This Day in Jewish History / A Heavyweight Boxing Champ Is Born

With his devastating punch, Max Baer could have been one of the greatest fighters of all time, but for Baer, boxing was just a way to make a living. After he retired, he tried his luck as a movie star.

February 11, 1909, is the birth date of Max Baer, who held the title of world heavyweight boxing champion for 364 days in 1934-35. Baer is best remembered by Jews for his June 1933 victory over Germany’s Max Schmeling at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was said to be a favorite of Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, so it was of special significance that Baer was of Jewish heritage, and brandished a Star of David on his boxing trunks to boot.

Maximilian Adelbert Baer was born in Omaha, Nebraska to a Jewish father, Jacob Baer (whose own father, Achille Baer, had immigrated from Alsace to the Wyoming territory in the 1860s), and his Scots-Irish Protestant wife, Dora, nee Bales. The couple did not raise their children in any particular faith, but Max always identified himself as a Jew. 

In 1922, the family moved to California and over the next few years, lived in several towns in the San Francisco area before Jacob bought a pig and cattle ranch in Livermore, east of the city. Max worked there as a teenager and later said that it was from helping slaughter the animals and hauling their carcasses around that he developed his upper-body strength.

By 1929, Baer was boxing professionally around the West Coast, winning 23 of his first 26 fights before a pivotal bout on August 25, 1930 against Frankie Campbell. In the fifth round of that fight, Baer had his opponent against the ropes and pounded his head repeatedly without the referee interceding until Campbell collapsed. The next day, the fighter died. Baer, who was charged with manslaughter in the case but eventually cleared, was nonetheless disconsolate at what he had done and went on to lose four of his next six bouts.

Soon after, Baer moved to the East Coast, and began training with former world heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, who helped prepare him for the fight with Schmeling. Although that contest was depicted in the United States as a battle between Jew and Nazi – even between good and evil -- the truth is that this was the first time that Baer wore the Star of David on his uniform, and also that Schmeling was no Nazi. Sports journalist Jeremy Schaap, in a 2006 book, reported that it was Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, who encouraged the fighter to emphasize his Jewish identity. Baer’s son, the actor Max Baer, Jr., confirmed this.

“My dad didn't know who Hitler was," he said. "He only read the sports pages, but Hoffman kept drilling it into his head, 'You're fighting for the Jews.'” Baer knocked Schmeling out in the 10th round and announced that he would continue wearing the Jewish star until the end of his career.

Although Schmeling was courted by Hitler, he never joined the Nazi party, and he had a Jewish manager. During Kristallnacht, in November 1938, he sheltered two teenage sons of a Jewish friend. The two boys later escaped to the United States, and credited Schmeling with saving their lives. Several months earlier, he had traveled to the United States for a second fight against the African-American boxer Joe Louis, another bout that the press depicted as a fight between good and evil. Louis beat Schmeling by a technical knockout in the first round.

Years later, Schmeling told an interviewer that he was “almost happy” to have lost the fight: “Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal.”

For Max Baer, his fight with Schmeling was probably the peak of his prizefighting career. Though it was only a year later that he won the title of world champion, it was in a fight in which he was mismatched with a far weaker opponent. A year later, cocky, inadequately prepared and acting like a clown, he lost the title in an upset to James Braddock. Baer continued fighting until 1941 and ended up with a lifetime record of 71-13-0.  With his devastating punch, he could have been one of the greatest fighters of all time, but for Baer, boxing was just a way to make a living -- and to meet women.

What Max Baer really aspired to be was a movie star. And he indeed performed in 20 films, including, most notably, “The Prizefighter and the Lady” in 1933 with Myrna Loy. But he never attained the stardom of his son, Max Baer, Jr., who, over nine seasons, played the role of country bumpkin Jethro Bodine in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Nor did he have the pleasure of witnessing that success: “The Beverly Hillbillies” first aired on CBS-TV in 1962. Max Baer, Sr., died on November 21, 1959, of a heart attack. In accordance with the wishes of his wife, he was buried in a Roman Catholic funeral, in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, in Sacramento, CA.

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