at Kenilworth, he was tipped off by an anonymous caller about the planned robbery. So, he brought in a handful of battle-hardened Marines who, armed with sawed-off shot guns, guarded the box office on the night of the show. Residents, churches and women’s groups fought back by petitioning their Town and County Commissioners to stop the ‘brutal contests’ and withhold licenses.
Miller’s love affair with boxing started early. He began to box in staged fights at age 12 in a barn loft at North Avenue and 25th Street in his native Milwaukee. At age 17, he abandoned his theological studies at Concordia Lutheran College, and in 1905 joined the Navy. His training as a sailor took place on the frigate U.S.S. Constellation, now anchored in Baltimore Harbor as a museum.
Miller then was assigned to the U.S.S. Wilmington, where he had ample opportunity to box and refine his craft. He won the all-service bantam championship in 1906, and the Far East featherweight title in 1907. But his greatest achievement was winning the Far East lightweight title in 1908 against the Australian Jimmy Dwyer. The fight was featured in a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoon because Miller scored an improbable knockout in the 13th round after being floored 13 times in the first four rounds.
In 1921, Miller retired from the Navy and settled in Washington, D.C. He worked as an editor for Our Navy magazine, sports writer for the Washington Herald and publisher of the Coast Guard Magazine. He also organized the 5th Marine Reserve Battalion of the District of Columbia, and he promoted boxers at Sportland and Kenilworth Arena.
In 1934, boxing was finally legalized in the District, and the now legitimate sport was overseen by the new D.C. Boxing Commission. Heinie Miller was selected as its first chairman. When the D.C. Commission affiliated with the National Boxing Association, he quickly rose through the ranks of that organization and became President in 1939. To these responsibilities he added the coaching/teaching position at UMD in 1936.
In 1940, Colonel Miller took a leave of absence to return to active military duty. During World War II, he served in the Pacific with the 5th Marine Reserve Battalion with which he was still closely affiliated. After the war, he resumed his positions at the University of Maryland and the D.C. and National Boxing Commissions. In 1948, he was called upon to serve a stint as treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Committee. Miller continued to coach and write about boxing into the late 1950s. He died from pneumonia on December 26, 1967, survived by his daughter Lucilee Bernard, a grand-daughter and 2 great grand-children.
Sportland Boxing Ring flyer, BHHC 2013
University of Maryland Yearbook, 1937, p. 132
The Truth About Boxing, Harvey L. Miller, 1951, Introduction, Lewis F. Achison
Ring Career Began after Attempt at Theology, Lewis F. Atchison,
Evening Star, 1-28-1940
Newspaper articles from The Washington Post (posted at BHHC dropbox)
Newspaper articles from The Washington Times, Evening Star
(available at Chronicling America )
Author: Kerstin Harper
BHHC members recently visited the Prince George’s Historical Society Library in Greenbelt to look for information that would help pinpoint the location of the boxing ring that is the subject of this year’s historic marker. They were shown several interesting maps of Prince George’s County, including a hefty 1940 plat book by the Franklin Survey Company. The plat book was once used by a real estate agency and had a wealth of information about the communities it covered. Berwyn Heights is depicted in two detailed plates that show practically every structure in existence at the time.
The plate of Berwyn Heights, south side, has the Sportland property. It is under the name of Theresa Downey, who assumed the mortgage for the property from her parents Maria and John O. Waters.
One can clearly see the main house, several outbuildings and a path leading into the property from Waugh Avenue (Berwyn Road). While the boxing ring was no longer in existence in 1940, it is plausible that the ring stood at the end of the path. This squares with the location Ann Harris Davidson reports on page 31 in her book Berwyn Heights: Then & Now: west of the main house in a lower elevation, and with access from Waugh Avenue.