Max Baer had been heavyweight champion for only a few months when he and actress Judith Allen attended Baer’s younger brother Buddy’s November, 1934, fight in Los Angeles. The relationship between Baer and Allen would not last long, as they would both be married to others by 1935, but this would not be the last time Allen saw Buddy in a boxing ring, for she would be sitting ringside when her then husband, Irish heavyweight Jack Doyle, fought him at Madison Square Garden.
Ms. Allen clearly had an affinity for physical, athletic men. A year before dating Baer she had been married to early NFL star and professional wrestler Gus Sonnenberg, and a year after would be married to Doyle.
Sonnenberg was in hospital recovering from a heart attack when Allen filed for divorce. Her separation from Doyle would be more complicated and drawn out, but no less startling and gossip worthy for the newspapers.
Given Max Baer’s well-known penchant for enjoying a playboy lifestyle, what would have been the odds that he, and not the more subdued Buddy – who liked to watch sports or a movie in his free time rather than be the center of attention – would have the quiet domestic life that Buddy would not find for many years.
Max was six when Buddy was born in Colorado, the family having moved there from Nebraska. The Baers would eventually settle in California where Buddy, much larger than his older brother at 6’ 6” tall and with an 84” reach, would ironically spend his whole life in Max’s shadow. Buddy came to understand this in his childhood, as a teacher commented how Buddy would not sign his name on school assignments, instead writing “Max Baer’s brother Bud” on his papers. The Sacramento Bee once reported, well into Buddy’s career, of his signing for a fight, this notice printed right next to an article about a movie Max was starring in.
Buddy never fought as an amateur but would cash in on his brother’s fame from the beginning of his professional career, fighting 12 times in 1934, 15 times in 1935, and 21 times in 1936. Most of these bouts were on the undercard of Max’s fights, or as part his older brother’s barnstorming tour of exhibitions. Max would often work Buddy’s corner.
Max was a Hollywood celebrity even before becoming champion, and enjoyed the spoils that came with the lifestyle. “He tended to be wild, he needed guidance and a firm hand to curb his wild spending,” manager Ancil Hoffman said of the young Max. Hoffman made clear how much Max appreciated the movie money while a contender because he was “practically broke.”
He had a wicked right hand and a great sense of humor, but was no financial wizard. Spending money as fast as it came, Max once sold 10% of his future earnings to a friend for $15,000 cash. Fortunately, the friend could satisfy himself with Max paying the 10% cut “when he can.”
“He’d sell 110% of himself if he could,” Hoffman said.
Upon taking the title from Primo Carnera, Max began making real money from “radio and motion picture contracts,” scheduling boxing exhibitions around his entertainment commitments, work which allowed him to rise from bed “shortly before noon.” He was making so much money as an entertainer that Hoffman let the world know there would be no title defenses for quite a while, for what turned out to be over a year.
Instead of opponents’ punches, he was dodging process servers. Sued for alienation of affection, once for breaking an engagement to marry a “divorcee and former actress,” which itself soon led to a suit for divorce. Max spoke of his mother being his favorite woman because “she won’t sue me.”
Former champion Jack Dempsey found himself exasperated with Baer, too. Although he liked Max and saw a lot of raw talent, he didn’t see much of a future at the world-class level. Dempsey was familiar enough with Max to know he could punch hard and take punishment in return, but was disappointed in Max having “absolutely no self-control,” adding, in an article he wrote for Esquire Magazine, that if Baer could commit himself to six weeks of preparation for a fight he could be an historically great fighter.
It was no secret that Max was emotionally damaged by Frankie Campbell’s death following their fight. He would hold fundraisers for the Campbell family but was never able to escape a sense of guilt. Dempsey didn’t like it, though, that when Max hurt an opponent he would begin “to clown and pose around the ring like an actor.”
“He is very likeable, very warm-hearted, very affectionate, and maybe that’s the reason he doesn’t like to finish an opponent who is at his mercy,” Dempsey wondered.
Baer would lose the championship in his first defense, in the summer of 1935 to James Braddock, and was stopped in four rounds by Joe Louis three months after that. Marrying the former Mary Ellen Sullivan barely two weeks after the loss to Braddock, Baer announced his retirement from boxing after the Louis fight, telling reporters, “If you boys are through with me, I think I’ll go home. You know I got a wife to go home to now.”
The decision to retire was supported by both the wife and manager. Mrs. Baer said that as champion Max belonged to the world, but away from boxing he was hers. Hoffman was more pragmatic: “Baer has plenty of money and all his faculties and should never put on another glove.”
Hoffman was a boxer’s dream manager in many ways, one of which being that he set both Max and Buddy up with annuities for when their boxing careers ended. Max was to receive over $2,000 a month, which would be about a quarter million dollars a year in today’s money, and it was appreciated
“I don’t know what an annuity is,” Baer quipped, “but I do know what $2,200 is.”
