An unheralded figure in wrestling research officially retired from the game in June. He’d worked behind the scenes for over 25 years, never went to a Cauliflower Alley Club reunion, and never attended a wrestling match. But, without his dedication much of what has been learned in the last two decades about wrestling in the 20th century would still be unknown.
Officially, George Rugg was the Curator for Americana in the Rare Books and Special Collections of the Hesburgh Libraries at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. Wrestling historians, however, knew him differently. To them, George Rugg was the guy who had daily access to the largest assemblage of irreplaceable documents related to wrestling history that is likely to exist. He was the guy who could help you find that payout sheet that would establish, once and for all, exactly how much a specific wrestler was making, where they were working, and when. He was the guy with the keys to the bank vault. George Rugg was the guy who ran the Pfefer Collection.
All told the Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection consists of thousands of pieces of first-person correspondence, ledgers, tax records, publicity photographs, scrapbooks, and related ephemera, all of which belonged to the much maligned, much misunderstood, wrestling promoter Jack Pfefer. The contents of the collection ramble from roughly the 1920s to the end of the 1960s. They spread out over 238 containers sitting along a 24-foot long, double-sided, mobile shelving unit, along with larger pieces that lie flat in storage drawers, all located in the lower level storage area of the Special Collections department. Taken altogether it weighs more than five tons.
The Joyce Collection, in which the records reside, is one of the largest collections in the world dedicated to the history of sport in America. It’s populated by impossible to replace manuscripts from the late 18th century and one-of-a-kind documents from the past 250 years of sports history in America and Europe. It’s as important of a lens into the origins and machinations of our modern sports-obsessed culture as exists. Rugg has overseen the collection for 25 years and understands it better than anyone.
The majority of the documents that make up the Pfefer collection arrived at Notre Dame in 1977. The collection came to Notre Dame via Eddie Einhorn, the media-savvy, soon to be co-owner of the Chicago White Sox. Einhorn grew up as a fan of Fred Kohler’s Chicago wrestling promotion. His early fortune came from his ownership of the broadcast rights to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament. In 1975, he ventured into wrestling, creating the short-lived International Wrestling Association (IWA). The IWA was meant to be a national promotion that would compete directly with the better-established National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Einhorn left the promotion shortly after it was established and the IWA quietly folded in 1978. (Einhorn would return to wrestling again in 1984, as a consultant to the again short-lived Pro Wrestling USA group of promotions.)
Einhorn acquired Pfefer’s documents from Tony Santos, the Massachutes-area wrestling promoter with whom Pfefer lived later in his life. The selling price, the best anyone can remember, was $1,500. Pfefer died in a Massachusetts nursing home in 1974, and why Santos sold the collection to Einhorn is unknown. One guess would be because he found storing it to be too problematic. Another might be to defray any costs the family may have assumed for Pfefer’s care.
Einhorn, we can only assume, became aware of the collection through his work with the IWA. That a sports-obsessed wrestling outsider like Einhorn might have more interest in Pfefer’s possessions than other wrestling promoters of the 1970s, makes some sense. Career wrestling promoters have historically shown little interest in preserving wrestling’s history. The fantasy state of suspended disbelief that wrestling thrives in is challenged by fans who read too closely; who follow results of a promotion from town to town, for example, or who noticed that NWA champions of the 1970s had a strange tendency to lose their title on trips to Japan and then regain it before coming back to the States. Preserving the past had traditionally not been a concern to those actively involved in wrestling.
When Rugg arrived at Notre Dame in 1994, the collection, as he remembers it, was “still sitting in boxes, essentially unorganized.” The staff who received it in the late ’70s took it out of the old cardboard shipping boxes it had arrived in and transferred it to smaller, archival boxes. Any type of order was completely absent, however, and one of Rugg’s first tasks was to impose one on it.
He followed the principle of original order, the concept among archivists that records should be maintained in the same order followed by the record’s creator. Pfefer’s intent with his holdings, however, was something of a mystery. He left no guidance behind, nor any indication of what belonged where.
Jack Pfefer lived something close to an itinerant life. He spent long periods operating out of different cities; Chicago in the 1920s and New York in the 1930s. He operated for significant periods as well out of Nashville, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Ohio, and parts of Texas. Whether all of his files moved with him, or whether he left chunks of them behind in an office or in storage, is unknown.
“It was hard,” says Rugg. “The stuff had passed from Pfefer to Santos, from Santos to Einhorn, and Einhorn to us… Probably, if all this stuff was in a hotel room, it was just chaos anyway.”
Rugg set to creating a finding aid for the collection, a list that would allow researchers to locate categorized documents simply by requesting specifically numbered folders. What in 1977 was a jumble of slowly decomposing paper and unlabeled photographs was slowly being given a structure.
