Teddy Baer

The son of a legendary boxer says a popular movie engaged in some low blows

Max Baer Jr. has vivid memories of his father, and they don’t include the brutality shown in a popular movie.

Max Baer Jr. has vivid memories of his father, and they don’t include the brutality shown in a popular movie.

Photo By David Robert

With the video release of the hit movie Cinderella Man, Max Baer Jr. is speaking out about the movie’s portrayal of his father, boxer Max Baer.

The movie is a semi-biographical film about a down-on-his-luck boxer, James Braddock, whose unexpected 1935 underdog victory over Baer for the heavyweight championship made him a hero to many unemployed workers during the Depression.

The video was released on Dec. 6 at a list price of $29.98. It includes such extra features as black-and-white footage of the original Braddock/Baer fight.

Braddock is portrayed as a friendly, devoted Catholic family man, while Baer is portrayed as a surly, snarling brute.

“They got his name right,” said his son mockingly.

Whether it was necessary to demonize Max Baer in order to make James Braddock a sympathetic figure preoccupies Baer Jr., a Lake Tahoe resident and former actor (Beverly Hillbillies) and director (Ode to Billy Joe). He says the film stays inside some of the basic facts of Baer’s life, such as his being heavyweight champion, but wanders outside those facts otherwise.

Baer Jr. said of his father, “He was a gentleman, totally … and he liked Jimmy Braddock.” He said that his father was a ladies man who was occasionally sued for breach of promise of marriage. But even in this area of the boxer’s life, Baer Jr. says the movie got the story wrong.

“They portrayed him even as a brute to the women, but he wasn’t. He was a gentleman with the women. … [H]e was just a womanizer but he didn’t beat on women. He didn’t hit women.”

Baer Jr. says while his father wasn’t perfect, he was a good man. He said his father’s reaction to fighting Braddock was to think, “Hey, they wouldn’t let me fight him in 1931 and now it’s 1935. If they didn’t think he was qualified to fight me in ‘31, why would they think he was qualified to fight me now?”

And, the younger Baer says, his father was a playful man. “He was like a kid.”

Where the movie says Max Baer killed two men in the ring, Baer Jr. says it was one man—Frankie Campbell, who died as a result of a Baer knockout on Aug. 25, 1930. In the Campbell case, Baer was cleared of criminal charges, but boxing historians say the death affected his career.

“Baer quit boxing for several months after Campbell’s death, then lost four of his next six fights, partly because of his reluctance to go on the attack,” according to The Boxing Register by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt. “One victor, Hall of Famer Tommy Loughran, told Baer that he was looping and telegraphing his punches.” The boxer started diverting a portion of his winnings to Campbell’s family.

The movie’s claim that Baer killed two men references fighter Ernie Schaaf, who did indeed fight Baer, in December 1930 and August 1932—and survived both fights, winning one. “After his bout with Baer, Schaaf went on to fight another four men before he expired,” George McCartney writes.

Schaaf died after a Feb. 10, 1933, fight with Primo Carnera, not Max Baer. Schaaf died two days after he was knocked out by Carnera in the 13th round—six months after Schaaf’s second fight with Baer. An autopsy suggested a recent bout with pneumonia was a factor. A 75-year-old family member, Anita Schaaf, has criticized the movie and director Ron Howard for the misrepresentation.

The movie’s rewriting of history, however, may never be corrected now, so widely has the claim spread. A Google search for the name Max Baer in combination with the term “killed two” produced 9,360 hits.

On the same day last week that Baer Jr. spoke with the RN&R, director Howard had an opportunity to correct the record after months of criticism of the movie’s claim. Instead, during an appearance on the Tonight Show to promote the video release, Howard repeated the claim to Jay Leno: “He ended up fighting Max Baer, a guy who killed two people in the ring.”

Beyond the issue of Ernie Schaaf, the younger Baer said his father was nothing like the churlish thug the movie represents. He says if the movie had given Braddock the same kind of treatment, the married and Catholic Braddock might have been portrayed as Jewish and promiscuous—and, he says, it would have been equally inaccurate.

Max Baer wore a Star of David on his boxing shorts in the ring, and the film reduces the size of the emblem, so it is barely noticeable to moviegoers. Slate’s David Fellerath has written, “It’s no surprise that Howard would obscure this detail, as it would complicate his film’s Rocky-meets-Seabiscuit narrative.” While some have questioned whether Baer was really Jewish, it matters little since Baer—Jewish or not—was willing to identify himself with Jews at a time when prejudice and reports of terrible Nazi anti-Semitic crimes were common.

The portrayal of Baer, played in the movie by Craig Bierko, has aroused anger in some circles, particularly among boxing fans. One conservative blogger wrote, “I also thought the biggest problem with the film was the demonization of Baer.”

“Cinderella sucker-punched Max Baer” said a headline in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Max Baer kicks Opie’s Butt” said Like Television Blog. California’s San Ramon Valley Times: “It’s time for the citizens and city of Livermore to come to the defense of favorite son Max Baer, who has been vilified.”

Max Baer also had a considerable show business career as a vaudevillian, radio personality, nightclub performer, and movie and television actor. He made 20 movies and appeared in television programs like 77 Sunset Strip. His best-remembered movie was a drama built around boxing—the Humphrey Bogart vehicle The Harder They Fall, partly set in Nevada.

Baer was a familiar Nevada figure. In 1934, he trained at Lake Tahoe for his fight with Primo Carnera. During his stay there, the German government banned his movie The Prizefighter and the Lady for a stated reason that Baer was a Jew. Baer responded with the retort, “They didn’t ban the picture because I have Jewish blood, they banned it because I knocked out [German boxer] Max Schmeling.” He later left the training camp at Frank Globin’s Al Tahoe for a warmer site.

Baer also trained at Lawton’s (Laughton’s) Hot Springs near Reno. He was once photographed dealing blackjack at the Riverside Hotel.

Baer took an interest in promotion of a proposed 1931 fight in Reno between welterweights Jackie Fields and Jack Thompson that didn’t come off. He was also once stopped for speeding in Fernley.

Baer performed at the Golden Hotel on Center Street in Reno, where Harrah’s is now located. On July 4, 1931, at the Reno Race Track (now the county fairgrounds) he lost a 20-round fight with Paulino Uzcuduno that was promoted by Jack Dempsey. At the same location, one year to the day later, he beat Kingfish Levinksy in a 20-round decision. Baer’s most colorful Nevada fight was against local Big Ed Murphy on Sept. 4, 1939. The color was supplied by its location—the tiny former ghost town of Silver Peak in Esmeralda County. He knocked Murphy out.