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Mad Max

Heavyweight champ Max Baer Sr. was unable to defend himself against 'Cinderella Man.' The job fell to Max Jr., who's going down swinging.

 

By J.R. Moehringer
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 7, 2007

He walks into the coffee shop and heads turn. He's that type—the type who looks as if he must be famous, or else was famous once. No one walks that way, frowns that way, unless he has some inside knowledge of fame.

He wears billowy black sweatpants, a red windbreaker, a sleeveless black muscle shirt and Uggs. Not your typical outfit for Lake Tahoe in late fall—nor for a 69-year-old man anywhere in any season. But he makes few concessions to age. Against age he'll never stop punching. For instance, he's had three hair transplants and doesn't care who knows it. Blow-dried, delicately molded across his head, his hair is also tinted black to match his razor-thin mustache.

On his waist rides his most telling fashion statement, a small black fanny pack in which he usually keeps a loaded 9-millimeter Glock. But not today. Today, thank God, Jethro is unarmed.

He looks mad, which is good. That's how I pictured him. That's why I came up here to Lake Tahoe in the first place, because I'd heard Max Baer Jr.—who played Jethro in the 1960s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies"—was mad as hell about Ron Howard's 2005 boxing movie, "Cinderella Man," which Baer Jr. felt desecrated the memory of his late father, Max Baer Sr., the great heavyweight champion of the 1930s.It was a big story, for a few days, because it was such a kitschy contretemps—Jethro vs. Opie. In dozens of TV and radio interviews, Baer Jr. excoriated Howard and vehemently defended Baer Sr. Then the story went away, since there was nothing more Baer Jr. could do. The dead can't claim libel, so their kin can't sue. Baer Jr. was left to deal with his rage, and "Cinderella Man" was free to go into the world as the most widely and readily available depiction of his father.

Even after the story faded from the headlines, however, it retained its hold on me. Baer Jr.'s battle to save his father's reputation reminded me that we are nothing but our stories. After we're gone, our solid, linear identities will dissolve and fragment into loose collections of stories, and it will fall to our loved ones to gather up and keep those stories alive—a task that might require more than just knowing and telling the truth. It might require fighting off strangers bent on tampering with the truth to serve their own stories.

Baer Jr. shakes my hand and slides across from me in the corner booth. "I'll have the usual," he tells the waiter, and he's surprised that the waiter doesn't know "the usual" means Egg Beaters, flapjacks, sausages, potatoes and coffee. Baer Jr. reminds him, then turns to me and abruptly launches into a remarkable stream-of-consciousness tirade. He's all riled up, but not about "Cinderella Man." He's riled up about the state of the world. Mark Foley. Nancy Pelosi. Global warming. He's giving me his take on just about everything, from Iraq to "Rocky"—and the many sequels each seems predestined to spawn.

Like Jethro, the hyperactive man-child he played for nine years, Baer Jr. has no indoor voice. He's permanently loud and his volume is ever-rising, especially when he's mad. Customers who stared when he first walked in are openly gawking.

Now he's yelling. No one's disagreeing with him, and yet he's yelling, as if trying to drown out some chorus of dissent only he can hear. He's stabbing an exclamation point into the end of each sentence. He's working himself into a full-blown rage, and it occurs to me that he might lose all control, punch someone, and I'm the likeliest target since I'm two feet away. I worry that I'm seconds from a Jethro throw-down. More troubling is how far he's drifted from the reason for my visit. I try to steer him in that direction.

Ron Howard? "Cinderella Man?"

It's actually a good movie, he says, calmly forking Egg Beaters into his mouth.

Huh?

"Ronnie Howard did a terrific job. Craig Bierko, who played my father? Did a good job. The way he wipes his gloves on his boxing trunks? That's just how my dad did it."

Gone are the exclamation points. Ellipses now fall like soft rain after each conciliatory phrase. I put down my pen.

Of course, he adds, Howard and his team decided they needed "a villain with no redeeming characteristics," so they made Baer Sr. a figure of pure evil, a caricature, which was not only untrue, it was less interesting than the truth.

I pick up my pen.

But, he adds, as an actor, as a showbiz veteran, he was able to look past all the inaccuracies about his father and appreciate the film for its many fine qualities.

I put down my pen.

Isn't he still even a little mad about the movie?

"I don't think I lost a moment of sleep about it. One thing I know in life is I have zero control over what happened yesterday."

Suddenly Jethro is a Buddhist.

Something strange is going on here.

It's one of the cardinal rules taught to cub reporters and law students: The dead can't be libeled. The dead are fair game. Say whatever you please about the dead, they're powerless to stop you. More importantly, so are their descendants.

"That's the original tradition of English law, which was imported into the U.S.," says Rod Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law and an expert on defamation.

The family of Mickey Mantle is outraged by a forthcoming novel that reportedly depicts seamy details of Mantle's sex life? Tough. Relatives of Jackie Onassis are anguished about a new book that portrays her as a rape victim and spy? Too bad. Her stepbrother, Hugh Auchincloss III, recently told a newspaper: "It is terrible to toy with a historical figure's memory in such a cavalier manner. None of these things are true."

Presumably his lawyers have explained to him by now that posthumous truth is irrelevant.

From Princess Diana to John Dillinger, dozens of famous dead people recently have been reinterpreted, or outright defamed, depending on your point of view, and their descendants have all confronted the same blunt fact: When it comes to reputation, you not only can't take it with you, you can't count on leaving it behind either.

The thinking behind the legal tradition is simple. If Person A, who's alive, finds himself libeled, only he can sue. It's a "personal tort," as the lawyers say, so his family and friends have no right to damages. And if Person A is dead? Same rule applies.

