June 2, 2006
Jeremy Schaap’s CINDERELLA MAN (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) is subtitled “James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Sports History.” One could quibble over that last part — myself, I’d have to say that the Jets’ win over the Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III and the victory of ’69 Mets over the Orioles in that year’s World Series were shockers equal to Braddock’s defeat of Baer, and the defeat of the unbeaten Man o’ War by a colt named Upset probably puts all of them in the shade — but cavils aside, this is a still a great story, and a hell of a good read. Schaap’s writing is crisp and clear, his research impeccable, and he does a beautiful job of evoking the world of professional boxing in the 20s and 30s, with its cast of characters so colorful they seem tailor made for Hollywood. Many of the same characters could be seen in last year’s CINDERELLA MAN film, starring Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti, and Renee Zellwegger. Terrific performances and a great period look made that one of my favorite movies of 2005, but it only told half the story — the screenwriters did very well by Braddock, staying close to the facts of his life and career, but made Baer into a cardboard heavy. The real Maxie Baer was an engaging personality in his own right, more clown than killer, and Schaap gives him equal time with Braddock in the book, making their final confrontation that much more dramatic. The movie was fine, for what it was, but if you want the whole story, read the book.