Max Baer and the Star of David
By Jay Neugeboren
Max arrived at the YMCA on Monday afternoon, August 24, 1959, accompanied by a young actress, Ilana Roza Bator, who had long flaming red hair, and wore a backless green silk dress. I had been Max’s sparring partner, corner man, handler, and Man Friday all through his glory years—when he was an up and coming boxer, when he was heavyweight champion of the world and, following on his defeat by Jim Braddock, when his boxing career had been in decline even as his star as an actor and entertainer, in movies and vaudeville, had risen. I also worked part-time as coach of the Golden Gloves boxing team at the Embarcadero YMCA in San Francisco and, a treat for my boys and the YMCA community, I had persuaded Max to visit us and stage a few exhibition rounds.
We had set up a boxing ring in the main gymnasium, and Max glad-handed the people assembled there—my boxers, the director of the YMCA, the staff, board members, and major donors and sponsors—and he introduced us all to Ilana, told us she was from Budapest, had arrived in Hollywood three months before, would be starring in a Warner Brothers spectacle about David and Bathsheba, and that while she prepared for the part, he was helping her learn how to cope with producers, directors, and assorted other West Coast predators. Fishermen too, he added, to laughter, which was why he was showing her San Francisco.
He had also brought his accompanist, Leo Bukzin, with him—Leo often worked with Max and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom on their vaudeville tours—for whom we had brought in an upright piano, and Max announced that before we got to footwork in the ring, he and Ilana had a surprise for us. Leo played a rippling intro, and then Max and Ilana broke into a soft-shoe to “Tea for Two,” and when they were done, Max told the young boxers to get in line behind him and Ilana.
“It ain’t that hard—if a lummox like me can do it, so can you, and here’s the way it goes,” he said, and he started in teaching my boxers the basics—the brush, flap, shuffle, and ball change—and as soon as they caught on, he showed them the time-step, and the ‘Jackson Heights crossover,’ and told them they’d soon be dancing rings around their mystified opponents. Then he asked everyone to join in singing, and pretty soon it was as if we were on a sound stage at Warner Brothers, the air filled with music, and my boxers dancing in a chorus line, after which Max had me pass around jump ropes, and he and the boxers—I joined them—began skipping rope in time to the music.
Next, Max got the crowd clapping, a slow one-two beat, accent on the second beat—one-two, one-two—and when the beat had gone on for a while, and Leo had started playing a tinkly burlesque number, Max stripped to the waist, revealing his gorgeous chest and shoulders—my boxers cheered and whistled—and he tore off his trousers, revealing his white silk boxing trunks, a coal-black Star of David emblazoned on the right leg, which had adorned his trunks for the first time when, in 1933, the year Hitler had become Chancellor of the Third Reich, Max had, before 60,000 cheering fans in Yankee Stadium, fought and defeated Hitler’s boxer, Max Schmeling. Max hopped through the ropes and into the ring, and asked who was going be the first guy to get in there and knock him to Canarsie.
“I may be old,” he said, “but I’m as strong as I ever was!” He glanced down toward his private parts. “Why now I can bend it!”
My boxers laughed, many of the women covered their eyes, and when Max beckoned to me, I entered the ring, stripped down to my trunks, which, in preparation, I had worn beneath my street clothes. The cheering grew louder. Two of my fighters now entered the ring, wrapped our hands in tape, put on our gloves, and laced them up for us.
I put on my padded headgear, but when one of the boys offered headgear to Max, he said no thanks, that he didn’t have any brains left for anyone to knock out. He pointed to the Star of David on the right leg of his trunks, and asked if it was kosher to wear it at a Young Men’s Christian Association, or maybe I had a cross of Jesus he could pin on the other leg, and then he announced that what people should be on the lookout for were not stars or crosses, or the punches we threw, but the way we bobbed and weaved to keep punches away so our mothers would still love our gorgeous mugs, and that though he was a pretty fair defensive boxer, they were about to see a guy—me—who was the best of the best.
The bell rang, and we danced around one another, and Max faked a left to the stomach, came over quickly with a right cross, and I brushed it away.
