A Different Kind of Artist

If I could figure out a way to build it into the curriculum, I’d like all of us to take a course on biographies because I think we can learn a lot just by reading about the lives of those who went before us. We can begin to understand their challenges, their motivations, their dreams, and perhaps most importantly, we can begin to understand how they overcame  the obstacles of their times; that alone might put some of the challenges we face today in proper perspective.

If waiting in a long lunch line makes you feel you are living the life of Job, take a peek at Randy Roberts’ book, “Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. ” Talk about being born at the wrong place in the wrong time: Joe came of age in rural Alabama almost 100 years ago in what was the deepest part of the Jim Crow segregated South.  Joe’s father was a sharecropper who went broke before he ended up in a mental asylum, and the only thing young Joe was known for was his pronounced stutter.

Like a lot of black families in Alabama, Joe’s moved to Henry Ford’s, Detroit,  as part of the vast social migration North, and there he found menial work, delivering ice. (Last Friday, Jake mentioned that he didn’t know what he was good at, until he stumbled into the theatre. Joe Louis had a similar experience.) One day when he was looking for something to do — as he was searching for something to do with his life — Joe wandered into a gym, and there he discovered something important about himself. Not only could he box, but he could do it very well.  Soon he was the best boxer in the entire gym, and eventually he became the best boxer in the world.

Today it is hard for us to imagine just how big boxing was in 30’s and 40’s.  At the time, there were just two viable pro sports in America: boxing and baseball. Hockey hadn’t expanded; the NFL was in its infancy, and the NBA didn’t exist. The greatest team title was winning the World Series, and the greatest individual title was that of heavyweight champion. The boxing ring was described as, “The two fisted testing ground of masculinity.” (There is a whiff of this hard edged masculinity by the way, still emanating from the honour boards that adorn UCC’s main hall, boards proclaiming UCC boxing champions from the 1890’s through the 1950’s). The heavy weight champ was an iconic figure, and if you know anything about the tenor of the times, you can understand that Americans wanted their champion to be white.

Part of that desire was a direct response to the first black champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson had enraged the white population by having the audacity to taunt and ridicule his white opponents, and to make matters worse, he flaunted the fact that he not only dated white women, but he even married them.

Joe Louis set out to be the antithesis of Jack Johnson. Louis would not even allow himself to be photographed with white women, and he never, ever belittled his opponents, no matter what their colour. He was a thoroughly polite, decent, and amiable man. Sportswriters liked him. The men he knocked out liked him. Even his 3 ex-wives  all liked Joe Louis.

Roberts points out that Louis, “had a marvelous ability to accept reality, even the unpleasant reality of pre World War II America.”

This was the golden age of radio: families would gather together to listen to fights. People literally died while they tuned in to boxing on the radio. There was a report of one man’s having a heart attack during a Louis fight, and as they revived him, his first question and only question was, “Who won the fight?”

After becoming heavyweight champ, in 1936 Louis fought the famous German champion, Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium. Schmellng was a student of the sweet science, and he had discovered that when Louis threw a jab, he bought his hand back low, and this allowed Schmeling to repeatedly pound him with a right counter. Reporters claimed that Schmeling hit Louis so hard and so often, that the punches sounded like water balloons being dropped from a third floor. They had a “splat” to them. Schmeling’s knock out of Louis in the 12th round was the absolute low point of his professional life.

This was pre-World War II, so naturally Max Schmeling became the German hero, the man who had defeated the great Joe Louis. This loss was devastating, not only for Louis but for the entire African American community, a community that had taken incredible pride in Louis’ accomplishments.

There is an apocryphal story about the time when the state of North Carolina first changed its method of execution; instead of using the  electric chair, they employed the gas chamber. When the first African American was executed via that ghastly device, the story goes that, when the poisonous pellet was dropped, the prisoner yelled out, “Save me, Joe Louis! Joe Louis, please, save me!”

Besides Schmeling, Louis had fought a number of very tough opponents, one of whom was Max Baer, a former champion himself, a man who had literally killed one man in the ring, and  had beaten another so badly that he had died shortly after his fight. Max knew what could happen in boxing, and shortly before climbing into the squared circle with Louis, he realized he was, for the first time in his career, frightened by another man. Fear is not an asset to a boxer. Early in the fourth round, Max was knocked down, and he never got up. When critics claimed he could have fought on,  Baer said, “They’re probably right, but people are going to have to pay a lot more than 25 bucks to see me get executed.”

