He had few qualifications for his job. He did not emerge snarling with resentment from a ghetto, nor was his childhood lost in the bowels of some coal mine or steel mill. He was predominantly German on his father's side of the family, Scotch-Irish on his mother's, but no ethnic fires flamed in his far from savage breast. Although in the latter stages of his boxing career he wore the Star of David on his trunks, he was only a quarter Jewish, by virtue of a paternal grandfather. He was reared on farms by parents so loving that the children kissed them goodby before journeys no more venturesome than to the town pharmacy. He was such a timid youngster that he refused to fight when challenged by his schoolmates, sending forth his older sister as surrogate belligerent. By his own recollection, he did not hit another person until he was in his late teens, and then not in anger but in self-defense. Boy and man, he sought only to amuse. He seems, like Sabatini's Scaramouche, to have been "born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad." Above all else, he was a lover, not a fighter.
That such a man should have become heavyweight champion of the world and a principal in some of the ring's bloodiest conflicts, including one—purportedly two—that brought about the death of an opponent is one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the history of sport. In all probability, there never has been a fighter so contradictory in nature as Max Baer, and this is written with full knowledge that Muhammad Ali is equal parts jester and assassin. Forty years before Ali occupied center stage. Max Baer was entertaining and confounding ringsiders with routines that seemed more appropriate to musical comedy than to the squared circle. Unlike Ali, Baer was invariably the butt of his own japery, and if he was not the fighter Ali is—or was—he could, as they say, sure bust you up with a right hand.
Fighting at a time when only the most pedestrian of journalists addressed pugilists by their given names, Baer accumulated more nicknames than any fighter before or since. It is a tribute to this infinite variety that he was the Livermore Larruper, the Livermore Butcher Boy, Madcap Maxie, the Larruping Lothario of Pugilism, the Pugilistic Poseur, the Clouting Clown, the Playboy of Pugilism and the Fistic Harlequin. He provided lively newspaper copy, for he was the most quotable of boxers; in all likelihood, the most quotable of athletes. When ex-champion Jack Dempsey, working in Baer's corner during his fight with Joe Louis, advised him not to worry because "he hasn't hit you yet, kid," Baer turned dolefully to Dempsey and, through bloodied lips, replied, "Then you better keep an eye on Arthur Donovan [the referee] because somebody in there is beating hell of out me."
Still, as many fans and newsmen as Baer delighted, he antagonized an equal number. For those who took seriously this most serious of all sports, Baer was outrageous. He had a magnificent 6'2½", 210-pound physique, with "airplane-width" shoulders, a broad chest, a 32-inch waist and long, smoothly muscled arms. He could take a punch as well as any heavweight, and there are those who say he hit harder with a right hand than anyone who ever fought. When it was fashionable among fight people to sculpt in the imagination the composite boxer—Louis' jab, Dempsey's left hook, etc.—the right hand was invariably Baer's. But he seemed to do his roadwork on nightclub dance floors, and his sparring was mostly verbal. His training camps—in boxing tradition, hideaways as free of merriment as Montserrat—were like borscht circuit resorts, with Max as social chairman. Against the fiercest opponents he often fought indifferently and with the detachment of one reviewing a performance instead of performing. "Did the people enjoy it?" he would inquire after the battle.
In 1935 Baer lost his championship to the Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock, a 10-1 underdog, in one of the biggest upsets in ring history. He clowned through much of this desultory bout, grimacing in imitation of the movie tough guy, hitching up his pants, chatting amiably with ringside spectators. After one glancing Braddock blow, he performed a rubber-legged dance that Chaplin might have envied. All the while, the plodding, desperate challenger, fresh off the relief rolls, was collecting the points that would win him boxing's richest prize. As if the comedy in the ring were not enough, Baer could josh about the defeat afterward. Complaining that he had been literally handicapped—he had injured his right hand in training—he quipped, "My punches hurt me more than they did Braddock."
But there were occasions when Baer looked as if no man alive could survive in the ring with him. Max Schmeling was among the finest of heavyweights, an ex-champion, later the first conqueror of Joe Louis. On June 8, 1933, in the searing heat of Yankee Stadium, Baer knocked out Schmeling in the 10th round of a fight that earned the winner a chance at the title. Schmeling went down in that final round from a picture-perfect right that left him squirming on the canvas. He regained his feet, but the fight was quickly stopped. Baer won the championship easily, knocking down Primo Carnera 11 times in 11 rounds before the fight was halted. Even with so much on the line, he remained Madcap Maxie, remarking to the champion after he had been dragged down by him after an exchange, "Last one up is a sissy."
