Quit Clowning Around: When Max Baer Got Serious
By Mike Casey from Boxing Scene
Max Baer is wished back to the present day by a rich and eager young psychiatrist who has been dying to ask him the big question. Max is his old self when he appears. Not the prematurely grey and wrinkled man who succumbed to a heart attack at the premature age of fifty.
He stands tall and broad and young again, the big shoulders and slim waist encased in the finest clothes, the big familiar grin creasing the rugged and handsome face.
The psychiatrist pumps Maxie’s hand, sweeps him into the consulting room and sits him down. How the young ace of the mind-bending fraternity has been looking forward to this moment!
He fires away. “Maxie, I’ve got to know. How come you blew the Braddock fight?”
Unable to curb his enthusiasm, he pre-empts Baer’s reply by offering him a multiple choice of deeply esoteric answers. Maxie blinks, thinks and then smiles and shrugs. “Hell, Doc, I guess I just wasn’t in the mood. But I do know of this jumping little joint down the street where the dancing girls are really cute. You wanna come check it out with me?”
The psychiatrist drops his clipboard, knocks over his glass of water and reels from the room stunned. He takes to the drink, stops shaving and is never the same again.
For various reasons, of course, our little scenario here can never happen. For one thing, we end up sympathising with the rich young psychiatrist, which simply won’t do. But the trip to fantasyland does serve to remind us how Max Baer would fall from the sky like a bomb on today’s cripplingly complex and over analytical society.
God knows, Maxie was enough of a conundrum back in the simpler and more innocent times of his own era in the 1930s, when he would frequently answer the bell looking like Superman and behaving like Ollie Hardy.
Why did Baer lose to Braddock? Probably, indeed, because Max wasn’t in the mood, any more than Roberto Duran felt like playing ring-a-rosy with Ray Leonard in New Orleans or Sonny Liston relished another night at the ballet with Muhammad Ali in Lewiston. The deep thinkers and conspirators do have a tendency to see dark and sinister shapes that are nothing more than shadows.
All these years later, it remains hard to determine whether Max Baer, the Livermore Larruper from California, was a man-child or simply childlike. He was certainly a jarring and fascinating misfit, blessed or cursed (depending on one’s point of view) with a playful and mischievous mind that was eternally ill at ease in the mighty house of its Adonis-like body. He was a Great White Shark who wanted to clown with the other fish in the sea instead of eating them. To those who receive their cerebral pictures in black and white, that kind of contradiction is simply incomprehensible.
Unlike Duran, Liston or countless other great fighters who have inexplicably blanked out on the big night, Max Baer’s irrationality represented a constant and bewildering state of mind. The larking and the clowning became so familiar that boxing fans eventually learned not to question it in any great depth. The mystery where Max was concerned was what sparked him to those rare bursts of genius when he would suddenly erupt like an angry god and display all his thundering majesty.
How great he could have been! We all know it and we all still wonder how magnificent Max Baer could have become if his wonderful potential had been truly realised. We marvel at his wasteful defeats as much as his thrilling victories. The warm glow we feel for Jim Braddock is tempered by the immense frustration of watching Baer leaking away his chance of joining the elite band of all-time heavyweights. The thrill we get from the precision punching of Joe Louis is offset by the knowledge that Baer could have done so much better before his anti-climatic surrender against Joe at Yankee Stadium.
It is reckoned that Louis hit Max flush with some 250 shots to the jaw before the Clown Prince went down in the fourth round and tamely took the count, still looking fresh and thoroughly aware of his surroundings. That chilling fact alone speaks volumes for Baer’s famous resilience. But what if he had hit back in earnest that night? What would have happened then?
The questions are academic in Max’s case because his brain didn’t work in that way. Whatever the molecular construction of his control centre, it wasn’t the ten-cent model that he self-effacingly made it out to be. In Baer’s simple book of life, everlasting glory was a small reward for personal injury. Being a handsome, glorious slab of beef was one thing. Getting chopped and grilled for other people’s pleasure was quite another.
Yet he had the talent and, more significantly, he had the killer instinct when he chose to bring it out of mothballs. Legions of big men have lacked that latter, essential quality. Max Baer at his best was a revelation: wild, arrogant, dismissive and destructive. When he rose up in anger, he made other heavyweights look as small as children and other punchers look positively ineffectual. In that respect, he was very much the precursor of another big man who would come blasting out of California some forty years later.
