I’m a sucker for wrestling history books and especially those that focus on the key formative and transitional years in the sport. That’s why Ballyhoo! The Roughhousers, Con Artists, and Wildmen Who Invented Professional Wrestling (published by the University of Missouri Press and available now) attracted my interest. I crave not only books that cover older topics, but cover them in an academic and enthralling way. Books like these drive the imagination and inspire even more study of a revolutionary period in the sport’s history.
So, what are my opening thoughts?
Buy the book now – it’s awesome.
Ballyhoo: a Deep Dive Into Wrestling’s Past
For a sport beloved by so many, the historical records of professional wrestling contain plenty of gaps. Much of this is due to the sport’s disposable nature – an endless entertainment treadmill with little time for reflection.
This is especially the case with the formative years of pro wrestling – the period when the match style took a sharp detour, shifting from strength-based hug fests to “slam-bang,” highlighted by flying tackles, bloody brawls, and plenty of colorful characters.
Fortunately, exceptional writers are filling in the gaps, with Jon Langmead (an occasional SlamWrestling.net contributor) now added to that list of top-tier wrestling historians. But make no mistakes, Langmead is no spring chicken in wrestling, having written on the subject – as well as film, music, and other pop culture topics – for the better part of two decades.
Langmead’s Ballyhoo! is an enthralling look into the formative era of professional wrestling in the United States (1874 to 1941). In it, he skillfully narrates the evolution of professional sports and sports promotions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a period of dramatic growth in sports, as more and more competition shifted towards professionalism and, with it, more money and headaches.
He traces the evolution of professional wrestling, from its humble beginnings as displays of physical strength to its transformation into a captivating spectacle that incorporates theatricality and suspense. This evolution is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the individuals who contributed to the growth and popularity of the sport.
But it wasn’t just sports that were changing – America was also changing. The start of the 20th century saw increasing migration into the country, resulting in the vibrant melting pot that would become American cities, with New York as one example.
Langmead expertly navigates the chaotic world of both wrestling and New York sports due in large part to the cantankerous and outdated pull of one man: William Muldoon, the famed “Solid Man” who was once the Greco-Roman Wrestling Champion but by 1921 the head of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC).
Curley Was No Stooge
The book’s narrative centers around the life and career of Jack Curley, a dynamic and entrepreneurial boxing promoter whose fortunes were decidedly hit-and-miss until striking gold with Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Jim Londos, and the wrestling boom of the 1920s.
Curley is the ideal protagonist, as he was instrumental in the evolution of the professional wrestling game in New York City from the days of multi-hour “shoots” in dancehalls and makeshift arenas to the biggest arenas in the world, Curley’s wrestling promotional tenure spanned eras and serves as the focal point for a whirlwind period of change–not just for professional wrestling but also boxing, Curley’s other major promotional muse.
Never one to shy from an opportunity, the young Jacques Schuel ran away from home to work at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, changing his name to “Jack Curley” along the way. It wasn’t an easy journey for Curley, navigating a cutthroat business without connections, but he persisted and eventually found firm footing.
The next few decades were a whirlwind for Curley, including managing and promoting headline names like Dr. Benjamin Roller and heavyweight boxing kingpin Jack Johnson. Throughout, Curley found himself at odds with authorities and other promoters, first in Seattle, then in Cuba, and finally, in the seat of his power, New York’s Madison Square Garden.
More Than Just Another Biography
What Langmead does so well is to showcase the cold and deeply cynical world of sports promotion in what was “the Golden Age of Sport.” Men like Curley, Toots Mondt, and later Vince McMahon Sr. lived fast and loose not only their business lives but also their personal lives. Curley was willing to spend the bank on his promotions – living and dying with each attraction. That led him to the pinnacle of the game but also wreaked havoc with his hard-earned fortune.
That willingness to bet on the farm propelled both Curley and McMahon to become kingpins of the New York wrestling mats. Where others saw promotion as a means to funnel large funds to their bank accounts, Curley and McMahon were willing to take risks and spend big to ensure their promotions were not only popular but also served as a means to make other competitors seem minor league – and propelled them to the stuff of American promotion legend.
But a willingness to gamble it all doesn’t make a success – ask Herb Abrams. It was the happy-go-lucky attitude and relaxed management style that was able to corral a New York wrestling on the verge of ruin. Where trivial, clan-like battles once were rampant, Curley was part of an agreement that temporarily brought peace to the wrestling scene, first in New York and later across the country.
But Ballyhoo! is more than just a Jack Curley bio. The book is a veritable who’s-who of the best and brightest of professional wrestling and sports promotions in the first half of the 20th century, providing readers with a grounding in the sport’s history at a critical juncture.
The whole gang is here, from Curley and his subordinates, Mondt, Rudy Miller, and Jack Pfefer, to rivals such as Paul Bowser, Billy Sandow, Lou Daro, and Tex Rickard, to legendary grapplers like Jim Londos, Dick Shikat, Gus Sonnenburg, Ed Lewis, and more.
The Hard Sell
Summing it all up, Ballyhoo! is an engaging, enjoyable telling of not only the development of wrestling into the sports entertainment we know today but also a detailed account of one of the business’s greatest minds.
The fate of most wrestling books is to become another pretty cover or cool title sitting on a bookcase. But a select few are chosen (or doomed, take your pick) to a life of endless perusing, bent pages, and all-around destruction. These books are impressive, enjoyable, and dense in historical goodness to warrant revisit after revisit.
Give them a few years, and the cover is long gone.
Ballyhoo! by Jon Langmead falls into that choice, the latter stratosphere of excellence – which is a shame because I think the cover is cool.
Langmead’s work is reminiscent of Tim Hornbaker’s Capitol Revolution in that it expertly weaves a broader historical narrative and an authoritative biography of a leading figure simultaneously. Hornbaker was the McMahons; with Langmead, it’s the legendary promoter Jack Curley.
If you are passionate about history or vintage wrestling or want to know just how long wrestling has been off the level, this book is a must. The story is entertaining, the characters interesting, and the author’s writing style a joy.
Like most, I lead a busy life, with work, family, friends, pets, and other concerns taking up huge chunks of my week. As a result, I found myself continually pulled away from Ballyhoo! Despite that, every time I picked up the book again, I found the same level of enjoyment, the same grip from the narrative, and the same desire to try and finish the book in a single reading.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this book enough – order your copy soon!
- Excerpt from Ballyhoo!: The Roughhousers, Con Artists, and Wildmen Who Invented Professional Wrestling
- Jan. 30, 2024: Mat Matters: All about ‘Ballyhoo,’ my new book
- Buy Ballyhoo!: The Roughhousers, Con Artists, and Wildmen Who Invented Professional Wrestling at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
- SlamWrestling Master Book List