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The following article is being recreated with the
permission of John DiMambro of The Nevada Appeal -
Oscar-nominated film missed true story
From left, Max Baer Sr., Ancil Hoffman
and Jack Dempsey on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. on June 17,
1934, following Baer's heavyweight-championship victory.
Photo Courtesy of Max Baer Jr.
Browse and Buy Nevada Appeal Photos
Nevada Appeal Publisher,
March 5, 2006
The 2006 Academy of International Film Awards, to be aired
tonight, has honored director Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" with three
nominations. The film has authentic period flavor with solid acting,
particularly by Russell Crowe as the Depression-era, real-life heavyweight
champion James J. Braddock, and by the equally strong Paul Giamatti as
Braddock's flamboyant manager, Joe Gould.
But as far as Howard's direction of Craig Bierko in his portrayal of former
heavyweight champion Max Baer is concerned, Opie went Dopey.
Max Baer was much more than the villainous, sexual predator and man killer
depicted on screen. His was a lonely and tragic world.
• • •
As wavy smoke spheres moved slowly beneath the ring lights of an old San
Francisco stadium in 1930, dark and lifeless like the edge of a storm,
heavyweight contender Max Baer heard a cracking sound. But this sound was not
born of nature's thunder.
The sound was sickening - one that a young and impressionable man could not
forget, and one that young Max Baer would never forget. That sound was the sound
of Frankie Campbell's head as it was nearly ripped from its tendons by an
overhand right that exploded off his skull. If the explosion was tremendous,
then the implosion was deadening.
Max Baer stood, frozen as the wavy layers of smoke above him now seemed stilled
and cold like waves of fear. Frankie Campbell, a highly regarded prospect as a
future champion, died hours later at Mission Hospital in San Francisco.
Campbell didn't die alone that night. The promise of Max Baer being the
brightest young athlete to lace on boxing gloves since Jack Dempsey died that
night too. For that matter, so did Max Baer.
From the day he was delivered by his mother, Dora, and lifted up in a gesture of
divine praise by his father Jacob, Max Baer was not born to be a nameless person
in a crowd. But he wouldn't know that until he was 19 years old.
As a boy, the luminous, naturally friendly Max would go out of his way to avoid
a fight. His older sister, Frances, would be quick to confront and turn away any
bullies who would try to pick a fight with the little Baer.
So loving was their household that little Maxie would always kiss his mother,
sister and father before walking a short distance to the corner store. Later in
life, as a father, Max would drive his son, Max Jr. to school but promised his
boy that he would kiss him a block before they reached the school so his friends
wouldn't see and make fun of him.
It wasn't until Max died at age 50 that Max Jr. would sadly miss his father's
open hugs and kisses. No more "Baer" hugs. "When my Dad would drop me off at
school, I'd say goodbye really fast and have one foot out the door while the car
was still running," recalls Max Jr.
As a teen, Max Baer worked on his dad's ranch in Livermore, Calif., for 25 cents
a day slopping hogs. It was his job to round up discarded produce and meats from
restaurants and grocery markets, then shovel it out to the hogs on the farm,
afterwards churning the residue into the soil for fertilizer.
It was during this time that Max's body started to erupt. His legs grew long,
lean and carved with muscle. His arms were also long and as hard as industrial
beams. His shoulders were like aircraft wings, riveted into his chest as if by a
master metal worker. And then, the chest. His chest was like an alabaster
sculpture - a statue of David come to life. And on this chest rested a
tree-stump neck with a beautifully shaped boulder of a head, as handsome as one
could imagine. Women loved him, and men emulated him. He was truly a nature's
One night, when 19-year-old Max was at a dance with some
friends, a few of the boys decided to steal some bootlegged liquor from a truck
while the driver was carrying jugs to the farmer who owned the property. When
the driver returned, he saw that one of the jugs was missing as the boys stood
by laughing. The truck driver - a real cowboy - turned as wild as a mustang. He
yelled out demands to know who stole his booze. Max's friends pointed to him
since he was the biggest kid. He also happened to be one of the boys who didn't
take the liquor.
The truck driver stood taller than Max's statuesque 6 feet, 3 inches. He must
have figured that one way to agitate the kind-hearted, non-violent youngster was
to sexually insult one of the girls who was smiling and standing closest to Max.