Max Baer was the early and fatally flawed template of George Foreman: bigger and more powerful than all the other boys but missing the vital components of dedication and consistent hunger that were so inherent in Big George’s make-up. When Baer used his hammer-like right hand to pummel Max Schmeling to defeat in the tenth round at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1933, it was with all the authority and conviction of a man beating upon a boy. As we all know, Schmeling was no boy. He was a great fighter and a former world champion with a tremendous right hand punch of his own, who would go on to memorably derail Joe Louis three years later.
Against Baer, Schmeling frequently resembled a leopard trying to inconvenience a lion. Baer almost casually shrugged off the German’s best shots to the chin, sometimes appearing amused by them as he lolled against the ropes. Foreman, in his menacing pomp, would so often treat his opponents with the same world-weary disdain. When the boot then shifted to the other foot, the opponent would be jerked and flung around the ring like a rag doll.
A lot of stories have been written about Max Baer the joker. It is understandable. The stories make us laugh and Max could be a very funny man. He made some serious pocket money at it in his double act with Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. But let us now look at Max Baer when he dropped the mask of the clown and got serious.
The fog of the Jim Braddock fight, forever lingering and freshly celebrated again only recently, has all but hidden the big-shouldered and big punching young killer that Max Baer appeared to be as the thirties dawned on a depressed and tired America. Baer’s impact on the equally flat heavyweight boxing scene was nothing short of terrific.
His destruction of Schmeling, a quite frightening spectacle even in those more tolerant times of the sport, was dissected and discussed for days afterwards by a fight fraternity that was suddenly buzzing again. Sensational reports and prosaic essays were written about Max’s thunderous punching power and his apparent immunity to punishment.
What threw opponents and boxing journalists alike was the often indefinable pattern of Baer’s game plan in the ring, if indeed he ever had one. Long periods of docile quietness would suddenly be smashed by eruptions of breathtaking violence.
Backhanded slaps and low punches would be excused with seemingly sincere apologies and embarrassed grins, only to be followed by vicious blows that exploded to head and body. Bouts of lethargy would be broken by sustained attacks, in which he would lash out like a sleeping man who had just had a fly dropped in his mouth by a prankster. Baer mixed so many ingredients into his crazy cocktail that it was impossible to tell whether the mixture was planned or purely accidental.
Schmeling was so distracted that his normally acute Teutonic mind was tricked completely down the wrong garden path. As he said of Baer in the aftermath: “He wasn’t hurting me so I got careless and opened up. Wham, I thought a house had fallen on me.”
Baer played a cat-and-mouse game throughout the fight, changing gears constantly as he attacked, idled, played and tormented, before lowering the boom with sudden viciousness.
Jack Dempsey, who had taken Baer under his wing and promoted the fight, obviously believed he had struck gold when he said of Max: “It seems to me that the possibilities in this California youngster are only starting to be uncovered. As great a puncher as Schmeling couldn’t hurt Baer. And until last night I hadn’t seen anyone fighting today who could out-wallop the German. Baer hits with terrible power. As he moves along, it seems natural to expect that his boxing will improve and the importance of his bouts will steady him. He has in himself the ability to become one of the great heavyweights of the ring.”
Baer’s performance similarly astounded the massive Yankee Stadium crowd of 65,000. His punches were often as wild as his freewheeling spirit as he advanced in stop-start bursts, but nothing coming back from Schmeling could significantly check the oddly languid flow of creeping menace.
Baer opened fast, ripping punches at the German ace for the first four rounds without reaping any great dividends. Schmeling was a tough and durable man and determinedly rode out the early storm to make his mark. He found Baer’s jaw repeatedly with cracking rights, but must surely have felt a sinking of the heart at seeing no telling result for his efforts. Baer seemed impervious to the punishment as he continued to fight in spurts, often resembling a mildly bored man taking a stroll through tedious scenery.
Schmeling displayed admirable resilience, and as the fight wore on one could understand his conviction that he had taken the cream of Baer’s Sunday best and could no longer be hurt. Then Baer came to life again in the ninth, savagely so. Going for the kill, he missed with some wild shots but then drove Schmeling to the ropes and connected with a couple of big punches to the head. Again, the former world champion took the punishment well, but then he found himself trapped in a corner at the end of the round as Baer opened up and fired away. He was still slamming punches at Schmeling after the bell and the German waved a hand in feeble protest as he walked unsteadily back to his corner.
