Last Word: Max Baer in Chicago

'We Serve Whites Only' Unless Threatened

I was Max’s sparring partner and corner man in those years, and it was also my job to stick close to him at night and make sure he didn’t get into any trouble I couldn’t get him out of. Max’s other companion that evening was a beautiful jazz singer named Leslie Pearl. This was in Chicago, September 1932, the night before Max would knock Ernie Schaaf unconscious. Schaaf would die a few months later after a bout against Primo Carnera, a fighter who, like Max, would go on to become heavyweight champion of the world, but when Schaaf died, the press would be unanimous in declaring it was the beating Max had given him, and not a phantom blow from Carnera, that had caused his death.

It would be the second time a fighter would die from one of Max’s blows—in August 1930 Max had knocked Frankie Campbell unconscious, and Campbell, unlike Schaaf, had never woken up. Max was a broken man for a while—lost four of his next six fights, and later, without any publicity—and nobody loved publicity more than Max—put Campbell’s kids through college, and gave some of his big purses to Campbell’s widow, who never blamed Max: “It might even have been you, mightn’t it,” she said to him in the hospital, on the morning Campbell died.

On this night in Chicago, however, Max, who loved having a good time more than he loved anything in the world, was enjoying, among other pleasures, the knowledge that his manager, Mike Cantwell, was back in the hotel, having one of his famous fits because Max was, yet again, breaking every training rule he could. The three of us—Max, Leslie, and me—were standing at the bar, Max holding forth with some of his tall tales the way he did, when a man approached him, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked if he had read the sign.

“I’m not into astronomy,” Max laughed, “but they tell me I’m an Aquarius, which means I got a serious and sunny nature. How about you?”

The man, shorter than Max by three or four inches but a good twenty or thirty pounds heavier, pointed to a sign above the bar that read We Serve Whites Only.

“So you’re okay then,” Max said. “They can serve you here.”

“But not these nigras you got with you,” the man said.

The room grew quiet very quickly. Max smiled broadly, put an arm around Leslie.

“Get lost, mister, okay?” Max said, and he put his other arm around me. “We’re here to have a good time and we don’t want some Sad Sack Sam messing up our party, okay? And this man here, he’s my right hand man, see—my best friend.”

“And who the hell are you?” the man said.

 “Why I’m his friend!” Max said.

I saw the bartender take a baseball bat out from under the counter, and slap the heft of it against his palm.

“Look,” Max said to the man, “like the blind man said when he pissed into the wind, ‘It’s all coming back to me now!’ Get it?”

“Get out,” the man said, and he took the baseball bat the bartender handed him. “We don’t like nigras much around here, but we hate nigra-lovers even worse.”

“Too bad for you,” Max said, “because, like I said, you’re pissing into the wind, mister, and if you don’t want to wind up blind in both eyes, which procedure I’d be pleased to perform free of charge, I suggest you put that toothpick down and vamoose. ‘Cause if you go blind, see—in your eyes, not in what passes for the slop you got between your ears—in a minute or two you won’t be able to see that sign—or my friend either.”

Someone whispered in the man’s ear.

The man took a step back. “You’re Max Baer?”

“That’s what they tell me, and let me tell you that I don’t mind being him one bit,” Max said, and he took the bat out of the man’s hand, and tossed it to the bartender, to whom he now spoke. “Hey—I’d get rid of that sign, I were you. It’s making your customers uncomfortable.”

The bartender froze where he was.

Now!” Max commanded.

The bartender did what Max asked. The man who had confronted Max backed away, told Max he didn’t mess with killers or kikes, and hurried out of the bar.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Max announced, holding up my right hand and Leslie’s left. “A TKO, two minutes of the first round! And to celebrate the victory drinks are on the house—right, bartender?—so everybody drink up...and don’t forget to have a good time!”

Published in the July 10, 2015 issue: 

Jay Neugeboren is the author of twenty-two books of fiction and non-fiction, including the memoir Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival and, most recently, the novel Max Baer and the Star of David.

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