A Glimpse Behind the Clown Mask

Max Baer (right) lands a right to the head of Frankie Campbell as the latter falls to the canvas. Campbell would die 12 hours later from head injuries suffered in this fight. - Recreation Park, San Francisco, CA - August 25, 1930
What's in a Name:
The name Max Baer conjures up more colorful images than there are hues in a rainbow. A gladiator who brought the thrill back to boxing. A clown who winked his way out of the title one night. A gifted warrior who squandered his god given talents to sip cocktails at The Cotton Club. A curly headed playboy whom women adored and men admired. A ringmaster who's training camps resembled a circus rather than a place to practice the sweet science. A jaw of iron that could absorb endless punishment while the overhand right waited for an opening. A man who didn't drink heavily but just hated to leave while the band still played. A dandy who collected cadillacs and custom suits like baseball cards. A face so honest, so expressive, so joyful and alive, the multitudes were drawn to the kaleidoscope of emotions that passed across it. A raging hormone who spent more time pursuing anything in skirts than training for a bout. A man who seemed more eager for the laughs of the crowd than the defeat of his foes. A brute with a spectacular right who pounded two opponents to death and bragged about it. Many of the images contain the truth. But the image that Max Baer flaunted the deaths by his fists of two men, or that he even killed two men in the ring, is absolutely false.

Send in the Clown:
When Max Baer first began to appear in West Coast newspapers in 1929, following several first round knockouts, the press would comment on the speed with which he dispatched his opponents, the seriousness with which he trained for a bout and how like a young and eager pup he was to strap on his gloves and show off his amazing punching abilities. After the death of Frankie Campbell by Max's 'killer punch', Baer grew to detest boxing. Upon his eventual return to the ring, it was obvious he was not the same man who once trained so seriously and enjoyed the sport with such boyish unrestraint. In his next six bouts, Max lost to four men whom he could have easily bested before. Max Baer in effect became frightened of his own strength in the ring. It can be observed time and again in old films of his fights that he pulled his punches. The press remarked upon it in frustration and his own opponents, from Max Schmeling to Lou Nova, all said that when Max Baer had them helpless against the ropes, when he could have stepped up to knock them out cold, he backed off, or turned and walked away, because he was afraid of inflicting lethal damage.

While early news accounts of the rapidly rising pugilist indicate he was a natural showman outside the ring, such as when he arrived to sign a contract in a chauffeured limousine dressed in hunting tweeds, inside the ring, young Baer was all business. After Campbell's death, though Max abhorred boxing, he had come to crave the trappings of fame. As a naturally warm and entertaining fellow, being the clown was an easy enough role to play. It served to cover up how conflicted he actually felt. He began to entertain the crowds rather than accommodate their thunderous yells of 'kill, kill'. Audiences loved him. Between rounds he threw kisses to the ladies and waved to his pals. During rounds he was known to feign a swoon, stagger about on rubber chicken legs or rub his shoes in his opponent's resin dust like a dog marking its territory. He gave triumphant war whoops celebrating his own punches, and responded to an opponent's miss with a thrust out jaw or a beckoning taunt of "c'mon ! c'mon !" as he smirked to the crowd. An 'errant' backhand or a hit below the belt got a touch to his forelock or a bow of insincere contrition to the referee.

Wearing the Star of David on his trunks for the 1st time, Max Baer is declared the victor over Max Schmeling of Germany in "The Battle of the Maxes" - June 8, 1933
The Battle of the Maxes:
While Max Baer hung up the clown mask on very few occasions as he rose to prominence, on a June night in 1933, a deadly serious warrior stepped into the ring against Max Schmeling of Germany. The Jewish six pointed Star of David blazed white on his trunks, sewn there by his Aunt Emma Edelstein. A cestus was tucked into his right glove and a small golden Star of David was in his left glove. Adolph Hitler had proclaimed the quietly anti-Nazi Schmeling as Germany's symbolic hero of Aryan purity and declared a win over Max Baer was a win for Nazi Germany. While Baer was only half Jewish, he was Jewish enough for Hitler. With the help of Jack Dempsey, in his first financially successful role as fight promoter, the American public saw "The Battle of the Maxes" as a crusade against right verses wrong, as a fight of the United States and Jewish people worldwide against Nazi Germany.

While publicly, Baer declared that "I�m going to hit that Dutchman so hard everybody in Germany will feel it, including Hitler." privately, he was in awe of Schmeling's talent. At a dinner prior to the bout, Baer "watched with eyes shining" as Schmeling entered the dining area and remarked to Jack Dempsey that "he's an awfully swell guy." Two days after the bout, he asked Schmeling for an autographed photo "because you're the best sport and one of the best fighters I ever tangled with in the ring."

When Max Baer entered the ring the night of battle, however, he had rolled back time. He was purposeful, he was determined, he was fine-tuned to perfection both physically and mentally, and the future lay bright and uncomplicated at his feet. Before a crowd of 65,000 hysterical fans, he dominated the fight completely. Max Schmeling, "universally recognized as the leading heavyweight title contender, reeled helplessly under Baer's cyclonic attack." After a knockdown in the 10th round, Baer swarmed Schmeling into the ropes, where he cringed, utterly dazed and helpless. As Baer drew back to inflict further punishment, Referee Arthur Donovan threw his arms around Schmeling, fearing for his life, and ended the fight. Baer's hand was raised in victory and it seemed the world went wild.