The verbally ravaged young girl screamed and then frantically commanded Max to
do something about it.
Just what the driver wanted! He taunted Max and started to walk him down,
pressing his weight against him, pushing him as he stalked, prodding him like
ranchers did to cattle. He then heaved and pushed Max hard, grabbing and ripping
his brand new shirt, and then punched him. Seemingly summoned by some suppressed
animal instinct, Max suddenly struck back - a right cross that shot upward and
over that may have seemed like a blinded back-kick from a steer. The man fell on
his face, staying down and listening to a dreamy chorus of birds for several
Greatly encouraged by the result of his first punch thrown in anger, Max bought
a pair of boxing gloves and a heavy bag and practiced at night while he worked
during the day. But even Max wouldn't truly know the full potential of his right
fisted power until sometime later.
At the time, Max was working for a man named Hamm Lorimar, who owned an auto
body parts plant in Oakland. It was Lorimar who introduced Max to Ancil Hoffman,
a Jewish business man. Hoffman would become Baer's manager.
Baer's first fight was against Chief Cariboo. While waiting in the dressing
room, he was so nervous that his mouth became desert-dry. He drank a six-pack of
soda pop, one right after the other, sucking them down and hardly drawing a
breath between bottles. He was quickly overcome with intolerable gas pains, but
it was too late. It was his time to enter the ring. So worried was he that his
stomach and bowels wouldn't be able to hold out for very long, Max rushed after
Cariboo and punched him out in only two rounds.
After the fight, Max was given $35. To him, he had found the jewels of the
temple. He forgot about his stomach cramps. "Wow! Hey, what time do you close?!"
he asked the promoter. "Let me fight some more guys tonight for $35." The
exuberant Baer was on his way.
A look at Max's early record, and one can easily see that he was all business.
He trained seriously and had the unconditional will to fight. He feared no one,
and if by chance someone was one of the very few who were lucky enough to beat
him once by a decision - top men of the time like Tiny Abbott, Les Kennedy, and
Ernie Schaaf - then that would be the last time. Only the virtually invisible
Tommy Loughran was able to float around the ring like an apparition so elusively
that Baer told Ancil Hoffman that a rematch would be useless.
"How can I beat him if I can't catch him?" Baer told Hoffman. "Hell, I couldn't
hit his ass with two handfuls of buckshot." As for the others, Baer would ice
them in return matches. Then came Frankie Campbell.
With the exception of Tommy Loughran and Paolino Uzcudon, Baer had beaten every
man he faced. He was a sight of physical perfection. He was bursting with
confidence, and unconditionally sure that his run-you-down-like-a-mower ring
rushes, followed by his jackhammer punches, would put any man on his back. In
early photos, he even had the look of a real fighter. No playing around. The
Campbell fight would change all that forever.
The fight took place on Aug. 25, 1930, in San Francisco. It was recognized as a
Western American elimination bout for possible heavyweight title contention.
Many of the former champions were there to see the mythical new god of the ring.
Baer was the bigger of the two men. Campbell was faster, but could punch too.
For five rounds, Baer took advantage of his larger size and power. In round
five, he slipped at the end of a Campbell left. Max went down, and the referee
called it "no knockdown." But Campbell wasn't looking. Thinking it was a
legitimate knockdown, he started walking toward the neutral corner.
Max got up quickly and ran after him. The punches were inescapable. One after
another they showered in, each causing irreparable damage. Then, as Baer
viciously pursued, he threw that one last fatal punch as Campbell lay trapped
between the upper ropes.
As Frankie Campbell went down, so did Baer's heart, will, and spirit as he stood
nearby. His eyes were widened by a fear he had never before felt, more
nauseating than any fear he had of being bullied when a kid. Baer was horrified.
It was almost as if he knew what had just happened was more than just a
knockout. And he started to feel sick, overcome by that unmistakable feeling
that something was dreadfully wrong.
Baer followed the ambulance as it sped to Mission Hospital. Outside the
operating room, he sat silently, nervously, with his chin resting on his folded
hands. His lips were moving as if in silent prayer, or maybe just words of
disbelief to himself. Sitting across from him was Campbell's wife. The thoughts
of what was happening were now too heavy for young Baer to carry. The tears
cascaded down his face, each one carried by pain, each one beating down on his
lap. As one man lay dying inside the hospital room, Max Baer sat outside with
the full-winged spirit of his promise already dead.