"Max hated fighting," says Mary Ellen Baer, his widow. "How he ever hit anybody, I'll never know. He wouldn't even strike his own children. All he wanted to do was entertain people. I can't imagine a person as soft as he was becoming champion of the world. He was so kind. He had no mean streak at all."
"He was one lovable bastard," says Tom Gallery, who promoted some of Baer's fights in the Los Angeles Olympic in the early '30s. "He's the last person you'd ever expect to be a fighter. Why, he'd be clowning around 10 minutes before a fight. But, oh, what he could have been."
"It is incongruous that such a gentle, ingratiating man should have been a fighter," says Alan Ward, former sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, who was on the boxing beat at the start of Baer's career in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I remember when he was training for an important fight up at Frank Globin's resort at Lake Tahoe. My God, now that I think about it, it might even have been the early part of his training for Carnera. Anyway, he did about three weeks of pretty tough work. He had his brother Buddy with him and his trainer, Mike Cantwell. Max was actually working hard. This was for the championship, mind you. Then one night the phone in my room rang and it was Max. 'Let's go to Reno,' he says. I protested, but after all, it wasn't too far and I was a newspaperman, so I said O.K. Well, we hit some spots. Max wasn't much of a drinker, but he liked the atmosphere in the clubs. Word got out that he was in town, so he had an audience wherever he went. All night long he entertained, dancing and singing. At daybreak he was leading the band at one of the all-night places—I believe it might have been a brothel. All this while training for a big fight. When we got back to Globin's, there like the portrait of doom stood his trainer, Cantwell. Max went out and did his roadwork without saying a word."
The ring was Max Baer's stage. He was a farm boy who gloried in crowds, the lights, the action. The business of the ring, the actual fighting, was an intrusion to be gotten over with. Fighting was a means of making easy and quick money, and the farm boy coveted fast cars, fancy clothes and fast and fancy women. His career, 1929-41, exactly spanned the years of the Great Depression, a time when many a poor but strong young man turned in desperation to boxing as a livelihood. Boxers in the Depression were often the protagonists of plays and films, portrayed not so much as Neanderthals but as sensitive victims of the system. The fighters in Golden Boy, City for Conquest, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even The Prizefighter and the Lady, featuring Myrna Loy and Max Baer, were not primitives. Before the seamier side of the business became exploitable dramatically, boxing could be made to appear the stuff of romance.
Baer discovered rather late in his youth that fighting was something he could do well. It did not immediately occur to him that a price for his prowess would be exacted. He would not pay in physical injury as so many others had, but in something dearer—mental anguish.
Max Baer was born Feb. 11, 1909 in Omaha. His father, Jacob, was a butcher of distinction, capable of dressing a 1,300-pound steer in three minutes and 36 seconds, a time he recorded in a contest in Denver, where the family had moved. When Max was in his teens, Jacob took the family to California, first to Galt, then to a hog ranch he had leased near Livermore, 45 miles east of San Francisco. There were four Baer children—Frances, the oldest, Max, Bernice and Jacob (Buddy), who would himself become a heavyweight contender. There was also Augie Silva, a Portuguese immigrant, a year younger than Max, who worked with the boys on the ranch and eventually took the Baer name as his own.
According to family legend, Max did not learn to fight until he was wrongfully accused of stealing a bottle of wine from a tough steeplejack in an argument outside a Livermore dance hall. The accuser popped teen-ager Max on the chin, and Max laughed, mostly, he said later, because he was glad he was still alive. When the steeplejack tried another punch, Max knocked him kicking with a single right-hand haymaker. It was a heady moment for a boy who had believed himself a coward and, the Baers say, it was the making of a heavyweight champion. Encouraged by his family and friends, Max bought a punching bag for $25 in Oakland and set up a gym in an abandoned building on the ranch. With his newfound confidence and the conviction that the ring offered better wages than did slaughtering hogs, he sought counsel from the savants of "Bash Boulevard." a three-block stretch of Franklin Street in downtown Oakland where the fight crowd congregated.
