- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
From June 1938, when he knocked out Schmeling, to September 1941, Louis had defended his title 15 times, winning 13 by knockouts. The big payday with Conn was scheduled for June 1942, and things looked bright. Then on Dec. 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and nothing was ever the same again. Months before, his draft board had classified Louis 1-A, making him eligible for service. As sole support of his mother and several siblings, he qualified for a deferment, but in the superheated patriotic atmosphere of World War II that would have been unthinkable.
Whatever other implications the war had, one thing was certain: It meant financial disaster for Louis. He had defended his title seven times in 1941 alone, but he was living from fight to fight. And a big tax bill on his 1941 earnings would come due in early 1942. The only substantial investment Louis had to show after seven years of big purses was an apartment house in Chicago. He desperately needed money, but the war meant that boxing could not do business as usual. And so when Jacobs came up with the idea of staging a bona fide heavyweight title fight for the benefit of the Navy Relief Society, Louis agreed without a second thought. This was a remarkably generous gesture. Louis was not only giving up a large purse, he was also risking his heavyweight title against a dangerous opponent, 6'6½", 250-pound Buddy Baer, who had actually knocked Louis through the ropes before losing in seven rounds a few months earlier. The white press bathed Louis in patriotic praise. Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News wrote: "You don't see a shipyard owner risking his entire business. If the government wants a battleship, the government doesn't ask him to donate it.... The more I think of it, the greater a guy I see in this Joe Louis." A few blacks questioned Louis's choice of charities because the official Navy policy prohibited black sailors from being anything but messboys or stewards. The champion said nothing in public, but he hoped that the fight would embarrass the Navy into changing its racist policies.
On Jan. 9, 1942, 19,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden for the patriotic occasion. Jacobs had gathered many dignitaries for prefight ceremonies, including Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful 1940 Republican presidential candidate, who mispronounced Louis's name "Louee" and called Buddy Baer "Max." When the ring was cleared, Louis knocked out Baer at 2:56 of the first round. Unfortunately, the Navy was not embarrassed at all. It blithely took the money but made no major change in its policies toward blacks.
The next day Louis volunteered for the Army. Newsreel cameras recorded his induction, including a staged scene in which a soldier-clerk asked, "What's your occupation?" and Louis replied in a nervous rush, "Fighting and let us at them Japs."
Louis's enlistment struck a chord. He had been America's favorite token black since the summer of 1935, and now his generosity and his patriotism reassured whites about the loyalty of all black Americans. To a country which was deeply divided racially and yet desperately wanted to be united against a common foe, Louis became a symbol of national togetherness. Because of this, the war wrought a fundamental change in his public image. Before Pearl Harbor the white press had praised him a lot, but the praise was generally for the things he was not—he was not Jack Johnson, he did not humiliate white opponents, he did not make waves on racial issues. Now the press rushed to embrace him for something he was. Shirley Povich of The Washington Post recalled recently, "His decision to go into the Army voluntarily, the charity fights that he fought, the patriotism he expressed, all of that simply embellished attitudes of general esteem for Joe Louis, the Good American."
For some, Louis's fights against Schmeling were seen as a symbol of America's war against the racist regime in Germany. Louis was often introduced as "the first American to KO a Nazi." For others, including the U.S. government, the war and racism had little to do with each other. Despite intensive official efforts to persuade blacks that they had a full stake in the war—including many pitches by Louis himself—the War Department remained adamantly racist. The Marine Corps and Army Air Corps barred blacks entirely for much of the war. Until June of 1942, the Navy used them only in menial roles—and then only for service ashore—and in the Army they were assigned to segregated units almost exclusively. Secretary of War Henry Stimson firmly believed blacks to be inferior soldiers, and his policy was to maintain segregation. President Roosevelt himself gave official approval to this.
The Army had offered Louis a commission, but he turned it down because he did not feel he had the education to be an officer. However, as Uncle Sam's most celebrated private, he enjoyed far better treatment than other blacks. In early 1943 he was sent to Hollywood for a role in a gushy propaganda feature, This Is the Army, which featured Ronald Reagan, among others. One number in the show was a scene with white performers in blackface, and Louis appeared just long enough to make a patriotic speech and briefly punch a speed bag. Despite his small part, Louis stayed in Hollywood six months and renewed intimacies with a number of starlets. Later, the War Department sent him on a tour of Army bases all over the world with a troupe of black boxers, including Sugar Ray Robinson. In his 46 months of Army duty, Louis fought 96 exhibitions and traveled over 70,000 miles. He saw but rarely experienced the deplorable treatment of black GIs. He would obey Jim Crow laws in the towns, but on the Army bases he insisted on equal status for himself and other blacks. Once he and Robinson were in a camp bus depot in Alabama when a military policeman ordered them to a bench in the rear. "We ain't moving," said Louis. The MP tried to arrest them. Louis kept cool, but Sugar Ray started yelling. They were taken to the camp provost marshal. Louis would not back down. "Sir, I'm a soldier like any other American soldier. I don't want to be pushed to the back because I'm a Negro."
Without his managers to run his life, Louis was maturing. For the first time he squarely faced his personal problems. He had serious trouble at home. He took his wife, Marva, for granted and blatantly continued his pursuit of other women. Finally, in March of 1945, Marva sued him for divorce on the grounds of desertion, and he did not contest the action.
His financial condition was even worse than his marital situation. Each day of the war he fell deeper into debt. When it finally ended in August 1945, Louis owed Jacobs and Roxborough over $200,000. He also had a deferred tax bill of about $115,000. When Marva divorced him, she was awarded the apartment house in Chicago, plus $25,000 in cash, which Louis was unable to pay.
Even the long-awaited rematch with Conn wouldn't come close to offering total financial salvation. And when Louis got out of the Army in October 1945, it was too late to stage an outdoor match with Conn anyway. The big fight was put off until June 1946, and Louis went on an exhibition tour to get in shape and make some money. He began serious training in the spring. After three years out of top competition, his timing was off. Many reporters wondered whether, at 32, he was over the hill. As it turned out, the war years had hurt Conn more than Louis. He was only 27, but he had put on a lot of weight and was much slower.