The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Joe Louis

Joe Louis's shadow looms over heavyweight history in ways comparable to only a few other figures—Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, John L. Sullivan, and Jack Johnson. When you read the history of the heavyweights, you’re reading a story that can be separated into BL and AL periods—Before Louis and After Louis. Before Louis, blacks were shut out of the heavyweight title, not even given a chance at winning it—except for Johnson, the first black man to be given a chance at the championship, in 1908. Johnson won, but for racially minded whites, he proved every warning about the disasters that would befall American sports, and American life, if a black man were permitted near the title. When Johnson finally lost the championship in 1915, the color line was reinstated for another 22 years, until Louis came along. In 1937, Louis erased it for good, becoming heavyweight champion of the world.

Louis would go on to become widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight of them all and also something few would have imagined: a black athlete respected, admired, and even loved by white fans. There is no statistic on how many white Americans softened or changed their attitudes toward blacks because of Joe Louis, but the champ certainly had an effect. Among blacks, Louis occupied a place of nearly Biblical significance, as the more than 43 jazz and blues songs about him attest, and as Time magazine described in a 1940 article about him called “Black Moses.” In 1949, when Louis retired from the ring, still champion, defender of the title a still-record 25 times, and the bearer of a 60-1 record, American sports had been transformed. 

Louis’s impact on social life of the United States was recognized in his own time but is increasingly forgotten today, in an era when patience and conciliation has disappeared not only from our politics but also from our protest. His reputation is largely obscured by that of Jackie Robinson, who integrated major league baseball in 1947 and is rightly celebrated today as a pioneer of racial integration in sports. A pioneer, not the pioneer—if anyone is suited for that designation, it is Louis, who won the heavyweight championship a full decade before Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The country was in a much better place when Louis departed than it had been when he arrived, even if it still had a long way to go. I can think of no other athlete who leaves such an unambiguously positive and constructive legacy.

It’s no surprise, then, given the magnitude of this life and career, that the Louis bibliography is imposing. In writing The Boxing Kings, I aspired to read it all but fell well short, settling for reading the finest biographical treatments, while missing others, and supplementing books with a host of newspaper stories and magazine portraits. Louis was an immensely famous man. He leaves a long paper trail.

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It’s hard for contemporary Americans to appreciate how enormous Louis’s impact was, and his eclipse, at least in public imagination and memory, by black athletes ranging from Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali has made his story seem less relevant to twenty-first-century readers. As such, I’m not sure that a truly definitive, comprehensive bio exists of Louis, one that encompasses the whole arc of his life and meaning in the manner, say, of Jonathan Eig’s book on Ali, or of several competing treatments of Robinson. But there are some very good books, and in my view the best of them is Randy Roberts’s Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (2011), which adds to the Roberts bookshelf of heavyweight bios—he has also authored the best treatments of Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, and he coauthored an excellent book on Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Blood Brothers. Roberts covers it all with his usual writing grace and thorough immersion in primary sources and cultural analysis. As he writes in the book’s intro, he is after not so much a summary of Louis’s career but the meaning of that career—but to get at the latter, he gives the blow by blow of the former, in a book that is compellingly written, erudite, and insightful.

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A worthy fallback is Richard Bak’s Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope (1995). Bak, a Detroit-based writer of many books on sports and other topics, delivers an engagingly written biography, replete with many colorful anecdotes. Though the book lacks Roberts's scope and scholarship, it is a strong piece of work.

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David Margolick’s Beyond Glory: Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (2005) often makes lists of best boxing books ever written, and deservedly—it is a tour de force of narrative power and exhaustive scholarship that examines the two epochal fights between Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling, the first in 1936, the second in 1938, and the social and political environment that surrounded these events. What makes the book remarkable is Margolick’s immersion in German sources, from which he derives chilling accounts of Schmeling’s close embrace by the Nazi regime—and from which he bases his conclusion that Schmeling, far from being the innocent anti-Nazi as he is commonly portrayed today, was a willing accomplice, at worst, and a craven opportunist, at best, in his dealings with the Third Reich. That’s a conclusion worth debating (Schmeling’s rescue of two Jewish teenagers on Kristallnacht is one hell of a defense exhibit). But no one hoping to understand Schmeling can do so without grappling with Margolick’s work. In addition to everything else, it’s a wonderful read.

