Max Baer’s First Fight

By Norman Marcus on September 18, 2014
Max Baer’s First Fight
Carrying those huge slabs of meat helped the young Max Baer develop a strong body.

Max’s new friend had spread the word all over town about the young giant, who had laid him out in the parking lot that night…

Galt, California 1925

You would never know it today, but in 1925 the land along the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay still looked a lot like the Old West. There were herds of cattle roaming open grasslands. Real cowboys watched over these Porterhouse steaks on the hoof. Max’s father Jacob Baer was a skilled butcher and had no trouble finding jobs in the area around the little towns of Hayward, Galt and Livermore. Jacob was a big man and as a youth had toyed with the idea of making a living in the ring. Back in the day, he had gone several rounds with Jim Jeffries and once fought a draw with Tom Sharkey. But as a family man, the unreliable money in boxing and possible injuries pushed him toward a steadier trade.

His son Max worked on the Twin Oaks family ranch and in the slaughterhouse in Murray County. Carrying those huge slabs of meat around all day helped the young Baer develop a strong body by his sixteenth birthday.

One Saturday night, outside a roadhouse, near Galt, Max and some friends had an idea. A local tough guy and cowboy named Eddie Overholt always kept a jug of White Lightning in the back seat of his Stutz convertible. At sixteen, Max was the biggest guy in his crowd at 6’3” tall and around one hundred eighty pounds. His friends dared him to take the bottle and share it with them. Overholt was known to be a tough hothead. No telling what he would do to Max if he got caught reaching into the back of Jack’s car. The Stutz was never locked, due to Overholt’s scary reputation.

Like most teenagers, Maxie felt he couldn’t back down in front of his friends. So against his better judgment, he took the bottle of corn liquor from the car and passed it around.

Later, when Overholt came out to get a snort from the bottle, he found it gone. He looked around and found some of the teenagers snickering at him from across the parking lot. Eddie walked over and asked which one of them had taken his bottle. All of Max’s friends suddenly backed up, leaving him standing there alone in front of Overholt.

Eddie was over six feet tall and weighed a solid two hundred and twenty pounds. He was a full grown man of twenty-five. Since Baer was the biggest kid there, Overholt thought he was looking at the ring leader. (Tradition tells you always to take on the leader in a street fight first. It sometimes gets the others to back off or run away.) Suddenly, Eddie charged in and threw a right hand at Baer’s head. Max instinctively took a step back and the punch missed by just inches. Baer stepped in and threw a left of his own to Overholt’s jaw. He knocked the man down! Eddie was enraged to suddenly find himself on the ground. He jumped up and threw a left–right combination to Max’s jaw. Both landed but had no effect on the inexperienced Baer. Max just stood there, shook it off and slowly began to smile. The boy suddenly realized he could take a good punch from a street fighter like Overholt. Encouraged, Max looked for an opening of his own and threw a looping overhand right to Jack’s nose, which now began to gush blood. Overholt again went down. It was this same right hand punch that would later make young Baer world famous. Eddie didn’t get up this time. He lay on the ground very still. Frightened by what had just done, Max quickly reached down and helped Eddie up. If his mother, Dora Baer, found out what he had just done, there would be hell to pay! You see Dora was six feet tall herself and took no nonsense from her children. Max quickly looked at his clothes to see if anything was torn. Mom worked too hard to buy him decent clothes. She had warned him time and time again to stay out of street fights.

Meanwhile, Jack looked Max over and said, “You didn’t really steal my bottle, did you? Well anyhow, I swear I have never been hit like that by anyone or anything. You ought to go into boxing.”

There began a friendship that would last for many years. Max had never thought of boxing as a career. Just a few years before, his older sister Francis, also six feet tall, had been protecting him from bullies in the school yard. Now suddenly he had just knocked out Jack Overholt, one of the toughest men in town!

