Max Baer was one of the first truly great boxers to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Immortalized in the movie Cinderella Man as a villain and widely regarded as a killer through much of his career, Baer has often been viewed as a bad seed in boxing. However, his story is often overlooked as the American Dream that it was. His rise in the boxing ranks was stellar until that fateful day when everything so easily could have been taken from him. But his story does not conclude there, for his rise above the muck of that fateful day is a testament to his standing as a great boxer and as a man striving for a better life. This is his story.
Maximilian Adelbert “Max” Baer was born into a Jewish family on February 11, 1909 in Omaha, Nebraska. His brother, Jacob ”Buddy” Baer would one day be an actor and boxer in his own right, winning 51 bouts and starring in productions such as Giant from the Unknown and The Big Sky. The brothers would go on to act in several films together when Max’s boxing career came to an end. After working in meat packing for Graden Mercantile Co. in Durango, Colorado for a couple of years Baer’s father decided to move the family to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1922. Over the next several years, the family would move to towns all across Northern California such as Hayward, San Leandro and Galt before settling in Livermore, California in 1926.
By then, young Max had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his family. He spent his time working for his father as a butcher boy, carrying heavy carcasses of meat on a daily basis, all the while building the great strength that would define him as a boxer. While working in the butcher shop, Baer was searching for something else, something that he could claim as his profession. Boxing soon called his name. After participating in amateur tournaments for a few years, Max Baer turned pro in 1929.
A Young Pro
Max Baer’s first match was on May 16, 1929 against Chief Caribou in Oak Park Arena in Stockton, California. After Baer beat him in the second round, he went on to defeat Sailor Leeds, Tillie Taverna and Al Reed Ledford all in Oak Park Arena between June 6th and July 18, 1929. Baer soon moved on to Arcadia Pavilion in Oakland, California where he would fight his next 13 bouts from July 31, 1929 to January 15, 1930. During that time, despite losing bouts to Jack McCarthy and Tiny Abbott, Max Baer established himself as one of the fiercest boxers in California. By the time the calendar turned to August 25, 1930, Baer was 23-3 and considered a contender in California and beyond.
On August 25, 1930 in Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, Max Baer faced off against Frankie Campbell who was 33-3 at the time. Campbell put up a good fight in the early going and even knocked Baer down in the second round. This enraged Max Baer who subsequently gave Campbell a vicious right hook which would change both of their lives forever. The fight continued until the fifth round when Campbell was knocked out. He lay on the canvas for the next hour while medical professionals tried in vain to resuscitate him.
The next morning, Frankie Campbell passed away at the hospital with his wife at his side and Max Baer inconsolable in the next room. Doctors later discovered that his brain had been knocked loose from the connective tissue inside his head.
Max Baer was devastated upon learning that his opponent had died due to his viciousness in the ring. Despite giving purses from subsequent fights to Campbell’s family, Baer couldn’t shake the guilt. Though Campbell’s wife forgave Baer for killing her husband, the state of California did not so understand. The aftermath was seismic with referee Toby Irwin being suspended for failure to stop the fight. Max Baer’s reputation was immediately tarnished but for a moment it looked like his freedom might be taken from him as well as his right to fight in the Golden State. He was arrested and charged with manslaughter and his license was suspended by California for one year. Though he would be acquitted, the public would never forgive him for that fateful day.
Since 1890, more than 1,600 people have died from injuries sustained in the ring. Deaths happen in the brutal sport but no matter how many deaths occur, it never ceases to soften even the toughest of fighters. Following Campbell’s death, Max Baer was lost in a world of anguish and grief. At the tender age of 21, Max Baer was known as a killer, a stigma that he would fight against the rest of his life. After that fight, he became less aggressive in the ring, becoming more of an entertainer, and began having nightmares. Baer once said of the fight “It was almost a week after the fight before I could get more than an hour or so of successive sleep. Every slightest detail would come racing back to mind and I couldn’t blot from my eyes the last scene- Frankie unconscious in the ring, his handlers working on him. And then the new that he was dying… dead”.
He lost four of his next six fights until legendary boxer Jack Dempsey started mentoring him. Beginning on September 23, 1931, Max Baer won 14 straight fights. At this point his suspension from California had lapsed and he was looking at cleansing his name of being known as merely a “killer”.
Regardless of public sentiment, Max Baer fought and fought hard. On June 8, 1933, Baer defeated the great German boxer Max Schmeling in ten rounds in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was being used as propaganda for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and had once been the heavy weight champion of the world.
A little more than a year later, Max Baer was squaring up against Primo Carnera, the reigning heavy weight champion of the world. On June 14, 1934 in the Madison Square Garden Bowl, Max Baer fought Primo Carnera in ten hard fought rounds, knocking Carnera down 11 times. Known for his terrifying power, the 6’2” Baer struggled to land a great punch against the skull of the 6’6” Carnera who never felt the power that Frankie Campbell had felt nearly four years earlier. Late in the 11th round, Max Baer won by technical knockout over Primo Carnera, winning the heavy weight championship of the world championship.
The sweet feeling of victory only lasted a year as Baer lost to James Braddock, the Cinderella Man, on June 13, 1935 in the same venue as the Carnera fight. Leading up to the fight, Baer made the fatal mistake of taking the competition lightly. Braddock was coming out of poverty in the depths of the Great Depression and knew that winning the title could bring him a great fortune. Max Baer never again fought for the heavy weight title. A few months later, Baer lost to another rising star, Joe Louis, who would defeat Braddock for the heavy weight belt two years later before defeating Max Schmeling in a grudge match in 1938.
After his loss to Louis, Max Baer won his next 20 bouts over the ensuing 13 months. In the last four years of his career, Baer would continue to win as his skills began to slowly erode. He became a symbol of American boxing by traveling to Canada and England, winning twice and losing once while abroad. His career ended on April 4, 1941 with a loss to Lou Nova in Madison Square Garden. He finished his career with 68 wins and 13 losses. His 52 knockout wins are fourth best in heavy weight history. He was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Following his boxing career, Max Baer dove into an acting career that had started in 1933 when he co-starred with Myrna Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady. He played in films such as The Navy Comes Through with Pat O’Brian in 1942, Africa Screams with Abbott and Costello in 1949 and The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart in 1956. His final film was Once Upon a Horse in 1958. One of his children was Max Baer Jr., who would become well known for playing as Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies. Max Baer passed away on November 21, 1959 from a heart attack. Upon his death, the Fraternal Order of the Eagles (of which Baer was a member) created a fund to research the disease that killed him. Since the fund was created in 1959, millions of dollars have been donated to universities, medical centers and hospitals across America and Canada for heart research and education. Two parks in Livermore and Sacramento bear his name and Baer was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. Though he only held onto the title of heavy weight champion of the world for one year, Max Baer’s legend carries on to this day.