An old-time wrestler takes high road to hall

April 13, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

Wrestlers representing the Baltimore Central YMCA in the 1940s often traveled to national competitions, riding across the country in the back of Johnny Eareckson's pickup truck.

"There would be as many as 12 of us piled into that old Dodge truck," said Doug Lee. "We'd travel all day and night to get to a tournament in Ames, Iowa, or somewhere in Oklahoma or Texas. "We might have as much as $3 a day food and living allowance. If we had to stop, we'd stay at a Y for a couple of bucks."

The plane trip to Stillwater, Okla., tomorrow should be much smoother for Lee, who on Saturday will be one of four new inductees into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, founded in 1976.

"Quite honestly, I didn't know there was a hall for wrestlers until three years ago, when I was first nominated," said Lee, 78, a retired farmer living in northern Baltimore County.

L But the Wrestling Hall of Fame nominating committee knew all

about "Farmer" Lee. It received endorsements from his former teammates, opponents and younger wrestlers he had helped develop for more than 20 years at the now-defunct YMCA on Franklin Street, Gilman School, St. Paul's School and Hereford High.

"Doug Lee was probably the greatest wrestler in America in the '40s," said Josiah Henson, a former Naval Academy wrestler and coach who was tutored by Lee in preparation for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. Henson won a bronze medal.

For a decade, Lee dominated the sport, winning national AAU titles (1941, '42, '45, '46, '47) and finishing second four times. He was voted the AAU's outstanding wrestler in 1945 and 1946, beating such renowned college and Olympic champions as Merle Jennings, "Doc" Northrup, Dale Brand and Jim Gregson.

"The most amazing thing was that he won AAU titles in three different weight classes -- 134, 155 and 165," said Henson. "And even at age 32, when most wrestlers have long retired, he finished fourth in the heavyweight competition."

Perhaps even more remarkable was that Lee never wrestled on either the high school or college level, a fact that separates him from all the 90-odd wrestlers in the Hall of Fame.

"That's why Lee's induction is so important," said Henson. "As long as the Hall of Fame was restricted to former college and Olympic champions hailing from Iowa, Oklahoma and western Pennsylvania, it left a big void, because some of our greatest wrestlers strictly represented clubs around the country."

For Lee, a strapping, 5-foot-7 youngster, the Central YMCA offered the only opportunity to learn wrestling. His coach was Fred Peters.

"I graduated from Towson High in 1932, but back then, the school didn't have a wrestling team," he said. "Three years later, when I was 19, a friend of mine talked me into taking a six-week membership at the Y, in 1935, and I guess I never left.

Lee wrestled in the evening, after he finished his day-long chores on his father's dairy farm in northern Baltimore County.

"Being a farmer all my life, I was relatively strong for my size," said Lee, who began wrestling competitively at 134 pounds. "My conditioning gave me an edge over most of the city and college boys."

Redmond Finney, the retired Gilman headmaster who was an All-American wrestler at Princeton, worked out at the YMCA when Lee was in his late 30s. "Even though he was some 10 years older, Doug Lee was one of toughest opponents I ever encountered," Finney said. "I never looked at him as being old."

Lee was best known for his patented cradle hold, which put most of his opponents on their backs.

"The cradle is a hold that dates back to the ancient Greek wrestlers," said Lee. "But if you practice something long enough, you can perfect it, and I kind of put my personal twist on it."

Lee's twist was to apply the cradle from a standing position, a maneuver most of his contemporaries never had seen before.

"I'd work my right arm behind my opponent's neck, catching his left arm," he said. "Then I'd grab his right ankle and double him over. Once I clamped my arms, the match was usually over."

"Everyone tried duplicating his cradle move, but no one could equal it," said Judge Robert Fischer of the Appellate Court in Annapolis, who watched Lee wrestle at the Central Y and went on to become a Southern Conference wrestling champion at Maryland in the early '50s. "Doug never lifted weights, but he was just so powerful through the arms and shoulders and had real quick feet."

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