Unbeknownst to America, the fight announcer�s words flew by wire across the ocean to a Jewish school in Germany. As the results of the bout crackled out of the small portable radio stashed in the bottom of a storage closet, the Jewish teachers and their Jewish students hugged and smiled in utter silence. In discreet defiance of their captors, school was cancelled for the day in celebration of their hero. Back in America, the press was beside itself. "He has done more to bring back interest in boxing than any other fighter. After a meteoric career of only five years, the magnificently built son of the Golden State has brought back to the sport of fisticuffs, the glamour and excitement it knew when Dempsey was the killer of the ring. In Max Baer, boxing has at last found the colorful figure that it has needed to fill the yawning gap left by Dempsey's passing as champion." Jack Dempsey himself said "he gave me the biggest thrill I've had in ten years - since the night a man named Firpo and I had an argument in the Polo Grounds."

I'm the Heavyweight Champion of the World:
Max was at his impish best when he fought the Italian giant, Primo Carnera, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, in June of 1934. The audience of 60,000 included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Clark Gable, Jack Sharkey, Gene Tunney and several East Coast governors and mayors. Jack Dempsey once again reprised his role as promoter for the title bout. The old "Manassa Mauler" had been carefully grooming his charge for this moment and it was the culmination of all his patience and hard work. Max engaged in non-stop taunting and sneering of Carnera during the Championship bout, part of a successful intimidation tactic that had started when the fighters appeared in the fistic hit, "The Prizefighter and the Lady" the winter before. When Max slipped between the ropes, announcer Bellerin' Joe Humphreys introduced the widely grinning Baer as the "California Adonis". Across the back of his white boxing robe were the words "Steve Morgan" the character who "fought" Carnera in the movie. Max put on quite a show and "seemed to be enjoying himself. He pranced, laughed and clowned." When Primo flicked an ineffectual left to his head, Max "did a Ray Bolger dying swan, sagging his knees in mockery. The crowd loved it." The infamous early rounds were as much wrestling as they were boxing. When Carnera went down, he pulled Baer with him. "Hardly had the tangle of legs been cleared when Baer popped him again. Once more Primo went down and once more Baer flopped on top of him." Several observers at ringside heard him crack 'last one up's a sissy !' Under Baer's continued onslaught da Preem "seem to be looking for a place in the ropes through which he could dart to escape those savage fists."

Max Baer lands a hard straight left to Primo Carnera's chest during the World Championship fight. - Long Island City, NY - June 14, 1934
The excitement was so great, the crowd yelled so enthusiastically for a knockout, that San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Harry B. Smith literally swooned into a heart attack at ringside. As only Max would dream of doing, he actually leaned over the ropes and yelled to Smith's fellow pressmen, "Take care of Harry !" In the fifth round, it would later be discovered, Carnera sprained his ankle and was knocked down twice, though he rose quickly each time. As instructed by his corner, Baer coasted and entertained the crowd through the middle rounds. At one point as the bell called the fighters to the center of the ring, Max rose, only to feel his shoes slip on the wet canvas of his corner. The resin had been washed away. Utterly unperturbed, he walked a half circle around Primo, telling him, 'Pardon me Signor, I'll be right back.' He then walked to Carnera's own corner and calmly crushed resin beneath his shoes, once looking over his shoulder with a smile. The task completed to his satisfaction, he turned, walked back to the open mouthed Italian and squared off to begin battle once again. At the opening of the tenth, Baer got back to business. Driving Primo to the ropes with right and left jabs and an assortment of body punches, Primo went down twice again, yet still he struggled to his feet, refusing to take full counts. "Referee Arthur Donovan stepped in to stop the bout, but Carnera begged him to go on." By the eleventh round, Primo "rocked from his corner slug-weary. His legs sagged and were trembling." Baer came out smiling and enthusiastic, landed a left, and Primo went down again. The continued onslaught was like watching "a stone mason wielding his mallet on a statue of Goliath. Baer literally seemed to chip pieces off Carnera's profile as he continued to knock the giant to the floor until, out there in the crowd, the senses reeled and became numb with the needless execution." Baer begged Donovan to stop the fight. Finally, "blind, dazed, helpless, Primo caught the eye of the referee. Weakly, his mind a blank," Carnera "gestured feebly with his right hand. Stiffly, his bruised and battered lips moved but made no sound. 'I've had enough,' they tried to say. Donovan stepped in, waved Baer to his corner and the fight was over.

Max's hand was raised in victory. He was the new Heavyweight Champion of the World ! As Bellerin' Joe Humphreys made the announcement to the ecstatic crowd, Max skipped around the ring like a child. Back in his dressing room, he phoned his Mother to tell her he was okay. He kissed his father, Jacob, then he kissed his brother, Buddy. He turned to the press, and as one they shied away from further kisses. Flashing his trademark smile he shouted, "For heavens sake someone get the Champ a beer !" It was reported that later, as he lay on his massage table, in the quiet after the press had left, he was heard quietly murmuring to himself over and over between grins, "I'm the Heavyweight Champ of the World ! "I'm the Heavyweight Champ of the World ! "

It was a heady time for King Max. The New Yorker noted, "He has a satyr like quality which seems irresistible." Absolutely everyone wanted a piece of him and only by cloning himself to a baker's dozen could he have accommodated all the requests for his time. He engaged in exhibition bouts, acted in Broadway shows, guested on dozens of national radio programs, played the host at nightclubs and banquets, and endorsed everything from after shave to razor blades. Being naturally chatty and usually with no filter whatsoever from his brain to his mouth, he provided the press with endlessly quotable quotes and one-liners that provided a much needed laugh for folks suffering through the Great Depression. One reporter stated that Max was a "pugilistic phonograph when talking about himself - and apparently he has an unlimited supply of records." One and all declared that Max Baer was unbeatable and would hold the tile for decades.

