Max Baer was best known at the beginning of the 21st Century for having sired Max Baer Jr. , the actor who played Jethro Bodine on the classic TV series The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71). However, old-timers, followers of the sweet science and viewers of the film Cinderella Man (2005) all know that Max Sr. was boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world for all of 364 days, from the time he knocked out Primo Carnera on June 14, 1934, to the day he lost his title to Jimmy Braddock on June 13, 1935.
Cinephiles also will remember the colorful Max from his numerous bit roles in films, including Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s Africa Screams (1949) to his near-autobiographical turn in the Budd Schulberg boxing expose The Harder They Fall (1956) starring Humphrey Bogart. Ironically, it was his acting in the latter film that likely led to his misrepresentation in “Cinderella Man” as being something akin to a monster, when actually, according to his family and those who knew him, he was an amiable man. Some fight fans thought that it was his good nature, which they attributed to his clowning, that eventually did him in, as he would not bear down on his opponents in the latter part of his career.
Max Jr. says that his father wanted to be an actor, an insight that explains the flashy persona he displayed in and outside the ring as he wisecracked and clowned his way through careers as a boxer and performer in movies and nightclubs. Blessed with what “The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book” terms the most powerful right hand in heavyweight history, Baer used that right to gain a fearsome reputation as a California prizefighter before moving to New York and taking on the top ranks of the heavyweight division.
Max Baer was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on February 11, 1909, to a half-Jewish father and a mother of Scots-Irish descent. The family moved first to Colorado and then to California, where he dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work with his father on a cattle ranch. Baer developed tremendous physical strength as a ranch hand, and when he turned to boxing, he trained in a most dedicated fashion, a regimen he did not keep to when he reached the zenith of his craft.
Tragedy in the Ring
In 1929, Max Baer turned professional and racked up 22 wins in his first 24 fights, nine via first-round knockouts. He was a very dangerous fighter, and in 1930 he was suspended from the ring in California for a year after the death of one of his opponents, Frankie Campbell (the brother of pro baseball player Dolph Camilli). Campbell had died after being KO’ed by Baer, and criminal charges were filed against him. Though the manslaughter charges ultimately were dropped, Baer had to deal with the psychological burden of having taken another man’s life. He quit the ring for several months after Campbell’s death, and Max Jr. claims that this is when the Max the Clown (one of his nicknames was “Madcap Maxie”) emerged, as a way of dealing with his torment. Plagued by nightmares for many years, he also took up smoking, which was not very wise for a fighter who depended on his wind in the ring.
When Max Baer returned to boxing after the layoff, he was a different fighter, shy to go on the offense against his opponents. He lost four of his next six fights; according to one opponent who had beaten him in that period, Tommy Loughran, Baer was telegraphing his punches with a looping attack. Baer’s career was revitalized when former heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey took a financial interest in the boxer and taught him to shorten his punches. The “monster” of the ring was back.
Baer knocked out Ernie Schaaf, rendering him unconscious, in the tenth round of their August 31, 1932, fight. When Schaaf died after fighting future heavyweight champ Primo Carnera in a Februry 14, 1933, bout, many attributed his death to the beating he had taken at the hands of Baer. This chain of events has long been considered part of boxing lore, which Baer helped perpetuate. In the 1956 movie “The Harder They Fall,” the fictionalized story of Carnera’s rise and fall through the heavyweight ranks, the Max Baer character, who was played by none other than Baer himself, says: “You know I’m the guy who nailed Gus [Ernie Schaaf], murdered him for 15 rounds. Don’t know what held him up, but when Gus left the ring that night he was a dead man. All your joker did was tap him. I did all the work and they gave your guy all the glory.” The “your guy” being referred to was the fictionalized Carnera (in actuality, it is most unlikely that Baer caused Schaaf’s death. Schaaf likely was suffering from a form of meningitis caused by influenza when he fought Carnera six months after the Baer beating).
Star of David
Max Baermoved to New York to be near Dempsey and the boxing powers-that-be. In 1933 Baer publicly identified himself as a Jew and began wearing a Star of David on his trunks. This was when he was scheduled to meet the German Max Schmeling in the ring, just at the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Baer also wore a Star of David on his trunks during his title defense against Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock, which was the centerpiece of Howard’s film. In the movie, the Star of David is significantly less prominent than the real one Baer wore in the 1935 fight.
Boxing in America has always capitalized at the box office on racial and ethnic conflicts, real and imagined, since at least the days of Jack Johnson and “The Great White Hope.” Some thought Baer’s self-identification as a Jew was opportunistic, as it appealed to the very large contingent of Jewish fight fans in the New York City metropolitan area. Baer’s father was a non-practicing Jew, and his parents raised their son a Catholic, which fueled the charges of opportunism. However, writer Jeremy Schaap, whose book “Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History” served as the basis of Ron Howard’s film, believes that Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, used Baer’s ethnic consciousness to motivate him against Schmeling in the ring.