Campbell's wife, seeing Max's uncontrolled despair, got up
and sat next to him. "It could have been you too, Max. It's not your fault." But
Baer's heart was already killed. The pain would continue, day after day, night
after night - a pain that would hurt more than any punch he threw, or any punch
he received. It was a pain that refused to die until he himself would die.
Frankie Campbell's entire brain had been disengaged and left floating in his
cranium. Max was charged with manslaughter and held hostage in a jail cell by a
$10,000 bail, an inordinate amount of money for 1930. The charges were later
dropped. There is a photo of Baer standing beside his attorney in front of the
judge during his appeal. The look on Baer's face was beyond solemnity. It was an
expression born of unrelenting anguish. He was finally acquitted, but he was
prohibited from boxing in the state of California for one year.
During the four months that followed the tragic end of Frankie Campbell, Baer
decided to quit boxing. But through the urging of his manager, Ancil Hoffman,
and others around him, Max decided to return to the ring. He needed to. If for
nothing else, he needed to revisit the birth place of his demons, and lose them
to find himself once again.
Upon his return to the ring, it was easy to see this was not the same man who
once trained so seriously and enjoyed the sport with such boyish unrestraint.
And it showed in his next six performances, four of which he lost to men who
would have fallen to his mighty fists beforehand. In all of those fights, Baer
seemed insipid, himself a cadaver still breathing.
Around this time, former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey took a liking to
Baer, and decided he would invest his time as a much-needed mentor to the young
fighter. But something else was happening at this time aside from Dempsey
entering into the picture. Baer started to act like a self-deprecating clown,
and in short time became an over-the-top cartoon of himself.
For a short time, it seemed like Baer was starting to put the Campbell incident
in perspective and to show signs of resurgence. He was then given a rematch with
Ernie Schaaf, who had beaten a mind-burdened Max by a decision in his next fight
after the Campbell tragedy. Despite the beating he was giving Schaaf, there were
moments when Max looked like he was holding back again. It was close to the end
of the 10th and final round, when all of a sudden, POW! Max triggered a right
cross that carried incredible force.
The target was the side of Schaaf's head. Schaaf went down like someone hit him
with a metal bat. For three long minutes, the ring doctor and Schaaf's corner
men worked on him. He was motionless. And for three long minutes, Baer felt like
the fiery bowels of hell were once again within him. But Schaaf, unlike Frankie
Campbell, regained consciousness. Only six months later, in a fight with
then-heavyweight contender and future champion, the pathetic Primo Carnera,
Schaaf collapsed for no apparent reason in the 13th round. He died of the same
injuries sustained by Frankie Campbell - a brain loosened and dislodged from its
connecting tissue. The post-mortem diagnostic? He died from injuries sustained
from the punches he received from Max Baer.
If Baer's descent into a lost paradise started the night of the Frankie Campbell
fight, then hearing of Ernie Schaaf's similar death quickened his fall. And he
fell, face down into his own creation of purgatory. He took up smoking. He was
never a drunk, but womanizing became more of an escape, a psychological need
more so than a sexual one. He was running. He was desperately looking for a
place within himself to hide. But the demons were too strong, and too many.
Impossibly beautiful starlets like Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Mae West
couldn't resist the young and handsome Max Baer. And he couldn't resist them.
But even they couldn't erase the indelible haunting of one man's mind.
Max Baer Jr. recalls his mother telling him of Baer's frequent spells of
unremitting and unforgiving suffering that would drive him to run to the garage
and slam his head into the cabinets, yelling and crying out in mental anguish.
Later in life, when Baer would watch fights on TV, he never reacted. He would
just stare vacantly at the set while his sons, Max Jr. and Jim, sat on the floor
close to the set. "If you ever even think about fighting, fight me instead," he
would tell his boys.
On a summer afternoon in 1958, at a neighborhood barber shop in Sacramento, Max
was standing up from getting his hair trimmed. His wife Mary Ellen was nearby.
As the barber was sweeping hairs off Max's shirt, there was a little boy who was
listening to his mother whisper something in his ear. The little boy walked up
to the barber's chair and looked up.