Max Baer congratulates James J. Braddock after their bout for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. - June 13, 1935
Jersey James:
Naturally Max began to believe his own press. In the weeks leading up to defense of his title against James J. Braddock in June of 1935, he spent more time giving ballyhoo to the press than training for the bout. After one lazy workout in Ashbury Park, he announced to the crowd of reporters that "The only way I can lose" he said "is to drop dead in the ring. I hope they have an ambulance ready" to take Braddock to the hospital. One reporter who knew Baer well, but liked what he saw in Braddock, whispered after everyone had left, "You'd better forget that stuff and get ready for the toughest fight you ever had." to which Baer replied in all seriousness, "Don't you think I know that ?"

Braddock, on the other hand, was training hard. "I'm training for a fight. Not a boxing contest or a clownin' contest or a dance." he said. "Whether it goes one round or three rounds or 10 rounds, it will be a fight and a fight all the way." "When you've been through what I've had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal tiger looks like a house pet." "He might come at me with a cannon and a blackjack and he would still be a picnic compared to what I've had to face."

Once again Baer the showman "brought gales of laughter from the crowd with his antics" the night he stepped between the ropes to meet Braddock. As Braddock "slipped the blue bathrobe from his pink back, he was the sentimental favorite of a Bowl crowd of 30,000, most of whom had bet their money 8-to-1 against him." Max "undoubtedly paid the penalty for underestimating his challenger beforehand and wasting too much time clowning." At the end of 13 "dull, uninspired" rounds during which "Baer didn't throw 10 genuine punches of any sort" and Braddock was described as "a plodder" the most "colorless bout in a decade" ended with Braddock emerging the victor, outpointing Baer 8 rounds to 6 in the "most astounding upset since John L. Sullivan went down before the thrusts of Gentleman Jim Corbett back in the gay nineties." When asked why he threw away the title, Max's response was matter of fact. "'No alibi,'" said he cheerfully. 'Jim fought a good fight and I hope he's more appreciative of the title than I was," then announced he was retiring. His manager Ancil Hoffman promptly said, "Don't listen to him, boys. He's obviously upset. He'll get over it." Baer later claimed, " I just clowned the title away. It was so lonesome on the way back to my dressing room I nearly caught cold from the draft. Just me and my trainer took that walk. What a difference a year made." When only days after Max lost the title, Joe Louis , the "new fair haired boy, with crinkles, of fistiana" knocked Primo Carnera "stiffer than a straw hat" in 6 rounds before a crowd of 70,000, Max Baer signed a contract to fight The Brown Bomber on September 24th.

The Brown Bomber:
Max Baer put in 6 weeks of hard training to prepare for his bout with Joe Louis. No nightclubs, no showgirls, no playing to the crowds. He knew his entire career was at stake with this bout. "Whatever happens in this fight," he told Grantland Rice, "just put it down that I'm in the best condition I ever knew in my life. If Louis can whip me now, he can whip me any time I started." He was indeed in superb condition and he sounded confident, but several reporters and even a 'mental expert' noted as the fight date drew near, Baer seemed "brooding" and his "imagination was working on him." In addition, his hands were now giving him trouble constantly.

Joe Louis lands a left on the face of Max Baer in their non-title bout at Yankee Stadium, Bronx, NY - Sept 24, 1935
Just after Max's death, his accountant, Bayard Bookman stated that Baer broke his right hand during an exhibition fight three weeks before the fight, but kept it quiet. He was given a shot of Novocain before walking into the ring to fight Louis. When the needle was inserted too near the wrist, instead of controlling pain it deadened his entire right arm. "Max had the intelligence and imagination to know what Louis could do to him, and here he was going in with his main weapon - his only weapon, actually - useless." In round 2, before a crowd of 88,000 astonished viewers who had paid out $1,000,832, Max Baer was knocked to the canvas for the first time in his career. Louis had taken Baer's best right and "didn't even blink. Max might as well have thrown a cream puff against a brick wall." In "11 minutes and 51 seconds, the youthful Negro punched Baer into a bloody, senseless wreck; a battered figure still trying to muster the pretense of his once marvelous powers of resistance, fading out of the picture in defeat with magnificent gestures of futility."

Those who witnessed the fight in effect watched the torch being passed from the old style puncher to the emerging modern warrior. Louis' defense was liquid smooth, his punches rattlesnake quick. Max went down again in round 3, but the bell saved him. Even the referee seemed relieved to hear the gong, rubbing Max's neck and solicitously escorting him to his corner. Then "in the 4th round, Max had had enough. Dropped to one knee by a sizzling left hook, Max paid little attention to the referee's count. Instead he calmly raised his gloved hand and smilingly waved goodbye to the crowd." Asked later whether he had quit, he replied, "I wasn't going to get up to be killed just to satisfy the crowd. Believe me, if I'm going to get executed, they'll have to pay more than 25 dollars a piece to see it. Quit ? Sure I quit. But I was just being smart. I don't want anybody going around telling what a brave guy I was-after I'm dead." Years later, when asked about the bout, Max stated that "fear is standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early."

A Jump over the Pond:
Max's hands took almost 9 months to heal completely from his bouts with Braddock and Louis. He then went on a nationwide exhibition tour doing what he loved best, entertaining an audience. It was a rousing success. As Max travelled America, in June of 1936, Max Schmeling stunned the world by knocking Joe Louis on his butt in the 4th and 12th rounds of their capacity crowd bout at Yankee Stadium. Max soon decided it was time to get back in the game. His wife Mary had announced she was expecting their first child. Max would soon have a family to support. London matchmaker Sydney Hulls offered Max a bout with the winner of the Tommy Farr-Ben Foord title bout, but Max wanted to fight at home. He and Ancil travelled to New York after James "Jimmy" Johnston, boxing promoter for Madison Square Garden proposed that Max fight Bob Pastor in March. Upon their arrival in New York to renew Max's license however, the deal began to fall apart. On Wednesday February 24, 1937, "five official physicians examined him" at the State Athletic Commission and found his hands, mind and body to be fit. "Both Chairman John J. Phelan and Commissioner D. Walker Wear were in favor of giving the former champion" a license. But Max's old nemesis, Commissioner Bill Brown denied him. Baer stalked out of the meeting stating he would not "beg for a license."

