Max Baer did plenty in his lifetime to earn his spot in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
The boxing legend was the one-time Heavyweight Champion of the World and was a member of a small but elite class of boxers with 50-plus total knockouts on their record.
On February 11, 1909, Baer was born in Nebraska. Though his mother was Protestant and his father was Jewish, Baer would self-identify as Jewish for the rest of his life.
As a young boy, Baer’s family moved to California, where Baer’s father began working as a butcher. At a young age, little Max spent time helping with the butchering, hard labor he would later credit for his boxing-ready strength.
Baer started boxing professionally in 1929, and was almost immediately marked with scandal. A match against Frankie Campbell on August 25, 1930, ended with Campbell dying from severe blows to the head.
Baer was haunted by the death for the rest of his life, and gave his winnings from his next several matches to Campbell’s widow.
In June 1933, Baer won an impressive match against Max Schmeling, a German heavyweight who was a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s. During the match, Baer sported a pair of boxing shorts emblazoned with a Star of David, which he would retain for the rest of his career.
Later, when Baer pursued a post-boxing film and television career, Joseph Goebbels banned a screening of Baer’s “The Prizefighter and the Lady” from Germany.
“They didn’t ban the picture because I have Jewish blood,” Baer said at the time. “They banned it because I knocked out Max Schmeling.”
In 1934, Baer won the World Heavyweight Championship, and kept the title for 364 days.
But Baer famously lost a match to underdog James J. Braddock in 1935, a fight that went on to inspire the “Cinderella Man” film starring Russell Crowe. After that match, Baer’s averages began to slowly decline until his retirement from boxing in 1941.
In total, the sports legend fought in 84 professional matches, winning 71. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1968 and into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Baer married twice in his lifetime, first to Dorothy Dunbar, then to Mary Ellen Sullivan, who he remained with until his death. The couple had three children, one of who, Max Baer, Jr., went on to gain fame for the role of Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Baer died at the age of 50 from a heart attack on November 21, 1959. More than 1,500 individuals attended his funeral, with attendees ranging from sports figures to politicians. Today, parks in Sacramento and Livermore, CA, are named in his honor, and The Max Baer Heart Fund still donates millions of dollars to heart disease research each year.