Bruno Sammartino, legendary pro wrestling champion who held the title for an incredible eleven years from the early 1960s into the early 70s, died Wednesday, April 18 in a hospital in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. He was 82.
When I learned of Sammartino's passing, I couldn't help but wonder, "Did he have an amateur wrestling background?" Especially considering his compact yet muscular physique and his no-nonsense way of taking care of business in the pro wrestling ring that made him an enduring fan favorite often referred to as "The Living Legend" ... or simply as Bruno. (Another factor in my thinking: a number of pro wrestling stars of the same era -- including Dan Hodge, Dick Hutton and Verne Gagne -- had all been NCAA wrestling champs prior to entering the squared circle.)
My curiosity was increased when I saw more than one tribute to Sammartino -- including the obituary in the New York Times -- mention that he had worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team at the urging of then head coach Rex Peery. One 1958 article from the Pittsburgh Press newspaper reported he had been offered a scholarship to the school, and "wrestled with the Pitt team." That got me wondering: did Bruno really participate in Pitt wrestling workouts as stated in these tributes ... and, taking things one step further, was he an actual member of the Pitt Panthers wrestling squad?
In case you don't know Bruno ...
Bruno Sammartino was one of the giants of professional wrestling in the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s. He was a 12-time heavyweight champ for the World Wide Wrestling Federation -- predecessor to today's WWE, started by the father of current WWE chairman Vince McMahon -- which primarily operated in the eastern U.S., back when there were many regional pro wrestling organizations scattered throughout the country, each with its own set of wrestlers and champ. Sammartino's territory was centered in New York City; he wrestled at Madison Square Garden over 200 times.
Sammartino was a popular fan favorite -- a "good-guy", a "face" (as in babyface, the opposite of "heel" -- bad guy). Bruno projected a workmanlike persona in the ring, in terms of what he looked like (just less than 6 feet tall, tremendously muscular in his upper body, with a huge, hairy chest) ... what he wore (no costume -- just trunks and lace-up boots) ... and how he wrestled (in a straightforward style with minimal flash and theatrics, especially compared today's WWE).
Sammartino had an incredible journey to become a pro wrestling superstar beloved by millions.
Born Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino in central Italy in 1935, he was the youngest of seven children of Alfonso and Emilia Sammartino. At least two siblings did not survive childhood. Bruno's father left for America in 1939 with plans to bring the rest of the family once he had earned enough to cover travel expenses. In the meantime, the rest of the family remained in Italy, fleeing invading German forces during World War II, and hiding in the mountains of Abruzzo for 14 months, subsisting on dandelions, snow, and food Emilia was able to retrieve from the family cellar from time-to-time. Once the war was over and Bruno recovered from a near-fatal bout with rheumatic fever, the Sammartinos immigrated to the United States and were reunited with the father in Pittsburgh.
A transformation from 90-pound weakling to strongman
A common thread of many of the tributes to Sammartino upon his death last week described the young Bruno as "a sickly 90-pounder who spoke little English" who was a target of bullies at Schenley High School at Pittsburgh in the early 1950s.
"My brother (Paolo) and I were getting beat up every day for being different," Sammartino was quoted as saying in an April 19, 2018 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "So we joined the Young Men's Hebrew Association, where we took up weight lifting and wrestling."
The article goes on to report, "Sammartino eventually built up enough muscle to play on the Schenley High School football team for two years."
"They used to line up two guys in front of me, but I knocked them on their cans and creamed the quarterback," Sammartino once said. "At Schenley, all the guys used to say, 'Don't mess with Sam.' I came out of Schenley a 225-pound, good-looking athlete."
This writer went through Schenley yearbooks of the early 1950s available online in search of Sammartino. He was featured twice in the 1955 edition of the Journal. In the section honoring graduating seniors, there's a head-and-shoulders portrait of a handsome, smiling Sammartino in suit-and-tie, with thick, wavy dark hair, where he is identified by his nickname "Muscles" ... and this inscription, "Steak is his favorite dish/and to be a wrestler is his wish."
The Bruno/Pitt Panthers wrestling connection
Wrestling was not on the roster of sports offered at Schenley High when Bruno Sammartino was a student. However, not far from his high school in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh is the University of Pittsburgh and its intercollegiate wrestling program.