Max Baer and brother Buddy upon their arrival at Waterloo Station, London, England - March 10th 1937
Ancil was furious. "He was there to get the license yesterday, submitting to an examination, and doing everything asked of him. But all he got was a heckling from Commissioner Bill Brown." Members of the press were outraged. "As long as the public tolerates State Commissions, so long will we have messes that stink to high heaven as this one." "Any washed-up foreign tramp can get a license. Paulino, Sharkey and Carnera never had any difficulty getting Union cards, even in their dotage." That Friday, Brown declared he would "go along with the commission so as not to stand in the Garden's way" but added "Baer today still is as he was in Asbury Park before the Camera bout-an ordinary 'bum' as a fighter and a detriment to boxing." His "apology" was too late. Sydney Hulls immediately "deposited $22,500 in a New York bank and assumed all expenses for the Baer party", consisting of Max, Ancil, their wives, trainer Izzy Kline and Max's brother Buddy if they would come to London. Max made arrangements to sail to London the following Wednesday.

Upon hearing of Baer's plans, Brown and Johnston promptly brought a $50,000 suit against Max. But Max had seemingly disappeared. The day before Max's departure on the ship Berengaria, Johnston had process servers waiting at every passenger gang plank. By noon on Wednesday, the rest of the party had boarded. Reporters swarmed every inch of the ship, even peeking under lifeboat covers. Newsreel men cranked their cameras as over 50 screaming women waited in vain to see Max off. "Just as the gang planks were being swung aloft," "Baer's beaming face appeared at a porthole, well down in the belly of the ship. Just as quickly he disappeared. The women began screaming: 'We want Maxie ! We want Maxie !' Never one to deny the ladies, Baer reappeared. He let the photographers flash him 'for evidence' and everybody was happy except the forlorn summons servers." Baer had orchestrated his escape by boarding the ship through the freight entrance in the dead of night. Any definitive action in the case would have to await his return to America.

Tommy Farr connects with a right to Max Baer's head. - London, England - May 27, 1937
On March 10th, Max and his entourage arrived at Waterloo Station in London to a crowd of the curious. Max was so entirely unlike anything staid Londoners had ever beheld they didn't know quite what to make of him. His warmth and wittiness soon completely charmed the public and the British press. His antics regularly crowded news of the Duke of Windsor right off the front pages. When his name was announced at the Foord-Farr bout, he received a boisterous round of applause and responded with a deep bow followed by a little dance back to his seat at ringside. Tommy Farr outpointed Ben Foord to win the title of British Empire Heavyweight Champion, but critics declared the bout an "especially dreary business" and that no previous title fight had ever "been so barren of thrills."

While Tommy Farr had a solid succession of wins under his belt when he stepped into the ring on April 15th, Max was the 3-to-1 favorite going into the bout and the majority of the talk about town centered on him. In a manuscript found by his son Gary, and published after his death, Tommy Farr wrote fondly about Max: "If there is a better showman I do not know him. But he is not only priceless entertainment, he is 100% sportsman. We have hammered hell out of each other but he is my good friend, as I know that I am his. There is no pettiness in Max. Max may want a deal of understanding, but once you strip him of caps and bells you'll find none of the clown." Farr outpointed Max in the 12 round bout at Harringay Arena, and while Tommy stated that his win was due to training that had left him "without a physical flaw" and "complete mental serenity" he couldn't help but admire the still monstrous power of Max Baer. "I did not tire in the least" Farr remembered, "although Max, in the clinches, not only made me feel his enormous strength, but the viciousness of the bite of his short arm punches when we were at close quarters." But "let there be no misunderstanding, when Max gets the full weight of his punches home, something oftener than not either bends or breaks.

While the crowd applauded Max as he left the ring just as enthusiastically as they did Tommy, some members of the American press were particularly cruel in their condemnation of his loss. Cecil P. Dodge of the Lowell Sun (Massachusetts) stated that "The Englishman [ed: Farr is Welsh] last night offered convincing proof that as a fighter Baer is simply a boasting braggart. The anti-lynch law, passed by Congress yesterday, should be suspended in the case of anyone found attempting to once more foist Max Baer upon the boxing public of this country. And maybe that form of punishment wouldn't be sufficiently severe."

Max Baer guffaws over his knockdown of South African Ben Foord. - London, England - May 27, 1937
He's Baaaaaack:
On May 27th, Cecil had to eat his words. In a bout against South African and former British titleholder Ben Foord, the old Max Baer was back. "It was a sockfest from the beginning" with Max determined to show his English audience he was a worthy opponent. Max floored Foord twice in the second round for counts of nine "with the same roundhouse rights that carried him to the world title." "In the ninth, Maxie let go one more punch that nearly lifted the South African from his feet. Foord went down and was counted out." The fight ended with Foord face down and bleeding on the canvas. "The crowd applauded Baer for fully 10 minutes" afterwards.

