Chris Mead felt like a dope. He had made his way through the snow-laden streets of Chicago's South Side and into the storefront office of Truman Gibson, the lawyer of the late Joe Louis. Tape recorder poised, Mead sat across from Gibson, shifting under the weight of his cultural baggage: suburban-raised Yale grad, 22, living off his parents while he researched Louis's life for a book that had yet to interest a publisher. All that Mead had learned about the boxer from years of examining thousands of newspaper and radio reports, and contemplating Louis's impact on a racist American society, seemed to dissipate under the gaze of the elderly black attorney.
"I felt very young and a little out of my depth," recalls Mead. "And Gibson told me, 'The thing you have to understand about Joe is that he lived every day.' He was trying to undermine this cultural gap we had—I went to school, I planned for the future. Joe Louis lived every day. I never forgot that."
Now, almost four years later, Mead has produced his book, The Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America (Scribner's, $18.95, to be published next month). This week (page 80) and next, SI is printing a condensed version of Mead's book. What was first a sophomore history paper at Yale, then a senior thesis, has become a fascinating 300-page portrait of how Louis boxed and lived—and how his rise and decline affected the way blacks were perceived, particularly by an acutely race-conscious press.
"People assume that race relations steadily improved in this country," says Mead. "But until Louis came around, things got worse rather than better—whites just ignored blacks. He was America's token black for 10 years."
Mead's interest in boxing pretty much began with his frame-by-frame scrutiny of the films of 20 Louis fights. His book, which he wrote during his three years at Yale Law School, is laced with blow-by-blow accounts. Mead himself has a strong background in sports, particularly baseball. He was a utility infielder for three years at Yale, playing with such luminaries as pitcher Ron Darling, now a Mets ace; shortstop Bob Brooke, a New York Ranger; and outfielders Rich Diana and Joe Dufek, an ex- Miami Dolphin and a current Buffalo Bill, respectively. And Mead's father, William, is the author of Even the Browns, on the former St. Louis baseball team, and The Official New York Yankees Hater's Handbook.
Mead never met Louis, who died 10 months before Mead's visit to Gibson's office. Says Mead, who is working in a federal district judge's office in Baltimore and awaiting the results of his Maryland bar exam, "I would have liked to have asked him what it was like in the ring. That's what he would have communicated best."