Will the real Max Baer please stand up?

By Sean Ness on June 8, 2015
Will the real Max Baer please stand up?
“In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet.”

Baer possessed the same fundamentals and family values as Braddock. It’s a shame that Ron Howard couldn’t acknowledge that…

Not long ago I wrote an article about how the sport I love was slowly being taken from the people who love it most—the working class. Working class fighters gave their people and the working class communities around the world hope and happiness. Hope—that they themselves could reach their own goals and aspirations. Happiness—during the tough times, that so many people encounter, a sporting win can raise a smile on a tired face especially in 1930s America where sporting heroes in baseball and boxing where the only hope for happiness during the Great Depression.

“Cinderella Man” was a phrase coined by the celebrated writer and author Damon Runyon. He uttered the phrase after witnessing James J. Braddock climb out of obscurity to become the heavyweight champion of the world, thereby giving hope and happiness to the American public during the Depression. The term “Cinderella Man” was also used as the title for Ron Howard’s 2005 Academy Award nominated movie which tells the story of Braddock’s fall from grace and his rise from the ashes to claim victory over the movie’s villain that is Max Baer.

Ron Howard’s portrayal of Max Baer would have you believe that he was a brute who didn’t have a second thought for the men who died by his hands. He would have you believe that Baer was a womanizer and was never short of a showgirl or two on his arm whenever he made a public appearance. James J. Braddock’s story was already legendary so there was no need to assassinate someone’s character in order to make another’s shine through. A great example of this in the movie is when Baer played by Craig Bierko turns to Braddock’s wife played by Renée Zellweger during a pre-fight encounter and tells her, “You’re far too pretty to be a widow” and offers to console her once he kills her husband in their heavyweight title bout.

In this article I will discuss the real Max Baer and not the fictional character in Ron Howard’s movie but the man who was a legend in his own right, the Max Baer that was a caring and kind man who had an illustrious career of his own who was also a loving father and husband.

Maximilian Adelbert Baer was born on June 11, 1909 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Jacob Baer, who was Jewish, and Dora Bales, who was of Ulster-Scots Protestant American ancestry. Both he and his brother, Buddy Baer, took up the sweet science of bruising with Max turning pro in 1929; however, just over a year later a tragic event would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It was August 25, 1930, during a Pacific Coast title fight with Frankie Campbell, when Max caught Frankie with a shot to the head. Between rounds, Frankie told his corner that he felt something snap in his neck. The Hibbing, Minnesota native went on to win another two rounds, but after the final bell, Frankie Campbell was admitted to hospital due to the injuries he sustained from the fight. Max later attended the hospital and upon visiting Frankie’s family he apologized to his wife, held her hand, and offered her and her children financial support should they need it. After the announcement of Frankie’s death, Max broke down, sobbing inconsolably and staying true to his word, he donated four of his fight purses to the family of Frankie Campbell.

Two years later, Max Baer met Ernie Schaaf in the squared circle for a second time, with Ernie winning the first encounter by a majority decision. He battered Ernie Schaaf from pillar to post and in the final round. Max was throwing right-left combinations to the body before going upstairs and connecting with looping right hooks to Schaaf’s jaw which caused the New Jersey fighter to fall flat on his face on the final ring of the bell. He had to be dragged backed to his corner with his team working to bring him back to his senses. According to Ron Howard’s version of events, Ernie died at the murderous hands of Max; however, the truth is that Ernie Schaff died some months later. He had been complaining of terrible headaches after the fight. Ernie Schaaf died in the ring after taking a jab from Italian fighter Primo Carnera. His autopsy report showed that Ernie had a swelling on the brain. He had also been recovering from a severe case of influenza and meningitis which contributed to his death.

“My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell,” Max Baer Jr. “He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet. He treated boxing the way today’s professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. He never deliberately hurt anyone.”

In relation to the case of Frankie Campbell, Baer was charged with manslaughter but was later acquitted of all charges and served a one-year ban from boxing. He continued to fight once the year was up, but the deaths of Frankie Campbell and Ernie Schaaf remained with Max until his death.

