Boxing champ Max Baer a knockout in Coeur d'Alene

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Maxmilian Adelbert Baer was a powerhouse of a man with fists like a sledgehammer and a heart like a marshmallow. On Aug. 31, 1936, a Coeur d'Alene crowd at Memorial Field saw just what a tough fighter he was.

In the ring he was ferocious, but outside he was kind, gentle, generous and happy-go-lucky, had a ready smile and the public adored him - a bright star in the gloomy skies of the Great Depression.

In the ring and out, Max loved to act the clown. At the weigh-in with Primo Carnera - with the six-foot-six Italian looking down at him - Max playfully plucked the hairs from Primo's massive chest reciting, "He loves me, he loves my not..."

Crowd-pleasing as Max's antics were, his fists hid a terribly lethal weapon.

On Aug. 25, 1930, Max faced Frankie Campbell in a ring built over home plate at San Francisco's Recreation Park. That tragic fight ended Campbell's life and haunted Max for the rest of his.

After taking a jarring punch in the second round, Campbell complained, "Something feels like it snapped in my head."

In the fifth round, Tillie "Kid" Herman - who used to be Max's friend and trainer before suddenly switching to Campbell's side - taunted him. Enraged, Baer pummeled Campbell to the canvas, quickly ending the bout. It took 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, while Max and his team remained by the stricken boxer.

(Kid Herman should have thrown in the towel when he saw that his fighter was being hammered so hard, with little chance of recovering - but he didn't.)

Holding Frankie's wife Ellie's hand, Max said, "It was unfortunate, I'm awfully sorry."

"It even might have been you, mightn't it?" she replied.

Frankie died at noon the next day, his mother and Ellie by his side.

Hearing of Frankie's death, Max sobbed uncontrollably and the memory of the tragedy remained with him all his life. He stopped fighting for months, then when he resumed he gave his earnings from several succeeding fights to the grieving widow.

Max was charged with manslaughter but later cleared.

"My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell," his son Max Jr. wrote in his autobiography. "He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet ... He never deliberately hurt anyone."

In the boxing world during the 1930s, World Heavyweight Champion Max Schmeling was the star in the early years, and Joe Louis the champion at the end. In between, the spotlight was on others - including Max Baer.

Max fought 84 bouts as a pro, winning 72 (53 by knockouts) and losing 12. His opponents included boxing greats like Lou Nova, "Two-Ton" Tony Galento, Britain's Tommy Farr, Joe Louis, Jim Braddock, Primo Carnera and German heavyweight Max Schmeling - Hitler's favorite.

In June 1933, Baer fought Schmeling before 60,000 at Yankee Stadium. Wearing a Star of David on his shorts - honoring his Jewish father's heritage - Max dominated the fight until the referee stopped it in the 10th round, declaring Baer the winner. Hitler never forgot.

Years later when Baer appeared in a Hollywood movie - "The Prizefighter and the Lady," starring Myra Loy and Walter Huston - Hitler banned the film in Germany.

"They didn't ban the picture because I have Jewish blood," Baer commented. "They banned it because I knocked out Max Schmeling." (His father was a non-practicing Jew, and his mother was a Scotch-Irish Catholic.)

On June 14, 1934, when Baer faced the towering Primo Carnera - who was three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier - he knocked the big Italian down 11 times, before the ref stopped the fight in the 11th round. Max was the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.

He held the title for one day less than a year, losing it on a 15-round decision to "Cinderella Man" James J. Braddock - a 10-to-1 underdog - at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Queens, N.Y.

Tough times were ahead for the popular heavyweight.

Max wanted a shot at Joe Louis - a promising and dangerous heavyweight from Detroit - and got it. Louis knocked him out in the fourth round. Max never had the rematch he wanted, and Joe went on to win the title.

One of Max's more colorful opponents - that both he and his younger brother Buddy defeated - was Two-Ton Tony Galento, a burly brawler from New Jersey who wrestled an octopus, boxed a kangaroo and 550-pound bear for publicity, and whose typical meal was "six chickens, a side of spaghetti, all washed down with a half gallon of red wine, or beer - or both - at one sitting."

Traveling the country fighting to regain his title, Max often appeared on the same boxing card with Buddy. Both were on the five-fight program in Coeur d'Alene on Aug. 31, 1936. Max arrived in town after having clobbered Al Frankco in Lewiston just two days earlier.

In Coeur d'Alene, he enjoyed his reputation as the Playboy Boxer, did some fishing, boating, attending movies and signing autographs for the kids who followed him around, while adults gawked from windows.

Baer was scheduled to fight Big Jim Cooney from Alaska, but Cooney cancelled his appearance due to illness. At the last minute, Don Baxter agreed to fight in his place, and Memorial Field was filled with 4,000 fans, who paid from $1.10 to $2.30 to see the action.

Buddy won his preliminary bout; then it was Max and Baxter. The fight lasted just 45 seconds - Max Baer by a knockout. The fans were not pleased - feeling they didn't get their money's worth. The Coeur d'Alene Press reported, "the fans jeered, catcalled and hooted."

The next day, the Press questioned State Boxing Commissioner C.D. Emahiser why he didn't tell the public about the opponent switch when he knew about it four days earlier?

The Press editorial further chided, "Why Commissioner Emahiser did not notify fight fans ... they were substituting a man entirely out of Baer's class."

The public was further duped by a man signing autographs around town, posing as Big Jim Cooney.

When Max knocked out Don Baxter that night, it was his 15th fight in three months. He would fight seven more bouts before Halloween.

But there was much more to the Omaha-born tough guy than pounding faces. When he finally hung up his gloves - after losing on a TKO in the eighth round against Lou Nova on April 4, 1941 - Hollywood was waiting.

Hollywood suited Max just fine, and he appeared in some 20 movies - including "Africa Screams," with Abbott and Costello, and Humphrey Bogart's final movie, "The Harder They Fall."

He enjoyed the company of movie stars, chorus girls, and Broadway starlets, and was married twice - first to Dorothy Dunbar, then Mary Ellen Sullivan. His son Max Baer Jr., followed in his father's Hollywood footsteps, playing Jethro Bodine on the popular The Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

On Nov. 19, 1959, Max stopped in Garden Grove, Calif., to fulfill a promise he made to a sparring partner's son when the boy was just five. It was the young man's 18th birthday, and Max gave him a foreign sports car - like he promised 13 years earlier.

Two days later at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Max had chest pains and asked to see a doctor. The desk clerk said, "A house doctor will be right up."

"A house doctor?" Max quipped. "No, dummy, I need a people doctor."

The doctor did what he could but Max's heart finally gave out, with him murmuring, "Oh God, here I go." He was 50.

His funeral was in Sacramento, where 1,500 attended - including four world boxing champions. Former champions Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were among the pallbearers.

Max Baer was inducted into four Halls of Fame, and Ring Magazine named him one of "50 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time."

Five times Big Max came to Idaho to fight and five times he left as the winner.

In the history of boxing, he will always be remembered for his prowess as a great heavyweight fighter, and as a Hollywood personality with a kind and happy heart.

He was indeed a winner.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at

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