The principle played out in a very clear way several years ago when attorney Johnnie Cochran sued a disgruntled former client for libel. Cochran won, and the ex-client was prohibited from making any more public statements about him. The ex-client appealed, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court—then Cochran died. And so did the gag order against his ex-client.

Every now and then a crusading state legislator or lawyer will take up the cause. A bill is proposed that would prohibit speaking ill of the dead. But each new crusade to help the dead eventually dies.

In other nations—France, for example—the rules are different, says Kelli Sager, a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Davis, Wright and Tremaine who specializes in 1st Amendment issues. A ghost has some recourse when his good name is besmirched. But in the U.S., free speech in the here-and-now has always trumped good standing in the hereafter, and likely always will.

"If we were to modify the rule about there being no libel of the dead," Smolla says, "if many jurisdictions were to move in that direction, there would have to be some free-speech safety valve, because at some point people move into history."

Baer Sr., however, isn't quite history. Besides his son, plenty of Americans still vividly remember when Baer Sr. was a beloved figure, sharing the national stage with giants—Babe Ruth, Seabiscuit, Jack Dempsey. Funny, dashing, handsome, iconoclastic, he was also brave. In 1933, with the Third Reich on the rise, Baer Sr., whose grandfather was Jewish, put a Star of David on his trunks and strode into Yankee Stadium, where he blitzkrieged the Nazis' superb boxer, Max Schmeling. It was one of the few defeats Hitler suffered in that terrible decade. One year later, Baer Sr. took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, a 275-pound hulk with mobster backing. Baer-Carnera featured so many shuddering knock-downs, it reminded some of Dempsey-Firpo, a berserk alley fight transformed into American mythology by painter George Bellows.

Even in defeat Baer Sr. was important. His career on the wane, he served as a pivotal step toward credibility for a young phenom named Joe Louis. Their 1935 bout, among the most anticipated of the century, took place just hours after Louis' wedding. Over four blood-soaked rounds, the groom exploded one big right after another into Baer Sr.'s gorgeous face, finally depositing him on the canvas for the first time in his life.

It was a gruesome mismatch, according to Esquire magazine's man at ringside, Ernest Hemingway, "the most disgusting public spectacle, outside of a hanging, that your correspondent has ever witnessed." But it led to one of the wittiest lines ever uttered by a boxer. Fear, Baer Sr. later said, is "standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early."

Baer Jr. laughs when I mention this remark.

Though his father was a great champion, Baer Jr. says, he could have been one of the all-time greats, if only he'd taken the sport seriously. The problem was, he preferred to make people fall down laughing, not bleeding. He liked clowning around, cracking up the wags and politicos who attended his fights, and he especially liked flirting with the starlets and gun molls on hand. Like some kind of testosterone undertow, he pulled them all in—before and after he married Baer Jr.'s mother, Mary.

The New Yorker, struggling to describe his primal allure in 1934, called Baer Sr. a "magnificently shaped animal." He had Charles Atlas shoulders winnowing down to schoolgirl hips and a ridiculous reach of 80 inches. There wasn't much room for improving on such natural endowments, so he often didn't try. One day, the New Yorker reported, he went out for a training run in Central Park, but quickly stopped, stretched beneath a tree and read a book on etiquette instead. He was far more interested in becoming a proper gentleman than a champion.

Fans shouldn't have been shocked, therefore, when he lost the championship so fast. One year after beating Carnera, Baer Sr. fell to Jim Braddock. A hard-luck plodder who'd recently been on public relief, Braddock out-pointed a poorly conditioned Baer Sr., scoring one of the most dramatic upsets in boxing history.

Baer vs. Braddock is the climactic magic ball of Howard's fairy tale, with Braddock in the Cinderella role, Baer Sr. as the wicked stepmother. Aside from the surname, however, and a slight physical resemblance, there is little connection between the Baer Sr. of the movie and the one in reality. No reference is made to the Star of David. Nothing is said or implied about Baer Sr.'s vast following or magnetic personality. Rather than an affable playboy, he's depicted as a homicidal ape who warns Braddock ominously the night before their fight, "People die in fairy tales all the time."

In the same scene Baer Sr. verbally abuses Braddock's wife, telling her she's too pretty to be a widow, but not to worry, he'll sleep with her after Braddock's dead.

Keen as he was about being a gentleman, Baer Sr. was incapable of such loutish behavior toward a woman, his son insists. Nor would Baer Sr. ever have threatened an opponent's life. Having caused the death of one opponent, he was plagued by the horror of doing it again.

It happened Aug. 25, 1930. Fighting in Northern California, where he was raised, Baer Sr. delivered a brain-loosening blow to another West Coast kid, Frankie Campbell, sending him into a coma from which he never awoke. Baer Sr. wept profusely at the hospital where Campbell died hours later, his son says, and again at Campbell's funeral. He apologized to Campbell's widow. He also took part in a charity boxing match, donating all proceeds to Campbell's family.

Nothing, however, could assuage his guilt. Years later Baer Sr. would bolt awake at night, sweating and muttering, "You're OK! Please be OK!" Baer Sr.'s recurring nightmare was always the same, his son says: A man lies prone on a canvas and Baer Sr. tries in vain to revive him.

"I felt as if I never wanted to see a boxing glove or enter a ring again," Baer Sr. recalled, years later, in an interview with Nat Fleischer, editor of the Ring magazine. "My enthusiasm for the game had gone. What I wanted was to get away from California, go somewhere else and try to forget."

