Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Michigan in Radio History, Part III: Joe Louis and the punch heard around the world

When Joe Louis and Max Schmeling met for their second bout at Yankee Stadium in New York City, much more was on the line than a simple boxing match. To the citizens of two countries heading toward war, and to the fighters themselves, the outcome had political, social, and racial implications far above the match's value as knock-em, sock-em entertainment.

More than 70 million people around the world listened to the radio broadcast on June 22, 1938, when Detroit's own Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, struck a metaphorical blow for democracy when he defeated Max Schmeling, the darling of Nazi Germany, with a technical knock out two minutes and four seconds into the first round. Those millions of listeners made the broadcast the single-most-listened-to radio program at that point in time, and cemented Louis's reputation as a top-notch boxer and a hero among fans of all races.

Louis (middle) gives the old what for to Schmeling (left) during their second match, in 1938.

Louis's first match with Schmeling revealed little of the glory that would accompany his second encounter with the German boxer. Louis had been born in Alabama, and moved to Detroit with his family when he was 12 years old. Though his mother urged him to take up the violin, young Louis found his future in boxing. He did well on the amateur circuit, and eventually became a professional boxer who amassed a series of wins and who, at the time of his first encounter with Schmeling in 1936, was considered the top contender for the world heavyweight title.

Schmeling, a former heavyweight title holder himself, was said to be on the "downswing" in terms of his career. Consequently, Louis, nearing the pinnacle of his, didn't seriously train for the match. To Louis's detriment, Schmeling trained extensively, and defeated Louis by knocking him out in round twelve of their match on June 19, 1936 in Yankee Stadium. Losing a match that he expected to win was bad enough, but Louis suffered the additional indignity of knowing that Nazi officials touted Schmeling's win as proof of Aryan superiority. Adolf Hitler himself sent congratulatory flowers to Schmeling's wife, and Schmeling became a hero in his home country.

(It should be noted that Schmeling did not relish his place in the Nazi propaganda machine. He himself was not a Nazi, and he even had a Jewish manager he would not fire, despite repeated requests that he do so. Schmeling refused honors from Hitler, and was forbidden from taking his family to the United States during his matches because German officials feared he would use the opportunities to defect.)

Louis went on to win the heavyweight title from James J. Braddock (a.k.a., "Cinderella Man") in 1937, but said that he wouldn't consider himself the "true" title winner until he had defeated Schmeling. The second matchup, as mentioned, took place in Yankee Stadium, the scene of Louis's earlier defeat, and had an in-house audience of 70,000 people, including celebrities like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck.

The "Us versus Them" rhetoric was as strong as it had been for the first match, and probably even stronger due to escalating tensions between Germany and the United States. Louis undoubtedly felt increased pressure, especially after President Franklin D. Roosevelt told him, in essence, to beat Germany. In his biography, Louis noted, "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me."

Schmeling, for his part, likely felt similar pressure, especially because his Nazi-appointed public relations representative kept spouting off statements that insisted no black man could defeat Schmeling, and that Schmeling's prize money from the fight would be put toward tanks for the German war effort.

Though both boxers felt the heat, Louis was better prepared this time, and told a sportswriter before the match that he wanted to knock out Schmeling in the first round. Louis's strategy involved a series of left hooks and body blows that took Schmeling off his feet a few times before finally felling him slightly more than two minutes after the fight had begun. Louis had thrown forty-one punches, while Schmeling had thrown only two.

African Americans across the country rejoiced, celebrating the fact that America's new hero had struck a blow for racial equality. Newspapers across the country reported on the victory, trumpeting Louis's win, but also couching their language in offensive stereotypes. (One reporter from United Press called Louis "a jungle man...out to destroy the thing he hates" [i.e., Schmeling]). Despite the American media's decision to portray the story in a manner that probably mirrored the way German reporters were tackling it, "everyday" Americans embraced Louis as a hero, especially after he enlisted in the Army during World War II. And in an unanticipated but appropriate postscript to this story, Louis and Schmeling eventually became friends, and remained so until Louis's death in 1981--a fact that demonstrates the power of friendship in the face of suspicion, hatred, international drama...and several left hooks to the face.

Louis, left, and Schmeling in 1971.

For More Information:

Video and play-by-play of the fight:

Additional Reading:

Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, by David Margolick

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