Nigel Collins on Max Baer, the heavyweight king ‘with a heart too big for his fists’
MAX BAER had this routine where he stood sideways to the camera, stuck his left thumb in his mouth, and blew, his belly expanding as if he was a human balloon. Then he leaned back and assumed the swayback stance of a bareknuckle boxer of yore, all the while giving the camera cheeky side-eye.
Sure it was shtick, but possibly closer to how Baer felt about his profession than any of the savage knockouts that made him a major player in the heavyweight division during the 1930s—and for a brief period champion of the world.
In the ring “Madcap Maxie” was a dangerous goofball, a jester with a punch that could knock you into next week. From “Two Ton” Tony Galento and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom to Ray “Windmill” White and Randall “Tex” Cobb boxing has always welcomed screwballs that could fight. Baer is foremost among them.
He was a handsome hunk of a man, 6-foot-2½-inches of swoon-worthy muscle and bone. As the story goes, the source of his impressive physique was swinging an axe next to his dad at a meatpacking plant or as Max described it, “Up to my knees in gore.”
Baer was a boisterous fun-loving charmer with a quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humour. He had a mop of curly back hair and a smile that could melt the hangman’s heart.
“[Max] was literally surrounded by women who lured him into chasing them to bed, yet another sport in which my brother excelled,” said his brother, Buddy Baer. “For adventurous women, Max had it all, brawn, personality, a sunny disposition, a flashy car, glory, fame and money.”
Max’s legacy is a cautionary tale laced with tears and laughter, his failures remembered more than his triumphs. In the heavyweight championship pantheon Baer is the great could-have-been, the one that got away — the big if-only.
Some people called him the “Killer Clown” because of his involvement in a ring death. To others he was the “Clown Prince” of boxing, a guy who brought laughter to the sport during grim days of the Great Depression. True, there were times when it looked like he’d taken boxing lessons from Charlie Chaplin, but there were also times when Baer’s fists fell like anvils dropped from heaven.
Was Baer’s inconsistency due to not taking his career seriously enough? Did he have a million-dollar body and a ten-cent head, or was he simply a great talent who fell considerably short of his potential? Baer was all of the above and more.
Perhaps Max Baer has been judged from the wrong point of view. Max wasn’t a boxer who became a clown. He was a clown who became a boxer. There’s a difference. Baer was an accidental fighter, not a kid who grew up dreaming about becoming heavyweight champion of the world.
According to Buddy, Max was an introvert as a boy and bullied at school, especially when he moved west to Colorado and California from his birthplace in Nebraska. It wasn’t until his father shamed him into fighting back that Max discovered he’d been blessed with terrifying punching power.
Baer excelled at baseball, basketball and football in high school but never considered boxing until he fought a guy in bar parking lot and knocked him out. When the guy woke up he told Max that he ought to give boxing a try. Baer’s first trainer, Persey Maden, said Max became fascinated by the “colour and the glamour” of boxing and loved being the center of attention. Then there was the money. On May 16, 1929 Max got $35 for his pro debut, more than three times his weekly pay at the Atlas Diesel Engine Company in East Oakland.
Baer quickly became a Bay Area favorite, attracting large crowds and making good money almost from the start. Not that the dough lasted very long. According to Michael C. DeLisa, author of Cinderella Man, Baer earned $50,000 for 16 fights in 1929, but was $10,000 in debt at the start of 1930.
No worries, though. His career was just getting started and there was plenty more money to earn and skirts to chase. Then came what manager Ancil Hoffman called Baer’s “Gethsemane.” It arrived the night of August 25, 1930, not in a garden, but in front of a capacity crowd at Recreational Park, home of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.
Baer hit Frankie Campbell so hard and so often before the fight was belatedly stopped in the fifth round, Campbell died the next day. According Dr. T.E. Tilman, “[Campbell’s] brain was knocked completely loose from his skull.”
A part of Baer died with Campbell. A ring death is always difficult to handle for all concerned, and that includes the boxer in the other corner. How they deal with it, of course, varies from boxer to boxer, with some taking it harder than others. “If this is the fight game, I want no more of it. I’d be happier back in Livermore tending pigs,” wrote Baer in a letter to his manager, portions of which were published in the Oakland Tribune. “I’m sorry I ever drew on a glove.”
“Max was emotionally demolished,” said Buddy. “He cried uncontrollably for hours. My mother told me my dad used to have nightmares [over Campbell’s death], even 20 years later.”
No wonder Baer was devastated. He was the loner who had found a way to be noticed that suddenly became all too real. The joy had gone out of boxing and he was never the same fighter after the tragedy. In an attempt to assuage his pain, Baer sold a piece of his contract to Hoffman for $5,000 and headed for Reno to escape his troubles. He blew through the money in a week and headed home, accompanied by Dorothy Dunbar, a former silent movie actress and wealthy divorcee he’d met in a Reno hotel lobby.
It was a bounce-back affair for both, Max from the shadow of Campbell’s death and Dunbar from one of her six divorces. They were married in July 1931 and divorced in October 1933. Strapped for cash and having no other option other than the pig farm, Baer returned to the ring on December 19, 1930, losing a 10-round decision to contender Ernie Schaaf. There followed one of the roughest patches of his career. Max won only two of his next five bouts, dropping decisions to Tommy Loughran, Johnny Risco and Paulino Uzcudun.
Just when it looked like Baer’s was about done as world-class boxer, he entered what became the most successful period of his career. Life is like that sometimes.