"Are you Max Baer?" Baer's smile traveled from ear to ear, filling his entire
face with unreserved warmth and affection. He knelt to one knee to look at the
boy at face level, and said. "Yes I am, son."
The boy abruptly pointed his finger and yelled out, "You're
that man who killed two people fightin'."
Max Baer's face distorted in injury. He wore the look of a wounded soul. His
lower lip trembled, and he quickly covered his mouth with his hand. He drew a
hard breath and stood up. His wife raced to him, and with her arm locked in his
guided him to their car.
On the ride home, Max tried to choke back his emotions, his words broken and
aching. His face was washed over with tears that could no longer cleanse or
Though his wife was seated next to him, he was talking to no one, and to
everyone. "Why don't they understand? I didn't mean it. I didn't do it on
purpose. It was an accident. That little kid ... What did his mother ... Why ...
Why don't they tell him? I didn't ... I ... I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to ...
Why can't they ... It was an accident ..."
One year later, Max Baer was dead at 50. His heart finally surrendered to a
death he had been dying since 1930.
After the death of Ernie Schaaf, Max's worst punching day was still much better
than most men's best; but in the era that produced the superior Joe Louis, that
wouldn't be enough. He generated enough short-term ferocity to beat any thoughts
of anti-Semitism out of a then-thought-to-be Arian race disciple and former
heavyweight champion Max Schmeling - a superb athlete who would later annihilate
a young Joe Louis.
But even in his fight with Schmeling, Baer held back. Shakily rising to his feet
after crashing to the ring floor from Baer's torpedo-straight right in the tenth
round, Schmeling was knocked into the ropes by another Baer attack. Instead of
going in for the kill like he did as an unassuming enthusiastic youngster in the
sport, Baer stepped away and quickly turned to referee Donovan, saying, "C'mon
man ... This looks like the end ... That's it ... No more." Donovan knew all too
well what he meant and stopped the fight.
He finally won the championship, giving Primo Carnera an 11-round conveyer ride
through a slaughterhouse. But even in knocking Carnera down 11 times and finally
stopping him, Baer was not at all serious. He fooled around, talking to
celebrities at ringside while holding Carnera. And after a quick conversation,
Max would knock the champion down again, just waiting for him to get up just to
mess around with him some more. The (pre-Frankie Campbell) Baer of 1930 would
have cut Carnera down in just a few no-nonsense rounds
In the first defense of his newly won championship title, Max had a broken hand,
and a broken will against Jimmy Braddock - the "Cinderella Man" - who was
nicknamed so because of his unbelievable decision win over Baer, whom the
majority thought would literally kill his opponent.
Then, against Joe Louis, Baer broken hand hadn't healed. There is a little known
letter Max wrote to his fiancé, Mary Ellen Sullivan, that read, "I hope to God
my hand heals before the fight." His hand was injected with Novocain before the
fight at Yankee Stadium, but fight time was delayed due to rain.
By the time the fight started, the Novocain had worn off and Baer was in panic.
His best weapon was useless. Most reporters and fans mistook his panic and lousy
performance against a prime Louis as an act of fear.
It was fear all right. The same fear one would have in a war when you finally
realize you're out of ammunition and the enemy is standing over your fox hole.
As a result, Louis used him as a punching bag, and Baer, who could take a lot of
punishment, voluntarily dropped to one knee and just listened until referee
Arthur Donovan counted to 10 in the fourth round.
Then he got up and left, to the unfeeling boos of the crowd. Writers like Ed
Sullivan (later of TV variety show fame) and Ernest Hemingway brutally wrote
Baer off as a shameful coward and a despicable excuse for a fighter. After two
embarrassing back-to-back fights, Max's time, which by then seemed like no time
at all, was over.
The boyish man, who not so long before would daringly hang his chin out for
opponents to hit, was now walking a treacherous tightrope. This young Samson,
who reportedly knocked a full-grown cow down to its knees with one right hand
punch to the top of the head on his dad's farm, was now one of the herd himself.
Baer's inner torment was channeled through to his social
life. Sure, he was a womanizer. Was he an abuser of women? Not even close. He
treated his female companions like royalty. But his true love was with Mary
Ellen and their three children. As for his many female friends, Max claimed, "I
don't buy them furs because I love them. I buy them things to keep them quiet!"
