I hope the reader won't mind if I use the column today to say goodbye to Joe Louis. For those who were around when Joe was fighting, I know there won't be any objections. For those who came later, I assure you that, despite what you've heard about other heavyweight champions, Joe Louis was "the greatest."
In Hollis, N.Y., where I grew up, there were three things the kids in our gang were certain of. One was that Franklin Roosevelt was going to save the economy, the second was that Joe DiMaggio was going to beat Babe Ruth's record and the third was that Joe Louis was going to save us from the Germans.
The "Brown Bomber" played a very important part in a Jewish household, for the simple reason that Adolf Hitler had a fighter named Max Schmeling, who exemplified Hitler's ideal of the perfect Aryan. When Joe Louis signed to fight Schmeling in 1936, there was a lot more at stake than a heavyweight championship. For weeks before the bout, all the talk around the house was concerned with "Could Joe beat the Nazi?"
There was no television, and it's hard for anyone who didn't grow up in those days to imagine how you could possibly enjoy a boxing match sitting around a radio. But in some ways it was even better than television. You got as close to the radio set as you possibly could. All the members of the household stared straight into the loudspeaker, hanging on to every word that the announcers were bringing you "live from ringside." The imagination was brought into play, and you could see the ring in your mind -- and the cool Joe Louis staring at the vicious representative of the "master race."
For 12 rounds, we "saw" every punch -- the right to the jaw, the left to the stomach, the clinches and perspiration pouring from the boxers' bodies. Whenever Louis landed a blow, we cheered with as much fervor as if we were at ringside. When Schmeling made a point, we remained nervous and silent.
Schmeling knocked out Louis in the 12th round, the blackest day in Hollis since Roosevelt closed the banks. The consensus at Public School 35, the next day, was that Schmeling had probably fouled Louis or that Hitler had someone poison Joe's food. The one thing we were all certain of was that it hadn't been a fair fight, and the next time around Joe would kill Schmeling and save the honor of America.
We had to wait until June 22, 1938, for the rematch. The tension that built up to the fight was tremendous. Schmeling made the mistake of making racial remarks about Joe and also derogatory statements about the United States. It had become a do-or-die situation for every kid in the country.
I think it was a hot night -- I'm sure it was a hot night. Radios were blaring from every open window in the neighborhood.
The announcer told us Louis looked mad as he entered the ring. I could "see" the anger on his face. The bell rang and Louis charged in. "Bang to the head. Bang to the body." Schmeling was on the ropes. Schmeling couldn't raise a glove. Joe was swinging with fury -- and then a right to the jaw and Schmeling hit the canvas; then he was up; then he was down. The neighbors were yelling -- we were yelling. Schmeling made one more effort to get up and then sank for the last time. The Brown Bomber had finished off Hitler's superman in two minutes and four seconds of the first round.
The next day at school we kept punching each other all during class. The Brown Bomber had given us back our national pride.
There was only one time when the people in our house had mixed feelings about a Louis fight, and that was when he fought Max Baer. We wanted Joe to win in the worst way. But we had a problem. Max Baer was Jewish.