Baer sensed the time was right for the big onslaught as the tenth round opened. He attacked Schmeling from the outset with a vicious fusillade of lefts and rights, but Schmeling continued to show his great character in rolling with the storm. His gameness, alas, only delayed his brutal fall. Baer backed off, seemingly admiring his handiwork, but then shot home a big right that staggered Schmeling. Baer continued to fire, knocking the German down with a final, booming right to the jaw. The roar of the crowd was so loud that referee Arthur Donovan had to read the timekeeper’s lips in picking up the count.
Courageous to the end, Schmeling hauled himself to his feet and straight back into the line of fire. Baer was baring his teeth and dipping and swaying his body to give his blows greater leverage for the final act. There was always a strange element of cruelty to Baer the executioner, perhaps part imagined because his mainly closeted mean streak contrasted so jarringly with his madcap image. Much like Jack Nicholson’s dark portrayal of The Joker, one expected a tasteless gag to accompany the withering brutality.
Punching short and long with his big right, Baer pasted Schmeling with a final barrage before referee Donovan rescued the German as he clutched desperately to the ropes Writer Edward J Neill described the crowd as ‘thunderstruck’ at the finish. Just about everyone was convinced they had seen the re-birth of the young Jack Dempsey. Henry McLemore wrote: “Boxing got its shot in the arm last night, the same sort of shot it received on that scorching afternoon on the banks of the Maumee, when the killer that was Jack Dempsey stepped to the heavyweight heights over the battered, bleeding hulk of Jess Willard. The Californian has all the fine qualities necessary for the make-up of a dominating ring champion. He’s magnificent to gaze upon. He’s wild, irresponsible, conceited and – most important of all – he packs a wallop that makes him a menace from the first gong to the last.”
It has been said that heavyweight legend Jim Jeffries rarely punched his full weight because of his genuine fear that he might kill an opponent. Such was Jeff’s strong and practical mind, he was able to live with that fear and still show us enough to become one of the greatest champions, never afraid to apply the kill.
On August 25, 1930, at the Recreation Park in San Francisco, Max Baer literally killed an opponent in Frankie Campbell with a thunderous salvo of punches that went unchecked by a dozing referee.
Max was twenty years old and it is virtually certain that the tragedy removed his great body of its killer streak and continued to burrow away in his mind.
Did guilt eat away the best of Max Baer as a fighter? He went into that bout in a rare state of mind. He was enraged. His friend and trainer, Tillie ‘Kid’ Herman, had switched allegiance at the last moment and become Frankie Campbell’s chief second. Nothing much happened in the first four rounds of the fight, as Max and Frankie battled on even terms, taking two rounds each. As Baer came out for the fifth round, Tillie Herman jeered him and a devil was let loose.
No longer was Baer slothful and cautious. He simply let rip with everything he had as he chased and punched Campbell to the ropes. Frankie was suddenly trapped and would undoubtedly have fallen in normal circumstances from the big right cross that thundered off his chin. But his suddenly limp body had no place to collapse and rest. That blow alone was believed to have knocked Campbell out, but many more blows followed. Baer kept firing and struck his hapless opponent with at least another half dozen full-blooded shots to the head.
Referee Toby Irwin, one of the most experienced officials in the game and an ex-fighter, was seemingly oblivious to Campbell being out. Curiously, Frankie’s seconds appeared to be similarly hypnotised by the crashing burst of violence. There was no fluttering towel, no shouts and yells from them to stop the fight.
The anguished cries to halt the slaughter came from the crowd of 15,000, aghast at the blood that pumped from Frankie’s nose and mouth before he finally hit the deck.
A brawl had been expected between the two young Californian prospects and the rules had been relaxed accordingly. It was agreed beforehand that fouls would not be recognised unless they were deliberate. A fighter incapacitated by a low punch would have all the time he needed to recover, even if it were necessary to start a preliminary bout in the meantime. There was always the dreadful possibility that things would get out of hand.
Campbell was moved to the Mission Emergency Hospital in San Francisco and later to St Joseph’s, where he died at noon the following day.
Max Baer, even at that early stage in his career, was being hailed as one of the greatest punchers the heavyweight division had ever seen. We can only theorise on how he felt about that.
Ernie Schaaf at Chicago
At 6’ 2’’and just over two hundred pounds, Ernie Schaaf was often described as a giant in the days of smaller heavyweights. Ernie was also a very accomplished boxer and a respectable puncher who had climbed the ranks with quality victories over Paolino Uzcudun, Tony Galento, Young Stribling, Jim Braddock, Tuffy Griffiths and Tommy Loughran.
