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Provided by J Michael Kenyon through WRESTLING AS WE LIKED IT.

YEARS CAN'T PIN DOWN 'MR. WRESTLING'
by Tom Wheatley

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tuesday, August 21, 1990

   On Wednesday, Sam Muchnick turns 85 lovable years old. It's impossible to estimate how much good will Mr. Wrestling has kicked up since entering this earthly ring on Aug. 22, 1905, in the Ukraine.

   Sam's enthusiasm preceded Day One, which is how he came to be born in the Soviet Union instead of St. Louis. ''My mother had gone back to the Ukraine to visit her sister, and I came two months early,'' Sam said. ''I was a seven- month baby.''

   With that head start, he grew up to be a gentleman and a scholarly promoter. He ran pro wrestling and boxing shows here for 50 years, minus three years when he and former Cardinal Terry Moore helped the Army keep Panama free in World War II.

   Pro grappling in the post-Cyndi Lauper era has degenerated into a pay-per-view cable spectacle. Under Sam, the body slams and pile drivers were more humanistic. He liked wrestlers and wrestling fans.

   In sports today, owners and promoters seem to want all they can grab. Ticket-gouging is more common than all the eye- gouging ever done by George ''The Animal'' Steele.

   Sam's Promotional Lesson No. 1: The customer is always No. 1.

   ''If I saw an usher idling at a show, I'd say, 'Hey, take care of these people,' '' Sam said. ''Taking care of the customers is the most important thing in promotions. I didn't believe in gouging fans. If I ran any pro sport today, the first thing I'd do is cut prices.''

   Sam is a reformed sportswriter. He was clerking for the post office in 1926 when he caught the eye of Post-Dispatch sports editor Ed Wray.

   ''They had a contest where Babe Ruth picked his All-Star team and you had to try to pick it along with him,'' Sam said. ''I finished second.

   One guy had all the same picks. I missed one. I had Frankie Frisch on third base and Babe had Ossie Bluege.''

   As runner-up, Sam got to write an article for the Post on what the Cards and Browns must do to win in '26.

   ''I said the Browns didn't have a chance,'' Sam said, ''but if the Cards could get a right fielder and another pitcher, they would win. Later on, they got Billy Southworth to play right, and then they got Grover Cleveland Alexander from the Cubs to pitch.

   ''They won the pennant, and Mr. Wray remembered that. He said, 'You should be a sport writer, but my staff is filled.' So I applied to Sid Keener, sports editor of the St. Louis Times.''

   Lesson No. 2: Money is not No. 1.

   Sam's starting salary as a reporter was $20 a week. That was almost a 50 percent cut from his post office job, which paid $1,900 a year. Sam loved hobnobbing with newspaper types, such as Red Smith of the St. Louis Star. ''Red was one of the greatest sport writers of all time,'' Sam said, ''but I scooped him once.''

   Sam wrote that Bill Walker of the New York Giants had agreed to pitch batting practice for the Cards before the '31 World Series. Walker, from East St. Louis, was a top lefty. Smith's boss told him by wire of Sam's scoop.

   Smith wired back: ''Nothing to it. One of Muchnick's pipedreams.''

   Lesson No. 3: You can't place a price on a good friendship.

   When the Star merged with the Times in '32, Sam could have stayed. ''They wanted me to replace a friend of mine, so I turned it down,'' he said.

   Tom Packs, a local wrestling promoter, heard that Sam was loose. ''I was up to 50 bucks a week at the paper,'' Sam said. ''He offered me 60.''

   After the war, Sam married his fiancee, Helen, and began promoting on his own. Wrestlers knew Sam's word was better than any written contract.

   Lesson No. 4: Be true in advertising.

   It was Sam who coined the term ''exhibitions'' for his extravaganzas. ''And if there were changes in the card, I'd immediately announce it, even if it hurt the gate,'' Sam said. ''The people pay to see a certain guy. If he isn't there, you should say so.''

   Sam dislikes the current order, or lack thereof, in pro wrestling. He banned fighting outside the ring and assaults on refs, and he hates matches drawn on racial lines.

   Lesson No. 5: Hype has its limits.

   It was Sam who revolutionized wrestling by restoring old wrestling holds and concocting new ones.

   ''Sure, you had to have a little showmanship,'' he said. ''The people wanted it. But the wrestlers prided themselves on their wrestling. They'd say, 'This guy can go,' or 'This guy can't go.' Now, I don't want to take a slap at it, but it's just entirely different.''

   Sam retired on Jan. 1, 1982, at age 76. His final show at The Arena drew more than 21,000 fans -- ''the paid crowd was 19,821,'' he said -- and 2,000 more were turned away.

   Sam and Helen, who died in 1981, raised three children. One son is a doctor and the other is an accountant. Their daughter edits a magazine.

   Sam had financial rewards, too. ''I did all right,'' said Sam, who lives in Clayton and is still spry. ''I still get out and jump around a lot,'' he said. ''I have a lot of friends.''

   And Mr. Wrestling won them with a soft touch, not a strong arm.


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