Books
2:45 pm
Mon February 21, 2011

Joe Louis: Hard Times Man

Randy Roberts, who has also written biographies of fighters Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, has done a beautiful of laying out the life and career of Joe Louis and explaining the role that boxing played in American popular culture, race relations and civil rights and, in fact, the ways in which boxing was linked with American patriotism in the late '30s and '40s.

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

Today, boxing is not a major concern for many Americans. In fact, many feel it should be tamed or even banned.

But it was not always so, to say the least.

Until 50 or 60 years ago, tennis and golf were country club games for the rich; football was a college sport, for amateurs, as was basketball. There were two sports, besides horse racing, that Americans cared about, boxing and baseball, and two titles held in near-religious esteem: World Series Championship and Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.

Randy Roberts, who has also written biographies of fighters Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, has done a beautiful of laying out the life and career of Joe Louis and explaining the role that boxing played in American popular culture, race relations and civil rights and, in fact, the ways in which boxing was linked with American patriotism in the late '30s and '40s.

Joe Louis Barrow, who was the first person inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, in 1968, was born in a sharecropper's shack on May 13, 1914, near Lafayette, Alabama, in Chambers County. He was the seventh of eight children. Louis' father, mentally ill, was committed and Joe was raised by his mother and his stepfather, Pat Brooks. In 1925 the family left the cotton fields and Jim Crow behind for the Ford plant in Detroit, Michigan.

There Louis in 1932, at the age of 18, began to learn to box.

He became a dedicated student of the manly art and had a naturally hard and heavy punch.

Overmatched and green, he lost his first fight, but he lasted and in two years won 50 of 54 amateur bouts.

In his first New York bout he knocked out Primo Carnera, an Italian heavyweight. Descriptions of Carnera are nearly unbelievable. Six foot six, 260 pounds, he is described as colossal, a "mythological man-beast" with biceps like grapefruit, hands like Virginia hams, and "massive legs." At that same time, Italy was invading Ethiopia. Sportswriters associated Carnero with Mussolini and Louis became the defender of little Abyssinia. Louis beat him in six.

Blacks all over America celebrated and white Americans worried. What did this "mean"? How did this victory jibe with many Americans' feelings of biological racial superiority?

Louis then beat Max Baer and became, without question, the most famous black man in America. At least 43 songs were written about Louis. He was the great black hope, a source of enormous pride.

Jack Johnson, an African-American, had been a masterful heavyweight, but Johnson was flamboyant, a high roller and expansive liver with white wives and girlfriends, defiant of Jim Crow America. Louis projected a different image: sober, modest, restrained in his speech, with a Negro wife. In 1938 he even starred in a Hollywood movie based on his own Horatio Alger-ish life story, "Spirit of Youth." In Hollywood, partying with directors, producers and stars like Frank Sinatra, he learned some bad habits. He drank some and women threw themselves at him and he did not duck, but as was the custom then, the press kept his secrets. The "vice" that did him the most harm, maybe, was an addiction to golf. He loved it, but the game proved impossible to dominate, and like many golfers he was not as good as he thought he was, or as good as his golfing friends assured him he was. Louis lost piles of money to golfing "buddies" over the years.

The most important bouts for Louis were surely the Max Schmelling bouts. In the first encounter, Louis lost to the German boxer. Fans around America, especially blacks, were so invested in this fight, so devastated by the loss, that at least 11 people around the country dropped dead when Louis lost.

By the time of the rematch, Schmelling had become associated with Hitler and the Nazi party. On June 22, 1938, Louis beat Schmelling in 2 minutes, 4 seconds of the first round with 100 million people listening on the radio, worldwide. Louis hit so hard that chips broke off one of Schmelling's vertebra and two of his ribs. Celebrations erupted in both black and white neighborhoods across America.

Before the Schmelling fight, even northern, self-styled "liberal" sportswriters described Louis as a "jungle animal," "primitive," "tawny." Now he was a man who had given a great gift to his country, a true American patriot.

In WWII Louis would serve in the segregated U.S. Army and return to the ring in 1945. By the time of his somewhat belated retirement in 1951, Louis had held the heavyweight champion for twelve years and defended the title 25 times. No one else ever came close.

Roberts moves quickly over Louis' later years. Louis, an astoundingly poor financial manager and an overly trusting fellow, became hopelessly in debt to the IRS, developed a small drug problem and suffered from some clinical paranoia.

But he was without doubt the most famous and beloved athlete of his day, a hero to black Americans and, as world champion, a hero to most of white America, too.

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