On April 18, 2018, professional wrestling legend and icon Bruno Sammartino died at the tender age of 82. The reason that I say died at the “tender”age of 82 was because regardless of his physical age, Bruno Sammartino was one of the last wrestling “athletes” that competed in the innocent and golden age of professional wrestling.
There was a point in time during the embryonic stage of professional wrestling when just getting local sponsorship for wrestling was like pulling teeth. Major League Baseball had television and radio locked down and the NFL was beginning to flex its muscles. The radio market share for professional wrestling was non-existent. Wrestling was a made-for-television enterprise only. Even professional boxing had a respectable piece of the radio market share “pie” that pro wrestling could never hope to get, both then and now.
Before there was Chris Jericho, there was Bruno Sammartino. Before there was Big E, there was Haystacks Calhoun. Before Xavier Woods there was “Hurricane Hunt.” Also, we can’t forget our brothers from the east. Before there was Shinsuke Nakamura, there was the “Sheik.” Before there was Vince McMahon, there was “Chilly Billy” Cardille and wrestling promoter and manager, Rudy Miller. Before Miss Elizabeth was getting mad publicity and money in regards to hangin’ out with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, there was “Ringside Rosy” and “Pie” Traynor. “Rosy” going ballistic at ringside getting everyone hyped watching and attending “studio wrestling,” while the late great Pittsburgh Pirate “Pie” Traynor was selling the products and services of American Heating Company. “Pie” Traynor would always bark out this next phrase better than even the best carnival barker or town crier; “Who can? Amer-I-can; American Heating Company.”
Bruno Sammartino was the perfect savior that professional wrestling not only wanted but needed. Born in Italy, Sammartino arrived in America at age 15 as a sickly young man with a questionable future…His was the perfect storyline for the budding American “distraction” known as pro wrestling. Sammartino and his father migrated to America in search of a better life.
Little did he know what America had in store for him.
He settled in Pittsburgh, where the lives of many Western Pennsylvanians that had migrated to “the industrial belt” of our country had become woven into the fabric of the waning industrialization of the region and the country. Sammartino was not destined to become just another “mill hunk.” He was ordained to become the most visible and marketable performer in an oftentimes scripted, synchronized and deceivingly brutal sport that was also facing an uncertain future. Sammartino reinvented himself even in the midst of the uncertainty of immigrating and settling in Western Pennsylvania just as the region was simultaneously shedding its industrial skin.
Sammartino and Western PA evolved together. One could almost view them as “Siamese twins.” The country needed a “blue collar” hero to adore and look up to and Sammartino needed to be motivated to use his instinctive “protector” skills; this was a match made in heaven. It was said that Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden more than any other performer in history. To pay their respects, the Garden tweeted a photo of their marquee which showed Sammartino in his prime. The text next to his picture read, “MSG remembers Garden legend Bruno Sammartino.”
Bruno Sammartino was laid to rest on Monday morning, April 23, at a funeral mass held at Saint Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Ross Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
When I think back on the life of Bruno, a particular song by the late Johnny Cash comes to mind. “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down. When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”
When that bell of competition rang, you could always count on Bruno Sammartino to answer. Signor Sammartino, addio.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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