Wrestlers Warned As Death Probe Ends

The Seattle Times – March 7, 1940

After LaVerne Baxter, “villain” wrestler, testified the horseplay which figured in the death of John Stevens, referee, was partly prearranged and was not prompted by anger, George Adams, secretary of the State Athletic Commission, concluded testimony at a coroner’s inquest today with a warning that “harsh” penalties will be invoked in the future against wrestlers who harm referees.

Baxter said he “pushed” Stevens Friday night at Civic Auditorium and kicked at him, but declared the kicks could not have harmed Stevens.

Other developments as a jury called by Coroner Otto Mittelstadt neared the end of its three-day hearing included predictions by Adams of new stringent professional wrestling regulations, and testimony by August Sepp, a wrestler promoter, that Stevens violated Sepp’s orders not to mix with wrestlers in horseplay tactics.

Testimony was also given that Stevens was paid $3 for officiating in two bouts the night he died.

Baxter, tall, 225-pound farmer from Monroe, Ore., was dressed in black cowboy shirt, with white string laces, gray business suit and high, black cowboy boots as he strode to the witness chair and waived his rights by permitting Mittelstadt and Prosecutor B. Gray Warner to question him.

“A couple of weeks ago, Steve had asked me to rough him up at the end of a match to make him look tough,” Baxter testified.   “He wanted me to grab him by the hair and pull him about the ring.”

“Did you?” Mittelstadt asked.

“I did,” was the answer.   “I took him by the hair and threw him around the ring and he went right on out.   Then, last Friday, Steve asked me to throw him out into the second row of sats.   I didn’t think that was right.   The referee is supposed to leave the ring right after a bout.   I told him I wouldn’t do it.”

Baxter said he thought a false fall had been declared when Stevens awarded the bout to John Katan, Montreal, so Baxter kept on wrestling.   “Katan’s second got in the ring,” the witness said.   “First thing I knew there was a scuffle and Katan’s second’s glasses flew off to one side.   We all were on our feet.   Stevens got a push of some sort.   He started to roll toward the ropes.   I kicked at him twice, because I thought it would be good color and might make good stuff for a return match if I protested at the decision.   He couldn’t get hurt on those kicks.   I had nothing against that man.   You could put anything between that kick and him and it wouldn’t have broken.”

Baxter told Warner he was not “incensed” at losing the bout.   He said he did not intend to hurt Stevens.   Baxter said Stevens wanted to be “roughed up” by Baxter so that the crowd would get the idea that Stevens was a “hero being beaten up by the villain.”

“Was this tussle a usual aftermath of bouts?” Warner asked.

“It was usual,” Baxter said.   “If you weren’t rough and didn’t give the people something satisfied to go home with the show wouldn’t be any good.”

Nevertheless, Baxter said, the horseplay with referees was contrary to orders given wrestlers by the state commission and by Sepp.

Adams said the inquest had given him a “great opportunity” to learn about things that often had perturbed the commission.   The commission, at one time, threatened to bar all wrestling, but learned, Adams said, that the public wants the “rough-and-tumble” sport, so regulated it on a basis of “exhibitions” and not competitive athletics.   “It never occurred to us that referees should be physically examined,” Adams testified.   “If he followed the duties set out by the commission, he would not be hurt, we thought.”

“This case has brought things to a point where referees, in the future, will be examined regularly and there will be harsh penalties for wrestlers who lay a hand on referees.   This is a sad thing, but I feel certain that in the future it will prove to be a benefit.”

One of the last witnesses was Mrs. Helen Mildred Baxter, wife of the wrestler.   Mrs. Baxter said she did not see the attack on Stevens, but did see a spectator about to hurl a whiskey bottle at her husband during the after-bout melee.   She testified that her husband acts the part of a “villain” so that he “can make more money.”   She said his roughness was “not serious” and that she would call it “color or showmanship.”

Testimony in the second day of the inquested ended late yesterday with Sepp declaring that Stevens violated Sepp’s ban of fisticuffs with wrestling.

Sepp testified: “I wouldn’t say all the bouts are on the square.”   The promoter added that wrestlers must get “consent” of Ted Thye, Portland, Ore., promoter, before appearing in Seattle rings and that outcome of bouts often are predetermined by the matching of a superior wrestler with a poorer competitor.

Funeral services for the referee will be held at 11 o’clock tomorrow in the Mittelstadt Funeral Home, with the Rev. Homer L. Wielm officiating.   Burial will be in Crown Hill.   Surviving are three daughters, Mrs. Virginia Hamilton, Washington, D.C., and Jeanne and Mary Ellen Stevens, New York City.

Note: The aftermath of the incident led to a ban on wrestling in publicly owned buildings in Seattle for more than five years.   This effectively curtailed the sport during almost all of World War II and amounts to one of the longest prohibitions of the sport in U.S. history, at least where a major city was involved.   Not until a friendly city councilman, Al Rochester, went to bat for the wrestlers in the spring of 1945 was the ban reversed, leading to a resumption of the game on a regular basis and the first Seattle appearances of Lou Thesz, then stationed at nearby Fort Lewis.

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