In 1930s Germany the Nazi party was on the rise. Their leader, the murderous Adolf Hitler, had cast Germany under his spell with his romanticism of the perfect race and country. He hailed Deutschland and its natives as the race of races. Included in that was a German boxer by the name of Max Schmeling. In June 1933 with 60,000 fans willing him on to victory at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Max Baer faced Adolf Hitler’s favorite fighter in a match that he was tipped to lose. But against all odds, the Star of David short-wearing Max Baer sent Schmeling to the canvas in the 10th round, shouting at Schmeling, “That was for Hitler.”

It wasn’t just a win. It was a symbol of toppling the regime that would become notorious for its persecution of Jews and other minorities in Europe and beyond. Max Baer cemented his legacy as a hero in the hearts and minds of the Jewish community. It should also be noted that after the war it was discovered that Schmeling had in fact saved many Jewish children’s lives whilst serving Germany.

Max Baer later beat Primo Carnera to win the world heavyweight championship by knocking down the Italian native 11 times before he went on to face the “Cinderella Man” who beat Max by decision. After the fight Max admitted that he took Braddock far too lightly.

The boxing historians of our generation don’t need a movie to educate them in the fighters of yesteryear. As much as I enjoyed the “Cinderella Man” movie it taught me that it was just that, a movie and not to be taken literally. What is literal is that Max Baer possessed the same fundamentals and family values as James J. Braddock. It’s a shame that Ron Howard couldn’t acknowledge that.

Follow Sean Ness on Twitter at https://twitter.com/misterness84

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Max Baer vs Max Schmeling

MAX BAER | Rare Training Footage 1934 (16mm Transfer)

Max Baer vs Primo Carnera

Max Baer vs James Braddock (All Rounds)

Max Baer "Tender Hearted Tiger" Documentary (Restoration)

Max Baer and Cinderella Story

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  1. Vanihm 02:37am, 10/02/2017

    “According to Ron Howard’s version of events, Ernie died at the murderous hands of Max”

    Nope. The movie it’s stated that Ernie died in a later fight, just like in reality. Also, the movies’ depiction of Max as a womanizer is completely accurate, the guy couldn’t stay faithful to his fiancee for 5 minutes while he was champ. Truth is, Max let the title get to his head and for a period was a royal pain in the ass, which is one reason everyone rooted for Braddock.

  2. nicolas 11:09am, 06/14/2015

    Also to add, is that why after beating Schmelling, he did not fight for about a year until he fought Carnera, and then also did not fight for another year until he lost to Braddock.

  3. nicolas 11:08am, 06/14/2015

    Just a little side note. Not mentioned, and if those who do not know, Max Baer, as has been pointed out did act in movies. But he even got a starting role before he became champ in a film title The Prize Fighter and The Lady. The irony of the film is that while he does play a prize fighter, the final opponent in the film is Primo Carnera playing someone else I believe. I think it was supposed to be for the heavyweight title, and the the Carnera in this film fairs much better than he did in the ring with Baer in real life, as the fight ends in a draw. I believe that was in Carnera’s contract. Perhaps that is why Baer had a real reason to beat the you know what out of Carnera, just like he did with Schmeling and many years later Galento.

  4. nicolas 10:51am, 06/14/2015

    Norm: I think we wrote about this possibly before. First, How could Baer have retired as number one contender? He lost to Lou Nova, and his last two losses were both to Nova, by stoppage. After his loss to Louis, he lost to Tommy Farr in England, though he certainly came back with a vengeance in the rematch winning a decision, putting Farr down twice, though perhaps in Farr’s case, the great effort he had put in is fight with Louis might have taken it’s toll. Certainly a prime Baer I think would not have lost to Nova, but who is to know. Watching Baer’s fight with Schmeling, I kind of felt that Baer was allowed to foul Schmeling without any warnings given. Certainly we can always wonder how a Baer who beat both Schmelling and Carnera would have fared against Louis.

