From the mid-1930's through 1947 (when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color bar), Joe Louis was the best-known black in...


CHAMPION: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America

From the mid-1930's through 1947 (when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color bar), Joe Louis was the best-known black in the US--and probably the world. Mead here offers an affectionately revisionist, warts-and-all account of the boxer's heyday, which grants him an important place in social history. In fighting his way from a Detroit ghetto to the heavyweight championship, Louis overcame formidable opposition outside as well as in the ring. In particular, he had to contend with memories of the offensive Jack Johnson and with a lily-white sports establishment whose rigid segregation mirrored that of most American institutions. Louis prevailed, mainly, as he put it, by letting his ""right fist be the referee."" Mead provides evocative re-creations of the early bouts, including two stirring battles with Nazi Germany's Max Schmeling, complete with partial transcripts of Clem McCarthy's blow-by-blow reports from ringside over network radio. He also documents Louis' significance as an agent and symbol of change. The Depression-era press was patronizing and casually racist in its treatment of racial minorities. But constant coverage by top sportswriters like Grantland Rice (who routinely referred to black Olympic athletes as ""our Ethiopian troops"") helped make the ""well-behaved"" Louis a real person to the white public. Mead suggests, though, that whites might not have been so sanguine ""had they realized the depth of the impression"" the Brown Bomber was making in black communities where he was ""a hero of revolutionary proportions--a black man who beat whites in direct competition before a national audience."" Louis went into decline as a prizefighter after WW II, and he retired from the ring with few resources. Until he died in 1981, the ex-champ was content to sustain himself by trading on his earlier celebrity. Wisely, Mead does not dwell on these anticlimatic years. He is nonetheless at pains to dispute the consensus perception of Louis as a victim--e.g., of racism, rapacious promoters, the IRS, et al. To see Louis as he really was (i.e., a disciplined athlete, but improvident to the point of irresponsibility in personal and financial matters) requires complex judgments, Mead observes. In fact, he implies, throughout his life the spendthrift Louis was more an exploiter than a fall guy. It is greatly to the author's credit that he conveys harsh truths of this sort while enhancing his subject's real achievements and stature. A stunning piece of work that transcends the genre of sports biography.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1985


Page Count: -

Publisher: Scribners

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985