Glamour Boy Max Baer

By Norman Marcus on August 26, 2016
Glamour Boy Max Baer
Max Baer was tough and unpredictable and Primo’s life as champ was too good to risk.

Harlow liked to discuss history, politics and economics. While she was beautiful, this side of her was too much for Maxie. Baer was a slugger not a thinker…

The Tough Thirties

After Baer’s win over Schmeling in 1933, he was in line for a title shot against heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey. Baer was now the number one contender. The title, however, no longer belonged to Sharkey. Jack had lost the title to a huge Italian boxer named Primo Carnera. They called him the Ambling Alp or the Pream. The man was six-feet-six-inches tall and weighed in at over two hundred and sixty pounds.

Carnera however was in no hurry to fight Max. Baer was tough and unpredictable and Primo’s life as champ was too good to risk. So the big guy kept ducking the match. Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, couldn’t get Carnera or the mobsters that controlled him to agree to a date for the fight.

Just then who entered the picture—or exited the picture depending on how you look at it—but movie star Clark Gable. He had agreed to make a film for M.G.M. studios called “The Sailor and the Lady” with Myrna Loy as his co-star. Due to contract problems, Gable was no longer available and so the studio turned to Max to fill the role. He had just defeated Max Schmeling and seemed like a perfect replacement. He was good-looking, personable, funny and believe it or not, he could even sing and dance. The studio had the title and script changed to “The Prizefighter and the Lady” and the deal was done. The more amazing thing about this film was that it also starred Jack Dempsey and Primo Carnera playing themselves. Max even got Ancil Hoffman and trainer Mike Cantwell bit parts as his corner men during the final fight scene with Carnera.

The movie was shot in 1933 and ended in a title fight between Baer and Carnera. In the movie, actress Myrna Loy didn’t want Max to fight. She feared he might be hurt but later relented and told him to win. The staged fight ended in a draw. (Didn’t we see a similar picture shot in Philly some years later?) Anyway, the Pream had demanded the draw or wouldn’t do the movie. He also asked for and got an extra ten thousand dollars because he didn’t win at the end of the picture. The film was a smash hit. Baer got great reviews for his first film. The movie has since been re-released on cable television. It is really amazing to see Baer in his prime, boxing and talking on quality film rather than the dark and grainy prints of the newsreels.

Now in Hollywood, Baer continued his womanizing. He slept with many of the famous stars of that era. Myrna Loy, his leading lady in this first film, fell for him. On a bet, he went to Mae West’s house, called up to her from the street and within twenty minutes was in bed with the buxom lady. Many other stars couldn’t get enough of Max either. Greta Garbo, Alice Faye and Jean Harlow all gave in to Max’s charms. Harlow became obsessed with Max, stalking him constantly, at home and at work. Jean was really an intellectual and liked to discuss history, politics and economics. While she was beautiful, this side of her was too much for Maxie. Baer was a slugger not a thinker. He tried to avoid her as much as possible for the rest of his stay in Tinsel Town. He told friends that he hadn’t had to think so much since high school.

As you can see, Baer wasn’t just a boxer; he was becoming an American icon. Max quieted Primo’s fears of a tough title match by going easy on him during the rehearsals and filming of the fight scenes. Baer later stated that he learned a lot about Carnera’s style during the filming of this movie. He also found several flaws and weak points in his defense that helped him prepare for the real fight to come months later.

On June 29, 1933, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl, Queens, New York, the Pream and the Gob met for the NYSAC and NBA heavyweight titles. Now whether Jack Sharkey had one of his bad nights or money changed hands cannot be proven. Jack later claimed he saw the ghost of his friend, contender Ernie Schaaf, in the ring with him that night. Sharkey momentarily froze and Primo hit him with a right uppercut to the chin. Carnera won the title on a KO6.

In March of 1934, “The Prizefighter and the Lady” was banned in Nazi Germany. When asked by the Associated Press if the film was banned because Baer was a Jew, Dr. Joseph Goebbels answered “Ya.” When informed of the ban, Baer who was training at Frank Globin’s Hotel near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, fired back. He told the L.A. Times on March 29, “They didn’t ban the picture because I have Jewish blood. They banned it because I knocked out Max Schmeling.” The Nazis were trying to have it both ways. Max Baer wouldn’t let them get away with it.

Also in 1934, Frank Graham began writing a sports column for the New York Sun. His first column was an interview with Ancil Hoffman and the number one contender for Carnera’s belt, Max Baer. Frank asked the dapperly dressed contender (white linen suit, pale blue silk tie) what he thought his chances were against Carnera. After all, he looked more like a male model than the next champion of the world. Max broke into a big smile, “I will lay him out flatter than a tablecloth…None of them can hit like I can. How do I look? Pretty good, eh?  I look better than that. I look wonderful.”

