I should say this at the start: I am too young to have ever seen Joe Louis fight.
But I have heard.
I have heard about the man they called the "Brown Bomber," about how he won the heavyweight championship in 1937 from Jim Braddock, about how he avenged himself, and maybe even the free world, against Max Schmeling, the German, with the winds of war blowing a gale force in 1938, about how he was all but beaten by Billy Conn in 1941 and came up with a big right hand in the 13th round to knock out Conn and reverse what surely seemed to be Conn's destiny to win the title.
I have heard that Joe Louis was a hero.
And I have never heard a bad word about Joe Louis.
Yes, I have read that, for all the money he won as a fighter, he was almost penniless when he left the ring the first time, that he had to make two comebacks, both resulting in losses, as he tried to win back his heavyweight crown.
I have read that he was forced into the ignominious path pro wrestling to feed himself and his family, that he became a referee for the reason. And I know, because I have seen, that in his later years he was reduced to being a greeter for a Las Vegas casino, a handshake artist, a decorative ornament, a publicity gimmick.
In those later years he sold himself. He sold his stature, and he sold his dignity. But as bad as it ever got, there was one thing he could never sell, because it didn't belong to him as much as he belonged to history. He could never sell his standing.
And was still Joe Louis.
And Joe Louis would forever remain a hero.
His was surely the American dream, the rise up from bitter poverty as one of 11 children, to a sharecropper, the indomitable climb of flesh and blood and will, the lasting triumph of good over evil. What are clinches now were truths then, in a simpler time, without the pervasive prying of the lights, camera and action of the modern technocracy. In a time of heroes, in the spillover from the Roaring '20s and people like Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden and Gertrude Ederle, Joe Louis was the first black man to achieve the kind of adoration and idolatry that was previously reserved for whites only.
Joe Louis beat the German.
Joe Louis then served his country during World War II in the way his country asked him to serve, by giving exhibition bouts and boosting morale. He put on 96 such exhibitions and entertained more than 2 million of our troops.
Joe Louis was one of us.
And thus, for the first time in the history of the United States of America, a land where at least constitutionally all men are created equal, a black man was held up as the mirror of the society. A black man was held up as someone to be proud of, to emulate, to love and respect.
This may not seem like much now, when black faces -- however few -- are in Congress, on the Supreme Court, in board rooms, on the covers of news magazines and in major league dugouts. But then it was a spectacular achievement. And it put a lot of fraudulent myths about blacks and whites to rest, if not to sleep. So that when Jimmy Cannon, the preeminent sports reporter of the era, wrote about Louis, "He is a credit to his race -- the human race," no one dared dispute that truth.
History will record that it was Joe Louis, making his statement with his fists in our most brutal and elemental of sports, our national conscience, who helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson to shatter the color line in baseball, our national pastime. It was Joe Louis, in his quiet and humble way, who paved the way for Muhammad Ali to push boxing through a new frontier, the frontier of social and political action.
The tributes to Louis are coming in now, over the wires, like songs of the hummingbird. They are too numerous to mention and too cold, in the black and white of a newspaper, to do him justice. Let it be said with some irony and joy that the night before he died Joe Louis sat ringside at a heavyweight championship fight between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. That if there is something to the theory of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, Joe Louis was where he belonged.
And finally, there is something about the relationship between Louis and Ali, two of the legendary heavyweights -- and never forget that the heavyweight championship of the world is sport's most precious and prestigious title -- that needs being said here. And I can say that I was there for this, and that it happned on the eve of the Ali-Larry Holmes fight last October in Las Vegas.
At was at a workout in Caesars Palace, where Ali was training for a fight he wouldn't win, a fight he ultimately couldn't even make, and they wheeled Louis in, strapped to a chair, his body bent from age and pain, his skin the color of ash, his voice barely a whisper.
"Joe, I'm gonna put a whuppin' on him," Ali said, forcing a smile and a bravado to hide the pain in his heart he felt at looking upon this broken man.
"You gonna be there, Joe?
"Joe, I watched films of you the other night, Joe, you and Schmeling. Your combinations were somethin' else, Joe. That one-two you hit Schmeling with in the first round, that's what I'm gonna hit Holmes with. One round, Joe, I might do it in one round. So don't be late, Joe, you might miss it."
Joe Louis sat there.
He said something to Ali, but he said it so weakly that no one could hear, not even Ali, who had bent over and put his ear so close to Louis' lips that they were touching.
"You fellin' any pain, Joe? Feelin' any pain?"
No one who was there could fail to be moved by the sight, and readers of this paper had Dave Kindred to thank for writing about it.
"There came from Joe Louis a grunt," Kindred wrote. "His head moved an inch in a nod.
"'You eatin' good, Joe, you eatin' good?'
"Another chilling grunt. This one meant no.
"To the cameras, Ali said, 'Thanks for coming by, Joe, it's gonna be a great fight.' And then Ali bent low to this warrior once mighty, saying in a whisper, 'I'll try to come see you, Joe, before I leave. I'll come to your house.'"
Unfortunately, that is the only time I saw Joe Louis.
But I had heard. Lord, what I had heard.