Hitler had already launched his anti-Semitic campaign in Germany, and a Jew against a “Nazi” (though Schmeling would always be reluctant about his manipulation as a showpiece of the Nazi state) made good economic sense at the gate–and if it motivated Baer and his fans, so much the better.
As it turned out, Max Baer beat Schmeling so badly at Yankee Stadium before 60,000 fans that the fight had to be stopped in the tenth round due to the ferocity of Baer’s attack and the amount of punishment absorbed by Schmeling, himself a future heavyweight champ.
Baer won the lead in the 1933 flick The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) in which he starred with Myrna Loy and future opponent Primo Carnera, then the world’s heavyweight boxing champ. In a foreshadowing of what was to come in his career (his first title shot and first defense, though it would be Jimmy Braddock who was the underdog then), Baer was cast as an all-American underdog who challenges Carnera — playing himself — for the championship (Carnera only agreed to adhere to the script and let Baer knock him out and claim the crown in the final reel for an additional fee of $10,000). The thespian Baer garnered good reviews and the film was a success at the box office, though Josef Goebbels banned it in Germany, as the “Jew” Baer was in the cast.
World’s Heavyweight Champion
By defeating Schmeling, Max Baer had earned a title shot against the Italian Carnera, who at 6’6″ and 263 pounds was two inches taller than Baer and outweighed him by 53 pounds. As was fictionalized in “The Harder They Fall” a generation later, there was a certain dubious quality about Carnera’s career. Many thought that his career had been manipulated by the Mafia, and that he had been unfairly steered into the heavyweight title through a series of unworthy opponents and via outright corruption. As in the film, where the fictionalized Carnera got his comeuppance at the hands of Max Baer, the real Carnera was about to face his own Götterdämmerung in the ring.
At the Madison Square Garden Bowl, 50,000 fans of the fistic arts witnessed a ferocious Baer knock down Carnera (who along with Baer later would unsuccessfully take on the eponymous giant ape in Mighty Joe Young (1949) in a New York nightery) ten to 12 times during the 11-round bout (records differ as to the number of times Carnera went down). During the fight Baer constantly taunted and grimaced at Carnera, who kept his dignity despite Baer’s shenanigans, which included playing to the ladies in the crowd and non-stop merciless mugging.
After the last knockdown in the 11th, the referee stopped the fight, giving Baer the decision on a technical knockout.
Max Baer was now the heavyweight champion of the world. He would hold the title for exactly 364 days. That his first order of business after the title fight was repairing to a nightclub where he served as master-of-ceremonies at a fee of $10,000 did not bode well for the length of his future reign as Heavyweight Champ.
Max Baer‘s nemesis turned out to be New Jersey longshoreman James “Plain Jim” Braddock, a former top contender who had dropped out of the ranks after an injury. He was soon renamed “Cinderella Man” by Damon Runyon. According to Max Baer Jr., his father didn’t prepare for the fight with a boxer many considered a “has been” or a “never will be,” whose best days in the ring already were eclipsed.
Bradock was a 20:1 underdog before the fight, but he wore the heavyweight championship belt after their match-up at the Madison Square Bowl. Lacking motivation, Baer’s disdain for training left him at the losing end of one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Braddock won a unanimous decision after 15 rounds in the ring with Baer, the monster tamed through his own malfeasance.
Max Baer had all the talent and the hardest right in the world, enough to make him a longer-reigning champ than just shy of one year, but he squandered. During his fight with Braddock, Baer clowned around while Braddock built up points. Baer thought he could knock out Braddock at will, but he could not find it in himself to do so. The emergence of the potentially great boxer that lurked inside him essentially was denied by Baer’s overt persona, the good-natured clown. How much of this is rooted in his desire not to kill again in the ring is pure speculation.
Something seemingly went out of Max Baer after losing the title. Future heavyweight champ Joe Louis, one of the all-time greats, administered a terrible beating to the former champ during Baer’s next fight, in which he was counted out on one knee in the fourth round.
Many aficionados of the sweet scene thought that Max Baer was through, and to keep his dignity, he should retire. Baer did quit the ring for a spell, but came back, knocking out “Two-Ton” Tony Galento, a top-ranked contender. He retired for good in 1941 after being whipped soundly by a young Lou Nova, departing professional pugilism with a career record of 72 wins (52 KOs) and 12 losses. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995.
Max Baer died of a massive heart attack on November 21, 1959, in a Hollywood hotel. He was 50 years old. While he lay dying in his room, the hotel operator asked him if he needed the “house doctor.” “No,” he replied. “I need a people doctor!” A clown to the end.