"He looked like an Adonis," recalls Joe Herman, boxing's current elder statesman in the Bay Area. "But he was just a big inexperienced kid. Still, with that build, everybody wanted to help him." Baer's first bona fide manager was J. Hamilton Lorimer, once his employer at the Atlas Diesel Engine Works in Oakland. As a tutor, Lorimer hired Bob McAllister, a fistic classicist who, like Gentleman Jim Corbett before him, had represented the San Francisco Olympic Club as a heavyweight. Although his sensibilities were frequently offended by his wild-swinging protègè, McAllister persevered with his lessons, contriving somehow to teach him a passable left hook. Baer made his professional debut early in 1929 with a second-round knockout of Chief Cariboo in Stockton. Fighting primarily out of that California valley city and Oakland, he quickly accumulated a string of 12 knockouts. He advanced from the Stockton rings to the Arcadia Pavilion in Oakland and to the even more capacious Oakland Auditorium. His first fight outside the Bay Area was a 10-round decision over Ernie Owens in Los Angeles on April 22, 1930. The victory itself was no more impressive than the contract-signing ceremony that preceded it. Baer arrived for this event in a limousine, driven by a chauffeur and attended by a footman. He stepped out of the car dressed as if riding to hounds. "I knew then," says Gallery, "that Max Baer was a little different from the ordinary guy."
Baer's reputation as a murderous puncher and bon vivant spread throughout California. He was now a drawing card, and his fight with Jack Linkhorn on May 28, 1930, transferred from the Arcadia to the Auditorium, drew a sellout crowd. Linkhorn, winner of 18 consecutive fights by knockout, was knocked out by Baer in the first round. The winner's purse of $7,500 was Max' biggest. He went through it in a flash, for even at 21 he was a prodigious spender. In later life this largess would assume the form of extravagant generosity; in these early years, he simply spent what he made on himself and his parents. He was frequently in debt, and to keep solvent he devised the ultimately pound-poor scheme of selling pieces of himself to various investors. When a final accounting was attempted to determine who owned what of him, lawsuits fairly fluttered through the courtrooms, some filed by Baer himself. But neither litigants nor creditors could daunt his high spirits. Baer moved his family off the hog ranch into a fine house in Piedmont where all the East Bay swells lived, and there were cars and clothes and girls by the score for him. He was the toughest man in town and the handsomest, a recognizable figure on the streets, a big, cheerful, curly-haired kid with a loud and infectious laugh.
At the same time, Baer was arousing the interest of men of stature in boxing, including Ancil Hoffman, a gnomish, tight-fisted avocado grower and fight promoter from Sacramento. What Baer needed, Hoffman concluded, was one more major local fight before tackling the Eastern promoters. He decided to match him with Frankie Campbell, a tough San Francisco heavyweight, in an outdoor bout on Aug. 25, 1930 at Recreation Park, home of the San Francisco Seals Pacific Coast League baseball team. Hoffman saw the fight as a bridge to the East. As it turned out, it was a plunge into despair.
Frankie Campbell, born Francisco Camilli, was an Italian from San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood, the brother of a promising first baseman with the Sacramento Solons, Dolph Camilli, later, as a Brooklyn Dodger, the National League's Most Valuable Player. Campbell was a crowd pleaser, a busy mixer in the ring who had enjoyed recent successes in Los Angeles. In his last L.A. bout, he had been knocked down twice in the second round by Tom Kirby before he knocked Kirby out in the third. Campbell was not a big heavyweight, but he hit with authority and he was considered most dangerous when he seemed hurt, because his favorite tactic was playing possum. He and his wife Elsie were new parents, so, though his ambitions were not as grand as Baer's, he, too, looked forward to the big purse an outdoor bout promised.
Campbell had not looked good in training for Baer. The San Francisco Chronicle's Harry B. Smith, visiting his quarters in the Dolph Thomas gym, wrote prophetically, "Frankie had better not leave himself as open to attack in the ring with Baer, for it may prove disastrous to him." Baer, too, had looked dismal in his sparring sessions. He always did. But in 1930, he was in superb condition and he knew, as Smith had written, that this was a make-or-break fight for him.
