June Byers started her wrestling career in a Houston ring during the 1940s. After becoming one of the most hated and feared heels in the ring, she became a two-time Women’s Tag Team Champion with Millie Stafford and Mary Jane Mull. Byers won a tournament in 1953 for the Women’s World Championship, a victory tainted by the absence of the reigning champion at the time, Mildred Burke. A year later, Byers and Burke faced off in what’s been called the last real shoot wrestling match in history, a match that ended with Byers staking her claim to the crown. Despite numerous claims and stories to the controversy, Byers never relinquished her title and retired unconquered on January 1, 1964.
Byers has often been portrayed as a real life villain, especially within the story of Mildred Burke, but The Great and Inimitable June Byers proves there are always two sides to every story. True, Byers was ambitious, and she could be extremely stiff in the ring. She was also a savvy businesswoman, a beloved mentor and friend, a true Southern lady who smelled like orange blossoms, abhorred swearing, and insisted on being called Grandmother.
Author John Cosper is no stranger to the era of June Byers, having previously penned biographies on Elvira Snodgrass, Mars Bennett, and “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell. The Great and Inimitable June Byers includes interviews with the grandchildren of both June Byers family and women’s wrestling impresario Billy Wolfe; insights from other noted wrestling historians; and never-before-published photos of the great Women’s Champion.
Two things I learned early on after I started writing about pro wrestling:
No one ever retires, so don’t bother writing about it when someone says they are retiring.
People you love are going to die young, and unexpectedly.
It’s an unfortunate fact about pro wrestling: many wrestlers die long before their time. Sometimes it’s the abuse they put on their bodies, physically and chemically. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted. Sometimes it’s just plain and simple misfortune.
Not a day goes by I don’t think about two men I knew well who have passed: Tracy Smothers and JJ Maguire. Tracy and JJ both kept in regular contact with me. I’d get a call from JJ every few weeks, just to catch up. Tracy texted and called all the time, and Tracy was never hesitant to say, “I love you.”
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to write about a man who has been gone since 1955. He’s not a name most if you will know, but he was known to “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell.
John Madison LaRue was born in Venus, Texas on August 25, 1906. He started wrestling professionally in the early 1930s, and WrestlingData.com records his last match taking place in 1947.
LaRue was in Tucson, Arizona during the summer of 1955 when Jim Mitchell and his protege Ricky Waldo were working the desert circuit. While passing through Tucson, the news of a recent incident reached Mitchell, who recorded the following in his ledger book:
As Tracy Smothers used to put it, “Tell a friend, telephone, tell a wrestler.”
LaRue’s troubles started a few days before Mitchell and Waldo hit Tucson on the 26th. On Saturday the 23rd, police were called to the scene of a man on a roof creating a disturbance. LaRue had been drinking and destroyed a mirror and some telephone wires in his rented apartment. LaRue told police that “Everything is wired,” as they carted him off to the hospital.
An hour later, police received a second call about a disturbance. It was LaRue again, tearing up street signs, ordering drinks in a bar without paying for them, and harassing guests at a local motel. LaRue earned a trip to jail this time, and the following morning, he was placed in a straight jacket after tearing up his cell.
Mitchell’s written account indicates there was more to the story, or at least a second version of events that didn’t make it into the papers.
LaRue had previously been treated for mental illness at a veteran’s hospital in Texas. After ten days in Arizona, LaRue boarded a train with two hospital attendants, bound for a facility in Texas.
LaRue would never make it to the hospital. He was found dead on the train on Thursday, August 4, 1955, just a few miles from his destination.
Authorities delivered John LaRue’s body to a Fort Worth, Texas funeral home. A local coroner examined the body and confirmed the death was by natural causes. LaRue was three weeks short of his 49th birthday when he passed away.
Reading between the lines, we can make some educated guesses as to what took the life of John LaRue. Perhaps his mental health issues stemmed from his time in the service. He might have suffered head trauma during his years in the ring. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Regardless of what issues John LaRue had, he gave his time and his talents to entertain wrestling fans. He died at a young age under mysterious circumstances like many wrestlers before and after him. He had a story. A tragic tale, yes, but one all his own.
Not every story is a big one. Not every story is worthy of a book or even a blog post. But every life matters to someone, be it family, friends, or fans.
Wrestlers feel every loss, no matter how big or small the name. Mitchell felt the loss of LaRue the same way Jimmy Hart felt the passing of JJ Maguire. You never know when someone’s time is up, and often, you never know the underlying issues that might lead to their passing.
Cherish the moments you have, as fans and as wrestlers. As Tracy always said, “Love each other.” And as my friend Aaron Grider and many others say, “Take the damn pictures.”
I have an oddball story about a wrestler who worked with The Black Panther Jim Mitchell that I was planning to share today. Instead, I’m going to share some documents found in Mitchell’s home long after he passed away: his 1952 tax return.
Jim Mitchell lived in Toledo at the time he and his wife Julia filed the following documents with the IRS. It appears the couple declared income from both his wrestling career and some rental property they owned at the time.
