by Irvin Muchnick
The tributes to pro wrestling icon Bruno Sammartino included a bizarre editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch under the headline “Death of a ‘face’.” (Though most material at the newspaper’s website, stltoday.com, is behind a paywall, readers can work around it through Google links, by using such search terms as “sammartino stltoday.”)
There’s no subject quite as surgical as wrestling’s ability to bring out the faux hipster in journalists desperate to be serviceably trendy. In this case, the writer — either Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tod Robberson or someone under his supervision — somehow came up with the hook that Sammartino was “one of [long-time St. Louis promoter and National Wrestling Alliance president] Sam Muchnick’s biggest draws in the 1960s and 1970s…. Sammartino worked ‘Wrestling at the Chase’ Hotel and held court at the old Kiel Auditorium.”
Unwilling to quit while he was behind in authenticity, the editorialist added that Vince McMahon “tried to claim him as one of WWE’s own, but for many years Sammartino stayed loyal to the regional promoters who made him a star.”
From 1963 to 1971, Sammartino was the champion of McMahon’s father’s New York-based World Wide Wrestling Federation, later World Wrestling Federation, now WWE. The WWWF was a breakaway from the NWA, the Muchnick-directed consortium of most of the other regional promoters of the era. I suppose you could say that one of those regional promoters, Frank Tunney of Toronto, had “made [Sammartino] a star” before his historically long and successful New York run, but the idea is ludicrous that any significant piece of his career, from 1963 forward, involves anything other than WWWF / WWF / WWE.
I emailed the P-D’s Robberson, explained that I am the nephew of the late Sam Muchnick, and pointed out that his piece was wildly inaccurate.
Robberson’s response was to say that I “seem to take offense to the fact that we were paying tribute to Sammartino.” (This after I wrote, on the day of his death, “As the posthumous tributes rightly pour in …” See https://concussioninc.net/?p=12829.)
Robberson demanded, “Do you have some kind of proof that Sammartino never performed in St. Louis for the entire decade of the 1960s? Because we have references to material that suggest otherwise.”
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter confirmed my recollection that Sammartino’s St. Louis experience was both sparse and concentrated in the period after he dropped the WWF belt for the first time in 1971. (Bruno had a second run as champion from 1973 to 1977.)
Wrestling personality and historian Jim Cornette told me, “You are correct. Bruno only appeared a few times in St Louis. His most notable match was against Harley Race in 1973 when in between WWWF titles, and that may actually have been his debut there. He was certainly a huge box office draw in many places, but due to his scarcity of appearances in St Louis and the fact that he never had a ‘run’ as a featured main eventer there does indeed mean that he was not even one of the top 50 box office attractions in all of Sam Muchnick’s years of promotion.”
A wrestling fan site, http://crazymax.org, has comprehensive listings of match results through the years at Muchnick’s St. Louis Wrestling Club. The source of the information is my friend Larry Matysik, the right-hand man and television and ring announcer through the seventies and up to Muchnick’s retirement in 1982. Matysik, an independent promoter and author, wrote the 2005 book Wrestling at the Chase: The Inside Story of Sam Muchnick and the Legends of Professional Wrestling, which is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Wrestling-Chase-Muchnick-Legends-Professional/dp/1550226843.
The old listings show that Sammartino worked a total of six shows in St. Louis, all 1973-75, and a single set of Wrestling at the Chase tapings for KPLR, Channel 11. Three of the six Kiel Auditorium shots were main events, and as Cornette noted, the only significant one was a 60-minute draw with NWA champion Harley Race on June 15, 1973, which drew 10,043, in a building seating around 12,000. In 1974, Bruno worked on top against Big Bill Miller before a crowd of 7,387. In 1975, Sammartino’s main event against Stan Stasiak drew only 4,740.
Confronted with the information, Tod Robberson removed the words “the 1960s and” from the Post-Dispatch editorial online. However, the once-proud P-D continues to hang on for dear life to the “alternative fact” that Bruno Sammartino was one of Sam Muchnick’s top draws. The best analogy I can come up with would be writing that Babe Ruth was one of the biggest stars in the history of the Boston Braves, because he played 28 games with them in 1935 after 15 years with the New York Yankees.
Jim Cornette summed up: “Apparently it meant enough to this guy to write a tribute but not enough to get it right.”