The Brown Bomber was no average Joe

Detroit's Joe Louis transcended sports in the 1930s and 1940s to become one of the most famous people in the world.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on June 22, 1938, heavyweight champion Joe Louis shot from his corner inside muggy Yankee Stadium and, with a piston-like flurry of punches, knocked German challenger Max Schmeling halfway into 1939.

The first-round knockout not only avenged Louis’s sole professional defeat up to that point, it literally silence claims of Aryan supremacy. For citizens of Nazi Germany, who had stayed up until 3 a.m. to listen to the shortwave radio broadcast of the fight, the transmission was abruptly cut short by a mysterious power outage after Louis landed his first punches.

Electricity crackled throughout America that night, however. Blacks and whites alike poured out onto streets and sidewalks to celebrate America’s triumph in what had been built up as a showdown between democracy and fascism. In Detroit, thousands flooded the black entertainment district of Paradise Valley, hollering, passing drinks, and listening to a local band play a single tune, “Flat Foot Floogie.” Above the tumult waved a banner: “Joe Louis Knocked Out Hitler.”

“The reaction was just like winning a World Series,” the late Freddie Guinyard told me in an interview several years ago. “It was something for people to be proud of. And not only blacks. It was like when Jackie Robinson was with the Dodgers. A lot of whites didn’t want Robinson in baseball, but he was so wonderful everyone cheered for him.”

Guinyard knew Detroit’s fabled “Brown Bomber” from schoolyard to ringside. While his duties officially were those of traveling secretary to the champ, Louis liked to claim that had learned the meaning of the word “manager” from Guinyard when they worked as youngsters on an ice truck in the 1920s. “Freddie would holler ‘ice,’” Louis recalled, “and I’d deliver it.”

If the two boys could have looked through those 50-pound blocks of ice into the future, they would have been amazed by the view. The shy, oversized kid in short pants and skullcap named Joe Louis Barrow would emerge as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers in history. His first-round demolition of Max Schmeling—arguably the greatest single moment in ring history—would transform him into an American icon.

Through it all, his best friend would remain short, willowy Freddie Guinyard. “For all his skinny self, he was tough and slick,” Louis reflected once. “We made a good team.”

“We’d meet and play every evening on the playground at the Duffield Elementary School,” Guinyard recalled one morning inside his modest Detroit home, not far from the eastside neighborhood where he and Louis grew up.

The two youths, born three months apart in 1914, shared similar backgrounds. Both came up from the South—Louis as a 13-year-old from Alabama, Guinyard as a 9-year-old from South Carolina. Both had parents who, despite poverty, demanded a certain code of behavior from their children, including music lessons and regular churchgoing.

“Occasionally, Joe and I would help ourselves to some fruit at Eastern Market,” said Guinyard, recalling some ancient mischief. “Our parents didn’t approve of that. We’d have to eat all that fruit before we came home. If they caught us with a banana, they’d ask, ‘Did you work for that?’ I’d think, ‘Yeah, we worked for it. We had to run like hell.’”

Guinyard remembered Louis as an even-tempered sort who was content to follow, rather than lead, others into minor trouble. It was while he was on his way to his weekly violin lesson that the fate of the young Louis was waylaid by a neighborhood acquaintance.

“Joe’s mother used to give him 50 cents for the lesson at a music school,” Guinyard said. “Thurston McKinney, a friend of ours, used to say, ‘Give me the 50 cents and we’ll go over to Brewster Center and get some boxing lessons. Forget that music.’”

According to Guinyard, Louis’s mother didn’t discover her son was a fighter until his picture appeared in the paper after he won the amateur Golden Gloves championship in 1933. “His sisters knew it, though. One sister didn’t have enough room to sew his entire name on the back of his warm-up sweater, ‘Joseph L. Barrow.’ So she used an old family name, ‘Joe Louis,’ and it stuck.”

After turning pro in 1934, Louis won his first 27 money fights until Schmeling, a 10-to-1 underdog, administered a fearful beating on June 19, 1936, in a non-title bout. After Louis was knocked out in the 12th round, Guinyard had to drag Louis’s mother, crying and hysterical, from the stadium. “She never went to another fight,” he said. “She never wanted him to be a boxer. After Joe would win a fight, ring announcer Harry Balough would bring a microphone over to him and say, ‘What have you got to say, Joe?’ He’d say, ‘Hello, mom. I had another lucky night.’”

Guinyard shook his head in amusement. “Joe called it luck, but you couldn’t tell it by the guy laying on the floor.”

