79 Years Ago I Listened To “The Fight”

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Storyline: There have been many fighters and fights since. But in my lifetime the biggest fight of all was Joe Louis v. Max Schmeling, 1938.

The date was June 22, 1938. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis scored a knockout over Max Schmeling that day. The fight was held in New York’s Yankee Stadium before a crowd of more than 70,000 fans–with millions more listening on radio.

I was one of those millions. I was only four years old.

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We lived in Florence, Alabama.  Will Bates, my grandfather, role model, and constant companion, was the proud owner of a Philco radio!

“Papa” kept it on a little table in our dining room, near the window, to improve reception.

We called it “our dining room,” but it really served as our family’s primary gathering place. It boasted a small fireplace, a bookcase full of ideas, a round table, a few chairs, and–on chilly bath nights–the family’s largest tin wash tub.

The Philco had three knobs–on and off, volume, and station selection. The tiny dial in the middle of the oval-shaped wooden face showed a dim orange back light that illuminated the magic radio station numbers, from 600 to 1600.

That radio opened the whole world to the Bates family. And that June night the world revolved around Joe Louis. He was our Joe!

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To get ready for the broadcast Papa soaked the ground around the iron spike that held the antenna wire to the ground. That maneuver cut down the level of radio static.

When it was time for the fight, Papa, Aunt Pearl, and I gathered around the radio. Thankfully, they let me stay up late for this momentous occasion.

I think may have known that Max Schmeling had beaten Joe two years before. But maybe I didn’t.

Anyway, we were all excited. We all kept quiet so we wouldn’t miss a single punch.

Then, before I could comprehend what was going on, the fight was over! Joe had knocked out Max in the very first round!

Papa and Aunt Pearl raised the roof. They started cheering and couldn’t stop. So did I.

We rocked that little dining room like there was no tomorrow!

Original caption, June 4, 1938, Pompton Lakes, NJ – Champion Joe Louis is getting in trim to defend his title against Max Schmeling of Germany at the Yankee Stadium, June 22nd. Former Champion James J. Braddock, whom Louis defeated for the title, visited the “Bomber” at his camp today and placed his stamp of approval on the title-holder. (Photo, courtesy of IndieWire.com)

Over the next few years that old Philco radio introduced me to a succession of fights–heavyweights, welterweights, lightweights, and middleweights.

I picked my favorites fighters, mostly because I liked the sound of their names…fighters like Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, Kid Gavilan, and Rocky Graziano. There were others, too: Fritzie Zivic, Tony Zale and Tony Janiro were among them. They weren’t as well known then and few are remembered today. But I named my second puppy, Tony, after one of those fighters (in Janiro’s honor).

I listened to those fights, trying to imagine what the fighters looked like.

Then television came around. But, to be honest, neither the fights nor the fighters were ever quite the same.


About Samuel H. Johnson

At a student at Miami University (Ohio) I spent a lot of time at the campus radio station WRMU and the FM outlet, WMUB. After graduation I worked at various radio and TV Stations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC. I was a DJ, sports reporter, and on-air public affairs host/producer, winning three local Emmy awards. Along the way I appeared in three major movies: G.I. Jane, CONTACT, and Runaway Bride. Today I live in Phoenix, Arizona with my wife, Laraine, and our two daughters, who live nearby. I enjoy writing about sports–mostly my own off-beat and sometimes humorous observations. I also like to write about history. I’ve written several books, including The Cherokee and the Slave. My favorite athletes (current) are Larry Fitzgerald, Ben Roethlisberger, Kawhi Leonard, and Roger Federer; (future) are Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, and Paul Watson; and (past) Lenny Moore, Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, Steve Nash, Johnny Unitas, Charlie Joiner, Marques Haynes, Elgin Baylor, Dr. “J”. My unsung star is Bob Boyd, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver, 1950-57, and winner, 100-yard dash, 1950 NCAA Championships.

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Comments (2)

    Dierdre wrote (05/02/17 - 7:40:16AM)

    As I sit here reading your column, I am tearing up. Uncle Sammy, this makes me so proud of you and my heritage. I love you. Dierdre

    MARK C MORTHIER wrote (07/24/17 - 7:40:15AM)

    Loved the article Samuel. I’ve read many accounts of this fight, but I like how you gave it a personal touch. As you probably know, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling went on to become good friends. I just wrote an article on the first Frazier and Ali fight that you might find interesting.