The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf

By Norman Marcus on May 19, 2013
The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf
The champ dragged Ernie Schaaf to his corner but his seconds couldn't revive him.

Baer being responsible for another death in the ring made for a better story and sold more papers than death from some microscopic bug…

At the start of the 1930s, Ernie Schaaf, aka The Tiger of the Sea, was one of the top heavyweight contenders in the world. On February 10, 1933, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, his goal was to meet and beat the Italian giant Primo Carnera. The winner would get a shot at the Boston Gob, heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey. Both Schaaf and Sharkey had served together in the U.S. Navy some years back. They had each made names for themselves as fleet champions. This night Jack Sharkey was in Schaaf’s corner because Jack was also Ernie’s manager and had been for three years. The champ had bought Schaaf’s contract from Phil Schlossberg for around $12,000. 

The man standing in Ernie’s way, Primo Carnera, aka Da Preem, was five inches taller and over fifty pounds heavier than Schaaf. Carnera was 6’7” and weighed in at 264 pounds. Carnera’s wingspan was 85”. Schaaf was 6’2” and a comparatively light 207 pounds and his wingspan was 75”. Still Schaaf was a 7 to 5 favorite with the bookmakers. It was a bonus to them if it looked like a fight between David and Goliath. Such a match was always good for the gate. The press suspected Carnera of being mob connected and also suspected that his win record was bogus. The fans were looking for an easy Schaaf victory.

Announcer Joe Humphries introduced the main event. “Fifteen rounds… possibly. The winner to meet the champion in June.” Not many of the 18,000 boxing fans heard Humphries’ introductions. There was no ring microphone in those days. Joe’s booming voice was drowned out by the crowd.

Referee Bill Cavanaugh went over the rules at the center of the ring. The two men listened, touched gloves and went back to their corners. Jack Sharkey whispered last minute instructions to his fighter as managers always do.

Schaaf had a very close relationship with his mother, who everyone called Miss Lucy. Ernie would always telephone her after a fight. If he won, his mom would also get a bouquet of carnations. There would be no call or flowers delivered this night. He often told friends that he wanted to be a Catholic priest after his career in the ring was over. Well his ring career would be over in less than an hour. He would need his own Catholic priest, to give him the Last Rites.

Carnera was a huge man who liked to fight at long range. He had a weak chin and used distance to protect it. Da Preem lacked a dependable power punch and his long left jab had no pop. When forced to fight at close quarters he would lean on his opponent. His size and weight would help wear the other man down.

Schaaf on the other hand could take a punch well. He liked to mix it up and fight toe-to-toe. He was an aggressive puncher who would concentrate on the body to slow his man down before going for a KO.

In round 1 Ernie came out and delivered a left hook to Carnera’s face. Primo began to jab at Schaaf from long range. When the smaller man tried to get inside he had to go through a storm of hooks and jabs from Carnera. Ernie landed some good hooks of his own but couldn’t get to that weak chin. There was little snap to Ernie’s punches that night and his reflexes seemed slow. This unusual performance continued, with Schaaf trying to work the body and Carnera landing one head shot after another. Ernie soon began to clinch and hold on to the bigger man. The crowd began to boo both fighters. This was not the fight they had all come to see. They didn’t expect much from Carnera but this was not the Ernie Schaaf they expected. Where was the fighter that twice went the distance with Max Baer? 

Both men were slowing down and the fans may have thought this was another set up for Carnera. How else could this big galoot make Ernie Schaaf look so bad? There were new cries of fix and catcalls from the crowd.

At the end of the 12th round Sharkey asked his fighter if he wanted to stop the fight. Schaaf appeared to be “on queer street,” something not quite right there. He looked tired and was breathing heavily. His face was pale and he looked puffy. Ernie blew him off and went back out to meet his fate in the 13th round. Carnera suddenly reached out with that weak left jab to Schaaf’s face. Sharkey later told the AP what he saw next, “Ernie sagged and half turned…Then he went down. All I’ve been able to see ever since is that kid lying there.”

The champ dragged Ernie to his corner but his seconds couldn’t revive him. Sharkey literally picked his fighter up and carried him to his dressing room. They tried smelling salts but there was still little sign of life. Ernie’s breathing was very shallow. He was rushed to the closest hospital, the Polyclinic across from the Garden.

The next morning Ernie’s mother rushed to his bedside. Miss Lucy never listened to Ernie’s fights on the radio. When she didn’t get a phone call from him that night, she knew something was wrong. She finally caught up with her boy as they were wheeling him into OR to try to relieve the pressure on his brain. Ernie appeared to be partly paralyzed on his left side. “Honey, are you my sweetheart?” she asked. Ernie replied, “Yes mom.” She asked, “How are you?” “ I’m okay mom,” he said.

Ernie Schaaf died four days later on Valentine’s Day. He never regained consciousness. His darling mother stayed with him to the end.

When Carnera learned of Ernie’s death, he cried like a baby. Primo blamed himself for this tragedy. The muscle-bound giant believed he had done the impossible. He believed he had killed Ernie Schaaf. In reality, the only way Primo Carnera could have killed Ernie Schaaf was with a gun. He later sent huge bouquets of flowers to the hospital and said wonderful things to the press about Ernie and his family. Say what you want about Carnera as a boxer, as a man he was hard to beat.

