“Chief Jay Strongbow”, one of the icons of 1970’s professional wrestling, died last Tuesday at the age of 83. Chief Jay was one of the main characters in Vince McMahon’s WWF stable, a colorful cast of actors (who knew?) who delighted fans across the globe with their acrobatics and antics. And with his death, another piece of my childhood, the “innocence” of my youth, is gone.
Professional wrestling in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was populated by men celebrated for, and often categorized by, their ethnic differences: Italian champion Bruno Sammartino; the quiet Frenchman, Andre the Giant; the Native American duo of Chief Jay Strongbow and his partner, Billy White Wolf; the caped German, Baron Von Raschke; “Polish Power” Ivan Putski, and Americans like George “the Animal” Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, “Superstar” Billy Graham, and larger-than-life Haystacks Calhoun. There was the masked Mexican, Mil Mascaras, literally “the man of a thousand masks”, S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones, former NFL star Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, the big Russian, Nikolai Volkoff, and the Japanese duo of Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fuji. Other masked men included the Executioners, who ruled as tag-team champions before Strongbow and White Wolf. Even the managers were flamboyant – most notably “Classy” Freddie Blassie and “Captain” Lou Albano, he of the rubber-banded goatee who later achieved fame as Cyndi Lauper’s father in her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video.
(2) Mil Mascaras (3) Andre The Giant
Yet, despite the colorful and obviously racist personas of the era’s wrestlers, it was not completely “over the top”, at least not to its legions of younger fans, this writer included. We watched the wrestling shows faithfully, bought wrestling magazines, and pleaded with our fathers to take us when the matches came to town. We tried to imitate our favorite wrestlers, from Baron Von Raschke’s “brain claw” to Chief Jay’s “sleeper hold”, the “full-nelson”, the “figure-four leg-lock”, etc. We imitated Snuka’s and Mascaras’ dives off of the top rope, tried (usually in vain) to do a “piledriver”, would pretend to use “foreign objects” a la "Baron" Mikel Scicluna and, thankfully, somehow avoided putting each other in the hospital while trying to imitate the men who we thought we athletes.
Yes, we believed that wrestling was real back in the 1970’s. Even though it seemed implausible that a man who appeared near-death could somehow go on a “warpath” and then place his opponent into a “sleeper hold” to win the match, as Strongbow did week after week, it still seemed real. The punches seemed real. If someone flew off of the top rope and landed on top of someone, wouldn’t it injure them enough to let the flyer, like Snuka, win the match?
Then it all became too cartoonish. Or maybe we just got older, and wrestling simply became too popular to maintain the façade of athleticism over acting. When stars such as Hulk Hogan and Hacksaw Jim Duggan ruled the ring, it became apparent that wrestling was entertainment, and not sport. The sport’s boss, McMahon, testified as such before congress, and he was forced to change the name of his empire from the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) to WWE (World Wide Entertainment). We learned more about the actors – for example, the man known as the “Iron Sheik” was once pulled over and ticketed while driving to a match, and we learned in newspaper reports that he was actually from the state of Georgia, not the Middle East. Worse yet, he was in the car with Duggan, one of his arch-enemies in the wrestling story-lines. The proverbial “fourth wall” had been blown apart, although the mystique of wrestling still being pure sport still exists to some: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvTNyKIGXiI.
It was with surprise that when I read this week of Strongbow’s death, I discovered that he was not even a Native American. Chief Jay Strongbow was actually Jay Scarpa, an Italian-American who was raised in Philadelphia. Perhaps I was surprised because I had never cared to look too deeply into his background, and simply accepted that he was a Native American. There was no internet back then. There was no 24-hour news network. There was no reason to question his background or ethnicity.
Do not assume, however, that this revelation about one of my childhood heroes renders me disillusioned about wrestling and his place in history. To the contrary, I have long since come to the realization that wrestling was scripted, but saw no reason to re-write the childhood memories of Chief Jay and his opponents. As adults, we view many things differently, with a more keen and/or questioning eye, so there is no reason for wrestling to be any different. Moreover, it can be argued that wrestling, over several decades, has just mirrored both major league baseball and the world around us.
