Fight Film Sucker-punches Max Baer, Jewish Boxing Icon

By Forward Staff; With Reporting by Jta.

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s been a bruising week for “Cinderella Man,” the new Ron Howard boxing drama. First came the disappointing box office showing — a distant fourth in first-weekend revenues. Then, the film’s star, Russell Crowe, allegedly flung a telephone at a New York hotel concierge. All the while, Jewish boxing fans have taken aim at what they call the film’s oversimplification of the story’s villain, the Star of David-wearing Max Baer.

“Cinderella Man” chronicles the fall and rise of Depression-era heavyweight champion James Braddock (Crowe). In the climactic sequence, the movie depicts the 15-round fight between victorious underdog Braddock and menacing, beady-eyed Baer (Craig Bierko).

But a longer view makes it difficult to see Baer as a stock villain.

A mere two years prior to the bout at the film’s heart, in June 1933, Baer was the underdog when he faced the German Max Schmeling. Hitler had come to power a few months earlier, and the Nazis were busy smearing Stars of David on Jewish-owned stores. When Baer strutted into the Yankee Stadium ring, his trunks sported a prominent Star of David. He then proceeded to demolish Schmeling, knocking him out in the 10th round.

This pugilistic victory, coming in the depth of the Great Depression and amid rising antisemitism in Europe and the United States, lifted the spirits of Jews throughout the world.

It is, of course, not difficult to understand why the film’s screenwriters, Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, would have felt the need to flatten out the Baer character. A Cinderella story begins to lose its punch once the evil stepmother becomes lovable — and the Cinderella here is Crowe’s Braddock, not Bierko’s Baer. Only the most attentive of viewers will spot Baer’s star here (it is far smaller than the one he actually wore), and the question of the boxer’s Jewishness goes all but unmentioned.

But obscuring Baer’s star, boxing experts say, blurs our view not only of Baer but also of early 20th-century boxing and the place of Jews in it.

The boxing world of the 1920s through the 1940s was rife with Jews, both inside and outside the ring. According to Mike Silver, curator of an exhibit on Jewish boxers now on display at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, by the late 1920s, nearly a third of all prizefighters in the United States were Jews, and Jewish fans made up a central component of the sport’s fan base. Baer was the only Jewish heavyweight champion of the period, but there were 27 Jewish titleholders in all. It is important to note, Silver told the Forward, that not one major bout during boxing’s golden age was held on a major Jewish holiday.

Indeed, some argue that Baer, who had a non-Jewish mother and a half-Jewish father, was encouraged by his manager, the Jewish Ancil Hoffman, to wear the star in the Schmeling bout simply as a way to excite Jewish spectators.

“As Jewish boxers in Germany were fleeing for their lives, gentile boxers in New York were clamoring to be Jewish,” said David Margolick, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of a forthcoming book on Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. “The boxing culture of the 1930s was one of the few instances when being Jewish was good business.”

For Jeremy Schaap, host of ESPN’s issues-oriented news show “Outside the Lines” and the author of a book on the Baer-Braddock matchup, Jews in Hollywood — where Baer himself starred in a number of films — were “enormously proud of a guy who literally wore his Jewishness while they suppressed it.”

But it’s not simply on Jewish grounds that critics have taken issue with “Cinderella Man” and the harsh portrait that it paints of Baer. Chief among Baer’s defenders has been his son, Max Baer Jr., who played the role of Jethro Bodine on the TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

According to his son, whatever could be said against the senior Baer, he was never petty or mean spirited, contrary to the movie’s depiction.

The younger Baer described his late father as a cocky man, “sort of like Muhammad Ali,” who liked to clown around and who would rather party than train.

“My father hardly ever bore a grudge, and after he and another fighter would beat each other to a pulp, my father would go to the other guy’s dressing room and invite him to a party,” Baer said. “After he lost the world championship to Braddock, my father said he was glad that the title went to a guy who had to support a large family.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.