How History’s Greatest Boxer Ended up in a Circus Ring

Originally published on

“Stay away, Joe! Stay away, Joe!” screamed ringside observers and fans of Joe Louis, whose collapse in the 14th round appeared imminent. Moments before, his younger opponent, Ezzard Charles, landed a right cross followed by a right uppercut that initiated Louis’ instinctive retreat. “His eyes went slightly glazy on that one as if he were tired,” the commentator remarked as Louis hugged Charles, trying to slow his opponent’s punches.

Louis survived that round and, as a cruel reward, earned himself three more minutes of punishment. Boxing historian and host of Knuckles and Gloves podcast Patrick Connor describes Louis as someone who became “perhaps the most powerful man in the world.” But that was in the pugilist’s prime; by 1950, when he faced Charles, Louis was well on his way to becoming “another fighter gobbled up by the most wicked of sports,” Connor says.

The judges scored the fight unanimously for Charles, and as Louis’ cornermen wiped blood from his face and placed a robe on his back, they looked despondent. Louis was no longer the same “Brown Bomber” who rose from the poverty of Alabama’s cotton fields and Detroit’s Black Bottom — part of the Great Migration — to become a national hero. With World War II as a backdrop, his fights against Italian Primo Carnera and German Max Schmeling became symbols of something greater — metaphors for democracy’s fight against fascism in “the good war.” But those had been different times, and Louis, along with everyone around him, knew it. In fact, Louis needed money so badly that he had joined the circus.

Professional boxing is a wretched way to make a living, even for the best fighters. When age begins blunting the reflexes, the already high level of danger increases. The emotional toll, unsurprisingly, is hard on the athletes as well as their loved ones. In Louis’ case, his mother, Lillie, worried about her son’s health as he continued boxing on the downside of age 30. When Louis joined the circus, the Chicago Tribune described Lillie as “the happiest woman in the world.” “Now I can stop fretting,” she said, noting how her son’s gifting her a home “isn’t as nice a present as [Joe] … not fighting again.”

But Louis didn’t pull all his punches. As he toured with the Dailey Bros.’ Circus in 1950, he put on boxing exhibitions as he had during World War II. While in the Army, Louis traveled more than 21,000 miles, entertaining 2 million soldiers with nearly 100 exhibitions. These were controlled fights, free of danger, that offered fans a chance to see, up close, the great Joe Louis do his thing. From Canada to Texas and into South America, Louis mimicked punches and feints for circusgoers, moves that, in earlier years, had relegated his opponents to the “Bum of the Month” club, a list of those he’d beaten during his 12-year reign as world heavyweight champion.

Even with the circus paying him $1,000 a day, it was not enough for the deeply indebted Louis. Poor money management and failed investments pushed him into the red. He also owed back taxes to Uncle Sam, including IRS penalties linked to disallowed deductions he claimed from buying tickets for soldiers to attend his exhibitions. In a New York Times article on his economic difficulties, Louis noted, “I made $5 million … and wound up broke, owing the government a million.” Like many pugilists, Louis returned to professional boxing because he couldn’t afford the luxury of retiring, even to circus events. His spending ways didn’t help matters, Connor says, but it was Louis’ “tax debt [that] spurred on his comeback and the punishment he absorbed during it.” Risking his health, Louis fought on, never seeing most of the money he earned.

A year after fighting Charles — who also could not afford to stop fighting and would eventually suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease — Louis again retired from boxing, following his loss to Rocky Marciano. After that bout, Louis wondered whether the loss jeopardized his plans for another boxing exhibition tour, telling the Montreal Gazette, “I don’t know whether the party will want me anymore.” As boxing exhibitions became a less believable option, he joined the wrestling circuit.

Two decades later, when he wasn’t working as official greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas — “a roulette table ornament,” as Connor calls him — Louis also wrestled to bring in extra money. One August night, according to the Los Angeles Times, the 59-year-old was set to referee the main event and was having a quiet moment in the locker room when a man ran toward him with his young son in tow. “I want you to meet Joe Louis, champion of the world,” the father told his 10-year-old son.

Louis died April 12, 1981, of a massive heart attack. Lewis Erenberg, author of The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling, described Louis as someone whose “body had atrophied, his fortune had disappeared and his fame had dwindled.” Max Schmeling — who after the war had become a wealthy Coca-Cola executive — helped pay for his former opponent’s funeral.


When American Baseball Players Talk About Playing the “Right” Way, They Really Mean the “White” Way

Originally published on

Major League Baseball’s 2017 season began on Sunday April 2nd, ten days after the United States beat Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. The WBC is an attempt to make the baseball equivalent of the World Cup, and the international flavor of the tournament helped inspire continuing discussion of how various nations and cultures play with a different style, while adhering to different unspoken rules. As always, there were strong views and opinions that a certain decorum should guide how anyone plays baseball, considered America’s national pastime; it should be played “the right way.”