But this was the Depression. There were few alternatives available, besides slaughtering pigs on his father's ranch. He quickly forced himself back into the fight game.

Fleischer, in his 1942 biography, "Max Baer: The Glamour Boy of the Ring," sizes up the Campbell episode this way: "There is no doubt that Max, as kindly a chap as ever lived, suffered keenly from the consciousness that he had unwittingly caused the death of a fellow creature."

More than his love of fun, Baer Sr.'s good heart and dread of his own fists probably kept him from reaching his full violent potential as a boxer. When Schmeling was dangling "helpless" against the ropes, Fleischer notes, Baer Sr. thought of Campbell and thus "held back what might have been a lethal wallop."

And yet it wasn't enough to have Baer Sr. remorselessly kill one man in the ring—"Cinderella Man" repeatedly says he killed two.

Sure, it's only a movie. And yes, a director must balance the demands of a streamlined, suspenseful story with the murky, often contradictory claims of Historical Truth. On blogs dedicated to movies and boxing, many rise to Howard's defense, insisting the director is an artist who needs, and deserves, creative license. But when treating history, don't filmmakers have some moral obligation, if not a legal one, to be good to the good guys?

I'd like to put this question to Baer Jr., but I simply can't get him to stay on the subject of the movie. He'd much rather talk—yell—about taxes, Congress, the Clintons.

I'd like to put this question to Howard, but his representative says he's busy with pre-production on another historical movie. I'd like to put it to the screenwriter with whom he worked on "Cinderella Man." He too is unavailable. Last year, when Baer Jr. was publicly protesting "Cinderella Man," a Howard spokesperson released a statement: "The script was written from the point of view of the Braddock family. To them, Max Baer Sr. was a real threat." But even Braddock, in an interview years after their fight, said Baer Sr. was "a nice fellow"—though he also repeated the myth that Baer Sr. had killed two men in the ring.

Somehow, before we leave the coffee shop, the subject of guns comes up. Baer Jr. tells me about the small arsenal he's assembled back at the house. Forget the Glock, he says. It's a peashooter compared with his other pieces.

Why all the firepower?

As a man gets older, Baer Jr. says, he gives more thought to muggers, intruders, punks. "I want to make sure even if I can't kill 'em," he says, "I'll put enough lead in 'em to sink 'em."

I wave for the check.

Hours later, I meet Baer Jr. for dinner at a restaurant in Carson City, not far from the site where he hopes to build a Beverly Hillbillies casino one day.

His buddy and business partner, Jay Timon, joins us. Soft-spoken, reserved, Timon clearly takes a vicarious pleasure in Baer Jr.'s voluble personality. As we're seated in the center of the dining room, Timon laughs and pretends to be scandalized by Baer Jr. stripping down to his muscle shirt. He grins mischievously as he tells me about the time Baer Jr. burst into a local convenience store and waved his gun around, pretending to be a deranged customer. The clerks loved it, Timon says. Everyone loves when Max acts crazy.

"I'm not crazy," Baer Jr. says. "I'm eccentric."

Timon brings up "Cinderella Man." He never saw the movie, he proclaims, and never will, out of respect for his friend. Is that a look of gratitude I see flash across Baer Jr.'s face?

Timon then asks Baer Jr. what he'd say if he could sit down with Howard, one on one. Nothing, Baer Jr. snaps.

I sit up straighter.

Wouldn't even take the meeting, he says. What would be the point? What's done is done. "You can't unring a bell."

It's the same thing he's been saying all day, more or less, but this time he says it differently. An edge to his voice, a look in his eye, makes me think he hasn't been altogether honest with me. Or with himself. Maybe all that initial rage he expressed about "Cinderella Man," which he so freely expressed after the movie came out, has turned to a deeper hurt, which he's reluctant, or outright afraid, to let anyone see. Possibly, like his father, Baer Jr. fears what might happen if he lets go.

But I think I can make him show me. I think I see a way around his defenses. I don't want to hurt the man. But for his father's sake, for his sake, I just want to hear him, one time, admit he's hurt.

We meet the next day at the same coffee shop, order the same brunch, and Baer Jr. resumes the same tirade about the state of the world. This time, however, when he pauses for a bite of Egg Beaters, I slip in a jab.

Where were you when you heard your father died?

Air Force Reserves, he says. Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala.

He was lying in his bunk when the bulletin crackled across the radio. Former heavyweight champ Max Baer, dead of a heart attack in Los Angeles.

He flew home, finished his hitch at a base near his widowed mother and two siblings, then mustered out and drove straight to Hollywood. Within a year he was starring in the No. 1 TV show in America.

I ask if he regrets that his father, a born performer, didn't live to see him break through as an actor.

No, he says: God took Dad at just the right moment. Baer Sr. was bound to be unhappy as he faded from the limelight, which was his fate as a retired champion. The old man wasn't cut out to be once-famous.

After brunch I ask to see some of his father's memorabilia. We head back to Baer Jr.'s house, which sits halfway up the mountain on a twisty road that overlooks the lake. His dining room table is covered with four enormous scrapbooks, which Baer Jr. has pulled out for me. He hasn't opened them in a long time, he says. Dust-covered, crumbling, each scrapbook holds hundreds of clippings from Baer Sr.'s career.

Help yourself, Baer Jr. says.

But first he shows me his arsenal. Out comes his .357 magnum! Out comes his sawed-off shotgun! Out comes the Glock! I crouch behind a wall as he slaps in a clip and demonstrates the laser aim. He looks as if he'd like to squeeze off a few rounds, just for fun—into that lamp. Or that couch! I suggest meekly that we get back to those scrapbooks.

