[ bookreviews ]
In his Pulitzer worthy Beyond Glory, David Margolick harrows the era of the Louis-Schmeling championship fights and, as on a grand screen, recreates it. No one will ever revisit it with something new. His transfixing story of two boxers in an America spiralling towards unprecedented war is written with a photogenic eye for the graphic detail and an ear with a precision that makes speech rise out of the page. Dickens would have loved this book.
In 1935, Jews dominated every aspect of boxing in America. Joe Louis, born in Alabama, a poor sharecropper’s child, entered that boxing world at 21 after the cigar chomping, mean spirited, buck driven Mike Jacobs, who controlled boxing in New York, signed him. The press would eventually write of Louis that he was an illiterate, emotionless, good natured, stupid animal. In 1935, he mercilessly beat Primo Carnera and nearly killed Max Baer. In 1936, he dispatched Charley Retzlaff in 85 seconds but in June Louis was severely beaten by Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling. In August Louis whacked out Jack Sharkey and in September and October he took Ettore in 5 and Brescia in 3. In 1937, with an eye on champion Jim Braddock, the "Cinderella Man", Louis beat Pastor and Brown, and barnstormed through six states. In June, at 23 and the 12 to 5 favorite, he became world champion when he thrashed Braddock who, Damon Runyon wrote, was left on the canvas like "a frozen haddock". And then, in June, 1938, Louis wiped out Schmeling. Had he not done so, Beyond Glory would not have been written.
Now you have the names and dates, but here is how it all happened and how it all ended.
America in the Thirties was anti-black, anti-Semitic and deep in the Depression. Lynching blacks was not news, nor was their unutterable poverty. Segregation was the rule. Hitler was in power, terrifying Jews in Germany and in the United States, to say nothing of his view of blacks as subhumans. Into that mix, Max Schmeling stepped in New York and was soon cast by the Nazis as their global hero. For a time, his boxing manager was five foot two, Hells Kitchen bred Joe Jacobs who could say kaddish for his mother while eating a ham sandwich.
In 1935, the nation’s black communities exploded with joy when Louis at Yankee Stadium beat the Italian giant, Carnera. When shortly thereafter Louis almost killed Max Baer at the stadium, the 85,000 spectators went mad with excitement. Margolick’s description of Harlem going wild is only one of the book’s many displays of his literary skill, exercised repeatedly throughout the book by integrating with it the culled work of sharp tongued sportswriters who poured out copy like evangelists at tent meetings, in all giving the effect not of reportage but of voices naturally speaking along with Margolick as he wrote.
In Louis’s 1936 fight with Schmeling, 90% of black America favored Louis, as did boxing’s top fighters, Dempsey, Tunney, Baer and Braddock. When, however, Schmeling severely beat Louis, the nation was shocked. Nothing can equal Margolick’s description of that dismay, nothing could be more compassionate than his detailed report of the broken heart of the crushed black community. Germany, of course, was unrestrained in its pleasure. Schmeling’s popularity there, now at its height, was in the service of the murderous Nazis who had politicized boxing.
A chastened Louis turned about and toppled a line of fighters. Jews boycotted Schmeling. Nazis violently attacked Jews in America’s boxing world. Blacks refused to support the Jewish boycott because, they said, Jews had not supported blacks domestically. In the end, money called the shots and led to a Louis-Schmeling rematch after Louis devastated Jim Braddock and thus gained the world title, an event that triggered joy and violence in black America.
On June 22, 1938, with tens of thousands looking on in Yankee Stadium and the whole world listening to their radios, Louis nearly killed Schmeling in 2 minutes, 4 seconds, and would have done so had Schmeling’s trainer not rushed into the ring and stopped the fight. Margolick’s telling of that beating, blow by blow by blow, must be read to experience the force of his literary skill. I began to read it sitting and ended it standing. Cries of horror had rung out at that beating. A blow to the left kidney caused Schmeling to let out such a high pitched scream, heard through out the stadium, that someone said he sounded "like a stuck pig". The ensuing beating literally frightened spectators near the ring. In the end, it left Schmeling sitting in his corner, openly weeping. For almost two years, Louis, the press’s "stupid animal", Louis, the South’s "nigger", Louis, the North’s "illiterate", Louis, whose boxing flaw Schmeling had bragged of discovering by watching movies of Louis boxing, that Louis had patiently hunted for Schmeling, at one point watching over and over movies of Schmeling boxing. As Louis in his soft, gentle drawl said, "Either me or him will drop early. They ain’t gonna be no decision. All the judges can stay home that night".
In 1942, Louis enlisted in our segregated army. He donated large sums from title defenses to army and navy relief funds for the taxes on which the IRS would hound him into mental illness. He lost his money in gambling, high living and money schemes. He suffered humiliating boxing defeats, and wound up refereeing wrestling matches. With medication, he worked as a "greeter" at Caesar’s Palace. Left paralyzed by a stroke in 1977, he died in 1981 at the age of 66.
As for Schmeling, he served Hitler as a propaganda idol and as a paratrooper. He died seven months short of his 100th birthday in 2005, having received in 1954 from James Farley, onetime New York boxing commissioner and Democratic Party chairman, the offer of a Coca Cola distributorship in Germany by means of which Schmeling became a multimillionaire, a member of the West German establishment and a philanthropist. Coke, according to Margolick, "never wanted anything to do with Joe Louis, even in his prime." Schmeling claimed to have paid for Louis’s funeral.
And so the moral of this story is that there isn’t any moral, but there sure was a hell of a lot of action in Yankee Stadium the night of June 22, 1938, and a bagful of memories for everyone who waited for and watched that fight, and then went out on the town for the night of their lives.