The next year the Baer family moved the short distance back to Livermore. Max’s new friend had spread the word all over town about the young giant, who had laid him out in the parking lot that night. Max began building a reputation in Livermore as someone with a future in the ring. He started to go to the gym and work out. He didn’t really know how to train to be a boxer. He would just rush a sparring partner and try to connect with that right hand. What was missing now was a good trainer. There is an old saying in sports, “You can’t put in what God left out.” Luckily for Max Baer, Dora and Jacob had left nothing out! He found a local trainer, Percy Madsen, who tried but failed to teach him the simple fundamentals of offense and defense. Later he hooked up with Ray Pelkey, a trainer at a gym in Oakland, California. But Max was a tough nut to crack. He would always remain right hand happy. He was a natural hitter, never a boxer. You never knew when Max was going to catch a guy with his right. It would be lights out and the fans loved it!

The local kid from Livermore was now on a long journey, to the heavyweight championship of the world. Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera and Jimmy Braddock were still a long way off. But more than that, he would become an American icon throughout the 1930s.

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  1. nicolas 12:20pm, 09/22/2014

    FrankinDallas. Max Baer Jr. was very upset about that portrayal of his father. would not have blamed him if he had confronted Ron Howard about that.

  2. Eric 05:32am, 09/19/2014

    I always thought Max Baer aged pretty fast after retiring just like Joe Louis. I remember seeing a picture of Baer & Carnera with boxing gloves, the photo was obviously taken years after they retired. Both men were shirtless and wearing trunks, (don’t know if they boxed an exhibition bout), Baer looked haggard and his once magnificent physique had turned to mush. Carnera on the other hand, still possessed a hard, well built physique of a younger man.

  3. beaujack 08:12pm, 09/18/2014

    Excellent piece Norman on Max Baer, who had more natural charisma than
    any heavyweight ever. A loveable guy for sure…I never saw him ringside, but I still remember watching Max Baer in 1959 on my television set being introduced at a fight. He walked up the steps of the ring and
    catapulted himself over the ropes into the ring , the picture of health for
    a 50 year old ex fighter…About a couple of weeks later Max Baer suffered a major heart attack alone in his hotel room and died…Such is the uncertainty of life…

  4. alberto manalon madrilejos 07:14pm, 09/18/2014

    thanks for this documentary. Now I know how great Max Baer was way beyond the time I was even born.

  5. FrankinDallas 01:02pm, 09/18/2014

    They made Baer out to be a real jerk in Cinderella Man…he was a clown
    yes but not the brute as portrayed in the movie.
    The actor did a very good job imitating his boxing style, though.
    Obviously watched a few of his fights.

  6. Clarence George 10:54am, 09/18/2014

    I like this kind of quirky story, especially if the boxer’s already well known, as it provides new insight, and helps paint a vivid and three-dimensional picture.

  7. Carlos Rodrigues 10:45am, 09/18/2014

    Great read/ lotta boys became men in situations described here by Marcus. There is something to be said for grown man strength as to a young man or teenAger. Clearly max had the god given gift of a heavy hand. Can’t learn that one in any gym or book.

  8. Eric 09:28am, 09/18/2014

    Madcap Maxie toiled in the slaughterhouse long before Joe Frazier. Maybe Sly borrowed that storyline from Max, instead of Smokin’ Joe. I’ve heard Max would swing an axe and sledgehammer while butchering steers in his father’s shop, no doubt that helped with that tremendous punching power. Couple of fighters have attributed their punching power to hours of swinging hammers in their past occupations, two were Bob Fitzsimmons who toiled as a blacksmith, and Jim Jeffries during his tenure as a boilermaker. Earnie Shavers has stated that chopping trees probably boosted his legendary punching power by 25%. Max also hit the lottery with genetics, as the story states, his father was a large, physically strong man. Hell, Buddy was bigger and strong than Max, and even Jethro Bodine aka Max Baer Jr. was a pretty big man, although poor Jethro had some skinny chicken legs. Max would’ve probably been big and strong even without the hard labour given his great genetics, but his toil in the slaughterhouse probably enhanced his already formidable strength and punching power.

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