The suggestion doesn't grab him. In fact, he seems as fearful of those scrapbooks as I am of the guns.

When he finally holsters the Glock, I open the first scrapbook and turn the brittle pages slowly. Here's a photo of Baer Sr. with Dempsey. They look like two rough customers—but also like a barrel of laughs. Here's a photo of Baer Sr. with Myrna Loy. They look too beautiful to be true.

They were an item, Baer Jr. yells to me from several feet off, keeping a safe distance between himself and the scrapbooks.

Your father and Myrna Loy?

"Marlene Dietrich. Jean Harlow. Ha ha ha—he had 'em all!"

The first time I've heard him stick an exclamation point at the end of a statement about his father.

I open the next scrapbook. Here's coast-to-coast coverage of the thrilling title fight with Carnera. Here's the front-page banner headline from the Los Angeles Examiner when Baer won. And here's a batch of clippings from the later years, when Baer Sr. was trying to mount one last comeback.

Baer Jr. edges closer, peeks over my shoulder. "Look at him!" he says, squinting at one exceptionally glamorous photo of his father.

I can almost feel the son drop his psychological guard.

"When you asked me the question about my dad and the movie," he says heavily, "I had to take and separate the two. It would hurt me if I allowed it to. I had to dissociate myself and say, 'OK, that's not my father! That's a character in the movie!'"

I tell him I understand. But then, as he's dangling on the ropes, helpless, I deliver the lethal wallop.

Look, I say. This clipping mentions you.

Smiling, he leans into the scrapbook and reads aloud:

"Vowing he had reformed, Max Baer arrived yesterday, stayed for one hour, then hurried to his Lakewood, New Jersey training quarters to prepare for a bout with Tommy Farr. 'I am a different man,' Max said. 'I've had enough of New York and Broadway and I don't want any more.' Max talks incessantly of his baby, Max Jr. He carries the baby's picture with him constantly and shows it to—"

He jumps back from the scrapbook. "I can't read that," he says.

As he paces nervously I read to him, yell to him, the rest of his father's lovely quotation. "'I've promised the baby I'll win back the heavyweight championship—and I'll do it!'"

I force him to hold still and look at another photo of his father, holding his infant son.

Baer Jr. breaks away and begins lurching around the living room, yelling stories about his father, one after another, in no particular order. The time he fought outdoors in the brutal heat of summer, in Reno. Twenty rounds! They had to pour ice water in his shoes! The time he stopped in the middle of a round because he spotted a writer at ringside slumped over his typewriter. The writer had suffered a heart attack and no one noticed! He'd have died if my dad hadn't pointed and said—Hey, something's wrong with Harry!

Baer Jr. stops, stands before a scrapbook. He studies a photo of his father and Carnera. After their fight, he says, the two became close friends. When Baer Sr. died, Carnera was out of the country, but on returning to California he asked to be taken immediately to Baer Sr.'s crypt. He had to see his old foe, his old friend, right away. Someone drove Carnera to the cemetery, but it was late. The gate was locked. So Carnera climbed over. Nothing could keep him from his friend's side. "Twenty-seven years after my dad beat him," Baer Sr. says, "he liked my father enough to—!"

His voice chokes. Spinning away, he lets fly a stream of expletives, then staggers into the kitchen and leans against the sink, crying.

A minute passes.

Another minute.

Finally, staring at the trees outside the window above the sink, he says: "It's tough when people think he's an asshole. That's one of the reasons you got to change something. You can't do that to people. It's all they got. The only thing people know about him is nothing but lies. It's not right. It's not fair."

He returns to the living room and stands before me, dabbing his eyes. "People come up to me and ask me all the time about it! When the movie came out, when it was on cable, 'Jesus, your dad, was he that mean?!' 'Was he glad he killed those guys?!'"

I continue to turn the pages of the scrapbooks and come to a letter. Baer Sr. to Baer Jr.

What's this?

"He wrote that to me on my twenty-first birthday."

I read it aloud.

My son: May God always be in your corner. As I read, Baer Jr. recites along from memory. May your future bring you much health, happiness and success. I am very proud of you and how you are now thinking, doing, and acting. From a guy going down the other side of the mountain on life's highway, my son, walk straight and walk carefully.

Hotel Roosevelt, Los Angeles. 1958.

"A year before he died," Baer Jr. says.

He disappears into his bedroom. Where the guns are. Soon, to my relief, I hear a crowd roaring. I go and find Baer Jr. lying on his bed, watching a TV suspended by chains from the ceiling. A black-and-white Movietone newsreel is playing. I stand beside the bed and together we watch Baer Sr. clubbing Carnera senseless, then turning to the ref and telling him mercifully that Carnera's had enough.

"Look at my father!" Baer Jr. says.

Cut to Dempsey, praising Baer Sr. "A thorough gentleman in and out of the ring," Dempsey says. "I predict Max'll be champion for a long time to come."

Cut to Baer Sr., wearing a natty suit, surrounded by reporters. A reporter asks how he's going to walk now that he's a champion. "Why, I'm going to walk like my old pal Dempsey!" he says, then turns from the camera and does a cocky little penguin dance, very funny, touchingly graceful.

The reporters laugh. Baer Sr. laughs.

Baer Jr. laughs too, rolling on the bed. "I forget about him being my father!" he says. "If I were to see that guy, I'd say, 'He sure seems like a lot of fun! I'd like to hang out with him!'"

He hits rewind. Again Baer Sr. does the penguin dance. Again Baer Jr. laughs.