Max also loved children in general. Jim Baer remembers the days in Sacramento
when his father would pick up kids playing in the streets of the city's poorer
section in his Chrysler convertible and take them to the movies or to the
neighborhood public pool with him and his little sister Maudie.
The movies were especially fun. Max would ask to see the manager, and he would
load the kids up with candy. But he would always forget one minor detail. He
would never pay for the tickets. But the theater manager didn't mind at all. The
movie house made so much money on the candy Max bought that it ended up farther
ahead than if he had purchased the tickets with no candy. And then, as the kids
laughed or screamed their way through a Saturday afternoon of movies, Max would
close his eyes and start snoring.
But as he got older, Max's inner directed demons collided with his good-natured
personality. The demons would not be denied. In the mid-1950s, Mary Ellen kicked
Max out of the house. The reason? Another woman. His family was truly all he
had, but his need to be with other women was the only remaining connection to
the social life he enjoyed while still a hot young prospect - his own prescribed
medication to forget the incidents that prevented him from being much more than
what he was. On the night he was ordered from his own home, he
uncharacteristically turned over the kitchen table, and ran into the garage. He
slammed his head into the cabinets of the garage, just like he did years before
whenever the unrelenting visions of Frankie Campbell and Ernie Schaaf decided to
visit him, encircling him and leaving their spirits inside of him to live and
return anytime they chose. This was not an angered man who ran into the garage.
This was a desperately confused and infinitely lost man who was running someone,
anywhere, to escape. This was also a man in the final stages of crying out for
help. If anyone or anything was listening, the answer came in the end to Max's
short but tortured life.
On the evening before his death, Max called his wife from the Hollywood
Roosevelt hotel in Los Angeles. Mary Ellen knew something was wrong. "Max, are
you OK?" Max, who was told by friends that day that he looked pale, said "Yeah
... sure. I just have a bit of a cold, I think. I need to get in the sun is
all." That was the last time she talked to him. That was the last time any
family member would have the chance to talk to him.
"Is Jim there?" Max asked his wife. But Jim, who was 18 at the time, was out
doing what teenagers do and missed his last chance to talk to his Dad.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 21,1959, Augie Baer (Max's adopted younger
brother), who lived with Max's family, yelled up to Mary Ellen. As she came
running to the top of the staircase, Augie looked up at her and, breathing hard,
said, "Max is dead."
"Max?" she cried. "Which Max? Little Max or Big Max?" She was still sleepy, and
very disoriented. But then the message became all too clear.
Later on, young Jim Baer would open the closet in his mother and father's
bedroom. He would run his hand gingerly, lovingly over his dad's shirts and
jackets. Beneath them were his shoes. All that was missing was his dad. He would
grab the sleeves of his father's clothes, clump them together in an emotional
embrace, and slip down slowly in a heap of tears.
If in his prime today, Max Baer would be a superstar. The body beautiful, with
his undying sense of humor, love of people, matinee looks and goodnight punching
power, he would be demanding more money than a Mike Tyson could ever count. "My
father was really one of the first real celebrities in boxing," says Max Baer
Jr. "He'd be a millionaire 100 times over if he were around today."
The mainstream today will probably - if anything - know Max Baer for the way he
was portrayed in "Cinderella Man." Others, including even some boxing
historians, will remember him for his high-profile losses to Jimmy Braddock and
That's really unfair. Sad too. He was so much more than that. He was simply a
fun-loving man who didn't know the range of the strength God gave him - the
strength that happened to be enough to cause the deaths of two fighters.
But the death of Frankie Campbell was really the fight that defined the rest of
Max Baer's life. Ernie Schaaf's death punctuated it. What was supposed to be a
clearly paved highway to boxing stardom and greatness ended up as a rotary of so
many different roads - ones that proved too difficult for Max to choose to get
back on that simple one-way highway.
His one chance had come and gone. It was like one of his favorite games he would
play with the neighborhood kids who were less fortunate than his own children.
He would hold out two hands. One hand had a silver dollar in it. The other would
have nothing. "Close your eyes," Max would tell a child. "Close them tightly.
Now pick one. Only one. If you pick the hand with the silver dollar in it, it's
yours. If you don't, you get nothing."