Saturday, February 10, 2018

Detroit Boxer Joe Louis's Place in American History

During the height of the Great Depression in the 1935-1936 sports season, Detroit's professional sports teams accomplished a feat unrivaled in American sports history. The Detroit Lions, the Detroit Tigers, and the Detroit Red Wings all won their championships the same year. The season was called by the Windsor Star "...the most amazing sweep of sports achievement ever credited to any single city." That prompted Michigan Governor Frank Fitzgerald to proclaim and designate April 18th, 1936 as "Champions Day" in Michigan. Champions throughout the state were honored.

The White House honored Detroit as the "City of Champions" in 1936 presenting the city with a wooden plaque signed by President Franklin Roosevelt and the forty-eight sitting governors. The plaque included five medallions at the bottom representing the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and standout individuals speedboat racer Gar Wood for winning the international Harmsworth Trophy and boxer Joe Louis for bursting onto the national boxing scene after a successful amateur career. The plaque was presented at a banquet on July 16th in Traverse City during the 1936 Cherry Festival. 

Locally, a banquet was held in Detroit attended by over 600 fans at the Masonic Temple with the event broadcast over WXYZ radio. Many of the athletes from the sports teams gave speeches, however, Joe Louis did not speak. Because Louis lost a heavyweight championship fight to German Max Schmeling later that year, his boxing medallion was removed and replaced by a diver representing Amature Athletic Union (AAU) high dive champion Dirk Degener. Anyone remember Dirk? I didn't think so.


Joseph Louis Barrow--best known as the "Brown Bomber" boxed from 1934 until 1951 and reigned as heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949. He was born in Chambers County, Alabama, the seventh of eight children. Both of his parents were children of former slaves.

Louis's family moved to Detroit after a brush with the Ku Klux Klan when Joe was twelve. The Louis family was part of the Great Migration after World War I. His family settled on 2700 Catherine Street in the now defunct neighborhood of Black Bottom. When old enough, Joe and his older brother worked at the Rouge Plant for the Ford Motor Company.

During the Great Depression, Joe spent time at a local youth recreation center at 637 Brewster Street in Detroit and made his boxing debut early in 1932 at the age of seventeen. In 1933, Louis won the Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice Division. In 1934, he won the Chicago Golden Gloves championship and later that year became the United States Amateur Champion in a national AAU tournament in St. Louis, Missouri. By the summer of 1934, Joe had gone pro with a management team.

In 1936, Louis got a title shot versus world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium. The German trained hard while Louis seemed more interested in his golf game--his new hobby. Schmeling knocked Louis out in the 12th round handing Joe his first professional loss. Schmeling became a national hero in Nazi Germany as an example of Aryan superiority.

Max Schmeling and Joe Louis rematch.
No path to a rematch was open to Louis until June 22, 1938. Louis and Schmeling met for a second time at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 70,043. The fight was broadcast worldwide in English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. It should be noted that Max Schmeling was not a Nazi, but the Nazi party propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hyped the match proclaiming a black man could not defeat Herr Schmeling.

The American press promoted the match as an epic battle between Nazi ideology and American democratic ideals. Louis became the embodiment of anti-Nazi sentiment. After the big media buildup, the fight lasted only two minutes and four seconds. Schmeling went down three times before his trainer threw in the towel ending the match. For the first time in American history, every black person and white person in the country celebrated the same event at the same time. Not until the end of World War II would that happen again.

Joe Louis became the first African-American national hero. He reigned as heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949--longer than anyone else. In 1951, Louis was beaten by Rocky Marciano and retired from the ring. The following year, he was responsible for breaking the color line integrating the game of golf. He appeared as a celebrity golfer under a sponsor's exemption at a PGA event in 1952.

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling
Joe Louis died on April 12, 1981 of cardiac arrest at the age of sixty-six in Desert Springs Hospital near Las Vegas after a public appearance at the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick heavyweight battle. President Ronald Reagan waived eligibility rules for Joe Louis to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors on April 21st. His funeral was paid for by his friend Max Schmeling, who also acted as a pallbearer.

In his professional boxing career, Joe Louis won virtually every boxing award there is and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1982. The City of Detroit honored Joe Louis with a monument on October 16, 1989. When drivers turn onto Woodward Avenue from Jefferson Avenue, they are confronted with a colossal fist and forearm suspended from a triangular superstructure--a testament to the regard and respect Detroiters hold for their hometown hero.

Link to the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling 1937 heavyweight fight

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