The Penguins were playing the Flyers in Philadelphia, and the Pirates were playing the Phillies in the same city in the same week, and a streamer ran across the bottom of the television screen some time during one of the games. It was a bulletin that the great wrestling champion Bruno Sammartino had died at age 92.
A friend of mine, Len Stildle of Gibsonia, had told me a week earlier that Bruno was in Passavant Hospital in the North Hills and that he wasn’t doing well, and I thought I should visit him and talk to Bruno. We had a good relationship through the years. You always want that one last interview, just in case.
Through the years, other friends had urged me to write a book about Bruno, but they had to settle for a chapter or two, here and there, in books about all sports in Pittsburgh. He’s in my boxing book. Bruno was a good story. A rags-to-riches story, the kind they once called Horatio Alger stories. Others had already written books about Bruno and, frankly, they didn’t sell that well.
Bruno was easy company, a warm and gregarious guy, a big teddy bear when it came down to it. I remembered the last time I talked to him, at one of Armand Dellovade’s celebrated Christmas parties in Lawrence, Pa., near the border that separates Washington Country from Allegheny County.
When Kathie and I came into the kitchen, where they displayed all the hors d’oeuvres, especially the iced and shelled shrimp, I spotted Bruno and his wife Carol and one of their three sons sitting at the kitchen table. I took a seat beside Bruno and had Kathie fetch me some food. She knows what I like and I told her I didn’t want to lose my seat. I sat there the rest of the evening. Johnny Majors, the former head football coach at Pitt, joined us with his wife Mary Lynn, and I introduced Majors to Bruno.
Believe it or not, they had never met before. Bruno mentioned that he had met Roberto Clemente, but had never met Bill Mazeroski. So, I made sure I introduced Bruno and Maz a month or so later at one of the Dapper Dan Sports Awards Dinners. I took a photo of the two Pittsburgh sports icons together, at last.
Bruno belonged in their company. He was one of the most popular and most world-renowned sports figures to make Pittsburgh his home. Only Arnold Palmer might have been more popular on an international level. I took some notes. As Bill Hillgrove has said on many occasions, I am always working, always searching for iced shrimp and good stories.
Like a lot of Pittsburghers my age, I had grown up watching Bruno on “Studio Wrestling” on WIIC-TV. Bill Cardille and Ace Freeman were also regulars.
There was more wrestling to be seen on TV at night and on weekends from New York and Chicago. There were so many great names – Gorgeous George and Gypsy Joe, George Steele, Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Chief Don Eagle and Antonino Rocca. There were also midget tag-team wrestlers. And Bruno Sammartino from Pittsburgh was the world wrestling champion for a record 11 years. He represented us well.
I was watching baseball games and hockey games in Philadelphia last week, but I was wrestling with memories from different times and different places and thinking about Bruno and my best memories of him, some of his best stories, my memories of this wonderful fellow who was so beloved by fans of all good men and all good sports.
It took me back to Philadelphia in the summer of 1963.
It was the summer between my junior and senior years at the University of Pittsburgh, and I had landed an internship in the sports department of The Philadelphia Bulletin. Some of the nation’s best sportswriters were working in Philly at the time.
My mother traveled with me as I drove to Philadelphia, and she helped me pick out an apartment. She went back home on a bus. As we were standing on the sidewalk waiting for her to board the bus, Bruno Sammartino appeared with a gym bag in hand containing his wrestling gear - those tight black trunks and black boots. Turns out, he had wrestled the night before at a local venue.
My mother was a bit nervous about riding the bus by herself to Pittsburgh, so I stopped Bruno, introduced myself, and asked him to look after my mother. He smiled and said she’d be safe with him sitting across the aisle from her.
I recently learned from P-G columnist Ron Cooke that Bruno would still cry when reminiscing about his mother, some 40 years after her death.
When Bruno was a boy in his native Italy, he and his mother fled to the mountains near their village in the dead of winter when the Nazis pillaged their community. They ate snow at times just to stay alive.
Bruno’s dad had already come to America to establish a home for his family to follow him. They settled in South Oakland, in the same neighborhood that produced Andy Warhol, the celebrated pop artist, Dan Marino, the great quarterback, and Joe Gordon, the Steelers’ publicist in their glory years of the ‘70s.
Bruno attended Schenley High School in North Oakland, worked out with the weights at the YMHA by Pitt’s Heinz Chapel, and played two years of football at Schenley.
Bruno became a big hit at the gym that was filled for the most part by Jewish kids. He became quite the power lifter. He was a 97-pound weakling when he came to America – remember those full-page Charles Atlas ads in the pulp magazines?
Steelers’ owner Art Rooney offered him a tryout with his NFL team, but Bruno learned he could make a lot more money – over $30,000 – if he became a pro wrestler. The rest is history.
Bruno Sammartino started his pro career in 1959 and wrestled in places such as Uniontown, Aliquippa and McKeesport, and then New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, then in Japan where he was so popular.
