We're going to spend a lot of time waxing nostalgic about Yankee Stadium this year, sharing our own favorite memories and listing the all-time great moments. For all the Yankee highlights the place has seen, not to mention one of the most famous football games ever, the biggest event ever to go down in the House that Ruth Built may well have been the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling rematch which took place seventy years ago today (Here is audio from the fight).
Boxing is the most pitiless of sports, as it can be the most dazzling, theatrical and emblematic. Where race and nationalism are involved, as in the famous Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight fights of 1936 and 1938, two of the most widely publicized boxing matches in history, the emblematic aspect of the sport can assume epic proportions. When the second fight, of June 1938, pitting the 24-year-old American Negro titleholder, Louis, against the 32-year-old Schmeling, the Nazis' star athlete, was fought at Yankee Stadium, the contest was as much between the United States and Nazi Germany as between two superbly skilled athletes. There were almost 70,000 spectators and an estimated 100 million radio listeners throughout the world: "the largest audience in history for anything."
...Most of the chapters are impersonal historical accounts, culled from numerous sources, in which the author's voice is subordinate to his material. Amid much summarizing, press clippings of the era, many of them painfully racist, provide candor and color; occasionally there are outbursts of a kind of comic surrealism, as in this rapid collage following the dramatic outcome of the 1938 fight:
"In the stands there was bedlam. Tallulah Bankhead sprang to her feet and turned to the Schmeling fans behind her. 'I told you so, you sons of bitches!' she screamed. Whites were hugging blacks. 'The happiest people I saw at this fight were not the Negroes but the Jews,' a black writer observed. 'In the row in front of me there was a great line of Jews - and they had the best time of all their Jewish lives.' . . . 'Beat the hell out of the damn German bastard!' W. E. B. Du Bois, a lifelong Germanophile who rarely swore, shouted gleefully in Atlanta. In Hollywood, Bette Davis jumped up and down; she had won $66 in the Warner Brothers fight pool. . . . 'Everybody danced and sang,' Woody Guthrie wrote from Santa Fe. 'I watched the people laugh, walk, sing, do all sorts of dances. I heard "Hooray for Joe Louis!" "To hell with Max Schmeling" in Indian, Mexican, Spanish, all kinds of white tongues.' "
It's difficult to fathom the magnitude of that night. But it begs the question: Has an event held at Yankee Stadium ever had a greater social impact on the entire country, let alone the rest of the world?