Max Baer and Barney Ross — Jewish Heroes of Boxing

By Peter Wood on November 16, 2016
Max Baer and Barney Ross — Jewish Heroes of Boxing
From ancient times to the present, the fighting spirit of the Jews has been unquestioned.

While recounting the exploits of these two men, the pages of “Jewish Heroes of Boxing” are replete with fascinating cameo appearances…

Jewish boxers? Somehow, Jews as boxers sounds like a contradiction in terms, or a comical misprint, perhaps a racist joke. Jews, generally, are depicted as a gentle people who would choose to resolve a conflict with wit and tongue, rather than with brawn and a right-cross. But this is a flawed reading of history. The bravery and tenacity of the Jewish people, especially as heroic warriors, are renowned throughout history. A sturdy, proud people, their past is replete with courageous warriors: Moses, Joshua, Samson, Saul, David, the Maccabees and Bar Kochba to name a few.

From ancient times to the present, the fighting spirit of the Jews has been unquestioned.

The many Jewish boxing champions and contenders celebrated in Jeffrey Sussman’s Max Baer and Barney Ross — Jewish Heroes of Boxing exemplifies this great fighting tradition. The Jewish dedication, perseverance and intelligence have set fine examples for those who follow in their footsteps.

When I think of Max Baer, the Jewish heavyweight champion of the 1930s, I think of a man with raw, Tarzan-like strength. In the ring, he was a man of polished muscle, and when he hit you, you stayed hit.

Was Max Baer actually Jewish? Well, you decide…

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on February 11, 1909, to a Jewish father and a mother of Scots-Irish descent. His family moved first to Colorado and then to California, where he dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work with his father on a cattle ranch.

Max Baer proudly wore The Star of David stitched on his trunks when entering the ring. He was boxing’s most colorful World Heavyweight Champion until a brash Muhammad Ali rolled around 30 years later.

Baer, a 6’ 4” mountain of muscle and movie star handsome, would have been a movie star instead of a boxer. But “Madcap” Maxie just loved to fight. And fight he did, racking up an impressive knockout streak in California. As Sussman points out, Baer had one of the hardest punches in heavyweight history. Early in his career, Frankie Campbell died following his knockout loss to Baer. Years later, heavyweight Ernie Schaaf died following his defeat to Primo Carnera, but most people say it was Ernie’s savage beating at the hands of Max Baer only a few months before which resulted in his death.

As Sussman accurately points out, Baer loved to fight, but he loved the nightlife more. He was famous for dancing and drinking the night away with beautiful women, instead of training. However, in 1934, the eccentric Max got serious enough to deliver a brutal beating to Primo Carnera to win the World Heavyweight Title. Unfortunately, his total disdain for training caused him to lose his title to 20-1 underdog James Braddock less than a year later. Sussman quotes Jack Dempsey regarding Baer’s lackluster performance staged at The Madison Square Garden: “Max Baer’s dilly-dallying and clowning caught up with him in the ring. There was not a dissenting voice raised when the long shot was declared the winner. Braddock won clearly on aggressiveness and clean hitting.”

This battle was popularized by Ron Howard’s 2005 drama entitled, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger.

Baer’s next fight was three months later — a controversial knockout loss to future heavyweight great Joe Louis. Louis gave Baer a horrible beating, and Baer was counted out on one knee. While many experts felt that Baer simply quit, Sussman sheds additional light on the fight. “At the time, no one knew that Baer had put up a noble fight with a broken hand.”

As is the case with most prizefighters, Baer launched a comeback and shocked the experts with an upset knockout victory over top contender Tony Galento. But Sussman writes, “Baer no longer loved the sport that had elevated him to the status of national celebrity. He was tired of hitting opponents and tired of being hit.”

Baer, at the age of 50, checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Upon his arrival, he experienced chest pains. He called the front desk and asked for a doctor. The desk clerk said “a house doctor would be right up.” “A house doctor?” he replied jokingly, “No, dummy, I need a people doctor.” Shortly thereafter, he slumped on his left side, turned blue and died within a matter of minutes. His last words reportedly were, “Oh God, here I go.”

Sussman recounts the exploits of Barney Ross — another Jewish champion.

The word “champion” can be spelled with a small “c” denoting what a man does in a sports arena. Or it can be spelled with a large “C” to cover the things he has done in life. Barney Ross is a Champion who is entitled to the largest capital letter any printer can print.

“Beryl Rosofsky was a tough little kid,” writes Sussman. “A street fighter. Pugnacious, stubborn, afraid of no one.”

“Beryl, as he was known before becoming the World Lightweight Champion, ran with an informal gang of other teenage delinquents” in “the Jewish ghetto on Maxwell Street in 1920s Chicago…The atmosphere of the Maxwell Street ghetto molded tough young men, for they felt they had to be tough to survive.”

Beryl was a boy weaned on poverty. Furthermore, a “flame of anger” was ignited within him after his father, Isadore, a religious and modest store owner, was murdered — gunned down in a robbery. “While Beryl’s anger boiled inside of him like lava waiting to erupt …he could not satisfy his need for revenge.”

