Of course, not all the reports of the Terror were so, well, terrifying. The Ring magazine ran a blurb in October 1952 about Schmidt's softer side: "Hans Schmidt, currently top man of the villains operating in Milwaukee, is reported by his wife to be a sheep in wolf's clothing. The 27-year-old father of a 21-month-old son tiptoes around the house so as not to disturb the baby. A far cry from the use he makes of his legs in the ring."
"Outing" Schmidt became a cottage industry for snarks in the press. When Roger O'Gara, a writer for the Berkshire (County, Mass.) Eagle, recognized the faux-German Canadian from his days wrestling in Massachusetts, he referred to him in print as "Larose Schmidt." (Brickhouse reportedly reamed him out for the transgression—and the commuted insult to his own sportscasting integrity. O'Gara later referred to him in a column as "Jack Brickhead.") Liebling too wrote of Schmidt as "a horrid Nazi villain, libelously averred by a number of competitors to be a French Canadian."
In response to such infringements on wrestling's neverending morality play, Murray Olderman wrote compellingly:
Why the sudden rush of squatters' rights among the periodicals? Primarily, you've got to credit the post-war success of the grappling game because without success there'd be nothing to knock. ... Who would deny a pacifistic grandma a night off from her knitting needle to release her paranoia with a hail of invective directed at villainous Hans Schmidt? Or, on a particularly uninhibited night, clout him over the head with a folding chair? At 100 grand a year, Hans isn't kicking.
Why question success? Nazism hardly mattered. The political ethos in play was capitalism. Outrage sells: At his height, according to wrestling historian Dave Meltzer, Schmidt was one of the world's highest-paid athletes. In 1954 he was called "probably the greatest drawing card in the past decade in the mat game." In October 1955, the Wisconsin Telegraph-Herald got to the heart of it, writing that Schmidt, “the wrestling badman, may not have many rooters when he is in the ring, but the fans certainly want to see him."
Back to that interview with Brickhouse. An editorial ran shortly thereafter in the Oneonta (N.Y.) Star, channeling the nation's outrage:
Sportsmanship is something Americans are taught early in life. It's sort of a code of ethics with us. But to Hans Schmidt, the German wrestler in this country for five years, sportsmanship is strictly for the birds. ... We hope that millions of Americans who also came up the hard way will boycott Schmidt's matches in the future and wish him bon voyage to his native land without the championship. This country has no place for a sports figure who refuses to recognize the code which made this country great.
This bold stand was followed on that same page by an editorial applauding right-of-way rules at intersections, a call for blood donations for military men, and a sublime op-ed titled "Milk, the Magnificent." This was the America into which Hans Schmidt had stomped. His chief foil was never his in-ring opponents. It was the forces of mutual respect, of charity, of a wholesome glass of milk. He stood athwart these forces and challenged an entire country. In the process, he remade wrestling—and villainy—as we know it.
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By the ’60s, Schmidt’s act had become old-fashioned, if not stale. He took to wearing a World War II-era German military helmet to the ring, keeping up with more outré and provocative foreigners like Karl Von Hess and Ludwig Von Krupp. Eventually, though, longevity had earned some fans' respect. He played the foil on some cards, and the begrudging hero on others, usually tag-teaming with former foes like Gagne to vanquish even more diabolical foes like the Volkoff brothers. The world changes, and suddenly Germany isn’t as bad as those evil commies from the USSR.
Schmidt’s wily dominance was, in the end, a testament to a suspiciously American work ethic. He was proud to have made it into the business at all—after all, most of the guys who sought a career in the ring ran for the gym exit after their first day of training, when old-timers would do their best to exhibit the realness of the craft to the wannabes. “Most of the boys would just give up and go get regular jobs. I stuck with it and began to face some of the big names in the business,” he told the Gadsden (Ala.) Times in 1969. "The young punks coming up today are all fakes.”
His crypto-patriotism didn't end there. The Gadsden Times noted that he had made $1 million over his career: "At one time he was making so much money the government was taking 41 per cent of it, and another time he remembers sitting down and writing a check for $17,000 which he owed to the IRS on one year’s earnings." The last living Nazi terror had found his toughest opponent: the United States tax code. "I gave the government an awful lot,” he said, "but I made my share, too."
This piece has been adapted from David Shoemaker’s new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling.