Wrestling in the '50s: 'More honest than fishing'

Baltimore Glimpses

June 07, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

OVER the years, they've been a steady attraction to people of all ages -- those gargantuan men (and women) outfitted in freaky costumes, affecting pain and anger. They are wrestlers, and they would have us believe that theirs is a sport.

Well, let us give them part of their claim. Professional wrestling (unlike high school and collegiate wrestling) is, always has been, part sport, but also part show-biz, part legerdemain.

In the old days, and by that we mean the 1950s, professional wrestling in Baltimore became a test of will between Stanley Scherr, then chairman of the Maryland State Athletic Commission (charged with overseeing professional athletics in the state) and promoter Ed Contos. Their verbal matches defined and gave color to the Baltimore wrestling scene, providing a kind of side sport to fans of wrestlin'.

This was because Scherr suspected (well, let's face it, he knew) that the grunting and groaning was faked and the decisions fixed. But Contos (of course) maintained that his wrestlers and referees entered the fray with the innocence of choir boys.

In those days, the newspapers gave lots of attention to the "sport," and the matches at Carlin's, the Coliseum on Monroe Street and the 104th Medical Armory at Fayette and Green made the sports pages regularly, and there was much talk around town about the various stars (today called the "Superstars of Wrestling") and how they were doing.

The night of Jan. 19, 1955, was typical.

The Coliseum was filled to capacity with a howling, hissing, booing crowd lusting for blood. The object of scorn was the wrestler coming down the aisle to the music of "Pomp and Circumstance." He had flowing gold hair in ringlets and wore a gold robe with a white silk lining, embroidered with glistening sequins. A "slave girl" was circling about him with an atomizer, spraying for enemy bugs. (Sound familiar?) He acknowledged the attention by removing hairpins and tossing them to the audience. This was "Gorgeous George," the Coliseum's most controversial (and maybe its phoniest) wrestler.

Among his regular opponents were Strangler Lewis, Stanislav Zbyszko, Gus Sonnerberg, Rudy Dusek, Dr. Sarpoulis, Rajah Rabold, Jimmy Londos and Primo Carnera. But this night George was to wrestle an underdog the sportswriters had called "a poor but honest boy in a shabby robe." His name was Wild Red Berry.

Moments after referee Harry Smyke introduced the protagonists, Wild Red began pulling at George's locks. The fight became a blur of sweating bodies in hammerlocks, toeholds, airplane spins. All the while, George's slave was moving about outside the ropes, perfuming her master.

The referee, trying to keep order, found himself on the floor, his own life threatened.

Then the slave stepped into the ring and began to spray the three of them.

By some mystic signal, "Pomp and Circumstance" started up, the referee, based on absolutely nothing, declared Wild Red Berry the winner, and George strutted about in disbelief. (George Arena, the real-life Gorgeous George, was to live until 1992, when he died at 84.) Some in the crowd booed, some cheered. Nobody quite knew who had won, or why.

Just another night of wrestling in Baltimore? Yes, but Scherr had taken it all in, and he'd had enough of Contos' brand of wrestling. In a report to his athletic commission, he wrote, "Hereafter, wrestling should not be called a 'sport,' it should be called an 'exhibition.' I was watching a match only recently. I saw blood. I sent in a doctor to check on it. He came back and said, 'Mercurochrome.' "

Contos demurred. "Wrestling in Baltimore," he said, "is more honest than fishing."

And no doubt still is.

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