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