Baer won 12 straight including rematch victories over Risco, Uzcudun and Schaaf, which led to a fight with former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling on June 8, 1933. The Baer-Schmeling fight was in many respects a precursor to the Joe Louis-Schmeling rematch in June 1938. Hitler was already governing Germany in ‘33 and his anti-Semitic views were well known in the United States. Max, whose father was half-Jewish, had the Star of David sewn on to his trunks for the Schmeling fight, even though he was completely indifferent about religion.
“It wasn’t all show. Max believed he was going into battle with an arrogant symbol of the ‘master race’,” said Buddy, whose career shadowed Max’s and eventually led to two title fight with Joe Louis. Baer wore down Schmeling with a steady attack and stopped in him the 10th round in dramatic fashion. It was arguably the best performance of his career especially in light of the German’s knockout of Joe Louis six fights later. Defeating Schmeling earned Baer a shot at reigning world champion Primo Carnera. It took a year to put the fight together and during the interim Max co-starred with Myrna Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady, a movie in which he portrayed fictitious boxer Steve Morgan.
Baer was finally in his element. Carnera was also in the film and was paid more than Baer but had little screen time. Max was everywhere. He even did a soft shoe while singing “Lucky Fella on the Make for Love.” It was, however, Baer’s acting chops that caught the critics’ eye.
“Baer’s performance as Steve Morgan bowled over the critics, and still stands as the best performance of boxer in the leading film role,” wrote Frederick V. Romano in his book, The Boxing Filmography: American Features, 1920-2003. “Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times was surprised by Baer’s ‘extraordinary capable portrayal,’ and Richard J. Watts Jnr of the New York Herald-Tribune praised Baer as ‘an enormously engaging performer who can handle comedy, drama and romantic appeal with distinguished dexterity’.”
As in real life, Carnera was cast as the champion and Baer as the challenger. To make sure their upcoming title fight would be as successful as the movie, the choreographed fight scene ended in a diplomatic draw. It was a perfect documercial.
The championship match took place on June 14, 1935 in front of a crowd of 52,268 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City. It was the opposite of the movie stalemate.
Baer knocked down Carnera so frequently prior to the fight being stopped in the 11th round there is still debate over exactly how many knockdowns there were. Opinions range from seven to 12, but regardless of the number, it was a massacre. Baer was the new world champion. It has been said of Max that payday was party day and every day was lady’s day. As far as he was concerned being champion meant expensive cars, lavish parties and generous handouts to everyone. It was a lifestyle that cost him the title when, on June 13, 1935, 10-1 underdog Jim Braddock won a 15-round decision in Baer’s first defense. Although he must have been at least a little disappointed, Max laughed off the loss with a wisecrack.
“Braddock can use the title. He has three kids,” said Max. “I don’t know how many I have.”
Three months later Baer, suffering from a broken right hand and a bone chip in his left wrist, was back in the ring against none other than Joe Louis. Hoffman begged Max not to take the fight until after he’d had surgery, but the fight went ahead anyway, probably because Baer needed the $180,000 payday.
The massive crowd of 84,831 at Yankee Stadium saw Max knocked down twice in the third round and a final time in the fourth. When the press asked him why he didn’t get up after the third knockdown, Baer told them, “I could have struggled up once more, but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than $25 a seat to watch it.”
Between the Braddock and Louis losses, Baer scored the biggest victory of his life by marrying Mary Ellen Sullivan. The breaker of a thousand hearts had finally found his soul mate. They had three children and stayed together until Max’s death on November 21, 1959.
Baer slowly rebuilt, barnstorming the country, defeating no-hopers in places like Rock Springs, Wyoming; Ada, Oklahoma; and Pocatello, Idaho. He met with mixed results against better fighters, losing to Tommy Farr in London and then beating him in New York.
The end was closing in on Baer’s, especially after he took a nasty thrashing from Lou Nova in June 1939. Remarkably, he bounced back to stop Tony Galento and Pat Comiskey in impressive manner in 1940, but his career finally came to uncomfortable halt on April 4, 1941, when Nova stopped him again.
Max wasn’t a warrior in the traditional sense. He was an entertainer masquerading as a boxer and all things considered, he did a pretty good job of it. His final tally was 66 wins, 13 loses, with 51 of his victories coming inside the distance. Max and Buddy enlisted in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II, and after the war Max returned to acting, appearing in movies such as Africa Scream (an Abott and Costello vehicle) and The Harder They Fall (with Humphrey Bogart). He also joined former light-heavyweight champ “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom in a comedy tour called The Two Maxies. The pair also starred in a series of short films. For a few years Baer hosted a radio show and was a familiar face on television. Hopefully, Max was happier in showbiz. Unlike boxing, he was as natural at it.
Baer was still a well-known figure when he died, and was on his way to appear in some commercials when he checked in to a hotel and had a heart attack. He was hospitalised and died on November 21, 1959 at the age of 50.
Who knows whether it’s true or not, but legend has it that Max got in one final wisecrack. When he called the desk to ask for a doctor, the clerk said, “The house doctor will be right up.” To which Max replied, “A house doctor. No dummy. I need a people doctor.”
“My father was like a big, lovable baby,” said actor Max Baer Jnr, who starred as Jethro Bodine in The Beverly Hillbillies TV series. “I think he was afraid to let people know him the way he really was because he was a softy. He was supposed to be a tough guy, but he really wasn’t tough at all. He didn’t belong in the fight business.”
Ancil Hoffman put it this way, “His main fault was that his heart was too big for his fists.”