Jeffrey Sussman: It’s a good question. Most people, Jews and non-Jews, have no idea that from 1910 to 1941, there were 628 professional Jewish boxers in the United States. Many of them, including Barney Ross, were Orthodox Jews. Ross and more than a dozen others were world champion title holders. And Ross was one of the best--he was the first boxer to hold three championship titles at one time.
Ross had fought his way out of poverty, rescuing his siblings from foster care, after his father had been murdered by a pair of hold-up men. Ross had a trilogy of fights with a boxer named Jimmy McLarnin, who was known as a Jew Killer, for all the Jewish boxers he had defeated. Ross and McLarnin had a trilogy of bouts: Ross won the first, lost the second, and won the third. He became a hero to Jews across America.
During the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rife in America. Promoters felt that pitting a Jew against an Irishman would attract a large crowd of fans
During the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rife in America. Promoters felt that pitting a Jew against an Irishman would attract a large crowd of fans.
Ross was one of the all-time greats. Max Baer, on the other hand, would probably be classified as an underachiever, even though he did hold the heavyweight championship for a year.
I decided to write about Max Baer because he had fought and defeated Max Schmeling, Hitler’s favorite athlete.
Right. Baer, if he’s remembered today, is known as the preening, clowning antagonist to “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock. But as you detail in your book, he actually fought—and defeated—Schmeling years before Schmeling’s legendary fights with Joe Louis.[i]
Baer so severely pummeled Schmeling that the referee had to stop the fight in the 10th round. More than 30,000 Jews, during the height of the Great Depression, paid to see that fight in Yankee Stadium.
Baer was one of the sport’s great characters, at a time when the boxing was, at worst, the second-most popular sport in the country.
Numerous Jewish movie producers were so excited by Baer’s defeat of Schmeling that they invited him to Hollywood to star in a movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady. Max, who was movie-star handsome and built like Tarzan, proceeded to have affairs with some of era’s top leading ladies, such as Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, among various others.
How did this book come about? What was the impetus or motivation for you in telling the story of Ross and Baer?
The origins for my writing the book actually started when I was twelve years old. I was short and skinny, and my father was worried that bigger boys in the public school I attended might pick on me. One day, he brought home a pair of boxing gloves, a speed bag, a heavy bag, and a jump rope. He taught me the elements of boxing, and I learned that my father had been an amateur boxer in his late teens. He had grown up in a German immigrant neighborhood in Queens, New York, and there was pervasive anti-Semitism in that community. He often got in fist fights with those who espoused anti-Semitism.
When I was growing up, it seemed like every other house in the neighborhood had a heavy bag or speedbag hanging in the garage or basement. Boxing held a much greater cultural cache than it does today.
My father told me about his good friend Abe Simon, who played football for John Adams High School. Abe, by the time he was a junior in high school, was 6’4” and all muscle. One day, at a Jewish Social Club in Queens that Abe and my father belonged to, they were confronted by four teenage members of the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi group with members throughout the United States. They were taunting members of the club, shouting threats and anti-Semitic slurs. Abe knocked two of the boys unconscious, each with a single blow. A third boy, a little tougher than the first two, received a right to the chin, a left to the stomach, and another right to his chin. He slumped to the ground. The fourth boy took off running, shouting that a Jewish thug was on the loose.
One day, while playing football during his senior year in high school, Abe was observed by a pair of boxing promoters who were sitting in the stands. Following the game, they caught up with Abe in the school’s locker room. They asked him if he would like to become a professional boxer. They told him he could earn a lot of money and be a symbol of strength for the Jewish community. Since he was the son of poor immigrants, he was intrigued by the opportunity to make a great deal of money. He talked it over with his parents, and his mother urged him to accept. Abe was put in the hands of one of boxing’s great trainers, Freddie Brown, and he learned all the tricks and techniques of the sport. He fought with a Star of David on his trunks and went on to have a successful career. He knocked out a superb heavyweight, named Jersey Joe Walcott, and earned a shot at the heavyweight crown, then held by one of the greatest boxers of all time, Joe Louis. Louis was nearly unbeatable. Abe fought Joe twice, losing by a technical knock-out each time.
Your father’s friend fought Joe Louis twice? What became of him?
