Provided by J Michael Kenyon through WRESTLING AS WE LIKED IT.
MUCHNICK ROUNDS UP A RINGFUL OF MEMORIES
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, June 11, 1995
by Dave Dorr
Sam Muchnick is standing in the kitchen of his 18th-floor Clayton condominium, thumbing through a stack of folders swollen with hundreds of photos he's collected. He can't find what he's looking for.
"I'm running out of space," he says, perplexed. He shrugs his shoulders.
All around him, in almost every room, the walls are filled with plaques, pictures, mementos. They allow Muchnick, now 89, to keep a close connection to his past.
Here's Muchnick in 1929, the sports writer from the old St. Louis Times, in Bradenton, Fla., then the site of Cardinals spring training, in a Redbirds uniform taking infield practice at third base.
Here's Muchnick in a 1979 photo, displaying a 1945 edition of his wrestling publication "In The Ring." The lead story announces the fact that Ed Virag and Roy Dunn will be the opponents in the feature match at Kiel Auditorium on the first card that Muchnick promoted.
"Here's Frankie Frisch, my favorite ballplayer. Here's Pepper Martin, shaving in the morning. This is in Honolulu. That's Lou Thesz, the wrestler, and his former wife. Here's Jack Buck. This is Mel Price, the congressman, and me in Florida for spring training arguing about something. That's me there. Here's Gabby Street. Oh, and here's Jesse Haines. . . . "
A plaque replicates a letter from President Harry S Truman on White House stationary, dated Sept. 10, 1948: "Dear Sam. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your courtesy in this matter. I hope to see you that evening."
The story behind the plaque: Truman was a U.S. senator from Missouri when Muchnick first met him in St. Louis. Their paths crossed occasionally, and they came to know each other fairly well.
In 1945, Truman's plane had stopped at Scott Air Force Base to refuel. As it turned out, Muchnick was stationed in the base public relations office. An honor guard was formed to greet the president.
Muchnick was standing near the generals when the plane rolled to a stop, the door opened and Truman walked out to the steps. Looking down, Truman scanned the waiting group and spotted a familiar face. "Hi, Sam!" said Truman, waving. Muchnick beamed -- and felt the eyes of every jealous general riveted on him.
By 1948, Muchnick's career as a professional wrestling promoter was beginning to take wing. He'd scheduled an event at Kiel Auditorium on a night that Truman wanted to speak during the presidential campaign race with Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the Republican nominee. A Democratic National Committee official asked Muchnick if he could resolve the conflict by moving his event to another day. Muchnick thought about it and replied, "Well, I've got a show. But for the president, I'll change it." And Truman responded with a letter of thanks.
When Muchnick retired in 1982, St. Louis saluted him for almost five decades as a wrestling promoter and the place he'd achieved in the area's sports spectrum. Former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl proclaimed Jan. 1, 1982, as Sam Muchnick Day. His wrestling shows at Kiel and at The Arena were a fixture for 37 years, beginning in 1945. They drew huge crowds. In 1959, Wrestling At The Chase, a televised event, made its debut. It was still going strong when Muchnick retired. He is a St. Louis sports icon.
Muchnick and pro wrestling were joined at the hip. He became pro wrestling's caretaker. In large part because of his integrity, pro wrestling flourished in America. Wrestlers and those who did business with Muchnick alike knew him down to his bones for his honesty.
He befriended many, wrestlers included. They continued to remember his friendship.
One former wrestler, Gene Kiniski, calls Muchnick every Saturday from Blaine, Wash., where he lives. Dick and Pauline Esser, who were Muchnick's ticket agents for 40 years at their outlets at the Arcade Building and Adams Hat Store, bequeathed $49,000 to him.
Muchnick says, "When I asked them why, they told me, `We made our money working for you and we're going to give you some of it.' "
While he made his name as a wrestling promoter, it was sportswriting that was his passion. He found it seductive. He traded a salary of $1,900 a year as a postal clerk in l926 to join the sports staff at the St. Louis Times for $20 a week. He was 20 years old.
To Muchnick, that job was the real deal, like finding himself alone in a stretch limo with Babe Ruth. Muchnick stayed at the St. Louis Times until 1932, when it merged with the St. Louis Star. Offered a position by the new management, he rejected it because it would have meant bumping a friend from the staff. Muchnick left and found his way into promotion.
During the period he traveled with the Cardinals in his job as a baseball writer he met celebrities and did the towns where the Cards were playing.
There was a romance to reporting that captivated him, this guy who was born in the Ukraine in 1905 of Jewish parents and given the Hebrew name of Jeshua (Jesus) Muchnick. His mother, Rebecca, once danced for Czar Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler of Russia.
When Muchnick's father Saul, a factory worker, brought the family to St. Louis in 1911, he decided it wouldn't be proper to introduce his son as Jesus Muchnick. "Let's make you Sammy," he said.
