SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
March 20, 1978
Max Baer could bust them up with a right hand and then break them up with laughter, but his boxing career was overshadowed by tragedy
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 20, 1978

Send In The Clown

Max Baer could bust them up with a right hand and then break them up with laughter, but his boxing career was overshadowed by tragedy

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Nineteen thirty-three was a vintage Baer year. The Schmeling victory had made him a national hero. Dorothy Dunbar divorced him in Mexico, leaving him free—actually, freer—to roam. He made The Prizefighter and the Lady and became an instant success with the Hollywood crowd. He was a boulevardier, a rake, a man about town. His love affairs were conducted on the grand scale. He was sued for breach of promise by an old girl friend, who told reporters she loved him so much she would "crawl on my hands and knees from Livermore to Oakland," a 35-mile journey over hilly terrain. A showgirl named Shirley La Belle accused him of making untoward advances in a New York hotel room. He was linked with June Knight, the Broadway star, and with caf� society ladies Mary Kirk Brown and Edna Dunham, the latter immortalized in the press as his "hotsy-potcha." Although Hoffman watched over his resources with a banker's eye, Max spent and gave away money as quickly as it was doled out to him. He would pass out $5 bills on skid row and buy and deliver groceries for poor families. "He'd beg Pop [Hoffman] for $250," Maudie Hoffman recalls, "then give it away to some down-and-outer waiting at the gate." "Max had a heart bigger than his body," says Buddy Baer. "He actually gave people the clothes off his back."

Early in 1934 he met Mary Ellen Sullivan, who managed the coffee shop in Washington, D.C.'s Willard Hotel. She was hardly a glamorous showgirl, but she was attractive, intelligent and levelheaded, and he decided that he loved her. Despite vigorous objections from her Catholic family, they were married in June 1935. While he never quite lost his reputation as a playboy, they stayed happily married until the day he died.

Baer's training for Carnera was so nonchalant as to bring down the wrath of New York Boxing Commissioner Bill Brown, who, after discovering that the challenger's sparring sessions were more like soft-shoe routines, recommended that the fight be postponed until that "bum" could be made to take it seriously. But it was held as scheduled on June 14, 1934 in the old Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, which, curiously, had been the site of three heavyweight championship bouts, all of which the titleholder lost. The giant Carnera, mob manipulated and now abandoned, would be no exception. After Baer had knocked Carnera out, Max turned to Commissioner Brown at ringside and inquired. "Well, Mr. Commissioner, what d'ya think of me now?" "You're still a bum," snarled Brown. Then he considered the implications of his remark. "And so," he added, "is Carnera." From his dressing room, amid tumult, Baer called out, "Somebody bring the new champion a beer. Now I'm going out and have some fun."

Max Baer was heavyweight champion for one day short of a year, but it is unlikely anyone got more out of the title. One of his first acts was to fight a benefit exhibition—against Stanley Poreda—for Frankie Campbell's widow and son. A $10,600 trust fund was set up as a result of the bout, held on Feb. 15, 1935 at the Dreamland Arena in San Francisco. Baer paid all of the expenses and took no money from the gate.

His first defense of the title was to be against Braddock, a 29-year-old loser of 21 out of 80 fights who had been on relief only a few months before the championship bout and who had borrowed $37 the previous Christmas to pay his children's milk bill. Baer was even more of a mystery than usual in training. His hands, always brittle, were more troublesome than ever, and it was said he was bothered by rumors that the Carnera mobsters had moved into Braddock's camp. Braddock won the title on June 13, 1935 at the accursed Bowl in a dreary match enlivened only by Baer's comedy turns.

Despite this humiliating defeat, Max would enjoy his richest payday only three months later in Yankee Stadium against the ring's newest sensation, Joe Louis. Baer's reputation may have suffered, but a crowd of 84,831 paid $932,944 to see Louis knock him out in four rounds. Baer's entire purse of $200,000 was placed in annuities by Hoffman, and this and subsequent investments provided the Baer family with a handsome income. There was no time for comedy in this brief, if profitable, encounter. Baer was decked twice in the third round, and when he went down again in the fourth, he stayed down, patiently awaiting the full count while resting on one knee. It was the act of a quitter, his critics said.

"Sure I quit," Baer replied. "He hit me 18 times while I was going down the last time. I got a family to think about, and if anybody wants to see the execution of Max Baer, he's got to pay more than $25 for a ringside seat...I'm not going to be cutting up paper dolls. I never did like the fighting game, and this proves it."

He was only a buffoon to boxing fans from then on, although he showed flashes of his old power. As late as 1940 he dropped a right hand on the chin of Pat Comiskey, a promising young contender, that knocked him flat. Comiskey got up and Baer went after him, but when he realized the condition of his opponent, he held his hands apart and implored Referee Dempsey to stop the fight. There would be no more Frankie Campbells on his conscience. Max reached his nadir in his grotesque fight with Two-Ton Tony Galento, billed cruelly as "The Battle of the Bums." Baer dutifully clowned as the brawling fat man charged him, but he also administered a sound beating, and Galento was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round. At the conclusion, Max wrestled with a dwarf who had climbed into the ring.

He retired after his second loss to Lou Nova, on April 8, 1941, and the following year joined the Army, serving three years as a physical instructor. He was at his happiest in the years after the war, turning at last to his true love—show business. He made movies, worked as a disc jockey and radio talk-show host, refereed occasionally and, for a time, had a nightclub act with Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the former light-heavyweight champion who had fashioned a successful film career playing punch-drunk fighters.

Mostly, Max stayed at home in Sacramento, where he lived near the Hoffmans, and doted on his three children—Max Jr., now, at 40, an actor (Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies) and film producer; Maudie and Jim. He was, as always, generous with his time and money.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6