Rugg took the entire collection one piece at a time, flattening and organizing documents, matching letters with their corresponding envelopes (all of which Pfefer almost invariably held onto), and trying to identify people captured in the collection’s thousands of photos. In the beginning, he was operating almost completely in the dark. “My regret was that a collection of this extent was not in [a subject] I knew more about and liked more,” says Rugg. “Not only was it a totally foreign subject area to me, but there was, at the time in the mid-’90s, very, very little good secondary literature on the subject.”
In the early 2000s, Rugg supplemented the collection with additional purchases from the Santos family. He published preliminary lists of the University’s holdings on the Internet and attracted the attention of a small number of dedicated researchers. The first to visit the collection, appropriately, was historian J Michael Kenyon.
Each visitor was able to add more detail and answer lingering questions. And Rugg, as the only person to have seen and assessed the full breadth of the collection, proved invaluable in making connections between records that researchers couldn’t have known existed. As anyone who has emailed the University with a question on the collection can attest, Rugg was always quick to respond and unfailingly willing to help. In total,he’s assisted dozens of researchers and played a role in most of the major books on wrestling history published in the last two decades: Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series; John Capouya’s Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture; and Jeff Leen’s biography of Mildred Burke, The Queen of the Ring. All relied on research done at Notre Dame.
“To wrestling historians and researchers, the Pfefer Collection is a genuine goldmine, a seemingly never-ending source of original documentation,” says author Tim Hornbaker, who was written three books that used material culled from the archive. “I’d consider George [Rugg] as important to wrestling history as anyone I’ve ever encountered in the business.”
Rugg soon had to put his work organizing the collection on hold as he took on more responsibility at the library. As he neared retirement, though, he re-doubled his efforts to finish cataloging it, unwilling, as he says, “to leave this thing just half-done.” With the help of Hannah Sabal, a recently hired archival processor, an electronic finding aid was finally completed and posted to the library’s website.
In total, Rugg guesses that thousands of hours were spent, between library staff and student volunteers, organizing the collection. Besides organizing and cataloging the papers, effort was also put into restoring and preserving 25 stunning lithographs acquired by Pfefer. They arrived at Notre Dame creased and folded into quarters. The best of the bunch, like posters of former heavyweight champions Joe Stecher and Wladek Zbysko, are richly detailed chromo-lithography prints. Rugg believes that the posters are unique for sports at the time. Nothing comparable, he says, was produced for baseball or boxing. Their closest parallel, he hypothesizes, may be in theatre.
The commonly accepted story of Jack Pfefer is well-established. Born near Warsaw, Poland, he arrived in the United States in 1921. Though he was working at the time as part of a travelling opera company, his role with that group is unknown. When and how he became involved in professional wrestling is also unknown but by the mid-1920s he was promoting wrestling shows in and around Chicago that featured talent he imported from Europe. Before the decade was out, he’d moved to Manhattan to take a role in the organization of Jack Curley, a prominent promoter of wrestling, tennis, and other entertainment.
Pfefer fell out with the promotion in the early 1930s, and famously began offering inside details on matches and promotional plans to New York Daily Mirror reporter Dan Parker. In Parker’s pieces, Pfefer was colorfully dubbed, among other things, “The Halitosis Kid,” a seemingly unflattering nickname Pfefer showed no problem with embracing. It was something of a Runyon-esque device employed by Parker to lend a sense of comical flair to the dealings of the “grunt and groan” pachyderms, as wrestlers were frequently referred to, that filled arenas throughout the city. Pfefer’s revelations served to undermine whatever air of legitimacy, regardless of its tenuousness, that might have hovered around the wrestling matches of the time.
In 1936, Pfefer was involved in the most famous double-cross in wrestling history, Dick Shikat’s defeat of Danno O’Mahoney for the heavyweight championship. That match sent wrestling splintering from a vaguely unified national network of businessmen into unaffiliated local promotions, each with a unique champion; it was the beginnings of what became known as wrestling’s territories. Pfefer spent the rest of his career working as an independent promoter and talent agent, often emphasizing cartoonish performers like The Golden Terror and The Red Devil. He was famous for marketing wrestlers whose entire image was a knock-off of more established performers; Gorgeous George Grant, Lou Kesz, Bruno Sanmartino, and a series of Angels that capitalized on the fame of the French Angel, Maurice Tillet. In response to this particular bit of chicanery, a furious Tillet punched Pfefer out in a Los Angeles locker room.