Campbell had appeared lighter in training than the 185 pounds his manager, Carol Working, had said he would weigh for the fight. In fact, he weighed only 179—to Baer's 194—and this aroused some speculation that he might have been ill before the fight. But his handlers insisted he was in top condition. At the weighin, both fighters were admonished by the State Athletic Commission to "keep fighting as long as the other man is on his feet."
San Francisco is seldom warm in August, particularly in the evening, when the afternoon fog has settled on the hills, but Recreation Park, at 15th and Valencia Streets, was situated in the relatively wind- and fog-free Mission District, then as now, the best place in town to watch sports outdoors. "Old Rec," as the ballpark was called, had been built of lumber and chicken wire in 1907, the year after the great earthquake and fire, and when the wind blew, it creaked like a fence gate. By 1930 it was considered obsolete. The following year the Seals would move into the modern Seals Stadium, so that the Campbell-Baer fight would be one of the last major sporting events to be held there. A crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 showed up on an unseasonably balmy evening to watch the two young heavyweights.
Campbell was the aggressor in the first round, eluding Baer's right hand and .scoring with his shorter, crisper punches. Near the end of the round, however, Baer dropped him with a looping right to the jaw. Campbell took a count of nine and did not seem seriously hurt. In the second, Campbell stung Baer with a left to the ribs and Max went down. He protested to Referee Toby Irwin that he had merely slipped, and Irwin agreed, motioning him back into action. Campbell, meanwhile, had not retreated to a neutral corner, as he would have been required to do in the event of a knockdown. Instead, he had strolled to the ring ropes and, inexplicably, began staring out at the crowd. As Baer regained his feet, a photographer's flashbulb exploded in his eyes, momentarily blurring his vision. He said later that Campbell appeared to him as only a shadow figure. Campbell was still gazing abstractedly as Baer advanced on him. He turned just as Baer caught him with a right to the side of the head. The blow stunned Campbell, but he held on and survived the round. Between rounds, he was heard to confide to his second. Tom (Greaseball) Maloney, "Something feels like it broke in my head."
But Campbell fought well in the next two rounds, staying even in the third and clearly winning the fourth. He was ahead on some scorecards in the fifth when Baer, the right-handed slugger, surprised him with a whistling left hook to the jaw. Campbell slumped back into the ropes in a neutral corner as Baer, sensing his opportunity but wary of possum-playing, belabored him with a succession of powerful punches to the head. Campbell did not go down. He could not, for the ring ropes were supporting him. With his opponent still on his feet, Baer kept punching. One of the blows caused Campbell's head to smash against the metal turnbuckle that joined the ropes with the ring posts. Still, he did not go down. The furious assault could not have lasted more than a few seconds, but it seemed to ringsiders like minutes before Irwin stepped in and pulled the flailing Baer away. As he did so, Campbell slumped unconscious to the canvas. A count was unnecessary. As flashbulbs popped, Irwin held Baer's hand aloft, while Campbell's seconds worked frantically to revive him. Baer helped them carry him to his stool.
The photograph of Baer that appeared in the morning Chronicle showed him smiling as winners are supposed to, but it was accompanied by a story saying that, as of one o'clock in the morning, Frankie Campbell "lay in St. Joseph's Hospital still insensible." Dr. Frank Sheehy of the hospital staff told reporters the fighter had suffered extensive brain damage and that "the outlook is very dark." Smith's story of the fight portrayed Baer as a vicious fighter. "He [Campbell] was ready to drop, but Baer continued to rain in blows to an unprotected jaw and against a man who was already knocked out...Campbell was dead to the world and stayed in that unconscious condition as Irwin raised Baer's hand and posed for the picture of the winner."
After he had showered, Baer asked Hoffman if he might visit Campbell in his dressing room and wish him well. "Frankie isn't in the room yet," Hoffman told him. "He's still in the ring." In fact, Campbell lay in the ring for a full half hour after the fight while an ambulance from nearby Mission Emergency Hospital threaded through traffic to the ball park. Baer went to the family home in Piedmont secure in the knowledge he had won an important fight, unaware that his opponent lay near death.
Early the next morning Baer received a phone call from the hospital. Campbell was not expected to live, and the police were asking for him. Baer replaced the receiver and turned to his family. "He just stood there, tears as big as golf balls rolling down his cheeks," Augie Baer recalls. "All the heart seemed to go right out of him then." Max had himself driven to the hospital, where he encountered Campbell's wife, who generously absolved him of blame. "It could have been you," she told him. He could barely speak in reply.
