Joe Loius

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 25, 2010

The Standard Bearer

Make no mistake: Joe Louis was the king of heavyweight kings. Born in Alabama in 1914 to sharecropper parents, the "Brown Bomber" held the championship for 12 years (1937-49) with an astounding 25 title defenses.

At a time when boxing is in the doldrums, it is hard for Americans to fathom the magnitude of this fighter’s importance. Randy Roberts’s "Joe Louis" should jog our collective memory. The author of superb studies of the boxers Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, Mr. Roberts spins a graceful and reliable narrative of Louis’s life. The author also gets into the ring with the question: Why did Joe Louis matter so much to so many?

Early on, Mr. Roberts argues that Louis must be considered against the backdrop of Jack Johnson’s reign as heavyweight champion. In 1908, when discriminatory Jim Crow laws were in full force across much of the land, Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion. He was married three times to white women and mercilessly taunted his white opponents. After Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915, the color line in boxing was redrawn and refortified. The unofficial ban held for two decades, until the wily, racially integrated management team for an impressive 23-year-old boxer named Joe Louis succeeded in baiting the current champion, James J. Braddock, into a bout. At Comiskey Park in Chicago on June 22, 1937, Louis knocked out Braddock in the eighth round and won the heavyweight title. As Mr. Roberts notes, though, Louis would not feel like the true world champion until he avenged a 12th-round knockout loss the year before to the German fighter Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in New York.

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The Brown Bomber: Joe Louis posing in June 1938 in Pompton Lakes, N.J., where he was training to defend his heavyweight title against Max Schmeling


The Louis-Schmeling rematch came on June 22, 1938, precisely a year after Louis’s fight with Braddock. Whether Schmeling liked it or not—some claim he did, others that he didn’t—the boxer known as the "Black Uhlan of the Rhine" was Adolf Hitler’s poster boy. The temptation to view sports events as symbolizing matters of larger significance is too infrequently resisted, but the second Louis-Schmeling fight merits the distinction. Louis in effect carried the standard for freedom and democracy; Schmeling was fascism’s favorite. In America, patriotism had trumped racism. White Americans rooted for Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, of course, but the stark prospect of two men meeting in a boxing ring showed with particular clarity how the country’s thinking had changed: A black man would be fighting a white man, and most, though by no means all, white Americans fervently wanted the black man to win.

An added pressure for Louis: Black Americans regarded him as a veritable savior. As Mr. Roberts recounts, Martin Luther King Jr. once told the tale, perhaps apocryphal but still revelatory, of a black man who went to the gas chamber: "As the pellets dropped into the container . . . and gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: ‘Save me Joe Louis! Save me Joe Louis!’ "

Even without the daunting political and social baggage, Louis faced a tough boxing challenge. Coming back after being knocked out is hard enough, and taking on the guy who put you to sleep is even more difficult—he just seems to have your number. By beating Braddock, Louis had proved that he had overcome this KO by Schmeling. But now he was facing the man himself—again at Yankee Stadium.

After months of mounting expectations and a frenzy of publicity in the days before the fight, Louis and Schemling entered the ring before a crowd of nearly 70,000. About 100 million people around the world listened to the radio broadcast. And in two minutes, four seconds it was over: Louis attacked ferociously from the opening bell, knocking down Schmeling three times before the referee finally stopped it.

As Mr. Roberts notes, the author Richard Wright was at the bout and later described the jubilation in Harlem that greeted the radio broadcast of Louis’s victory: "A hundred thousand black people surged out of taprooms, flats, restaurants, and filled the streets and sidewalks like the Mississippi River overflowing in flood time. With faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed to come from untold reserves of strength."

Louis would defend his title successfully frequently over the next few years—working his way down through the list of contenders so steadily that eventually his challengers came to be known collectively as the bum-of-themonth club. Then, in 1942, he enlisted in the Army. Though civil-rights historians seldom take sufficient note of Louis’s contribution, Mr. Roberts makes it plain that Louis, in his own discreet way, was a force for integration in the armed forces and the country as well. No less an authority on racial matters than Jackie Robinson once acknowledged that if it weren’t for Louis, "the color line in baseball would never have been broken." As Mr. Roberts notes, when Robinson first put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and shouldered the burden of being seen as a representative of his race, he said: "I’ll try to do as good a job as Joe Louis has done. . . . He has done a great job for us and I will try to carry on."

Joe Louis

By Randy Roberts
Yale University Press, 308 pages, $27.50

Mr. Roberts debunks a number of myths with this biography. For instance, sportswriters have always held that white Americans appreciated Louis because he was polar opposite of the brash Jack Johnson. Louis was by nature—and by instruction from his managers—intensely taciturn. But as Mr. Roberts indicates, whites also found that demeanor irksome. The most famous sportswriter of his day, Grantland Rice, described Louis in the ring going after an opponent "as the black panther of the jungle stalks its prey . . . [he] accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression"—and, the implication was clear, without human feeling.

Although he earned millions, Louis ended up nearly penniless and a walking argument against professional pugilism. Much of winnings went to his handlers, he was victimized by bad financial advice and was hounded by the IRS for unpaid taxes. But as Mr. Roberts notes, Louis was also a free spender and ultimately blamed no one but himself for his troubles.

The author has much respect and even affection for his subject, but he does not pull any punches when discussing the final rounds of Louis’s life. They were not pretty. An inveterate gambler, the former champ developed drinking and alcohol problems, and he suffered from severe paranoia toward the end. He died in 1981 at age 66 from a heart attack. When he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Max Schmeling was one of the pallbearers.

—Mr. Marino teaches philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.


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