"Haaaaaw! Look!"

I slip out to the living room and tidy up the scrapbooks. Then I gather up my notebooks, my jacket and scarf.

Time to go.

Because this is how I want to remember them both forever.

The father: debonair, invincible, heavyweight champion of the world. The son: flat on his back, looking up with love.

Still not sure what hit him.

J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West. He also is the author of the memoir "The Tender Bar." His 1997 boxing story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, "Resurrecting the Champ," has been turned into a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, to be released later this year.

 

 

Max Baer Sr.'s 1934 heavyweight championship belt.

(Damon Winter / LAT)

 

 

 

 

The portrayal of heavyweight boxing legend Max Baer Sr. in "Cinderella Man" incensed his son, Max Baer Jr.

(Damon Winter / LAT)

 

 

Max Baer Sr. put a Star of David on his trunks for his fight with the Nazis' Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1933.

(Damon Winter / LAT)

 

 

Max Baer Jr., top right, starred as Jethro Bodine in 'The Beverly Hillbillies.' His father never saw him break through as an actor.
 

Max Baer Jr., holding his father's 1934 heavyweight championship belt. Baer Sr. was a beloved Depression-era figure much like Babe Rush and Seabiscuit.

(Damon Winter / LAT)

 

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The following article is being recreated with the permission of John DiMambro of The Nevada Appeal -

-Nevada Appeal

Oscar-nominated film missed true story
 


Photo by Photo Courtesy of Max Baer Jr.
Click to Enlarge

From left, Max Baer Sr., Ancil Hoffman and Jack Dempsey on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. on June 17, 1934, following Baer's heavyweight-championship victory.
Photo Courtesy of Max Baer Jr.

 

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WEB EXTRAS
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Max Baer, Jr. receives a boxing lesson
 
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Max Baer, Jr. on "Cinderella Man" pt. 1 (Quicktime)
 
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Max Baer, Jr. on "Cinderella Man" pt. 2
 
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Max Baer, Jr. on his father the showman
 
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Max Baer, Jr. talks about his father
 
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John Dimambro
Nevada Appeal Publisher,
jdimambro@nevadaappeal.com
March 5, 2006

The 2006 Academy of International Film Awards, to be aired tonight, has honored director Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" with three nominations. The film has authentic period flavor with solid acting, particularly by Russell Crowe as the Depression-era, real-life heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, and by the equally strong Paul Giamatti as Braddock's flamboyant manager, Joe Gould.

But as far as Howard's direction of Craig Bierko in his portrayal of former heavyweight champion Max Baer is concerned, Opie went Dopey.

Max Baer was much more than the villainous, sexual predator and man killer depicted on screen. His was a lonely and tragic world.

• • •

As wavy smoke spheres moved slowly beneath the ring lights of an old San Francisco stadium in 1930, dark and lifeless like the edge of a storm, heavyweight contender Max Baer heard a cracking sound. But this sound was not born of nature's thunder.

The sound was sickening - one that a young and impressionable man could not forget, and one that young Max Baer would never forget. That sound was the sound of Frankie Campbell's head as it was nearly ripped from its tendons by an overhand right that exploded off his skull. If the explosion was tremendous, then the implosion was deadening.

Max Baer stood, frozen as the wavy layers of smoke above him now seemed stilled and cold like waves of fear. Frankie Campbell, a highly regarded prospect as a future champion, died hours later at Mission Hospital in San Francisco.

Campbell didn't die alone that night. The promise of Max Baer being the brightest young athlete to lace on boxing gloves since Jack Dempsey died that night too. For that matter, so did Max Baer.

From the day he was delivered by his mother, Dora, and lifted up in a gesture of divine praise by his father Jacob, Max Baer was not born to be a nameless person in a crowd. But he wouldn't know that until he was 19 years old.

As a boy, the luminous, naturally friendly Max would go out of his way to avoid a fight. His older sister, Frances, would be quick to confront and turn away any bullies who would try to pick a fight with the little Baer.

So loving was their household that little Maxie would always kiss his mother, sister and father before walking a short distance to the corner store. Later in life, as a father, Max would drive his son, Max Jr. to school but promised his boy that he would kiss him a block before they reached the school so his friends wouldn't see and make fun of him.

It wasn't until Max died at age 50 that Max Jr. would sadly miss his father's open hugs and kisses. No more "Baer" hugs. "When my Dad would drop me off at school, I'd say goodbye really fast and have one foot out the door while the car was still running," recalls Max Jr.

As a teen, Max Baer worked on his dad's ranch in Livermore, Calif., for 25 cents a day slopping hogs. It was his job to round up discarded produce and meats from restaurants and grocery markets, then shovel it out to the hogs on the farm, afterwards churning the residue into the soil for fertilizer.

It was during this time that Max's body started to erupt. His legs grew long, lean and carved with muscle. His arms were also long and as hard as industrial beams. His shoulders were like aircraft wings, riveted into his chest as if by a master metal worker. And then, the chest. His chest was like an alabaster sculpture - a statue of David come to life. And on this chest rested a tree-stump neck with a beautifully shaped boulder of a head, as handsome as one could imagine. Women loved him, and men emulated him. He was truly a nature's child.

 


 


Photo Courtesy of Max Baer Jr. Max Baer Sr. works out in 1938.

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One night, when 19-year-old Max was at a dance with some friends, a few of the boys decided to steal some bootlegged liquor from a truck while the driver was carrying jugs to the farmer who owned the property. When the driver returned, he saw that one of the jugs was missing as the boys stood by laughing. The truck driver - a real cowboy - turned as wild as a mustang. He yelled out demands to know who stole his booze. Max's friends pointed to him since he was the biggest kid. He also happened to be one of the boys who didn't take the liquor.

