He had few qualifications for his job. He did not emerge snarling with resentment from a ghetto, nor was his childhood lost in the bowels of some coal mine or steel mill. He was predominantly German on his father's side of the family, Scotch-Irish on his mother's, but no ethnic fires flamed in his far from savage breast. Although in the latter stages of his boxing career he wore the Star of David on his trunks, he was only a quarter Jewish, by virtue of a paternal grandfather. He was reared on farms by parents so loving that the children kissed them goodby before journeys no more venturesome than to the town pharmacy. He was such a timid youngster that he refused to fight when challenged by his schoolmates, sending forth his older sister as surrogate belligerent. By his own recollection, he did not hit another person until he was in his late teens, and then not in anger but in self-defense. Boy and man, he sought only to amuse. He seems, like Sabatini's Scaramouche, to have been "born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad." Above all else, he was a lover, not a fighter.
That such a man should have become heavyweight champion of the world and a principal in some of the ring's bloodiest conflicts, including one—purportedly two—that brought about the death of an opponent is one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the history of sport. In all probability, there never has been a fighter so contradictory in nature as Max Baer, and this is written with full knowledge that Muhammad Ali is equal parts jester and assassin. Forty years before Ali occupied center stage. Max Baer was entertaining and confounding ringsiders with routines that seemed more appropriate to musical comedy than to the squared circle. Unlike Ali, Baer was invariably the butt of his own japery, and if he was not the fighter Ali is—or was—he could, as they say, sure bust you up with a right hand.
Fighting at a time when only the most pedestrian of journalists addressed pugilists by their given names, Baer accumulated more nicknames than any fighter before or since. It is a tribute to this infinite variety that he was the Livermore Larruper, the Livermore Butcher Boy, Madcap Maxie, the Larruping Lothario of Pugilism, the Pugilistic Poseur, the Clouting Clown, the Playboy of Pugilism and the Fistic Harlequin. He provided lively newspaper copy, for he was the most quotable of boxers; in all likelihood, the most quotable of athletes. When ex- champion Jack Dempsey, working in Baer's corner during his fight with Joe Louis, advised him not to worry because "he hasn't hit you yet, kid," Baer turned dolefully to Dempsey and, through bloodied lips, replied, "Then you better keep an eye on Arthur Donovan [the referee] because somebody in there is beating hell of out me."
Still, as many fans and newsmen as Baer delighted, he antagonized an equal number. For those who took seriously this most serious of all sports, Baer was outrageous. He had a magnificent 6'2�", 210-pound physique, with "airplane-width" shoulders, a broad chest, a 32-inch waist and long, smoothly muscled arms. He could take a punch as well as any heavweight, and there are those who say he hit harder with a right hand than anyone who ever fought. When it was fashionable among fight people to sculpt in the imagination the composite boxer—Louis' jab, Dempsey's left hook, etc.—the right hand was invariably Baer's. But he seemed to do his roadwork on nightclub dance floors, and his sparring was mostly verbal. His training camps—in boxing tradition, hideaways as free of merriment as Montserrat—were like borscht circuit resorts, with Max as social chairman. Against the fiercest opponents he often fought indifferently and with the detachment of one reviewing a performance instead of performing. "Did the people enjoy it?" he would inquire after the battle.
In 1935 Baer lost his championship to the Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock, a 10-1 underdog, in one of the biggest upsets in ring history. He clowned through much of this desultory bout, grimacing in imitation of the movie tough guy, hitching up his pants, chatting amiably with ringside spectators. After one glancing Braddock blow, he performed a rubber-legged dance that Chaplin might have envied. All the while, the plodding, desperate challenger, fresh off the relief rolls, was collecting the points that would win him boxing's richest prize. As if the comedy in the ring were not enough, Baer could josh about the defeat afterward. Complaining that he had been literally handicapped—he had injured his right hand in training—he quipped, "My punches hurt me more than they did Braddock."
But there were occasions when Baer looked as if no man alive could survive in the ring with him. Max Schmeling was among the finest of heavyweights, an ex-champion, later the first conqueror of Joe Louis. On June 8, 1933, in the searing heat of Yankee Stadium, Baer knocked out Schmeling in the 10th round of a fight that earned the winner a chance at the title. Schmeling went down in that final round from a picture-perfect right that left him squirming on the canvas. He regained his feet, but the fight was quickly stopped. Baer won the championship easily, knocking down Primo Carnera 11 times in 11 rounds before the fight was halted. Even with so much on the line, he remained Madcap Maxie, remarking to the champion after he had been dragged down by him after an exchange, "Last one up is a sissy."
"Max hated fighting," says Mary Ellen Baer, his widow. "How he ever hit anybody, I'll never know. He wouldn't even strike his own children. All he wanted to do was entertain people. I can't imagine a person as soft as he was becoming champion of the world. He was so kind. He had no mean streak at all."
"He was one lovable bastard," says Tom Gallery, who promoted some of Baer's fights in the Los Angeles Olympic in the early '30s. "He's the last person you'd ever expect to be a fighter. Why, he'd be clowning around 10 minutes before a fight. But, oh, what he could have been."
"It is incongruous that such a gentle, ingratiating man should have been a fighter," says Alan Ward, former sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, who was on the boxing beat at the start of Baer's career in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I remember when he was training for an important fight up at Frank Globin's resort at Lake Tahoe. My God, now that I think about it, it might even have been the early part of his training for Carnera. Anyway, he did about three weeks of pretty tough work. He had his brother Buddy with him and his trainer, Mike Cantwell. Max was actually working hard. This was for the championship, mind you. Then one night the phone in my room rang and it was Max. 'Let's go to Reno,' he says. I protested, but after all, it wasn't too far and I was a newspaperman, so I said O.K. Well, we hit some spots. Max wasn't much of a drinker, but he liked the atmosphere in the clubs. Word got out that he was in town, so he had an audience wherever he went. All night long he entertained, dancing and singing. At daybreak he was leading the band at one of the all-night places—I believe it might have been a brothel. All this while training for a big fight. When we got back to Globin's, there like the portrait of doom stood his trainer, Cantwell. Max went out and did his roadwork without saying a word."
The ring was Max Baer's stage. He was a farm boy who gloried in crowds, the lights, the action. The business of the ring, the actual fighting, was an intrusion to be gotten over with. Fighting was a means of making easy and quick money, and the farm boy coveted fast cars, fancy clothes and fast and fancy women. His career, 1929-41, exactly spanned the years of the Great Depression, a time when many a poor but strong young man turned in desperation to boxing as a livelihood. Boxers in the Depression were often the protagonists of plays and films, portrayed not so much as Neanderthals but as sensitive victims of the system. The fighters in Golden Boy, City for Conquest, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even The Prizefighter and the Lady, featuring Myrna Loy and Max Baer, were not primitives. Before the seamier side of the business became exploitable dramatically, boxing could be made to appear the stuff of romance.