In Memoriam: Bruno Sammartino
By Ralph Gardner
Sept. 18, 2013 9:23 p.m. ET
I'd be less than candid if I said Little Italy's San Gennaro festival was my favorite event of the fall season. It's noisy and crowded. Traffic in the area is a mess. The grilled sausage, pepper and onions is certainly tasty, but I'm not sure it warrants a detour. And offered the choice between a cannoli and French pastry, I'll go for a petit four or coffee éclair any day.
So it had to be something special that made me willing, even eager, to brave the crowds on Sunday afternoon. And it was: The opportunity to meet one of my childhood heroes—Bruno Sammartino, the World Wide Wrestling Federation's longest-running champion and, having sold out Madison Square Garden a record 187 times, without a doubt America's most popular professional wrestler throughout the '60s, my heyday as a wrestling fan.
Let me set the scene. Back then, local television culminated on Saturday nights with Chiller Theater, which ran monster movies such as "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" and professional wrestling. The combatants, with names such as Gorilla Monsoon, Bobo Brazil and Haystacks Calhoun, were almost as fearsome as the 50-foot woman, and almost as large.
The wrestler I could probably best relate to was Argentina Apollo, a contender of comparatively modest carriage who vanquished his opponents through guile and grace.
But nobody could compete with Bruno Sammartino in terms of raw talent, pound-for-pound physical strength, everyman charisma and all-around decency.
Mr. Sammartino immigrated to the U.S. from Italy after World War II as a sickly child. He got picked on in school in Pittsburgh, where the family settled, until he built himself into a manly man. (When he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame last April, another manly man, fan and friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, did the honors.)
When Mr. Sammartino won a match, as he inevitably did, it felt not only as if he, or the immigrant community who celebrated his success, had triumphed, but also that good had prevailed over evil.
He even had a private audience with Pope Paul VI. "I was mumbling; I couldn't talk," Mr. Sammartino stated modestly.
Were the matches fixed? Was the whole thing playacting? Not to a 10-year-old. And let me tell you something else: There's no way Mr. Sammartino, now 77 but still in impressive shape, came naturally by those cauliflower ears he was sporting when we met at the Italian American Museum on Mulberry Street. They were the proud legacy of the pummeling he took on the way to winning and defending his championship belt.
The ostensible reason for our meeting was the occasion of his donating the belt—upon a closer reading of an accompanying press release, I see it's only an "autographed replica," but who cares—to the Italian American Museum.
To disbelievers, to those who say wrestling is fake and people who enjoy it fools—I'm thinking in particular of my wife, especially since I interviewed Mr. Sammartino and have taken to wearing my official "The Living Legend" T-shirt decorated with a picture of Bruno (in his 565-pound bench-pressing prime when he weighed 260 pounds) as a nightshirt—I'd like to draw your attention to Madison Square Garden and the day the champ performed a feat previously thought impossible: He lifted the 640-pound Haystacks Calhoun off the ground.
"He had resisted it whenever somebody tried it," Mr. Sammartino remembered. "He'd sit down. He'd struggle: it was important to him to be the man nobody could pick up."
"He took a hold of me with a headlock," the wrestler continued, of that epic occasion. "When he took a headlock, I knew this was my chance. I bearhugged his thigh. I had very strong legs: From a squatting position, I scooped him up. I thought the roof of the Garden was going to pop off."
To be honest, as a kid I wasn't aware of Mr. Sammartino's inspiring back story. Born in Abruzzi, Italy, he barely survived the war by hiding in the mountains with his family. His mother was once shot while trying to secure food. "We had to live on snow" for days in a row, he said. "A lot of people died."
Arriving in the U.S., Mr. Sammartino was bullied because he was so frail and spoke little English. "One day a Jewish kid named Maurice Simon—he felt sorry for us—he took us to the YMHA," Mr. Sammartino said of himself and his brother. "The first time I went there, I couldn't pick up feathers. When I see a little muscle pop up, I became a maniac at it. I joined the wrestling team at school."
Needless to say, the neighborhood bullies soon stopped picking on him. "Not only did they quit picking on me," he said, "they wanted to be my friend. They were afraid I was going to come back at them. Which I never did. I wasn't that kind of person."
In fact, Mr. Sammartino is a longtime anti-bullying and anti-steroid activist. He also became a critic of the direction professional wrestling has taken in recent years, with its chair-slamming antics, even taking to the talk-show circuit to express his disillusionment. "There was hardly any wrestling," he complained. "And the steroid era came into effect."
His agreement to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame also marked his reconciliation with Vince McMahon, the wrestling promoter and chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment. Mr. Sammartino, a longtime critic of Mr. McMahon and the WWE, was persuaded that the WWE's drug-testing program was sincere and that the sport is heading in a more family-friendly direction.
After posing for a few pictures with his belt and with dignitaries such as Dr. Joseph Scelsa, the founder and president of the Italian American Museum, Mr. Sammartino made his way into the maw of the San Gennaro festival, where he was immediately surrounded by fans.
"He made it from the mountains of Abruzzi to the Hall of Fame and he's done it clean and honest," Dr. Scelsa said. "That's why we're so honored. He's a great role model—not just for Italian Americans, but for all Americans."
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The Emilia Sammartino Lodge is a proud member of the Order Son's Of Italy in America
The Emilia Sammartino Lodge is dedicated to the strength, preservance and memory of Emilia Sammartino. May her life and story be a symbol of the many Italian men and women who, by the work of their hearts and hands built a proud and enduring way of life in Italy, and forged the foundation for a new life and promising future for their children here in America.
Our mission is to maintain and continue the heritage, traditions and example set forth by Emilia Sammartino and our ancestors she represents.
The Emilia Sammartino Lodge OSIA # 2831 has as its purpose:
1. To support the purposes of the National OSIA (as articulated in its mission statement)
2. To promote enrollment and active participation in The Emilia Sammartino Lodge OSIA # 2831 of all persons of Italian birth or descent and all others as prescribed in Article 1 of the General Laws
3. To initiate and/or promote activities, events and education programs that preserve Italian culture, heritage and legacy
4. To serve as a voice of support for Federal, State and Local legislation that benefits the membership and the larger Italian American community by encouraging active participation in the
political, social, and civic life of our communities
5. To provide the membership of The Emilia Sammartino Lodge OSIA # 2831 with:
a. A gathering spot for sharing Italian heritage, customs and culture
b. A sanctuary in which mutual respect, camaraderie, interdependence and good-will are fostered and sanctioned
c. A place in which opportunities for learning, self-development, the pursuit of personal interests and the exchange of ideas are actively encouraged and supported.
Special Tribute to Bruno Sammartino
From The Emilia Sammartino Lodge
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The Order intends to unite in one organization all those of Italian birth or descent having requisites stated in the bylaws. The Order respects the religious, and political opinions of its members but requires that they do not profess any doctrines tending to disrupt the existing social order by unlawful means.