Barnum Was Right

The New York Times – April 19, 1954
By Arthur Daley

It was Phineas T. Barnum, the master showman, who received credit for the expression, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He proved his point by becoming wealthy through painlessly snatching dollars from the out-thrust hands of the gullible.

The birth rate of the naive, the credulous and the overly trustful hasn’t diminished a bit since Barnum’s day. Otherwise there wouldn’t and couldn’t be such a creature as a wrestling fan. In his blind, fatuous innocence this benighted individual believes every professional rassling match is a to-the-death struggle with the historic proportions of the match between Ulysses and Ajax.

The distress of the grappling fanatic would be totally unimportant and not worth even a passing glance if he’d be content to hide his sublime belief in the always-on-the-level aspects of the mat game. But he’s a shouter and a writer of indignant letters. He pesters sports editors and wants to know why newspapers refuse to print results of the utterly enthralling matches he views on television.

The answer is always awkward and embarrassing. It’s almost as cruel as telling a child that there is no Santa Claus. It does no good to inform the fan that the mat game is as spurious as a three-dollar bill. He won’t believe that, anyway. Besides, there are such things as libel laws, even though the wrestling trust never has dared sue anyone for libel. The Mahouts who handle the grunt-and-groan herds demur slightly at charges that wrestling is not quite as level as a billiard table. But that’s mainly for the record and for the benefit of Barnum’s disciples.

It’s completely untrue to state that the last honest wrestling match was the 1911 affair between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, two of the greatest. Old-timers still insist that Gotch was the mightiest of them all. He won 154 of 160 matches. Some crackerjack wrestlers followed them, including Joe Stecher, Earl Caddock, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Strangler Lewis, and Jim Londos. After them – the deluge.

The one item that places the wrestling trust in a most untenable position is that the various state athletic commissions refuse to recognize the mat game as legitimate competition. Rassling never can be advertised as a “contest” but only as an “exhibition.”

The dictionary defines a contest as “a struggle for victory or superiority; a conflict between competitors, a competition.” Well?

Wrestlers are salaried employees of the beef trust that owns them. Winning or losing means nothing per se. It’s a steady job, five or six nights a week, and the companionship is wonderful. The rasslers travel together by car from town to town, eat together, room together and enjoy the delightful camaraderie of their fellows.

Strictly speaking, the grunt-and-groan industry is populated by the most noble group of blubbery meatballs you’d ever want to encounter. The milk of human kindness flows through their veins. Most of them are extremely intelligent, warm hearted, generous and so gentle that they wouldn’t hurt a fly. If they appear satanic at times, so does Boris Karloff on the occasions when his job calls for him to act that way.

Tumblers in the circus are not better schooled than the grunters and groaners. The matmen learn how to fall without getting hurt. They are taught to crash to the canvas so that their feet land first on the rattling boards instead of their heads. They work “loose” so that the pressure of their holds is not the eye-bulger it seems.

It once was said of one master of his trade that “he could seem to rip your arm from the socket and break your back but he had a touch so gentle you couldn’t even feel it.” They become artists of pantomime with a gamut of expressive grimaces worthy of Sid Caesar.

The new batch of rassling fans, via television, swallows it all – hook, line, sinker and fishing pole. They ridicule as blind cynics those who refuse to join in their delusion. Worse still, they continue to bombard newspapers with the demand that wrestling results be run regularly. The only sports editor to do that was Dan Parker, when he had a pipeline into the wrestling booking office. The catch was that Dan’l figured them in advance of the matches themselves.

So far as is known, there never has been much of a demand for a college wrestling match on television. Amateur wrestling is an admirably healthful sport that requires consummate skill. But it is so completely on the level that it’s dull and deadly without one element of the spectacular to it.

Whenever the professionals want to settle grudges or determine relative superiority, they stage their “shooting matches” in privacy behind the locked doors of a gymnasium. In their unadorned state and without histrionics, these “shooting matches” are too yawn provoking. The public only sees the “working matches.”

Accept wrestling as mere entertainment, if you must, but please don’t think that every vaudeville act on television deserves newspaper coverage.

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