Attentive viewers of the climactic fight of Cinderella Man, Ron Howard's Depression-era crowd-pleaser, will notice a Star of David on the red trunks of Max Baer, the lethal opponent of Jim "Cinderella Man" Braddock. The star is significantly less prominent than the one that the real Baer wore in the 1935 fight. It's no surprise that Howard would obscure this detail, as it would complicate his film's Rocky-meets-Seabiscuit narrative. What's funny, and ironic, is that by downplaying Baer's Star of David, Howard may be making an accurate historical comment: Baer was the only self-proclaimed Jew to ever claim the heavyweight crown. But was he really even Jewish?
To be sure, Cinderella Man's fleeting portrait of Baer as a skirt-chasing playboy, notorious for clowning in the ring, is consistent with published accounts. Baer was also a ferocious hitter—a "larruping thumper," in the Times' gloriously redundant formulation. In his early career, he secured a fearsome reputation on the West Coast, killing a boxer named Frankie Campbell during a 1930 bout. The tragedy so rattled Baer that he lost four of his next six fights. In the film, the death of Campbell is used to build up Baer as a remorseless killer. One movie's terrifying thug, however, is another man's father. "It was after he killed Campbell that he started clowning," Maxie Baer Jr. said in a recent telephone conversation from Las Vegas. "He started smoking cigarettes and he had nightmares for years."
After Campbell's death, Baer decided to move east and train under the tutelage of Jack Dempsey. It was in 1933, when Baer was 24, that he came out as a Jew and wore the Star of David on his trunks for the first time. His opponent was Max Schmeling, the "Black Uhlan of the Rhine" and a reluctant standard-bearer for Hitler's Third Reich. "That one's for Hitler," Baer snarled between blows to the stumbling Schmeling. He knocked him out in the 10th round. It was his finest hour in the ring.
In the post-fight...