Joe Louis -- the "Brown Bomber" -- died before my 40th birthday and his passing respresents the final break with my childhood. As a black war baby (1943) I had two idols: Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Now they are both gone.
As a kid I listened to him fight on the radio and later watched the Friday Night Fights on television with my father. And oh, yes, he drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and shaved with Gillette blades. Didn't everybody? p
Any fighter who wasn't a heavyweight was always compared with Sugar Ray Robinson. Everybody else was compared with the Bomber. I can't count the number of times my father said about someone: Louis woulda knocked him out in two rounds."
My father married the year Joe fought Max Schmeling the second time. While the world merely awaited this rematch, black America spoke of nothing else. Two years before, Max defeated Joe in 12 rounds just weeks before Jesse Owens won his three gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.
"Our pride was at stake in that second fight," my father noted. "He had to win. We all thought he could but he never thought it would be in the first round. We all celebrated for a week."
We fought all his fights with him. "We'd go to the movies in those days to watch him," my father said. "There wasn't any television then. Even though all we saw were the newsreels, you'd have thought it was for real. One guy once had a stroke at the Hippodrome Theater while watching a Louis fight. We didn't have anybody else. He was all we had.
"We weren't born then but you've got to remember that the Depression was on then. Jobs were real scarce then for black and white alike. I was 18 when Joe boxed against the German (Schmeling) guy. We'd have get-togethers just to listen to his fights on the radio. Then we'd go to the movies later to watch it again for 35 cents. If you took some girl to the movies to watch a Joe fight, she figured you like her quite a bit. Thirty-five cents was hard to come by in 1938."
I, too, knew Joe Louis. I met him the first time in 1973 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where the Alan King Tennis Classic is held. "I watched you play that (Jimmy) Connors guy on TV," he said to me three years later. "From what I could figure out you played him real smart. He beat you before, didn't he?"
Yes he did -- three times."
"Ain't supposed to lose to nobody more than once. I never lost to no fighter but one time."
We all know the Bomber was a bit too frivolous with his money. Though he earned and lost almost $4 1/2 million, his legacy wasn't meant to be measured in money. Bill Cosby once told me in Las Vegas, "No heavyweight champion need ever worry about where his next meal is coming from. There are champions in other sports and there are champions in the other weigft divisions. But the world heavyweight champion will always be taken care of. Joe has more than paid his dues. No one need pity him."
Short on words, Joe Louis Barrow spoke with his fists. He had 71 pro fights and lost only three times. My father was among those 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, for that unforegttable second bout with Schmeling. He was a chauffeur at the time and he "drove these four white fellows to New York to the fight in return for a ticket."
He finally got to meet Joe in person in Las Vegas in 1974. After I introduced him to Joe, tears came to his eyes as he shook Joe's hand. When I related this later to Cosby, he said, "You and I just don't have any idea what that man meant to four generations of black people."
I think I do.