Primo Carnera was a huge man. He had started out as a circus strongman in Europe. The show traveled through Italy, France, and parts of Germany. That’s where his future manager Owney Madden who was mob connected found him. Primo was groomed and trained; his handlers convinced him that he was the greatest thing since spaghetti. Most of the fights they arranged for him were with easy opponents. When he started to box ranked fighters it was seen to it that money or threats, turned the fights Primo’s way. At any rate, Primo won most if not all of these bouts. He was a big man with big muscles but he didn’t know that he was muscle-bound. His punches couldn’t break an egg, but he was convinced that he won every fight fair and square. All the time, his manager and the mob were building up his record, making him a leading contender, a paper tiger.

So Max now set his sights on the new champ Primo Carnera. Believe it or not, the odds going into the fight were seven to five in favor of Carnera. There was one difference this night. The fight was for real. Baer had never thrown a fight and was not going to start now. Weeks earlier, Ancil tried to get Arthur Donovan removed as referee. He felt that Donovan for some unknown reason had it in for his fighter, but Donovan stayed. Later Max stated, “I will always feel that I could have put him away in the opening round if Arthur Donovan had not been jumping around the ring so that he interfered with my free movement and halted me from keeping right on top of Carnera before Primo ever had a chance to recover from my pile driver rights.”

Ancil Hoffman, Jack Dempsey, Buddy Baer and Dolph Thomas (who was hired to train Baer after Mike Cantwell’s exit) were all there in Max’s corner that night. When they arrived at ringside they found Primo already on his stool awaiting Baer’s entrance. This was unheard of in ring tradition. The champion always entered the ring last, but there sat Carnera, cold and damp in the late evening air. Max later waxed poetic telling his brother Buddy that “It is not good for a big man to be sitting out in the starlight with the danger of getting hit by drops of dew.” Buddy loved the quip. Baer was a fellow who could sing, dance, act, write poetry and knock you out with one punch. Max was a real Renaissance man.

The fight took place on June 14, 1934 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Queens, New York. Max’s father Jacob took the train from California to be with his son. Jacob Baer suffered from a bad heart and was advised not to take a plane to New York. Max worried so much about his father, he arranged for a doctor to be at ringside for the fight. It was lucky that he had done so. While Jacob Baer did not suffer a heart attack that evening, a sports reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle did. Harry B. Smith, a good friend of Max’s, slumped over on his typewriter during the ninth round. Baer who was keeping an eye on the ringside seats, because of his father, called out for someone to help Harry. The doctor hired by Max to watch over his dad, instead saved Harry.

In round 1 Max raced out of his corner and quickly hit Carnera with a looping right hand to the face, Primo hit the canvas. He got up immediately and covered up to protect that big jaw. Max droved another right through his arms and knocked him down again. Somehow Carnera lasted out the round.

Baer also knocked him down in round 3. Now rounds 4 through 8 produced no knockdowns. A lot of shots by Primo landed and scored points for him with the judges but had no power behind them.

In round 10 Max knocked the champ down three more times. Referee Donovan was about to stop the fight when the bell rang. In round 11, Max knocked Primo down five more times. The champion’s eyes were nearly swollen shut. Carnera was saved from possible death by Baer’s pleas to Arthur Donovan to stop the bout. It was a TKO11 for Baer.

Hitler’s worst nightmare since Baer knocked out German champion Max Schmeling was realized. The world had a new champion with a Star of David on his trunks. What a propaganda disaster for the Führer and his Italian partner Mussolini. Baer was on top of the world and he was only twenty-five years old! 

All over northern California there were celebrations for the new champion. The Livermore High School Marching Band held a rally and paraded all around Max’s home in Livermore. The town folk came back day after day, so great was their pride and affection for Max Baer. Max’s sister Francis and her infant son Louis couldn’t get any sleep for two days, so great was the merry making by the townspeople. Francis finally pleaded with them to go back to their homes, which they reluctantly did. There were also parades in San Francisco, Oakland and the many small towns in northern California such as Galt and Hayward. 

Sadly, a few days after the fight, Max’s father did suffer a mild heart problem while still in New York and had to cut his stay short. Max hired a private Pullman car to take Jacob back to Livermore. The same doctor, who had saved Harry Smith’s life, now accompanied Max’s father back home by train.

Paramount Studios in Hollywood offered the new champion the leading role in another boxing film. Max was afraid that he would become typecast if he accepted another role as a boxer. He turned it down including a big cash advance. Baer wasn’t a bad actor so he decided to wait for a better offer that never came. In later years he did appear in other dramatic roles but never as the male lead. Max fell into the role of a character actor or comedian. Max loved to make people laugh, inside the square ring or on the big screen. Max Baer always had a punch line!

