The Brown Bomber -- The man behind The Fist

One of the most dramatic moments in all of sports came on March 5, 1938, when Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling in a return bout to avenge an earlier defeat.

Joe Louis grew up in Detroit and began his boxing
career here. Although he later lived in Chicago and Las Vegas, and
traveled the world, he thought of Detroit as home.

Joe Louis Barrow was born in Chambers County, Alabama, at the foot of Buckalew Mountain on May 13, 1914. His father, Munroe Barrow, was a hardworking sharecropper, but was committed to an asylum when Joe was 2 years old and died when Joe was 4.

His mother Lillie, after taking in washing to support the family, married Patrick Brooks when Joe was 7 and merged her family of eight with his eight. The family moved to Detroit in the summer of 1926 and moved into an eight-room house on Macomb Street. Joe attended the Duffield School and then Bronson, a vocational training school, where he stayed until he was 17.

Before school, Joe worked in the Eastern Market, and after school at Pickman and Dean, a Detroit ice company. He claimed carrying the heavy (up to 50 pounds) blocks of ice helped develop his shoulders and muscular arms.

ImageJoe Louis and his mother Lillie in a 1935 photo.

    Coleman Young, former Mayor of Detroit, recounted how Louis and he showed up at the same time to apply for the iceman job. Young, 8, was no match for the 12 year old, who lifted in one hand the block that Coleman Young couldn’t pick up with two.

When he was 16, Joe’s mother gave him money weekly for violin lessons, but Joe used the money to pay for a locker at the Brewster Recreation Center, where amateur boxers gathered and trained.

Amateur boxing was extremely popular in the ’30s. It even overshadowed high school sports. When Lillie Barrow found out what her son was up to (the violin teacher had come by looking for him) she was disappointed, but told him to do the best he could at it. When Louis filled out the forms for one of his first amateur fights, he didn’t have enough room for his last name, Barrow. The legend thus began under the name Joe Louis and so it continued.

ImageJoe Louis’ father Munroe Barrow, shown here with Joe’s older siblings, was committed to an asylum when Joe was two years old and died when Joe was 4.

    After some early defeats, Louis got a job at Ford, but continued boxing, dropping the Ford job as his amateur career took off. Initially trained by Atler Ellis and Holman Williams at Brewster, Louis took their advice and hooked up with George Slayton, manager of the Detroit Athletic Club. He made it to the Golden Gloves finals in Boston in 1933, but was defeated by Notre Dame football star Max Marek. After winning the National AAU light-heavyweight championship in St. Louis he went pro three months later. In 54 amateur bouts Louis won 43 by knockout, seven by decision and lost four, all by decision.

His earliest manager was John Roxborough, a wealthy black former basketball player and gambling magnate, whose family was prominent in the Detroit insurance business. Roxborough’s brother was a state senator and his nephew was in the State Department. Roxborough brought in Julian Black, a Chicago numbers operator and nightclub owner. Together the two managed Louis until World War II. They moved Louis to Chicago in 1934 and hired former fighter Jack “Chappy” Blackburn to oversee his training.

Louis’ first professional fight was against Jack Kracken on July 4, 1934. He earned $50. A year later he knocked out Primo Carnera and earned $60,433. After his first eight pro fights, he became known as the “Brown Bomber of Detroit.” As a News columnist at the time put it, Louis “had risen like a star across the fistic heavens.”

He won his first 27 pro fights with 23 knockouts. At the age of 21, he had knocked out Primo Carnera, Kingfish Levinsky, Max Baer and Paolino Uzcudum in a total of 12 rounds. In December 1935, Detroit News Sports Editor H.G. Salsinger wrote: “Louis is generally regarded as the greatest fighter of all time.” In his first year and a half as a pro, his purses added up to $371,645 at a time when the average yearly salary was $1,250.

ImageLouis shadowboxes while training for his bout with Kingfish Levinsky in Chicago in August of 1935. He won the fight by a knockout.

