Joe Louis was a titan, the undisputed heavyweight champion for more than 12 years (and a record 23 title defenses) and, probably, the greatest American hero of the 20th century. Yet, oddly to those of us who grew up hearing him talked about as if he were a folk hero in the mold of John Henry, the memory of his achievement has largely faded from our collective consciousness.
Why? Possibly because, as Randy Roberts points out in his exciting account of the great champ's life, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, the sport that Louis strode through like a colossus has been in decline for decades. "During the 1930s," writes Roberts, "in the United States five thousand to six thousand professional boxers practiced their trade annually, compared to half that number worldwide today."
Another reason is harder to pin down. Louis' legend is sandwiched between that of the two great rebels of sport — Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (and the subject of a superb biography, Papa Jack, by Roberts) and Muhammad Ali. Because of the flamboyant, divisive Johnson, no black boxers were allowed to fight for the heavyweight title from 1915 to 1937, when Louis knocked out Jim Braddock.
His victory came only after years of mastering "the basic rules," both inside the ring and out. The latter included the proper decorum for a black man in white America, meaning no inflammatory rhetoric, no showy lifestyle and, above all, no fraternizing with white women (as Johnson had openly done). Given the constraints society imposed on him, Louis "transformed black into red, white and blue. Probably never before in American history had a black man received so much praise in the mainstream press."
Born in 1914 in a sharecropper's shack near Lafayette, Ala., Louis moved with his family to Detroit when he was 12. Young Joe quickly discovered he had a talent for boxing. That he also took violin lessons (which his mother hoped would keep him out of trouble) seems like a scenario from a Hollywood melodrama. Guided by the expertise of trainer Jack Blackburn and black sportsman John Roxborough, Louis cut a swath through the amateur and then professional ranks.
Louis was widely regarded as the uncrowned champion before he was finally given a title shot. In 1936, while still an undefeated challenger, he was beaten in a shocking upset by Max Schmeling, a former champion and native German. Louis rebounded to win the title, and then, in 1938, in the most widely anticipated sporting event ever held, got his revenge by KO-ing Schmeling in the first round. With the United States and Nazi Germany on the verge of war, sportswriter Joe Williams dubbed the second Louis-Schmeling fight "the Battle of Awesome Implications."
As Roberts describes it, "Activity inside restaurants, movie theaters, baseball parks and other public places stopped as people leaned into the airwaves." Nearly 100 million people tuned in on radio, including some black field hands who gathered in Plains, Ga., to listen to the fight at the home of a local peanut farmer, Earl Carter, and his son Jimmy. "No event had ever attracted an audience that large, not a sporting event, a political speech, or an entertainment show."
Like Roberts' John Wayne: American, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man isn't so much a biography as a cultural history. Considering that Louis was the first black American to become a household name, Roberts is particularly sensitive to the issue of race. Nonthreatening as Louis was, newspapers of the time were filled with descriptions of him as something "not quite human . . . out of the African jungle" and an "Alabama Assassin" who "stalked his prey like a jungle beast."
But Hard Times Man isn't sociology. It's a thrilling account of an extraordinary life, one that needed to be retold to a generation to whom Joe Louis is no more than an occasional face on ESPN Classic. There was a giant in those days, and Roberts has reclaimed him for us.
Allen Barra's latest book is "Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark."