Maximilian Adelbert “Max” Baer (February 11, 1909 – November 21, 1959) was an American boxer who was the World Heavyweight Champion from June 14, 1934, to June 13, 1935. His fights (1933 win over Max Schmeling, 1935 loss to James J. Braddock) were both rated Fight of the Year by The Ring Magazine. Baer was also a boxing referee, and had an occasional role on film or television. He was the brother of heavyweight boxing contender Buddy Baer and father of actor Max Baer Jr.. Baer is rated #22 on Ring Magazine‘s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.
Baer was born on February 11, 1909, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Jacob Baer (1875–1938) and Dora Bales (1877–1938). His father was the son of Aschill Baer and Fannie Fischel, who were Jewish emigrants from Alsace-Lorraine and Bohemia, respectively; his mother was of Scots-Irish descent. His elder sister was Frances May Baer (1905–1991), his younger sister was Bernice Jeanette Baer (1911–1987), his younger brother was boxer-turned-actor Jacob Henry Baer, better known as Buddy Baer (1915–1986), and his adopted brother was August “Augie” Baer. For a period Jacob Bear worked as the manager of the meat packing concern of the Graden Mercantile Co. in Durango, Colorado.
In May 1922, tired of the winters that aggravated Frances’s rheumatic fever and Jacob’s high blood pressure, the Baers drove to the milder climes of the West Coast, where Dora’s sister lived in Alameda, California. Jacob’s expertise in the butcher business led to numerous job offers around the San Francisco Bay Area. While living in Hayward, Max took his first job as a delivery boy for John Lee Wilbur. Wilbur ran a grocery store and bought meat from Jacob.
The Baers lived in the Northern Californian towns of Hayward, San Leandro and Galt before moving to Livermore in 1926. Livermore was cowboy country, surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of rangeland which supported large cattle herds that provided fresh meat to the local area. In 1928, Jacob leased the Twin Oaks Ranch in Murray Township, where he raised more than 2,000 hogs and worked with daughter Frances’s husband, Louis Santucci. Baer often credited working as a butcher boy, carrying heavy carcasses of meat, stunning cattle with one blow, and working at a gravel pit, for developing his powerful shoulders (an article in the January 1939 edition of The Family Circle Magazine reported that Baer also took the Charles Atlas exercise course.)
Baer turned professional in 1929, progressing steadily through the Pacific Coast ranks. A ring tragedy little more than a year later almost caused Baer to drop out of boxing for good.
Baer fought Frankie Campbell on August 25, 1930, in San Francisco in a ring built over home plate at San Francisco’s Recreation Park for the unofficial title of Pacific Coast champion. In the second round, Campbell clipped Baer and Baer slipped to the canvas. Campbell went toward his corner and waved to the crowd. He thought Baer was getting the count. Baer got up and flew at Campbell, landing a right to Campbell’s turned head which sent him to the canvas.
After the round, Campbell said to his trainer, “Something feels like it snapped in my head” but went on to handily win rounds 3 and 4. As Baer rose for the 5th round, Tillie “Kid” Herman, Baer’s former friend and trainer, who had switched camps overnight and was now in Campbell’s corner, savagely taunted and jeered Baer. In a rage and determined to end the bout with a knockout, Baer soon had Campbell against the ropes. As he hammered him with punch after punch, the ropes were the only thing holding Campbell up. By the time referee Toby Irwin stopped the fight, Campbell collapsed to the canvas. Baer’s own seconds reportedly ministered to Campbell, and Baer stayed by his side until an ambulance arrived 30 minutes later. Baer “visited the stricken fighter’s bedside”, where he offered Frankie’s wife Ellie the hand that hit her husband. She took that hand and the two stood speechless for a moment. “It was unfortunate, I’m awfully sorry”, said Baer. “It even might have been you, mightn’t it?” she replied.
At noon the next day, with a lit candle laced between his crossed fingers, and his wife and mother beside him, Frankie Campbell was pronounced dead. Upon the surgeon’s announcement of Campbell’s death, Baer broke down and sobbed inconsolably. Brain specialist Dr. Tilton E. Tillman “declared death had been caused by a succession of blows on the jaw and not by any struck on the rear of the head” and that Campbell’s brain had been “knocked completely loose from his skull” by Baer’s blows.
The Campbell incident earned Baer the reputation as a “killer” in the ring. This publicity was further sensationalized by Baer’s return bout with Ernie Schaaf, on August 31, 1932. Schaaf had bested Baer in a decision during Max’s Eastern debut bout at Madison Square Garden on September 19, 1930.
An Associated Press article in the September 9, 1932, sports section of the New York Times describes the end of the return bout as follows:
Two seconds before the fight ended Schaaf was knocked flat on his face, completely knocked out. He was dragged to his corner and his seconds worked on him for three minutes before restoring him to his senses… Baer smashed a heavy right to the jaw that shook Schaaf to his heels, to start the last round, then walked into the Boston fighter, throwing both hands to the head and body. Baer drove three hard rights to the jaw that staggered Schaaf. Baer beat Schaaf around the ring and into the ropes with a savage attack to the head and body. Just before the round ended Baer dropped Schaaf to the canvas, but the bell sounded as Schaaf hit the floor.
