Sports books tend to be bland reading. They can’t hold a candle to watching an athlete ply his or her trade.
In Beyond Glory, David Margolick does a good job of describing the key fights of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, particularly their two against each other. Yet, as evocative as his writing is, it is nothing to a YouTube clip showing a totally befuddled Schmeling stagger across the canvas and along the ropes as Louis beats the crap out of him in their second bout.
Beyond Glory, though, isn’t a sports book. It’s a book about a moment in time when a single sporting event — that second Louis-Schmeling fight — brought front-and-center the sins and aspirations of a world community.
• Adolf Hitler and the Nazis saw Max Schmeling as a means to over-awe the culture of the globe, as Hitler had over-awed the political leaders.
• African-Americans saw Joe Louis as a means to live out their fantasies of winning in a white man’s world — and literally beating a white man into submission.
• American Jews saw Louis as a means of getting a small bit of revenge against Schmeling’s Nazi backers for their treatment of German Jews.
• Racist whites saw Schmeling as a means of keeping African-Americans in their place.
Have two athletes ever borne such a weight of sins and aspirations?
Who was Schmeling?
Schmeling spent a lifetime gingerly finding and following a circuitous path to gain and re-gain acceptance, particularly when he needed to accept the support of Hitler and his henchmen and still keep his distance. He never joined the Nazi Party, but was often seen giving the Heil Hitler salute.
And, even if Schmeling had been the most kind-hearted, anti-Fascist of men, there was a line he could not cross. Margolick notes:
The American Communist Party speculated that, if Schmeling lost, perhaps some sexual crime of his would be discovered…or…Hitler would decide that excessive exposure to weak democracies had sapped him of his Teutonic strength. Either way, a concentration camp was the best he could expect.
Compare that with the usual fears of an athlete — a bad slump, a bad season, an injury.
Who was Schmeling? It’s hard to guess.
Who was Louis?
And it’s the same with Louis who kept his own counsel, said little and remains an enigma. Margolick writes:
When you stripped away all the layers of mythology and idealization, it was hard to say very much about the Louis who remained. He was dignified and decent, uneducated and inarticulate, though with an odd knack for reducing things to pithy truisms. For all of his violence in the ring, he was largely passive, affectless, even dull outside of it. He was not oblivious to the gargantuan impact he had on others, but like just about everything else, he took it all in stride…
He had few deep feelings of his own, but he had the ability to generate intense passions in others. He was the perfect vehicle for everyone else’s dreams; he could be, and was, whatever someone wanted him to be.
Who was the person inside the Joe Louis of hype and legend? What were his “few deep feelings”? It’s hard to guess.
On his shoulders
Since the 1930s, there have been great black American athletes — Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Jim Brown, Lisa Leslie, Bob Gibson, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, Wilma Rudolph, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, to name a few.
All of them were standing on the shoulders of Louis, even if, today, he is given little recognition. (Indeed, one online listing of the 20 most influential African-American athletes failed to include him.)
Yet, Louis — with his quiet persona outside the ring and ferocity inside — paved the way for other African-Americans to follow. And not just in sports. Like Jackie Robinson, Louis’s success and acceptance helped open the way for blacks in many fields, such as in acting for Denzel Washington and in electoral politics for President Barack Obama.
How bad it was
Beyond Glory is a reminder of how bad it was for American blacks in the 1930s. Paul Gallico, a boxing writer and friend of Max Schmeling, described the situation in sports this way:
When the colored brother is capable in sports…he is usually too capable for this own good. When we needed him for the track team or the boxing squad, for football or to take part in the Olympic Games, he is a full-fledged citizen, our dearly beloved equal, and a true American. At other times he remains just plain nigger, and we’d rather he weren’t around.
Casual racism was everywhere in the sports pages, from the evaluations of Louis as stupid to the mush-mouth quotes attributed to him and his black managers. Here’s how a Chicago Daily news reporter described the fans gathering at the Louis training camp before the second Schmeling fight:
…jeweled octoroons from the Cotton Club on Broadway, sport-togged, white-spectacled young blades from Harlem, conservative mulatto businessmen, all rolling up in sedans or touring cars — and one group of laughing showgirls in a taxicab that had brought them the forty miles from 42nd Street and Broadway.
HE HAD WON
The reactions of African-Americans to the outcomes of Louis’s fights are also indicative of what his career meant to them. Consider what Richard Wright wrote about the celebration on Chicago’s South Side after Louis defeated Max Baer:
They seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street, a fluid mass of joy….Four centuries of oppression, of frustrated hopes, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously, they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation, AND HE HAD WON! Good Gawd Almighty!
And contrast it with this sentence from Walter Wendall, a writer for an African-American newspaper in Boston, after Schmeling beat Louis in their first bout:
Not even the worst days of the Depression could achieve such blanket sadness.
Against Hitler’s man
Then, when Louis crushed Schmeling in a little more than two minutes in their second fight, not just blacks, but whites also celebrated.
At that moment, against the fighter seen as Hitler’s man, on the eve of World War II, many Americans, of all races, saw Louis as one of them.
“Beat the hell out of the damn German bastard!” W.E.B. DuBois, a lifelong Germanophile who rarely swore shouted gleefully in Atlanta…”Everybody danced and sang,” Woody Guthrie wrote from Santa Fe. “I watched the people, laugh, walk, sing, do all sorts of dances. I head ‘Hooray for Joe Louis!’ ‘To hell with Max Schmeling’ in Indian, Mexican, Spanish, all kinds of white tongues.”
Patrick T. Reardon