The night race, politics and history faced off

September 25, 2005|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Review: Sports History

BEYOND GLORY: JOE

LOUIS VS. MAX SCHMELING AND A WORLD ON THE BRINK

David Margolick

Alfred A. Knopf / 432 pages

SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO, A PROFESSIONAL boxing match between an American Negro and a German "Aryan" took on an importance far out of proportion to a mere sporting event.

Many African-Americans believed that in winning the heavyweight boxing championship, Joe Louis would help usher in a new era of acceptance of blacks into the Caucasian-dominated society. White Americans, even those who dehumani z e d blacks, were rooting for the Alabama- born, Detroit- bred Louis, too, against Max Schmeling; they saw the event as a f i g h t p i t t i n g American democracy against German Nazism.

I am appalled by the sport of boxing - always have been, always will be. But I am a longtime admirer of journalist David Margolick, so agreed to review Beyond Glory. What a knockout punch. The reporting and writing are superb. Chapter after chapter, the book transported me to the 1930s-the decade before my birth - to teach me not only about professional boxing but also about race relations, stereotyping and the intersection between sporting events and international politics. The book is history at its liveliest.

Margolick is not a professional historian. He is a former New York Times reporter who freelances for Vanity Fair magazine and writes books - a journalist who has learned historical research techniques so well that the rich material seems anything but old. He takes multiple risks with Beyond Glory. First, he breaks away from the easy-to-follow chronological approach of many historians to jump back and forth in time. Second, he mixes genres, presenting biography alongside event-driven history as he fleshes out the lives of Louis and Schmeling. Third, that mixing of twomain characters is its own risk; the danger is that both will come across as unrealized, superficial.

Each one of the calculated risksworks beautifully. By opening the book on June 22, 1938, the night of the big fight, Margolick conveys the magnitude of the event. Those who could not cram in New York City's Yankee Stadium to watch in person gathered around their radios - across the United States, across Germany, in other nations. Margolick presents evidence that no other event in world history to that day had gained the attention of so many people in real time.

After conveying that the fights reached around the globe, Margolick wisely refrains from giving away the punch line. Sure, many readers will already know who won the boxing match. But they will not know precisely how or why. Before revealing those details, Margolick moves backward in time, delineating the lives of Schmeling, (born in 1905) and Louis (1914). Each biographical set piece is developed in the context of professional boxing - how each man became interested in the brutal occupation, and how each rose to the top within his respective nation and then across national boundaries.

Every chapter is infused with context, especially the context of Louis' race and Schmeling's life in Nazi Germany. Neither Louis nor Schmeling could be easily stereotyped, no matter how much narrow-minded citizens, politicians and journalists tried. Louis was no dumb Negro who could punch and take punches but never think for himself. And Schmeling was no Nazi puppet of German dictator Adolf Hitler.

"Schmeling was never the man his most intemperate critics claimed," writes Margolick. "He was never 'Nazi Max,' the man who had supposedly worn a storm trooper uniform during the early days of the regime, whose picture in a brown shirt had been widely displayed in Germany. Nor does anything support the canard -- the details of which vary -- that Schmeling...carried Nazi flags or uniforms...when [he] came to the United States.

"But Schmeling's dogged insistence that he was a sportsman rather than a politician made him more useful to the Nazis, not less. It allowed him to do business with Jews in New York and then hobnob with Nazis in Berlin and Berchtesgaden afterward. The Nazis had Schmeling precisely where they wanted him, and while Schmeling always kept his own counsel, he was, to all appearances, content to be there."

Both Louis and Schemling were decent human beings who developed a respect and even a fondness for each other outside the boxing ring. Louis died in 1981; Schmeling earlier this year, seven months short of his 100th birthday. The two men come alive again in Margolick's book, pummeling each other and struggling to comprehend all they came to symbolize.

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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