Baer vs. Campbell: The Fight that Turned into a Nightmare

By Norman Marcus on December 28, 2012
Baer vs. Campbell: The Fight that Turned into a Nightmare
Frankie Campbell’s widow Ellie told Max Baer, “It might even have been you, mightn't it?”

Max Baer once told the press, “I never got into a fight outside the ring. I never harmed anyone outside the ring. I love people…”

Francisco Camilli was the brother of Dolph Camilli, a baseball player for the old New York Giants and a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He fought under the Scottish name Frankie Campbell. It helped sell tickets to the “Wasps” in the Bay Area of Northern California. Baer and Campbell met on August 25, 1930, at the old Recreation Ball Park in San Francisco. People showed up to see the tricky Campbell take on the new sensation from Livermore, California, Max Baer. Both men were up-and-coming prospects at that time. Campbell entered the ring that night with a record of 33 wins, 4 losses and 2 draws, with 26 KOs. Baer was less experienced with 18 wins and 3 losses, with 15 KOs.

Max was not happy that day. His trainer Tillie Herman had quit and gone over to work for Campbell, a defection that would have serious consequences for Max. (Five years later another one of Baer’s trainers, Mike Cantwell, would also switch sides and go work for Jimmy Braddock, possibly costing Baer his heavyweight title.) Loyalty and friendship were very important to Baer and such actions made his performances hard to predict and often erratic.

The first round was classic Max at his best. He caught Frankie with his looping overhand right to the chin, which put Campbell down for a count of nine. Sadly, Frankie beat the count and lasted out the round. If he had stayed down he would have lived to see the next day.

The two men came out for round two. Max threw another right that landed squarely on Frankie’s jaw. Baer was always right hand happy and threw another that missed Campbell completely. Max slipped to the canvas from the momentum of his swing. Frankie grazed Baer’s head with his left glove as Baer fell to the canvas. Campbell thought it was a knockdown and walked to a neutral corner to await the count.

The San Francisco Examiner of August 26, 1930 described the action this way: Toby “Irwin (the referee) ruled that Baer had slipped and had not been dropped. He motioned Baer to his feet. In the meantime Campbell had walked to the far side of the ring, turning his back…Baer rushed across the ring and socked Campbell with three stiff rights to the head…The blows dazed Campbell and he was pretty well spent as he made his way back to his corner. ‘Something feels as though it broke in my head,’ Campbell told Chief Second Tommy Maloney during the rest interval between the second and third round.”

Both men scored with lefts and rights in the next two rounds. In the round five Baer caught Campbell with a left hook to the head and Frankie seemed hurt, sagging against the ropes. Max was taking no chances with the tricky Campbell, who often faked injury to lure in his opponent, so he kept throwing punches.

Some reporters wrongly claimed that Frankie hit the back of his head on the corner post.

Finally as Campbell slumped to the canvas, Irwin stopped the fight awarding Max a KO. Baer left the ring, fighting his way back to his dressing room through a mob of fans and press.

After a shower, as he was dressing he asked how Frankie was doing. He was told that he was still unconscious and had been taken to Mission Emergency Hospital.

Max went home that night extremely upset. The next morning he learned that Campbell had died during the night.

Baer rushed to the hospital and as soon as he saw Campbell’s wife and family in the waiting room, he began to sob. “I’m awfully sorry,” he said. Campbell’s widow Ellie replied, “It might even have been you, mightn’t it?”

Max went home badly shaken, swearing that he would never fight again. As bad as thing were, they were about to get even worse. The police came to his house and arrested him on the charge of manslaughter in the death of Frankie Campbell.

It was not until late in the day that the promoter of the fight, Ancil Hoffman, bailed Max out of jail, using Max’s $10,000 prize money. The case against Baer was very weak. Max didn’t throw any kind of illegal punch. It was up to the referee Toby Irwin, not Max, to stop the bout. Irwin was a respected person in the fight game yet he let the fight continue. Eventually the charges against Baer were dropped.

In spite of all this, the California Boxing Commission revoked Max’s license to box for one year. Also suspended were Referee Irwin, Baer’s manager J. Hamilton Lorimer, and Campbell’s manager Tom Maloney. The commission covered all bases including suspensions of both camp’s seconds, which included Tillie Herman, Ray Carlin, Frank Burns and Larry Morrison.

Campbell’s neurosurgeon, a Dr. Tilton E. Tillman, stated that “Death had been caused by a succession of blows to the jaw and not by any struck on the rear of the head.” During the autopsy it was discovered that Baer’s punch had separated Campbell’s brain from its connective tissue inside the skull.

Decades later Max Baer Jr., Max’s son stated, “My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever want to meet. He treated boxing the way today’s professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. He never deliberately hurt anyone.”

Finally, Ancil Hoffman, now Baer’s new manager, convinced Max that a change of scenery and a new start were what he needed. They decided to try their luck in New York City; the boxing ban only applied in the state of California. But the Campbell fight however had eliminated the killer instinct from Baer’s personality. He would now often ask a referee to stop a bout before an opponent was seriously hurt. He lost four of his next six fights because he was afraid to go on the offense. He started joking around during fights and began to be called the Clown Prince of Boxing. He didn’t want to get angry in the ring. Ever since the death of Frankie Campbell, Baer was afraid of his own strength. This hesitation stayed with him more or less for the rest of his career, costing him several important wins.

To Max a win was never worth another man’s life.

Max once told the press, “I never got into a fight outside the ring. I never harmed anyone outside the ring. I love people.”

Some experts argue that Baer possessed the hardest right hand punch of any champion in ring history. The man had a hard punch but a soft heart, not a good combination in the fight game.

