Movie's portrayal of Baer unfair, incorrect
By Ann Tatko-Peterson
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Max Baer Jr. has spent the past year setting the record straight. His father was not the boxer portrayed in a cruel, villainous role in director Ron Howard's movie, "Cinderella Man."
Movies frequently use dramatic license to exaggerate an antagonist. In Howard's movie, released last year, James J. Braddock is a dock worker during the Depression who rose to fame by beating heavyweight champion Max Baer, a Livermore native, in a title fight. Baer is presented as a womanizer and merciless killer.
"He could be arrogant, and he was definitely a lady's man," Baer Jr. said of his father, "but more often he was kind-hearted, a clown at heart. He loved having a good time."
Baer Jr., better known as Jethro on television's "Beverly Hillbillies," and movie critics took exception to the movie's false characterization of Baer regarding a real-life tragedy.
In 1930, Baer knocked out Frankie Campbell during a fight held at Recreation Park in San Francisco. The beating caused Campbell's brain to detach from his skull. He died 13 hours after the knockout.
In one movie scene, the Baer character implies that he also might deliver a fatal beating to Braddock, telling Braddock's wife that she's "far too pretty to be a widow." He then adds, "On second thought, you can always come to me for comfort."
George McCartney, a critic for the online Chronicles, called that scene an inexcusable lie. He added that it was done to elevate Braddock as a perfect hero.
"By Hollywood standards, such fudging is a venial sin hardly worth mentioning," McCartney wrote, "except that it exists side by side with a whopping mortal offense: the shameless defamation of Max Baer."
Campbell's death deeply affected Baer.
Baer Jr. said his father had nightmares about it until he died of a heart attack in 1959.
"Nothing haunted my father more than that fight," Baer Jr. said. "Nothing."
During the weigh-in, Baer and Campbell were instructed to keep fighting as long as the other boxer was on his feet.
In the fifth round, Baer had Campbell pinned against the ropes. There, he unleashed a wave of punches that knocked Campbell senseless. Only later did officials realize the ropes alone had kept Campbell on his feet.
Referee Toby Irwin didn't intervene until Campbell's head hit a metal turnbuckle. When Irwin stopped the fight, Campbell slumped to the canvas unconscious.
Campbell remained in the ring for a half-hour because the ambulance was stuck in traffic.
After Campbell died, Baer was arrested for manslaughter, even though Campbell's widow, Elsie, and his mother, Eliza Camilli, refused to sign a complaint against him. The charges were dropped after a four-month inquiry.
Baer, Irwin and managers for both boxers received one-year suspensions by California's boxing commission.
Baer initially retired from boxing, with plans to return to the family's Livermore ranch. He stayed away from the sport for four months.
Later he wrote, "Nothing that ever happened to me -- nothing that can happen to me -- affected me like the death of Frankie Campbell."
The tragedy changed Baer as a boxer.
Reporters who covered him noticed how he reined in his punches while dominating boxers, as if afraid he might hurt them. Lou Nova credited two of his wins to Baer's unwillingness to finish him off.
The 1930s marked a time before the three-knockdown rule in boxing.
As Jeremy Schaap wrote in his book, "Cinderella Man," "The sport needed reform. But vilifying Max Baer as public enemy number one was unfair. And arresting him was ludicrous."
Throughout his career, Baer donated purses from exhibition fights to Campbell's family. He also arranged through Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion, to pay for the college educations of Elsie Campbell's children.
Basing its information on some newspaper accounts, the movie also attributed a second death in the ring to Baer.
In 1932, Baer knocked Ernie Schaaf unconscious for several minutes in the 10th round. Six months later, Schaaf died following a fight with Primo Carnera.
Newspaper reporters pounced, claiming the beating he received from Baer had caused Schaaf undiagnosed brain damage.
In reality, Schaaf had fought twice since the Baer match. Six months had passed. And the autopsy showed a recent bout with pneumonia had contributed to Schaaf's death.