Sputnik Monroe's Unique Style
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This month a sports hero named Sputnik Monroe died at the age of 77. You might not be familiar with that name, but in Memphis, in the 1950s and '60s, Sputnik Monroe was almost bigger than Elvis. He was a professional wrestler, a bad guy the audiences loved to hate, a white man who was a hero to the black community in Memphis.
NPR's Tom Goldman and Melissa Gray profiled Sputnik Monroe back in 2001. Long past his glory days, the wrestler was living in an apartment in Houston with his wife and two cats and working at a gas station. Melissa was the one who saw a story in this man.
MELISSA GRAY: I was reading It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon, and then on page 33 there's this photograph of this big guy from like the 1950s. He's in the ring. He's wearing wrestling pants. He's got the whole thing down, and there are four guys restraining him, and he just looks like, you know, a force of nature. And underneath it, the caption was something like Sputnik Monroe, 220 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GRAY: And I'm thinking this is an NPR story. This is completely...
TOM GOLDMAN: Bing.
GOLDMAN: That whole thing about tweaking the audience, I mean that was his whole persona. I mean that was actually, you know, behind the name Sputnik, remember? Because he was named Sputnik after he was driving to - was it Alabama? And he was...
GRAY: I think he was driving - yeah, I think he was driving from Washington State or something bizarre like that.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. SPUTNIK MONROE (Wrestler): I pooped out in Greenwood, Mississippi. I couldn't drive anymore, and I pulled into the station. There was a little guy there, a little black guy with a suitcase, in Citronelle, Alabama. So I asked him if he could drive, and he said, yeah. And I said, okay, drive me to Channel 2, to the TV (unintelligible) and after it's over and I'm woke up, we'll go rock and roll with the ladies on the street.
TOM GOLDMAN: They drove to Alabama and showed up at the studio and just caused an absolute ruckus because he had his arm around the guy, and then when the audience started to hoot and holler - because remember, this was the South in the '50s and they started to scream at him. And so he'd kissed the guy. He kept, you know, kind of bringing him onstage and kissing him on the cheek...
MELISSA GRAY: If you're mad now I'm going to make you madder.
Mr. MONROE: And then there was an old lady that she cussed better than drunk sailors, as she's calling me a N-word lover, and finally the security told her if you don't stop cursing we're going to have to ask you to leave. And she said what he really is, is a damn Sputnik.
GOLDMAN: She couldn't think of anything worse to call him. She called him a Sputnik because it was that week that the Russian's had sent up the Sputnik. And that was the height of the Cold War and to call someone a Sputnik was about as bad a thing as you could call someone. And so it became - just in the name Sputnik that is a hated name, and so that was his whole deal.
GRAY: But his real name was Roscoe Brumbaugh. Actually that even wasn't his real name. It was something like DiGrazio.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, DiGrazio was his father's name, his father who died when he was just about a year old. His dad died in a plane crash.
GRAY: Yeah, I remember him telling us about that, about how he felt, that he had absorbed some of his mother's pain from his father's death. And that's one reason why he was so - why he became so kind of big and tough. And I think also why he was more perhaps inclined to champion the underdog or the people who are hurting.
GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, and I remember asking him, Melissa, I said, you know - even offered to him that he had been a sensitive guy, even though he had this very tough guy persona, and I remember he growled, I don't know what that means. I'm probably sensitive where I've had the hide kicked off. But I think he did know what I mean. And you know, his embrace of the black community in Memphis, I think that was part of it. It was - obviously he wanted to tweak people, and that reinforced his wild rebel persona, but as you and I found out, it was also based on a moral code that he lived by and fiercely defended.
Mr. MONROE: My friend, I can't think of his name, it's terrible. We went to Dillard's, maybe, and he took his hat off, and I said, Sam Qualls(ph), don't take that damn hat off. We may have a fight, but we ain't taking out hat off. Put your hat on and we'll do our business and then we'll leave, but we're going to be wearing them Homburgs.
GOLDMAN: Because taking your hat off is a sign of...
Mr. MONROE: Servitude. And the blacks had to take their hats off when they went in a white establishment. We integrated Dillard's and nobody wanted to fight me.
GOLDMAN: What kind of feeling did this give you during that time? Did you feel like a do-gooder?
Mr. MONROE: Ah, hell no. I'm not a do-gooder. I'm a doer, just a doer.
GRAY: He was so open, one of the most open people that I think I've ever head the pleasure of just sitting down and talking with. And one night I was working and my phone rang, and it was Sputnik.
GRAY: And he says, hello beautiful. You know how can that not warm your heart?
GRAY: And we sat there and talked and he sounded like he was a bit down. And I wasn't really sure what was going on because you don't want to pry too much in some cases and with some people, because I think Sputnik was one that kept a lot of the physical pain to himself.
GRAY: When we met him he had lost half a lung I think to lung cancer. They had taken it out. I think he had gone through gall bladder surgery, and his health...
GOLDMAN: Any number of broken bones, broken fingers, broken leg, absolutely.
GRAY: He was in a bit of physical pain. But I just, I remember he just wanted to call and connect.
GOLDMAN: And the legacy when you think back on him is, he had such a heightened sense of good and evil. And he firmly believed that if you're bad, things catch up to you and you have a bad, bad ending. And if you're good, well, the opposite happens.
Mr. MONROE: When I meet the man upstairs - I hope I'm going that way, I hope I don't go down. But if I do go down, I'm going down fighting.
ELLIOTT: Wrestler Sputnik Monroe died earlier this month at the age of 77. We heard from NPR's Tom Goldman and Melissa Gray. You can hear Tom's interview with Sputnik Monroe at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.