Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Mysterious Black Book of Cincinnati Wrestling

A few years ago I stopped by the local sports card shop while I was out one day. The place itself is a hole in the wall type place, no signage or anything from the roadway and if you didn’t know it had been there for the last 20 some years, then you would drive right by it. As I was digging through some old baseball cards, I noticed a little black book with the word “autographs” embossed on the front in gold letters randomly sitting on top of a pile of junk underneath the table. Curiously, I picked up the book and thumbed through it not expecting to find anything of much value. However, I found quite the opposite. Inside this book were newspaper clippings of old wrestling results and articles from what had to have been the 1950s. Couple that along with what looked like legitimate autographs from Wilbur Snyder, Hans Hermann, and the Bargain City Kid and I scored a gold mine. I asked the clerk at the counter what the price was. He wasn’t sure so he called the shop owner who threw out a random amount of $20. Twenty bucks for a beat up old autograph book with a bunch of newspaper clippings of old Cincinnati wrestling matches? Sold! I brought my prize home and looked at it more detail.

Looking through the book when I got it home, I discovered that the clippings were from late 1959 and early 1960. I recognized some of the names too. People such as Roy Shire, Buddy Rogers, Nick Bockwinkel, Bronco Lubich, Dick the Bruiser, and Wilbur Snyder among others. There were also a number of names such as Mitsu Arakawa, Bargain City Kid, Fritz Von Goering, Chief White Owl, Don Eagle, and Hans Hermann that I was not too familiar with. Something else that I found interesting it that not only were there shows promoted at the Cincinnati Gardens, but there were also clippings from shows at Music Hall. This was quite the revelation as I had no idea that there were two opposition territories running shows in the same town during the same time. Apparently, Jim Barnett was running one territory and a promoter named Al Haft was running the other. First though, I had to know more about this guy who called himself the Bargain City Kid.

Bargain City Kid (right) and Willie Thall
After doing a quick search online, turns out that the Bargain City Kid was named Hyman Ullner and was the owner of Rink’s Bargain City department stores. The chain was local and had stores in the Cincinnati suburbs of Mt. Healthy and Pleasant Ridge, along with locations north of the city in Milford, Hamilton, Lima, and Middletown among other places. I remember hearing about the Middletown store as my grandmother used to work there as the manager of the fabric department until she retired. In the 1950s and 60s, Ullner was a co-host of Shock Theatre and Big Time Wrestling on WCPO-TV with Wille Thall of Midwestern Hayride fame, who also owned a marine sales business on Route 4 in Hamilton down the street from Rink’s. Thall and The Kid would hock merchandise from Rink’s and do skits with the wrestlers in studio, such as the time when Gene Kiniski broke a fishing rod and reel in half. There was also a notable commercial where Thall was filming a live spot in a boat attached to a truck. As he was talking, Fritz Von Erich climbed into the truck the boat was attached to and drove off taking the boat with him while Thall still in the boat talking.

WCPO featured matches from the Barnett-Doyle syndicate based out of Detroit that was run by legendary promoter Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle, a veteran booker. The first televised studio show from the Barnett-Doyle group in the Cincinnati market aired on December 27, 1958 that featured Angelo Poffo winning the United States Heavyweight Title from Wilbur Snyder. This all built to the first arena show at the Cincinnati Gardens which took place on January 23, 1959. Less that two months later, the all time attendance record for a sporting event at the Gardens was set on March 7, 1959 with 15,299 people and amassing a $25,402 gate with a show headlined by Bronco Lubich and Angelo Poffo teaming against Wilbur Snyder and Yukon Eric, a record that still stands to this day. On August 18, 1961, Buddy Rogers defended the NWA World Title against The Sheik in a match that Rogers won by using his vaunted figure-four leglock. Barnett would later sell his Ohio/Michigan territory to Sheik for $50,000 and move to Australia. Sheik would continue to use Cincinnati as a regular stop in his territory through 1980.

