The Match Heard ’Round the World

In June 1938, 60 million people — half of the American public — tuned their radios to a boxing match in Yankee Stadium. The heavyweight championship pitted Joe Louis, a black American, against Max Schmeling, a German, and the fight served as an undercard of sorts for World War II. Schmeling and Louis had fought before, in 1936, with Schmeling taking the match. But since then the storms of war had gathered force, giving the rematch a symbolic significance unimaginable today. When Louis knocked out Schmeling after two minutes and four seconds, raucous celebrations broke out across the country.

David Margolick, who is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and the author of “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Running Press, 2000), spent the past seven years researching this fight and the events leading up to it. He tells the story in his new book, “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink,” which will be released this month by Knopf. Margolick sat down with Forward reporter Nathaniel Popper to talk about the world in which these two epic boxing matches took place.

How did you come to this story?

My father had a record — an Edward R. Murrow record — that had taped snippets of radio broadcasts. It had the call of the fight on it. So when I was 8 or 9 years old, I listened to it and never forgot it. Later on, it came to represent all these different questions that interested me about the 1930s and the rise of fascism, civil rights and Jewish consciousness. Everything that interested and stirred me was encapsulated in these two minutes and four seconds.

This is a book about a fight between a black man and a German man, but Jews play a large role in your recounting. Why is that?

When one peels off all the layers, this was fundamentally a Jewish story, because no one cared about this fight more than the Jews did. Part of this is the remarkable Jewish influence on boxing and the Jewish presence in New York at that point. No ethnic group ever dominated an important professional sport to the degree that Jews did in boxing in that era. In terms of this match, obviously blacks cared more than one can express about Joe Louis — but the Jews cared just as much. Jews saw Joe Louis as their spear-carrier. Joe Louis was the only person who seemed to be standing up to Hitler. This was around the time of [Neville] Chamberlain and the Anschluss in Austria, and Hitler seemed to be unstoppable. Then Joe Louis came along. Joe Louis was standing up to Hitler by demolishing Schmeling. There are any number of accounts of Jews celebrating just as ferociously as blacks did.

But Schmeling had a Jewish manager, Joe “Yussel the Muscle” Jacobs. What about him?

After the war, Schmeling, in his own defense, always said he was never a Nazi, and he pointed to his Jewish manager. He gets a lot of mileage out of that. But if you read the papers of the time, they were filled with stories of how Schmeling treated Joe Jacobs like dirt. He recognized that he needed a Jewish manager in New York as a sort of hechsher.

The popular story, which Schmeling told, is that Goebbels leaned on him to get rid of Jacobs. But I found an article from 1934 where Schmeling says that Hitler wanted him to keep Jacobs. Heavyweight boxing was important to Hitler — as a matter of prestige. To me it’s much more credible that Hitler recognized that having a Jewish manager was the price of doing business in New York.

There’s this incredible moment when Joe Jacobs gives the “Heil Hitler” salute after a match in Germany between Schmeling and an American boxer, Steve Hamas.

At this point [in 1935] no German boxer could have a Jewish manager. Jacobs couldn’t represent Schmeling in Germany and he didn’t make any money from Schmeling’s fight in Germany. But Jacobs was a guy who loved being where the action was. He didn’t mind going to places where he wasn’t wanted.

The fight turned into an enormous Nazi pageant — a spellbinding kind of event. At the end of the fight, which Schmeling won, Schmeling pulled Jacobs into the ring and they started playing “Deutschland über Alles,” and everyone gave the Nazi salute and so did Jacobs. The only difference was that Jacobs had a cigar in his mouth when he did it. It was a gesture that offended just about everybody.

Jacobs was a great character. He became Schmeling’s shill, and he, too, whitewashed what was going on in Germany. But he’s such a rogue that it’s hard not to love him.

What about Schmeling’s other Jewish friends? How serious were those friends, and what happened to them after the Nazis came to power?

I think Schmeling was a chameleon. Friends seem to have been expendable to him. I have a hard time with this because on the one hand, it’s unfair to hold anybody responsible for everything that happened. Yet I can’t help feeling that Schmeling, more than just about any German in his era, was free to speak his mind — at least for a while. He was rich. He made his living outside of Germany, so he was uniquely positioned to say something about what was happening. He never said anything.

On the other hand, the story that’s always told about him is that on Kristallnacht, he took in the sons of his Jewish clothiers — when things got bad — he took them in and kept them for a couple days in his flat in Berlin. It’s right to praise him for that. But I think he was a man of micro courage and macro cowardice.

What was the nature of the color line in American boxing at that time?

The color line was never an official stricture. The color line had been broken before, when Jack Johnson became the champion in 1908. But a second color line went up after Johnson — after the race riots and various scandals associated with him.

Then Joe Louis came along, and he was a couple of things that any black person needed to be in order to break the color line. His first attribute was that he was inoffensive, quiet; he behaved himself — he didn’t scandalize people. His second attribute was that he was an electrifying boxer. A lot of people made tons of money off Joe Louis, and suddenly the color line didn’t seem so important. This differentiates it from baseball, where there wasn’t a lot of money to be made from breaking the color line.

How did the German view of blacks compare with the American view at that time?

There was a very deep-seated prejudice and hostility by whites [toward] blacks in America at this time. The two communities were almost entirely separate, and estranged. In Germany it was simpler because there were no blacks. Blacks were a novelty in Germany: They were circus performers or freaks. So the German attitudes were both more primitive and more benign; the races hadn’t rubbed up against one another, and there was a sort of gentle tolerance of blacks in Germany. Even in Nazi Germany. W.E.B. DuBois said he was in Germany for six months and he never encountered the kind of hostility as a black man that he encountered every day in America. It would be very easy to say that Nazi Germany was a terrible place for blacks — but German attitudes toward blacks were in some way more accepting than American attitudes.

The black track star Jesse Owens won his great victories in Germany in 1936. Why did you think the boxing matches tell a bigger story?

They’re both enormous stories. To some degree, I was looking at this through black eyes, to the admittedly limited extent I can. Joe Louis was an incomparably larger story in the black community. That was in part because boxing was in every American community. Joe Louis was also more easily related to than Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens was a college guy. Jesse Owens wasn’t an everyman the way that Joe Louis was.

Joe Louis is an enormously important figure in the story of civil rights in this country — and very much neglected. He fell out of fashion in both white and black America. He was an old-fashioned guy, and it was much more hip to admire [Muhammad] Ali or Jack Johnson. That’s really a tragedy, because in his own quiet way, Joe Louis was an enormous symbol of black strength and black pride. I don’t think there was ever a figure in black America who generated more pride than Joe Louis did.

Schmeling died earlier this year. Did you ever try to visit him?

He would never see me. I went to his house, and I knocked on his door and there was somebody around who said he wasn’t home when [I knew] he was. He never spoke to journalists who weren’t friendly to him. He never spoke to anybody who was likely to challenge him on anything.

So what did the Yiddish Forward have to say about these men and their fights?

The Forverts didn’t have a lot to say because boxing was kind of disrespected in the Yiddish papers. I think they thought that sports were trayf and sort of goyishe naches — the kind of things that gentiles did. For that reason when they did speak out it was quite notable. They had very little to say about Joe Louis. What concerned them were Schmeling and his relationship with the Nazi regime. They found that he was a reliable spokesman for the Nazis.

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The Match Heard ’Round the World

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