Baer discovered rather late in his youth that fighting was something he could do well. It did not immediately occur to him that a price for his prowess would be exacted. He would not pay in physical injury as so many others had, but in something dearer—mental anguish.
Max Baer was born Feb. 11, 1909 in Omaha. His father, Jacob, was a butcher of distinction, capable of dressing a 1,300-pound steer in three minutes and 36 seconds, a time he recorded in a contest in Denver, where the family had moved. When Max was in his teens, Jacob took the family to California, first to Galt, then to a hog ranch he had leased near Livermore, 45 miles east of San Francisco. There were four Baer children—Frances, the oldest, Max, Bernice and Jacob (Buddy), who would himself become a heavyweight contender. There was also Augie Silva, a Portuguese immigrant, a year younger than Max, who worked with the boys on the ranch and eventually took the Baer name as his own.
According to family legend, Max did not learn to fight until he was wrongfully accused of stealing a bottle of wine from a tough steeplejack in an argument outside a Livermore dance hall. The accuser popped teen-ager Max on the chin, and Max laughed, mostly, he said later, because he was glad he was still alive. When the steeplejack tried another punch, Max knocked him kicking with a single right-hand haymaker. It was a heady moment for a boy who had believed himself a coward and, the Baers say, it was the making of a heavyweight champion. Encouraged by his family and friends, Max bought a punching bag for $25 in Oakland and set up a gym in an abandoned building on the ranch. With his newfound confidence and the conviction that the ring offered better wages than did slaughtering hogs, he sought counsel from the savants of "Bash Boulevard." a three-block stretch of Franklin Street in downtown Oakland where the fight crowd congregated.
"He looked like an Adonis," recalls Joe Herman, boxing's current elder statesman in the Bay Area. "But he was just a big inexperienced kid. Still, with that build, everybody wanted to help him." Baer's first bona fide manager was J. Hamilton Lorimer, once his employer at the Atlas Diesel Engine Works in Oakland. As a tutor, Lorimer hired Bob McAllister, a fistic classicist who, like Gentleman Jim Corbett before him, had represented the San Francisco Olympic Club as a heavyweight. Although his sensibilities were frequently offended by his wild-swinging prot�g�, McAllister persevered with his lessons, contriving somehow to teach him a passable left hook. Baer made his professional debut early in 1929 with a second-round knockout of Chief Cariboo in Stockton. Fighting primarily out of that California valley city and Oakland, he quickly accumulated a string of 12 knockouts. He advanced from the Stockton rings to the Arcadia Pavilion in Oakland and to the even more capacious Oakland Auditorium. His first fight outside the Bay Area was a 10-round decision over Ernie Owens in Los Angeles on April 22, 1930. The victory itself was no more impressive than the contract-signing ceremony that preceded it. Baer arrived for this event in a limousine, driven by a chauffeur and attended by a footman. He stepped out of the car dressed as if riding to hounds. "I knew then," says Gallery, "that Max Baer was a little different from the ordinary guy."
Baer's reputation as a murderous puncher and bon vivant spread throughout California. He was now a drawing card, and his fight with Jack Linkhorn on May 28, 1930, transferred from the Arcadia to the Auditorium, drew a sellout crowd. Linkhorn, winner of 18 consecutive fights by knockout, was knocked out by Baer in the first round. The winner's purse of $7,500 was Max' biggest. He went through it in a flash, for even at 21 he was a prodigious spender. In later life this largess would assume the form of extravagant generosity; in these early years, he simply spent what he made on himself and his parents. He was frequently in debt, and to keep solvent he devised the ultimately pound-poor scheme of selling pieces of himself to various investors. When a final accounting was attempted to determine who owned what of him, lawsuits fairly fluttered through the courtrooms, some filed by Baer himself. But neither litigants nor creditors could daunt his high spirits. Baer moved his family off the hog ranch into a fine house in Piedmont where all the East Bay swells lived, and there were cars and clothes and girls by the score for him. He was the toughest man in town and the handsomest, a recognizable figure on the streets, a big, cheerful, curly-haired kid with a loud and infectious laugh.
At the same time, Baer was arousing the interest of men of stature in boxing, including Ancil Hoffman, a gnomish, tight-fisted avocado grower and fight promoter from Sacramento. What Baer needed, Hoffman concluded, was one more major local fight before tackling the Eastern promoters. He decided to match him with Frankie Campbell, a tough San Francisco heavyweight, in an outdoor bout on Aug. 25, 1930 at Recreation Park, home of the San Francisco Seals Pacific Coast League baseball team. Hoffman saw the fight as a bridge to the East. As it turned out, it was a plunge into despair.
Frankie Campbell, born Francisco Camilli, was an Italian from San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood, the brother of a promising first baseman with the Sacramento Solons, Dolph Camilli, later, as a Brooklyn Dodger, the National League's Most Valuable Player. Campbell was a crowd pleaser, a busy mixer in the ring who had enjoyed recent successes in Los Angeles. In his last L.A. bout, he had been knocked down twice in the second round by Tom Kirby before he knocked Kirby out in the third. Campbell was not a big heavyweight, but he hit with authority and he was considered most dangerous when he seemed hurt, because his favorite tactic was playing possum. He and his wife Elsie were new parents, so, though his ambitions were not as grand as Baer's, he, too, looked forward to the big purse an outdoor bout promised.
Campbell had not looked good in training for Baer. The San Francisco Chronicle's Harry B. Smith, visiting his quarters in the Dolph Thomas gym, wrote prophetically, "Frankie had better not leave himself as open to attack in the ring with Baer, for it may prove disastrous to him." Baer, too, had looked dismal in his sparring sessions. He always did. But in 1930, he was in superb condition and he knew, as Smith had written, that this was a make-or-break fight for him.
Campbell had appeared lighter in training than the 185 pounds his manager, Carol Working, had said he would weigh for the fight. In fact, he weighed only 179—to Baer's 194—and this aroused some speculation that he might have been ill before the fight. But his handlers insisted he was in top condition. At the weighin, both fighters were admonished by the State Athletic Commission to "keep fighting as long as the other man is on his feet."
San Francisco is seldom warm in August, particularly in the evening, when the afternoon fog has settled on the hills, but Recreation Park, at 15th and Valencia Streets, was situated in the relatively wind- and fog-free Mission District, then as now, the best place in town to watch sports outdoors. "Old Rec," as the ballpark was called, had been built of lumber and chicken wire in 1907, the year after the great earthquake and fire, and when the wind blew, it creaked like a fence gate. By 1930 it was considered obsolete. The following year the Seals would move into the modern Seals Stadium, so that the Campbell-Baer fight would be one of the last major sporting events to be held there. A crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 showed up on an unseasonably balmy evening to watch the two young heavyweights.