  5. Norm Marcus 05:17am, 06/10/2015

    Marvin: You give Ron Howard too much credit. It wasn’t bad research. He knew Baer was no villain. But he needed a villain to make his story work. Who wants to see a movie where both characters are nice guys? In the film Cinderella Man, Howard even made sure the Star of David on Baer’s trunks was the same color as the trunks themselves, black on black, so most viewers wouldn’t notice Baer’s religion. Baer always wore a big silver Star of David on his trunks for all his fights since Schmeling.  Hard to make a real Jewish hero into a villain in Hollywood and get the picture made. 
    You know when he and his brother Buddy Baer went to the White House after the war to meet Pres. Truman, Harry asked for their autographs! True story!

  6. SeanNess 04:23am, 06/10/2015

    Thanks for the kind words Norm and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I wholeheartedly agree that Maxie’s story should be told on mainstream media. Maybe one day, it’ll make a terrific movie.

  7. Norm Marcus 06:00pm, 06/09/2015

    I agree with all Sean said in this article.
    For the readers that have been reading my stories here at boxing.com they know that I have written a half dozen articles on Max Baer drawn from my book on Baer, “Every Punch Was Aimed at Hitler.”
    Baer was a great guy that knocked out Hitler’s champion Max Schmeling in 1933. Hitler then threw a fit and banned all news of Baer in the German press.
    Baer did it 5 years before Louis did. It was the Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year in 1933.
    Yet today Max Baer is forgotten as well as that fight. Louis gets all the fame, books and movies made about his victory over Schmeling in 1938. !933 is completely forgotten.
    I’ve been talking to Hollywood for years about such a film on Baer. Yet the Jewish community there ignores my book and contacts. (Even though Max’s father was Jewish and Baer considered himself a secular Jew).
    Louis who avoided a rematch with Baer from 1935 to 1941 when Baer retired as the number #1 contender makes me ill. Joe was a great fighter. But Baer fought Louis with a broken right hand and a bone chip in his left wrist in 1935. The public never knew and Max never talked about it.  I talked to his family in Livermore many times and got the real facts on the clown prince. Right down to the name of the orthopedist at Johns -Hopkins who examined his hands and told him he needed surgery and a year of rest before meeting Louis.
    But Max had to fight Louis within 3 months and beat him or his return shot at Braddock and the title would be off the table according to Mike Jacobs.
    Max deserves a movie, DVD and book deal 100%.
    If Stevie Speilberg is interested in another true story about the start of the holocaust, give me a call. its ready to go. Max Baer deserves better!

  8. SeanNess 12:04am, 06/09/2015

    I heard that when he took a heart attack in a hotel room, he called reception and asked for a doctor. The lady replied “a house doctor?” He said “NO! A people doctor!” A real character even when faced with a heart attack. A movie on the real max would be most welcomed.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:53pm, 06/08/2015

    I know this much….in the last video above where Max demonstrates how he’s gonna’ walk as the Champ, he made me laugh out loud….so I ran it again and he made me laugh out loud again…I think I’ll run it one more time for good measure. Here was a guy having fun with the idea that he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

  10. Eric 05:31pm, 06/08/2015

    Jethro must have looked like his mom. He favors his pappy around the eyes, but that is it.

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:16pm, 06/08/2015

    Do we really know these guys anyway? I would say that for the most part they’re just like the rest us in the general population…...probably with the same percentage of saints, sinners, good guys, bad guys, heterosexuals, homosexuals,....probably not as many transgenders, though. Which reminds me, Rocky Marciano was 5’10” and 185 at his best….the same stats as Serena Williams who weighs the same as Federer, Murray, and Nadal and is ten Godamned pounds heavier than Djokovic.

  12. Kid Blast 11:42am, 06/08/2015

    Max was great in that movie, Marvin,. Pure malice. And the way he sauntered across the ring to wish Gus Dundee good luck is a classic moment in movie noir IMO. And the way he licked his chops as he watched Toro Moreno box poor Gus in the ring was just plain spine tingling. As a non-historian, Max is as far back as I go and that’s because I liked him one heck of a lot. He had charisma before they knew what the word was.

  13. marvin moskowitz 10:51am, 06/08/2015

    to Ron Howards Discredit he based Max Baer on the character he played in the movie The Harder They Fall..  Howard should of done his homework..

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