Boxing fans escaped the cold February chill and filled Madison Square for the Friday night fight between two heavyweight hopefuls--Primo Carnera, a giant of a man from Italy, and 24-year-old Ernie Schaaf, the likable slugger from Wrentham, Massachusetts. It was February 10, 1933 and for both men this was the biggest fight of their careers. As the two fighters finished their warm ups, the ring announcer declared the winner would get a shot to face the current champion, Jack Sharkey.
The 13-round fight would end with Schaaf being carried out of the ring unconscious and dying. Four days later and despite the efforts of the finest physicians of the time, he would succumb to his injuries.
Ernie Schaaf’s story is truly an American story about a man few know and even fewer remember.
An experienced boxer with an impressive resume that included championship belts won in the Navy and as an amateur, Schaaf’s professional record included more than 70 fights—58 wins and 23 knockouts. With his sites on the heavyweight championship, he averaged one fight a month leading up to that frigid February night at Madison Square Garden. He was just one victory away from his big shot.
When he entered the ring to face Carnera, the odds makers made him a 7 to 5 favorite. Respected sports columnist John Kieran of The New York Times wrote that despite Carnera’s considerable size advantage (he was five inches taller and 50 pounds heavier) Schaaf should easily handle the Italian colossus. “There is practically no danger for Ernie in the coming engagement, provided he doesn’t allow Primo to fall on him,” he wrote.
Despite Kieran’s prediction, the fight was filled with only danger for Ernie. In the weeks leading up to the bout, he suffered from influenza that sent him to the hospital and kept him from training properly. At the pre-fight weigh-in he looked pale and weak.
Carnera was in top form and used his significant size as an advantage, delivering damaging punches throughout the night. Schaaf struggled through 13 rounds until a left from Carnera connected just above his right eye, knocking him out. Left on the canvas, Schaaf was a dying man. It’s a tragic tale in a sport filled with tragedy.
The future had seemed bright for the young Schaaf as he made his way up the boxing ranks. He had all the makings of a great fighter during a time the sport still held the attention of the nation. Schaaf was gifted with strength, speed, and matinee idol looks. His look resembled a championship heavyweight to such a degree he was asked to model for the Muldoon-Tunney Trophy, a bronze and marble statue that lists the heavyweight champions of the world dating back to John L. Sullivan. Today the statue stands in the new Madison Square Garden.
Schaaf even dressed the part of a successful boxer. He often wore one of his 20 or so tailored suits with matching shoes. He rarely covered his perfectly combed blonde hair with a hat, which was the custom of the day.
As a boxer, he had a potent combination of power and skill. His punches would inflict overwhelming damage to his opponents, and his growing understanding of the sport vexed foes that tried to match his strength.
A quiet and good-natured man, Schaaf was devoted to his mother, the Catholic Church and the Navy. There were occasional whispers about his carousing but for a man that made a living violently beating other men, he was known as, “a nice enough fellow.” From time to time, he would make a pre-fight boast about knocking out his opponents but, more often than not, he preferred to let his fighting speak for itself.
Thanks to boxing, he was the chief breadwinner of the Schaaf family, moving his family from Elizabeth, New Jersey to Wrentham. In the small rural New England town, Schaaf was able to train, care for his family, and stay close to Boston’s vibrant boxing scene.
He dreamed of the heavyweight title for both glory and its financial rewards. Boston Post writer Doc Almy wrote that Schaaf wanted to make enough money so his father could retire and his whole family could live together “for the rest of their lives” in Wrentham, a place he called his “real home.”
There would be no retirement to the house in Sheldonville section of Wrentham that he bought for his mother. There would be no sailing on Lake Archer just off the cottage where he had trained for fights.
There would just be a heartbroken family, a stunned community, and so many “what if’s” left unanswered.
The beginning of the story starts in Elizabeth, New Jersey, 20 miles away from Madison Square Garden.