"Nothing that ever happened to me—nothing that can happen to me—affected me like the death of Frankie Campbell," Baer said after he had won the heavyweight championship "It was almost a week after the fight before I could get more than an hour or so of successive sleep. Every slightest detail would come racing back to mind, and I couldn't blot from my eyes the last scene—Frankie unconscious in the ring, his handlers working on him. And then the news that he was dying...dead."
Significantly the severest criticism directed at Max Baer as fighter in years to come was that he lacked the killer instinct required of great boxers. His son, Max Jr., recalls a conversation he had not long ago with one of his father's old opponents. Lou Nova. "Lou told me that my father hit him with the hardest body punch he'd ever taken. He said he was practically paralyzed there for a moment. But when he looked around, there was my dad, hitching up his pants the way he always did, mugging away at the crowd, laughing, doing everything but follow up. Lou recovered and gave him a helluva beating."
"After Frankie Campbell," said Buddy Baer, "the clowning started. It was something to do instead of fighting."
Baer did not retire from boxing after the Campbell tragedy, but in his next few bouts he fought almost as if he had wandered into the ring by chance. His punches lacked power, and he seemed even less concerned than usual with protecting himself. He lost four of the next six fights. Ancil Hoffman, who had taken over as Max's manager two months after Campbell's death, commented in March 1931, "I'm afraid the Campbell affair left its imprint on Baer, and that is something he will have to forget if he is to go far in the fight game. In all of his New York engagements Max failed to show the aggressive spirit that made him so popular on the Coast. I would say it affected his fighting considerably."
After the manslaughter charges were dropped, Max took Hoffman's advice and left for Reno, a favorite city, where the nightclubs and casinos never closed, the perfect place for a man who was barely sleeping at all. He gambled and drank a little, though never seriously, and he met a woman, one Dorothy Dunbar Wells de Garson of New York City, a sometime actress and frequent wife, then seeking divorce. She was pretty enough, though years older than Max and, by his standards, chic and sophisticated. She charmed him and, to whatever degree was possible, helped free him of depression. But she could not make him fight well. She watched him lose to Ernie Schaaf in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, 1930, his first fight after Campbell. There was a grim irony in Schaaf being the opponent, for he, too, would die in the ring.
Baer's reputation as a fighter was scarcely damaged by the Campbell incident; indeed, fans in the Eastern arenas were clamoring to see so lethal a boxer. They were grievously disappointed to discover that the killer they had paid to watch was so tame he seemed afraid to throw a punch. The turning point came on Feb. 6, 1931, when Tommy Loughran, a master boxer, easily out-pointed Baer in Madison Square Garden. Baer was so inept that ringside spectators began ragging him mercilessly, reviving at least the absent sense of humor. At one juncture in his hopeless pursuit of the elusive Loughran, he turned to a tormenting fan and shouted, "I'd like to see you try and hit this guy." Baer was so fascinated with Loughran's technical brilliance that he called on him in his dressing room after the fight to suggest they have lunch together the next day. Loughran, amused and flattered, accepted the invitation. Baer's trouble, aside from his curious reluctance to cut loose, was that he was looping his punches, Loughran told him. A clever boxer had no difficulty avoiding these tentative, telegraphed bombs. If he seriously contemplated remaining in the ring, Baer should forget about his past and learn a few basic skills. The man who could teach him most about shortening his punches happened to have refereed their fight. Fellow name of Dempsey.
The two fighters called on Jack Dempsey that very afternoon, and to Baer's astonishment, the old champion seemed interested in his plight. Baer was not on his way back yet—he would lose to Johnny Risko in May, to Paulino Uzcudun in July—but he acquired Dempsey as a teacher, and Hoffman was at last unraveling his tangled financial affairs. Dorothy Dunbar was attending to his heart, and she and Max were married in Reno on July 8, 1931. The marriage lasted barely two years, but Max at least was on his feet again. After Uzcudun, he won 12 fights in a row, six by knockout.
In Chicago, On Aug. 31, 1932, he fought a rematch with Schaaf, who was now a leading contender. It was a punishing, nearly even bout entering the 10th and final round. Neither man had been down; Schaaf, for that matter, had never been knocked off his feet in the ring. Then, five seconds before the final bell, Baer caught him with a long right to the chin, which he followed with a brief flurry of punches. Schaaf dropped to the canvas. Referee Tommy Thomas did not bother to count, declaring Baer the winner by decision, although Schaaf was still unconscious. Schaaf died six months later after being knocked out by Carnera in the 13th round at Madison Square Garden, felled by a punch so lightly thrown that ringsiders began chanting, "Fake!" as he lay mortally stricken. In footnoting Schaaf's death, Ring record books have long included the gratuitous phrase, "badly injured in his fight with Max Baer," the implication being that Baer had claimed a second victim. The killer reputation would not die, although the Carnera fight was Schaaf's fifth after Baer.
Baer fought only one time in 1933, against Schmeling, before 60,000 in Yankee Stadium. By this time, the 27-year-old Schmeling was being promoted as a personal favorite of the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Schmeling was an athlete, not a politician, and a German, not a Nazi, but for the first time Baer pointedly wore the Star of David on his boxing trunks. The ring's ethnic scholars, including the late Nat Fleischer, never considered Baer a "Jewish fighter," a slight that rankled his Scotch-Irish mother, Dora. Exaggerating a bit, she told Bay Area reporters, "You can tell those people in New York that Maxie has got a Jewish father, and if that doesn't make him Jewish enough for them, I don't know what will."
This night it did not matter how much of him was Jewish. Normally friendly to a fault with all of his opponents, he regarded Schmeling as his first bona fide enemy. Weighing a svelte 203 pounds, Baer fought the fight of his young life. Still, in the first round he walked into a right hand that left him seeing more than one Schmeling. "I see three of him," he told Dempsey between rounds. The Manassa Mauler's sage counsel in reply is now part of ring lexicon: "Hit the one in the middle." Baer did and clinched a title shot.