Schaaf complained frequently of headaches after that bout. Five months after the Baer fight, on February 11, 1933, Schaaf died in the ring after taking a left jab from the Italian fighter Primo Carnera. The majority of sports editors noted, however, that an autopsy later revealed Schaaf had meningitis, a swelling of the brain, and was still recovering from a severe case of influenza when he touched gloves with Carnera. Schaaf’s obituary stated that “just before his bout with Carnera, Schaaf went into reclusion in a religious retreat near Boston to recuperate from an attack of influenza” which produced the meningitis. The death of Campbell and accusations over Schaaf’s demise profoundly affected Baer, even though he was ostensibly indestructible and remained a devastating force in the ring. According to his son, actor/director Max Baer Jr. (who was born seven years after the incident):
My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet. He treated boxing the way today’s professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. He never deliberately hurt anyone.
In the case of Campbell, Baer was charged with manslaughter. Baer was eventually acquitted of all charges, but the California State Boxing Commission still banned him from any in-ring activity within the state for the next year. Baer gave purses from succeeding bouts to Campbell’s family, but lost four of his next six fights. He fared better when Jack Dempsey took him under his wing.
Boxing has found in Max Baer the kind of fighter who can bring the game back to the old days—the days when big men fought to knock each other out…So I believe that boxing’s comeback now rests right on Baer’s shoulders. He is only 24 years old, he’s the biggest, strongest man fighting today, and he hits with terrible power.
On June 8, 1933, Baer fought and defeated (by a technical knockout) German heavyweight and former world champion Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was favored to win, and was Adolf Hitler‘s favorite fighter. The Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer publicly attacked Schmeling for fighting a non-Aryan, as Baer’s father was Jewish, calling it a “racial and cultural disgrace.”
Hitler summoned Schmeling for a private meeting in April in which he told Schmeling to contact him for help if he had any problems in the U.S., and requested that during any press interviews he should tell the American public that news reports about Jewish persecution in Germany were untrue. However, a few days after that meeting, Hitler put a national ban on boxing by Jews along with a boycott of all Jewish businesses. When Schmeling arrived in New York, he did as Hitler requested, and denied problems of anti-Semitism existed, adding that many of his neighbors were Jews, as was his manager.
Although the Great Depression, then in full force, had lowered the income of most citizens, sixty thousand people attended the fight. NBC radio updated millions nationwide as the match progressed. Baer, who was of one half Jewish descent, wore trunks which displayed the Star of David, a symbol he wore in all his future bouts. When the fight began, he dominated the rugged Schmeling into the tenth round, when Baer knocked him down and the referee stopped the match. Columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote about Schmeling’s loss, “That wasn’t a defeat, that was a disaster”, while journalist David Margolick claimed that Baer’s win would come to “symbolize Jewry’s struggle against the Nazis.”
Baer became a hero among Jews, those who identified with Jews, and those who despised the Nazis. According to biographer David Bret, after the war ended, it was learned that Schmeling had in fact saved the lives of many Jewish children during the war while still serving his country.
Swedish film star Greta Garbo considered Baer’s defeat of Schmeling to be a “mini-victory” over German fascism, and she invited him to visit her while she was filming Queen Christina in Hollywood. However, Baer’s being allowed on the set was considered a “sacrilege” in Hollywood, as even MGM studio’s head, Louis B. Mayer, wasn’t allowed on Garbo’s set, since she demanded total privacy while acting. Their friendship led to a romance, which lasted until he returned to New York to train for his next fight, this one against Primo Carnera.
On June 14, 1934, at the outdoor Madison Square Garden Bowl at Long Island City, New York, Baer defeated the huge reigning world champion Primo Carnera of Italy, who weighed in at 267 pounds. Baer knocked down the champion 11 times before the fight was stopped in the eleventh round by referee Arthur Donovan to save Carnera from further punishment. All the knockdowns occurred in rounds one, two, ten and eleven, in which Baer thoroughly dominated. The intervening rounds were competitive. There is some dispute about the number of knockdowns scored as Carnera slipped to the canvas on several occasions and was wrestled to the canvas other times. Despite this dominant performance over Carnera, Baer would hold the world heavyweight title for just 364 days.
On June 13, 1935, one of the greatest upsets in boxing history transpired in Long Island City, New York, as Baer fought down-and-out boxer James J. Braddock in the so-called Cinderella Man bout. Baer hardly trained for the bout. 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 ten 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.” Baer, ever 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 15 rounds Braddock emerged the victor in a unanimous decision, 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 nineties.” Braddock took heavy hits from Baer but kept coming at him until he wore Max down.