San Antonio’s Legendary Sporting District

By Sean B. McNelis

The Sporting District is an award-winning men's specialty shop located at the historic Pearl Brewery featuring the very best of Southern makers and craftsmen. With an irreverent wink to San Antonio's storied past, The Sporting District recalls the original "sporting district" first established in 1889 by an ordinance passed by the City of San Antonio for the conducting of all manner of sporting pursuits and legalized vice activities within the city limits.

The original sporting district filled a thriving ten-block section of San Antonio's near westside for over half a century, hosting gambling parlors, dance halls, saloons, and more than one hundred bawdy houses just south of the present-day El Mercado. Upon submission of an application to the City Clerk and payment of an annual license fee of $500, an owner of a "house of ill-fame" could obtain a license to lawfully "keep such a house" within the sporting district. While the majority of the establishments were small homes converted for this purpose, there were several larger brothels with such iconic names as The Three Twins, The Mansion (famous for having a bed made of real gold), El Toro, The Beauty Salon, The Dixie, the Marathon Club, and Fannie Porter's—the last of which was run by Ms. Porter (who many historians consider the most famous madam in all the old West). Equally famous patrons included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and the Dillinger Gang who traveled to San Antonio's sporting district to spend their ill-gotten fortunes.

By the turn of the century, San Antonio's sporting district had become one of the largest red-light districts in the nation, second only to New Orleans' Storyville. In 1911, local businessman and brothel owner, "Wild" Billy Keilman, published "the Blue Book," an insider's guide providing "a straight steer to the visitor within the gates of the Alamo City when the lights are turned on." The Blue Book was written for those whose "desires impel them to saunter forth to the enjoyment of the clinking glass, sports, and good fellowship," and included a directory of well over 100 bawdy houses within the district divided between Class A, B, and C establishments. Ratings were based on cleanliness, hospitality, and honesty. Originally published for $0.25 a copy, the Blue Book also advertised cock-fighting rings, gambling houses, and saloons where local musicians were often paid with beer donated to the cause by the Pearl Brewery. The present-day reiteration of The Sporting District—not unintentionally located within the renovated historic Pearl Brewery—has sourced and proudly offers republished copies of The Blue Book for sale at its store.

Alas, it was the advent of World War II and the stationing of so many servicemen in and around San Antonio that spelled the demise of the original sporting district. The area had become increasingly seedy and violent over time and General Dwight D. Eisenhower—who was at the time the Third Army's chief of staff at Ft. Sam Houston—demanded that then police commissioner P.L. Anderson shut the district down in 1941. The area fell into further disarray and was gradually replaced by modern development. The last remnants of the once-infamous sporting district were torn down during the construction of UTSA's downtown campus.

The spirit of the sporting life continues to thrive at The Sporting District where we offer "provisions for manly pursuits," albeit far more modern and gentile ones.