In early June, after Max played the part of a charming menace from California in a British musical-comedy film "Over She Goes" the Baer entourage bid a fond farewell to a crowd of thousands at Waterloo Station and headed for home. Max closed out the year with several exhibition bouts, refereed his first prize fight in Reno, Nevada and watched ringside as Joe Louis took the Heavyweight title from James J. Braddock. More importantly, along the path of his "comeback" trail, in early December 1937, Max signed with the 20th Century Sporting Club promoter "Uncle" Mike Jacobs to engage in a bout at the Garden on March 11, 1938. His opponent would be the winner of a January 11th match between Tommy Farr and Jim Braddock. The winner of the March bout "has been given some assurance of meeting the victor of the June Louis-Schmeling title bout." When Braddock decisioned Farr on points, Braddock's manager Joe Gould surprised everyone by announcing Jim would not fight Max. "A fight with that guy would be just a step backward right now." After Mike Jacobs stated that "it has always been understood that the winner of the bout would fight Max Baer" and sports writer Al Warden said "this writer cast his optics" at the contract, Gould later toned the statement down, saying "We'll be willing to fight Baer if the terms are right." At the end of January, as Max was about to board a train East to begin training for the bout, Braddock abruptly announced his retirement, claiming his wife Mae was too emotionally wrought at the idea of Jim stepping into the ring again.

Max Baer jabs Tommy Farr with a right. - Madison Square Garden, NY - May 11, 1938
With a rematch against Braddock off the table, Max signed to meet Tommy Farr for a rematch on May 11, 1938. Despite his win over Foord in London, and his ranking among the top contenders likely to reclaim the title, the American press, who according to author Jeremy Schaap "made a killing off of Baer before they turned on him" had taken to labeling Max a "second-rater" and the odds were 2-to-1 on Farr. The press and the crowd were pleasantly surprised. The Max Baer who fought that night was a thinking man's boxer, not a clown. A left hook out of nowhere to the jaw spilled Tommy to the floor in the 2nd round. A long right across Farr's temple collapsed him in the 3rd. Max's "left eye was a special target for the Welshman's southpaw" and he fought the latter half of the bout with one eye swollen shut. The judges and the referee declared that Max dominated the bout decisively. Time magazine enthused that "few heavyweight fights in recent years have brought forth so much wholehearted socking, and done so much visible damage. It was Baer's lusty right against Farr's jabbing left. Surprising his critics by clowning only enough to please his more lighthearted fans, Baer also pleased the experts with his shrewd tactics: he repeatedly maneuvered Farr towards his own corner so that at a round's end Farr would lose precious seconds of rest walking across the ring to sit down. Afterwards, demanding a match with the winner of the Louis-Schmeling fight in September, irrepressible Max boasted: 'I didn't quit, did I? I had to redeem myself and I did. Did Louis have Farr on the floor? Did Braddock? Well, Papa Baer did." Farr was "the first to congratulate Max in his victory and the perfect fairness of his fighting." Farr later wrote, "I tabled everything. Also did Max. We went at it bell tinker. I never punched harder, nor did Max, I swear."

Max Baer returned home to his lovely wife and newborn son a contented man. In a repeat of his halcyon days as Champ, offers for his time poured in from movie studios, radio shows and boxing exhibition promoters alike. On March 19th, Baer became a fight promoter when he purchased the contract of Henry Woods, a promising black lightweight from Yakima, Washington. Baer said his share of Woods' ring earning would go into a fund for his son, Max Jr. On March 28th, the National Boxing Association rated Max 2nd among the challengers for the title, behind Schmeling. As Joe Louis trained for his 2nd bout with Max Schmeling, Joe was asked whom he considered to be the best challenger. He responded that "Baer is the best of the challengers. I'd rather fight Schmeling twice than Baer once. Baer's got a dangerous punch in both hands, Schmeling only has the one."

The Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rematch, which lasted 124 seconds - Madison Square Garden, NY - June 22, 1938
On June 22nd in 1938, 70,000 fans from all parts of the globe paid $1,015,012.00 to watch the Louis-Schmeling rematch. Though only 2 years had passed since their first bout, the political and social climate had changed dramatically. Adolf Hitler had invaded the Rhineland and was threatening Czechoslovakia and points West. The American public, who opposed Nazi aggression and victimization of Jews, once again saw the bout as a fight of democracy vs. fascism. Max Schmeling, who had once been greeted enthusiastically upon arrival in America, was now literally spit upon as he walked the streets of New York City. When Joe Louis, who, once the press was convinced was no Jack Johnson, hailed him as the embodiment of the true American hero, said "America's going to win because we're on God's side" it meant as much to Americans as the President's assurances during the Depression that "the only thing we have to fear is, fear itself."

On the night of the rematch, Joe Louis emerged from his corner, his usually expressionless face alive with emotion and purpose. Louis moved in on Schmeling "immediately, weaving, feinting and rushing him to the ropes and pounding at will with vicious left hooks and right crosses to the head." Joe Louis was "swifter than the chair, quicker than the hempen noose. Only the guillotine can match him as a killer." wrote sport writer Henry McLemore, who was assisted to his ringside seat by Max Baer, running interference ahead of him in the packed crowd. " The chair takes four minutes to finish a man, the noose longer. Even lightning must bow to Louis, because it only strikes once. He struck a dozen times. Each blow took its toll, and the toll was a heavy one. The final one sent Schmeling pitching forward on his face. His only sign of life, as the referee counted over him, was a twitching of his feet. Schmeling's defeat was not something one would like to see again. The utter disintegration of an athlete is painful to watch, even when it takes years. Schmeling's disintegration, from a superb physical specimen to a helpless, hopeless, bleeding object required just two minutes and four seconds. One moment the spotlights picked him out and accentuated the brightness of his eyes, the rhythm of his muscles, the eager life of him. In little more time than a breath is held, those same spotlights picked him out - picked him out on the floor, and not standing up. He lay sprawled face down. His arms dangled. He quivered as a beaten, hurt body quivers. One moment a sculptor's model, the next something that had to be carried away." Louis' final punch fractured vertebrae in Schmeling's spine, yet still he smiled and posed for the photographers before being taken to a hospital. When German radio broadcasters discerned what was happening, they cut their live feed to dead air.

