Ear­li­er this week, Jay Neuge­boren shared his per­son­al list of the Jew­ish sports heroes that made him feel more Amer­i­can. Jay is guest blog­ging all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I grew up dur­ing the years of the great Brook­lyn Dodger teams of the for­ties and fifties, and I root­ed espe­cial­ly for the hand­ful of their Jew­ish play­ers: Cal Abrams, Al Good­ie” Rosen, Sandy Koufax, and third base coach, Jake Pitler. I also root­ed for Jew­ish ath­letes who were promi­nent in oth­er sports: foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, wrestling, ten­nis, table ten­nis, and boxing. 

In box­ing, my great hero was Max Baer, who, though he wore a Star of David on his box­ing trunks, was only one quar­ter Jew­ish. His grand­fa­ther, of French-Jew­ish ances­try, was a butch­er, and named his sons for the tribes of Israel. Max’s father, Jacob, was a butch­er too, and his ear­ly edu­ca­tion took place in Jew­ish schools. 

Baer became a pro­fes­sion­al box­er in 1929. One year lat­er, in a bout that scarred his heart for­ev­er, he knocked out a fight­er named Frankie Camp­bell. Camp­bell, whose broth­er, Dolph Camil­li, lat­er became a star first-base­man for the Brook­lyn Dodgers, nev­er woke up, and died that night. Max was severe­ly dis­traught, and in lat­er years qui­et­ly put three of Campbell’s chil­dren through college. 

In 1933, Baer, a con­tender for the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship, fought against Hitler’s box­er,” Max Schmel­ing, before more than 60,000 peo­ple, and it was for this fight — because of his anger at the news com­ing out of the Third Reich, and his pride in being part-Jew­ish — that he first put a Star of David on his box­ing trunks, an emblem he would wear in every fight after that.

Schmel­ing was heav­i­ly favored, but Baer defeat­ed him eas­i­ly, and the ref­er­ee stopped the fight in the tenth round, and award­ed Baer the vic­to­ry by tech­ni­cal knock­out. But Baer, ever a show­man, had his great moment just before the fight’s end. When he had Schmel­ing on the ropes, he called out, for all the news­pa­per reporters to hear: This one’s for Hitler!” Then, in the lin­go of the ring, he rang Max Schmeling’s bell.

One year lat­er, Baer defeat­ed Pri­mo Carn­era for the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship of the world. Again the show­man, at the weigh­ing-in cer­e­mo­ny, Baer began pluck­ing hairs from Carnera’s chest. He loves me … he loves me not,” Baer said. Dur­ing the fight, when Carn­era dragged Baer to the can­vas with him, Baer called out, for all to hear: Last one up’s a sissy.”

Baer lost the cham­pi­onship a year lat­er to James Brad­dock, but con­tin­ued to fight until 1941, when he enlist­ed in the Army. His life­time record was 72 wins (more than 50 by knock­out), and twelve defeats. 

Baer was also a movie star, and appeared, oppo­site Myr­na Loy, in his first movie, The Prize­fight­er and the Lady, in 1933, and in near­ly two dozen movies after that, the last one, The Hard­er They Fall, with Humphrey Bog­a­rt, in 1956. He also played the vaude­ville cir­cuit, often with anoth­er Jew­ish fight­er, one-time light heavy­weight cham­pi­on, Slap­sie Max­ie” Rosenbloom. 

Max Baer had three chil­dren by his third wife (includ­ing Max Baer Jr., of Bev­er­ly Hill­bil­lies fame), and affairs with many women, includ­ing Gre­ta Gar­bo, Jean Har­low, and Mae West. He died at the age of 50.

Small won­der I was enchant­ed by this man, and by his wild, won­der­ful, and improb­a­ble life. And so I invit­ed him to be a char­ac­ter in my nov­el, Max Baer and the Star of David. Although in the nov­el, all the data is accu­rate, the char­ac­ter of Baer is invent­ed. I have also giv­en Max two close friends: Horace and Joleen Lit­tle­john, a black cou­ple — Horace as Max’s Man Fri­day and spar­ring part­ner; Joleen as Max’s house­keep­er and tutor to his chil­dren — as well as a son, Horace Lit­tle­john Jr.

While non-fic­tion gen­er­al­ly deals with the world of the prob­a­ble, fic­tion deals with the world of the pos­si­ble. Thus, a biog­ra­phy of Max Baer might aim to show us what his life was prob­a­bly like, where­as my nov­el shows us what it might pos­si­bly have been but nev­er was. The lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude of my nov­el true, but the life I’ve giv­en to him is invented.

My hope is that the invent­ed Max Baer of my nov­el will, for read­ers, be at least as real as if the real Max Baer had nev­er existed. 

Jay Neuge­boren is the author of near­ly two dozen books, includ­ing two prize win­ning nov­els, two prize-win­ning non-fic­tion books, four col­lec­tions of award-win­ning sto­ries, and his most recent nov­el, Max Baer and the Star of David.

Relat­ed Content:

Jay Neuge­boren is the author of nine­teen books, includ­ing two prize-win­ning nov­els (The Stolen Jew, Before My Life Began), two award-win­ning books of non­fic­tion (Imag­in­ing Robert, Trans­form­ing Mad­ness), and four col­lec­tions of award-win­ning stories.