Think about it. In my formative years, the 1970’s, wrestling had colorful characters like Chief Jay and the others referred to above. Baseball had its own case of colorful characters, like Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, handle-bar mustachioed Rollie Fingers, John “The Count” Montefusco, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, and Sparky Lyle and the other occupants of the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo”.
(5) Sparky Lyle’s book
The 1980’s and 1990’s brought larger-than-life, cartoonish and clearly steroid-assisted behemoths like Hulk Hogan in the ring and Barry Bonds and others on the baseball diamond. Both organizations, the WWF and MLB, were the subject of congressional hearings where its participants sat before a gaggle of microphones and were forced to defend, often perjuring themselves, the “reality” of their sports, athleticism, and performances.
Both wrestling and baseball, one could argue, essentially mirrored, and reacted to, the world around them. The rise of 24-hour cable channels, both for sports and news, and the insatiable need of the public for things bigger and better, were the perfect breeding ground for the entertainment genius of Vince McMahon to set his wrestlers, who were growing larger and larger, onto bigger and bigger stages. At the same time, baseball’s salaries swelled as the anabolic-enhanced biceps of its biggest sluggers, including Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, deposited ball after ball into the outfield seats. And fans ate it all up, from the sold-out crowds at annual Wrestlemania shows to the rocketing television ratings of WWF’s “Raw” and other wrestling shows. The turnstiles at baseball fields turned at record levels, to the point where some teams draw in excess of four million visitors per year despite continually escalating ticket prices. The entertainment value, clearly, outweighed the pure sport.
My youngest daughter turned eleven yesterday. The world is a far different place now than when I was eleven. These differences manifest themselves in various and obvious ways, most notably the insatiable need for information created by 24/7 television networks and trash shows like “TMZ”; the spate of “reality” TV shows and the vapid celebrities who take up space on the small screen week after week; greatly increased prying into the private lives of our politicians, athletes and celebrities; and, of course, different world tensions due to extremists and the post 9-11 world.
When I was eleven, the Yankees were returning to their past glory, winning their first World Championship since 1962. The greatest soccer player ever, Pele, was running up and down the Meadowlands field with the recently deceased Giorgio Chinaglia, trying to make Americans care about the sport known throughout the world as “futbol”. On TV, “Roots” became a television sensation, creating a watershed moment for African-Americans. The first “Star Wars” movie was released and became the highest-grossing movie ever. Things were not all innocent and positive, however - on the other side of the spectrum, the serial killer “Son of Sam” terrorized New York City until his capture in August 1977, and, on the political scene, gay rights activists rose up against Anita Bryant due to her anti-gay stances. And, perhaps appropriately for this post, previous eras of both rock ‘n roll and comedy ended with the deaths, days apart, of Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx.
There was, however, still an innocence, at least to youth, that does not still exist in the world of today, where MTV, Snooki, and incessant media coverage of horror stories like whether or not vapid Kim Kardashian is dating Kanye West rules their lives, where kids, from middle school on, are stuck like glue to their computers and cell phones and their thumbs wear to the bone from excessive texting. All “play dates” are structured. Every move is monitored. Children do not have the liberty of simply “going outside”. And today’s eleven-year olds, my daughter included, are far more jaded than we were at that age.
When I was young, we would go out on our bikes after school and disappear until mothers across the neighborhood called us in for dinner. Our mothers knew only that we were “out”, and did not know our every movement. We had no cell phones, and we had no computers. There was no cable television, and no 24-hour sports or news networks.
And when I was eleven, I could get together with friends, turn on the television at the appointed hour, and settle in to watch wrestling. We would witness Chief Jay Strongbow, seemingly at his energy’s end, slowly begin his warpath, whip the crowd into a frenzy, and, with his dance growing faster and faster and the crowd’s cheering growing more fervent, turn the tables on his opponent, get behind him, place him into the sleeper hold, and somehow, incredibly, emerge victorious. To this eleven-year-old, it was both great sport and great entertainment.
Thank you, Chief Jay Strongbow. Thank you, Jay Scarpa. May you rest in peace.