The truck driver stood taller than Max's statuesque 6 feet, 3 inches. He must have figured that one way to agitate the kind-hearted, non-violent youngster was to sexually insult one of the girls who was smiling and standing closest to Max. The verbally ravaged young girl screamed and then frantically commanded Max to do something about it.

Just what the driver wanted! He taunted Max and started to walk him down, pressing his weight against him, pushing him as he stalked, prodding him like ranchers did to cattle. He then heaved and pushed Max hard, grabbing and ripping his brand new shirt, and then punched him. Seemingly summoned by some suppressed animal instinct, Max suddenly struck back - a right cross that shot upward and over that may have seemed like a blinded back-kick from a steer. The man fell on his face, staying down and listening to a dreamy chorus of birds for several minutes.

Greatly encouraged by the result of his first punch thrown in anger, Max bought a pair of boxing gloves and a heavy bag and practiced at night while he worked during the day. But even Max wouldn't truly know the full potential of his right fisted power until sometime later.

At the time, Max was working for a man named Hamm Lorimar, who owned an auto body parts plant in Oakland. It was Lorimar who introduced Max to Ancil Hoffman, a Jewish business man. Hoffman would become Baer's manager.

Baer's first fight was against Chief Cariboo. While waiting in the dressing room, he was so nervous that his mouth became desert-dry. He drank a six-pack of soda pop, one right after the other, sucking them down and hardly drawing a breath between bottles. He was quickly overcome with intolerable gas pains, but it was too late. It was his time to enter the ring. So worried was he that his stomach and bowels wouldn't be able to hold out for very long, Max rushed after Cariboo and punched him out in only two rounds.

After the fight, Max was given $35. To him, he had found the jewels of the temple. He forgot about his stomach cramps. "Wow! Hey, what time do you close?!" he asked the promoter. "Let me fight some more guys tonight for $35." The exuberant Baer was on his way.

A look at Max's early record, and one can easily see that he was all business. He trained seriously and had the unconditional will to fight. He feared no one, and if by chance someone was one of the very few who were lucky enough to beat him once by a decision - top men of the time like Tiny Abbott, Les Kennedy, and Ernie Schaaf - then that would be the last time. Only the virtually invisible Tommy Loughran was able to float around the ring like an apparition so elusively that Baer told Ancil Hoffman that a rematch would be useless.

"How can I beat him if I can't catch him?" Baer told Hoffman. "Hell, I couldn't hit his ass with two handfuls of buckshot." As for the others, Baer would ice them in return matches. Then came Frankie Campbell.

With the exception of Tommy Loughran and Paolino Uzcudon, Baer had beaten every man he faced. He was a sight of physical perfection. He was bursting with confidence, and unconditionally sure that his run-you-down-like-a-mower ring rushes, followed by his jackhammer punches, would put any man on his back. In early photos, he even had the look of a real fighter. No playing around. The Campbell fight would change all that forever.

The fight took place on Aug. 25, 1930, in San Francisco. It was recognized as a Western American elimination bout for possible heavyweight title contention. Many of the former champions were there to see the mythical new god of the ring. Baer was the bigger of the two men. Campbell was faster, but could punch too.

For five rounds, Baer took advantage of his larger size and power. In round five, he slipped at the end of a Campbell left. Max went down, and the referee called it "no knockdown." But Campbell wasn't looking. Thinking it was a legitimate knockdown, he started walking toward the neutral corner.

Max got up quickly and ran after him. The punches were inescapable. One after another they showered in, each causing irreparable damage. Then, as Baer viciously pursued, he threw that one last fatal punch as Campbell lay trapped between the upper ropes.

As Frankie Campbell went down, so did Baer's heart, will, and spirit as he stood nearby. His eyes were widened by a fear he had never before felt, more nauseating than any fear he had of being bullied when a kid. Baer was horrified. It was almost as if he knew what had just happened was more than just a knockout. And he started to feel sick, overcome by that unmistakable feeling that something was dreadfully wrong.

Baer followed the ambulance as it sped to Mission Hospital. Outside the operating room, he sat silently, nervously, with his chin resting on his folded hands. His lips were moving as if in silent prayer, or maybe just words of disbelief to himself. Sitting across from him was Campbell's wife. The thoughts of what was happening were now too heavy for young Baer to carry. The tears cascaded down his face, each one carried by pain, each one beating down on his lap. As one man lay dying inside the hospital room, Max Baer sat outside with the full-winged spirit of his promise already dead.


Campbell's wife, seeing Max's uncontrolled despair, got up and sat next to him. "It could have been you too, Max. It's not your fault." But Baer's heart was already killed. The pain would continue, day after day, night after night - a pain that would hurt more than any punch he threw, or any punch he received. It was a pain that refused to die until he himself would die.

Frankie Campbell's entire brain had been disengaged and left floating in his cranium. Max was charged with manslaughter and held hostage in a jail cell by a $10,000 bail, an inordinate amount of money for 1930. The charges were later dropped. There is a photo of Baer standing beside his attorney in front of the judge during his appeal. The look on Baer's face was beyond solemnity. It was an expression born of unrelenting anguish. He was finally acquitted, but he was prohibited from boxing in the state of California for one year.

During the four months that followed the tragic end of Frankie Campbell, Baer decided to quit boxing. But through the urging of his manager, Ancil Hoffman, and others around him, Max decided to return to the ring. He needed to. If for nothing else, he needed to revisit the birth place of his demons, and lose them to find himself once again.