Adolph Hitler stamped a swastika on Schmeling’s unexpected victory, using it as “proof” of the Nazis’ “master race” theory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by feeling Louis’s biceps one day in the White House and declaring them “the kind of muscles we need to defeat Germany.”

If the irony of being a symbol freedom in a segregated America ever bothered Louis, he never let on. He was more concerned with becoming heavyweight champion and then facing Schmeling again. Louis defeated Jimmy Braddock on June 22, 1937, to win the heavyweight crown, then stepped into the ring exactly one year later for his rematch with Schmeling. By then, world events had elevated the fight into a symbolic prelude to World War II.

“People with smart remarks is what really got Schmeling whipped,” said Guinyard, who was in his usual spot—ringside, kneeling next to a water bucket—for Louis-Schmeling II. “For two years, Joe’d be in a crowd and someone would yell out, ‘Look out, Joe, here comes Schmeling!’ I’d notice Joe acting kind of sulky afterwards.”

With 72,000 packed into Yankee Stadium and millions more huddled around radios, Louis took only two minutes and four seconds to destroy the 32-year-old German. “Joe didn’t say a word,” Guinyard marveled. “He just jumped off the stool. Schmeling got hit in the ribs and hollered like a pig.”

The ferocity of the attack shocked observers. The 24-year-old Louis landed an estimated 50 punches and knocked Schmeling down four times before Schmeling’s handlers threw a towel into the ring. The battered boxer was taken to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital, where he was treated for two broken vertebrae and hemorrhaging of his lumbar muscles.

Years later, Guinyard asked Louis, “Why’d you knock him out so fast for? You should’ve given the crowd a chance to see the fight.”

The deadpanned Louis replied, “I wanted to get it over with.”

Characteristically, Louis never professed any personal hatred of Schmeling. In fact, his generosity of spirit cost him dearly. When he retired in 1949 after successfully defending his heavyweight crown for an unprecedented 12 years, he had already lost most of his prizefighting winnings through bad investments and misplaced faith.

Louis came out of retirement in an attempt to pay back taxes and lost his title to Ezzard Charles. In 1951, Rocky Marciano ended Louis’s comeback with a resounding knockout, then cried afterward. Like countless other impoverished youths, Marciano had grown up with the modest Brown Bomber from Detroit as his hero.

“After Marciano retired Joe, he wentinto wrestling,” Guinyard said. “We pleaded, ‘Please, Joe, don’t.’ It was beneath is dignity. Later he went into promotions at Caesar’s Palace. He made a nice salary and met a lot of people. I didn’t go with him. Maybe I should have.”

Guinyard stayed in Detroit. From then on he saw Louis infrequently. He was a pallbearer when his playground buddy, reduced by strokes to a figurehead on the Vegas strip, died in 1981.

“There’s more in this little room than there is in most libraries,” said Guinyard, leading our conversation into a sunroom wallpapered with boxing memorabilia. One wall had a poster-sized photograph of him and Louis, circa 1938, looking sharp in suits and snap-brim hats. “Twenty-five dollars for that suit,” he noted. “And that included two pairs of britches, Jack.”

Guinyard proudly produced several relics: the champ’s trunks, his shoes, and—the true cross—the six-ounce, right-hand glove used to floor Schmeling.

Given the impact of Joe Louis in and out of the ring, it was entirely appropriate that the glove was bronzed. While Louis never was comfortable being used as a role model for the burgeoning civil rights movement of mid-century America, his boxing success made an indelible impression on a society increasingly enamored with sports and its heroes. At a time when Southern blacks weren’t allowed to vote or attend school with whites, the country could not ignore the quiet dignity and extraordinary skills of its world-famous athlete.

Seated at the dining room table, Guinyard pored over a scrapbook’s yellowed pages. “My mother was a domestic,” he said softly, flipping through the years. “She was not an educated woman, but she was intelligent. I was young and simple and wanted to know why certain things had to be the way they were. She told me to be patient, that things would change. That’s what I preach today to my nieces and nephews.

“Sports did a lot to break the segregation barrier. That’s why Joe was so important. Blacks had to be noticed there before we could have a lot of other things.”

Like any man, Joe Louis had flaws. Freddie Guinyard understood that better than anyone. But those looking to dig up dirt on the champ quickly learned to take their shovels elsewhere.

“No, Joe made it possible for me to make a fairly decently living,” he said. “And I appreciate that.”