Max Baer (February 11, 1909 – November 21, 1959) was an American boxer of the 1930s (one-time Heavyweight Champion of the World) as well as a professional wrestler and referee, and had an occasional role on film or television. He was the brother of twice World Champion boxing contender Buddy Baer and father of actor Max Baer, Jr. (best-known as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies). Baer is rated #22 on Ring Magazine's list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.
Maximilian Adelbert Baer was born on February 11, 1909 in Omaha, Nebraska to Jacob Baer (1875–1938), who was Jewish, and Dora Bales (1877–1938), who was of Scots-Irish ancestry. Baer was nominally raised in the Catholic faith. His eldest sister was Frances May Baer (1905–1991), his younger sister was Bernice Jeanette Baer (1911–1987), his younger brother was boxer-turned-actor Jacob Henry Baer, better known as Buddy Baer (1915–1986), and his adopted brother was August "Augie" Baer.
Move to California
In May 1922, tired of the Durango, Colorado winters, which aggravated Frances's rheumatic fever and Jacob's high blood pressure, the Baers piled into a just-purchased automobile and began the long drive to the milder climes of the West Coast, where Dora's sister lived in Alameda, California, across the Bay from San Francisco. They drove more than 1,000 miles along unpaved roads. Jacob's expertise in the butcher business led to numerous job offers around the San Francisco Bay Area. While living in Hayward, Max took his first job as a delivery boy for John Lee Wilbur. Wilbur ran a grocery store on B Street and bought meat from Jacob.
The Baers lived in the Northern Californian towns of Hayward, San Leandro and Galt before moving to Livermore in 1926. Livermore was true cowboy country, surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of rolling hills and rangeland which supported large cattle herds that provided fresh meat to the rapidly burgeoning towns nearby. In 1928, Jacob bought the Twin Oaks Ranch in Murray Township where he raised over 2,000 hogs, and which he worked with daughter Frances's husband, Louis Santucci. Baer often credited working as a butcher boy, carrying heavy carcasses of meat, sledge-hammering cattle with one blow, and working at a gravel pit, for developing his powerful shoulders (an article in the January, 1939 edition of The Family Circle Magazine reported that Baer also took the Charles Atlas exercise course.)
Professional boxing career
Baer turned professional in 1929, progressing steadily through the Pacific Coast ranks. A ring tragedy little more than a year later almost caused Baer to drop out of boxing for good
Baer fought Frankie Campbell (real name Francesco Camilli, whose brother was Brooklyn Dodgers star Dolph Camilli) on August 25, 1930, in San Francisco in a ring built over home plate at San Francisco's Recreation Park to fight for the unofficial title of Pacific Coast champion. In the 2nd round of the fight, Campbell clipped Baer and Baer slipped to the canvas. Campbell went toward his corner and waved to the crowd. He thought Baer was getting the count. Baer got up and flew at Campbell, landing a cheap-shot right at Campbell's turned head which sent him to the canvas.
After the round, Campbell said to his trainer, "Something feels like it snapped in my head", but went on to handily win rounds 3 and 4. As Baer rose for the 5th round, Tillie "Kid" Herman, Baer's former friend and trainer, who had switched camps overnight and was now in Campbell's corner, savagely taunted and jeered Baer. In a rage and determined to end the bout with a knockout, Baer soon had Campbell against the ropes. As he hammered him with punch after punch, the ropes were the only thing to hold Campbell up. Herman, as Campbell's chief second, had the option of throwing in the towel, but did not. Referee Toby Irwin seemed oblivious to what was occurring and by the time Irwin finally stopped the fight, Campbell collapsed to the canvas. It is reported that Baer's own seconds administered to Campbell, and that Baer was by his side until an ambulance arrived 30 minutes later. Baer "visited the stricken fighter's bedside", where he offered Frankie's wife Ellie the hand that hit her husband. She took that hand and the two stood speechless for a moment. "It was unfortunate, I'm awfully sorry", said Baer. "It even might have been you, mightn't it?", she replied.
At noon the next day, with a lit candle laced between his crossed fingers, and his wife and mother beside him, Frankie Campbell was pronounced dead. Upon the surgeon's announcement of Campbell's death, Baer broke down and sobbed inconsolably. Brain specialist Dr. Tilton E. Tillman "declared death had been caused by a succession of blows on the jaw and not by any struck on the rear of the head," and that Campbell's brain had been "knocked completely loose from his skull" by Baer's blows.
