The Trust Buster
The very strength of the Sandow, Mondt and Lewis combination often proved to be its weakness. Sandow possessed conceit and a bullishness far too great for one who was literally juggling hot potatoes.
It took all the cunning and persuasion of both Lewis and Mondt to bring into line irate promoters and berserk matmen, and the time devoted to making peace in the camp often meant the loss of valuable “working” matches for both Lewis and Mondt, who had to go into rigid training and meet rebel grapplers who had tired of the Sandow dominance and were determined to break up “The Trust.”
The money these bonecrushers made under the Sandow, Mondt and Lewis aegis was plentiful, but they were easy prey for connivers who instilled in them the envy of “The Gold Dust Trio,” whose members possessed beautiful homes, stopped at the best hotels and received more in profits than those working for them.
Outlaw grapplers began nipping at the fringes of the Sandow herd. They became the crusaders of matdom by refusing to do business with “The Gold Dust Trio,” operating in smaller clubs, unworthy from the Sandow point of view, for his wrestlers, these tough highwaymen in wrestling trunks, were self styled St. Georges, fighting the great Sandow dragon.
Lewis and Mondt were for bringing them into camp and giving them a share in the profits. Sandow had only too quickly forgotten the early days when with the help of Mondt and Lewis he had formed his great trust, founded upon the theory of one for all and all for one, with the public supplying the cash. Lewis and Mondt did the next best thing. They met these rebels in shooting matches and subdued them, but this practice often cost the organization thousands of dollars. For the rebels, or as they termed themselves, “The Trust Busters,” often had political friends and newspaper contacts that worked against the best interests of a solidified wrestling organization. The greatest of all “The Trust Busters” throughout the years from the time of the Sandow organization at its strongest, up to the present moment have been Jack Sherry, John Pesek, Fred Grubmier, Marian Plestina, Karl Pojello, John Freeberg, William Demetral, John Evko and Hans Steinke.
Through the years, as the wrestling picture changed hands, they worried and harassed the various grappling manipulators, often costing the groups thousands of dollars which could have been easily picked up from the public if the revolters had only listened to reason.
As the crusaders of matdom, they managed to live on crumbs from the wrestling cake which the great mat manipulators were too busy to pick up while the bigger houses and larger gates were in the offing.
Only the great wrestling abilities of Mondt and Lewis prevented the vast Sandow organization from crumbling before the onslaughts of these mighty “shooters.”
A wrestler named William Demetral is a case in point.
Demetral had been going his merry way with the Sandow organization and making considerable money. Connivers began buzzing to him about the huge sums of money “The Gold Dust Trio” was making from matches in which Demetral engaged. Demetral began laying plans to trap Lewis into a title match with a fixed referee, or, that failing, he schemed to break the trust wide open and conduct a mad scramble for title honors. He selected Illinois for his battlefield and Sandow fell into the trap set for Lewis.
Demetral obtained from Sandow a five thousand dollar loan on his Chicago home and gave in return a mortgage to his boss. Then he met and lost in a bout to Lewis in Chicago. The fireworks began.
Demetral went to Walter Eckersal, Chicago Tribune sports editor and declared he could have thrown Lewis if the fear of foreclosure hadn’t hung over his head. The Tribune printed Demetral’s charges of a trust. Demetral kept talking, revealing the inside of many big title bouts held in the Windy City and what he didn’t know to be a fact, he supplied from his fertile imagination.
His charges broke the mat game wide open in Illinois and the stories, filed through the Chicago Tribune news syndicate, almost wrecked the mat game throughout the United States. Dark days loomed for the “Gold Dust Trio.”
The governor of Illinois ordered an investigation. He threatened to ban wrestling from the Prairie State and declare Lewis’ title forfeited in his domain if evidence warranted.
Sandow was frantic. He scurried about Illinois, contacting politicians and influential persons in an effort to hush the probe. The governor was adamant. Though Sandow spent money lavishly, his nibs was determined to see the probe through.
Sandow began biting his nails and wondering what course to take. It was Lewis who came to the rescue. Sandow, Lewis, Mondt, Demetral, and White were ordered by the governor to appear in Springfield, Illinois, before a special legislative committee.
Demetral’s testimony was heard, then Lewis was sworn to testify.
Presenting a release on the mortgage which Sandow had held, Lewis said to the committee: “I’m mat champion of the world. I stand ready to meet any man alive for my title. I have never asked a man to lose to me and I never will. Demetral believes he could have beaten me if he hadn’t borrowed money from Sandow. I present herewith a release from Sandow. I also lay before you gentlemen a cash bond of twenty-five thousand dollars and I am willing to pay it to Demetral if he can beat me here before you gentlemen in this room or in any gymnasium you care to name.” Demetral declined the challenge and there the investigation ended. The “best man for champion” had again been effectively demonstrated.
Often Sandow paid a high price to “Trust Busters” to keep them out of his territory and to harass growing competitors.
Probably the greatest cancer ever to annoy the Sandow organization was Marian Plestina, a rugged individual who was sponsored by Joe Marsh. Plestina was the pawn Marsh used to keep Sandow awake nights.
