“The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis:
A True Sports Hero To All
Quick . . . let us ask you to take a boxing quiz. What American heavyweight boxing champion defended his title 25 consecutive times and scored 20 knockouts in the course of those victories? Who held the Heavyweight Championship longer than any other man? Many of you might immediately think of Muhammad Ali who has, after all, been recently named the “greatest athlete” of the 20th century. Or perhaps boxing historians might think of Jack Johnson who dominated the fight game a century ago. The answer, though, is a man who was not only a fierce fighter in the ring but also a kind and gentle soul who became an American hero. His enormous popularity rivaled anyone on earth and he became a symbol much larger than a mere athlete in the boxing ring . . . “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. Lest we forget about this great man who gained worldwide fame 70 years ago, let’s review why items commemorating his career are becoming highly collectible.
The Early Years
Joe Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914 in rural Alabama. His great grandfather was a slave. His father, a sharecropper who picked cotton for a living, died when Joe was only four years old. The family was surrounded by the kind of poverty that could crush one’s will, but young Joe’s mother, Lillie Barrow, fighting to give her children a chance in life, moved her brood to Detroit when Joe was 12 years old. Within two years, Joe, barely a teenager, needed to help support the family and worked at an ice factory hauling 50 pound blocks of ice. This was during the depths of the Great Depression, and there was no reason for one to suspect that Joe wouldn’t end up working at that ice factory for the rest of his life. But that was not to be. Joe began to develop physically at a rapid clip and, though his mother encouraged him to continue with his schooling, he gravitated towards the boxing gym to release some pent up energy.
By 16, during the evenings when his mom thought Joe was going to his weekly violin lessons, she learned the truth . . . Joe was boxing in a local gym against others much older and more experienced in the ring. But she also quickly learned that he was good, very good. Even Mrs. Barrow knew early on that Joe’s athletic ability might provide him with a lifestyle she could only hope and pray for. She knew that the shy youngster not only had a calling but that the calling might just be a ticket out of the streets of Detroit.
Joe’s first professional fight occurred on Independence Day in 1934. Legend has it that the 20-year-old signed the contract only by his first and middle name because he ran out of room on the form to write his last name “Barrow.” From that point on, he became known simply as Joe Louis and within a relatively short period of time he posted an impressive string of 27 professional victories. Naturally, sports columnists took note and Joe’s popularity grew. One scribe even rhapsodized, “Louis has risen like a star across the fistic heavens.” During the 1930’s, club boxing was very popular, much more than it is today. In his first year as a pro, the sharecropper’s son earned over $370,000 -- a huge sum of money during the Depression years. To put things in perspective, the average salary in 1935 was barely $1,200 a year.
Things happened very quickly for Joe during the next two years. He married his first wife, he hung out with entertainment stars like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and he developed a trait that would almost ruin him financially later in life. He was generous to a fault, and it is reported that he gave away about half of the money he took in. But by early 1936, life was good for Joe. He even took up golf against the advice of his manager because “a golf swing hurts the ability to deliver a good punch!”
Against this backdrop, Joe was due to fight Max Schmeling, the big German who was known in this country as a seasoned but erratic fighter. It was supposed to be a “walk in the park” for the young phenomenon. Joe smiled easily to the cameras and his many fans as he prepared for his first international fight. But, while he was supposed to be training, Joe was surrounded by a celebrity status that the 22-year-old simply could not cope with. Louis was not ready for the big German. The fight was a walk in the park . . . for Schmeling. Louis was counted out in the 12th round at Yankee Stadium, right in Joe’s own backyard. His winning streak ended with a resounding thud.
It is said that the true measure of a person is how they respond to adversity. As happens in sport so often, just when things looked the bleakest, fate creates the opportunity for redemption. Louis took the defeat, as hurtful as it was, in stride and began to train with an intensity that carried him to the next level. It was during this time that Louis showed his true character and mettle. The public began to see Joe not so much as a “celebrity” but as a man with tremendous conviction and a desire to succeed.
By June of 1937, he was ready to fight for the heavyweight crown against the wily champion, James J. Braddock. Louis knocked out Braddock in the 12th round and became, up to that time, the youngest Heavyweight Champion ever. It was a tough fight, but Louis carried the day. Immediately after the fight Braddock said, “When you’re hit by Louis, it’s like a light bulb breaking in your face.” At the same time, Joe told the world, “I don’t want anyone calling me champ until I beat Max Scheming!” The stage was set for a drama that seemed to be scripted in Hollywood.
“Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”
…President Franklin D. Roosevelt
To say that the anticipated rematch was international news is an understatement. It was quickly announced that the rematch would be held again at Yankee Stadium, almost two years to the day since the first Louis v. Schmeling encounter. Seldom has a sporting event had such enormous symbolic importance. On one hand you had a German, during the height of the rise of Nazism, being touted in the German press as the embodiment of Aryan superiority. On the other hand, you had a young, but now very experienced and hardened, African-American athlete ready to avenge his only loss in the ring. Adolph Hitler publicly implored Germany’s reluctant Aryan (in reality, Schmeling was not a Nazi nor even sympathetic to Hitler) to win for the glory of the Third Reich. President Roosevelt countered by saying simply, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” Joe Louis himself would later confide that, “The whole damned country was relying on me!”
On June 22, 1938, amidst great fanfare, the fight occurred. It was shockingly quick. Within 124 seconds of the first round, Schmeling was knocked down three times. Three quick left-hand bombs put the German down for good. It was over! Louis, by now dubbed “The Brown Bomber,” remained the Heavyweight Champion of the World in the ring. But it was outside of the ring immediately following the fight that is really what is historically important. During a time when the ill winds of war began to blow and our country faced the great fear and resolve as we entered World War II, the young African-American crossed the line from a mere sports champion to an idol universally admired by Americans of every color and ancestry.
Collecting Louis Memorabilia
For several years, Joe Louis continued his role as a true American hero, amassing victories in the ring during his celebrated “Bum of the Month” string of wins, serving his country in the military with grace and dignity during the war years in the 1940’s, and all the while always conducting himself with class and generosity. Because “The Brown Bomber’s” stature has stood the test of time, items commemorating his great career are now very collectible. As is typical with most cultural icons from a bygone era, vintage memorabilia are becoming prized treasures and are starting to make their way into museums, historical societies and prominent collections. These items, some of them contained within the fantastic Elizabeth Meaders African-American Sports Collection, are just a few examples of the diversity of artifacts that should be saved, preserved and cherished.