It was, writes David Margolick, “the largest audience in history for anything”. On June 22, 1938, 100m people around the world listened to the fight between the black American boxer Joe Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling in New York, writes Simon Kuper. This was the dawn of international sport, captured by Margolick in his new book, Beyond Glory.
“No single sporting event,” Margolick writes, “had ever borne such worldwide weight. The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations.” After Louis destroyed Schmeling in just one round, a German émigré paper in New York wrote: “With the defeat of the boxing Hitler envoy, the whole Nazi blabber about race becomes the joke of the world.” Many blacks hoped Louis could help bring down the colour bar. Many whites feared they were right. Looking back in the year of Schmeling’s death – he would have been 100 last Wednesday – did it mean anything at all?
The two good-natured men in the middle made perfect political symbols. Schmeling, who during Weimar had hung out with Jews, was later adopted by the Nazis. For years he managed to keep almost everyone happy, from Hitler to his New York Jewish manager Joe “Yussel” Jacobs. This was tricky, as Schmeling was always being asked to pronounce on politics. “Ve haff no strikes in Germany,” he assured a Chicago reporter. “Most everybody has job. Times are goot. Ve haff only one union. Ve haff only one party. Everybody agreeable.” Louis, meanwhile, had made the journey of many black Americans. Born the seventh child of a sharecropper in Alabama, he later went north with his family to Detroit. He delivered ice, “hauling sixty-pound blocks up several flights of stairs”, before his gift was discovered.
White journalists portrayed him as an untutored animal. Louis, explained an Italian newspaper, incarnated the “brute force” of the “black race”. It was white fear of this very “force” that dictated contemporary racial arrangements. When Louis lost his first fight to Schmeling in 1936 – the German had spotted that Louis dropped his left arm after delivering a jab – many white Americans and South Africans celebrated along with Hitler. Margolick writes: “Cheers halted business in the House of Representatives for several minutes . . . There was similar chaos in the Senate.” Many German-Americans were pleased too: in 1935, tensions over Schmeling had prompted pro-Nazi rallies in Yorkville on New York’s Upper East Side.
Black joy was great in 1938 when Louis won the re-match. As the black author Richard Wright had exulted years before: “Yes, by Jesus, it could be done! Didn’t Joe do it? Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white. And it came so seldom, so seldom.” Or, to quote a banner in Harlem after Schmeling’s knockout: “The black race is supreme tonight.” There were riots in several American cities that night, with blacks and whites attacking each other.
Mike Gold, the American Communist writer, later wrote that after the knockout he “howled like a curly wolf”. But his wife chided: “It’s only a prizefight, and prizefights don’t decide anything real.” Gold replied: “Baby, dear, it’s more than a prizefight; it’s another nail in the coffin of fascism.”
With hindsight, however, the wife was right. Sport almost never decides anything real. At most, it sometimes becomes an allegory of an era. Schmeling vs Louis was merely that. It’s sad to read now of the hopes that many blacks attached to it. Later black champions – Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan – achieved wonders in sport without managing to change America. Most American basketball, football and track stars are now black, and there are still September’s scenes in New Orleans. Schmeling vs Louis changed nothing, except for briefly making many people happier, which isn’t bad.
Again with hindsight, it’s astonishing that it should have been boxing that unleashed such hysteria. Margolick’s book accompanies the recent films Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby in a wave of boxing nostalgia that is practically a goodbye to the sport. It’s hard to know why 1930s sports fans were so different from us. Perhaps to them, boxing wasn’t much more dangerous than living. Last week’s death at 35 of the flyweight Leavander Johnson, approximately the 900th boxing fatality since 1920, wouldn’t have shocked them as it does us. An executive at a large sportswear company told me corporations simply can’t get behind boxing anymore: it would seem like promoting brain damage.
Louis and Schmeling retired from the ring relatively undamaged. During the atrocities of “Reichskristallnacht”, Schmeling hid two Jewish teenagers – his one known anti-Nazi act. After the war, his and Louis’s fortunes contrasted. Schmeling became a multimillionaire distributor of Coca-Cola in Germany, while Louis finished a mentally ill greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
They had two friendly postwar reunions. Schmeling claimed to have funded Louis’s private funeral in 1981.
“I didn’t only like him, I loved him,” he once said. In fact, as Margolick notes, Schmeling needed Louis, who “provided [him] with what he coveted most: expiation.” The “friendship” proved that Schmeling wasn’t a Nazi. It worked. When Schmeling died this February, he had been a hero in three Germanys – Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Federal Republic.
Neither boxer quite comes alive in Beyond Glory, which is more 1930s’ press digest than book. The best character is the 5ft 2in Jacobs. A cigar-chomping nightbird, son of an Orthodox Jew, he attended Schmeling’s fights in Nazi Germany, where he visited synagogues and was once photographed giving the Hitler salute. “When in Rome, eat pasta fazoole,” he shrugged on his return to New York.
‘Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink’, Knopf, New York, $26.95