Jeffrey Sussman, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 193 pages with photographs.
Reviewed by Len Abram
Jews were a vital part of the ascendancy of boxing. From 1901 to 1939, according to boxing historian Mike Silver, they produced 29 world champions, about 16% of the total. Why did Jews enter boxing in such numbers? Why would sweatshop workers spend a $1 to see a match when they earned perhaps $5 a week?
Jeffrey Sussman’s answers these questions by focusing on two Jewish world champions, Max Baer and Barney Ross. Others have written at greater length about Baer and Ross, their careers and lives. Sussman, however, focuses on the significance of their popularity. Part American history and part family nostalgia, Sussman’s book deals with what Jews did for boxing and what boxing did for Jews.
The two fighters didn’t begin from scratch. They had predecessors, who fought before them and made their achievements if not possible, at least more likely. The great lightweight Benny Leonard, oft quoted for calling boxing a game of chess more than brawn, and Abe Attell , “the Little Hebrew,” were both early Jewish champions. Leonard won the Lightweight championship at age 21 in 1917 and defended it seven times. His success, Sussman says, undermined anti-Semitic stereotypes. Attell was Featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912, with a reputation of being afraid of no one.
Baer and Ross were unalike in many ways. Baer, of course, was a heavyweight and Ross a world champion in three lighter divisions. Beryl Rosofsky (Barney Ross) came from the Jewish ghetto in New York City, his parents Orthodox Jews, his father a Talmudic scholar. The neighborhood was dangerous; Ross’s father was killed in a robbery. Max Baer grew up in rural California, a farm, his mother a Gentile, and his father a non-practicing Jew. Both fighters wore the star of David on their trunks, but for Baer, it may have been to promote his bout with the German Schmeling, a favorite of the Nazis. Regardless, Baer wore the Jewish symbol for the rest of his career. Like Ross, he accepted his role to represent Jews.
Their boxing styles were also different. Baer was a big heavyweight, over six feet and 220 pounds, whose right hand punch was so powerful that he won over 50 fights by knockout. He was also famous for not training hard, a handsome man, who later became a movie star, more involved in gossipy romances, than in hours at the gym. He relied on that powerful punch to stay competitive. Ross was of medium height, no more than 147 pounds as a welterweight. He was the superior athlete, who trained hard, winning championships in three different divisions. Rather than a slugger, Ross was a “scientific” fighter, following the Benny Leonard model, boxing as a chess game.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews faced rising anti-Semitism, both here and abroad. Here, Father Charles Coughlin spoke to millions on the radio about Jewish bankers controlling our country. Industrialist Henry Ford, whom Hitler admired, published that a Jewish conspiracy was out to control the world. National hero Charles Lindbergh accused the Jews of pushing America into war with Germany.
When Max Baer stepped into the ring in 1933 to fight Hitler’s favorite boxer, Max Schmeling, the star of David on Baer’s trunks proclaimed that the Jews had a champion. Victorious, Baer became the first Jewish heavyweight champion. Ross’s famous bout with Jimmy McLarnin in 1935 had a similar appeal for Jewish fans: McLarnin was called the “Hebrew Scourge” because he defeated so many Jewish boxers. Ross won the decision. Although neither Schmeling nor McLarnin were anti-Semites, they were painted by social conflicts of the time.
Jews in boxing became “symbols of courage and defiance in age rife with anti-Semitism,” Sussman concludes.
After Baer and Ross retired, Baer went to Hollywood to make movies, one of which was banned in Germany because Baer was Jewish or defeated Shmeling, no one is sure. When World War II began, Baer joined the Army. When war broke out, Ross at age 32 (and plagued with gambling debts) joined the Marines and volunteered for combat.
On Guadalcanal, Ross was badly wounded, yet saved what was left of his platoon against many Japanese attackers. He won the Silver Star, but the narcotics he received for his wounds lead to life-altering addiction. At the infamous rock bottom addicts often face, Ross put himself into drug treatment. Successful, he later he lectured to youngsters about the dangers of drugs. Ross was a strong supporter of the state of Israel. The star of David, like the one on his trunks, is on the stone marker of his grave.
The sport of boxing is in decline, Sussman admits, certainly far from its golden era. He notes that mob influence tainted the sport, along with exploitive managers and promoters, indifferent to the wellbeing of the boxer. The threat to a boxer’s health from brain damage, pugilistic dementia, also hastened the decline. Today, the professions and trades have more to offer young people than the ring. The sport appears to be more popular in films than in arenas.
Yet, for a time, Jews found champions in boxing to defend and to affirm them until acceptance as valued members, to share and to shape American life.
(This review first appeared in the Jewish Advocate.)