- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

For sports fans with several decades under their suspenders, two events stand out above all others for sheer drama: Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that won the 1951 National League pennant playoff for the New York Giants and Joe Louis’ 124-second destruction of Max Schmeling in their 1938 heavyweight title bout at Yankee Stadium.

Thomson’s home run that did in the Brooklyn Dodgers has been exhumed and examined by nearly every sportswriter this side of Grantland Rice. Now we have a definitive work on Louis-Schmeling in “Beyond Glory” by David Margolick ($26.95, Knopf, 424 pages, illus.), and a most compelling read it is.

From a distance of 67 years, it might be hard for today’s fans to understand why the fight — if that’s what it was — seemed so significant. Yet in Louis and his rapid rise to fame and fortune, millions of downtrodden black Americans found a true hero in a time when most of the nation remained strictly and sadly segregated. And in Schmeling, he was destroying a German who served as a symbol of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich that soon would plunge the globe into World War II.

As if that didn’t make for an epic enough script, journeyman Schmeling had knocked out the supposedly invincible Louis two years earlier in what remains one of boxing’s greatest upsets. No wonder most of the Western world was agog as the two men approached their rematch.

As author Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, posits in his introduction: “The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. … ‘Louis represents democracy in its purest form: the Negro boy who would be permitted to become a world champion without regard to race, creed or color,’ a sportswriter from Boston had written that morning. ‘Schmeling represents a country which does not recognize that idea or ideal.’”

The unidentified sportswriter from Boston was a rare bird among his peers both in the United States and abroad. Margolick uses quotes from many sources, of course, and it is embarrassing even at this late date to read how many whites regarded Louis — i.e. as a superb physical specimen who possessed not an iota of intelligence or common sense. Inexcusably, the old Stepin Fetchit caricature was hauled out and paraded as the gospel truth by most white writers.

Personal note: When Louis died in 1981 at age 66, I was assigned to write a Page 1 obituary for the Washington Star, then only four months short of its own demise. Prowling through clip files in the newspaper’s library, I found numerous references from the 1930s to “the Chocolate Clouter,” “the Sepia Slugger,” and “the Dusky Destroyer,” among others. For shame.

There is no evidence that former champion Schmeling, who became a highly successful German businessman after the war and died this February at 100, was a Nazi. But he unquestionably curried favor with Hitler and his lackeys and permitted himself to be displayed as a representative of the supposedly superior Aryan race.

Until the night of June22, 1938 at the “House That Ruth Built” in the Bronx.

Through no fault of Margolick, a smooth and talented writer, the first half of the book makes for somewhat tedious reading as it details the careers of the two fighters. Louis was unbeaten when they met at Yankee Stadium on June19, 1936. But Schmeling, a 10-1 underdog, had noticed that Louis always dropped his left hand after throwing a jab, leaving him wide open for a right cross. Schmeling nearly tore Louis’ head off with one in the second round, sending the American into a daze that lasted until Max put him away in the 12th.

The following year, Louis won the heavyweight title by knocking out the so-called “Cinderella Man,” Jim Braddock, while Schmeling marked time. “But I won’t consider myself a true champion until I beat Max Schmeling,” Louis said, or words to that effect.

So it was that 66,277 fans congregated at the Stadium in June1938 — a mob that included nearly every white politician, movie and radio star and wannabe celebrity in the land.

As Margolick approaches the fight in his book, our own excitement builds. As the bell sounds for Round1, he writes, “for one brief, immeasurable interval, nothing happened except an ineffable surge of mass anticipation. … Schmeling walked out of his corner matter of factly, like a man going to a business appointment. Louis … all but bounded out.”

Early in the round, Louis landed a punch to the kidneys that caused Schmeling to unleash “a half human, half animal” scream. The German’s utter devastation required just more than two minutes and left him a pitiable, almost inhuman hulk who spent the next three weeks in a hospital. Perhaps the best and certainly the pithiest description was turned in by a reporter for the Charlotte News who was doing a blow-by-blow account: “Bang!

After the fight was stopped, Schmeling lurched over to Louis’ corner and congratulated his assailant. He then cried as Black America celebrated and Nazi Germany mourned.

Schmeling landed, by official count, two punches in the bout. Earlier that week in Brooklyn, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer had pitched his second consecutive no-hitter. Schmeling, one writer noted, pitched a third.

For Louis, who would defend his title 25 times against mostly mediocre opponents between 1937 and 1949, the thrill of his monumental victory soon faded.

“I thought that would be the happiest moment of my life, the night I knocked out Schmeling and got my revenge,” he said a few months later. “And when I did, it didn’t seem important any more.”

But it was — and still is. “Beyond Glory” tells us why, brilliantly.

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