The Campbell incident earned Max the reputation as a "killer" in the ring. This publicity was further sensationalized by Baer's return bout with Ernie Schaaf, who had bested Baer in a decision during Max's Eastern debut bout at Madison Square Garden on September 19, 1930.
An Associated Press article in the September 9, 1932 Sports section of the New York Times describes the end of the return bout as follows:
"Two seconds before the fight ended Schaaf was knocked flat on his face, completely knocked out. He was dragged to his corner and his seconds worked over for him for three minutes before restoring him to his senses... Baer smashed a heavy right to the jaw that shook Schaaf to his heels, to start the last round, then walked into the Boston fighter, throwing both hands to the head and body. Baer drove three hard rights to the jaw that staggered Schaaf. Baer beat Schaaf around the ring and into the ropes with a savage attack to the head and body. Just before the round ended Baer dropped Schaaf to the canvas, but the bell sounded as Schaaf hit the floor."
Schaaf complained frequently of headaches after that bout. Five months after the Baer fight, on February 11, 1933, Schaaf died in the ring after taking a left jab from the Italian behemoth Primo Carnera. The majority of sports editors noted, however, that an autopsy later revealed Schaaf had meningitis, a swelling of the brain, and was still recovering from a severe case of influenza when he touched gloves with Carnera. Schaaf's obituary stated that "just before his bout with Carnera, Schaaf went into reclusion in a religious retreat near Boston to recuperate from an attack of influenza" which produced the meningitis. The death of Campbell and accusations over Schaaf's demise profoundly affected Baer, even though he was ostensibly indestructible and remained a devastating force in the ring. According to his son, actor/director Max Baer Jr. (who was born seven years after the incident):
My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet. He treated boxing the way today's professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. He never deliberately hurt anyone.
In the case of Campbell, Baer was charged with manslaughter. Baer was eventually acquitted of all charges, but the California State Boxing Commission still banned him from any in-ring activity within the state for the next year. Baer gave purses from succeeding bouts to Campbell's family, but lost four of his next six fights. He fared better when Jack Dempsey took him under his wing.
In June 1933, Baer fought and defeated (by a technical knock out) the German heavyweight Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. Baer's trunks displayed an embroidered Star of David, which Baer swore to wear in every bout thereafter. He dominated the rugged fighter from Germany into the tenth round when the referee stopped the match. Because Baer defeated Schmeling, German dictator Adolf Hitler's favorite, and because Baer had a Jewish father, he became popular among Jews, those who identified with Jews, and those who despised the Nazis.
On June 14, 1934, Baer knocked out the massive, 275-pound (125-kg) Primo Carnera, Heavyweight Champion of the World, to win the world title, which he would hold for 364 days.
On June 13, 1935, one of the greatest upsets in boxing history transpired in Long Island City, New York, as Baer fought down-and-out boxer James J. Braddock in the so-called Cinderella Man bout. Baer hardly trained for the bout. Braddock, on the other hand, was training hard. "I'm training for a fight. Not a boxing contest or a clownin' contest or a dance." he said. "Whether it goes one round or three rounds or 10 rounds, it will be a fight and a fight all the way. When you've been through what I've had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal tiger looks like a house pet. He might come at me with a cannon and a blackjack and he would still be a picnic compared to what I've had to face." Baer, ever the showman "brought gales of laughter from the crowd with his antics" the night he stepped between the ropes to meet Braddock. As Braddock "slipped the blue bathrobe from his pink back, he was the sentimental favorite of a Bowl crowd of 30,000, most of whom had bet their money 8-to-1 against him."
Max "undoubtedly paid the penalty for underestimating his challenger beforehand and wasting too much time clowning." At the end of 15 rounds Braddock emerged the victor in a unanimous decision, outpointing Baer 8 rounds to 6 in the "most astounding upset since John L. Sullivan went down before the thrusts of Gentleman Jim Corbett back in the nineties". Braddock took heavy hits from Baer, but kept coming at Baer until he wore Max down.