Jimmy Braddock later said of Baer, “Dynamite puncher. If he hit you right he’d knock you out in the third row. In my opinion he was a harder puncher than Louis. Louis was a faster puncher and he hit you with more punches but Baer was a guy who could hurt you… You see, Max was a nice fellow but he never should have been a fighter. His ability was if the guy could have got mad, you know like guys get in a fight, he’d kill you with a punch, because he had killed a couple of guys and I think that was on his mind. But I always said that Max should have been an actor instead of a fighter.”

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  1. Norm Marcus 09:46pm, 08/31/2016

    Eric: By the way “the little guy sandwiched between Baer and Jefferies” in the picture is Frank Moran. A 1920s heavyweight who fought all the greats of his day. He was introduced in the ring before the the movie fight, as were all the others you see in the picture. The only one missing is Strangler Louis, a very popular wrestling champion in the 20s.

  2. Marcus 09:27pm, 08/31/2016

    Eric: Hitler was an avid boxing fan. Scheming could go and see Hitler whenever he wanted. He was invited to parties at the Goebbels house and during the war used to act as a courier between Hitler and Pope Pius the XII.
    You really should research this stuff before you start popping off about it.
    Start by reading Max Schmeling’s autobiography.
    Scheming was a national hero and role model to the Hitler Youth. He attended and spoke and many Nazi rallies in Munich during the war.
    He was a fence sitter who wanted to see who would win, so he could jump on the winning side. He did just that.

  3. The Thresher 03:58am, 08/29/2016

    Max as Buddy Brannen in “The Harder they Fall” was perfectly cast. The way he swaggered over to Gus Dundee’s corner to wish him well is an unforgettable moment for movie trivia buffs.


    But if there was one word to describe this larger than life guy, it was “charisma”.

    I always begin my boxing history with Max Baer.

  4. Marc Livitz 05:44pm, 08/28/2016

    Great article! Well written & concise. From a fellow writer to another, thanks!

  5. Eric 01:39pm, 08/28/2016

    Hitler went out of his way to promote racial harmony. In many of his speeches he was known to exclaim “Some of my best friends are Jews” and “You can’t beat corn beef on rye with hot mustard and a kosher pickle. Mmm mmm good”. In fact, Hitler invited Owens to his house along with other African American athletes, and feted him over a lavish dinner that included fried chicken, watermelon, grits, pigs tails and black eyed peas with schnitzel. Hitler had sunk into a deep depression and contemplated suicide after Jew Max Baer thrashed German Max Schmeling in 1933. Hitler wanted to see if Owens could act as a personal trainer to Baer for a rematch to gain revenge over Baer. While Hitler was in hiding in Argentina after the war, he donated a lot of money to the NAACP and helped Dr. King write the “I Have A Dream Speech”. Hitler was also active in raising money to register black voters in the South.

  6. Eric 08:05am, 08/28/2016

    I seriously doubt that Hitler had taken a boxing match that seriously, however, Hitler was adamant about Germans engaging in physical activity and staying physically healthy. Hitler has to be the most lied about person in the history of the world bar none. Take the Jesse Owens story for example. Here are two quotes from Owens himself, “Hitler didn’t snub me-it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” It was Hitler who actually sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photo of himself, congratulating the mythic runner on his winning several gold medals. Owens would later state he was treated far better in Germany than he had ever been treated in America. Another Owens quote, “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him.” Another popular myth/lie surrounding the ‘36 Olympics was that Germany was humiliated. Germany actually won far more medals than any other country in the games and won pretty handidly, America was a distant second. Went Hitler became Chancellor in ‘33, Berlin was a modern day Sodom & Gomorra. I’m sure while Hitler might have been interested in a Baer-Schmeling bout, it was pretty far down on his lists of priorities.

  7. Norm Marcus 04:31pm, 08/27/2016

    Guys: I researched and wrote a book on Baer about 10 years ago. I interviewed his niece and nephew in Livermore, California. Max’s mother was Scotch-Irish Methodist, while his father Jacob’s family was Jewish, from Alsace-Lorraine. All the Baer children were raised in a secular way.
    So Baer was half Jewish. The great propaganda value of the Schmeling fight was that Baer was considered a Jew in Nazi Germany. He beat Hitler’s superman Scheming and shattered the Nazi myth of Arian superiority!  FIVE YEARS BEFORE JOE LOUIS DID IT!”
    Again read my first story in the archives here, “Every Punch Was Aimed at Hitler.” The story explains all of Baer’s heritage.

  8. BTW 02:42pm, 08/27/2016

    oops. Baer had Scots-Irish blood on his mother’s side, and Jewish and German blood from his father. So Baer was only 1/4 German.

