In this inaugural post of the Put To Sleep series, I look at the 1933 death of Frederick Ernest “Ernie” Schaaf.
In September of 1908, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, German immigrant Lucy Schaaf gave birth to her fourth child, a boy named Frederick Ernest after his father. Lucy called him her “Honey.” Everyone else just called him Ernie.
Ernie grew up bright and tough, with a taste for adventure and an unwavering love for his mother, for whose sake he refrained from pursuing his love of boxing until he enlisted in the Navy at age 15. Once he had begun, though, there was no going back: by the time he left the Navy at 18, he was the United States All Services Champion and on his way to a promising career as a heavyweight boxer.
For the next five years, Ernie won fight after fight (and lost more than a few) and became the primary breadwinner for the entire Schaaf family. He was tough, he was game, and
he never let anything stop him—of which nothing can be better evidence than his two fights with Max Baer in 1930 and 1932.
When Ernie first stepped into the ring with Baer in 1930, he was facing the man who, only a few months earlier, had given Frankie Campbell such a battering that Campbell died of brain injuries within a few hours—in fact, the doctors reported that Baer’s fists had literally shaken Campbell’s brain loose, separating it from the connective tissue that held it in place within the skull.
Against Ernie, however, Baer came out the loser, despite landing a punch early on that seemed to stun Ernie. Two years later, their rematch would turn the tables: mere seconds before the last bell, Baer knocked Schaaf out with such force that it took attendants several minutes to revive him. After that night, Ernie began to complain of severe headaches, but nobody saw this as cause for much concern. Boxers, after all, could expect a few headaches after a rough bout.
The following year was 1933. Jack Sharkey of Boston held the title of heavyweight champion. Sharkey was an old friend of Schaaf’s from his Navy years, and had been his manager for the past two years , but now Schaaf was determined to inherit the title from his mentor. To do so, however, he would have to go through Primo Carnera.
Primo Carnera was a towering figure in American boxing—literally. Standing 6’7” (a full five inches taller than Schaaf), he had moved from Italy to France as a teenager as the “strong man” of a traveling circus. But these days, so the rumors went, his connections were less innocuous, though no less theatrical: it was common (if unconfirmed) knowledge in boxing circles that Carnera was on the mob’s payroll, and that his fights were mainly fixed. Carnera, everyone said, was a giant but not a fighter; he had size and powerful friends, but no talent. And in February of 1933, the man Variety’s Jack Preston called “the hugest wop ever to compete for championship honors” was the only person standing between Ernie Schaaf and his chance to fight Jack Sharkey for the heavyweight title.
10 February 1933
February 10, 1933 found the country in a general state of chill, unease, and foreboding. Just two days earlier, former New York governor Franklin Roosevelt had been formally declared the President-Elect of the nation. In Germany, the newly-elected Chancellor Hitler announced the commencement of the Nazi Party’s election campaign. In Chicago, despite a devastating blizzard which enveloped the Windy City in a foot of snow, the milk continued to arrive on time every morning—a fact which the Chicago Tribune commented was “worth bearing in mind the next time some croaker announces society is crumbling.” Not far from Chicago, in snowy Des Moines, a young man named Ronald Reagan started at his job broadcasting football games for the local radio station. And west of Iowa, on that night, a penumbral eclipse of the moon was visible in many parts of the western states.
In New York, at Madison Square Garden, the moon was below the horizon for the 39 minutes when the earth’s shadow passed over its face. It didn’t matter—all eyes were turned not at the sky, but at the ring of ropes where Primo Carnera, the Italian giant, faced Ernie Schaaf, looking small by comparison, and perhaps, some onlookers thought, a little paler than usual.
Despite the excitement drummed up around this match, the first several rounds proved a general disappointment, with Carnera’s punches as clumsy as usual and Ernie’s familiar energy oddly muted. Both men seemed slow, uncertain, even unmotivated as they circled each other; the crowd began to voice its disapproval. Then, in the thirteenth round, it happened.
Jack Sharkey, who had a clear view from his place in Schaaf’s corner, later described the moment: “It was a left—a jab. Ernie sagged and half turned. I knew he was hurt. Schaaf reeled a little and we saw his eyes—blank as could be. Then he went down. All I can see ever since is that kid lying there, his face like a mask and looking so pitiful.”
The punch had not been a hard one, but it had done the trick: Schaaf was down; Carnera had won.
After his second fight with Baer, it had taken several nerve-wracking minutes to bring Ernie around. This time, it was no good. He was rushed to Polyclinic Hospital, where Dr. Bryan Stookey performed an emergency operation to relieve pressure on his brain. His mother Lucy, arriving from Boston in a panic after she received no call from Ernie after the match, sat by his bedside for four days, holding his hand and calling him pet names in the brief moments when he flickered into consciousness.
On Valentine’s Day, at 4:00 in the morning, Ernie Schaaf died in his mother’s arms.
What, or Who, Killed Ernie Schaaf?
Carnera: The police questioned Carnera, but he was never, as the Associated Press reported, arrested in connection with Schaaf’s death. Within twenty-four hours, Dr. Charles Norris, Chief Medical Examiner of NYC, had determined that there was “absolutely no evidence that Schaaf died as a result of injuries received” from Carnera, contradicting Dr. Stookey’s confidence that it was, in fact, Carnera’s fist that had occasioned Schaaf’s death.
Influenza/Meningitis/Tumor: Rather, Dr. Norris said, illness was as much a culprit in Schaaf’s untimely demise. A recent bout of influenza had apparently caused swelling around his brain stem, a sign which also suggested the possible onset of meningitis. Compounding these alarming autopsy findings, Norris’s assistant Dr. Benjamin Vance suggested to the press the presence of some “growth” or “tumor” adding to the untenable pressure on Schaaf’s brain.
Baer: Others rejected the illness thesis, pointing the finger past Carnera to Max Baer, from whose knock-out punch in 1932 Schaaf never seemed to have fully recovered. Perhaps, the conjecture went, it was those lingering injuries from Baer, and not Carnera’s left jab at all, that had killed Ernie. No doubt the fact that Baer already had a reputation as a killer in the ring gave credence to this theory.
“Pervading all inquiries” into Schaaf’s death, the Associated Press reported, “was the realization that one of the most tragic episodes in modern ring warfare had occurred.” While the newspapers and the sports magazines argued over who, or what, was most responsible for Ernie’s death, his parents brought his body home to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Essex County, New Jersey. Primo Carnera sent flowers to the funeral.
That June, Primo Carnera and Jack Sharkey entered the ring in Queens to fight for the heavyweight title Ernie had set his eyes on. In the sixth round, Carnera landed a right uppercut to Sharkey’s jaw and claimed the coveted title. Afterwards, Sharkey would tell the press that at the moment Carnera knocked him out, he saw a vision of Ernie: the ghost of his old friend and protégé, just as he had looked the last time Jack saw him. “The next thing I know, I’d lost the championship of the world.”
Coleman, Patrick. “Fallen & Forgotten: The Ernie Schaaf Story.”
“Ring Blow Fatal to Ernie Schaaf.” Lawrence Journal-World, February 14, 1933.
Marcus, Norman. “The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf.” Boxing.com. May 19, 2013.