The street address, 948 Pinewood Ave, is not the address of the Lincoln Street home where these documents were found, but it is relatively close to Dorr Street, where Mitchell would open and operate a liquor store for many years.
If you’re any kind of fan of the golden age, you know who Mildred Burke is.
If all you’ve ever watched is WWE… you need to know who Mildred Burke is. Because they won’t tell you.
Mildred Burke was a main event star for over a decade. She reigned supreme as women’s champion for sixteen years. She was the top draw along side names like Gladys “Kill Em” Gillem, Mae Weston, Mae Young, Nell Stewart, Theresa Theis, Violet Viann, Ethel Johnson, Babs Wingo, and June Byers.
Jeff Leen wrote a phenomenal biography of the woman, Queen of the Ring, that is now being turned into a movie. The production team needs extras, now through July, in the Louisville area.
If you’re interested in being part of the movie, go to the link below. Fill in the form, and watch your inbox for confirmation.
This is a great opportunity to not only see how movies are made but see real wrestling history brought to life! And you never know who will show up on set. I’m not just speaking about cast, either.
Sign up today and be a part of wrestling and film history.
Had another visit with John Wroblewski at Every Day Fan, this week. This is becoming a habit!
This time we’re talking a lot more fiction than wrestling, but we do hit on both. If you want to check out Girl Most Likely to Kill You, Zombies of Oz, or the Dead Park book series, please visit www.deadparkbooks.com
Much ado has been made about a comment from a certain wrestling executive about how wrestling only took place in tiny bars before the WWF came along. Today I decided to share a few programs I have from one of those tiny bars: The Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens.
The first program is from way back in 1952. This tiny bar program saw World Champion Lou Thesz defend his title against Enrique Torres with former champ Ed “Strangler” Lewis in Thesz’s corner. Ray Eckert, Stu Gibson, Ethel Johnson, and Bill Longson were also on the card held in front of a meager 9281 fans in this tiny bar.
A year later, the same bar wrestling promotion, the Allen Athletic Club, presented this card:
Baron Leone was the victor in the main event that night, defeating Gentleman Jim Doby. Other stars included the Great Zorro (pictured), Mae Young, Bill Longson, Stu Gibson, and Gloria Barratini. The bar was really packed that night, with a new record attendance of 9384 reported in the newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see some of the changes this innovative WWE executive is already bringing to television. But if we’re really going to go all the way, perhaps we should drop the company line that pro wrestling was irrelevant before WWF at the same time we drop the word Superstar in favor of Wrestler.
Who would you say is Louisville’s biggest wrestling fan?
I know more than one person who would say it was their grandma. Not grandpa, but grandma. That’s no accident. As far back as the 1940s women were as frequent a site in the stands as men, thanks in part to the efforts of Betty McDonogh in the Allen Athletic Club ticket office. Even in the 80s, many old ladies never missed wrestling at the Louisville Gardens or the chance to tell their least favorite wrestler too kiss their wrinkled butts.
You could also make a case the biggest fan ever was Jim Oetkins. Jim reached out to me after I published Louisville’s Greatest Show and asked if we could meet. He brought along a spiral notebook he kept in the 1950s, recording the results from every week at the Columbia Gym on 4th Street. All those records I pulled off the Internet, he’d kept them in real time as a boy!
And let’s not forget the woman who went into labor one Tuesday night at the Gardens. She was on a gurney, ready to be rushed down the street to give birth, but she refused to leave. Teeny Jarrett pleaded with her, promising to let her know who won the main event, but the woman wanted to see for herself!
And then there’s the man who tried to get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse.
The incident took place on March 9, 1933 out in front of the Savoy Theater, now long-vanished from Market Street downtown. In the midst of The Great Depression, the Savoy Theater’s manager C.B. Blake (pictured below) announced that for one night only, the theater would accept “scrip, certified checks, promissory notes, merchandise, or pawn on valuables as par values.” Cash was, of course, still accepted for those who had it.
The Savoy wrestling show was the hot ticket in 1933, and many fans took them up on the offer. According to The Courier-Journal, the box office accepted a variety of items in lieu of money for tickets that night: oats, sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice, razor blades, a sewing machine, coffee, malt, cheese, socks, canned milk, canned chile, a card table, rings, lavaliers, watches, $3 in Courier-Journal scrip, crackers, flour, soft drinks, tomatoes, peas, corn, IOUs from four barbers, a ham, fifteen dozen eggs, and five chickens. Attendance that night was 1567, and the box office collected $809.75 cash in addition to the $90 worth of merchandise.
There was one offer refused by Blake and company. A man rode up shortly before bell time and asked if he could get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse. There’s nothing to indicate if the horse was in fine condition of a swaybacked nag, but the offer was refused.
You can hardly blame the guy for trying. Jack Reynolds was on the card that night, along with former Kentucky Wildcat Billy Love and speed boat racer “Wild Bill” Cantrell. Everyone wanted tickets to the Savoy!
