In the 30 s, men dominated the courts, fields, tracks and other sports arenas, and most women did not even consider stepping foot onto them. This decade set the stage for sports and athletics to progress in the future, both in race and gender. Many great athletes remain distinguished for their efforts and achievements during this period, and continue to be admired today. The 30 s characterized itself by its prolific sports figures whose struggles and triumphs within their respective sports, helped to bring about newfound hope and patriotism to America in the aftermath of national anguish.
It may appear that after the crash of the stock market, every U.S. citizen would be in shambles, but surprisingly a certain few were too busy excelling in the art of sports. Among the few came Joseph Louis Barrow. Born May 13, 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama, Joseph lived with his family fighting with poverty for most of his childhood. His family moved to Detroit in 1924, at which Joe first became involved in boxing. Having grown up in the Old South, Louis had acquired the instinct and anger of a true fighter, even amidst the evils of racial discrimination and intolerance. His early career was a period of hard work and determination, and was one without glamour or fame. Ten years after
his arrival in Detroit, Louis won the Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight. Following this win, Louis turned professional and won twelve contests within the first year.
Joe Louis was seemingly invincible, until his meeting with Max Schmeling on June 19, 1936. Schmeling was the underdog, but to the surprise of all, gave Louis a defeat that would continue to sting long after the cuts had healed. Louis was counted out in the 12th round of this lengthy fight and suffered the first and most painful defeat of his boxing career.
In an eight round match, Louis captured the heavyweight title of the world by knocking Braddock out. After this victory, Louis stated, “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling.” (Astor, 27) Louis had ascended to the top of the boxing world, but in his estimate his journey was far from complete. His embarrassing loss to Max Schmeling was the only dark spot on a career that otherwise was the stuff of dreams, and he was consumed by a desire for revenge (Astor, 42).
On the day of June 22, 1938, Louis once again took on the only opponent who had ever beaten him, Max Schmeling. The German fighter stood as one of Nazi Germany’s most prominent symbols of its claimed “Aryan superiority.” (Durant, 42) Surprising the Germans, Louis knocked Schmeling out and captured the admiration of countless Americans. Louis gained a moral victory for himself and for his country, and simultaneously struck a damaging blow to Hitler and his pretentious beliefs. His success even impressed
Joe Louis still holds the distinction of having successfully defended his title more times than any other heavyweight in history. He knocked out five world champions and will remain a powerful part of boxing history for many decades to come. Although his wins appear to be a gold mine, Joe Louis had something to say about his financial situation:
I just don t know where the money went. I wish I did. I got 50% of each purse and all kinds of expenses came out of my cut…When I was boxing I made 5 million and would wound up broke, owing the government a million. If I was boxing today I d make 10 million and wind up broke, owing the government 2 million. (Cassidy, 213)
Also, another one of the few would break gender barriers across the nation. Born in Beaumont, Texas on June 26, 1911, Mildred Babe Didrikson was, like her six brothers and sisters, required by her carpenter father to exercise and participate in some sport from an early age. But Babe didn’t need any encouragement. Disdaining dolls and toy dishes, Babe was busy in the back yard with a weight-lifting apparatus she had built with her mother’s broomsticks and flatirons. A natural athlete, Babe knew she was not cut out for domestic life. (Lewiston, 86; Morrison, 12)
There was hardly a sport in which Babe Didrikson did not excel. She swam, she ran, she played baseball with the pros. She jumped; she was a whiz at basketball, handball, and lacrosse. She played tennis, boxed, bowled, fenced, skated, and excelled at shooting billiards, and cycling. Her greatest fame was as an Olympic champion and outstanding golfer who won eighty-two tournaments during her career. Babe was the sports phenomenon of the thirties, astounding crowds on both sides of the Atlantic with her athletic performances. (Brown, 182)
As a result of her stellar performances in all of those sports during the course of her life, Babe is not only regarded as the greatest female athlete ever, but as the greatest all around American athlete of all time. Her achievement came to be only by persistence and hard work toward a lifelong goal:
Luck? Sure. But only after long practice and only with the ability to think under pressure. Winning has always meant much to me, but winning friends has meant the most. Before I was ever in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived. (Lewiston, 56)
Mildred Babe Didrickson knew she could do extremely well in sports better than most men could, and she was not afraid to show it. I believe Babe s ability to express her talents bravely helped her to surpass the women s status as a housewife, and shine in what she performed best. (Wilson, 35)
Furthermore, the last of the few whom overcame the depressions of the world around them would be James Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse Owens. Owens was born in Danville, Alabama on September 12, 1913. He set his first track record by running the 100-yard dash in l0 seconds as a pupil at Cleveland’s Fairview Junior High School in 1932. As a high school student he won three National Interscholastic
Championships in 1933 in Chicago. He enrolled at Ohio State University in 1934 and had a remarkable track career there. On one day, May 25, 1935, during a Big Ten meet at the University of Michigan, Owens equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and set new world records for the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds), the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds), and the running broad jump (26 feet 8 1/4 inches, or 8.13 meters). Owens outstanding performances sent him straight to the Olympics. ( O Connor, 28)
The Olympic Games of 1936 were held in Berlin, Germany, under the auspices of the new Nazi regime. It was Adolf Hitler’s intent to use the games to demonstrate what he believed to be the superiority of the Aryan, or white, race. This aim was seriously undermined when Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field events. Hitler stormed out of the stadium rather than present an award to Owens or acknowledge his victories because of the color of his skin. (O Connor, 110)
After his Olympic triumph, Owens graduated in 1937 and worked for a number of years for the Illinois Athletic Commission. He left the commission in 1955 and made goodwill trips to India and the Far East for the State Department. He later established his own public relations firm. Unfortunately, Owens died in Phoenix Arizona on March 31, 1980. His conquest will forever remain in the history of sports and Olympics. (O Connor, 185)
The 30 s displayed a rebirth of loyalty from inhabitants of toiled conditions to their country that supported them the whole way through. Discrimination, gender and not even a National Leader could stand in the way of Joe Louis, Babe Didrickson or Jesse Owens. These three outstanding athletes are role models for all, and proved that good sportsmanship can exist (Silver, 65).