When Frankie Campbell’s kids were ready for college, Max quietly paid their tuition. He also boxed in many benefit bouts for Campbell’s family over the years. Just to make sure they were taken care of.

Years later when he retired and moved to Sacramento, California, he told sports writer Harry B. Smith of the San Francisco Chronicle: “ I’ve made a lot of mistakes but that is one I wish I could take back. I’ll regret it as long as I live.”

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  1. Jeffrey Sussman 12:00pm, 04/21/2016

    Max Baer was called a Tender Hearted Tiger and a gentle giant. He was a fighter with a conscience who would have been happier as a movie star than as a fighter. Yet, he was one of the great ones, a true original, a kind man who treated others with generosity and affection.

  2. Lee Chandler 10:13am, 11/28/2013

    You could say this article hit me hard.

  3. pugknows 11:03am, 12/30/2012

    I grew up in Portage Park as well

  4. the thresher 07:18am, 12/30/2012

    Jim, I’ll be darned!! We used to play against Sullivan. Small world. That pool was a great one and it was why Portage Park came up with so many great swimmers. I was fortunate enough to do well in HS football and baseball, but I only played baseball in College. I did play a lot of softball at Claredon Park Stadium, however, and that was a real blast.

    Tony was a long-time coach of the amateurs on the North Side.

    It’s a small world made even smaller by electronics.

  5. Jim Crue 07:11am, 12/30/2012

    I am from Chicago. My parents were from Portage Park neighborhood. They met in 1938 when my dad was playing baseball at the park. I used to go swimming at Portage Park pool with my cousins. The pool was build for the 1959 Pan American games that were held in Chicago. When my dad got out of the Marine Corps after WW2 they moved to Rogers Park where I was born. I went to Sullivan HS.
    I also boxed in The Chicago Park District program at Touhy Beach Park. Our coach/ teacher was Tony Zale the great middleweight champion.
    I moved to Minneapolis for work in 1978, but my cousins and brother still live in Chicago. Now I am retired and live in Arizona for the winter. I get back to Chicago a few of times a year.

  6. the thresher 09:16pm, 12/29/2012

    Jim, so you are a Chicagoan? Where did you go to HS? I grew up in both Portage Park and in Logan Square. I went to HS at North Park Academy 51-55 at Foster and Kedzie and followed boxing since 1950. I boxed amateur in Portage Park and at CLARENDON Park near the Lake.

  7. norm Marcus 02:45pm, 12/29/2012

    Jim: you are correct, it was a typo on my part. Guys like you keep me on my toes.

  8. Norm Marcus 02:40pm, 12/29/2012

    Jim: Thanks for the correction. It was a typo, should have said promotor not manager. In 1935 when Baer fought Louis, Joe’s co- manager was John Roxborough, if my memory serves me right.  Anyway, Joe Louis was Mike Jacobs meal ticket and he promised and ducked a second fight between Louis and Baer throughout the 30s. Even when Max was again the #1 contender around 1940 or so, he didn’t get that shot. Glad there are some old heads like us still around that remember what real fighters were like back in the day.

  9. Jim Crue 11:22am, 12/29/2012

    Norman, one correction. Mike Jacobs was not Louis’s manager but the premier promotor of the day who ended up promoting at Madison Sq. Garden after Jimmy Jonhston left. Julian Black was one of Joe’s managers.

    Thresher I am almost 67. My maternal grandfather was a fight fan. He told me stories of when he listened to the first Dempsey fight and he was shocked Tunney won and he was at the Graziano-Zale war at the Chicago Stadium. We listened to the radio and then watched all the fights on TV. My earliest memory is of Graziano losing, and not trying to win, to Chuck Davey in 1952. I followed boxing all thru grade school and high school. Since I am a history buff I read everything about boxing history. I used to go to Johnny Coulon’s gym on the south side of Chicago to watch Eddie Perkins train. I took the EL from the north side. Johnny Coulon was a very nice man and so was his wife Marie.
    A couple of years ago I discovered the building that housed a gym where Barney Ross trained on Randolph St in Chicago. It is across the street from the Alegro hotel west of Dearborn.

  10. norman Marcus 07:45am, 12/29/2012

    Guys I thank you for the kind words about this story. As some at know I wrote a book about Baer a few years ago. This story was gleaned from a chapter. The book was a labor of love. Talking to Max’s family and friends made me feel like I knew the man personally.
    Now this documentary here, I never saw before. Some of the interviews and photo shots are familiar, some not. But I really enjoyed this video. I tried to tune out some of the mistakes as far as dates. Baer fought Schmeling 5 years before Louis did. Baer also fought Louis in ‘35 not years later after the Galento fight in ‘40. Actually Louis’s manager Mike Jacobs never gave Baer a second shot at Louis after Galento. He promised one but never delivered. Baer was too unpredictable for Mike. Anyway, just check out the Boxing Record online, they have the correct dates on Max’s fights.
    Still trying to track down an agent or publisher for the book. Such an incredible untold story. Maybe one day I’ll contact someone smart enough to see the potential here. Max deserves better.
    By the way, if you liked this piece, check out my other stories on Baer.  Just click on my name on the website and they’ll all be there.
    Have a great New Years!

  11. the thresher 07:14am, 12/29/2012

    Jim, how old are you?

  12. Jim Crue 06:44am, 12/29/2012

    Thanks for writing this piece.
    This site is a gem. After following boxing for almost 60 years and reading boxing history for almost as long, most every day I learn something.
    Happy New Year to everyone.

  13. NYIrish 08:34pm, 12/28/2012

    Thanks for this one, Norman.

  14. the thresher 06:31pm, 12/28/2012

    And well written.

  15. the thresher 02:24pm, 12/28/2012

    Heartbreaking stuff