In December 1930, Schaaf met Baer at Madison Square Garden and handed Max the most comprehensive points beating that many locals could recall. Significantly, perhaps, it was Baer’s first fight since knocking out Frankie Campbell.
People were beginning to wonder about Max Baer, the hot young prospect from California, the new Dempsey. Did he have the mental fortitude to accompany his physical attributes? After the Schaaf defeat, Max had gone on to lose three of his next five fights.
Baer simply had to make good when he got his second chance at Schaff at the Chicago Stadium on August 31, 1932. The odds were in big Ernie’s favour and he certainly looked the part. He was a splendid physical specimen that night at 209 1/2lbs, and the 7/5 choice of the bookies. Max came into the ring at an even 200lbs and the eager crowd at the grand venue wondered which Max Baer they had come to see. Was he still the ferocious young banger with the potential to write his name large into the history books? There could be no more erratic, temperamental performances if he were to truly step into the shoes of the mighty Dempsey.
For eight rounds, the fight as slow and uneventful, prompting referee Tommy Thomas to call for more action. This wasn’t an unusual demand from a referee in bygone days when assorted shenanigans were rife. No boxer has ever won an Oscar for acting when faking his best effort. Check out Willie Pep’s facial contortions in his farcical dance with Lulu Perez and you will get the point. Max and Ernie looked happy enough just to be there, but the waltz was terminated violently by Baer’s sudden charge for home plate in the ninth round.
The Larruper started larruping and a tremendous slugfest ensued in mid-ring. The fighters were toe-to-toe and were hitting each other with their best shots when Max went up a gear and rifled a succession of lefts and rights to the jaw that sent Schaaf to the ropes. Suddenly there was no return fire from Ernie and the sound of the bell only served to prolong his torture in the lion’s den.
Baer went for the kill in the tenth round, knowing that Schaaf could do nothing to repel him. Ernie’s problem had been apparent in the earlier rounds when his very best punches had failed to shake or significantly shift Max. Baer had often smiled as the punches bounced off his head, full of confident swagger as he engaged Schaaf in toe-to-toe warfare.
The tenth and final round was brutal as Baer walked straight into Ernie and started to blaze away. The big conundrum from California was indeed magnificent to gaze upon when he got serious and summoned the full firepower of those guns that hung from his mighty shoulders. Max began to unloose big left and right hand shots to the chin and Schaaf was suddenly in no man’s land as he was driven into the ropes and then harried out to mid-ring, where he reeled and staggered in a fog that wouldn’t clear. Ernie went back to the ropes where he tried to hide and hustle, but the powerful Baer just kept letting rip with jarring punches that were all accurately delivered.
The beating was sustained and the round seemed endless before Schaaf finally fell from a smashing right. He was out to the world, but referee Thomas didn’t take up the count as the bell had sounded almost as soon as Ernie hit the floor.
Schaaf was unconscious for a good five minutes. His seconds dragged him back to his corner, where they splashed his face with cold water and raised his feet into the air to try and revive him. Baer’s reaction to the frightening scene was a small and fascinating microcosm of his dual personality. He looked utterly bewildered, seemingly unable to comprehend the damage he had inflicted.
Six months later, at Madison Square Garden, Ernie Schaaf was knocked out in thirteen rounds by the light-punching goliath Primo Carnera, suffering a brain haemorrhage and dying four days later. Theories abounded on the origin of the haemorrhage and many believed that the heavy fists of Max Baer had been the catalyst.
Max, of course, never did become the next Jack Dempsey. Life was too short and there were too many other things to do. The Clown Prince won the world championship, but his systematic destruction of Carnera was more comparable to the chaos of a Marx Brothers movie than the massacre of Toledo.
Late in his career, when the squat, wrecking ball arms of Tony Galento were trying to knock him through the floor of the Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey, Max still couldn’t quit clowning around. At one point in that memorable pier sixer, he stepped back and gave Tony a comical bow.
The pressure was off Baer by that time and he had perfected the act with which he felt most comfortable: thunderous clouts with a smile. The smile infuriated Two Ton Tony and the clouts prevented him from coming up for the eighth round.
Even in cruise mode, Max Baer was pretty damn good. And perhaps that’s the way he preferred it. Who can really say whether he was a fool or a wise man?
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).