Joe Louis: Hard Times Man
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Joe Louis defended his heavyweight boxing title an astonishing twenty-five times and reigned as world champion for more than eleven years. He got more column inches of newspaper coverage in the 1930s than FDR did. His racially and politically charged defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938 made Louis a national hero. But as important as his record is what he meant to African-Americans: at a time when the boxing ring was the only venue where black and white could meet on equal terms, Louis embodied all their hopes for dignity and equality.
Through meticulous research and first-hand interviews, acclaimed historian and biographer Randy Roberts presents Louis, and his impact on sport and country, in a way never before accomplished. Roberts reveals an athlete who carefully managed his public image, and whose relationships with both the black and white communities—including his relationships with mobsters—were far more complex than the simplistic accounts of heroism and victimization that have dominated previous biographies.
Richly researched and utterly captivating, this extraordinary biography presents the full range of Joe Louis’s power in and out of the boxing ring.
finished him with a left-hook, right-uppercut combination. For five seconds Baer lay inert on the canvas, then his muscles “twitched convulsively” and he struggled to get up. At the count of eight he reached one knee, but he tumbled forward and was counted out. After the match Louis told reporters, “Felt like I had 20,000 people in my corner and I wanted to end it quick.”47 * * * Two numbers increased Louis’ status. On January 13, 1942, the champion, accompanied by his managers and Mike
he was sleeping in his Los Angeles residence, his Las Vegas guest house, or a hotel on the road, he would tape cardboard over heating and air-conditioning vents and electrical outlets. One evening, Martha was shocked to see grease spots on the ceiling of a Miami hotel room where Joe was lodging. It was a brand new hotel. “I was stopping up the cracks,” Louis explained. “The poison gas is coming through them.” When she quizzed him further, he said, “I got this mayonnaise out of the refrigerator
section of the country, in big cities and hamlets, pitched battles occurred. Although a number of whites were injured, in far more cases blacks were shot, stabbed, and lynched. Interracial violence resulted in the deaths of at least twenty black Americans. In the reform magazine Independent, an editor wrote, “Like the Hexenlehrling these apostles of savagery have unchained the demons of disorder whom they are powerless to lay.”42 Never before had a sporting contest—or any other event—unleashed
outside the ring. But the writer knew that black fighters of the past, from Tom Molineaux of the early nineteenth century to Harry Wills and George Godfrey of the 1920s, had faced insurmountable discrimination in the sporting world. “Perhaps the ‘powers that be,’ ” he wrote, “will see to it that a fair-play precedent is established in the matter of Joe Louis’ progress toward the championship goal. And perhaps not!”21 Louis’ race certainly was not going to fade into the background if
out this round.” He could feel it. He knew with the same dead certainty that Louis had known so often that the end was near, that he had broken his man, that all that remained was the final punch and a ten count. Pittsburgh’s own Sweet William was, perhaps, only a minute or two away from ending the reign of Joe Louis.1 Louis breathed hard, his face masking any feeling. The twelfth had been a bad round, ending with fifteen unanswered punches to his face and body. Jack Blackburn leaned close to