Remembering Max Baer

But who was this enigmatic champion and why was his ancestry called into question?

‘A PRACTICING Jew he wasn’t, but Max Baer’s willingness to stand up for something that he believed in should be admired and applauded. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘A PRACTICING Jew he wasn’t, but Max Baer’s willingness to stand up for something that he believed in should be admired and applauded.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Between 1901 and 1939 there were 29 recognized Jewish boxers who reigned as world champions, and more than 160 were ranked as top contenders throughout all the different weight divisions.
That figure could be increased to 30 if one includes Max Baer, the only Jewish heavyweight champion of the world of the modern era of boxing.
November 21, 2019, marks 60 years since the untimely death of Baer from a heart attack at the age of 50.
But who was this enigmatic champion and why was his ancestry called into question?
Max Baer was born on February 11, 1909, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Jacob and Dora Baer. Jacob Baer was one of nine children, all of whom were named after the Tribes of Israel, and Max received an early Jewish education. Dora was a Catholic.
After moving to California in his teens, Baer turned professional in 1929, building up a string of victories along the West Coast before a fight in 1930 almost caused him to quit boxing. On August 25 of that year, Baer knocked out a fighter named Frankie Campbell in the fifth round of their fight. Campbell died the following day. Baer was traumatically affected, although the aftermath also showed a different side to his character. He took responsibility for the young boxer’s death and provided financial aid for Campbell’s widow, eventually paying the college funds for Campbell’s children.
Baer’s kindness and willingness to help others less fortunate than himself was well known at the time. His manager, Ancil Hoffman, stated that he used to keep control of Baer’s finances because he would simply give his money away. Baer was known to take silver dollars and drive through San Francisco, handing out dollars to the homeless who roamed the streets.
At this time of his life, Baer was somewhat of a playboy, partying and renowned for not taking his training seriously. He was living the high life, appearing in over 20 films, having his own TV variety show and vaudeville act. He would also joke around during fights, playing up to the crowd, earning him the nickname, “The Clown Prince of Boxing.” The acting bug was also passed on to his son, Max Baer, Jr. who would go on to play Jethro in the long-running TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies.
Occasionally, though, a fight would be considered serious enough for him to take training seriously.
On June 8, 1933, at the age of 24, Baer entered the ring against a German heavyweight and former world champion named Max Schmeling. Schmeling had been champion only a few years earlier, and would later be immortalized in two fights with Joe Louis. He also became, unwillingly some might say, the standard-bearer for a new regime that came to power in Germany in January 1933.
After the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis, Jews were purged from boxing, as they were from all walks of life in Nazi Germany. Jewish-German titleholders were stripped, Jewish promoters could no longer work, and German boxers were ordered to cut ties with their Jewish associates. It should be noted, however, that Schmeling himself had a Jewish manager throughout his entire career and even helped shelter Jewish children during the Kristallnacht pogroms. Standard-bearer for the regime he may have become, but fully-fledged Nazi he was not.
THE FIGHT, at Yankee Stadium, was the first time Baer donned the Star of David on his trunks, and he proceeded to pummel the German fighter, eventually knocking him out in the 10th round. It would be one of Baer’s greatest fights, and a symbol of hope for Jews throughout America.
The New York Times reported after the fight that “[Baer] explained yesterday, however, that he wore this insignia for the first time because he is partly Jewish. ‘My father is Jewish and my mother is Scotch-Irish,’ said Baer. ‘I wore the insignia because I thought I should, and I intend to wear it in every bout hereafter.”
Legendary Jewish boxing trainer Ray Arcel had his own take on the authenticity of Baer’s Jewishness. “I saw him in the shower,” Arcel reputedly said. “He wasn’t.”
Whether or not one takes Baer’s declared Jewishness as a publicity stunt or a desire to fight for something meaningful has been up for debate for six decades. A practicing Jew he certainly wasn’t. But Baer’s willingness to stand up for something he believed in should be admired and applauded.
It might be something of an irony that Max Baer, the only heavyweight champion of the modern era to wear a Star of David on his trunks, is not considered by most Jews to be Jewish. Yet Baer and his family would have been considered Jewish enough under the Nazi regime and the oppressive laws that Hitler introduced, and would also have been entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s Right of Return Law.
Baer is also included in the Israel-based International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. According to boxing historian Mike Silver, a spokesperson stated that Baer’s wearing of the Star of David and his paternal Jewish grandfather were enough for him to qualify.
Just a year and one week after he knocked out Schmeling, Baer finally got his chance at “the richest prize in sport,” the heavyweight crown. He would step into the ring against the 6’5” tall Italian giant, Primo Carnera. Carnera was a mob-controlled fighter whose fixed fights had led him to the top of the boxing world, but his handlers could do nothing to stop Baer when he got in the ring. Carnera was knocked down 11 times, and the fight was eventually stopped in the 11th round as the Star of David-toting Baer became heavyweight champion of the world.
Max Baer would lose his title 364 days later, on June 13, 1935, after being outpointed by unfancy Irish-American James Braddock, who would later be immortalized in the 2005 movie Cinderella Man. Baer once again hardly trained for the fight, taking Braddock’s threat lightly, and so ended the reign of the Star of David in boxing.
Baer would follow up the Braddock fight against an up-and-coming young fighter from Detroit, who himself was the hope of millions of young black Americans during the 1930s. Joe Louis would knock Baer out in what was the first “million dollar gate” in boxing in a decade.
Perhaps Baer suffers from the misfortune of reigning between two of boxing’s most famous heavyweight champions – Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis – both of whom would have lengthy reigns compared to Baer’s year-long stint. Baer’s reign was also in the midst of a period when the heavyweight championship changed hands several times in quick succession, and perhaps Baer’s true skill as a boxer and champion have been diminished with time.
After finishing his career in 1941, Baer settled into retirement in California.
On November 18, 1959, he refereed a televised boxing match. After the match, the 50-year-old pleased the crowd by vaulting over the ropes and joining fans in the cocktail bar. After checking into a hotel, Baer complained of feeling unwell on the morning of November 21.
A joker to the end, he called the front desk and asked for a doctor to be sent up. “A house doctor will be right up,” was the response. “A house doctor?” Baer asked. “No dummy, I need a people doctor.”
Baer passed away later that day, marking the end of boxing’s only Jewish heavyweight champion.