Murray Polner: Review of Randy Roberts’s “Joe Louis: Hard Times Man” (Yale University Press, 2010)

Murray Polner, a book reviewer for the History News Network, wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous: The Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and We Who Dared To Say No To War.

Boxing has often been corrupted by exploiters and racists. A brutal, much celebrated entertainment masking as a manly ideal, it’s been glorified by Hemingway, Mailer and an army of writers while overlooking far too many onetime club fighters left brain-damaged and dead.

Still, in the pre-TV era, boxing—along with baseball—was the American sport. I personally loved it and haunted my city’s boxing arenas. A friend and neighbor, 100 lb. Yossi, surprised us by enrolling in the flyweight division of the New York Daily News’s annual Golden Gloves tournament. Yossi “won” two bouts because his challengers never showed up, but the other kids in my neighborhood would have given up their kid brothers for a chance to enter the ring. Yossi won by two forfeits but the older men treated him to a free malted milk and he lived to a ripe old age much respected for his daring.

Randy Roberts’s Joe Louis captures the boxing fraternity, fighter and fans alike, in his compelling, knowledgeable and literate biography of a man and his “hard” times. It is the story of a black sports legend portrayed with an honest, unforgiving glimpse into our country’s bigoted past. Following its history of human slavery, the theft of native Indian lands and the killing of several hundred thousand Filipinos in the Philippine-American War, American racial attitudes were mirrored by some legendary Irish boxing heroes. The bare-knuckled heavyweight John L. Sullivan simply echoed the widely-accepted race-baiting. “I will not fight a Negro,” he told approving fans. “I never have and never shall.” And when James J. Jeffries came out of retirement in 1910 to fight the black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson (later sent to jail for violating the Mann Act, a punishment undoubtedly stemming from white indignation that he had married several white women), his contribution to racial tolerance was that he was re-entering the ring “to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race… [and]… to demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.” After fifteen bruising rounds in Reno, Nevada’s scorching summer heat, Jeffries’ second threw in the towel to avoid his man being flattened, or so it was rumored. Johnson’s victory led to white mob violence against blacks. “In victory,” Roberts comments, “Johnson had probed the live nerve of American racism.”

Yet this sort of racist prejudice treatment was rarely aimed at Louis, winner of 26 of his 27 title bouts. Why it was so has never been satisfactorily explained. It is doubtful millions of whites during the years Louis fought suddenly became broadminded and understanding. America’s military, in a war ostensibly about freedom, was fought with a racially segregated military. The decades of Irish, Italian and Jewish boxers was slowly drawing to an end and fight promoters turned to African Americans, who began dominating the fight scene by the mid-thirties.

Whatever the reason, Louis’s passive public personality and unthreatening demeanor helped changed the way he was seen. Louis made lots of money for lots of people and was a winner and a champ and there were no “white hopes” capable of beating him.

Joe Louis was born in a tiny hamlet in Alabama. He was poorly educated but blessed with a determined step-father and mother, made it to the top by a series of lucky encounters and well-planned bouts with second and third-raters. In 1935 he entered big time by fighting the inept, giant-sized Italian fighter Primo Carnera (whose hyped rise and rapid fall sounded much like Anthony Quinn’s Mountain Rivera in the classic boxing film Requiem for a Heavyweight).

He went on to beat Max Baer, a half-Jew who wore a Star of David on his trunks and his brother Buddy,  the combative and fearless brawler “Two Ton” Tony Galento, who hung on longer than he should have until the referee mercifully stopped the fight, and every other challenger.  