What caused the strange death of Ernie Schaaf? Was it the supposed beating Carnera gave him that night? Perhaps it was the damage Max Baer inflicted on Ernie during their second meeting at Chicago Stadium on August 31, 1932. The AP had reported that night, “Baer smashed a heavy right to the jaw that shook Schaaf to his heels, to start the last round, then walked into the Boston fighter, throwing both hands to the head and body…  Two seconds before the fight ended Baer dropped Schaaf to the canvas, but the bell sounded as Schaaf hit the floor. The bell deprived Baer of a knockout victory. Schaaf was knocked flat on his face, completely knocked out. He was dragged to his corner and his seconds worked on him for three minutes restoring him to his senses.” A worried Max Baer stayed in the ring with Ernie until he woke up.

The New York medical examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, performed an autopsy on Schaaf’s body. He said he found “an inflammation of the brain caused by a bad case of Influenza.” In addition, the doctor said he found “recent signs of Spinal Meningitis.” According to Dr. Norris, the swelling of the brain from these two viruses and the accumulated jabs to the head that night, caused a cerebral hemorrhage (a brain bleed), that led to Ernie’s death at the young age of twenty-four.

The press ignored the medical report that Ernie had two viral infections. They also failed to report that Schaaf fought three times after the Baer fight, winning two of the three bouts, both by KO. It also went unreported that Schaaf had been hospitalized just a few weeks before, to treat the flu. The reporters instead followed the lead of sportswriters Jimmy Cannon and Grantland Rice, who mistakenly attributed his death to the earlier loss to Max Baer. After all, Baer being responsible for another death in the ring made for a better story and sold more papers than death from some microscopic bug. To this day, if you look in the Ring record books, Ernie’s last fight against Carnera has an asterisk next to it that states, “badly injured in his fight with Max Baer.”

Three months later on May 29, 1933, at the Garden Bowl in Queens, New York, Sharkey lost his title to Carnera, the same man he had beaten in a UD15 two years earlier at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Jack later told the press, “I had no trouble with him in the second fight but all of a sudden – I can’t convince anybody of this even my own wife has her doubts, I think – I see (Ernie) Schaaf in front of me. The next thing I know, I’d lost the championship of the world.” The stunned Sharkey had just stood there, momentarily frozen, staring at the ghost of his friend. Da Preem wasted no time. He hit Sharkey with a glancing right uppercut to his chin. The champ hit the canvas and was counted out.

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  1. Morales of Tijuana 08:52am, 05/20/2013

    Denis Lebedev injuries-bout photos (graphic)—65661

  2. Morales of Tijuana 08:19am, 05/20/2013

    My comments are of 3 parts. Pls start the reading from bottom to up.

  3. Morales of Tijuana 08:18am, 05/20/2013

    In 5-6, two new bad cuts opened. Swelling rapidly increased and covered almost the entire face’s right side, right eye started is almost shut. Corner applies eyes. Commentators in live-broadcasting called to stop the fight. In 7th and 8th, all cuts are bleeding non-stop, two more cuts opened, swelling is more severed, the right eye is now totally shut. Corner applies eyes, commentators insisting on stopping the fight. In 9-10, 3 cuts bleeding profusely, swelling is enormous, Lebedev’s face beyond recognition. Corner treats with ice, commentators outcry to stop the fight. At the beginning of 11th round, referee for the first time calls in the ring doctor to examine. Doctor finds “no dangerous injures). Green-lights to continue the bout, amid shocked spectaculars and commentators. In 1/3 way into 11th, a heavy punch succumbed Lebedev to kneel. Referee finally stops the fight. Lebedev is taken to hospital directly from the ring.
    The barbarity and lack of competence of boxing officials sparked outcry in Russian media. 
    Many demanded resignation of Lebedev’s trainer, Kostya Tszyu (only Russian in Hall of Fame) who kept on sending Lebedev round after round despite injures suffered by Lebedev. As reported later, the ring doctor never approached Lebedev’s corner between the rounds to assess the injures, and neither did he expressed any medical adviie or recommendation. Similarly, the referee never in the course of bout approached to check with Lebedev’s corner on fighter’s condition and ability or non-ability to continue with the fight.

  4. Morales of Tijuana 08:16am, 05/20/2013

    The vivid recent example (though thanks God it was not lethal) of boxing officials corruption was just several days ago in Russia.
    Lebedev, a Russian boxer (bout favorite) and Guillermo Jones from Panama (heavy underdog) fought in Moscow on 17 May for WBO cruiserweight belt. Lebedev got bad cut in 1st round. Surprisingly enough his corner had no cutman, neither they had anything except of ice and Vaseline. There were no other medications at hand of corner.
    In 2nd the cut widened. Corner treated with ice. In 3d round Lebedev’s right eye started to swell. Corner applies ice. In 4th the first cut bleeding increased as well as the swelling. Corner treated with ice.

  5. Morales of Tijuana 08:15am, 05/20/2013

    The causes of deaths in the ring are usually one or combination of the following:
    1-Boxer’s very weak defensive skills
    2-Previous injures (consceived from or not reported to commission doctors)
    3-Referee’s lack of competence
    4-Lack of competence of ringside doctors
    5-Late intervention from corner to stop the fight

    The vivid recent example (though thanks God it was not lethal) of boxing officials corruption was just several days ago in Russia.

  6. Michael Hegan 04:48pm, 05/19/2013

    gotta protect the fighters…and the sport…

    in depth and complete medicals are a MUST…

    When Jerry Quarry got a license…...I was appalled….ditto for James Toney…just to name a few…
    This shit has got to stop…

  7. Ted 01:06pm, 05/19/2013

    Very nice read Norman even if it was a bit gloomy and dark, but that side of boxing must be told.

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