As is often the case, though, boxing proved to be a life difficult to walk away from. By 1936, Max was training again, with Hoffman entertaining fight offers.
The Baer’s first child, Max, Jr., was born in 1937, and the gaining of a family accompanied by the loss of the title and the death of his parents seemed to mature Baer. He certainly viewed life with a new perspective. Fighting 26 times over the next three years, he had never worked harder in the gym, and clearly wanted to be champion again, saying he was “coming back to get it.”
Baer would fight on the undercards of major fights, taking what some thought of as short money, because he wanted to remain active and stay in the mix. Splitting a pair of fights with Tommy Farr and then two losses to Lou Nova, however, convinced Baer that his time in boxing was over, and he retired for good in 1941.
Buddy became engaged when he was 20 years old in 1935, the same year Max married, to a woman he described as being “a lot like Max’s wife.” Papa Baer was opposed to the marriage, and didn’t want his younger son’s boxing future disturbed by involvement with women – he had seen the trouble that followed the young Max’s extra-curricular activities.
“Why it’s nothing but a lot of grief,” the senior Baer said. “I’ve laid down the law, and Buddy listens to what I say.”
Buddy listened then, but would soon be a grown man making his own decisions, finding his way into the pain his father had warned of.
Despite early doubts from ringside observers that Buddy was only riding his brother’s coattails, unable to make his own way into the heavyweight division, Buddy’s career continued to develop, and both he and Max would eventually be ranked in the top ten at the same time by Ring Magazine.
He would fight Joe louis twice for the championship. In the first fight, Buddy knocked Louis through the ropes in the first round, only for Louis to recover and floor Buddy three times in the sixth, the third knockdown possibly resulting from a punch thrown after the bell to end the round.
Buddy was badly hurt, and manager Hoffman would not allow him out of the corner for the seventh round, which resulted in Buddy losing by disqualification. The always astute Hoffman was nobody’s fool, however. Knowing Louis would have finished the fight in short order, Hoffman used the controversy to “force” Louis into a rematch, securing another fine payday for Buddy.
The second fight, in January, 1942, was conclusive, with Louis beginning where he left off in the first, stopping Buddy in less time “…than it takes to boil an egg.” When asked by reporters if he would be willing to fight Louis again, Buddy said he would “…if they’d give me a baseball bat.” This was his last fight.
Both brothers joined the Army for WWII, but the retirement years would reveal a contrast in character for them. Max continued with his entertainment career, and Buddy, who would open Buddy Baer’s Bar of Music across the street from the capitol building, appeared in a dozen-and-a-half movies, presenting himself as a lineman-sized Clark Gable, even though his real talent was singing.
Mrs. Baer had hoped her son would choose music as a profession rather than follow Max into the ring. Buddy would later admit he never really cared for boxing and only began fighting because of his size and Max had paved the way for him.
Manager Hoffman hoped, with Buddy no longer boxing, that he could develop into “a mountainous edition of Bing Crosby.” A lawyer once representing Buddy in a legal matter said Buddy could “always hit a high note with his tonsils better than he could an opponent with his fists.”
Max’s talent was his personality and humor. Sacramento is known as the City of Trees, and when paired with actor Johnny Weismuller in a local golf tournament, Max quipped he was a cinch to win because there were “so many trees on the course, I doubt if Johnny can concentrate on his golf…”
Settling into Sacramento life on 8th Avenue in the Land Park section of town, Max and Mary would have two more children – James and Marian. He would travel to Hollywood for his entertainment and public appearance work, but always returned home to stay with his family.
Buddy’s first marriage, with Ralpha May Pearl, mother of his daughter Sheila, and daughter of Fred Pearl, local boxing promoter and business partner of Hoffman, ended with Buddy leaving. This was in the early stages of a long line of shattered loves, involving engagement, estrangement, annulment, marriage and divorce. One would almost think that Buddy enjoyed being in love more than he enjoyed being a husband.
Tim Comstock grew up in the same neighborhood as Max, and describes him as the “kindest, sweetest giant of a man.” He played golf almost daily and walked regularly. His two sons, Max, Jr., and Jimmy, would become good competitive golfers at the local level, but Max played golf similarly to how he threw punches – long and wild. His caddies spent a lot of time in the weeds looking for balls.
Comstock fought the other neighborhood kids to become Max’s regular caddy, and if a young boy who is obsessed with sports being a personal friend of the former heavyweight champion of the world is not a dream come true then there is no reason to sleep. Comstock wrote about that dream in a wonderful 1984 article for Sports Illustrated.
The guys Max played golf with were fairly colorful characters themselves, and from his caddying days Comstock learned “how to tell a dirty joke, read the Daily Racing Form, swagger, swear, hit a slice, wear aftershave, crush a beer can in my hand and get up and down in two from a trap.”