Whenever players (often Latinos) violate those norms by showing too much emotion, baseball purists get angry, claiming the game should only be played in a specific way. For an example, see Ian Kinsler and Adam Jones’s comments regarding Latino players as poor role models who celebrate the game of baseball instead of showing respect to outdated ideas of the proper way to play, or even the reaction to Jose Bautista’s monster bat flip in the 2015 ALDS.

Baseball subscribes to this idea of “appealing to tradition,” which sees the past as the correct way of doing things. The past is held up to a higher standard, and some lament the loss of its customs, such as when players policed the game by intentionally throwing at those who “hot-dogged.”

But this policing is still part of the game today, as seen by bench-clearing brawls that occur multiple times a season. A 2015 USA Today study of bench-clearing brawls found that 87% of fights had main antagonists from different ethnic backgrounds. In the study, one player explicitly claimed that part of the tension is the cultural difference that keeps some from playing the game the supposed proper way.

More than any other sport in the United States, history is an inextricable part of baseball. Once commonly called the national game, in the last few decades, baseball’s demographics have changed; close to 30% of MLB rosters are now composed of Latino players. With baseball, concern over this change manifests itself in worries over how athletes play, moving away from the “right” way. That is, presumably, the way it was first introduced as part of the United States’s expanding empire from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

In 1903, the Sporting Life wrote, “Wherever Uncle Sam goes, there goes with him his favorite and characteristic National game.” The article added, “Base[ball] is flourishing in [Puerto] Rico and Cuba, and in the Philippines, too, the game is becoming established.” Not coincidentally, the United States’ presence in these areas increased once Spain lost control of their remaining overseas empire with 1898’s Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.

Besides these areas, during roughly the same time span, the United States introduced baseball in Alaska, Japan, Hawaii, and Dominican Republic. Again, each of these places coincided with an increased United States military presence that introduced the game and controlled these territories for the emerging empire.

Baseball was more than merely entertainment; it was also a way of Americanizing the newly encountered people, showing them how to play a game that encompassed a certain set of values. Historically, baseball has passed itself off as a clean game that lacked cheating, foul language, or shaming from the players of either themselves or their opponents. Above all else, the game was seen as intelligent and supposedly democratic.

This is more myth than reality, as scandals filled baseball during the early 20th century; who can forget the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 that resulted in the ban of Shoeless Joe Jackson, among others? Further, baseball conveniently ignores the fact that its segregation lasted until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Lest we think that things dramatically improved in the time since, at least one journalist in 1990 (over four decades after Robinson’s debut happened) continued to note baseball’s generosity in allowing one black male to play: “Baseball took up the cudgel for democracy and an unassuming but superlative Negro boy ascended to heights of excellence to prove the rightness of the experiment.”

But this myth of cleanliness served its purpose, as baseball was seen as a civilized alternative used to replace the usual forms of entertainment—“sordid things like rum, cockfights, and lottery tickets”—in different parts of the world. Baseball offered a moral game that was purported to teach respect for authority, increased intelligence, self-confidence and control, and social unity through team play. Again, important attributes required for “success in the life of an individual and of a nation.”

The game survived in the United States’s island possessions, while being played the “right” way, so long as the United States remained in these areas. Once the military left Latin America, baseball declined. As one commentator lamented in 1926, “It is to be recorded, and with regret, that since the departure of the Marine forces, baseball has experienced a decline. Absence of the urge. Just another and concrete example of the lack of sustained effort on the part of the average Latin-American in any endeavor which calls for perseverance.”

Beyond being used as a form of Americanizing foreigners within the expanding United States territories, baseball became a tool for assimilating foreigners within the mainland. As Steven A. Riess points out in Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, among baseball’s main functions was its purported ability to teach children traditional American values and help assimilate immigrants “into the dominant WASP culture.”  Newspapers of the era echoed the sentiment.

As late as the 1930s, when Los Angeles wanted to Americanize Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the area, a USC sociologist suggested teaching baseball to assimilate Latinos, by showing them a wholesome game unlike their usual amusements of “talking and siestas, cheap motion pictures, playing pool, dancing, boxing matches, gambling, and cock-fighting.” Incidentally, two decades later, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, city officials used eminent domain to evict thousands of families from Chávez Ravine, a Mexican neighborhood, to build Dodger Stadium.

Notions of playing the “right” way will undoubtedly continue in the upcoming baseball season, partly, because that argument never leaves. It is an ingrained part of the game that continues to portray itself in a romanticized way that harkens back to how things once were. How were things once? The self-proclaimed “father of baseball,” Henry Chadwick, explained the game as “the desire of the Anglo-Saxon (we do not say Caucasian, or Aryan, because we like to be exact) to arm himself with a stick and drive a small round body with it.”

Thus, it is not a stretch to think that, when people complain baseball is not being played the “right” way, what they are essentially saying is that it is not being played the “white” way.