The fight officially ended Monday at 10:34 p.m. Frankie Campbell, age 26, died at 11:35 a.m. Tuesday of a double cerebral hemorrhage. Baer surrendered that afternoon to San Francisco Police Captain Fred Lemmon at the Hotel Whitcomb. The bail of $10,000, set by Superior Court Judge George H. Cabaniss, was the highest ever for a charge of manslaughter in San Francisco. Baer spent much of that day in jail before Hoffman arrived with the bail money.
The manslaughter charge was eventually and properly dismissed. That any such action should have been contemplated was in itself extraordinary, considering the circumstances of Campbell's death. Baer had operated within the rules of the prize ring. His opponent was still standing, and the referee had not stopped the fight. To quit punching under these conditions would have been to ignore the athletic commission's admonition. Still, Baer was vilified in the press as a dirty fighter. By striking Campbell from behind in the second round, an act that some were now—inaccurately—claiming was the beginning of the end, he had acted in an unsportsmanlike manner, the newspapers agreed. Working, Campbell's manager, insisted that Irwin should have declared his fighter the winner on a foul at that very moment. But Irwin had waved Baer back into action after his slip, and it was Campbell's responsibility, as it is every boxer's, to protect himself at all times. And if Campbell had been seriously injured by this "sneak punch," how was it possible, then, for him to have fought so effectively in the two succeeding rounds? And why hadn't Working thrown in the towel when his man was so obviously in trouble in the fifth, if he was so solicitous of his well-being? For the public, the fact remained that Baer had hit a man almost from behind and had continued to hit him when he was literally out on his feet. The affectionate nickname Livermore Butcher Boy, derived from Baer's former vocation, now took on a sinister connotation.
Baer was also the victim of an atmosphere of hysteria, fanned vigorously by William Randolph Hearst's flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Campbell was the second boxer to die in a San Francisco ring within a week. On the previous Thursday, Johnny Anderson, an 18-year-old in his second professional bout, died after being knocked out the night before in National Hall by Reinhart (Red) Ruehl. In a city with a proud ring history, dating at least to Gentleman Jim, boxing was suddenly in bad odor. The Examiner, which two years earlier campaigned unsuccessfully to abolish boxing in California, took up the cudgel again. An unsigned news story on the front page set the tone for a second—equally unsuccessful—anti-boxing drive: "The legalized prize-ring butchery, which the laws of California sanction under the name of 'boxing,' yesterday claimed another human victim, the second within a week."
Irwin testified before the athletic commission that Baer had acted within the rules and that he (Irwin) had moved as quickly as possible to stop the fight; Campbell's death was an unfortunate accident. The commission must not have agreed, because it suspended both Baer and Irwin for one year and, for good measure, the managers and seconds of both fighters, nine persons in all.
To Max Baer the suspension was hardly the real punishment. That came from the terrible knowledge that he had killed a man with his fists. In newspaper accounts of his appearances in the courts and at Campbell's funeral, he was described as "white-faced," "trembling." a "ghost-like" figure with "lips pressed tightly and nervously together." He took up smoking. He suffered nightmares. He announced his retirement from the ring, only to be persuaded by Hoffman, his manager to be, to take some time off and think things out. He had not killed anyone deliberately, Hoffman told him. It had been an accident, the kind that can happen in a business as brutal as prizefighting. But as a fighter, as a man, Max Baer would never be the same.
"Nothing that ever happened to me—nothing that can happen to me—affected me like the death of Frankie Campbell," Baer said after he had won the heavyweight championship "It was almost a week after the fight before I could get more than an hour or so of successive sleep. Every slightest detail would come racing back to mind, and I couldn't blot from my eyes the last scene—Frankie unconscious in the ring, his handlers working on him. And then the news that he was dying...dead."
Significantly the severest criticism directed at Max Baer as fighter in years to come was that he lacked the killer instinct required of great boxers. His son, Max Jr., recalls a conversation he had not long ago with one of his father's old opponents. Lou Nova. "Lou told me that my father hit him with the hardest body punch he'd ever taken. He said he was practically paralyzed there for a moment. But when he looked around, there was my dad, hitching up his pants the way he always did, mugging away at the crowd, laughing, doing everything but follow up. Lou recovered and gave him a helluva beating."