Pfefer brought a sense of the theatrical, the foreign, to wrestling from his earliest days in Chicago. Based on clippings collected in his scrapbooks from the 1920s, his specialty appeared to have been attracting press for his wrestlers in the small papers published around the city and dedicated to specific ethnic communities. He understood how to get attention for his attractions. A 1926 letter to wrestler Alexander Garkawienko encourages him to grow a big moustache before travelling to the United States. He circulated photographs to newspapers that knowingly contrasted his own tiny stature with the hulking presence of his wrestlers. When he went to work in Manhattan for Jack Curley, his occupation was listed as “Manager of Foreign Stars.”
“This whole feeling, ‘Pfefer went over the edge with the freaks and stuff,’ that element was, I think, there from the very beginning,” says Rugg. “Most of the Eastern Europeans had some sort of angle, like; ‘Big Foot’ Ivan Podubny, Leo Panetzki who had an arm reach of 40 feet, Holuban, the man with no neck. He’s always billing these people as outrageous, or he turns them into a Cosack or something. I think that from the very beginning that was his thing. The Eastern Europeans were exotic to the Americans, anyway. There’s something about them that makes them something other than this American from Nebraska in black tights. I think that was Pfefer’s vision of wrestling from the beginning, where I think people will tend to see it as something that happened later.”
Pfefer has been interpreted at times as a postmodern visionary who understood where wrestling was headed 50 years before Vince McMahon, Jr, and at others as a cynical cutthroat hellbent on revenge. Both takes have merit.
The story that emerges from the Pfefer Collection more often than not adds to, instead of dispels, any questions about Pfefer’s life. Contrary to the image of him as the disheveled, incomprehensible poisonous dwarf who “exposed” wrestling and short-changed talent, for example, Rugg can point out documents that tell a different story.
Direct quotes from Pfefer used in newspaper reports often appear as almost parodies of an Eastern Europe dialect. The small handful of letters in the collection directly written by him, though, are in slightly broken but very readable English. Photos of Pfefer from the 1920s and ’30s, when he was at the height of his business powers, show him well-dressed and carefully groomed.
And instead of alienating himself from the wrestling business with his tactics, Pfefer exchanged letters and holiday greetings with promoters and wrestlers for years, in some cases for decades. In just one instance, Pfefer was corresponding with Paul Bowser, Danno O’Mahoney’s one-time manager, as late as 1943. If there was irreparable ill will between the two supposed rivals as a result of Pfefer’s dealings with Dick Shikat, it is not evident in their correspondence. Jack Curley and Pfefer continued working together after the Shikat and O’Mahoney match, as well, and Pfefer sent donations to Curley’s family after Curley’s unexpected death in 1937.
“I think that Pfefer, even though he had his people who hated him, he had an alliance with strong people,” says Tom Burke, a wrestling historian who has visited the Pfefer Collection on multiple occasions. “When [future NWA president] Sam Muchnick broke away from Tom Packs to run, he used talent from Jack. I got an interview with Buddy Rogers and I asked him about Jack Pfefer. He said, ‘There will never be another Jack Pfefer. I loved him.'”
“There are so many gaps here,” says Rugg. “I could give you a narrative of Pfefer’s life as I understand it, but there would be a lot of question marks and I don’t know that these questions can be answered. He must have been a pretty compelling guy on some level to have risen that far, that fast, and to have retained these loyalties among a lot of the people he was working with. And even among the big promoters, they didn’t let him in but they didn’t exclude him. They let him do his own thing.”
And make no mistake. What we think of now as historical records were for Pfefer his day to day work. The newspaper clippings he collected could be reproduced and sent to sportswriters to promote a new talent, or used as part of flyers and posters to promote a wrestling show. Conversely, copies of faded news stories, perhaps telling of a specific wrestler’s past losses or an embarrassing incident, could prove invaluable when trying to discredit a competitor.
Altogether, it’s a chronicle of the inner workings of wrestling from the 1920s through the 1950s. It’s a story, in part, of the nickels and dimes of putting on a wrestling show, from printing the posters, to washing the mats, to making sure the booking office has enough staples. It covers in stunning detail the era when wrestling went from a vaguely competitive enterprise to a completely worked form of entertainment. The collection’s folders are packed with telegrams between promoters about which wrestlers are and aren’t working well in different towns. There are messages from wrestlers struggling to make bookings because of illness or transportation problems, and from young hopefuls trying to find a way to get a break in the business.
And there are letters between promoters that give a small glimpse into how they approached their businesses. “My advice to you,” wrote Ohio promoter Al Haft in 1934, “is to build men whom you can control and who are with you. Whenever you put key men over whom you can’t control, then they give you orders and that makes life miserable.”
Though Pfefer kept reminders about his optometry appointments, he kept almost nothing that would hint at any kind of serious personal relationship. He had a sister and parents in Poland, but there are no letters from them. Whether they died early, whether he did not correspond with them, or whether any letters from them were lost or discarded is unknown.
