This Book on Jewish Boxers Is a Knockout
One Jewish boxer killed another man in the ring. The other killed 22 Japanese men on the battlefield in World War II. One seemed to be addicted to sex. The other became addicted to drugs. The unlikely story of two of the toughest Jews of all time is exquisitely examined in Jeffrey Sussman’s new book, Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing.
Sussman explains that Baer (whose father was Jewish) discovered that he had the skills to be a boxer when he punched a lumberjack who had been chasing him for stealing alcohol. Baer famously wore a Jewish star on his trunks and defeated Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1933 at Yankee Stadium, showing that the Aryan race was not, in fact, superior to the Jewish one.
Despite being a 4-1 underdog, Baer took charge and actually had to ask the referee to end the fight, fearing that he would seriously injure the German boxer.
It was a different fight, however, that changed Baer’s life.
According to Sussman, Baer was forever haunted by the result of his previous bout with Frankie Campbell. After insults from Campbell’s corner, Baer hit harder than usual. Instead of falling to the ground, Campbell was held up by the ropes through a volley of punches, and later died from the blows.
Sussman writes about this with powerful clarity: “Baer, a witness to his own power and a perpetrator of another man’s doom, was reduced to tears and remorse. He had signed up for boxing to earn money, not to kill someone.”
Two interesting tidbits that Sussman includes are the rumor that Baer was circumcised before the Schmeling fight (hard to believe, but okay), and that he had sexual relations with a woman moments after his historic fight with James Braddock. Braddock upset Baer, and took the championship from him in that fight.
Over the course of his career, Baer went 66-13, with 51 knockouts. Due to his good looks, it was thought that he would also have a career in film. He did well in The Prizefighter and The Lady, but didn’t enjoy more film success. The book also includes the anecdote that Baer once joked that he had “a million-dollar body and a 10-cent brain.”
The book also focuses on Beryl Rosofsky, who became known as Barney Ross. Ross suffered belt beatings from his father, who was concerned that Ross would get into trouble on the streets. “Let gentiles fight,” Sussman writes, describing the father’s advice to his son. “A Jew should study and learn from the Talmud.”
But Ross’ father was killed when two hoodlums came into his store with pistols, and shot him in the chest. As a result, Ross gave up religion entirely and wound up working for Al Capone and becoming best friends with Jacob Rubenstein, who would later be known as Jack Ruby — the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald. Capone steered Ross towards boxing.
Ross was a guy who “hit first and didn’t ask questions later,” Sussman writes. His two major victories were over Jimmy McLarlin and Tony Canzoneri.
The Chicago lightweight and welterweight went 72-4, and received a medal for saving fellow troops during World War II. Though he could have avoided army service and opted for a ceremonial role, Ross insisted on combat. He took pain killers after being injured in the war, and wound up becoming addicted to drugs.
Perhaps the most unbelievable portion of the book is the description of Joe Jacobs, a heralded Jewish manager who took boxing by storm — and took Max Schmeling under his wing. When Hitler wanted Schmeling to dump his Jewish manager, the German boxer actually refused. Furthermore, in Hitler’s Germany, Jacobs was brazen enough to mock the Nazi salute in the boxing ring with a cigar. Jacobs would be criticized by both Germans and Jews for this action.
Sussman dutifully recounts how, in a time of the depression and antisemitism, Baer and Ross gave Jews hope and pride. This book hits hard, and is a great read that will make you wish there were more Jewish fighters in the game today.