“The Only Real Sport Out There”: Pie Traynor’s Life in Pro Wrestling
If you want to see someoneâ€™s face light up, find a middle-aged man who grew up in Pittsburgh and mention Pie Traynor.Â When he hears that name, he wonâ€™t recall Traynorâ€™s sparkling play at third base or all the clutch hits he delivered for the Pirates.Â Those are the memories of a different generation.Â No, if you came of age during the 1960s, the name Pie Traynor is forever linked with Saturday nights and professional wrestling.
From the late 1950s through the early â€˜70s, Studio Wrestling was the signature program of Pittsburghâ€™s WIIC, Channel 11.Â Every Saturday from 6:00-7:30, thousands of people throughout Western Pennsylvania cheered from their living rooms as popular heroes like Bruno Sammartino and Jumpinâ€™ Johnny DeFazio waged war against villainous heels like Gorilla Monsoon and George â€œThe Animalâ€ Steele.
Wrestling was different in those days. Â â€œGuys didnâ€™t have bizarre gimmicks,â€ recalled Sammartino.Â â€œYou didnâ€™t see skimpy clothes like today, where women are wearing a g-string and a bra that barely covers their nipples.Â It was fairly clean entertainment.â€
Surrounding the ring were a few rows of folding chairs, which accommodated perhaps 200 people.Â But behind the last row was a backdrop on which images of â€œfansâ€ were painted in order to create the illusion of a much larger crowd.Â To people watching on their fuzzy, black-and-white sets, it appeared that the seats extended endlessly into the darkness.Â Despite the low-budget production quality, Studio Wrestling was wildly successful.Â Â â€œWhen we had wrestling on, we outdrew the Steelers,â€ boasted longtime host Bill Cardille.
Traynor was the spokesman for the showâ€™s sponsor, the American Heating Company, whose enduring slogan, â€œWho can?Â Ameri-can!â€ is etched into the minds of a generation of Pittsburghers.Â Â Founder Max Berger marketed his business to blue-collar working stiffs.Â They were the kind of people who ordinarily might not be able to afford major home improvement projects â€“ and the kind of people who loved wrestling.Â â€œThe Heinz family wasnâ€™t calling American Heating,â€ joked Bergerâ€™s son, Jack.Â â€œBack in the â€˜60s it wasnâ€™t real common to get a loan from a bank to get a roof fixed [but] my dad worked closely with Mellon Bank to let people buy things on credit.â€
Behind the scenes, Traynor was a magnetic presence, an exceedingly warm man with a puckish sense of humor.Â The wrestlers instantly treated him like one of the guys.Â He usually appeared at the studio around 4:30 and held court in WIICâ€™s massive announcerâ€™s booth that was, in Cardilleâ€™s description, â€œas big as a kitchen.â€Â Soon after Traynor arrived, the wrestlers would stop by to say hello and kill a little time.Â â€œNinety-five percent of the time there were five to seven other people in the announcerâ€™s booth,â€ recalled Cardille.
Sammartino, a native of Italy, found Traynor especially captivating.Â â€œWhen I first came to this country, I didnâ€™t know about baseball.Â So I was fascinated by all these stories he used to tell.Â He spoke very highly of Lou Gehrig.Â He would smile and talk about what a wild man Babe Ruth was.Â I used to try to get to the studio early just to sit there and talk to him.â€
Traynor had been a fixture on the Pittsburgh airwaves since 1945, when he agreed to broadcast a daily segment during KQV Radioâ€™s evening news.Â But as this painful clip suggests, his experience didnâ€™t help him much on TV.Â The American Heating ads were simply awful, to the point that WIIC newscaster Eleanor Schano felt terrible for the old guy. â€œBless his heart, he was such a wonderful storyteller, but as soon as you would get him on camera he would be so stilted.â€Â Â Â Cardille thought Traynor was too afraid of making a mistake.Â â€œHe wouldnâ€™t take his eyes off the TelePrompTer.Â If they wrote â€˜go fly a duckâ€™ on the prompter as a joke, he would have said â€˜Who Can?Â Ameri-can!Â Go fly a duck!â€™Â It was full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes.â€
As clumsy as Traynor was, the commercials were astonishingly effective.Â â€œThose ads would routinely bring in quite a number of phone calls that would turn into leads,â€ remembered Jack Berger.Â Â Max Bergerâ€™s enduring partnership with Traynor and Studio Wrestling helped him grow his company into one of the largest home improvement companies in the Pittsburgh area.
Soon, everywhere Traynor went in Pittsburgh, strangers serenaded him with shouts of â€œWho can, Pie?â€Â And in return he would good-naturedly holler back, â€œAmeri-can!â€Â But some took a dim view of Traynorâ€™s new identity.Â â€œIn a way he became almost a clownish figure because of the American Heating ads,â€ sniffed his old friend Chuck Reichblum.Â Â â€œKids who didnâ€™t know probably wouldnâ€™t have guessed that here was a hall of fame ballplayer.â€Â WIICâ€™s Don Riggs agreed, offering that Traynor became â€œa caricature of himself.â€Â Â But Traynor evidently didnâ€™t see it that way.Â â€œI think he was kind of oblivious,â€ said Reichblum.
Or perhaps he just didnâ€™t care.Â Traynor relished the spotlight.Â When he lost his job as manager of the Pirates after the 1939 season, he knew that as much as anything he would miss â€œthe glamour of baseball,â€ as he called it.Â This was not a man who could have felt fulfilled slaving dutifully behind a desk all day, then settling down to a quiet dinner with the wife every evening.Â Â He thrived on attention; he liked being liked.Â Those silly commercials sort of made him a star again.Â To his critics, Traynor replied with wink and a grin.Â â€œWrestling â€“ thatâ€™s the only real sport out there.â€
James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010.