Time Machine: Boxer Joe Louis
The day the heavyweight champ visited Cedar Rapids
Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” held the world heavyweight boxing championship for 12 years before losing to Ezzard Charles in 1950. His last fight was a loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951.
Louis defended his title against more fighters than any other heavyweight, cementing his spot in boxing history.
Louis also was highly respected for interrupting his boxing career by joining the Army in 1942 during World War II. He put on 96 boxing exhibitions before about 2 million GIs before his discharge in 1945.
It was in 1941 that he began getting into financial trouble when a tax accountant and an attorney from Chicago took over his financial affairs. Louis trusted they would take care of paying his taxes. They didn’t.
While he was enlisted as a private in the Army, making less than $50 a month, his tax debt climbed to $117,000.
His debt had topped $1.25 million when, in 1957, Louis was in Cedar Rapids to promote his Juvenile Decency campaign. The campaign was an effort to interest youngsters in sports to counteract delinquency.
Louis flew in from Chicago to the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport at 9 a.m. Sunday, April 14, 1957, to begin a busy couple of days of appearances sponsored by Eagle Food Centers.
He made a brief appearance at a Rainbow luncheon, followed by another luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel with local dignitaries.
The next stops were the Community House and the Eagles Lodge, where he talked to hundreds of kids, posed for pictures and signed autographs.
Monday’s itinerary included a noon luncheon with Rotarians. One of the attendees asked Louis who hit him the hardest.
“Uncle Sam,” he shot back.
With help from veteran referee Alex Fidler and some Golden Gloves fighters, Louis demonstrated boxing techniques to local fans at parking-lot boxing rings at two Eagle stores, one on First Avenue at 7 p.m. and the other on Mount Vernon Road at 8 p.m.
At both venues, Louis distributed a “How To Box” booklet that listed his title fights.
“Lemme see that a second,” he said. “Have they got my fight with the government listed there?”
That was the first indication of Louis’ sense of humor.
Louis rounded out his visit with a 10 p.m. party at Old Hickory Inn at First Avenue and 40th Street
In the process, a Gazette reporter had a question-and-answer interview with Louis.
Q. Is your income tax trouble with the government about to be settled?
A. I see that by the papers, but the government hasn’t told me anything about it … I think Lou Victor (publicity man for the Eagle supermarket campaign) started that rumor.
Q. What was your toughest fight when you were champ?
A. My first fight with Billy Conn. He was way ahead on points when I stopped him in the 13th round.
Q. Max Baer said recently he made only one mistake in his title bout with you — when he stepped into the ring.
A. He didn’t make any mistake when he picked up the money the next day.
Q. Recently you won $41,000 on a “High Finance” television quiz. Did the government have some collectors there to meet you after the show?
A. They were around to collect it two weeks before I went on the air.
Q. You maintain a strong interest in other sports besides boxing, Joe. What are your favorite teams?
A. I’m crazy about pro football, and my favorite team has always been the Cleveland Browns. My favorite player was quarterback Frankie Albert. In baseball, I always cheer for the New York Giants and the National (League). I used to pull for Cleveland in the American, but now I’m switching to the White Sox because Al Lopez has changed managing jobs. He’s another favorite of mine.
Q. How old are your children now?
A. My daughter is 13, and my son 9.
Q. Would you consent if your son wanted to box?
A. If he wanted to … I don’t believe in trying to force kids into things like that. I did buy him one of those little punching bags when they came out a couple of years ago, but I don’t think he’ll be a boxer.
Q. Is boxing a valuable means of encouraging your men along your program of “juvenile decency?”
A. All sports are valuable in that respect. Boxing did a great deal for me. I was in my share of trouble as a kid in Detroit until I started boxing. There’s nothing worse for kids than being idle.
Louis was told the Cedar Rapids’ Community House he visited was once the childhood home of a wealthy and famous Cedar Rapids man.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“Beardsley Ruml, the man who invented the withholding plan of paying income tax,” he was told.
Traveling with Louis was his partner in a Chicago milk company, Jesse Thornton, who changed the company’s name to the Joe Louis Milk Co. when Louis came on board.
“I told Joe his name ought to be associated with milk, rather than with beer or whiskey or cigarettes,” Thornton said, “and I offered him a block of stock if he’d come into the company and let us use his name. He just stuck out his hand and said, ‘Okay,’ and it was a deal.
“Joe’s the easiest-going person I ever knew. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry, and I’ve known him since 1935. I’m an excitable guy, but Joe keeps me calmed down. One day one of my drivers came in to report he’d smashed his truck. I exploded and started screaming, but Joe just sat there and said, ‘Take it easy, Jesse, maybe it was unavoidable.’ “
The IRS forgave Louis’ debt in 1960 while he was working for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as a greeter.
Joe Louis died on Palm Sunday, April 12, 1981. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Va.