Once getting into an argument with a guy in the pro shop about the lifetime batting average of Rogers Hornsby, whether it was .356 or .358, Comstock delayed Max and his party on the first tee. Walking into the shop to see what the problem was, Baer laid $20 on Comstock and said, “I’m going with the kid.” Proved correct, Max tipped Comstock $5 on top of his usual two dollar fare for caddying.
Although Comstock’s parents attempted to control how much of Max’s time their son consumed, Comstock says kids were always at the Baer household. That Max was always willing to throw a ball around and talk, and that Mary never showed any impatience with Max’s followers.
Describing Max as an overgrown kid himself, Comstock said he would buy firecrackers for the neighborhood children for the 4th of July. He had a Pontiac convertible – Max did public relations work for a local dealership – and in the summer would drive all the kids to Vic’s, the local ice cream parlor.
Buddy led a less peaceful life, with failures in business as well as romance. The lounge would eventually close, with investments in a clothing store for large men, a health food store, and in equipment for property development leading to eventual bankruptcy. Legal endings to matrimony are not inexpensive, and near the close of Buddy’s life his friends found employment for him as a sergeant-at-arms for the State Senate.
Max was 50 years old when he died on November 21, 1959, from a heart attack suffered while shaving in a Los Angeles hotel room, preparing for a television appearance. When he called the front desk for help, the clerk said he would immediately send the house doctor. Laughing to the end, Max said he needed a people doctor, not a house doctor.
Buddy would live much longer, although with his enormous appetite he put on considerable weight. His regular breakfast at a friend’s restaurant included steak, six eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, and cereal with cream. He died at the VA hospital in Martinez in 1986, suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and dementia.
His final marriage, in the words of Sacramento Bee columnist Bill Conlin, lasted longer “than the previous three combined,” but he never had much of a singing career. He didn’t like vocal training any more than he had liked fight training. His third wife, May Mann, Miss Utah of 1938, was willing to subsidize Buddy’s preparation to become a professional singer but became disillusioned when he chose instead to make movies in Italy.
The Baers were wallflowers, however, and paragons of domesticity in comparison to Jack Doyle, who had been a military boxing champion. The “Irish Thrush” was a tenor with movie-star looks and had made his way to Hollywood as the “Gorgeous Gael,” where he married the actress Allen.
Doyle was a better fighter than he was an actor, and could sing better than he fought, but at 6” 5” punched with substantial authority. He won 14 of his first 15 fights, all by knockout, the lone loss being a disqualification for punching low in a British title fight. Doyle reportedly entered the ring drunk.
He had three weaknesses – women, games of chance, and the bottle – and, having drunk close to a bottle of brandy before facing Baer, the fight lasted less than a round. Allen provided a more compelling performance that night than did her husband. Described as “a movie queen of sorts,” she “staged a scene that would have rung a golden bathtub from the eye of Cecil De Mille.”
“She tore her hair.”
Doyle enjoyed the Hollywood life, which is why the marriage to Allen would not be a long one. He had difficulty understanding the “to forsake all others” portion of the wedding vows. Later in life, Doyle would attribute his troubles to a fondness for “slow horses and fast women.”
Allen divorced Doyle in 1938, but when he became involved with Delphine Dodge Godde, heiress to the automobile empire – who took a back seat to no one when it came to living a National Enquirer lifestyle – Ms. Allen claimed in a lawsuit that she had only divorced Doyle to test his loyalty. Her plan was for the two to reconcile once Doyle realized how truly the two loved each other.
When a “rich rival,” Ms. Dodge – twelve years Doyle’s senior – began “toying with the affections of the Thrush,” and even divorced her husband in order to marry Doyle, Allen thought she deserved $2 million in compensation for her love being stolen. “He’s a big, loveable, irresponsible boy,” Allen said. “He’s mine and I won’t give him up.”
The Dodge family was no more pleased with what was being stolen than was Allen. Pleading that this ill-fated romance was only headed for heartbreak fell on deaf ears, and not until Doyle was “introduced” to professionals in the matter of persuading others what might be in their best interests did Doyle see the light, by which he found his way to Maria Luisa Castenada, a Mexican-American actress better known as “Movita,” who often played the role of an exotic woman in films. Movita was cast as a Tahitian girl in the 1935 production of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Doyle put his boxing career on hold when they married, as he and Movita sang throughout the British Isles, selling out music halls and opera houses. But this marriage, too, would end, as Doyle’s continued philandering in addition to at times being a mean drunk, drove Movita from him. Returning to Hollywood, she would later marry and have children with Marlon Brando , providing Doyle with an allowance as his life spiraled into destitution.
Doyle was to be buried in a pauper’s grave following his 1978 London death due to cirrhosis of the liver, but friends and members of the Cork Ex-Boxers Association had his remains returned to Ireland, where he was laid to rest near his birthplace in County Cork. Doyle’s gravesite is a popular tourist site.