"After Frankie Campbell," said Buddy Baer, "the clowning started. It was something to do instead of fighting."
Baer did not retire from boxing after the Campbell tragedy, but in his next few bouts he fought almost as if he had wandered into the ring by chance. His punches lacked power, and he seemed even less concerned than usual with protecting himself. He lost four of the next six fights. Ancil Hoffman, who had taken over as Max's manager two months after Campbell's death, commented in March 1931, "I'm afraid the Campbell affair left its imprint on Baer, and that is something he will have to forget if he is to go far in the fight game. In all of his New York engagements Max failed to show the aggressive spirit that made him so popular on the Coast. I would say it affected his fighting considerably."
After the manslaughter charges were dropped, Max took Hoffman's advice and left for Reno, a favorite city, where the nightclubs and casinos never closed, the perfect place for a man who was barely sleeping at all. He gambled and drank a little, though never seriously, and he met a woman, one Dorothy Dunbar Wells de Garson of New York City, a sometime actress and frequent wife, then seeking divorce. She was pretty enough, though years older than Max and, by his standards, chic and sophisticated. She charmed him and, to whatever degree was possible, helped free him of depression. But she could not make him fight well. She watched him lose to Ernie Schaaf in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, 1930, his first fight after Campbell. There was a grim irony in Schaaf being the opponent, for he, too, would die in the ring.
Baer's reputation as a fighter was scarcely damaged by the Campbell incident; indeed, fans in the Eastern arenas were clamoring to see so lethal a boxer. They were grievously disappointed to discover that the killer they had paid to watch was so tame he seemed afraid to throw a punch. The turning point came on Feb. 6, 1931, when Tommy Loughran, a master boxer, easily out-pointed Baer in Madison Square Garden. Baer was so inept that ringside spectators began ragging him mercilessly, reviving at least the absent sense of humor. At one juncture in his hopeless pursuit of the elusive Loughran, he turned to a tormenting fan and shouted, "I'd like to see you try and hit this guy." Baer was so fascinated with Loughran's technical brilliance that he called on him in his dressing room after the fight to suggest they have lunch together the next day. Loughran, amused and flattered, accepted the invitation. Baer's trouble, aside from his curious reluctance to cut loose, was that he was looping his punches, Loughran told him. A clever boxer had no difficulty avoiding these tentative, telegraphed bombs. If he seriously contemplated remaining in the ring, Baer should forget about his past and learn a few basic skills. The man who could teach him most about shortening his punches happened to have refereed their fight. Fellow name of Dempsey.
The two fighters called on Jack Dempsey that very afternoon, and to Baer's astonishment, the old champion seemed interested in his plight. Baer was not on his way back yet—he would lose to Johnny Risko in May, to Paulino Uzcudun in July—but he acquired Dempsey as a teacher, and Hoffman was at last unraveling his tangled financial affairs. Dorothy Dunbar was attending to his heart, and she and Max were married in Reno on July 8, 1931. The marriage lasted barely two years, but Max at least was on his feet again. After Uzcudun, he won 12 fights in a row, six by knockout.
In Chicago, On Aug. 31, 1932, he fought a rematch with Schaaf, who was now a leading contender. It was a punishing, nearly even bout entering the 10th and final round. Neither man had been down; Schaaf, for that matter, had never been knocked off his feet in the ring. Then, five seconds before the final bell, Baer caught him with a long right to the chin, which he followed with a brief flurry of punches. Schaaf dropped to the canvas. Referee Tommy Thomas did not bother to count, declaring Baer the winner by decision, although Schaaf was still unconscious. Schaaf died six months later after being knocked out by Carnera in the 13th round at Madison Square Garden, felled by a punch so lightly thrown that ringsiders began chanting, "Fake!" as he lay mortally stricken. In footnoting Schaaf's death, Ring record books have long included the gratuitous phrase, "badly injured in his fight with Max Baer," the implication being that Baer had claimed a second victim. The killer reputation would not die, although the Carnera fight was Schaaf's fifth after Baer.