Upon his return to the ring, it was easy to see this was not the same man who once trained so seriously and enjoyed the sport with such boyish unrestraint. And it showed in his next six performances, four of which he lost to men who would have fallen to his mighty fists beforehand. In all of those fights, Baer seemed insipid, himself a cadaver still breathing.

Around this time, former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey took a liking to Baer, and decided he would invest his time as a much-needed mentor to the young fighter. But something else was happening at this time aside from Dempsey entering into the picture. Baer started to act like a self-deprecating clown, and in short time became an over-the-top cartoon of himself.

For a short time, it seemed like Baer was starting to put the Campbell incident in perspective and to show signs of resurgence. He was then given a rematch with Ernie Schaaf, who had beaten a mind-burdened Max by a decision in his next fight after the Campbell tragedy. Despite the beating he was giving Schaaf, there were moments when Max looked like he was holding back again. It was close to the end of the 10th and final round, when all of a sudden, POW! Max triggered a right cross that carried incredible force.

The target was the side of Schaaf's head. Schaaf went down like someone hit him with a metal bat. For three long minutes, the ring doctor and Schaaf's corner men worked on him. He was motionless. And for three long minutes, Baer felt like the fiery bowels of hell were once again within him. But Schaaf, unlike Frankie Campbell, regained consciousness. Only six months later, in a fight with then-heavyweight contender and future champion, the pathetic Primo Carnera, Schaaf collapsed for no apparent reason in the 13th round. He died of the same injuries sustained by Frankie Campbell - a brain loosened and dislodged from its connecting tissue. The post-mortem diagnostic? He died from injuries sustained from the punches he received from Max Baer.

If Baer's descent into a lost paradise started the night of the Frankie Campbell fight, then hearing of Ernie Schaaf's similar death quickened his fall. And he fell, face down into his own creation of purgatory. He took up smoking. He was never a drunk, but womanizing became more of an escape, a psychological need more so than a sexual one. He was running. He was desperately looking for a place within himself to hide. But the demons were too strong, and too many.

Impossibly beautiful starlets like Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Mae West couldn't resist the young and handsome Max Baer. And he couldn't resist them. But even they couldn't erase the indelible haunting of one man's mind.

Max Baer Jr. recalls his mother telling him of Baer's frequent spells of unremitting and unforgiving suffering that would drive him to run to the garage and slam his head into the cabinets, yelling and crying out in mental anguish.

Later in life, when Baer would watch fights on TV, he never reacted. He would just stare vacantly at the set while his sons, Max Jr. and Jim, sat on the floor close to the set. "If you ever even think about fighting, fight me instead," he would tell his boys.

On a summer afternoon in 1958, at a neighborhood barber shop in Sacramento, Max was standing up from getting his hair trimmed. His wife Mary Ellen was nearby.

As the barber was sweeping hairs off Max's shirt, there was a little boy who was listening to his mother whisper something in his ear. The little boy walked up to the barber's chair and looked up.

"Are you Max Baer?" Baer's smile traveled from ear to ear, filling his entire face with unreserved warmth and affection. He knelt to one knee to look at the boy at face level, and said. "Yes I am, son."


The boy abruptly pointed his finger and yelled out, "You're that man who killed two people fightin'."

Max Baer's face distorted in injury. He wore the look of a wounded soul. His lower lip trembled, and he quickly covered his mouth with his hand. He drew a hard breath and stood up. His wife raced to him, and with her arm locked in his guided him to their car.

On the ride home, Max tried to choke back his emotions, his words broken and aching. His face was washed over with tears that could no longer cleanse or heal.

Though his wife was seated next to him, he was talking to no one, and to everyone. "Why don't they understand? I didn't mean it. I didn't do it on purpose. It was an accident. That little kid ... What did his mother ... Why ... Why don't they tell him? I didn't ... I ... I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to ... Why can't they ... It was an accident ..."

One year later, Max Baer was dead at 50. His heart finally surrendered to a death he had been dying since 1930.

After the death of Ernie Schaaf, Max's worst punching day was still much better than most men's best; but in the era that produced the superior Joe Louis, that wouldn't be enough. He generated enough short-term ferocity to beat any thoughts of anti-Semitism out of a then-thought-to-be Arian race disciple and former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling - a superb athlete who would later annihilate a young Joe Louis.

But even in his fight with Schmeling, Baer held back. Shakily rising to his feet after crashing to the ring floor from Baer's torpedo-straight right in the tenth round, Schmeling was knocked into the ropes by another Baer attack. Instead of going in for the kill like he did as an unassuming enthusiastic youngster in the sport, Baer stepped away and quickly turned to referee Donovan, saying, "C'mon man ... This looks like the end ... That's it ... No more." Donovan knew all too well what he meant and stopped the fight.

He finally won the championship, giving Primo Carnera an 11-round conveyer ride through a slaughterhouse. But even in knocking Carnera down 11 times and finally stopping him, Baer was not at all serious. He fooled around, talking to celebrities at ringside while holding Carnera. And after a quick conversation, Max would knock the champion down again, just waiting for him to get up just to mess around with him some more. The (pre-Frankie Campbell) Baer of 1930 would have cut Carnera down in just a few no-nonsense rounds

In the first defense of his newly won championship title, Max had a broken hand, and a broken will against Jimmy Braddock - the "Cinderella Man" - who was nicknamed so because of his unbelievable decision win over Baer, whom the majority thought would literally kill his opponent.

