By Dean Berks – Between Gene Tunney’s retirement in 1928 to Joe Louis coronation in 1937, the Heavyweight championship went through a path of uncertainty with the title being passed between five different holders. Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera and James J. Braddock all had turns holding sports greatest prize. But it was “The Livermore Larruper”, “The Bengal Tiger”, “Madcap” Max Baer who had the potential to sit on the top table of heavyweight greats. On the surface he appeared to have it all: Colourful, charismatic, charming, incredible toughness and a devastating right hand punch. But underneath Baer was a soft, sensitive soul who loved people and loved life. More than anything though, he loved to make people laugh. Constantly clowning, he never took anything seriously, particularly training, joking with sparring partners and the watching press. For him, camp was like a big party. But with just a bit more seriousness though, his reign as champion could have been more than just a footnote.
He was born 11 February 1909 in Omaha, Nebraska, the second oldest of five children. His family moved to California in 1922, finally settling in Livermore four years later. Baer’s father worked in the butcher business and he acknowledged that helping his father with deliveries and working on the ranch, plus working at the gravel pits, was what helped him develop his impressive physique and strength. He had shown himself to be athletic, impressing in both football and baseball, but there had been no signs of the fierce pugilist he would become. That was until at a school dance he was accused of stealing something from an older boy. The boy started to reign down blows on the young Baer who covered up, taking his beating. Then one blow got through, stinging Baer on the side of the head. Enraged, Baer lashed out, flattening the bully with one almighty right hand punch. The sensation sent a euphoric feeling through him, and he decided after that he would turn his attention to the squared circle and a career as a prizefighter.
He made his debut 16 May 1929, knocking out Chief Caribou in two rounds. In just over a year, he had ran up a 23-3, 18 KO’s. Standing 6 feet 3 inches, he had a crude style, winging punches in an unorthodox way, but his power and durability certainly made him one to follow. His next fight however, nearly finished him as a fighter, and it was something that he would never completely recovered from.
On 25 August 1930, Baer met Campbell in an unofficial battle for the title of Pacific Coast champion. In round two, Baer sent Campbell to the canvas with a powerful right. Such was the force of the blow that Campbell commented to his corner at the end of the round that he had felt “something snap in his head”. Nevertheless, Campbell went on to win the next two rounds. As the fifth round started, Tillie Herman, who had been in Baer’s corner previously before jumping ship to join Campbell, started taunting and goading Baer. Angered by this, Baer unloaded a savage attack on Campbell, pummeling him with such severity that when the referee belatedly halted the fight, Campbell was already slumping towards the canvas. He was in a bad way. Baer’s corner stayed with him until the ambulance arrived 30 minutes later. Baer went to visit him later that night, apologising to Campbell’s stricken wife. She took his hand and softly said “it might even have been you”. Tragically, at noon the next day, Campbell was pronounced dead. Baer broke down, inconsolable with the news. The surgeon who had operated on Campbell declared that his brain had been “knocked completely loose from his skull”. The incident hurt the sensitive Baer deeply. He earned the unwanted reputation of a “Killer” in the ring, a terrible moniker for someone who couldn’t have been further from that barbaric term. There was an incident at a party where a young boy was overheard saying “That’s Max Baer, he killed a man”. On the way home, Baer sadly turned to his mother and asked “Do you think someone will ever tell that boy the truth about what really happened?”. But facts dictated otherwise. He was initially charged with manslaughter although the charges were later dropped and he was acquitted. But Baer was banned from fighting in California for a year. He would give purses from future bouts to the family of Campbell, but that would mean fighting again. So he dusted himself down and headed off to the Big Apple, New York. But the scars of the Campbell fight would remain for life, with his son recalling stories of him waking up crying after having nightmares, and he struggled for a while to find his groove again.
Ernie Schaaf was his first opponent back, Baer dropping a ten round decision. He would lose a further three of his next five fights, showing flashes of his potential in all. But things changed when former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey became involved with Baer’s career. Dempsey spoke publicly about his admiration for Baer and the ability he believed he possessed. He taught Baer how to shorten his punches and gradually Baer became his old self again, laughing and joking, but more importantly, winning. Twelve straight victories followed before Baer came face to face with his most dangerous opponent to date. And for him, it was more personal than ever before.