    Louis himself was so generous and often naive in his generosity, that he never saved his money and spent the last half of his life trying to pay back money he owed from the first half. He gave away money to poor kids and friends from his youth and hangers on. He started a Detroit softball team, the Brown Bombers, and bought them uniforms and a team travel bus. He even repaid the city of Detroit the $250 his family received in welfare checks after his stepfather was injured in an auto accident. He bought uniforms for an entire graduating class of army officers from Jackie Robinson’s officer training class. He bought businesses for friends, and invested in friends’ schemes. The more he earned the more he gave away. In 1940, the Detroit News reported that Louis was riding on his newly purchased farm near Utica. An elderly Indian lived in a shack on the property and was worried that Louis would evict him. Louis rode his horse over and told him not to worry, but to move over to the other side of the hill where there was a frame house that would be more comfortable for winter.

Louis bought the farm in Utica for his horses. He had started riding at Washington Park in Chicago and rode every day there. He collected show horses and competed in riding shows

ImageLouis married Marva Trotter two hours before his fight with Max Baer in 1935. Here he gets a kiss from Marva shortly after winning the bout by a knockout.

    Such a dedicated boxer was Louis that he married Marva Trotter two hours before his fight with Max Baer in September of 1935, won the fight and then began his wedding night. Fame and athletic success don’t always go hand in hand. Although success brings fame, fame can sometimes hamper the road to success.

His fame allowed him to hang out with band leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a friend. When he began training for his fight with German Max Schmeling, the German, crowds flocked to his camp in Lakewood, New Jersey, to watch him. He played a daily game of golf against the advice of his trainers who warned that a good golf swing was harmful to a good punch. Complacency had set in.

Schmeling, unlike many American fighters, was not afraid to fight Louis. He and his trainers watched films of Louis’ bouts and saw that when Louis jabbed, he kept his left high; when he went for the hook, he set himself ever so slightly and lowered his left. Schmeling was advised to step back to evade the jab, and when Louis lowered his guard, to throw a straight right over Louis’ left.

On June 19, 1936, Joe Louis’ victory against Schmeling was so assured that the gate was half what was expected. The threat of a boycott of the match with the German by Jews who were trying to draw attention to Hitler’s genocidal campaign also lowered attendance. A rainstorm caused the Yankee Stadium fight to be postponed to the next night. Forty dollar ringside seats, the highest ticket price for a fight at that time, also kept attendance down.

The fight ended in a surprise upset. Schmeling annihilated Louis. He hit him with 91 right leads. Schmeling took charge in the fourth round and kept it up; Louis lasted into the 12th round when he was counted out for the first time in his professional career. The loss hit the country and particularly the Black community hard. There was rioting in Harlem: a Harlem man who had bet on Schmeling was hospitalized with stab wounds and a possible skull fracture.

ImageJames Braddock sprawls on the canvas at Comiskey Park in Chicago June 22, 1937, as Joe Louis walks away with the heavyweight title.

    Joe Louis learned a lesson and never again took an opponent lightly.

On June 22, 1937, Joe Louis captured the heavyweight crown with an eighth-round knockout of James J. Braddock in Chicago. He successfully defended that title for 12 years, 24 times with 22 knockouts. His title defense became known as the “bum of the month” campaign.

One of his more memorable opponents included Tony “Two Ton” Galento, known as “the beer barrel that walked like a man.” Galento dropped Louis in the third with a left hook, but Louis got up to finish him off. Arturo Godoy, a South American from Chile, befuddled Louis by planting a kiss on his cheek in the 14th round, losing only by a decision.

On June 22, 1938, a rematch with Max Schmeling was set up. This time Joe trained in earnest. The country was caught up in the symbolism of a black man fighting the representative of Nazi Germany’s master race. Everyone was backing Joe Louis. He embodied the American ideal of a poor boy born in a log cabin. Two minutes, f our seconds into the first round, Schmeling went down and didn’t get up. Joe Louis had redeemed himself and upheld the honor of the United States as the countries inched closer towards war.

