Pittsburg, Kansas, Headlight-Sun – July 24, 1973
Ralph (Wild Red) Berry, who climbed the hard way from a modest start in life to become an international figure in the wrestling world, is dead at the age of 66. In reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Berry became friends to many from all walks of life including the entertainment greats, many of whom were guests at his home in Pittsburg at one time or another. Last year, Berry was voted to the Wrestling Hall of Fame at Tulsa.
Death came to Berry about 12:30 p.m. Saturday (July 21). He was stricken at his home, 314 E. Eighth. He was pronounced dead at Mt.CarmelMedicalCenter.
Berry was a light-heavyweight, who did most of his wrestling as a heavyweight.
He perhaps was the most colorful holder of the light heavyweight championship of the world – and held it more times than anyone else.
It was in 1937 that Berry first won the title. Then he lost and regained the title three times, a record in itself.
Berry had played golf during the morning Saturday at the Elks Country Club. Upon returning home, he did some work in his yard and then went to swing on the front porch to rest when he was stricken.
He was a strong advocate of physical fitness and clean living. He never drank anything stronger that milk. He exercised regularly even after his retirement a few years ago.
Success never went to his head. He never forgot the town where he got his start in life. He always was a strong booster for Pittsburg. His colorful appearances in the squared arena put Pittsburg on the tongues of the many who follow the sports – and he made sure it stayed there.
Berry became known across the land as the former mayor of Pittsburg, stemming from service on the Pittsburg City Commission. It was the result of a slip of the tongue when Berry was introducing a Pittsburg resident to a television audience. The Pittsburg man was visiting out in California and he intended to say that Berry was a former member of the Pittsburg City Commission, but “former mayor” slipped out.
No one minded. Berry had served on occasion as acting mayor during the term he was a member of the City Commission and the late Joe Gutteridge, then mayor, was out of town.
Every opportunity that he got, Berry reminded the sports world and those turning out for his many personal appearances that he was a Pittsburg, Kan., product. He was proud to be a Pittsburg resident and he maintained his home here through the years he was touring this country and other countries on his wrestling schedules and personal appearances.
It was in 1933 that Ralph Berry, the wrestler, became “Wild Red” Berry. It was a result of a publicity stunt in Kansas City which backfired. The moniker stuck even after he became the cultural giant of wrestling.
Berry turned to philosophy in 1946 after a mat match ended in a broken arm for him. He began studying the Bible, Shakespeare, poetry, sayings and comments until he could quote them verbatim. He frequently spoke to religious groups, including ministerial gatherings, performing impressively.
When he returned to the squared arena after his arm healed and lengthy therapy had been completed, Berry became the philosopher of the wrestling world much to the delight of wrestling and TV audiences.
A gesture he used to indicate intelligence and culture which he portrayed was a knowing pose with finger pointed to head, usually with a pair of glasses in the other hand and a book of Shakespeare’s works clamped under his arm.
This joined Berry’s nickname, “Wild Red” in becoming a well known part of the colorful and popular character he portrayed before his fans.
Berry’s friends among the entertainment world included Jack Dempsey, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Milton Berle, Lawrence Welk, Gene Autry, Gorgeous George, Leroy McGuirk and Jule Strongbow, among many others.
Lewis was the strong man of wrestling and long heavy weight champion.
George was junior heavyweight champion.
McGuirk was light heavyweight champion.
Strongbow was among the heavys. He was heavyweight champion.
Berry even tried his hand at acting. He played in the motion picture, “My Wife’s Best Friend,” shot 20 years ago. Starring in the film were MacDonald Carey and Ann Baxter. Berry played the role of a guard at a health retreat.
He often talked before groups of parents and young folks. Always he emphasized the importance of physical culture to keep a person physically fit mentally alert. “Clean living” and hard work he emphasized as necessary for success in life, both the spiritual and physical aspects.
Some months ago straining of his voice in speaking to groups without an amplifier brought on a throat condition and a “gravel voice” ending his public appearances as a speaker upon advise of physicians.
The condition worried Berry greatly because he liked to be with people and to talk before groups, especially groups of young folks.
For a couple of years, Berry worked with the Sheriff’s office of CrawfordCounty in the capacity of a coordinator and advisor for young folks.
It was in 1947 that he was elected Pittsburg park commissioner. During his two years in office, Berry regularly conducted physical fitness programs at Lincoln Park for children of the community.
This philosophy followed Berry throughout his life.
Berry was born November 20, 1906 at Conway Springs, Kans. As a small boy, he moved with his family to West Liberty, a mining camp about two miles south of Chicopee. He attended elementary school at Liberty school.
He quit school at the age of 12 to work in the coal mines to support his fatherless family. At the age of 16, he started with the Kansas City Southern shops as an apprentice coach builder and blacksmith.
But the sports world was a magnet which increasingly drew his interest.
He worked out an agreement with the YMCA which would permit him to train there and work out his fees by doing odd jobs. Once he said he “must have painted the ‘Y’ 20 times to pay out his fees.”
Berry would work at the K.C.S. shops during the day and wrestle at night. At the end of his work day, he usually stopped at the ‘Y’ to work out and then he would walk from there to his home south of Chicopee.
When he was 17, Berry won the Tri-State Amateur Boxing Tournament – and received his first cauliflower ear. After 18 professional fights, he copped the middleweight championship of Kansas, broke both hands and retired from the fight game.
But he turned his talents to wrestling. For his first match, he walked eight miles through the snow to wrestle in a preliminary bout on which Strangler Lewis was the main eventer. For this he received 50 cents, he often recalled.
He fought up from this meager beginning to become one of America’s best known television sports figures.
As Berry was getting his start in the fight world, he was married on May 28, 1934 to Miss Lil Pilkento of Pittsburg. She survives.
After wrestling across the nation, many times in New York’s fabulous Madison Square Garden, wrestling in Australia during two tours in the “down under” continent, Canada and Puerto Rico, Berry for all practical purposes hung up his wrestling shorts and turned to managing wrestlers. In this capacity, he guided Australians, Germans and at least one Japanese among others.
Then a few years ago, Berry decided too many years had passed and he turned homeward for retirement in Pittsburg. But he refused to remain idle. He turned to working with young folks and speaking engagements until his voice failed him.
Even then, he continued his exercise programs, golfing and just meeting his old friends. Berry’s memberships included the First Christian Church, Twentieth Century Sunday School class, the Pittsburg Masonic Blue Lodge, the Scottish Rite Masons of Fort Scott, Mirza Shrine, Mirza Patrol, Mirza Shrine Club and the Elks Lodge.
Survivors in addition to the widow:
One son, Maj. James L. Berry of the U.S. Army military police, Augusta, Ga.; a sister, Mrs. Ada Mapes of Scammon; a brother, Carl Berry, 810 N. Joplin; two granddaughters, Jamie, nine and Diana Joy, three, and a grandson, Alden, 12 of Augusta.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. The body is at the Brenner Mortuary.