“Religion was no longer for him. He gave up attending Hebrew school and never went to synagogue. When his orthodox rabbi asked why, Beryl asked what God had done for Isadore, a holy man, a good man gunned down by a pair of lowlife punks who escaped their punishment. Yet, every day Beryl said the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead.”

The street became his “universe and his university”, a place where — with resolve and heart-felt passion — he learned to fight with his fists. Sussman’s chapter “Fists of Fury” explains how ‘Beryl Rosofsky” became “Barney Ross,” the great lightweight and welterweight champion who staged scintillating and thrilling performances with other boxing greats: Jimmy McLarnin, Tony Canzoneri, and “Hammerin’” Henry Armstrong.

Decades later, Nelson Algren, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm, was so smitten with reading about Ross’s illustrious career, that he went out and had a pair of boxing gloves tattooed on his arm.

Ross’s boxing afterlife found him enlisting in the U.S. Marines where he won the Silver Star for having saved Marine buddies and killing 22 of the enemy on Guadalcanal, despite suffering serious injuries. His addiction to the morphine administered to him during his convalescence, his humiliating slide into addiction, and subsequent rehabilitation was dramatized in the well-received 1957 film, Monkey on My Back, starring Cameron Mitchell.

While recounting the exploits of these two men, the pages of Jewish Heroes of Boxing are replete with fascinating cameo appearances by Al Capone, Jack Ruby, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Benny Leonard, Abe Attell, Adolf Hitler, Damon Runyon, and Budd Schulberg.

The sport of boxing could surely use another Barney Ross and Max Baer today.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Jeffrey Sussman 06:19am, 11/21/2016


    You’re right that there was a connection between Barney Ross and Jacob Rubenstein (AKA Jack Ruby). As teenagers, they were close friends and runners for Al Capone’s bookmaking operations. They were known as boys with quick fists who would not back down from fights. Ruby had a hair-trigger temper and went on to work for the Chicago Outfit and became a godfather to the children of Jimmy Hoffa. Al Capone discouraged Ross from following the same path; instead, he encouraged Ross to become a boxer; and once Ross did, Capone made sure that his entourage always bought up the tickets for Ross’ bouts. After the murders of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, Ross was interviewed several time about his friendship with Ruby.

  2. Bob 08:16pm, 11/20/2016

    I always found Max Baer and Barney Ross to be very interesting characters.  I believe Ross had a relationship in Chicago with Jack Ruby, an important historical figure who we know relatively little about other than him running a nightclub and killing Lee Harvey Oswald. Not a lot is known of his Chicago roots, other than him being a small time hustler.  I believe Ruby was also Jewish. This book sounds interesting, and there is no question that Ross was a Champion with a capital C.  Nice review by a premier scribe, a writer with a capital W.

  3. Jeffrey Sussman 04:23pm, 11/17/2016

    If you want to see another great Max Baer movie in which he boxes Primo Carnera watch the Prizefighter and The Lady. Max was the star; he not only acted, but he sang and danced. The movie was considered one of the top 10 movies of 1935.

  4. The Thresher 03:53pm, 11/17/2016

    My favorite Max Baer moment was in “The Harder They Fall” when he played Buddy Brannen and sauntered over to Gus Dundee’s corner to wish him well before his fateful fight With Toro Moreno. It was Max at his swaggering best and he played it to the hilt.

    I always start my historical track in boxing with Max Baer—Mr. Charisma if ever there was one.

  5. Jeffrey Sussman 01:56pm, 11/17/2016

    Norm and Thresher,

    Thanks for those wonderful comments. You certainly add to the understanding of a great boxer.


  6. The Thresher 01:42pm, 11/17/2016

    Jews as boxers was not a contradiction in terms when I was growing up in Chicago in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Au contraire. Most of the Jewish kids were especially tough because they HAD to be tough. It was like—you lose your first 5 street fights but then you win your sixth and from that point on you were considered tough. It was like—you start winning when you don’t lose anymore. That was the way it was and that was the way I experienced it close up with none of the garnish. I expect it was that way in New York City as well.

  7. Norm Marcus 01:34pm, 11/17/2016

    Jeffery Sussman is correct. Different branches of Judaism have different criteria to determine who is a Jew. I wrote a book in Baer 10 years ago. I interviewed Max’s niece and nephew in California. I also touched base with Max Jr. In Nevada. They all confirmed that Maxie considered himself Kewish. His father and all his Uncles were Jewish and each was named after a tribe of Israel.
    Just because one is not religious doesn’t mean he isn’t a Jew.
    By the way another statement that Baer’s mom was Orish Xathic is not true. She was Irish Protestant and used to play the organ in the Methodist Church in Livermore just for fun. None in the family were religious. They were secular in their up bringing.
    But tell a Jew joke within ear shot of Baer or his brother Buddy and you had a real problem.
    People just like the old stereotype of the weak little Jew. Afraid of his own shadow. Too hard to explain the looping right hand and good looks of Max Baer.
    Saying he wasn’t Jewish is just easier!