  9. BTW 02:34pm, 08/27/2016

    Baer was half-German.

  10. Richard Simmons 11:26am, 08/27/2016

    Eric - I hear you dated Hulk Hogan and made a sex tape with him. Were you squealing in pain or in delight?

  11. Eric 10:21am, 08/27/2016

    Sad thing is that Andy Gibb dated Principal & Marie Osmond and still wasn’t satisified with life. Marie stll looks sexy on those commercials for SlimFast, Jenny Craig or whatever weight loss product she endorses. Hard to believe Marie is over fitty and looks that good.

  12. Eric 08:40am, 08/27/2016

    Irish…Agree with you on that. Salma Hayek is definitely one fine piece of arse or at least she was back in the day. Haven’t seen her recently.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:35am, 08/27/2016

    Eric-Victoria Principal was every bit as beautiful as Salma Hayek and both are levels above Jenny from the Hood and I say that even though I am partial to ample and shapely asses.

  14. Eric 08:22am, 08/27/2016

    I think Jethro was dating Victoria Principal back in the day and allegedly punched her up a bit. Come on, Jethro, how can you hit something that looks like that and is so tiny. Jethro didn’t inherit his dad’s splendid upper body physique, but he sure had Maxie’s skinny legs. Jethro’s legs were even thinner than Papa Max’s pins. I’m sure Uncle Jed wouldn’t approve of how Jethro treated women. Good thing he didn’t sick Ellie May on Jethro. That would have been “pitiful.”

  15. Eric 08:14am, 08/27/2016

    Irish…IF that rumor about big hands and/or big feet is true, I imagine some broad was curious enuff to find out about the big fellow. I think it was just guys with big feet and/or big hands who started that rumor.

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:37am, 08/27/2016

    Having read of Baer’s fun times in Hollywood, one wonders if Primo got any pussy while he was there for the filming.

  17. Eric 07:14am, 08/27/2016

    Irish…. I think Dempsey destroys Da Preem and Maxie, but has his hands full with Jeffries. I know that Jeffries is from the antique era, but he’s one big man that the “Giant Killer” would find hard to handle. Jeffries vs. Dempsey would have been a great match.

  18. Eric 07:08am, 08/27/2016

    Norman Marcus…Read your article on the Louis-Baer fight. Had no idea that Baer entered the fight with a huge handicap. The Louis team should have definitely given a healthy Baer a rematch later on. However, the man mountain, Carnera, was also extremely handicapped fighting Baer with an injured ankle.  Carnera was never much of a puncher but he surely wouldn’t be able to generate any power with a bum wheel, and try lugging around 260lbs on one good leg for 11 rounds. Not saying that Baer wouldn’t beat a healthy Carnera, but Carnera’s injury kind of taints Baer’s victory. By the same token, a healthy Baer doesn’t beat a healthy Louis. Baer might get lucky and catch Louis with one of those powerful wild haymakers, but I can’t see a prime Louis ever losing to Baer. Baer was an all time great puncher IMO, but not a great fighter. Nonetheless, Louis did at least owe Baer a rematch.

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:06am, 08/27/2016

    The least impressive guy in the photo above is Dempsey and not just because he’s at a distance from the camera….every time I see that nose job I get pissed and I sure don’t think about any Manassa Mauler! Without disagreeing with either Norman Marcus or Eric on any of their points, I say both Baer and Carnera would have been heavy loads for Dempsey at his best.

  20. Norman Marcus 04:48am, 08/27/2016

    Eric: Please go to the archives at “boxing.com”  and read the second story I wrote years ago on this fight. Its called “Fate Takes a Hand.” Its all about the Baer/Louis fight in 1935. You’ll see that Baer entered the ring that night with a broken right hand and bone chips in his left wrist. He didn’t quit, he was actually helpless even before the fight started.
    Just read it and tell me what you think.

  21. Eric 06:02pm, 08/26/2016

    Lot of beef in that photo. The balding Jeffries actually looks pretty small compared to Willard & Carnera. Jeffries looks about the same height as Dempsey here and it is being generous to list Demspey at 6’1.” Maybe by this age, big Jim had shrunk a little. Have no idea who is the little guy sandwiched between Jeffries and Baer. To Carnera’s credit, he fought most of his fight against Baer with an injured ankle, and no doubt that had a lot to do with his numerous trips to the canvas. And if ever a fighter should have been disqualified, it was Baer in his fight with Schmeling. My gawd, they let Baer get away with everything in that fight. Max Baer could punch, but he threw punches like a woman. No defense, no boxing skill to speak of at all, and he quit against Louis, never made one single successful defense of the title, and lost the title to a blown up light heavyweight with a less than stellar record. How Baer gets mentioned as an all time great is beyond me.

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