Of the many iconic sports figures from Detroit’s past, none had a greater cultural impact than Joe Louis. But if America’s beloved “Brown Bomber” had had his way, he’d have been fielding ground balls at Navin Field for a living, not stalking the likes of Max Schmeling, Jimmy Braddock, and Primo Carnera around a prize ring.
Louis, born Joe Louis Barrow in Alabama in 1914, grew up in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s infatuated with baseball. As a youngster he occasionally shagged balls for the Detroit Stars, the city’s entry in the Negro National League. He made it down to Mack Park, the home of the Stars, whenever he could, but he was just as likely to visit Navin Field to watch the Tigers. Thus he had the opportunity to watch the greatest black and white stars of baseball’s apartheid era, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Turkey Stearnes, and Satchel Paige. Joe, who was basically color blind when it came matters of race, usually opted to watch the Tigers over the Stars if both teams were in town at the same time, even though the Tigers were some 25 years away from fielding their first black player.
On the sandlots, Joe fancied himself a first baseman, and in some ways he resembled the stereotypical image of one from that period: big, lumbering, able to hit the ball a long way when he connected, which was not often enough to put him in the uniform of even the lowest organized team. Still, Joe had fun, and after he became a household name as a fighter he indulged himself a little.
In the summer of 1935, Joe organized the Brown Bombers softball team. When he could manage to get away from the gym and other obligations, he would join the team on tour or suit up for a game at Mack Park. Besides giving him a chance to live out his favorite diamond fantasies, the team was a way of helping out some of his down-and-out buddies during the Great Depression. “He could’ve been fighting exhibitions for a lot of money,” the late Jesse Walker once told me. “Instead, he played first base.” Walker, who grew up with Joe, recalled the boxer giving his friends all of the gate receipts to split. “He didn’t take any money himself,” Walker said. “That’s the kind of man he was.”
The Brown Bombers softball team lasted a few years and lost a bundle of money. At one point, one of Joe’s closest friends, fellow boxer Thurston McKinney, sold the tires off the team bus. Joe, always a soft touch, just shrugged his shoulders, dipped into his wallet, and bought a new set.
Joe was a source of ready capital at a time when bankers were unwilling to make loans to blacks. In 1936 he was approached by Pittsburgh numbers king Gus Greenlee about bankrolling a Detroit-based team in the Negro National League. Although the idea of owning a professional baseball team appealed to Joe, his savvy manager, John Roxborough, successfully argued that Louis’s public image would take a beating if he was involved with an enterprise so brazenly run by racketeers.
The closest Joe ever got to breaking a sweat on the field at Michigan and Trumbull was fighting Bob Pastor at Briggs Stadium in 1939. It’s just as well. As more than one of Joe’s buddies privately admitted, as a baseball player Joe Louis made a great prizefighter.