Decline and retirement
Baer and his brother, Buddy, both lost fights to Joe Louis. In the second round of Max's September 1935 match, Joe knocked Baer down to one knee, the first time he had ever been knocked to the canvas in his career. A sizzling left hook in the fourth round brought Max to his knee again, and the referee called the bout soon after. In the first televised heavyweight prizefight, Baer lost to Lou Nova on June 1, 1939, on WNBT-TV in New York. His last match, in 1941, was another loss to Nova.
Max Baer boxed in 84 professional fights from 1929 to 1941. In all, his record was 71-13-0. 53 of those fights were knockouts, making him a member of the exclusive group of boxers to have won 50 or more bouts by knockout. Baer defeated the likes of Ernie Schaaf, Walter Cobb, Kingfish Levinsky, Max Schmeling, Tony Galento, Ben Foord and Tommy Farr. He was Heavyweight Champion of the World from June 14, 1934 to June 13, 1935.
Baer was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1968, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1984, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. The 1998 Holiday Issue of Ring ranked Baer #20 in "The 50 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time". In Ring Magazine's 100 Greatest Punchers (published in 2003), Baer is ranked number 22.
Baer's motion picture debut was in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) opposite Myrna Loy and Walter Huston. In this MGM movie he played Steven "Steve" Morgan, a bartender that the Professor, played by Huston, begins training for the ring. Steve wins a fight, then marries Belle Mercer, played by Loy. He starts seriously training, but it turns out he has a huge ego and an eye for women. Featured were Baer's upcoming opponent, Primo Carnera, as himself, whom Steve challenges for the championship, and Jack Dempsey, as himself, former heavyweight champion, acting as the referee.
On March 29, 1934, The Prizefighter and the Lady was officially banned in Germany at the behest of Joseph Goebbels, then Adolf Hitler's Minister of Propaganda and Public Entertainment, even though it received favorable reviews in local newspapers as well as in Nazi publications. When contacted for comment at Lake Tahoe, Baer said, "They didn't ban the picture because I have Jewish blood. They banned it because I knocked out Max Schmeling."
Baer acted in almost 20 movies, including Africa Screams (1949) with Abbott and Costello, and made several TV guest appearances. A clown in and out of the ring, Baer also appeared in a vaudeville act and on his own TV variety show. Baer appeared in Humphrey Bogart's final movie, The Harder They Fall (1956), opposite Mike Lane as Toro Moreno, a Hollywood version of Primo Carnera, whom Baer defeated for his heavyweight title. Budd Schulberg, who wrote the book from which the movie was made, portrayed the Baer character, "Buddy Brannen", as blood thirsty, and the unfounded characterization was reprised in the movie Cinderella Man.
Baer additionally worked as a disc jockey for a Sacramento radio station, and for a while he was a wrestler. He served as public relations director for a Sacramento automobile dealership and referee for boxing and wrestling matches.
Baer married twice, to actress Dorothy Dunbar (married July 8, 1931-divorced October 6, 1933), and to Mary Ellen Sullivan (married June 29, 1935-his death 1959). With Sullivan, he had three children, actor Max Baer, Jr. (born 1937), James Manny Baer (born 1942) and Maudie Marian Baer (born 1944).
Baer never enjoyed the TV onscreen reward of his son, Max Baer Jr. (who played Jethro Bodine in the television series The Beverly Hillbillies). At the time of his death on November 21, 1959, Baer was scheduled to appear in some TV commercials, which he had planned to do in Los Angeles before returning to his home in Sacramento.
On Wednesday, November 18, 1959, Baer refereed a nationally televised 10-round boxing match in Phoenix. At the end of the match, to the applause of the crowd "Baer grasped the ropes and vaulted out of the ring." and "joined fight fans in a cocktail bar." The next day he was scheduled to appear in several television commercials in Hollywood, California. On his way, he stopped in Garden Grove, California, to keep a promise he had made thirteen years earlier to the then five-year old son of his ex-sparring partner, Curly Owens. Baer presented the now 18-year-old with a foreign sports car on his birthday, as he had said he would.
Baer checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel upon his arrival on the 19th of November. "Hotel employees said he looked fit but complained of a cold." As he was shaving, the morning of November 21, he experienced chest pains. He called the front desk and asked for a doctor. The desk clerk said "a house doctor would be right up." "A house doctor?" he replied jokingly, "No, dummy, I need a people doctor".