The tale of the Savoy Theater is a fascinating saga that was missed when I first published Bluegrass Brawlers. Blake and his booker would fend off multiple challenges from rival promoters (including Abe Finberg down the street at the Gayety Theater) as well as two different incarnations of the Kentucky State Athletic Commission. They were the top draw in Louisville for many years – until Blake’s booker, Heywood Allen, decided to part company and start his own wrestling promotion.
I’m so excited to see the reaction to this book so far. When you write about a wrestler who was born 100 years ago (this August) and died 65 years ago (also this August), you don’t do it for the money. It’s for the love of the person. It’s a real joy when other people fall in love with them too!
Mars Bennett caught my eye while I was writing about Elvira Snodgrass. She appeared in a “cheesecake” publication from 1948 that Elvira was also in. Elvira was part of a pro wrestling pictorial. Mars was one page over, featured separately. She was hugely popular with the pin-ups and a favorite with those who liked girls with muscles.
A natural athlete, Mars excelled at sports in high school. I’ve seen many photos of her athletic prowess, including some fun, acrobatic shots on the beach with her brother. She was a natural on the webs and the trapeze when she joined the circus, and she became a stellar pro wrestler.
Mars crammed a lot of living into 35 years. She loved performing and being in the spotlight. She loved meeting famous people and collecting autographs. She was engaged twice: once to a jeweler, and once to comedian Larry Storch, before he became a TV legend. She also found love with one of her fellow lady wrestlers, Belle Drummond. The two shared a home, a car, a pair of dogs, and hundreds of adventures.
The Girl With The Iron Jaw includes over 70 photos, many of them from the family archives. You’ll read dozens of great stories including a bar fight, Texas death matches, a kidnapped dog, and the night she took a punch in the ring from Dory Funk, Sr. It’s a wild ride that comes to a sad, tragic end, but a true celebration of a bygone era and a legendary figure.
I met Mike Rodgers three years ago in Las Vegas when he was given the James Melby Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club Reunion. Mike has been chronicling wrestling history far longer than I have, and it’s been an honor to act as his publisher.
John asked me to write a little bit on his blog and I thought that would be fun. I will introduce myself and talk a little about my projects.
I started a bulletin in 1983 called Ring Around The Northwest. It was 3 pages, 50 cents and I sent it out to about 50 people, and a few of them even paid.
Jump ahead a few years and computers came into being and I increased the bulletin to 10 pages and started doing interviews. I was fortunate to have a number of interviews with people who had wrestled in the Northwest including Lou Thesz, Don Leo Jonathan, Bryan Danielson, Mad Dog Vachon, John Tolos, Rick Martel and a number of others.
The bulletin continued for 30 years until 2013, upon which time increased costs and the internet pretty much put print bulletins out of their misery.
At times several people had visited with me about producing a book, both on these interviews and a history of Portland Wrestling. Lack of time forced these people to back off any involvement.
When I discovered Portland Wrestling at the age of 8, I also discovered that the lineups and results were in the Portland papers. At age 8 my family moved out of the Northwest. I made my grandma save the sports sections so when I returned I could look at the wrestling results and catch up on the entire year that I had missed.
When I became aware of wrestling, I always felt like I had walked in halfway thru a movie. I wanted to know what had happened before.
When I returned to the NW in 1972 and started watching wrestling, I started recording everything that happened in a notebook. I recorded the matches, any special moves, the finishes. What each wrestler talked about on their interviews. Every aspect of Portland Wrestling. That notebook proved to be so valuable as I wrote Katie Bar The Door.
When I was in college I discovered the library had microfilm of the Portland papers. I spent hours going thru roll and roll of microfilm recording wrestling results from years prior.
Now we are up to this past summer (2021). I was having lunch with Frank Culbertson and he revisited the book idea. He said, “You should write a book.” I laughed and agreed. Then he said, YOU SHOULD WRITE A BOOK and I can help.
So we started rounding up these interviews and we started gathering up photos and doing the preparations to get it ready. Finally we had a title, a cover and the layout and we had edited it. We sent it to John. I had no idea what the timeline might be at that point. I figured a month or so until the first book hit the light of day. The next morning I noticed our book is available on Amazon. That was the moment I became a BIG John Cosper fan.
The second volume of Excitement in the Air. We had a interview with Buddy Wayne who has passed and we got an update from his son Nick. Nick is 16 but traveling every weekend and working all over the country. We grabbed a photo of a match Nick had on a Saturday night. The following Wednesday the book was ready and available on Amazon. I find that turnaround amazing.
The latest book that has just come out this week is a culmination of a lifetime passion. There are over 500 photos that have come from my collection, photos I have taken and 2 photographers will really help make this book special. There are many photos by Ken Hamblin who has been my friend for over 40 years. Also Lloyd Phillips has some amazing photos from the early 70’s. His photos are in black and white and are so clear and sharp. I told Lloyd years ago that if a Portland Wrestling book ever came to be, it had to have his photos included!
Whenever the action really got going, the TV announcer would always shout Katie Bar the Door. That meant that the the wrestling was going to be fantastic.
I hope this book can bring the flavor of what a tradition that Portland Wrestling was.