This year celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of “the Cathedral of Boston,” Fenway Park. As such, and in spite of the apparently abysmal sporting performances going on there to lead off century number two, there have been ceremonies, reflections, and publications to honor this impressive milestone. One such work that I looked into was Sports Illustrated Fenway: A Fascinating First Century. It is an extensive coffee table book complete with photographs and timelines that lay down the narrative for the history of the famed ballpark.
The book is careful to make known the fact that Fenway has hosted all kinds of events, not just baseball games, detailing the epic rock concerts, days when the Patriots called it home, all the way up to the Bruins first appearance there at the NHL Winter Classic in 2010. However, this inclusion seems to only go so far. A Bruno Sammartino versus Killer Kowalski “Stretcher Match” from the park in 1969 is featured in the book with a write-up approximately the size of a quarter. And that’s it for mention of pro wrestling (of which there is more to be written!).
This omission could be very innocent, a testament to the fact that anybody buying a history of Fenway Park collection more than likely, and fairly, wants to see mostly baseball. On the other hand, many times it does seem as if it is some of the sporting public’s very dubious disdain for “fake” wrestling that gets its incredible history left out of the books and libraries. Case in point: You will now see documentaries on the history of sports on TV where it is made to seem that in the early days of television wrestling wasn’t the most popular featured attraction. And it was. And there wasn’t a close second.
All this is of course not to say that Fenway Park should be remembered for its handful of professional wrestling super cards, and not baseball. Just the numbers, though, scream for wrestling to at least be included in its history: Take for instance that through the 1930’s (The Great Depression years, mind you) the average attendance for a Red Sox game was 6, 308; for a professional wrestling event it was 17, 666. Let’s take a further look at what the century collections won’t tell you about, eight events that paint a brief history of professional wrestling at Fenway Park:
July 9, 1929: Gus Sonnenberg vs. Ed “Strangler” Lewis draws 25,000
Understanding professional wrestling in Boston between 1920 and 1960 means to know the name Paul Bowser. Bowser was a former middleweight wrestling champion turned predominate promoter in New England. He had a knack for creating stars, and in that way was something of a regionalized precursor to Vince McMahon (though many of his “creations” did draw nationally).
In an effort to spice up a somewhat stale scene, Bowser talked star halfback of the NFL Champion Providence Steam Rollers, Gus Sonnenberg, into coming over to wrestling. Sonnenberg excited fans with his “flying tackle,” a maneuver that was in stark contrast to the often slow mat-based matches they were becoming accustomed to, and was an instant hit. He won the world title from Lewis in January 1929 at the Boston Garden. This was one of several rematches between the two and brought in a gate of $90,000.
It’s worth noting that in a legitimate match Ed Lewis would have used the former footballer’s appendages to tie him into a ball of knots in a matter of seconds, but “the Strangler” was on board with having a hand in creating a new star for wrestling. Think John Cena going over Kurt Angle circa 1929.
August 9, 1933: Ed Don George vs. The Black Secret draws 10,000
Ed Don George was a 1928 Olympian in amateur wrestling and Paul Bowser mainstay and perennial champion throughout the 1930’s. The Black Secret was a gimmick used here by a reliable wrestler named Leo Numa.
Yes, pro wrestlers in the United States wore masks and dubbed themselves things like “The Black Secret” as far back as 1933 (and long before).
The champ defeated his masked foe in just over an hour and a half.
July 18, 1934: Ed Don George vs. Jim Londos draws 30,000
Stats alone, the 5’8 “Golden Greek” Jim Londos may be the most successful professional wrestler ever. He was the highest drawing wrestling attraction the world over thirteen different calendar years between 1924 and 1940 (to put into perspective Hulk Hogan has been eight; John Cena has been four). He came into Bowser and George’s territory on this occasion for a very early “Champion vs. Champion” encounter (Londos held the more widely recognized National Wrestling Association Championship and George a Paul Bowser inspired version).
Much the same as what happens these days when the WWE Champ faces off against the World Heavyweight Champ on Raw or Smackdown, this match went to a no-contest. Unlike current times, the match went three hours and fourteen minutes with George taking the first fall, Londos the second, and neither able to finish.