Strangely enough, though Sandow knew the ability of both Lewis and Mondt, he hesitated to put them to the test too often and, therefore, these crusaders had an easier time of it in their peregrinations about North America.
Bernarr MacFadden, Publisher of Physical Culture Magazine, and Jack Curley of New York, proved to be the aids both Marsh and Plestina needed. MacFadden was a great believer in physical well-being and espoused the cause of Plestina. Jack Curley wanted to share in the immense profits of the Sandow combination and, therefore, used his influence and friendship with New York newspapers in an effort to discredit Lewis as World’s Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.
Marsh placarded the country from coast to coast with broadsides proclaiming the crooked and double dealings of Sandow, Lewis and Mondt. Though the three had never so much as taken a penny unlawfully from any man, Marsh began to make his allegations felt in many quarters. Some of the best towns fell off in wrestling gates. Lewis and Mondt again wanted to prove championship superiority on the mat, but Sandow lacked the confidence necessary to test his own partners’ prowess.
“You can’t tell,” Sandow would reply to Lewis’ and Mondt’s importunings. “Marsh and Plestina may have the referee fixed or maybe Plestina can really beat both you and Lewis.”
The situation became serious. Sandow proved incapable of coping with the emergency. Stories were printed in friendly newspapers that Marsh had served a term in prison. This didn’t faze Plestina’s mentor one whit.
Instead of denying the stories, Marsh, consummate showman, made capital of the charges and posed as a reformed rogue. With his tongue in his cheek, Marsh told spellbound yokels:
“That is public knowledge. Of course, I made mistakes when I was a kid and I paid my debt to society. Now I want to go straight and repay the public for my sins, so I’m out to break the mat trust.”
Again Lewis and Mondt came to the rescue and solved the Plestina-Marsh problem.
Though the two trust busters were receiving considerable publicity, they lacked money. Mondt ran into Marsh one night in the Hotel Pfeister in Milwaukee. He invited Marsh and Plestina to his room for a drink and while the liquor flowed freely, made the following proposition:
“I think, Marian,” he said to Plestina, “that without question you’re one of the world’s greatest wrestlers. It’s a shame Sandow won’t let you come into the organization and be champion. Now I know you can beat Lewis and I think I can handle Ed, so I tell you what you do. Tomorrow we’ll drive together up to Lewis’ summer home in Nekoosa, Wisconsin. Ed is there with Scotty MacDougall and a few training partners. The first day you wrestle with MacDougall and some of the other boys. Then rest a few days and you can go to the mat with Lewis. You two boys will shoot, and if Lewis beats you fairly and squarely with Marsh as the referee, we’ll take you into the combination and work several matches with you and get some real money. If you beat Lewis we’ll sign a contract to let you wrestle Lewis in New York, Chicago, or anywhere else where we can draw money, and we’ll guarantee to dump the heavyweight mat title to you. If you beat Lewis fairly and squarely at the camp I’ll give you my word you’ll get a chance within two months to win the title in public from Lewis. But if you fail, then you and Marsh must come into the organization and play ball.”
Plestina and Marsh mulled the proposition over. Finally Plestina said: “I’ll do it. Now I’m a hero, the uncrowned champion, but I have a wife and kids home who are almost starving, and they can’t eat my newspaper write ups. I’m tired anyway of being an outlaw, so I’ll go up to the camp with you and show you what I’ve got. I know I can beat Lewis and I can’t get a match with him unless I play ball your way, so I might just as well try your scheme out. Anyway, even if I lose I can make money with your crowd, and I’m not making much now.” Spectators who attended the arrival of Mondt, Plestina and Marsh into Lewis’ summer camp at Nekoosa, Wisconsin, say Sandow’s hair turned so gray it necessitated another application of dye before Billy’s always youthful appearance was restored. Ed White, Joe Coffey, Sandow and one or two others had their doubts as to the benefits of the plan. “If he beats Lewis,” protested Sandow, “how do we know he won’t spill the beans and advertise the fact to the world and ruin us that much more?”
“If he beats me,” replied the Strangler, “he deserves to be champion and I’m willing to let him have it. I’m sick and tired of being baited with this fellow and we’re going to the mat not in two or three days, but right now.”
Lewis threw Plestina two falls in thirty minutes and another trust buster was brought to his knees.
In the years that followed, Lewis and Plestina wrestled in almost every big city in America, before gates totaling thousands of dollars.
Marsh became a promoter in the Northwest and Plestina became a “good boy.” Either Sandow began to fear his own partners’ abilities or he possessed too much envy to give credit where it was due, for three days later while all concerned were discussing the Plestina-Lewis contest, Sandow cut the conversation short with: “Yes, Ed did a great job. But do you fellows really believe Plestina was trying?” Sandow was never satisfied and his comment on the Lewis-Plestina shooting match at Lewis’ summer camp was one of the first of his many remarks that eventually led to the split up of the greatest and most successful wrestling combination in the history of American sportsdom.