On June 26th, Mike Jacobs signed Max Baer to a contract binding Baer's services to Jacobs for three years. Champion Joe Louis was already under a similar contract. Louis and Baer then agreed to terms for a September heavyweight title fight, but the newspapers reported that "they're betting along Broadway Mike doesn't get Baer into the same ring with Joe Louis this year after what Max (who ain't blind) saw the other night." Arena promoters on both coasts vied with Jacobs for the bout. The Los Angeles Coliseum promised 120,000 seats and 2,500 celebrities and San Francisco wanted to hold the bout on Treasure Island to coincide with its opening of the 1939 World's Fair. One week later, Joe Louis' manager announced that Joe "would do no more fighting this year. Joe has been working hard and needs a rest." Max would remain the number one contender for the title, "provided can Baer stay perpendicular in any fight he undertakes in 1939." In December, Mike Jacobs decided that Max should have one more tune-up fight before meeting Joe Louis anyway. Word was he wanted to be assured Max's recent successes weren't a fluke. Max and Ancil expressed an interest in meeting an up and coming fellow Pacific coast fighter Lou Nova, the "Alameda Adonis", who's succession of recent wins had made him white hot. When, at year's end, Lou won on points in a "sizzling battle" over Tommy Farr, the two Californians arranged to meet.

Your's is no Disgrace:
Max Baer battles Lou Nova - New York City- June 1, 1939
Max's bout with Nova was the first major heavyweight fight ever to be broadcast on television. On June 1st in 1939, 30 year old Max Baer touched gloves with 24 year old Lou Nova. With the possibility of a comeback on the horizon, once again Max engaged in hard training for the bout. But the press, having visited Max at his training camp, found him lacking. Sportswriter Henry McLemore stated that "nobody is going to convince me that 6 weeks in the country is sufficient to repair the wear and tear on Baer's chassis." Several labeled Nova the winner, sight unseen, saying Max was through. Max's former nemesis, Jimmy Braddock trained Nova for the fight, giving him the inside scoop on Max. The crowd witnessed a blood fest. "From the start, last night's fight was a rip-tearing, brutal exhibition that kept the spectators on their feet. There was no feeling out. They went right to it, slugging and grunting and scowling, hitting on the breaks and after the bell." In the 2nd and 6th rounds, Max rocked Lou with a "series of overhand and right hand haymakers that so staggered Nova he started toward a neutral corner until Jim Braddock called him to his corner." In the 3rd round, Lou opened up a cut on Baer's lip so severe he was either spitting or choking on blood for the rest of the fight. At the end of 10 rounds the Associated Press score sheet gave Nova 6 rounds and Max 4. The referee finally stopped the fight in the 11th round, stating that Baer was having trouble breathing through all the blood.

Sportswriter Harry Cohn said "Baer made the most intelligent and most courageous fight of his life." "both eyes closed almost tight, his nose a crimson smear, his mouth so badly slashed he choked on his own blood." "He lost a fight but won popularity," stated Alan Ward. "He was butchered and bludgeoned and blasted, and the fire of that attack burned away virtually all the odium attached to his name and ring reputation. In victory he had been small, but in defeat he became big. Professionally he died, and in so dying he earned the respect of the boxing public." Nat Fleischer of Ring Magazine stated, "Max Baer made his last stand in his 'comeback', one that will be remembered as the best fight of his checkered career. The once great Livermore heavyweight, who at one time was hailed as a second Jim Jeffries, went out to atone for the heartaches and headaches he had given his supporters in the past, and he made good with a vengeance." "Baer was a thoroughly beaten gladiator when referee Frank Fullam halted the contest, but to be stopped after absorbing the punishment meted out to him was no disgrace."

The Number 1 Heavyweight Contender:
In July of 1939, "Two Ton" Tony Galento made a surprise showing in his bout with Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium. Galento, who fought from a very low crouch managed to feint his way into a position that allowed him to launch left hooks and right crosses at Louis. Word from Louis' training camp prior to the bout was that his trainers were "trying to change his style to meet Galento's barroom tactics" which was deemed a mistake. Louis was staggered in round one and Galento was dropped in the 2nd round (for the first time in his career). Louis was knocked down in the 3rd round, but in the 4th round managed to club Tony "to a bloody pulp, his face so badly mangled that 23 stitches were required to sew it together again, his body beaten to helpless submission, his brain fogged and his legs paralyzed."

Max Baer meets Tony Galento in "The Battle of the Bums". - Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ - July 2, 1940
When Louis again declared he needed a rest, the heavyweight deck of cards was again shuffled to produce match ups that would entice the public's attendance. Galento met with Lou Nova on September 15, 1939 in "one of the most disgraceful fights staged since the days of the barroom brawls." Perhaps because of Tony's questionable tactics in winning the bout, it was decided he needed one more tune-up fight before again being afforded the chance to face Joe Louis for the title. Galento agreed to a match with Max Baer. The two vocal foes gleefully hurled insults at each other through the press for weeks prior to the bout. On July 2nd, 1940, they touched gloves in what came to be called "The Battle of the Bums". The press was not enthused, and reported that "two tired, fat old fighting men slugged each other into a state of utter exhaustion out on the Jersey marshes last night, and finally one of them, Tony Galento, was unable to go on any longer." The two fighters and the referee apparently tossed out the Marquis of Queensbury rules altogether. Backhanding, elbows, thumbs and head butts were common. Ray Arcel, ringman for Max Baer, said that while Max was a good-natured clown who never disliked anyone, "he hated Galento with a vengeance. He really wanted to kill him. In the ring, the two of them were cursing so much, people in the cheap seats could hear the most vile obscenities." Max later said "I'm sorry they stopped the fight. Every time I hit him and the blood squooshed out it was music to my ears. That's one guy I hate and I'd like to have flattened him."