In the mid-to-late 1950s, Pitt was home to one of the nation's top collegiate wrestling programs of the era. The Panthers first appeared in the team scoring results for the 1952 NCAAs, where they placed ninth in the final standings. Two years later, Pitt placed second in the team title race (behind Oklahoma State) ... and remained among the top five teams at most NCAA championships throughout the 1950s.
Hugh, Ed and Rex PeeryThe Panthers were coached by Rex Peery, who had earned three NCAA titles in the 1930s as a wrestler at Oklahoma State for the legendary Ed Gallagher. Peery's two sons -- Hugh, and Ed -- each won three NCAA championships wrestling for their father at Pitt in the 1950s. (To this day, the Peerys are the only family who can claim a total of nine national collegiate titles spread evenly amongst a father and his two sons.)
Ed and Hugh Peery weren't the only individual champs to come out of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Other NCAA titlewinners for Pitt included Joe Solomon (167-pound champ, 1954), Ed DeWitt (167, 1956), Tom Alberts (167, 1957) and Paul Powell (123 pounds, 1958).
As indicated earlier, a number of recent tributes to Bruno Sammartino mentioned a connection between the pro wrestling champ known as "the Living Legend" and the Pitt wrestling program. Any truth to this?
Pitt wrestlers in 1956 OwlFrom checking editions of "The Owl" -- the University of Pittsburgh yearbook -- posted online, there are no mentions of Bruno Sammartino in the yearbooks of the 1950s as a member of the Panther wrestling team, nor is he identified in any posed team photos or staged workout images.
Sadly, coach Peery and his two championship-caliber sons have passed away. However, Ann Peery Ritter -- daughter of Rex, and sister to Ed and Hugh -- is still very active within the sport of wrestling, and, in fact, at this writing, was about to be inducted into the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
InterMat asked Ann to verify the Bruno-Pitt wrestling connection.
Ann Peery"(Bruno Sammartino) attended high school in Oakland area of Pittsburgh," Ann Peery Ritter told InterMat. "University of Pittsburgh is also located in the same area. One day Bruno walked into the Pitt wrestling room and asked my dad, Rex Peery, if he could come to practice and work out the heavy weights. Bruno needed to get himself in shape for completion." (In addition to playing football, Sammartino participated in amateur weightlifting competitions while still in high school ... and after graduation).
"Dad listened to Bruno's story about finally getting to Pittsburgh," Ann continued. "Dad said Bruno could come and work out with the Pitt wresters. Dad spent time with him each day at practice. Dad did offer Bruno a scholarship to attend Pitt. Bruno declined because he felt his English was not good enough to go to college."
"Dad kept in touch with him for many years after that when Bruno was wrestling for the WWWF and then the WWF."
Bob NormanLooking at photos of Bruno Sammartino in his pro wrestling prime, it's not hard to imagine him as potentially a major force as a heavyweight in college. Among the top wrestlers in the uppermost weight class (what was then called "unlimited" because there was no top weight limit) in the mid-to-late 1950s included Penn State's lantern-jawed Bill Oberly (1955 heavyweight champ), Oklahoma's Gordon Roesler (1956 champ, two-time finalist), and Bob Norman, two-time NCAA heavyweight champ (and football star) for the University of Illinois (1957, 1958).
What's more, more than a couple of heavyweight college stars of that era went on to pro wrestling careers, including three-time Big Ten champ/two-time NCAA finalist Bob Konovsky of University of Wisconsin, Oklahoma State's Ted Ellis (1959 heavyweight champ) and Ithaca's Bob Marella (1959 NCAA runner-up) who went on to a long career as wrestler/commentator Gorilla Monsoon.
Bruno Sammartino's career path did not include amateur wrestling competition. Instead, in a 1958 Pittsburgh Press article, a 23-year-old, 5'10", 235-pound Sammartino is described as being a successful weightlifter (reportedly just missing the opportunity to be on the U.S. weightlifting team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics) and an apprentice contractor working on the construction of a major downtown Pittsburgh hotel. There were stories that Sammartino turned down an offer to play football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"One offer the Pittsburgh Hercules was reluctant to turn down was a five-year contract of $15,000 a year to become a professional wrestler," according to the 1958 Pittsburgh Press. "Bruno prizes his amateur standing as a weightlifter, but there is a possibility he may sometime accept the wrestling contract."
Within a year or two of that profile of the "Pittsburgh Hercules" 60 years ago, Bruno Sammartino launched that pro wrestling career ... and, by the early 1960s, was well on his way to earning fame, fortune and the enduring love of countless fans for his exploits within the squared circle.