It was the first professional wrestling card at the brand new War Memorial. My father had two ringside seats. In hindsight, he might have got them for nuthin’ because he was a fireman and he was wearing’ his formal uniform. I think he was on duty.
He took me with him.
I was so proud of Vin that he had done such a cool thing as getting ringside seats. Only a few of my friends had even been to the sparkling new building. None had been to a wrestling match, much less ringside.
It was 1957
The very first match of the first card pitted babyface Tony Sillipinni against heel Baron Gatoni. Tony was a huge crowd favorite because he was a local guy, a former great athlete at Jefferson High School. Tony was a young, clean cut high flyer who would years later change his name to Tony Marino and become a Madison Square Garden midcard mainstay.
His opponent, Baron Gatoni was known as “The Barrel Chested Baron”. Baron had long black hair that grew past his shoulders which in the days of flattops, crewcuts and duck asses made him look like an insane Rasputin who represented everything that was despicable about unrepentant, non-English speaking immigrants as he cursed the crowd in an unidentifiable language and prepared to beat the beejezuz out of the local kid.
Needless to say, the Baron generated a lot of heat.
Back in those days, kids were encouraged to rush to the ring and get the autographs of the good guys. The wrestlers were encouraged to give them which was an important part in the identification/differentiation ritual. Good guys gave autographs. Bad guys....nobody even tried.
I got Tony’s autograph, still have it somewhere.
I returned to my seat. The house lights in the Memorial dimmed and the ring lights flamed on as the two grapplers approached each other. With Baron’s attention focused on Tony, he failed to see a “fan” approach the ring. The fan grabbed Gatoni’s robe from the entry stairs and with jingoistic courage threw it under the ring to the applause of the assembled crowd. Gatoni didn’t see the pilferage but I did.
The match continued for the allotted nine minutes. To the delight of the crowd, Tony pinned Gatoni after the Baron had broken all of the standard rules, had thrown stiff arms at the crowd and had begged for mercy in a disgraceful display of cowardice.
Most of the crowd turned its attention to the entrance of the next pair of wrestlers, one of whom was another local kid name Bob Marella who went on to become Gorilla Monsoon and a WWE Hall Of Famer.
Some in the crowd were still threatening Gatoni. He didn’t have much time to get outta there. He couldn’t find his robe. He didn’t have a clue where it was but I did. I crawled under the ring, retrieved the robe and handed it to him. He looked at me with an expression of kindness, understanding and even wisdom; emotions that he had clearly avoided during his performance in the ring. Under his breath, the Baron said “thank you. you got guts”. The expression took only a split second. I was the only one who saw it.
Then he changed his face into a bullying scowl.
He grabbed the robe out of my hands like he was stealing it and ran back to the locker room while the crowd booed like crazy. I went back to my seat and the booing continued, except now some of the boos were headed in my direction...aimed right at me. I was getting some of the left over heat.
I made my way back to my seat where Dad, distinguished in his formal blues, had my back so nobody insulted me upon my return and the boos became redirected at the next immigrant to enter the ring, Frank Valois “The Mad Man of Paris”.
My father was proud of what I had done. He asked me what The Baron had said. I told him what the Baron said and what I had thought. I had thought and still think that it doesn’t take “guts” to do the right thing, the obvious thing, the polite thing.
A few minutes later an attendant came to my seat with an envelope from the dressing room. He said “Joe told me to give you this”. Inside the envelope, was a crisp dollar bill along with a Baron Gatoni autograph.
The Baron was really a guy named Joe.
Back in those days, a dollar was a lot of money. I was flabbergasted and tried to give the money back to my Dad. He said “You keep it. Get some cards with it.”
Up until that time, the most I had ever spent on baseball cards, even though they were the coin the realm on Parsells Avenue, was a half a buck. My wild Irish Aunt Rose had given me a half-dollar piece and when I told her that I had intended to spend it on cards she said “Don’t tell your mother.” I said I wouldn’t and I didn’t. The idea of buying ten packs of cards from Dee’s delicatessen at a nickel a pack had seemed so extravagant as to border on sinful. Now here was my father green lighting me to buy twice that amount with the money that I got from “Joe”.
I bought the cards the next day. One of the cards that I got was a Willie Mays card. The Willie card would make a double for me and I was the only kid on the Avenue to hav even one Willie. The bully on the street, Big Duke Clod had been making my life miserable for the proceeding couple of weeks for not trading the Willy Card for him in exchange for two or three of his worthless doubles that I already had. I didn’t let the jerk know that I had a double and traded him the old Willie card and got a better deal than he had offered me a couple of days earlier. Plus he laid off me for awhile.
I learned an awful lot from that episode. Sixty years later, I’m still trying to figure out all of the ramifications that adventure had on my personal and professional life. As I type this, I suspect they were immense.