In June of 1938, Louis fought Schmelinng again, and  this time 100 million people from around the world tuned in for the rematch. The fight lasted  just 2 minutes and 10 seconds. In that first round, Schmeling got caught in the ropes and was turned sidweways when Louis hit him a shot to the side of his body. That one blow broke several of Schmelings’ vertebrae, and people ringside recall Shmelling’s literally screaming in agony.(You don’t often hear boxers scream.  It’s a violation of an unwritten code.) Schmeling made what was described as a “death curdling scream,”  and the sound made people who were sitting ringside sick. It sounded as if Schmelling was being murdered before their very  eyes.

Jimmy Carter, then a young boy, remembers that his father, Earl, had invited the field hands from his peanut farm in Georgia to come to the porch to listen to that fight. The field hands couldn’t come in to the living room,  of course,  but the Carters moved the radio to the window, so that they could all listen together.  When the fight concluded, the lead field hand quietly said, “Thank you, Mr. Earl.” Then all the field hands silently crossed the road to their quarters, before, as Jimmy Carter said, “All hell broke lose.”

After that fight, Joe Louis became  a symbol; he was the first assault against Germany before the war. Until that time, Louis had been admired by white sports writers, but some still wanted him beaten by a white champion. Southern reporters, in particular, gloated after Schmelling had beaten Louis in their first encounter. By 1938, though, nationalism had trumped race, and Louis moved from being an African American to being an American.

Joe Louis held a unique role in the culture of his time, and the closest thing I can imagine to him today in Canada might be Wayne Gretzky. Both names demand  an almost reverential response. Some folks are just meant to be above the fray. I remember a few years ago when Gretsky was coaching the woeful Coyotes, sports writers might take shots at the team, but woe to he (or him?) who would dare to criticize “The Great One.”

During the war, Louis befriended a young serviceman he had taken under his wing. Years later, when he broke the colour barrier in baseball, one of the first people Jackie Robinson publicly thanked was his former mentor in the military, Joe Louis.

The last few years were not particularly kind to Joe. He never had much success in business. He once tried to promote a drink named after him; it was called “Joe Louis’ Punch.” But one day a reporter asked him, “After a tough fight, what do you like to drink?” Joe quickly replied, “I like Coca-Cola.” The painful irony was that Coke, which was a Southern company, never would have hired Joe to promote their beverage because he was black.

Years later, Louis bumped into the then world champion Muhammad Ali, and Ali asked, “If I had fought you, how would I have done?” Joe said, “When I was fighting, they used to call all the guys I fought the ‘bum of the month’ club.” Ali asked, “Are you calling me a bum?” To which Joe replied, “I’m not calling you a bum, but you would have been in the club.”

The list of happy ex-boxers is not long. Joe battled cocaine and paranoia, and he was institutionalized shortly before his death. Today, though, Joe Louis is widely regarded as the greatest boxing champion in history, a man who held the title for 12 years and who defended his title an unprecedented 25 times. Not bad for a poor black kid with a stutter, who grew up in rural Alabama, with a father in a mental asylum.

One postscript to all of this: Mothers mean well. They have the very best of intentions. Joe’s mom gave him money each week for violin lessons, and Joe used that money to pay for a locker at the gym where he first learned how to box. Mrs. Louis wanted her son to learn the violin because she thought it would keep him off the streets and out of trouble. And in a way, she was right. Joe was just an artist of a different kind.


2 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Artist

  1. That is a fascinating chapter of American history about which I knew nothing, Jim. Thank you for that and for thank you for sharing the idea of “an artist of a different kind”. Perhaps we can be forgiven for our good intentions, but we mothers eventually realize that the artists to whom we give birth ultimately will create their own canvas that is their life.

  2. re. biographies in the curriculum.

    there is provision for this in the IB Language A1, and in fact some of these books (autobiographical, anyway) have been taught at UCC in the past, including Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and Dr. Johnson’s ‘Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’.

    This parent would be delighted to see any UCC teacher tackle Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’, still the archetype for books of this type.

    Adam de Pencier
    faculty, emeritus (Latin for “without pay”, now really without pay as father of two UCC students!!)

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