June 27, 1935: Danno O’Mahoney vs. Jim Londos draws 28,000
The June 27, 1935 Fenway card perhaps represents both the biggest match in the field’s history and Paul Bowser’s greatest coup. Always in the hunt for new stars that would translate to big money, Bowser felt in the early 1930’s that with the demographics of Boston being what they were, the right Irish star could be his ticket. And so, similar to his dealings with Gus Sonnenberg years earlier, he plucked an Irish track and field star straight out of Ireland and taught him how to wrestle (a little bit). Danno O’Mahoney quickly became beloved in the territory and was soon enough the nation’s top drawing wrestler.
Londos, the established wrestling kingpin, coming onto the budding stars’ home turf to defend his championship made for a legitimate dream match and people were literally shuttling into Fenway from all over the country to see it. O’Mahoney dethroned the longstanding champion in one hour, sixteen minutes, and fifty seconds. They celebrated in the streets in Boston.
Jim Londos didn’t possess quite the natural wrestling ability that Ed Lewis did (though he probably could’ve beaten O’Mahoney) but he did have all the leverage of professional wrestling’s longtime mega star. His payday for putting over the young Irishman (which was quite the job and included him commenting afterwards to the press, “I knew after the first five minutes I would have to be lucky to win”) was likely astronomical. Londos took said money and went home, briefly retiring from wrestling, then came back, never losing another match, before retiring once more and for good.
September 11, 1935: Danno O’Mahoney vs. Ed Don George draws 25,000
Paul Bowser’s new star versus his old mainstay was the natural next match to make. Their first encounter took place at the old Boston Braves field and drew an enormous crowd of 40,000+ for essentially a babyface vs. babyface match (refereed by “Cinderella Man” Heavyweight Boxing Champion James J. Braddock) with a screw job finish that for all intents and purposes turned O’Mahoney heel amongst his own people. September 11, 1935 at Fenway was the anticipated rematch.
Danno O’Mahoney won this one more cleanly, pinning Boston’s old hero just over two hours into the contest.
July 20, 1937: Steve Casey vs. Danno O’Mahoney draws 8,000
The second half of the 1930’s saw Danno O’Mahoney, as well as professional wrestling in general, begin to lose some of its steam. Paul Bowser had already sought out his next Irish star, Steve Casey, a club bouncer who was discovered after being seen physically tossing a particularly unruly patron over a taxi cab. By July 1937, Bowser finally felt like he had something big enough for Fenway Park in the rising Casey versus fading O’Mahoney. Casey prevailed before a lighter-than-usual house of only 8,000.
July 26, 1938: Steve Casey vs. Dick Shikat draws 5,000
Bowser continued to ride Steve Casey as his guy, but he didn’t click like O’Mahoney and wrestling was in full downswing. Casey defeated veteran wrestler Dick Shikat and pro wrestling would be gone from Fenway Park for over thirty years.
June 28, 1969: Killer Kowalski vs. Bruno Sammartino draws 12,000+
A beloved champion versus one of the most feared heels to ever compete was a hot enough feud and big enough match to bring wrestling back to the park for one shot in the summer of ’69. Bruno defeated his antagonist in the “Sicilian Stretcher Match” on a WWWF card that also featured The Sheik, Fabulous Moolah, George Steele, and Lou Albano.
So, when’s WrestleMania coming? Perhaps no facility better represents the notion “What’s old is new again” better than Fenway Park. Now that this wrestling history has been established, will wrestling ever be back? Would it be too much for the baseball purists to handle?
The visuals would be breathtaking. The significance would be paramount. The last time ‘Mania was in the City of Champions WWE crowned perhaps their best ever for the very first time. The biggest thing the idea has going against it, ironically, is that in the forty-plus years since the WWF/E has run Fenway, the WWF/E has outgrown it. Fenway just might not be big enough for the stadium show WrestleMania has become.
So SummerSlam then? In the crazy eclectic world of wrestling, as in the day-to-day and year-to-year of event planning for Fenway Park, never say never.
Whether wrestling’s ever back or not, it should be remembered that not only was it there, but for almost a decade a long time ago when things were really tough, wrestling was one of the things that brought Fenway Park to life.
I read a lot about pro wrestling, I can sift through the newspapers, and I like to think I summarize well, but there are people out there that spend more time than me digging this stuff up. For more on wrestling’s history, check out Steve Yohe, Tim Hornbaker, and the guys at LegacyofWrestling.com.
Follow me and send comments @ElliottMarquis.