He maintained a long correspondence with a Russian entertainer named Claudia Coralli. The majority of their letters are not in English, and of the letters that have been translated, their relationship does not seem to be romantic in nature. Still, the pictures of the two together display an unmistakable sense of comfort between them.
Though he hinted to various reporters that he had considered a memoir, the collection holds no traces of a diary or abandoned attempts at a manuscript. “The lack of letters from his end,” says Rugg, “and the lack of a narrative diary, really make it difficult to evaluate him.”
There is almost no correspondence, as well, from 1930 through 1933, the years that correspond with one of the most lucrative periods in wrestling history. Rugg assumes that these letters, almost certainly, are held by a private collector. (A side note that according to Tom Burke, a second collection of Pfefer material that originated out of Providence, Rhode Island, circulated on eBay several years after the original collection landed at Notre Dame. What became of this collection is unknown, and its contents have never been seen by researchers.)
The collection of personal photos that Pfefer did keep are dwarfed in number by business records. Spend any time digging through the 200 boxes and you will get a sense of Pfefer being at once both everywhere and nowhere. Every minute of Pfefer’s life that can be pieced together would appear to have been dedicated to professional wrestling.
What is clear is that a kind of paranoia crept into Pfefer’s correspondence beginning in the late 1930s. Pfefer’s closest associates, like Curley, Bowser, and Los Angeles-based promoter Lou Daro, would have all died or moved on to other business ventures by the end of the 1930s. Pfefer was alone, competing with a new batch of businessmen. He expressed concern in his letters about “schemers,” “yellow rats,” and “double crossers.”
He seemed to demand an unwavering loyalty and seemed quick to express agitation over perceived slights. As if he were casting some old world hex, he took to pasting pictures of black cats onto photographs of people he felt had wronged him. Others he cut out of photos, as if he could erase them from some imagined historical record. Who exactly he thought would be compiling this record is unknown, but Pfefer certainly saw himself as part of something larger.
As such, he comes to not incorrectly begin to view himself as the most significant remaining link to wrestling’s golden era of the 1920s and ’30s. “He comes to have this self-image of someone who is preserving the history of the game,” says Rugg. Pfefer held onto letters that would have been close to 50 years old at the time of his death. In many of the programs used at his events, he included page-long photo spreads to commemorate deceased promoters and wrestlers. Stuffed in the collection, too, is a tattered, tape-scarred, copy of the program for the 1917 International Wrestling Tournament held at Manhattan’s Grand Opera House. He would have had to have acquired it from another wrestler or promoter, as he would not have been in America when the tournament took place. Taken together with the lithographs he made a point to hold onto, Pfefer can be seen as perhaps wrestling’s first preservationist.
Pfefer never married and is there is no indication that he ever fathered children. His papers, his museum collection as he came to call them, may have been the way he made sense of his extravagant life in a business that he helped to shape but which seemed more often than not to want to be finished with him.
Thankfully, the Santos family, Eddie Einhorn, and finally, George Rugg all contributed to making sure the material Pfefer spent his career collecting would be preserved, cataloged, and made available.
“Professional wrestling is a very difficult subject for historians and journalists,” says Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen. Leen used research done at Notre Dame to produce his biography of Mildred Burke, The Queen of the Ring. “First there is kayfabe, and then there is the paucity of original source material. Most investigators into the history of this stuff are reduced to combing over old newspapers and wrestling magazines. Which is what makes the Pfefer Collection so valuable. It is the premier trove of primary source wrestling material that I know of in the country. It was there that I found the letters and documents that fired my imagination and made me realize that Mildred Burke’s story could become a book. There in the collection was Mildred’s original letter to the wrestling community giving her side of her battle with Billy Wolfe. There, also, were 20 years of letters between Burke and Pfefer, as well as a first-hand account from another letter writer of Burke’s shoot match with June Byers. Without the Pfefer Collection, there would have simply been no book.”
That such material has been made so accessible is no accident. Without the work of George Rugg, our understanding of wrestling history would be woefully diminished.
“It’s no mistake that so many librarians are thanked by book authors in their acknowledgements,” continues Leen. “The librarian is the custodian of history who makes the book possible. George Rugg was such a custodian for me, but more than that, he was a gracious, helpful host who made my job easier and never flinched at my endless requests. The kindly professional at a time of need is the greatest aid to the writer. I owe George a debt I simply cannot pay.”
The same can be said of all wrestling fans.
Rugg retired at the end of June. In his spare time, he paints and draws. After retirement, he says, he plans to travel and read. And with a laugh he adds, “I’m not going to write a book about Jack Pfefer.”
- The Joyce Sports Research Collection: WrestlingJon Langmead writes about pro wresting, music, film, and books on an increasingly infrequent basis at a few places around the internet. He’s a big Barry Windham guy.