Germany’s Schmeling was targeting his own path back to the heavyweight title, having lost the crown the previous year by controversial decision to Jack Sharkey. But it was also a time of hardship and political tensions. The Nazi party and Adolf Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish community were seriously frowned upon by the rest of the world. Schmeling was one of his country’s iconic figures and one of Hitler’s favourite fighters, a position that he felt extremely uncomfortable in. He was sent over to America by Hitler to squash any rumours regarding any anti-Semitism, but just before the fight, Hitler put a ban on Jews boxing and boycotted local Jewish businesses. This touched a deep nerve within Baer as his father was half Jewish. When he entered Yankee Stadium on June 8 1933, he wore the Star of David on his trunks, something he would continue to do throughout the rest of his career. Despite being in the midst of the Great Depression, 60,000 people turned up to root Baer on and witness what would turn out to be The Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. Baer had trained like never before and exhibited the qualities that made him so highly rated. For nine hard fought rounds both men gave their all, but Baer’s relentless attack was wearing Schmeling down. In round ten Baer opened up with a vicious assault, slamming shots in to an increasingly groggy Schmeling who absorbed a beating until being driven to the canvas by an almighty right. Incredibly, Schmeling managed to haul himself up, but Baer would not be denied, driving his tottering opponent across the ring, forcing the referee to rescue the thoroughly beaten German. Baer was a hero to so many, especially the Jewish community. His popularity had never been higher.
Living the high life, Baer indulged in parties, women and handouts to whoever asked or needed it. He loved life and he loved people, but he never forgot his roots, always taking care of his family first. His kind and compassionate side was also on show, regularly driving down to “Skid Row” to hand money out to homeless individuals, making sure they had something good to eat and somewhere to stay for the night. Even the bright lights of Hollywood couldn’t help but shine on him too, with Baer taking on the leading role in the motion picture The Prizefighter and the Lady. And the tinsel town ladies were also drawn to his charm and warmth. But whilst life was good, there was still one piece of the puzzle that needed to be added: the Heavyweight championship of the World.
The fight with Schmeling was an elimination for the title held by Italy’s Primo Carnera. The “Ambling Alp” was an impressive 6 feet 6 inches tall, a giant in those times, and had made two defences of the title he had won with a sixth round knockout of Jack Sharkey. In a twist of coincidence, Carnera had played the part of champion opposite Baer in The Prizefighter and the Lady. But on June 14 1934 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island, they would meet for real.
Carnera’s handlers had tried to avoid Baer and this night showed why. Everything was on display; power, tenacity, and the showmanship that defined Baer’s character, in short, it was “The Max Baer Show”.
Carnera came out cautiously, taking the centre of the ring but aware of the danger in front of him. Baer moved around the larger champion, angling for a spot to launch his famed right hand. And near the end of the round the opening appeared. Baer stepped in with an explosive right that detonated Carnera to the canvas. Somehow Carnera got up instantly, but he was in desperate trouble, unable to control his legs in any way, shape or form. Baer pounced, battering the Italian from one side of the ring to the other, at one point almost through the ropes. Carnera went down what appeared twice more, but was up so quickly that the referee didn’t have time to pick up a count. It was savage but Carnera survived the round. Baer had him in serious trouble at the start of round two, another combination sending him down again. This time though, Baer became entangled with Carnera, falling with him. The site of Carnera on the canvas would become a familiar site throughout the night as he was adjudged to have suffered eleven knockdowns in total, not including the multiple times he was wrestled to the canvas too. The middle rounds were more even as Carnera got himself back in to the fight, but in round ten Baer took control once again, sending his opponent down twice more. Carnera barely made it back to his corner, his grip on the title rapidly slipping through his fingers. Baer confirmed this with two savage knockdowns in the eleventh to rip away the crown. He was finally the Heavyweight Champion.
It appeared that the next “great” of the division had arrived. But for Baer, this gave him even more reason to enjoy and celebrate. Fun was always on the agenda, and it was this approach that turned the focus on what could have been a highly entertaining reign in to the story of a less talented, but more determined rags to riches fighter: Enter James. J. Braddock.