Little more than 2 months later, on September 26th, Max received $30,000 and 50% of radio broadcast receipts to take on Pat Comiskey, "a classy looking prospect" for eventual title status, who had 25 knockouts of 29 battles under his belt. Reports were that Ancil Hoffman had bet $10,000 for Baer to win, though Baer still went into the bout with Pat the 7-to-5 favorite. Interest in the bout became high when Jack "Doc" Kearns made a successful 'comeback' as the fight's promoter and Jack Dempsey was slated to act as referee. This was Kearn's "first effort to invade Czar Mike Jacob's fistic realm." Pat was introduced to the crowd of 20,000 as "the next number 1 challenger for Joe Louis' title." Max stunned the Roosevelt Stadium audience by disposing of Comiskey in 2:39 of the 1st round, at $188 a second, the first knockout of Pat's career. After Dempsey held Baer's arm aloft in victory, Max "put his arms around the drooling Irish kid and
hugged and kissed him like a repentant motorist picking up a battered jaywalker." "But once he had attended to that errand of mercy, Baer went berserk" bounding happily around the ring to the popping of flashbulbs. Henry McLemore was his usual ebullient self when describing the match. "Hell hath no fury like a Max Baer unafraid. Give the California Butcher Boy a chunk of undressed beef and he'll cut you a mess of tenderloin, T-bones, and porterhouse inside of a minute." "Baer's last punch knocked Comiskey completely senseless and into the ropes. He would have fallen onto the apron, but as he sagged his lantern jaw caught the top strand and there he hung, neither up nor down and a bull's-eye for Baer's next blow. Baer got set as if to punch but then, as if remembering that he had killed an opponent under similar circumstances in California years ago, looked inquiringly at Referee Jack Dempsey. Jack was a man without mercy when he was fighting, but this was too much even for him. He ordered Max to cease firing and together they hoisted the New Jersey boy off the ropes."

Max Baer in a stunning defeat over Pat Comiskey - Roosevelt Stadium, NJ - September 25, 1939
"Last night's fight demonstrated once more that Baer is a really great heavyweight when facing a foe he does not fear. From the time I left the ringside until I was out of the Stadium I heard no fewer than 20 people say: "If Baer would just fight Joe Louis that way, he could regain the heavyweight championship. And they may have been speaking the truth. Baer answered the bell against Comiskey with his cobblestone fists drawn back, and when the men met he started throwing them. There was none of the ridiculous effort of hoaxing that he employs against fighters he fears. No jabs, no feints, no fancy footwork. Just plain, unadulterated slugging. He piled onto Comiskey and belabored him with roundhouse rights, looping lefts, chops, hacks and butts. Never let anyone tell you Maxie can't hit. He's been around a long time, but there still isn't a more fearful punch in boxing than the Californian's full, 14-karat, up-from-the-floor right. It descends with all the delicacy of a safe from a 10th floor window, and the human jaw never was meant to withstand such a shock. Comiskey was supposed to be a youngster who could take a punch and keep coming, but once Maxie's right landed on him Pat was beyond help." "Baer took his victory modestly. He stayed in the ring only 30 minutes after the fight, took only 365 bows, and posed for only 125 pictures. In addition to $30,000, Baer was given a belt emblematic of the "World's White Heavyweight Championship of New Jersey" by Promoter Jack Kearns. It was of solid imitation aluminum, stippled with genuine imitation rhinestones."

Max was again the number 1 contender for Joe Louis' title. As such he demanded a $50,000 guarantee to meet Joe and talk was that the bout would be held in Los Angeles. But Lou Nova, who had been sidelined for an entire year due to a serious stomach illness, was back on the scene. He was strong, he was ready to climb back into the front ranks and he held "a beautiful hate" for Max Baer that he wanted to avenge. Evidently Max had visited Lou in the hospital following stomach surgery and while he'd tsk tsk'd to Lou during his visit, he promptly told the press that Lou was washed up.

Max touched gloves for the second time with Lou Nova on April 4, 1941. Lou Nova beat him to a pulp. Though Max begged the referee to continue the bout, in the 8th round, his face and body almost unrecognizable, the fight was stopped for fear of his safety. While many in the press called him "ancient" and "washed up" at age 32, sportswriter Harry Cohn called him a man "who conceals a simple soul, a sensitive nature and an inferiority complex beneath the mask of a clown." and sportswriter Joe Williams gave Max a nice send off. "The most talented and aromatic ham the prize ring has ever known closed out his Broadway career with a masterful performance before a packed and admiring house last night in Madison Square Garden. The fact that Max Baer was stopped in 8 rounds by a younger and better conditioned Lou Nova is secondary to the finished show the hilarious Hamlet put on. It ran the range from low comedy to high drama." "As if realizing the crowd had gathered mainly to see him in his Paeon to big time Pugilism, the magnificent screwball surpassed himself in his efforts to paint an unforgettable picture of the theater that is peculiarly his own." "Baer may be 32 years old and a little tired from keeping the lights burning along the gay white way, but when he winds up with that right he still can punch." As Nova's hand was raised in victory on a TKO in the 8th, Max strolled over to his corner and "in a few minutes he was kneeling on the apron of the ring chatting brightly with the men in press row." HIs dream of regaining the title now in tatters, Max Baer officially retired from the ring.