“See what I mean!” he cried out. “See what style this man has! Good manners too, ‘cause that was a wicked right cross I just threw, and he flicked it away like he was telling me to forget the funny business or I’d be seeing stars, right?”
We traded punches, Max skipping away every fifteen or twenty seconds to joke with the crowd—patter I was familiar with—and when the bell rang ending the round, instead of going to his corner, he went to the center of the ring, held up a hand to stop the applause.
“Oh you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet,” he said. “’cause Horace and I got a few more tricks in our bag, but first I got things to say that are serious, and I know that’s hard to believe, all the clowning I do, but I really got some serious things to say today. Okay? Are you with me?”
The crowd shouted its approval, and Max gestured to them to gather in closer to the ring.
“Any of you know what tomorrow is—what anniversary we got coming up?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll tell you then,” Max said. “Tomorrow’s gonna make twenty-nine years since I knocked out a fine young fighter in this town name of Frankie Campbell,” he said. “Now I know you know about him because you boys on Horace’s Golden Gloves teams got scholarships with his name on it. Frankie was a good man, see, and one helluva fighter, and he died because . . . because . . .”
Max swallowed hard. I walked towards him but he waved me away.
“. . . because I hit Frankie Campbell with the last blow he ever felt in this world, and it did something funny to his brain, and we lost him the next day,” Max said. “And now I’m gonna introduce you to a man who wasn’t with us when it happened on that day, but, like me, he’s a man who thinks about Frankie Campbell every day of his life. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a warm welcome for Frank Campbell, Jr.!”
A stocky, well-built young man, standing at the rear of the crowd, waved to us.
“Come on up and say a few words to us, will you?” Max asked, but Frank Campbell, Jr. shook his head sideways, took a step backwards, waved again. “He’s good looking and shy like his dad was, and we can understand why he wouldn’t want to come up here on a day like this,” Max went on. “It would be hard for the best of us, me included, if it was my old man we were talking about. Now Frank Jr. was just a few months old when his father left this world, and do you know what?” Max pointed to the ceiling. “I bet your father’s up there looking down on us and being real proud of you, Frankie, and of how you went and got a college degree at the University of Notre Dame, and how you got your own family and kids now. And you know what else I bet he’s thinking up there? He’s thinking that if he had it to do over again, he’d step into that ring and give it his best, and do you know why? Do you? Do you?”
The gymnasium was silent.
“Well I’ll tell you why,” Max said. “Because he loved the sport the way I love the sport, and Horace loves the sport, and all of you young men on Horace’s teams love the sport, that’s why. Because if you don’t find something in your life you love—really love— life ain’t worth a plugged nickel. Because hey—look at me and what boxing gave me, okay? Because it gave me things I never would of had if not for this great sport. It gave me friends, and a wife and kids, and money, and a chance to make people happy, and—” he glanced at Ilana “—and it gave me a few other benefits too, right?”
Ilana waved to the crowd.
“And it gave Frankie Campbell the way to marry a woman he loved,” Max went on, “and to provide for her, and bring Frank Jr. into the world so he could be here today to honor his father’s memory. So when me and Horace, who was with me that day and held Frankie’s head in his own hands—when Horace and I put on a little show, and then some of you boys go at it, we’re gonna know that Frankie Campbell is looking down and smiling to see us doing the one thing that makes everything else okay, ain’t that right, Frankie?”
Max turned his eyes upwards, and we all did the same, and I almost expected, for a moment, consummate showman that Max was, that we were going to see Frankie Campbell floating up there, and hear his voice pour down blessings on us. Max pulled me to him, an arm around my shoulder, and as had ever been the case, I could not tell if he was being sincere, or playing at being sincere, or if he knew the difference. He talked to me through the opening in my head gear: “So I said to my doctor, ‘I get this ringing in my ears all the time, so what should I do about it?’ and my doc said, ‘Don’t answer it, Max.’”
