Attentive viewers of the climactic fight of Cinderella Man, Ron Howard's Depression-era crowd-pleaser, will notice a Star of David on the red trunks of Max Baer, the lethal opponent of Jim "Cinderella Man" Braddock. The star is significantly less prominent than the one that the real Baer wore in the 1935 fight. It's no surprise that Howard would obscure this detail, as it would complicate his film's Rocky-meets-Seabiscuit narrative. What's funny, and ironic, is that by downplaying Baer's Star of David, Howard may be making an accurate historical comment: Baer was the only self-proclaimed Jew to ever claim the heavyweight crown. But was he really even Jewish?
To be sure, Cinderella Man's fleeting portrait of Baer as a skirt-chasing playboy, notorious for clowning in the ring, is consistent with published accounts. Baer was also a ferocious hitter—a "larruping thumper," in the Times' gloriously redundant formulation. In his early career, he secured a fearsome reputation on the West Coast, killing a boxer named Frankie Campbell during a 1930 bout. The tragedy so rattled Baer that he lost four of his next six fights. In the film, the death of Campbell is used to build up Baer as a remorseless killer. One movie's terrifying thug, however, is another man's father. "It was after he killed Campbell that he started clowning," Maxie Baer Jr. said in a recent telephone conversation from Las Vegas. "He started smoking cigarettes and he had nightmares for years."
After Campbell's death, Baer decided to move east and train under the tutelage of Jack Dempsey. It was in 1933, when Baer was 24, that he came out as a Jew and wore the Star of David on his trunks for the first time. His opponent was Max Schmeling, the "Black Uhlan of the Rhine" and a reluctant standard-bearer for Hitler's Third Reich. "That one's for Hitler," Baer snarled between blows to the stumbling Schmeling. He knocked him out in the 10th round. It was his finest hour in the ring.
In the post-fight coverage, however, Baer's new "racial" identity raised eyebrows. As reported in the New York Times:
[Baer] explained yesterday, however, that he wore this insignia for the first time, because he is partly Jewish. "My father is Jewish and my mother is Scotch-Irish," said Baer. "I wore the insignia because I thought I should, and I intend to wear it in every bout hereafter."
Over the years, the significance of Baer's gesture has been dismissed as a publicity stunt in a sport that thrives on racial and ethnic conflict. Jeremy Schaap, the author of Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History, takes a more nuanced view. Schaap establishes that Baer's father was at least half-Jewish before arguing that Baer's manager, Ancil Hoffman, stoked his boxer's ethnic consciousness as a motivating tool. Baer Jr. confirms this view. "My dad didn't know who Hitler was. He only read the sports pages, but Hoffman kept drilling it into his head, 'You're fighting for the Jews.' "
Baer's prominent display of the Star of David came at a time of continuous bad tidings from Germany. Anti-Jewish boycotts were under way, Jews were being expelled from official positions, and Dachau had opened for the internment of communists. A day after the Schmeling fight, a Times dispatch from Berlin reported that the German papers were reticent about their countryman's defeat. "All papers ignore the fact that Schmeling was beaten by a man who in Germany would be classified as a Jew," the unnamed Times correspondent wrote. One can only imagine the propaganda uses Joseph Goebbels would have found had Schmeling defeated Baer.
By disposing of Schmeling, Baer earned his title shot against another unfortunate show horse for European political fashion, Primo "the Ambling Alp" Carnera, a 6-foot-6-inch, 263-pound former circus strongman and a mobbed-up mascot for Benito Mussolini. This 1934 fight—briefly but vividly re-enacted in Cinderella Man—was a frightful affair in which Baer knocked down the clumsy giant 11 (or 12) times, despite being outweighed by 53 pounds.
The heavyweight title now belonged to Baer, who would hold it for 364 days of nightclub carousing and adoring magazine articles. In a 1934 Vanity Fair profile, Baer is described by a bemused Westbrook Pegler in strikingly Gatsby-like terms, a striver taking "dago-singing" lessons and "long-wording people into a daze" from a pocket dictionary. More presciently, Pegler also wrote, "Baer is a fast swinger and he probably will keep the title until frivolity, late hours and cigars abate his speed by the fraction of an instant. Then, presumably, a scientific boxer will beat him. …"
That studiously determined upstart turned out to be gritty Jimmy Braddock from the Jersey docks, known by the more fitting "Plain Jim" before Damon Runyon tagged him "Cinderella Man." Braddock's tale is indeed inspiring: He had a family to feed while Baer's expenses ran mostly to his wardrobe and his mistresses. Baer Jr. cheerfully admits that his father was woefully unprepared. "He didn't take Braddock seriously, he didn't train, and he got a b.j. before the fight," he says, apparently listing the offenses in ascending order of gravity.
Despite the star on his trunks that night, Baer was never a practicing Jew. His tenuous claim, however, seems to have been good enough for Jewish fight fans. Schaap writes that, on the night of the Braddock fight, "Of the 30,000 people in the Bowl, virtually everyone except the Jews was cheering for Braddock."
Stepping back, Baer's "Jewishness" was only one aspect of his elaborate self-invention. In 1933 he starred with Myrna Loy and his upcoming opponent Primo Carnera in The Prizefighter and the Lady, in which he played an all-American underdog who challenges Carnera for the championship. The film was a success and Baer received good reviews for a role that included singing and dancing. It played for a while in Germany, until Goebbels banned the film because Baer was in the cast. But his most enduring film is the 1956 anti-boxing exposé The Harder They Fall, adapted from a Budd Schulberg novel. The film is a virtually undisguised scandal-mongering account of events leading up to the Baer-Carnera fight of 1934. While the justifiably aggrieved Carnera sued Columbia Pictures and Schulberg, Baer gamely played a vicious caricature of himself, a portrait not unlike the Baer we see in Cinderella Man. Schulberg slammed The Harder They Fall as naively sensationalistic, singling out the film's use of Baer: "Maxie Baer, who queens through this incredible part, may have been a tamed tiger but he wasn't a monster."
Even though Baer underachieved as a boxing talent, he still has the distinction of being a feared fighter who wore a conspicuous Star of David on his trunks in the dangerous years of the 1930s. He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 50 in 1959. (Among other things, he didn't live to see his son achieve television celebrity as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies.) Cinderella Man may reduce Baer to a crude and simplistic villain, but Baer probably would have enjoyed the movie anyway—he despised boxing. "He thought it was horseshit," says his son. "He really wanted to be an actor."