Saturday, September 16, 2006

Heroes and Villains

I picked up a deeply discounted DVD of Cinderella Man not too long ago. I thought it was a great old fashioned movie, so it came back with us the last time I took my five year old to Cardiff, and I watched it with my Dad one night after the little one was asleep.

He enjoyed it as well as I did but said in passing of the reigning champion set up by the film as a murderous cartoon thug and nemesis of the saintly Jim Braddock, "I don't think Max Baer was actually like that."

I've done a little bit of research. (OK I've actually just looked in up in Wikipedia.)

In the film, Baer is presented as almost relishing the fact that he killed a man in the ring. Here is what his son said about it:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet. He treated boxing the way today's professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. If I were to make a comparison, he was more like Muhammad Ali than the Sonny Liston of his day. He never deliberately hurt anyone." He helped put Frankie's children through college.
In 1933, he decided he was a Jew and wore the Star of David on his trunks for the first time. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, his opponent was Max Schmeling, a reluctant Nazi poster boy. "That one's for Hitler," Baer snarled between blows as he defeated the stumbling Schmeling.

Despite the star on his trunks Baer was never a practicing Jew; his father was probably half Jewish.

(Let's cut him some slack though, as Dannie Abse - St Illtyd's alumnus, and now anointed Welsh Born Icon - said later, "Auschwitz made me more of a Jew than Moses did." And, while we are in a Welsh digression, I'm put out that Baer also beat Welsh Born Icon Tommy Farr.)

Baer is the villain of the Braddock story. What about Schmeling, villain of Baer's?

Joe Louis' defeat of Schmeling in their June 1938 rematch (Schmeling had knocked Louis out two years before) was probably the most politically and racially charged boxing match in history as America and Germany headed inexorably to war, though both the protagonists seem to have been reluctant figureheads.

In November 1938, less than six months after his defeat, however Ubermensch Schmeling came to the aid of Jewish friends in the wake of Kristallnacht, hiding, at great personal risk, two Jewish brothers in his Berlin apartment and later helping them to escape from the country.

An episode of which, as far as I can tell, he never told anyone. It only came to light in 1989, when one of the brothers invited Schmeling to Las Vegas to thank him for saving his life.

Heroes and villains.

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