Then, to the crowd. “And in honor of Frankie, and for the anniversary of his passing, I’m announcing that I’m donating another five thousand dollars to the Frankie Campbell scholarship fund—and oh shit!—I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I? So you gotta make believe you didn’t hear me, okay? Because I don’t want no credit ever, and wanted this to be synonymous, see—”
“Anonymous,” I whispered.
“That too,” Max said, and he pointed to one of the boxers. “So what are you waiting for? Ring that bell, and let’s get to it. But first—Frank Jr.—you take another bow, okay? You take two bows, one for you and one for your father, and you know what? Take one for your mother too, and for your wife, and for your two little kids, and it don’t matter where the money comes from, right? The main thing is to use it to give us a chance we wouldn’t get otherwise. Like I’d still be chopping up sides of beef, and Horace here, who could have been a champion, folks, let me tell you that—oh Horace had the goods for sure—and Horace, he might be washing pots and pans somewhere but instead he’s got a wife and a son who’s the smartest kid in California and who’s best buddies with my own boy. But for Horace friendship came first, see, and that’s another story for another day, so what’s important for you to know is that I love Horace like I love my own brothers—only more because he ain’t my brother, if you get what I mean—and let’s have him take a bow for all the great work he does here, making you proud with your championship teams—!”
People cheered, and the bell clanged, and while I raised my gloved hands in a gesture of thanks and waved to my boxers and well-wishers, Max came at me, hit me two hard punches to the gut, then clipped me on the chin.
“Gotta pay attention, friend,” he said. “That bell rang, and when it does you gotta be ready to come out fighting, because my name is Maximilian Adelbert Baer and I was once heavyweight champion of the world, in case nobody told you.”
I fell back on the ropes, shook my head to clear it, feigned collapse—as if I were going to fall flat on my face—and when Max put his gloved palms out to catch me, I caught him with a good left hook to the gut, and then a solid roundhouse right.
Max did a wobbly backwards jig across the ring and, beaming with happiness, shouted out so everyone could hear: “See what I mean about what a great fighter he is, and how he got the one thing I never had?” He tapped on the side of his head. “And we all know what that is . . . or ain’t.”
Then he came at me again, and we sashayed around the ring together, trading feints and jabs, and when the bell clanged to end the round, Max gave me a big hug—“This is a genuine Baer hug, if you get my meaning!” he called out to the crowd—and then he told me to choose a half-dozen fighters, and each of them would get a minute in the ring with him, and if any of them was able to land a glove on his gorgeous kisser, he would be rewarded with a kiss from Ilana. I chose six of my best boxers, and one at a time they got in the ring with Max and went at him, but Max skipped and danced around a half-step beyond their reach, and sometimes he leaned back against the ropes and let them come at him, toying with them, slipping punches deftly, and batting away their blows as if swatting away flies. And after he was done with the six boxers, my boys started to urge me to go in against Max and win a kiss from Ilana, and began a chant that grew louder and louder.
“Ho-race! Ho-race!” they chanted. “We want Horace! We want Horace! We want Horace! Ho-race! Ho-race!”
I started back into the ring, and Max hugged me again, and told the crowd that he couldn’t make the same wager with me that he’d made with my boys. And why was that?
“Because Horace here is a happily married man,” he said. “He’s married to the most wonderful woman in the world, and I’m proud to say she’s my friend too, and if she heard that I was responsible for him getting kisses from Ilana, why I’d be in deep soup, my friends.”
Everyone laughed, and I was feeling so happy in that moment—proud of my teams, and proud to be Max’s friend, and happy the two of us could give and take the way we could—that I was wishing the afternoon would never end. So I did something I had not expected to do. I suggested that we turn the prize for our prize-fighting around, and that for every blow Max landed on my face, he would get a kiss from Ilana.
Max beamed. “Now I’ve got a wonderful wife and kids too, like Horace, and I’m a married man too—” he said, and paused for a second or two “—but I’m not a fanatic about it.”
And then he and I waltzed around the ring for a while, and gave the folks a show they would never forget, and I made sure that, try as he might, Max did not win a single kiss from Ilana.