A doctor gave Baer medicine, and a fire department rescue squad administered oxygen. His chest pains subsided and he was showing signs of recovery when the mere 50-year old fighter was stricken with a second attack. Just a moment before, he was joking with the doctor, declaring he had come through two similar but lighter attacks earlier in Sacramento, California. Then he slumped on his left side, turned blue and died within a matter of minutes. His last words reportedly were, "Oh God, here I go."
Baer's funeral was one of the largest ever attended in Sacramento, where he had made his home for almost 30 years. "A crowd of more than 1,500 - many with scarred eyebrows and smashed noses bade farewell. Among his mourners were four former world champions, politicians, people in wheelchairs and Cub Scouts. There were 'men of wealth and distinction' - and bums shuffling off skid row. There were women in mink stoles and diamonds - and women in cotton house dresses, and in slacks. There were babies in the arms of their young mothers - and elderly couples, helping each other's halting steps. Hundreds of others, unable to get into the funeral home, crowded around the outside. Some chose vantage points on car roofs and nearby scaffolding. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were among his pallbearers. There were tears in the eyes of 'Curly' Owens, his one-time sparring partner, as he took down Max's gloves from a big white floral arrangement". The cemetery service was concluded by an American Legion firing squad, recognizing Baer's service in World War II. Baer's obituary made the front page of the New York Times. He was laid to rest in a garden crypt in St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Sacramento.
There is a park named for Max Baer in Livermore, California, which he considered his hometown, even though he was born in Omaha. There is also a park in Sacramento named after him. He was honored by the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1988.
Baer was an active member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. When Max died of a heart attack in 1959, the Eagles created a charity fund as a tribute to his memory and as a means of combating the disease that killed him. The Max Baer Heart Fund is primarily to aid in heart research and education. Since the fund started in 1959, millions of dollars have been donated to universities, medical centers and hospitals across the United States and Canada for heart research and education.
Was the Heavyweight champion from 1934-35. Fought with a Star of David on his shorts. Always some dispute whether he was really Jewish; or marketing ploy. It is known that his father was Jewish, but speculated that he was raised Catholic. Father of Max Baer, Jr. who played Jethro on Beverly Hillbillies.
is a Ukrainian-born Jewish-American boxer from Brooklyn, New York in the welterweight division. He is a practicing Orthodox Jew, and became so after he moved to Brooklyn. He does not fight on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays and follows Jewish dietary laws.
Was a major boxing promoter of the 20s and 30s. Began as a ticket scalper. Signed Joe Louis to an exclusive contract in 35. Put on major fights in the Garden. Died in 1953.
is a British-based Israeli heavyweight boxer, currently International Boxing Organization's (IBO's) Intercontinental heavyweight champion, with a 27–1 record. Greenberg has been nicknamed the Lion from Zion.
is a Belarusian-born Israeli professional boxer, based in the United States.He is a former World Boxing Association (WBA) super welterweight champion. Foreman turned professional in January 2002 in the Junior Middleweight Division and remained undefeated for 29 fights until June 5, 2010, in which he lost by TKO in the ninth round to Miguel Cotto.
Attell learned to fight growing up in an Irish neighborhood. He was featherweight champ for eight years (1901-08). Overall record was 171-9.
Hollandersky was known as the Newsboy. Possibly most prolific fighter of all time. Reputed to have fought some 1,309 bouts.
Levine was a middleweight (1941-1949) whose most famous fight was with Sugar Ray Robinson (11/6/46) in which he almost KOed Robinson in the 5th round. A long count might have saved Robinson. Robinson managed to rebound and knock out Levine in the 10th round, but he never could remember the fight after the 5th round. It has been claimed that Robinson said no one ever hit him harder than Levine did in the 5th round of that fight. Levine never got a title shot. His overall record was 50W(36KO), 6D, 15L.
Ross was a World lightweight champ from 33-35; welterweight 34;35-38. Grew up in an Orthodox home in Chicago, and his father opposed him going into the ring and wanted him to be a Hebrew teacher. After his fathers death, Ross became the familys support. He was a war hero and becamed addicted to morphine for his wounds. Successful fight back from addiction was made into the movie Monkey On My Back.
Probably the second best Jewish heavyweight after Max Baer (who is considered to be Jewish by some boxing historians and not Jewish by others), so maybe the best all-time Jewish heavyweight.