The Cinderella Man
Baer was looking for a less threatening fighter to make his maiden defence against and Braddock fit the bill. Although he had notched some good wins, he was considered more of a journeyman and someone whom Baer could look good against whilst securing an easy payday. But for Braddock, who had been toiling away on the docks to earn what money he could for his family, this presented a life-changing opportunity, and he trained accordingly. Baer on the other hand, simply didn’t. He did what he did best, clowning and joking his way through camp, and enjoying the fruits of life far too much.
On the night of June 13 1935, just 364 days after becoming champion, Baer astonishingly lost the title in one of history’s biggest upsets. Braddock’s motivation paid off, outworking a lacklustre Baer who plodded forward, looking to end matters with one punch, a punch which never came. After fifteen rounds, Baer watched Braddock’s arm raised, both his championship and chance for greatness gone. It was proof that nothing in boxing could be taken for granted, a lesson Baer had certainly learned the hard way.
He knew he had to make amends and prove the Braddock loss was just an aberration. Braddock didn’t want to rematch Baer straight away, initially agreeing to defend against Max Schmeling, a fight that fell through. So to earn another title shot Baer would need to make a statement, and what better way than to try and knock off boxing’s latest rising star. The only problem though was that young fighter would turn out to be none other than arguably the greatest heavyweight champion in history.
Passing The Torch
Many had dismissed the Braddock loss as just an off-night for Baer. His next fight however, would determine just how much he had left and whether he could mount another challenge for the title. And he couldn’t have picked a harder opponent. Joe Louis was the name on everybody’s lips and was gaining in popularity. “The Brown Bomber” had compiled a 22-0, 18 KO’s, and was looking unbeatable. He knew the value in beating Baer and how it would push forward his own opportunity for a title shot. Baer knew the danger of what he was facing too, training as hard as he had for the Schmeling fight. He knew just what was a stake.
On September 24 1935, just three months after losing to Braddock, 88,150 people entered Yankee Stadium to watch two of the most popular fighters of their generation come together. Louis controlled the early part of the first, until Baer pounced and launched a two-fisted attack. Louis countered, his shorter, crisper punches thudding in to the side of Baer’s jaw. Baer was visibly hurt, his leg buckling under the weight of Louis right hand. But at the end of round two, Baer reciprocated, staggering Louis with his own right. But little known to anyone until weeks after the fight, was that Baer had broken his right hand against Braddock and it hadn’t fully healed. In effect, he was fighting one-handed. And things became worse for him in round three when the size of the task in front of him became monumental. Louis jab rammed in to Baer’s face with superb accuracy, and it wasn’t long before a combination of blows had Baer backing up and in trouble. Louis finished the salvo with a short right, sending Baer down for the first time in his career. He took his time with the count before rising, trying to give his head time to clear. But his legs were numb and it didn’t take long before three consecutive hooks sent him down once again. The bell sounded mid-count saving Baer, but the writing was on the wall. Still, coming out for round four, Louis took his time, respectful of Baer’s reputation. But Baer’s right hand was useless, and trying to hold of the stalking Louis with one hand would prove fruitless. Louis found his range, launching an overhand right that sent Baer to his hands and knees. Baer knew he was done, remaining on one knee as he excepted the referee’s count of ten. It was a harsh reality, but there was no way he could have won with just one good hand. The fight won The Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. And Max wasn’t the only Baer to lose to Louis, with younger brother Buddy suffering twice at the hands of the then champion. For now though, he had to rebuild and put himself back in line once again. And also he loved the attention, and certainly the paydays as he spent money like it was going out of fashion!!
He returned to the ring in June 1936, fighting five times over a nine day period, before racking up another twenty fights before the end of the year. He entered 1937 with a trip to London, dropping a points decision to Tommy Farr, avenging the defeat two fights later, dropping Farr twice before scoring a points win. But on June 1 1939, he was stopped in eleven rounds by tough contender Lou Nova. It was a hard, even battle, although Baer took a lot of punishment towards the end, the fight eventually being stopped due to a severe laceration on his mouth. Although he was still highly rated, Baer was starting to show signs of slowing down.