Baer fought only one time in 1933, against Schmeling, before 60,000 in Yankee Stadium. By this time, the 27-year-old Schmeling was being promoted as a personal favorite of the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Schmeling was an athlete, not a politician, and a German, not a Nazi, but for the first time Baer pointedly wore the Star of David on his boxing trunks. The ring's ethnic scholars, including the late Nat Fleischer, never considered Baer a "Jewish fighter," a slight that rankled his Scotch-Irish mother, Dora. Exaggerating a bit, she told Bay Area reporters, "You can tell those people in New York that Maxie has got a Jewish father, and if that doesn't make him Jewish enough for them, I don't know what will."
This night it did not matter how much of him was Jewish. Normally friendly to a fault with all of his opponents, he regarded Schmeling as his first bona fide enemy. Weighing a svelte 203 pounds, Baer fought the fight of his young life. Still, in the first round he walked into a right hand that left him seeing more than one Schmeling. "I see three of him," he told Dempsey between rounds. The Manassa Mauler's sage counsel in reply is now part of ring lexicon: "Hit the one in the middle." Baer did and clinched a title shot.
Nineteen thirty-three was a vintage Baer year. The Schmeling victory had made him a national hero. Dorothy Dunbar divorced him in Mexico, leaving him free—actually, freer—to roam. He made The Prizefighter and the Lady and became an instant success with the Hollywood crowd. He was a boulevardier, a rake, a man about town. His love affairs were conducted on the grand scale. He was sued for breach of promise by an old girl friend, who told reporters she loved him so much she would "crawl on my hands and knees from Livermore to Oakland," a 35-mile journey over hilly terrain. A showgirl named Shirley La Belle accused him of making untoward advances in a New York hotel room. He was linked with June Knight, the Broadway star, and with cafè society ladies Mary Kirk Brown and Edna Dunham, the latter immortalized in the press as his "hotsy-potcha." Although Hoffman watched over his resources with a banker's eye, Max spent and gave away money as quickly as it was doled out to him. He would pass out $5 bills on skid row and buy and deliver groceries for poor families. "He'd beg Pop [Hoffman] for $250," Maudie Hoffman recalls, "then give it away to some down-and-outer waiting at the gate." "Max had a heart bigger than his body," says Buddy Baer. "He actually gave people the clothes off his back."
Early in 1934 he met Mary Ellen Sullivan, who managed the coffee shop in Washington, D.C.'s Willard Hotel. She was hardly a glamorous showgirl, but she was attractive, intelligent and levelheaded, and he decided that he loved her. Despite vigorous objections from her Catholic family, they were married in June 1935. While he never quite lost his reputation as a playboy, they stayed happily married until the day he died.
Baer's training for Carnera was so nonchalant as to bring down the wrath of New York Boxing Commissioner Bill Brown, who, after discovering that the challenger's sparring sessions were more like soft-shoe routines, recommended that the fight be postponed until that "bum" could be made to take it seriously. But it was held as scheduled on June 14, 1934 in the old Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, which, curiously, had been the site of three heavyweight championship bouts, all of which the titleholder lost. The giant Carnera, mob manipulated and now abandoned, would be no exception. After Baer had knocked Carnera out, Max turned to Commissioner Brown at ringside and inquired. "Well, Mr. Commissioner, what d'ya think of me now?" "You're still a bum," snarled Brown. Then he considered the implications of his remark. "And so," he added, "is Carnera." From his dressing room, amid tumult, Baer called out, "Somebody bring the new champion a beer. Now I'm going out and have some fun."
Max Baer was heavyweight champion for one day short of a year, but it is unlikely anyone got more out of the title. One of his first acts was to fight a benefit exhibition—against Stanley Poreda—for Frankie Campbell's widow and son. A $10,600 trust fund was set up as a result of the bout, held on Feb. 15, 1935 at the Dreamland Arena in San Francisco. Baer paid all of the expenses and took no money from the gate.
His first defense of the title was to be against Braddock, a 29-year-old loser of 21 out of 80 fights who had been on relief only a few months before the championship bout and who had borrowed $37 the previous Christmas to pay his children's milk bill. Baer was even more of a mystery than usual in training. His hands, always brittle, were more troublesome than ever, and it was said he was bothered by rumors that the Carnera mobsters had moved into Braddock's camp. Braddock won the title on June 13, 1935 at the accursed Bowl in a dreary match enlivened only by Baer's comedy turns.
