This piece has been adapted from David Shoemaker’s new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling.
On Aug. 1, 1953, legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse was working his second job: vouching for professional wrestling. In television’s infancy in the early 1950s, the DuMont Network turned to Fred Kohler's Chicago wrestling outfit to fill time. It was easier to film than any other sport, they were already making shows for the local station, and, well, wrestling wasn't quite as commonly ridiculed as it is today. What questions there were about the sport’s validity were assuaged by the involvement of reputable newsmen like Brickhouse. On this night, the broadcaster would face a difficult task. He had to interview the world’s second-most-infamous Nazi.
"I am going to win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs," said Hans Schmidt. "I vill never give an American a crack at it."
But isn't that turning your back on the USA, the country that's been so good to you? Brickhouse begged.
"Germany is good to me."
Brickhouse bristled and pointed out that German immigrants in America resented him because he gave them a bad reputation.
"I don't care about zem. Let zem learn the hard vay like I did."
But didn't Schmidt have any respect for good sportsmanship?
"People who teach sportsmanship to zer children are crazy. The only answer is to vin at any cost."
But didn't he care about the fans at all?
"I don't like ze fans. As a matter of fact, I hate zem."
At this point, Brickhouse snatched the mic away—this Schmidt was not the sort of athlete he was accustomed to. "As far as I'm concerned, this interview is over," Brickhouse said.
There had been wrestling villains before Hans Schmidt, but never one quite as heelish as this. The bad guys of earlier eras were mostly painted in the subtle hues of receding hairlines and roughneck mannerisms. There had been foreign nationals, too—Stanislaus Zbyszko and Georg Hackenschmidt were both champions who tended to get booed by American crowds. But never had a wrestler so played up his otherness, and so inflamed geopolitical biases. Hans Schmidt was hated. Really, truly hated.
* * *
According to Jack Brickhouse, the DuMont Network got 5,000 letters and telegrams denouncing the Teuton Terror, as Schmidt was known. If LeBron James or Tom Brady had denounced sportsmanship so, if they had the temerity to growl at the fans—the fans—their careers would be in jeopardy. For Hans Schmidt, though, this was a star-making moment.
In the decade following World War II, Schmidt would challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship numerous times, including a string of matches against the iconic Lou Thesz—with whom he was beefing at the time of that interview—as well as champs Pat O'Connor, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, Lou Thesz again (during his ill-conceived second reign), Gene Kiniski, and Jack Brisco.
Though he would hold lesser championships throughout his career, Schmidt lost every one of those heavyweight title bids. Presumably this helped in some small way to soothe the collective memory of the American public. But the ecstasy of his losses was only possible because of the ire his personality created, and the wounds his thick German accent reopened. After that fateful interview with Brickhouse, a Mrs. Naomi T. Rogers of Syracuse vented her outrage to her local paper. "I nearly smashed our [TV] set,” she wrote. “I am urging every one of you as American citizens to please write to our President Eisenhower and demand the deportation of this chap Hans Schmidt from our country immediately. There is enough corruption without importing it."
Alas, if they were going to deport Schmidt, it wouldn't be to Germany. Hans Schmidt was really Guy Larose, a man from Joliet, Quebec, who had a fair bit of success wrestling in the United States under his own name. But while passing through Boston in 1951, he caught the eye of a local wrestling promoter named Paul Bowser who thought Larose’s tall frame, geometric features, and receding hairline made him the perfect Nazi. "It was hard with a French name like that," Schmidt said later in life. "When you got to the States, people were making jokes. ... [Bowser] was German and he told me I looked like a German. That's when he gave me that name."
Bowser was one of the first ringmasters of the farcical side of the pro wrestling world. In 1928 he propelled a young former NFL player named Gus Sonnenburg to national stardom when he brought his "flying tackle" from the gridiron to the ring, taking pro wrestling into the air—and into blatant choreography—for the first time. In the 1930s, desperate for an Irish megastar to draw the local immigrants into the arenas, he positioned Danno O'Mahoney as his champion despite Danno's obvious inability to wrestle. In the late ’30s, he imported Maurice Tillet—the French Angel, a grotesque, ogre-faced man whom Shrek was modeled after—to America. Bowser wasn't a stickler for tradition, nor was he afraid to upend convention to make fans swoon. Schmidt was the last big star he made before he retired, and what a creation he was.
The origin of Hans Schmidt’s nom de ring is unclear, though it was possibly inspired by the Buchenwald defendant of the same name—the attendant to concentration camp head Hermann Pister. The name was also in the national memory from the famed trial of a Catholic priest named Hans Schmidt who murdered and dismembered a girl named Anna Aumueller, attempted to make counterfeit money, and intended to murder even more people as a means to defraud insurance companies. (Hans Schmidt was also the name of a fairly significant symphony conductor, though it's safe to say that that one held no bearing on the Teuton Terror's creation.)
Schmidt flouted the rules of the squared circle, brutally kicking his opponents—a tendency that earned him the locker room nickname "Footsie"—and tossing them from the ring and onto the floor. He was touted as having spent two years in a French POW camp during the war—the grist, one presumes, for his toughness and anger issues. He often attacked referees, cheated brazenly, and remained seated during the national anthem. All of these traits would become staples of villainy in the wrestling world, but they were new, and genuinely galling, in Schmidt’s day. He didn't need to carry a Nazi flag or goosestep to the ring. This was a subtler time, and Schmidt's assault on morality and good sportsmanship was, to the midcentury sports world, as devastating as the backbreaker with which he ended his matches.
Schmidt emerged from a period in which wrestling was largely based on immigrant nationalism. Greeks, for instance, were good guys in front of Greek audiences and villains elsewhere, and wrestlers would often change their land of origin from night to night to play up to a specific crowd. Schmidt played a role in this phenomenon, but he evolved into something much larger—a representation of pure evil. As New York promoter Al Mayer put it to A.J. Liebling in a 1954 New Yorker piece: “Nationalism is dead. That was neighborhood stuff. On television, it would mean nothing, because you wouldn’t know which nationality to make the villain. What the new wrestling public is interested in is villainy as villainy, virtue as virtue.”
* * *
TODAY IN SLATE
Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem
I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.
Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.
Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore
And schools are getting worried.
Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War
Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough
So they added a little self-immolation.
The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola
The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.