The following is an excerpt from a new book written by The Sports Post contributor Marty Gitlin titled Powerful Sports Moments: The Most Significant Sporting Events in American History. It was published this spring by Rowman and Littlefield. A wonderful review of the book by Publishers Weekly can be seen here:
To read the rest of this chapter and the others, please purchase the book for $25 through his Pay Pal account at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or feel free to contact Gitlin at that same email address with any questions or for his home address. The $25 represents a huge savings over Amazon, plus Gitlin will autograph, personalize and ship the book for free. Thank you.
The Invisible Man was a science fiction novel written by H.G. Wells in 1897 and transformed into a movie in 1933. But it can also be used to describe how the white population in America viewed every black athlete well into the 1930s.
Then Joe Louis came along.
Jesse Owens was supported by one and all in the United States after winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The feat is seen today as a repudiation of the Nazi racial laws and simply one of the greatest athletic performances in history. But Owens was never embraced by white America as one of them. He did nothing at the time to stand up for the United States and its values because Nazism had yet to be reviled. Hitler and his henchmen put on a brilliant show of propaganda in front of the world.
By the time Louis pummeled German Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938 to avenge a defeat two years earlier, the horrors of Nazism had come into sharper view and it had become clearer that Germany was an enemy of not just the United States, but all free and democratic nations. Louis became the first black athlete to gain widespread support in the white community.
But the story goes far deeper than that. Schmeling could have fueled the rivalry as a fervent and outspoken adherent to Nazi ideology, which claimed that a member of the “master race” was vastly superior in every way to a black man such as Louis. Hitler espoused Schmeling as a symbol of German racial superiority. Schmeling has been criticized for never repudiating the philosophy publicly, but he was never a Nazi. His stance against the regime and warm friendship he forged with Louis are where one of the greatest and most poignant stories in the history of sports takes a heartwarming and life-affirming turn.
Louis might have experienced the worst of American racism and discrimination as a child living in the south had he not been fortunate enough to land in Detroit at an early age. He was born in the spring of 1914 in the Jim Crow heartland of Alabama, the seventh of eight children and grandson of slaves. He was a mere two-year-old when his father, Monroe Barrow, was committed to an asylum, leaving his staunchly religious mother Pat to raise the kids. A black Brady Bunch scenario ensued when she married Pat Brooks, who had eight children of his own. The whole clan moved north as part of the massive black migration of that generation. The large number of factory jobs in Detroit brought promise and optimism.
Young Joe was shy and apathetic about his education, which led some to perceive him as stupid. He went to a vocational school for a short time to learn the art of cabinet-making. Then a friend accompanied him to Brewster’s East Side Gymnasium, where he was introduced to the sport of boxing. He immediately embraced it. But, his concern that his mother would discover that he had become involved in such a dangerous activity motivated him to change his name to Joe Louis so she would not find out. The secret proved too difficult to keep, but she handled it well. “At first [she] looked unhappy,” Louis recalled. “But she said that if any of us kids wanted to do something bad enough, she’d try to see that we got a chance at it. ‘No matter what you do,’ she said, ‘remember you’re from a Christian family, and always act that way.’”
Louis and his kin had two strikes against them. One was racism, which was certainly pronounced even in the north. The other was the Great Depression, which massively and negatively struck most Americans by the early 1930s. Louis brought home checks for seven dollars from his bouts in amateur tournaments. His success in those events caught the eye of John Roxborough, who would become his lifelong manager. Roxborough set Louis up with promoter Julian Black and trainer Jack Blackburn. Soon he was knocking out foe after foe, starting with Jack Kracken in his first professional fight on Independence Day in 1934.
His success in the ring made Louis far richer than most Americans, particularly in those troubling economic times. By the end of 1935 he had earned a whopping $371,645 in prize money, totaling about 300 times the average annual salary.
He sported a 27-0 record by the early summer of 1936. A showdown with heavyweight champion James Braddock appeared possible. But the opportunities for blacks in the ring were no greater at the time than blacks in other lines of work. The last one to receive a crack at the heavyweight belt was flamboyant Jack Johnson in 1908. Johnson defeated Tommy Burns for the title that year and later “caused” white rioting when he beat James J. Jeffries with the crown on the line in 1910.
The black community in still-segregated America in the 1930s was badly in need of a black hero. They were about to get two in Owens and Louis. But before Louis would be given a chance against Braddock, he would first have to defeat Schmeling. The clash was considered by Louis as a smooth ride on the path to destiny. With the hopes of Black America riding on his performance, he failed to take the German seriously. He trained poorly, partied and bought into the hype. He played golf, his new passion, incessantly. The fight community and the fans of what at the time was the second-most popular sport in America behind baseball concurred that Louis would flatten Schmeling.
Schmeling, however, was no pushover. Born in September 1905 in a rural area of northeast Germany, he was pursuing a sport quite unfamiliar to his fellow countrymen at that time. He was influenced by his father, a ship navigator, who had witnessed matches during his travels. He showed his son a film of a heavyweight title bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier that piqued his interest. Young Max joined other boxing aficionados in the western part of the nation to train and fight in amateur events. He eventually caught the eye of Arthur Bülow, an editor of the German publication Boxsport Magazine.
