Pro wrestling in Toronto was front-page news in the fall of 1934 when it became the focal point of scandal and controversy at the Ontario Athletic Commission. Before it was over, the chairman of the OAC had resigned and his predecessor was disgraced. In an attempt to avenge his embarrassment, the previous chairman testified under oath that pro wrestling matches were fixed.
There were two separate issues that played out simultaneously. We'll just look at the one involving the previous commissioner here and save the story of his successor for another time.
The Liberals under 38-year-old Mitchell Hepburn had won the provincial election in July, defeating the reigning Conservatives. With the new government came new political appointments and -- some things never change -- accusations of financial mismanagement under the previous government. New appointments to the OAC were made in September while an audit was ordered of the commission's financial operations under previous chairman Thomas Murphy, a Conservative MPP representing the Beaches area in Toronto.
The auditor's report released in October was scathing in its findings. The commission was said to have a deficit of $11,000 (about $150,000 in today's dollars) while chairman Murphy was found to have made expense claims averaging what would today be $50-80 every day for years. The commission was spending about 40% of the revenue it collected on travel expenses, almost double what it was spending on amateur sport in the province. "It was never contemplated that members of the Commission should constitute themselves a body of tourists," wrote The Globe in an editorial.
The audit triggered a full investigation into the OAC in November, and wrestling promoter Jack Corcoran was subpoenaed to appear. He was a no-show at two scheduled hearings and his lawyer, P. Beverly Matthews, made a formal objection to the subpoena, but Corcoran finally did appear before the inquiry on November 15.
Corcoran dropped a bombshell on the proceedings when he testified that he had made two cash payments of $500 to Murphy in 1932 (in today's dollars that's over $14,000 in total). The payments, Corcoran said, had been demanded by Murphy. Corcoran said that Murphy had become a partner in the promotion of wrestling shows in Ottawa and he hoped the payment would make the commission go a bit easier on the fines it levied against his club and his wrestlers.
Corcoran had also organized 21 free shows within Murphy's riding and paid for them out of his own pocket. He said that he once refused to put on a free show in the Beaches area and was fined by the OAC later the same day.
The testimony from Corcoran provided an insight into the operations of his Toronto wrestling office. In 1932, the OAC had granted wrestling licenses to three groups: Corcoran's Queensbury Athletic Club, the Shamrock Athletic Club, operated by Walter Beauchamp, and a third group run by Fred Hambly called the Crescent Athletic Club.
Not long after Hambly received the license -- and before he ran any shows -- he offered to sell it to Corcoran. Corcoran talked to Beauchamp and they agreed that there wasn't room for three promotions operating in Toronto. They offered to pay Hambly $1,000 for his license, but -- according to Corcoran -- that was rejected as being too low a price after Hambly consulted with Murphy.
Corcoran testified that he discussed the matter with his partners -- Paul Bowser and Toots Mondt -- and then he and Beauchamp agreed to pay Hambly $40 a week for a year plus an additional $75 for a total of $2,155. Whether any of that money ended up in Murphy's pocket was never determined.
Hambly and his son, W.A. Hambly, testified that they had been planning to book wrestlers from Bowser for their shows, but Bowser was working with Mondt, who owned a piece of Corcoran's office, and so they agreed to sell their license back to Mondt-Bowser-Corcoran.
Murphy was recalled before the inquiry the day after Corcoran's appearance and flatly denied taking any money. "I never received any money from Mr. Corcoran in my life," he testified.
Murphy went on to say that wrestling was just like vaudeville -- "just a show" -- with the wrestlers travelling together from town to town. He said Corcoran was able to tell him the results of all the matches before the shows had taken place but Murphy said he didn't know how much the referees were told. (Star sports editor Lou Marsh pointed out that the first show after Murphy "blew his squealing bazoo" attracted more than four times as many spectators as the previous card. "What's the use of raving?," asked Marsh. "Ten thousand people had a hysterical and thrilling evening.")
Corcoran denied that the wrestling matches weren't legitimate contests and offered to pay $1,000 to charity if anyone could prove a single instance where the best man didn't win.
Referee Jack Forbes told the inquiry that, as far as he knew, "the best wrestlers were on top through merit. I absolutely believe that. Of course, I've heard street gossip to the contrary."
Timekeeper Willie Marr -- a commission appointee -- testified that he would give time signals to the referee and wrestlers so that they could "have a rousing finish to the bout." He said he sometimes knew in advance when there was to be a fall. "I considered it was only an act and I was part of the act." Marr later admitted that he was related to Murphy's wife (Marr is the "official" referred to in the headline at the top of this page).
Even Lou Marsh was called to give his opinion on pro wrestling. "I think modern wrestling is just as it is advertised -- an exhibition," he told the inquiry. (The inquiry is "not telling us anything new" about wrestling, wrote Marsh in his column.)
John Thomas, who had promoted some shows in St. Catharines with Corcoran before the two had a falling out, testified that Corcoran presented himself as "the Mussolini of the wrestling racket and that his word was law." He called Corcoran's assistant, G.W. Harris "most repulsive ... always chiselling."
Thomas said that Corcoran had ripped him off by over-reporting the expenses of the shows, thereby understating the profits the two were to split. He tried to sue Corcoran, but the matter was dismissed because Thomas couldn't submit the records of the OAC. He claimed they showed a discrepancy between the expenses Corcoran reported to the commission and what he told Thomas. Thomas said he got some of his money back from Corcoran after taking his case to the OAC. Corcoran would later testify that Murphy told him that if he didn't settle with Thomas he would lose his St Catharines license.
Whatever reluctance Corcoran had initially shown in his testimony vanished after Murphy's denial that he had ever taken money. He voluntarily came forward with the charge that Murphy had asked him to pay $225 for musical entertainers, liquor, and gifts for a meeting of Ontario and Quebec athletic bodies. "I paid the bill and he had the nerve to call me a chiseller," said Corcoran of Murphy. He also said that wrestler Jack Kogut was a witness to one of the payments made to Murphy. Kogut confirmed that Corcoran had handed something to Murphy, but he couldn't say what it was.
The findings of the inquiry were reported in January 1935. Commissioner Chester Walters accepted Corcoran's evidence that he had paid $500 to Murphy, provided free shows in Murphy's riding, and had paid entertainment expenses for an OAC meeting. The commissioner said evidence of a second payment of $500 was not conclusive and he made no ruling on Corcoran's accusation that Murphy had been a partner in the wrestling promotion in Ottawa.
Walters provided a list of recommendations, which included making OAC officials personally liable for spending outside of the organization's mandate, not allowing the commission to run a deficit, and limiting the terms of commission members to three years at a time.
-by Gary Will