A women's wrestling tournament ad.
At the same time as Barnett was running shows at the Gardens, Midwest Wrestling Alliance promoter Al Haft ran competing cards out of Music Hall. Haft, based out of Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first to enter the NWA and had founded the Midwest Wrestling Alliance in 1931 as a vehicle to promote a John Pesek/Joe Stecher match in Columbus. In the early 1950s, the WLW Television title was established as well as a National Women’s Television title that saw Nell Stewart, Kathy Starr, and Kay Noble as titleholders. Haft’s matches would air on Crosley/Avco TV stations WLW-T in Cincinnati as well as WLW-D in Dayton and WLW-C in Columbus. In Dayton, matches for TV were held at converted skating rink in the suburb of Moraine, and featured a fan called “Bouncing Beulah” who would be ringside cheering passionately and sometimes pounding on the ring apron.

Going back and thumbing through the brittle, yellowing pages of the book, I noticed the amount of talent that was appearing in the area from both promotions. Barnett’s roster consisted of established national stars such as Pat O’Connor, Bronco Lubich, Wilbur Snyder, Dick the Bruiser, and Angelo Poffo along with mid-card stars such as Mitsu Arakawa, The Shire Brothers, and future AWA world champion Nick Bockwinkel. Alternatively, Haft had a roster of mainly younger regional stars like Ruffy Silverstein, Johnny Barend, Chief White Owl, and Magnificent Maurice but occasionally he would also have major stars like future NWA world champions Buddy Rogers and Lou Thesz, whose paths would cross in a controversial match in Toronto in January 1963 where Thesz beat Rogers for the NWA title. Going into that match, Rogers, who was booked out of the WWWF office in New York run by Vince McMahon, Sr., was the NWA World Champion at the time. However, when Thesz won the match and subsequently the NWA title, the switch would not be acknowledged by the WWWF and soon after Rogers was named the first WWWF World champion, the same title which is now known as the WWE World Heavyweight championship.

Roy Shire
Roy Shire popped out to me as one of the most interesting stories. Teaming with his supposed “brother” Ray Shire, known more famously as Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, the two were involved memorable feuds as a team and even won the Chicago version of the NWA World Tag Team Championship from Dick the Bruiser and Angelo Poffo on August 6, 1959 in Indianapolis. In the early 1960s, Roy was sent out to San Francisco by Jim Barnett to open up the territory out there. “Barnett set up Shire in San Francisco and Shire leased his original talent through Barnett's office," according to wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer in an email. "Barnett had the connection to the TV and a sponsor but didn't want to leave his Indy/Detroit/Louisville/Cincinnati base so sent who he thought was his smartest talent in Shire and set him up.” Some of Shire’s original talent would include a number of stars who competed in Cincinnati. The San Francisco territory, based out of the legendary Cow Palace, would become one of the top territories on the west coast for a number of years before closing down in 1981.

Getting towards the end of the book, the clippings suddenly stopped and aged, blank pages filled the remainder of it. It made me wonder what happened to the person who was putting this together. Did he lose the book? Did he lose interest in keeping a scrapbook of clippings? One thing is known for sure, while Cincinnati may not have been a major territory, it certainly has its own sense of wrestling history. A history that should not be overlooked and forgotten.


  1. It's pretty cool that you were able to discover all of that. It would be interesting to know all the stops the autograph book made before it fell into your hands.

    1. It would be pretty cool to trace that. I'm tempted to take it back to the card shop sometime and ask the owner if he knows anything about it.

  2. Wow! That is really cool and for $20 even cooler. Thanks for sharing.

  3. More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More, More,

  4. Awesome find! And thanks for the history lesson! :D

  5. I remember Hy Ullner, he was quite a character. I only knew him in his retirement years, so your further insight is much appreciated. Well done!

  6. Great find and great post! However, Barnett did not "send" Roy Shire out to California. Shire went out on his own but Barnett certainly played an integral part of Roy's start. He did in fact help him get set up by finding a sponsor, booking talent out to Shire and helping get TV. He and his partner Johnny Doyle invested in Roy's promotion. So, initially, they were partners in the venture but it wasn't like Roy worked for them. He soon bought them out and then their relationship comprised of talent sharing.