ImageSgt. Louis with daughter Jacquelin and wife Marva in 1943.

Joe Louis’ laconic style hid his wit. Before his 1946 rematch with Billy Conn, when reporters asked him how he would deal with that fighter’s agility and quickness, Joe Louis coined his most famous remark: “He can run but he can’t hide.”

Always a patriot, Louis donated his purse from the January 1942 Buddy Baer fight ($65,200) to the Naval Relief Fund. The purse from his fight with Abe Simon ($45,882) went to the Army Relief Fund. That year Louis enlisted as a private, earning $21 per month. Louis served with Jackie Robinson, who credited Louis with doing much for blacks in the then segregated army, including getting Robinson and other blacks entrance to officer training school. Louis served for almost four years in the special services, performing exhibition fights, and boosting morale. He retired as a sergeant with the Legion of Merit decoration.

The army had banned Louis from fighting championships while in the service, so he did not fight officially again until a 1946 match with Billy Conn, which he won by a knockout in the eighth. But Louis had lost some of his skill during the war years. A 1947 match with Jersey Joe Walcott was a close decision after 15 rounds. After a 1948 rematch with Walcott, which Louis won in an eleventh round knockout, Louis retired.

He started an insurance company in Chicago, the Joe Louis Insurance company, in which he lost interest, and similar business ventures fell by the wayside. His wife Marva, who had divorced Joe in 1945 and remarried him in 1946, then divorced him for good in 1949. Joe had huge financial problems. He had given so much money away, he owed the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars, his divorce settlement was large, and since his retirement, he had no way of earning the money. He decided on a comeback, but it was not a success. He lost to Ezzard Charles in 15 rounds of a championship bout. He retired for good in December of 1951 after Rocky Marciano knocked him out in the eighth on October 26, 1951.

Various businesses and financial schemes failed, and Louis gave up hope of ever paying the IRS the more than $1 million he owed. He went on quiz shows, even tried professional wrestling, but when he did win money, he just gave it away.

ImageA badly beaten Joe Louis sinks to the ropes after an eight-round knockout at the hands of Rocky Marciano. Louis retired for good after this fight.

    Louis married Rose Morgan in 1955, gave her an annulment in 1958, and married Martha Jefferson, a successful Los Angeles attorney who was the first black woman to practice law in California, in 1959. He lived in Las Vegas, working as a greeter and in public relations at Caesar’s Palace, a job given to him by old army buddy Ash Resnick, then an executive of the casino.

He also worked with Sonny Liston and as an advisor to Muhammed Ali. Eventually Louis’ health deteriorated to the point where he was confined to a wheelchair. His heart was bad: he had two operations, which long time friend Frank Sinatra paid for. Sinatra flew Louis to Houston to have Michael DeBakey perform surgery. Louis suffered a stroke a year before his death and eventually his heart gave out. Joe Louis died on April 12, 1981. He was 66.

Ronald Reagan waived the eligibility rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and Louis was buried there with full military honors on April 21, 1981.

The whole country mourned his passing. President Reagan praised his instinctive patriotism and extraordinary accomplishments.

Thomas Sowell praised his dignity, his gentlemanliness, sportsmanship and humor, the ‘unbought grace of life’ that was his gift.

“He was our Sampson; he was our David. With toughness he destroyed our enemy, with kindness he soothed our wounds and revived our psyche.” — Jesse Jackson

“Joe never lost his common touch, his love of Detroit. He stood for everything that was good about Detroit.” — Coleman Young

“Our loss is Heaven’s gain; he was a great fighter, and a great champion in and out of the ring. He was symbolic to all people, young and old, black and white.”– Jersey Joe Walcott

ImageLouis’ third wife and widow, Martha, in front of the Joe Louis statue in the lobby of Cobo Hall.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News