Other books zero in on the Louis-Schmeling saga. Lewis A. Erenberg’s The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling, which appeared not long after Margolick’s, covered much of the same terrain, though with a narrower, more academic focus on the Louis-Schmeling fights as turning points in American civic and racial relations. The book is deeply researched—Erenberg, too, unearths interesting German sources—though its prose is a far cry from Margolick's. I have not read distinguished boxing historian Patrick Myler’s Ring of Hate: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling: The Fight of the Century.

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Originating as a senior thesis at Yale, Chris Mead’s Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America, published in 1985, was in some ways the first truly contemporary Louis biography. As its subtitle indicates, a key focus of Mead’s treatment is Louis’s career in the context of American race relations, and particularly how he became a hero of rare dimension among blacks while also breaking down white prejudices. Mead went on to a legal career, and he shows a lawyer’s doggedness in marshaling stark evidence from old newspaper accounts of the casual but virulent racism with which Louis was treated. His forensic touch can also be seen in his meticulous recreations of some of Louis’s most famous fights, though this level of detail is a mixed blessing. Generally speaking, blow-by-blow accounts of boxing matches don’t make for engrossing reading, any more than pitch-by-pitch recreations of baseball games. But Mead’s commitment to his material is evident throughout, and he’s admirably unsentimental about Louis’s post-boxing troubles, which involved nightmarish tax troubles with the IRS, drug problems, a bout of mental illness, and a late-in-life career as a casino greeter at Caesar’s Palace. Mead rightly rejects the pity that many sportswriters and other chroniclers felt for Louis in his retirement years; the ex-champion’s money troubles, to some extent, were his own doing, and he never saw his $50,000-a-year job at Caesar’s, in which he hobnobbed with old friends and attended big fights, as demeaning—in fact, he liked it.

In calling such things so honestly, Mead was merely following Louis’s own example. In Joe Louis: My Life, a 1978 book based on recordings of Louis edited by trailblazing sportswriter Art Rust, Jr. and his wife Edna, the Brown Bomber told his story with frankness and wit, showing a keener sense of all that had happened around him than most would have guessed at the time. (“Nobody ever called me a ‘nigger’ until I got to Detroit.”) Honest about his hopeless womanizing—“I was the weaker sex,” he wrote—and about his failings as a family man, Louis was also candid in acknowledging the pressures he felt to live up to his image as a black messiah (“Jesus Christ, am I all that?”). In the end, he figured, he’d made his own bed, troubles and all: “A lot of people are still saying I was taken advantage of throughout my life. I can’t feel I’ve been taken advantage of by anybody. . . . I almost always did exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve been in a whole lot of fights inside the ring and outside the ring, too. I like to think I won most of those battles.” The picture that emerges is of a man a bit sharper than his public image suggested, and to whom the identity of victim would never have occurred.

The modern sense of Louis, though, is all too often more pitying. Perhaps its most eloquent expression comes in Donald McRae’s Heroes Without a Country: America’s Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, a melancholy dual biography of black America’s twin towers of 1930s sports, both of whom would find the sledding difficult after their post-athletic glories. The “betrayal” of which McRae writes is meant to connote not just the pervasive racism that scarred Louis’s and Owens’s careers but also their difficulties in later life. The only problem with this thesis is that, as noted, it is impossible to separate Louis’s problems from his own behavior, whereas Owens, though he had a harder road to hoe—as an amateur track star, he had no encore for his star turn at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—became prosperous later in life. MacRae’s book is richly detailed and elegantly written, but Owens and Louis would have been puzzled by their characterizations as “heroes without a country.” Louis, after all, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Inevitably, I missed some Louis books, most regrettably Barney Nagler’s Brown Bomber: The Pilgrimage of Joe Louis, notable for its description of Louis’s struggles with drug and mental illness, which, when the book came out in 1972, he had only recently overcome. I recall reading a long article on Louis's drug and psychiatric troubles in a 1970s boxing magazine; I'm guessing that the article was an excerpt from Nagler's book. (I did recently catch up with Gerald Astor’s And a Credit to His Race: the Hard Life and Times of Joseph Louis Barrow, a.k.a. Joe Louis (1974), a well-written early attempt to take the Louis story in full measure, though it is, like some other Louis biographies, unsourced.)

Among what must surely be many others (including numerous Louis bios written for kids), I also missed Joe Louis: American, published in 1945 by pioneering female sportswriter Margery MillerJoe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero, by Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. (1988); and Lew Freeman’s Joe Louis: The Life of a Heavyweight, which appeared in 2013.


Top-page image: Statue of Joe Louis in Courthouse Square, in front of Chambers County Courthouse annex, Lafayette, Alabama (Sculpture: Casey Downing, Jr.;  Photo: SaveRivers)




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