PBS is rolling out the latest Ken Burns documentary, Jackie Robinson, which tells the story of the first black man to play in the major leagues in the modern era. By now, Robinson’s story is well known to Americans, especially sports fans. It was told in a 2013 film, 42, and Burns himself devoted a large portion of an episode of his epic Baseball series to the Robinson saga. Major League Baseball has worked hard to compensate for the hostile reception Robinson initially received. On April 15, 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, MLB announced that it would retire his jersey number from all teams, a powerful, if weirdly punitive, gesture (usually we want to see more of something we admire, not less). Given Robinson’s historical significance and personal courage, the tributes are deserved—even if, as with many historical figures today, ideology tends to crush any nuance or proportion out of his legacy.

When Burns says, in promoting his film, that Robinson was “the most important person without a doubt in the history of baseball,” many will nod in agreement, though baseball fans can surely think of other candidates. For good measure, the filmmaker adds that Robinson was “the most important person in the history of American sports.” Yet even on Burns’s own criteria—social and racial influence—Robinson doesn’t win first prize in that category. The honor should go unreservedly to the man without whom Robinson would not have been possible: Joe Louis.

As he watched Robinson’s debut on April 15, 1947, Louis had been, for a decade, the heavyweight champion of the world, a title then known as the Richest Prize in Sports. Except for baseball, boxing was the nation’s most popular sport. The heavyweight champion was known around the globe, his fame and riches dwarfing that of all other athletes. (In 1927, the year he hit 60 homeruns, Babe Ruth made $70,000. Gene Tunney made $1 million.) The title was synonymous with American prominence, and before Louis, only one black man—Jack Johnson—had held it. Johnson’s behavior, especially his consorting with white women, was so notorious that whites vowed to keep blacks from winning the title again.

Then Joe Louis came along. He was too good to deny a shot at the championship, which he won in 1937. The following year, in a showdown with Germany’s Max Schmeling, Louis rallied Americans—including even some Southern whites—to his side, eager to see him prevail over Hitler’s favorite fighter. In a battle followed around the world, Louis destroyed Schmeling in two minutes of the first round. It was likely the first time that many white Americans had rooted for a black man to do anything—let alone prevail against another white man, one of European descent.

For all his glories, Louis was subject to press coverage so crudely racist that it’s hard to believe it was real. One columnist wrote: “Louis, the magnificent animal. He lives like an animal, untouched by externals. He eats. He sleeps. He fights. . . . Is he all instinct, all animal? Or have a hundred million years left a fold upon his brain?” Another mused: “He’s a big, superbly built Negro youth who was born to listen to jazz music, eat a lot of fried chicken, play ball with the gang on the corner, and never do a lick of heavy work he could escape. The chances are he came by all those inclinations quite naturally.” A reporter once asked him to pose with a watermelon. (He refused.)

The turning point in Louis’s image with white Americans was his stout service in the Army in World War II. He contributed a memorable saying—“We are on God’s side”—to the war effort, and he donated purses from two fights to army and naval relief. When asked why he would fight for nothing, he replied: “Ain’t fighting for nothing. I’m fighting for my country.” Some blacks criticized Louis for serving so willingly in a segregated army, but they didn’t see his work behind the scenes, where he used his clout—including a direct line to FDR’s staff—to improve conditions for black troops. He boxed exhibitions for integrated audiences only. He intervened to help qualified blacks—including Jackie Robinson, then a young private—get admitted to Officer Candidate School when they were being refused entry.

After the war, the returning champion was so admired that some white fans cheered him on against white challengers. In Mount Clemens, Michigan, 11-year-old Dick Enberg, a future broadcaster, listened around the radio with his extended family and some neighbors. “Joe Louis was the man we all wanted to win,” he remembered. “Here was an entire household of white folks, in 1946, cheering for the African-American guy.” By 1951, when an over-the-hill Louis was knocked out by Rocky Marciano in Madison Square Garden, many whites rooted for him against his Italian-American opponent. Some wept at bout’s end. In 1952, the now-retired Louis desegregated the PGA.

More than half a century after these events, Robinson’s name is iconic in American popular culture, while Louis’s has faded. Boxing’s decline had something to do with that, as did Louis’s difficult post-athletic life, which included mental illness and a bout of drug addiction. And Louis, who had little formal education, was not articulate in the manner of the fiery Robinson, a college man prominent in civil rights causes after leaving baseball.

Still, in key ways that we now regard Robinson as a pioneer, Louis got there first. In the most primal of sports, he braved media treatment as ugly as any athlete has received, all while defeating white challengers before predominantly white crowds. Through his unrehearsed dignity, he made whites cheer for him. And he helped whites understand, as Robinson would later do, that he, too, was an American—and, by extension, that blacks were Americans, entitled to all the rights and privileges of that enviable designation.

In their own time, there wasn’t much comparison between the two heroes. Many remember Count Basie’s “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?”, but at least 43 songs about Louis have been documented or recovered, more tributes by far than any athlete ever inspired. “Jackie was a good athlete, but he wasn’t Joe Louis,’’ said Frank Bolden, a renowned black reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier. “Jackie played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but Joe Louis played for the world. He showed us how to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.”

Robinson knew it, too. “I’m sure if it wasn’t for Joe Louis, the color line in baseball would not have been broken for another ten years,” he said. America may have forgotten, but Jackie Robinson remembered who the real champ was.

Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images


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