This was orginally printed in The Independent. Reprinted with permission. I’ve frequented the Max Baer Park in Livermore. It has a dog park where I spent many happy hours with Sara and Henrey.
Livermore’s Max Baer gets bum rap
By Barry Schrader, Columnist & History Detective
It is time for the citizens and City of Livermore to come to the defense of their favorite son Max Baer who has been vilified in a fictionalized movie called “Cinderella Man.”
For those of you who may not recall this local legend, also known as the “Livermore Larruper” for his pugilistic skills, Max became heavyweight boxing champ of the world by defeating Primo Carnera in 1934 before a crowd of 50,000 at Madison Square Garden. A year before that he beat Germany’s pride Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. Because Max had a Jewish grandfather he displayed the Star of David on his trunks—infuriating Hitler and the Nazis, at the same time pummeling Schmeling so soundly for 10 rounds the referee stopped the fight. Max lost his world title in 1935 to James J. Braddock (called the Cinderella Man by the press, thus the movie title) in a 15-round decision. It is said that Max frittered away his title by spending too much time “living the good life” in Hollywood and making a movie instead of staying in shape and training for the fight with Braddock.
However, those from Livermore who knew him as the son of a butcher and hog farmer who trained in the local gym, spoke highly of his friendliness, sense of humor, generosity and good manners around women. Max and his brother Buddy (also a well-known boxer) lived with their family at Twin Oaks ranch at the end of Holmes Street. One of his trainers was former mayor Manuel Medeiros, who was also a local barber (the outdoor training ring was in Manuel’s back yard on Sixth Street). Max’s niece, Dorothy (Santucci) Tarte of Livermore, told me “he (Baer) didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Others recalled the tragedy when one of his opponents (Frankie Campbell) died after the beating he received in the ring from Baer. This caused Max great anguish. He cried openly over it, then financially assisted the Campbell family from his later winnings. Another fighter (Ernie Schaaf) he defeated also died. However, that was after a bout with another opponent Primo Carnera.
After losing to Braddock and then getting demolished in four rounds by Joe Louis a few months later, Baer was no longer a title contender, but still fought for another six years. However, his attention turned toward acting and nightclub performances. His career record was 72 wins and 12 losses with 53 knockouts. He died in 1959 at age 50 from a heart attack.
His second wife, Mary Ellen Sullivan, lived the rest of her life in the Sacramento area. I had the privilege of meeting her in the late 1970s when helping Amador-Livermore Valley Historical Society curator Ann Lewis assemble a Max Baer display at the Heritage House on the fairgrounds. I traveled to Sacramento to pick up some trophies and other personal memorabilia from Mrs. Baer. She was very gracious and appreciated the fact that his “home town folks” were paying him homage. There is also a park in Livermore that bears his name.
As for the smear on his reputation in the current movie, his son Max Baer Jr. has come out swinging in the press to clear his father’s name. He is quoted as saying “It is a lie that my father boasted about killing two fighters in the ring. He cried about what happened and had nightmares over it. He helped put Frankie Campbell’s children through college.” Baer further stated he has a great respect for the movie producer Ron Howard but added, “He never called me for any factual information about my father. They distorted his character. They didn’t have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero.” Max Junior has also been in the limelight much of his life—but as an actor and producer. He played Jethro in the TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and went on to produce several movies of his own. A historical footnote: Max Junior was grand marshal of the Livermore Rodeo Parade in the mid-80s.
It would be nice if the Livermore City Council would come to the defense of one of the city’s favorite sons, and take a stand, condemning the portrayal of Max as a sadistic thug in “Cinderella Man” and calling on Director Ron Howard to set the record straight about the real life Max Baer. After all, Livermore, being his adopted home town, is taking a hit from the bad publicity as well. I say “adopted” because Max and his family didn’t arrive in town until he was 12. However, he always told the press he was from Livermore.
If you are so inclined, you can read more about the Max Baer movie controversy in the June 27 issue of the National Enquirer (pages 42-43).