His two fights with the German Max Schmeling electrified people in both the United States and Germany. After Schmeling defeated Louis in 1936 in a non-title bout, promoters arranged a very profitable rematch. Roberts says that in Germany “he sure seemed to look, walk, and talk like a Nazi” and “had become excessively cozy with the Nazi leadership.” A somewhat different view was offered in a 1993 article “Max Schmeling: Righteous Ring Warrior” by University of Rhode Island professors Robert Weisbord and Norbert Hedderich in History Today. While acknowledging that “he sometimes allowed himself to be exploited” by the Nazis, the authors insist he had little choice in a totalitarian and murderous regime. He neither joined the Nazi Party nor became its spokesperson. He had Jewish friends and acquaintances. After the anti-Semitic Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938, he hid a Jewish friend’s two teenage sons, Henri and Werner Lewin, in his Berlin hotel apartment, which allowed them to escape to Shanghai and later the U.S., a fact confirmed by one of the brothers who organized a party for Schmeling in his Las Vegas hotel in 1989. “The melancholy truth,” Weisbord and Hedderich conclude, “is that there were precious few men in Germany in that era, righteous men, who fulfilled their moral duty. Max Schmeling, the reputed diehard Nazi, was one,” leading to the question: Which judgment is closer to the truth?

When Louis KOed him in the first round of their second bout in 1938 in little more than two minutes at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of more than 72,000 (a fight broadcast live on national radio), he became “the black Clark Gable, supernatural in his power to attract crowds.” Roberts cites the Pittsburgh Courier’s William Nunn’s acute remark: Louis carried “the weight of an entire race on his shoulders.”

Probably influenced by a few of his black backers, Louis finally went public on non-boxing matters, and like several black newspapers, backed the Republican Wendell Willkie against Democratic Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential race, saying he did so “because I believe he will help my people” and “Roosevelt had two terms to do what he could do, but didn’t give us an anti-lynching law.” Black voters cast their ballots for FDR but they never lost their respect and love for Louis.

He returned to boxing and met the talented Billy Conn, who almost defeated him but made an egregious mistake in the 13th round by unexpectedly discarding his savvy boxing skills and instead tried to out-slug Louis, who responded with an “axe-like right hook” knocking out Conn. Perfectly paced, taut and tense, Roberts’s short account ranks with some of the best pieces ever written about any fight. “What Louis and Conn and the rest of America did not realize on the night of June 18, 1941 was that an era had ended. There would not be another classic heavyweight title before World War II… it was Joe Louis’ last great fight.”

Drafted into the army, he was kept out of combat and sent instead with black boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Sandy Saddler and Jackie Wilson to entertain the troops. He was just what the government needed: a black man who would not cause much trouble or challenge the status quo.

All the same, black soldiers were harassed in camps at home and overseas. Roberts quotes a former black War Department employee Truman K. Gibson, Jr., whose book Knocking Down Barriers charged: “During the 1940s, so many black soldiers were bludgeoned or shot to death by white police, deputies and civilians in the South that it might be only a slight exaggeration to say more black Americans were murdered by white Americans during the course of World War II than were killed by Germans.”  When some in and out of the Roosevelt administration argued the country would benefit from a desegregated military, they could find no-one interested at the highest levels of government. Neither Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox nor Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was sympathetic. Stimson, writes Roberts, “wore his racial paternalism as comfortably as his Yale tie” and Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall “consistently stonewalled any attempt to alter the official policy.”  

When the war ended an older Louis resumed boxing but after defeats by Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano it was all over. He had had four wives (he wed Marva twice), womanized, drank heavily, and had mental problems. Much like Mountain Rivera in Requiem, he became a wrestler and later worked as a Greeter in a Las Vegas hotel and played golf on his days off before appreciative white spectators. In the meantime the IRS continued dunning him for unpaid taxes. Weisbord and Hedderich revealed that Schmeling often sent him money and after Louis’s death in 1981 he sent his widow $5,000, asking Henri Lewin to pass it on to her.

Unlike Muhammad Ali, who refused to report for induction during the Vietnam War and spoke against war and on behalf of civil rights on many college campuses and was praised by Nelson Mandela for his principled resistance, the essentially unassertive Louis did far less. But given his dignity and his success he became a model for racial justice in sports, paving the way for courageous African American athletic pioneers such as Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Bill Willis, Timmie Smith, John Carlos, Curt Flood, and many more. That may be Joe Louis’ most significant legacy.

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