A powerful right hand helped Schmeling forge a strong record, but he grew frustrated at the lack of attention his managers gave his career. He moved to Berlin in the hopes that Bülow would take a greater interest. Bülow indeed financed his training under the tutelage of Max Machon, who improved the skills of Schmeling to the point in which he became the first German to win a European championship. Soon he was expanding his horizons outside Germany. He became particularly impressed with the talents of American welterweight and middleweight Mickey Walker, who he watched destroy the competition in a title bout in London.
Schmeling also embraced the wealthy lifestyle thrust upon him as a boxing champion in Germany. During the days of the pre-depression Weimar Republic, an era that was despised by the Nazis for its perceived decadence, he purchased a tuxedo and tails and pursued knowledge through reading. He associated with race car drivers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors and dancers. He experienced a revelation in a meeting with artist George Grosz, who asked if he could paint his portrait. The two embarked on a philosophical discussion.
“It occurs to me that boxers and painters have to … be able to size up the stranger facing them right away … I have to come up with a picture, you have to come up with a fight strategy,” Grosz offered. Schmeling replied, “I tried to study [my opponents] closely, which gave me the reputation of being a slow starter. … You have to study his movement and reactions, and everything depends on finding out his style and habits in the first few rounds.”
Soon Schmeling decided to take his talents to where they would be most challenged—the United States. Bülow could not handle the job of promoting fights in America, however. So, Schmeling replaced him with Jewish manager Joe Jacobs, who involved him in an elimination tournament to determine a new heavyweight champion upon the retirement of Gene Tunney. Schmeling not only gained a reputation for his vast talents, but the colorful nickname of “The Black Uhlan of the Rhine” as well.
He earned a shot at the heavyweight championship on June 12, 1930, at Yankee Stadium against Jack Sharkey. The latter threw a punch in the fourth round that knocked down his foe, but also landed below the waist. Sharkey was disqualified, giving Schmeling the title. But it was a crown he refused to accept in his own mind. He was simply too proud and moralistic to embrace a championship won through a disqualification. But that emotion turned to anger when he lost a rematch to Sharkey in a bout refereed by one of the latter’s closest friends. Schmeling dominated the last five rounds, yet lost the decision. Tunney and even New York mayor Jimmy Walker spoke out about its unfairness.
Schmeling had other concerns. Hitler and his cronies were making life miserable for his artist friends. Luminaries such as actor Marlene Dietrich and writer Bertolt Brecht left the stifling atmosphere for creative freedom in Germany for the United States. Schmeling was touted as an example of German superiority and received preferential treatment. He was reportedly urged by the authorities in June 1933 to calm fears in America. Particularly about the treatment of Jews in the new Germany. He had tea with Hitler and gave the Nazi salute after beating American Steve Hamas in Hamburg. Schmeling indeed praised the new regime, but his anti-Nazi sentiment became evident over the years. He refused to join the Nazi party.
Both Louis and Schmeling wanted a shot at the title, but one had to go through the other first. Their camps agreed to a bout to be held on June 19, 1936, at Yankee Stadium. Louis, a 10-1 favorite, took the fight lightly. It was at that time he foolishly took up golf. He traveled to Hollywood to play a boxer in a movie titled Spirit of Youth. His string of triumphs in the ring had made him complacent. Schmeling was a physical match for Louis. Both boasted a 76-inch arm reach. But Schmeling was nine years older and had won more of his matches on decisions whereas his opponent had been knocking out most of his foes.
Schmeling sought to dissect his fellow combatants in the ring, then exploit their weaknesses. And he believed through his study of Louis that he had found one in The Brown Bomber. He noticed a pattern in which Louis dropped his guard for a split second after throwing lefts. Schmeling believed he could land a crushing blow with his right if he stood close enough. And his right was a particular strength.
Louis received his comeuppance in front of 45,000 fans at the hallowed Big Apple ballpark. The fight played into the hands of his opponent. Schmeling noticed an opening in the second round and landed hard blows. He knocked down Louis in the fourth. He controlled the battle and knocked Louis out in the 12th round. His defeat in the ring was a blow outside to millions of African Americans who had come to idolize him as a symbol of black pride. The black press excoriated Louis for letting them down.
“Blacks all across this country were totally defeated,” said Louis’ son Joe Louis Barrow Jr. “It was almost like with every blow that Max Schmeling struck to my father, it was a blow to every individual, in particular blacks, listening on the radio. When he finally went down … all the hope, the dreams, the desires and the beliefs in equality went out in one single evening, with one single fight.”
Quite a different reaction occurred among the German people. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made the most of the Schmeling victory in espousing the cockeyed Nazi racial theories. Schmeling flew back to Germany on the Hindenburg to frenzied celebrations in Frankfurt and Berlin. The Nazi press characterized him as the German ideal and a symbol of the resurgent Reich. Hitler ordered that a film titled Schmeling’s Victory: A German Victory be shown throughout the nation.