Despite this humiliating defeat, Max would enjoy his richest payday only three months later in Yankee Stadium against the ring's newest sensation, Joe Louis. Baer's reputation may have suffered, but a crowd of 84,831 paid $932,944 to see Louis knock him out in four rounds. Baer's entire purse of $200,000 was placed in annuities by Hoffman, and this and subsequent investments provided the Baer family with a handsome income. There was no time for comedy in this brief, if profitable, encounter. Baer was decked twice in the third round, and when he went down again in the fourth, he stayed down, patiently awaiting the full count while resting on one knee. It was the act of a quitter, his critics said.
"Sure I quit," Baer replied. "He hit me 18 times while I was going down the last time. I got a family to think about, and if anybody wants to see the execution of Max Baer, he's got to pay more than $25 for a ringside seat...I'm not going to be cutting up paper dolls. I never did like the fighting game, and this proves it."
He was only a buffoon to boxing fans from then on, although he showed flashes of his old power. As late as 1940 he dropped a right hand on the chin of Pat Comiskey, a promising young contender, that knocked him flat. Comiskey got up and Baer went after him, but when he realized the condition of his opponent, he held his hands apart and implored Referee Dempsey to stop the fight. There would be no more Frankie Campbells on his conscience. Max reached his nadir in his grotesque fight with Two-Ton Tony Galento, billed cruelly as "The Battle of the Bums." Baer dutifully clowned as the brawling fat man charged him, but he also administered a sound beating, and Galento was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round. At the conclusion, Max wrestled with a dwarf who had climbed into the ring.
He retired after his second loss to Lou Nova, on April 8, 1941, and the following year joined the Army, serving three years as a physical instructor. He was at his happiest in the years after the war, turning at last to his true love—show business. He made movies, worked as a disc jockey and radio talk-show host, refereed occasionally and, for a time, had a nightclub act with Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the former light-heavyweight champion who had fashioned a successful film career playing punch-drunk fighters.
Mostly, Max stayed at home in Sacramento, where he lived near the Hoffmans, and doted on his three children—Max Jr., now, at 40, an actor (Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies) and film producer; Maudie and Jim. He was, as always, generous with his time and money.
Baer did not have to work, but he could not stay off the stage. Few of his films were consequential, and in the one that was, The Harder They Fall, a fictional version of the Carnera story, based on the Budd Schulberg novel, he portrayed a character totally unlike himself, a vicious heavyweight champion who took offense when the Carnera character, not he, was blamed for the death of the Schaaf character. The Harder They Fall is significant in film history as Humphrey Bogart's last movie. It was also Max Baer's.
On the morning of Nov. 21, 1959 Baer was shaving in his room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, preparing for some TV appearances that day, when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He cut himself on the chin with his razor blade, and, alarmed as much by the sight of blood—which he abhorred—as by the pain, he stumbled to the telephone. "I need a doctor," he whispered. "A house doctor?" inquired the switchboard operator. "No. dummy, a people doctor." When the doctor arrived, Baer insisted that he had to telephone the studio and say he would be late. Finally persuaded to lie down, he suddenly turned ashen and called out, "Oh God, here I go." He was dead of a heart attack at 9 a.m. at age 50.
Max Baer left behind a legacy of love. On his eldest son's 21st birthday, less than a year earlier, Max had written him, "If God said to me at anytime, 'Max Sr., I must take your life so your dear ones can have health and happiness,' I'd kiss you all, if possible, and willingly go. You can't measure my love for you." Two weeks before his father's death, Max Jr. had written to his mother, "Sometimes I worry a lot about dad because he's still such a big kid at heart. He never really got off the farm, even though he made the top. He thinks just like a big kid and is the most gentle person in the world...."
More than 1,500 people, including some of the biggest names in boxing, attended Baer's funeral at St. Mary's Cemetery in Sacramento. A few years later, Jack Dempsey, who had been a pallbearer, provided an appropriate epitaph: "There'll never be another Max Baer." he began. Then he paused and smiled in memory of so exasperating and delightful a friend. "And that's the way it should be."
Making like a matinee idol, Baer joins champ Primo Carnera and producer E.J. Mannix at MGM studio.
A publicity shot from the 1933 film "The Prizefighter and the Lady": from left to right, former heavyweight champ Jess Willard; Baer; W. S. Van Dyke, the director; ex-champ James J. Jeffries; Jack Dempsey; and Carnera.