Max Baer watches Primo Carnera grappling with wrestler Jim Londos, in a draw match. Baer acted as referee in this "canvas reunion" with Carnera. Chicago, IL - Feb 3, 1950.
Here, There and Everywhere:
After retirement from the ring, Max soon came to missed the limelight. He simply loved being the center of attention. Never one to sit still, when the United States entered WWII, Max and his brother Buddy enlisted in the Army Air Corp. Max's service records list his occupation as "Athletic Instructor." The brothers appeared in uniform at large events to appeal to the public to buy war bonds, taught boxing and physical fitness courses and spoke about the importance of keeping fit for the overseas battles ahead. Max received a medical discharge as a Staff Sergeant in 1945 at Kelly Field in Texas after neck and shoulder injuries received when an 85 pound punching bag fell on him. After the war, Max criss-crossed the country acting as referee for boxing and wrestling matches. Matches that would have only drawn a few hundred people drew thousands who came to see the ex-champion ham it up. In the late 1940s, he partnered with former Light Heavyweight Champion "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom in a raucously successful nightclub act that spanned the continent. In the early 1950s, the two Maxies acted in several movies and comedy shorts.

In 1953-54, Max hosted a successful evening radio program, "The Max Baer Show" on KLX. In 1955-56 he hosted a "Sunday Breakfast" show on KLA. Both shows were broadcast live from various popular restaurants around the San Francisco Bay Area and included interviews and musical performances. In 1956, King Max got his crown back when he played the Heavyweight Champion in the critically acclaimed movie, "The Harder They Fall" which starred Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger. Max also engaged in public relations campaigns, including radio commercials and public appearances, for several West Coast businesses. Embracing the new technology of television with ease, Max appeared on early television favorites such as "Playhouse 90" and "The Abbott and Costello Show" and even had his own variety show, broadcast from Long Beach, California, in 1958-59. He was "always available for public appearances on behalf of church, school or charitable causes." and even refereed Little League.

Oh God, Here I Go:
On Wednesday, November 18th in 1959, Max refereed a nationally televised 10-round boxing match in Phoenix, Arizona. At the end of the match, to the applause of the crowd "Baer grasped the ropes and vaulted out of the ring." and "joined fight fans in a cocktail bar." The next day he was scheduled to appear in several television commercials in Hollywood. On his way he stopped in Garden Grove to keep a 13 year old promise to the son of his ex-sparring partner, Curly Owens, by presenting the 18 year old with a foreign sports car on his birthday, as he had promised him as a child that he would. He checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "Hotel employees said he looked fit but complained of a cold." As he was shaving, the morning of November 21st, he experienced chest pains. He called the front desk and asked for a doctor. The desk clerk said "a house doctor would be right up." "A house doctor ?" he replied jokingly, "No dummy, I need a people doctor." Dr. Edward S. Koziol "gave Max medication and a fire department rescue squad administered oxygen. Baer's chest pains subsided and he was showing signs of recovery when he was stricken with a second attack. A moment before he was joking with the doctor, declaring he had come through two similar but lighter attacks earlier in Sacramento. Just as I was talking to him, he slumped on his left side, turned blue and died within a matter of minutes. His last words were, 'Oh God, here I go.'" Max Baer was just 50 years old.

Over 1,500 mourners watch the hearse bearing Max Baer's body to St. Mary's Lawn Cemetery. - Sacramento, CA - November 24, 1959
Max Baer's funeral was one of the largest ever attended in Sacramento, California, where he had made his home for almost 30 years. "A crowd of more than 1,500, many with scarred eyebrows and smashed noses bade farewell." Among his mourners were "four former world champions," "politicians, people in wheel chairs and Cub Scouts." There were "men of wealth and distinction - and bums shuffling off skid road. They were women in mink stoles and diamonds - and women in cotton house dresses, and in slacks. They were babies in the arms of their young mothers - and elderly couples, helping each other's halting steps." "Hundreds of others, unable to get into the funeral home, crowded around the outside. Some chose vantage points on car roofs and nearby scaffolding." Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were among his pallbearers. There were "tears in the eyes of 'Curly' Owens, his one-time sparring partner, as he took down Max's gloves from a big white floral arrangement." "The cemetery service was concluded by an American Legion firing squad, recognizing Baer's service in World War II." His obituary made the front page of the New York Times. He was laid to rest in a garden crypt in St. Mary's Lawn Cemetery in Sacramento.

Max Baer boxed in 84 recorded professional fights from 1929 to 1941. His record was 72-12-0, 53 of those fights were knockouts, making him a member of the exclusive group of boxers to have won 50 or more bouts by knockout. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1968, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1984 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995. Boxing Illustrated rated the "40 hardest punchers pound for pound in boxing history" in their April 1993 issue. Max Baer's walloping overhand right was rated #2. The 1998 holiday issue of Ring Magazine ranked Max Baer # 20 in "The 50 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time." Ring Magazine's "100 Greatest Punchers" of all time, published in 2003, ranked Max Baer at # 22.

In Retrospect:
After the release of the James J. Braddock movie in 2005, Max Baer has come to be seen as a selfish, womanizing miscreant. His friends and family members are justifiably angered that the man they knew as warm, generous and gentlemanly should be portrayed so falsely. Love him or hate him, Max Baer was quite simply an unforgettable character in our nation's history. That the myths presented in the movie should be perpetuated by future generations who take the script lines as gospel is unconscionable, as is slandering the memory of a colorful personality to make a buck. Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite said of Max Baer in 1976, "he's a lover, not a fighter." Quite possibly no truer words depict Max Baer better. In fistianic circles, when the talk turns to Max Baer the most common question posed is simply "what if ?" Author Jeremy Schaap echoed these sentiments recently, stating "more than sixty years after his last fight, Baer is still remembered for the crushing force of his right hand - and for squandering its potential." If somehow one were able to pose the question of "what if" to Max today, he would more than likely grin, give a wink and chat you up, his arm companionably around your shoulder, on the way to the nearest nightclub.

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 Catherine Johnson. All rights reserved.