Then, against Joe Louis, Baer broken hand hadn't healed. There is a little known letter Max wrote to his fiancé, Mary Ellen Sullivan, that read, "I hope to God my hand heals before the fight." His hand was injected with Novocain before the fight at Yankee Stadium, but fight time was delayed due to rain.

By the time the fight started, the Novocain had worn off and Baer was in panic. His best weapon was useless. Most reporters and fans mistook his panic and lousy performance against a prime Louis as an act of fear.

It was fear all right. The same fear one would have in a war when you finally realize you're out of ammunition and the enemy is standing over your fox hole. As a result, Louis used him as a punching bag, and Baer, who could take a lot of punishment, voluntarily dropped to one knee and just listened until referee Arthur Donovan counted to 10 in the fourth round.

Then he got up and left, to the unfeeling boos of the crowd. Writers like Ed Sullivan (later of TV variety show fame) and Ernest Hemingway brutally wrote Baer off as a shameful coward and a despicable excuse for a fighter. After two embarrassing back-to-back fights, Max's time, which by then seemed like no time at all, was over.

The boyish man, who not so long before would daringly hang his chin out for opponents to hit, was now walking a treacherous tightrope. This young Samson, who reportedly knocked a full-grown cow down to its knees with one right hand punch to the top of the head on his dad's farm, was now one of the herd himself.


Baer's inner torment was channeled through to his social life. Sure, he was a womanizer. Was he an abuser of women? Not even close. He treated his female companions like royalty. But his true love was with Mary Ellen and their three children. As for his many female friends, Max claimed, "I don't buy them furs because I love them. I buy them things to keep them quiet!"

Max also loved children in general. Jim Baer remembers the days in Sacramento when his father would pick up kids playing in the streets of the city's poorer section in his Chrysler convertible and take them to the movies or to the neighborhood public pool with him and his little sister Maudie.

The movies were especially fun. Max would ask to see the manager, and he would load the kids up with candy. But he would always forget one minor detail. He would never pay for the tickets. But the theater manager didn't mind at all. The movie house made so much money on the candy Max bought that it ended up farther ahead than if he had purchased the tickets with no candy. And then, as the kids laughed or screamed their way through a Saturday afternoon of movies, Max would close his eyes and start snoring.

But as he got older, Max's inner directed demons collided with his good-natured personality. The demons would not be denied. In the mid-1950s, Mary Ellen kicked Max out of the house. The reason? Another woman. His family was truly all he had, but his need to be with other women was the only remaining connection to the social life he enjoyed while still a hot young prospect - his own prescribed medication to forget the incidents that prevented him from being much more than what he was. On the night he was ordered from his own home, he uncharacteristically turned over the kitchen table, and ran into the garage. He slammed his head into the cabinets of the garage, just like he did years before whenever the unrelenting visions of Frankie Campbell and Ernie Schaaf decided to visit him, encircling him and leaving their spirits inside of him to live and return anytime they chose. This was not an angered man who ran into the garage. This was a desperately confused and infinitely lost man who was running someone, anywhere, to escape. This was also a man in the final stages of crying out for help. If anyone or anything was listening, the answer came in the end to Max's short but tortured life.

On the evening before his death, Max called his wife from the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in Los Angeles. Mary Ellen knew something was wrong. "Max, are you OK?" Max, who was told by friends that day that he looked pale, said "Yeah ... sure. I just have a bit of a cold, I think. I need to get in the sun is all." That was the last time she talked to him. That was the last time any family member would have the chance to talk to him.

"Is Jim there?" Max asked his wife. But Jim, who was 18 at the time, was out doing what teenagers do and missed his last chance to talk to his Dad.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 21,1959, Augie Baer (Max's adopted younger brother), who lived with Max's family, yelled up to Mary Ellen. As she came running to the top of the staircase, Augie looked up at her and, breathing hard, said, "Max is dead."

"Max?" she cried. "Which Max? Little Max or Big Max?" She was still sleepy, and very disoriented. But then the message became all too clear.

Later on, young Jim Baer would open the closet in his mother and father's bedroom. He would run his hand gingerly, lovingly over his dad's shirts and jackets. Beneath them were his shoes. All that was missing was his dad. He would grab the sleeves of his father's clothes, clump them together in an emotional embrace, and slip down slowly in a heap of tears.

If in his prime today, Max Baer would be a superstar. The body beautiful, with his undying sense of humor, love of people, matinee looks and goodnight punching power, he would be demanding more money than a Mike Tyson could ever count. "My father was really one of the first real celebrities in boxing," says Max Baer Jr. "He'd be a millionaire 100 times over if he were around today."

The mainstream today will probably - if anything - know Max Baer for the way he was portrayed in "Cinderella Man." Others, including even some boxing historians, will remember him for his high-profile losses to Jimmy Braddock and Joe Louis.

That's really unfair. Sad too. He was so much more than that. He was simply a fun-loving man who didn't know the range of the strength God gave him - the strength that happened to be enough to cause the deaths of two fighters.

But the death of Frankie Campbell was really the fight that defined the rest of Max Baer's life. Ernie Schaaf's death punctuated it. What was supposed to be a clearly paved highway to boxing stardom and greatness ended up as a rotary of so many different roads - ones that proved too difficult for Max to choose to get back on that simple one-way highway.

His one chance had come and gone. It was like one of his favorite games he would play with the neighborhood kids who were less fortunate than his own children.

He would hold out two hands. One hand had a silver dollar in it. The other would have nothing. "Close your eyes," Max would tell a child. "Close them tightly. Now pick one. Only one. If you pick the hand with the silver dollar in it, it's yours. If you don't, you get nothing."

 

 

 

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