  8. Al W. 06:48pm, 11/16/2016

    Max Baer would be fully accepted in my Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, but probably wouldn’t be able to marry any of my wife’s Orthodox relatives. No matter. The pride Jews took in Baer and Ross certainly made life in the Depression era a little sweeter and more tolerable.  Sounds like an awfully good read, Peter.

  9. Jeffrey Sussman 02:52pm, 11/16/2016

    In addition to my previous posting about Max Baer being Jewish,  J. Russell Peltz,  a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and a lifelong Jew, wrote: “Baer may not have been considered Jewish in the strictest sense of the Orthodox,  but I understood what his achievement meant - while wearing the Star of David on his trunks - to the Jewish people at a time when they desperately needed heroes.” It’s too bad that others find a need to exclude Baer.

  10. Jeffrey Sussman 02:41pm, 11/16/2016

    Regarding Allen’s assertion that Baer wasn’t Jewish, he should understand that under the Nazi Nuremberg Law, Baer would have been considered to be of Jewish descent and so sent to a concentration camp. In addition, under Israeli immigration law, if one has one Jewish grandparent one would be accepted as a Jew and given citizenship, regardless if one were circumcised or not. As the great Israeli writer Amos Oz said in an interview in Tikkun magazine, “A Jew is anyone who chooses or is compelled to share a common fate with other Jews” Baer’s mother stated: “You can tell those people in New York that Maxie has got a Jewish father, and if that doesn’t make him Jewish enough for them, I don’t know what will.” In addition to Allen’s point that Baer didn’t have a Jewish mother and so is not Jewish, that only applies in the orthodox version of Judaism. Reform rabbis accept the children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers as Jews, if that is what the children want to be. And in the Jewish religion, those named Cohen define their Judaism from their fathers, not their mothers, since the name of Cohen comes from the father, not the mother.

  11. The Thresher 12:45pm, 11/16/2016

    Rossman might have been half Italian but he was marketed as 100% Jewish. And he was very, very good

  12. The Thresher 12:42pm, 11/16/2016

    No lukewarm opinion at all. He is in the Ct. Boxing Hall of Fame and the Jewish Boxing Hall of Fame. His one punch KOs were something to behold.

    After suffering a second frustrating TD because of cuts, Dana Rosenblatt, who was notable for being one of the few Jewish boxers active in the 1990s, retired with a fine slate of 37-1-2. His transition to a business career after boxing was seamless and highly successful.


  13. Allen 12:42pm, 11/16/2016

    Max was not Jewish. If his mother was not Jewish Max is not Jewish and as Ray Arcel said, ” I saw Max in the shower and he was not a Jew”.
    Barney Ross did not “win” a Silver Star. It’s not a contest. He was awarded the Silver Star and rightly so.

  14. peter 11:28am, 11/16/2016

    Thresher—Thanks for the link on Rosenblatt. The article was interesting, but the writer’s lukewarm opinion of Dana as a fighter was wrong. Anyone who can beat Howard Davis Jr., Vinny Pazienza, and Glenwood Brown is an excellent fighter.

  15. The Thresher 10:52am, 11/16/2016

    More on Dana. He and I are good friends.

  16. peter 10:06am, 11/16/2016

    Irish Frankie—I’m blushing from reading your kind words. The truth is, I had some boxing ability and could do a few good things in the ring, but I was ultimately limited. And my stamina, past six, was questionable. Honestly, I would have needed to be pretty damn lucky to have survived with all of the talented NYC middleweights competing at that time: Tom Bethea, Ali Perez, Reggie Jones, Willy Taylor, Chris Black, Willie Classen, Christy Elliot, Larry Davis, Cove Green, Emile Griffith, Juarez de Lima, Jose Gonzales, Guy Kennedy, Pat Murphy, Again, thanks for the compliments. I’m humbled.

  17. peter 09:29am, 11/16/2016

    Thresher—Thanks for your kind words. You’re right about Rosenblatt. He hung around for awhile and was a good fighter. He seems to have been overlooked for some unknown reason.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:52am, 11/16/2016

    Thumbs up on this article and Dana Rosenblatt too. IMO Mike Rossman was the best Jewish fighter in recent times and Salamo Arouch probably won more must win fights than any Jewish fighter in history. I still say Peter Wood had a Pro style of fighting in the Amateurs and that he could have made some nice money if he turned Professional.

  19. The Thresher 06:31am, 11/16/2016

    Georgie Small was one I followed, especially after the Lavern Roach tragedy. He was typical of the tough Jewish fighters. Dana Rosenblatt might be the last of the very successful ones as he was a world champion and retired with a great record. Also, he is a great guy who has done very well after boxing and is an inspiration for young Jewish kids.

  20. The Thresher 06:22am, 11/16/2016

    Very nice piece. Thank you

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