Three fights later, he found himself in with another tough contender, “Two Ton” Tony Galento, a barrel chested brawler who had floored Louis in a title shot the previous year before being stopped in four. There was talk that the winner of this fight would be granted a shot at Louis crown. The media loved these two characters and the build up featured some wonderful skits between the pair. Training camp footage showed Baer taking part in a wrestling match in preparation, whilst a telephone conversation hilariously had the pair talking to each other and then Baer asking Galento if he could speak to his interpreter so he could tell him he would knock him out!!
But in the ring both men knew it was for real. On July 2 1940, the pair went to battle in gruelling fashion. Talking to each other throughout, Baer busted up the marauding Galento, who was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round. Louis was ringside for this and spoke about meeting Baer in September of that year. But Louis manager was reluctant for his man to meet Baer again, wary of the danger he posed. The rematch never happened and Baer’s chance at possible revenge had gone.
But one man willing to face him again was previous conqueror Lou Nova. Baer knew a victory here would seal the title shot he desired. Instead, it signalled the end. At Madison Square Garden on April 4 1941, the ring career of Max Baer wrote its final chapter. Baer had started brightly, knocking Nova down in the fourth. But he had been hurt the same round as Nova dug deep. As the fight wore on, Nova took control. And in round eight he made his breakthrough, a big right hand sending Baer to his knees. He bravely rose, but a succession of punches sent him down for a second time. Showing the heart he had displayed throughout his career, he once again dragged himself up, but this time he was unable to control his legs and the referee rightly rescued him. The curtain had fallen on Max Baer “Prizefighter” for the final time. He left the ring with a record of 68-13, with 52 KO’s.
With so much charisma and a larger than life personality, the public still hadn’t had enough of Baer and he joined the ranks of Hollywood, appearing in films, variety shows and on the radio. He also set up charities helping young people move on in life. Generous to the core, he just kept on giving. A case being when, on Novemeber 18 1951, Baer was due to film several commercials in Hollywood. On the way he stopped to visit the son of his ex-sparring partner Curly Owens. Thirteen years earlier he had promised the then five year old a sports car. With the boy now an eighteen year old man, Baer presented the car to him, never forgetting what he had said. It was to be his last act of generosity.
Just three days later, Baer prematurely joined the legends who had passed before him. On 21 November, he had rang down to the reception of a hotel he was staying at complaining of chest pains. The receptionist said she would send for the house doctor to which Baer jokingly replied “No dummy, I need a people doctor!”. After having received both medicine and oxygen and seemingly looking better, he joked with the doctor that he had come through two similar lighter attacks recently in his now hometown of Sacramento. It was then that he suffered a second and fatal heart attack. He slumped to his left and died within minutes. According to reports his last words “Oh God, here I go!”. He was just 50 years old.
His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Sacramento. Fifteen hundred people, including the rich and famous, politicians, and ordinary working class folk attended. He was a hero to so many. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were pallbearers and he was given an American Legion honour guard in recognition of his service in the Second World War. He was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Sacramento, leaving behind a wife and three children.
He was inducted in to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1968, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1984, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. In 1998, The Ring Magazine named him No.20 in the “The 50 Greatest Heavyweights of All-Time”, and the same magazine ranked him at No.22 in “The 100 Greatest Punchers”. There are parks named after him in Livermore and Sacramento. The Max Baer Heart Fund was set up in 1959 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, with whom Baer was an active member, to help provide research and education towards the disease that took his life, and the fund has helped provide donations of millions of dollars to hospitals, universities and medical centres in their support.
Max Baer’s reign as champion was brief and he never hit the heights that his talent promised. But that’s only a small part of his legend. In the dark days of the depression, he brought people together, entertaining them so they could forget their troubles if just for a brief time. He became a hero to both the Jewish community and America with his destruction of Schmeling. He left an indelible impression on everyone he met, from Hollywood stars down to the homeless. He made everyone laugh and everyone smile. He just made everyone feel that much better about themselves. And if life was made for living, then he certainly made sure he, and many others, did just that.