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Ringside

March 2024
2min read

On June 22, 1938, Joe Louis was scheduled to fight a rematch against Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. (Schmeling had unceremoniously knocked out Joe two years before.) Both fights had political and racial overtones: Hitler was arming Germany and screaming about the master race; Joe Louis was black. Some people were patriotically hoping Joe would win; others wanted the “white hope” to “put Louis in his place.”

My interest was neither patriotic nor racial; it was simply financial. Since we lived only a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, some of my neighborhood friends and I worked selling programs and refreshments there and at the adjacent Polo Grounds. We got to see lots of Yankee and Giants games and still go home with money. How we bragged in the lunchroom. Who wouldn’t play hooky to do what we were doing? Whatever I earned would help me buy clothes and books for college in the fall.

The day of the fight I was able to attend school because I had morning classes. About three in the afternoon I went down to the stadium to pick up my white uniform and my assignment: I was to sell programs before the main event and soda at ringside while the fight went on. (You couldn’t sell beer in the stands in those days.) If memory serves me correctly, the programs were fifty cents; for each one I sold, the Harry M. Stevens Company got fortyfive cents and I got a nickel.

Inside the massive stadium with its sixty thousand seats, a ring had been constructed over what was ordinarily second base. Temporary ringside seats had been set up on all four sides. For the rest of the afternoon, my friends and I sat in the stands, munching the sandwiches and fruit we’d brought from home and watching the crowd pour in. The cheaper seats filled up first. Around dusk the reporters arrived and began setting up typewriters. Those of us selling programs fanned out to wherever we thought we could earn the most. We were never allowed near the entry gates; those spots were reserved for the regular employees who worked every game.

When it was nearly time for the main event, I ran down to the loading station, turned in my unsold programs, and freighted up with soda pop. I was on my way to ringside (might as well work the swells) when I heard the announcer introduce the contestants. Not wanting to miss a thing, I jumped up onto the Yankee dugout to see over the ringside seats. It’s a good thing I did. From the opening bell Joe Louis tore into Schmeling. In just two minutes and four seconds, it was all over. Joe knocked him out and dealt a blow for the U.S.A., Nazi supremacy be damned. He also dealt a blow to my finances. Selling soda was out of the question.

After the fight the stadium was a funny sight: people on the way out, people on the way in, everybody bumping into everybody else. The police were everywhere; officials had feared there would be a race riot if Joe got punched out or, worse yet, lost the fight on a bad decision.

It was well after 11:00 P.M. before we could turn in our uniforms and get our clothes back. I went home with about three dollars in earnings for my eight hours at Yankee Stadium. Still, I considered the night a big success.

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