After his last fight with Joe Louis, Abe had a brief career as a movie actor. He appeared in On the Waterfront and Requiem for a Heavyweight, among various others. He was the last of the really accomplished Jewish boxers. I was deeply influenced by Abe’s story and agreed with my father that I should learn to box. After my father taught me the basics of boxing, he signed me up for ten boxing lessons at Stillman’s Gym, the most famous boxing gym in the United States from the 1920s to the late 1950s.
[Stillman] had a big, ugly cigar stuffed into his face that smelled like rotten cabbage. He had a snub-nosed .38 in a shoulder holster. Hair billowed out from the sides of his head.
There was Mr. Stillman sitting at a desk near the door. He had a big, ugly cigar stuffed into his face that smelled like rotten cabbage. He had a snub-nosed .38 in a shoulder holster. Hair billowed out from the sides of his head.
Mr. Stillman called over a young middleweight named Nick, a good-looking Italian kid with dark, curly hair. He was going to be my trainer. Nick led me through one of the filthiest gyms in existence. It smelled of sweat and lineament. There were the sibilant sounds of soft-soled shoes skipping rope, the thwack thwack thwack of gloves hitting body bags, and quick pop pop pop of gloves gyrating against speed bags.
Nick taught me to jab with my left, punch straight out with my right, and deliver an effective right cross. In addition, I learned to duck, to feint, to swing a left to the body and a right to the jaw. I learned how to protect my head and to look for openings. I learned how to create openings. Nick had me shadow boxing and skipping rope. But he wouldn’t let me get into one of the ring. He said I was too young, and I’d get killed.
When I told this story to boxing writer, Peter Wood, an English teacher who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, he suggested I begin writing about boxing for a website, www.boxing.com. And this leads us back to how I began work on this project: After writing for the site for several months, I decided that I would investigate the role of Jewish boxers in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was rife in the United States.
My research into the lives and careers of Baer and Ross ignited my imagination, and I decided to write a book about how important Jewish boxers were as symbols of courage and defiance in this time period. It is the only book that deals with the subject of Jews as symbolic gladiators against the rising tide of anti-Semitism that was flooding Europe and infecting much of the populace of the United States during the 1930s.[ii]
With apologies to Yuri Foreman [an active junior middleweight], there hasn’t been a Jewish fighter of real note in many decades. Why?
Nearly all of the Jewish boxers were the sons of poor immigrants, many of whom worked in sweatshops or were peddlers. A tough young boxer could earn more in one fight than his father earned in a month. Most of those young boxers retired after five or six years, because they didn’t want to suffer brain damage. By the time they married and had their own children, they would never let their kids become boxers. Instead, they were encouraged to attend college and become members of a professional class where they could earn good livings without being regularly punched. The historical and economic circumstances that drove many young Jews into boxing no longer exist for them.
The timing of your book, at least to me, is somewhat striking given the increase in visible and/or vocal in Anti-Semitism in this country over the past year or so. Is this something you thought about while researching and writing the book? If not, is it something you think about now, both as a writer and a Jew?
Yes, I thought about it while researching and writing the book. And I hope that the book provides Jewish readers and others with a sense of how important it is to stand up and fight against bigotry.
Do you think professional athletes have a responsibility or an obligation to address social or political issues? If so, are there any contemporary fighters (or athletes) you admire in this respect?
I think that all athletes, because of their public images, have an obligation to address important issues. They can have a very positive influence on society and encourage others to address social and political issues.
I think that all athletes, because of their public images, have an obligation to address important issues.
[i] Baer, to his lifelong regret, was also known for something far more ominous and chilling than his playboy ways: On August 25, 1930, Baer savagely beat Frankie Campbell into unconsciousness. Campbell died of his injuries the next day. Two years later, Baer knocked out Ernie Schaaf, who lay motionless and unresponsive for three minutes before regaining consciousness. Schaaf suffered from headaches and other symptoms for months after the fight, and died in the ring in his very next bout against the light-hitting, unskilled Primo Carnera. The newspapers of the day assigned the brunt of the blame for Schaaf's death on Baer, although it was later noted that Schaaf was suffering from influenza and meningitis when he entered the ring that night against Carnera.
[ii] And Barney Ross was more than a symbolic gladiator—as Sussman details in his book, he was a bonafide war hero who received the Silver Cross for gallantry in action during WW II (he enlisted at the age of 33). The details of Ross’ courage under fire are harrowing, and as Sussman and others have argued, he may have had a case for the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.