By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
Think about some of the greatest boxers of all time and you’re likely to conjure up images of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. But, it would be difficult to discuss all-time greats or the history of the sport without mentioning “Madcap Maxie.”
Max Baer, a native Nebraskan, is described by The International Boxing Hall of Fame’s official record book as having perhaps the most powerful right hand in heavyweight history. That right hand led him to a 72-12 career record, one heavyweight championship and a few years ago, a portrayal in the movie “Cinderella Man.”
Baer is famous for having been one of America’s most beloved and entertaining fighters at a time when Americans needed someone to make them smile. His depression-era career from 1929 to 1941 included antics in and out of the ring that made him popular among boxing fans and non-fans alike.
While his “clowning around,” as it was called, may have attracted attention, it was the symbol on his boxing trunks that made him stand out. Throughout his career, Baer wore the Star of David on his shorts and served as a hero to the Jewish community.
Since Baer was only half Jewish and didn’t practice the faith, the symbol may have only been one of his attempts at self-promotion. Yet, at a time when Jews were often the victims of stereotypes in media coverage, a Jewish fighter dominating the heavyweight circuit helped to redefine how Jews were represented in the media.
In his book, “Beyond the Ring,” author Jeffrey T. Sammons points out that the change in attitude towards Jews was a product of the community rising in political and economic power. However, Sammons does point out that “after Baer there was little degrading media treatment of Jewish athletes or the Jewish people.”
For most of us, any knowledge we have about Max Baer is slim and probably incorrect. In 2005, actor Craig Bierko portrayed Baer as a sadistic and cruel man in the movie “Cinderella Man.”
In the film, Baer is depicted as having killed two men in the ring and telling the wife of the movie’s main character, Jim Braddock, that he would kill her husband and then sleep with her. While it’s true that one of his opponents, Frankie Campbell, did die in the ring, film director Ron Howard did little to give the audience a truthful representation of the real Max Baer.
In 2006, Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. spoke with Washington Post writer Jonathan Turley and described his father as something quite different than the remorseless killer audiences saw on the big screen.
Speaking about the death of Campbell, Baer Jr. said that after the incident his father “started smoking cigarettes and had nightmares for years.” According to his son, Baer raised considerable money for the Campbell family and never fully recovered from what happened in the fight with Frankie Campbell.
Jeremy Schapp, author of the book “Cinderella Man”, told Turley that after the Campbell fight, Baer went into a “tailspin” and lost a couple of fights because he refused to finish off opponents fearing the same might happen. Schapp also characterized the incident with Braddock’s wife seen in the movie as “totally made up.”
After a long and successful boxing career that saw Baer defeat a German hailed by the Third Reich and an Italian favored by the dictatorship in Italy, as well as him becoming one of the few fighters to record more than 50 knockouts in a career, Baer went on to become a movie star. From 1933 to 1958, he appeared in over 22 films.
Despite his legendary boxing career, Baer’s own son, Max Baer Jr. is probably much better known than his own father. Baer Jr. played Jethro in the 1960s television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Unfortunately, Baer Sr.’s superstardom as one of America’s favorite athletes of the 1930s may be lost in the same way that the careers of Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson have been lost to unfair portrayals that focus mostly on gambling.
Don’t get me wrong, the Max Baer – Jim Braddock fight makes a great story. It’s an even better story when Ron Howard puts his creative license to it.
Yet, how many of us consider Max Baer in the same ranks with other famous Nebraskans like Henery Fonda, Malcolm X and Fred Astaire? His story belongs with the likes of William Jennings Bryan, not Charles Starkweather.