He sold out Madison Square Garden in New York 87 times in over 125 appearances there. I learned when I was working as a sportswriter at The New York Post from 1970 to 1979, that Bruno sold out The Garden more than any other entertainer, even Frank Sinatra from Hoboken.
I also learned the Garden purposely booked wrestling shows on the same day welfare checks arrived. There would be over 18,000 in The Garden, and another 3,000 watching the wrestling show on closed-circuit TV at reduced ticket prices in The Felt Forum. It was a smaller venue in the basement of The Garden where fights featuring up-and-coming local talent were held at other times.
I covered “The Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – which Smokin’ Joe won by decision – in the main room, and spirited fights, usually hell-raisers between Latino fighters where you had to get away from the ring quickly after the bout, before the decision, when fans might be throwing stuff the way the Philly fans did after the Penguins defeated their Flyers last Sunday night to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
There was a lot going on in Philadelphia last week. We have a new American heroine in Tammie Jo Shuts, a former ace Navy pilot, who showed “nerves of steel” in safely landing a Southwest passenger airplane that had a damaged engine and blown-out window.
I also watched the funeral service for Barbara Bush in Houston. She was one of our most popular First Ladies, both the wife of and the mother of an American President.
But, Barbara Bush and Tammie Jo Shuts weren’t spoken about as glowingly as Bruno Sammartino in Pittsburgh. We tend to be parochial here, and Sammartino was something of a saint here in the same category as Clemente. His image was always that of a simple working man, the epitome of “a good guy” in a sport filled with villains.
Once, I was sitting with my friend and fellow sportswriter, Bob Smizik, near the ring corner at the Civic Arena when Bruno was wrestling. I can’t remember his opponent. Whoever it was, he kept pulling out a small rope to choke Bruno. Each time he wrapped it around Bruno’s neck, the fans screamed at referee Izzy Moidel, a sideshow himself, to stop the strangling. Izzy would toss up his empty hands to the sky in a what-are-you-talking-about gesture. He couldn’t see any rope.
Smizik and I joined Ring-Side Rosie in protesting what was going on, just for the hell of it.
Another time, I was doing a lengthy piece on Bruno when I was working in New York. He was wrestling at Nassau Coliseum, not far from my home on Long Island. I was in this large dressing area under the stands, where all the wrestlers were in one stage of dressing or undressing. Some of the biggest and well known wrestlers of the ‘70s were there including Haystacks Calhoun, Andre the Giant and Gorilla Monsoon. They were in narrow partitioned stalls, and when they had their backs to me the sight resembled a dairy barn.
I had a seat at press row that night at Nassau Coliseum. I was the only one sitting there. No one actually covered these contests. Bruno dropped his opponent on the table where I was sitting, and the boards rattled loudly, just to make sure I was paying attention.
Bruno told me about his early days. To make some extra money, Bruno was posing in the near-nude as a discus thrower for an art class at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). One of the students in the class accompanied Bruno when he went home that day.
Bruno was showing some of his weight-lifting trophies to the art student. The trophies were displayed in his second-floor bedroom. The art student put a move on Bruno, wanting to hug him.
The next sound in the Sammartino house was the sound of the art student bouncing down the stairs. Bruno’s mom was standing at the bottom. “Bruno, my baby, what’s going on?” she cried in her strong Italian accent.
“He slipped on the steps, Mom,” Bruno answered back. “He’ll be OK.”
A man wanted to share a story about Bruno Sammartino after church services last Sunday. Like so many people in Pittsburgh this past week, he had a favorite story about Bruno. His name is Dr. Larry Wilson, and he was a member of my writers’ class.
“I was the doctor for the Pennsylvania Boxing and Wrestling Federation when Bruno made his professional wrestling debut,” began Dr. Wilson. “This was at the Palisades Arena near the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport. I checked his blood pressure before his bout and it was out of sight, something like 400 over 100, dangerously high. ‘I can’t pass him,’ I told Leo Porco, one of the state officials. ‘He could die in the ring the way his heart is racing.’ But Porco said the show had to go on. ‘You gotta pass him!’ Porco came back. ‘Then you take full responsibility for his well-being,’ I told Porco.”
“Izzy Moidel was the referee and he said in that gravelly voice of his, ‘Ah, he’ll be fine,’ when I told him to keep a close eye on Bruno to make sure he was OK. ‘He’s gotta wrestle,’ said Izzy. That Izzy was some character. This was December 17, a week before Christmas, in 1959. Bruno pinned the guy, Dmitri Grabowski, in 19 seconds. I was so relieved when that happened,” recalled Dr. Wilson. “I checked his blood pressure after the bout and he was fine.”
This article previously appeared in Jim O’Brien’s column for The Valley Mirror. This edited version has been reprinted with his permission.
All Photos courtesy of Jim O'Brien