Life in St. Louis was not easy early on for young Sam. It was a hardscrabble existence; a lot of scuffed knuckles. The family lived for a while in the old Kerry Patch neighborhood, an enclave of many ethnic backgrounds including Irish, German, Jewish, Italian and Polish. The Muchnicks were in a third-floor flat on Franklin Avenue, moving down one floor when Saul's paycheck increased. During the Depression, Sam contributed to the family finances by delivering vests to a tailor for $4 a week.
Now, he's the oldest former major league baseball writer in St. Louis, and one of two oldest nationally living who practiced the craft. (Charlie Segar of Sun City West, Ariz., a staff member at the old New York Mirror, is 91.)
From Muchnick's condo, he has an uninterrupted view of the Clayton skyline. But he's not one to sit and stare out the windows. He stays on the move.
On Mondays, he lunches at Maggie O'Brien's with the 1-2-3 Club, a group of St. Louis sports movers and shakers of which he was one of the founders. On Fridays, his lunch schedule takes him to English's Bar and Restaurant in Belleville -- and has since 1964.
Muchnick doesn't cook. Since the death of his wife, Helen, in 1981, he has dined often in restaurants. Or his daughter, Kathie Schneider, will eat lunch with him at his condo several times a week. He has two sons, Dick, 45, a St. Louis physician; and Dan, 44, of Douglasville, Ga., a certified public accountant; and three grandchildren.
Muchnick underwent a two-way bypass in 1993. He has a balky knee but says, "As long as I walk straight I'm OK." He still has a phenomenal memory for names and dates. Muchnick is a gentle man with a bewitching smile that grows wider whenever he reaches back to dredge up anecdotes of pranks for which he was responsible. You sense that the pranks were one of life's basic pleasures for him, and that behind his smile there is more than he's telling.
He was nothing if not a tease. On a recent afternoon, he sat in a booth at Layton's in Clayton. This is the restaurant where he once had trapped a waitress by asking her for change.
"Sure," she told him, and, wanting to be polite to an elderly man, she didn't think before putting in the cash register a $3 bill Muchnick had given her. It bore President Bill Clinton's picture and was signed by Truman Capote.
Muchnick saw her again on his recent visit and called to her. But she recognized him and, feigning fluster, said, "Oh, no you don't!" Muchnick flashed her a cat-ate-the-canary smile, then began laughing.
More than any other role, it was Muchnick's guardianship of wrestling that won him critical respect.
In 1948, Muchnick and several of his fellow promoters formed at Waterloo, Iowa, the National Wrestling Alliance as a means of guaranteeing themselves the high-profile wrestlers for shows. Muchnick was the organization's president for 25 years.
He finds today's version of pro wrestling reprehensible. He calls it "a carnival." Others concur. Of Hulk Hogan, a current star who appears under the auspices of World Championship Wrestling, Lou Thesz says: "As an actor, I'll give him a 10. As a wrestler, I'll give him a 1 -- or less."
Speaking of the thespian tendencies of pro wrestling - current and former versions -- Muchnick says that the fact that results of matches were prearranged didn't bother fans at the old Kiel, especially women who jumped from their seats squealing and stuck hat pins into wrestlers they saw as villains. In fact, Muchnick went to newspapers in St. Louis in the early days of his promoting with hat in hand and a request: "I said I've got to be allowed a little showmanship or I won't draw flies," he recalls.
To the fans, wrestling was high drama. To Muchnick, the orchestration of matches was acceptable.
"A lot of people knocked it," he says. But "I'd say 75 percent of it was OK because I knew the best wrestlers were winning. You can't help it if two wrestlers get into the ring and make a deal among themselves."
In retrospect, Muchnick's life has had a certain elegance. His wide circle of acquaintances ranged from Al Capone to Mae West to Frank Lane, yet he'd give anything for one more interview with The Babe. Muchnick once got the best of Lane, who in 1956 became general manager of the Cardinals. In the late 1920s, when a greyhound track called the Madison Kennel Club was thriving on the East Side, Muchnick was challenged by Lane, then a race judge at the club, to a game of handball with a new suit as the stakes.
The match took place after the races at 2 a.m. at the National Gym, located at Sixth and Pine. Muchnick, describing himself as an ordinary player, won 21-20. Lane bought him a $150 suit -- top of the line in fashion circles in those days.
Muchnick did his baseball writing in a bygone era when journalism didn't question or analyze as it now does. Still, the evolution of professional sports in America distresses Muchnick, who says, "The president of the United States is paid $200,000 a year and a .214 hitter is paid $750,000. Can't understand that."
During the 232-day baseball strike, Muchnick was asked what he thought about the owners. His answer: "I said they were the stupidest promoters in the world. And what about today's players? They charge for autographs."
Muchnick can remember Ruth, in a white linen suit, walking out of old Sportsman's Park and sitting down on a tree stump signing autographs for an hour for kids who were waiting for him. "Can you imagine ballplayers doing that today?" asks Muchnick, who always has had robust opinions -- and the last word.
When arguing with his wife once, in exasperation at his know-it-all hidebound stubbornness, she blurted, "Who do you think you are, Jesus. ...?" Muchnick didn't so much as blink. He replied, "Yes, I am."