Randy Roberts, “Joe Louis: Hard Times Man”

Marshall Poe, University of Iowa
Randy Roberts


[Cross-posted from New Books in Sports] “I’m sure if it wasn’t for Joe Louis,” acknowledged Jackie Robinson, “the color line in baseball would not have been broken for another ten years.” To Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis was an inspiration and an idol. “I just give lip service to being the greatest,” said Ali in 1981, after Louis’ death. “He was the greatest.”

Yet, while Jackie Robinson is now one of the most revered athletes in American history and Ali remains a cultural icon, the man who paved the way for both is lesser known today, more a distant folk hero than a historical figure whose accomplishments are understood and respected. Unlike Robinson, Louis was not the pioneering black athlete in his sport, and unlike Ali, he did not translate his success in the ring into a platform for larger media fame and political statements. Nevertheless, as Randy Roberts shows in his acclaimed biography Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press, new in paperback in February 2012), the heavyweight champion was an athlete without peer in his sport, one of the most talked-about celebrities of the day, and a man who did effect change, in some positive way, in white Americans’ perceptions of black athletes. He was a symbolic figure of the Thirties and Forties and, as Randy argues, an essential character for understanding the history of that era.

A distinguished professor of history at Purdue University, award-winning teacher, and author of books on Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Charles Lindbergh, and John Wayne, Randy brings to the book an expert understanding of sports and celebrity in American history and a lively, arresting style. With attention to colorful detail and to the larger context of early 20th-century American history, he describes Joe Louis as a man of his times—and as a giant of the age. This is a story that certainly deserves retelling.