Writing about the history of Greek-American involvement in professional wrestling in North America, since at least the 1870s, is not as straightforward a practice as it may seem. Clear chronologically arranged documentation is hard to find. Specialized archives, sections of fine libraries, and a wide array of published accounts all exist – and with patience can be readily employed by the dedicated researcher. Still, that doesn’t mean everything about the daily life and practice of professional sports in North America can be readily discovered and understood as it was experienced by those who first lived through those events.
Nonetheless, a close study of Greek immigrants and those of Greek descent who have and continue to excel professionally in North America sports offers a perspective not now employed in the typical academic studies of the historical experience and contemporary existence of those who continue to assert they are ethnic Greeks.
While the contemporary academic study of soccer among the Greeks in Greece is ongoing next to nothing exists in academic circles on the long and complicated involvement of Greeks in American sports. Given the widely accepted acknowledgement that the average American is deeply fascinated, some have even asserted obsessed, by a wide array of sporting events makes this omission, within Greek-American Studies, particularly striking.
Even the most passing review of local newspapers and the various histories of sports in the United States clearly reveals that the initial Greek immigrants of the 1870s-1920s and all subsequent generations have and continue to hold a commanding presence in an incredible array of amateur and professional sporting venues. As yet another case study on the public reporting on especially well-known Greek-American athletes, here is something of the life and various careers of Soterios Pappas.
On August 19, 1915, Soterios Anton Pappas was born in Washington, DC to Anton Pappas, a Greek immigrant and the former Maria Mazulla. Anton Pappas is cited, among other professions, as being a wrestling promoter. As a teenager, young Pappas gained the nickname ‘Buddy’ while simultaneously showing considerable skill as a promising young graphic artist. Yet the young Soterios was also gifted in physical development. We know this because Pappas, by the age of 14, posed for artists at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC.
Yet young Pappas’ career as a full-time professional artist was put on hold the moment he met Jim Londos (1894-1975). Not unexpectedly, given that young Pappas was the son of a Greek immigrant pro-wrestling promoter, he one day met his idol, the legendary Londos. Pappas’ life forever changed that day. This was also perhaps not unexpected since Soterios Pappas at that time stood 5’x 9” and weighed 255 pounds. Londos was not only young Pappas’ idol, it is reported that he systematically worked out with Londos and quite literally carried this fabled wrestler’s bags.
Young Pappas began to seriously carve out a professional wrestling career, first under his real name, and then later as Southern States heavyweight champion, AKA Jesse James. Pappas, under his Jesse James non de plume, is especially remembered for his classic battles with the outrageous wrestler Gorgeous George (George Raymond Wagner, 1915-1963).
And as we study young Pappas’ career we enter into the intentional hoopla of professional wrestling promotional mania.
Soterios Pappas’ wrestling career that can be tracked – but strangely only up to a certain point. The wrestler known as ‘Jesse James’ and his actual number of known uncontested matches cannot be so effortlessly documented. When I first began researching Pappas’ career I found the expected public record sources and news accounts identifying him as Jesse James.
Yet I soon discovered, at least five other men who wrestled or now wrestle professionally under the name ‘Jesse James.’ In no particular order these individuals were/are: Demetrios Stephanos Tzitzikas (1917-2000); Tom Benninghaus; Terry Allen (1959); Michael Samuel Smith (1964); and currently Brian Girard James (1969). This stage name remains popular to this day. The last cited individual, Brian Girard James, is still wrestling and is also popularly known as ‘Road Dogg’.
At this point I thought I had identified all the professional wrestlers who had appeared as ‘Jesse James.’ Then, sorting through other documents I discovered four more pro-wrestlers who also faced a wider range of challengers as ‘Jesse James’. These wrestlers were William Charles Rush; James ‘Jesse’ Judge; James Atkins, and Demetri Jejucuc.
Adding yet another spin to Soterios Pappas’ time as a professional wrestler, he also, for an unspecified period, faced challengers under the name ‘Chris Pappas’.
All this to note that compiling Soterios Pappas’ precise wrestling history has challenges. Compounding this is the fact that Pappas offers 1936 as the year he entered the ring to face Jim Londos, always saying with pride that he lasted ‘59 minutes with the old master (Evening Star January 2, 1949).’
From this same source we see that Pappas attests to have entered the professional ring in some 2,500 engagements. Still, documentation, identifying each and every one of these 2,500 matches, is not readily available. Which given the unintentional yet still scattered nature of professional wrestling is far from uncommon. As a case in point, all wrestling databases agree that between 1941 and 1946, Pappas engaged in well over 327 professional wrestling matches. And for my part I have found newspaper accounts on Pappas’ wrestling matches not now cited in on-line websites or printed sources.
Yet Pappas’ life outside the ring took on added dimensions and success as not even the most dedicated sports fan could have predicted.
Pappas returned to art in a big way. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pappas’ return took the form of working in the art studios of various radio and television stations as a tireless mix of producer-director-publicist. Joining first WTTG in Washington DC, Pappas’ pioneering work in early television had him working daily with such individuals as Walter Cronkite and Milton Berle. Later, at WBAL-TV in Baltimore, Pappas was part of the brainstorming team that created ‘Romper Room’, the long-running and multi-award winning morning children’s show (Evening Star January 2, 1949; Evening Star December 7, 1960; Evening Star April 23, 1961).
As part of his daily television work Pappas is seen in numerous news accounts presenting painted portraits to numerous Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland. Clearly Buddy Pappas was a man of great energy.
As if all his television work was not enough, in 1962, Pappas took over the Silver Spur Restaurant located at 924 E street NW, Washington DC. (Evening Star May 10, 1962). Clearly a man of nearly boundless energy, Pappas moved to Las Vegas, initially emphasizing his art career. Yet the man long known as ‘the Greek Adonis of Wrestling’ somehow also found the time and energy to serve as a casino host at the San Remo hotel in the 1990s.
It was in Los Vegas, on September 11, 2001, that Sotrios Anton Pappas, wrestler, artist, early television visionary, and restaurant entrepreneur died. Pappas’ memorial service was held on Tuesday, September 18, 2001 with an additional service at the St. Viator Catholic Church on October 28th.
For decades the American press was filled, very often quite literally on a daily basis, with breaking news on Greeks in amateur and professional sports. The equal footing and very often leadership roles of Greeks versus any and all other athletes was unquestioned. As documented evidence attests, anyone can effortlessly find short and long newspaper articles and much longer published accounts on Greek-Americans who excelled in local and national sporting events. Why are figures such as Soterios Anton Pappas not found in standard historical accounts on Greeks in North America? What are we afraid of?