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Fritz von Goering is on Facebook

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Wrestler Fritz von Goering made a good living in the 1950s as a villain in the ring.
Wrestler Fritz von Goering made a good living in the 1950s as a villain in the ring.
  • Bob Greene says he found a wrestler he used to watch as a kid on Facebook
  • He says Fritz von Goering was scary, reviled, partly because of name promoter gave him
  • Greene interviewed the retiree, who was truck driver, car salesman after he left wrestling
  • Greene: Now von Goering says he'd happily friend his former wrestling rivals on Facebook

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- The world changes, but I'm not sure it's supposed to change this much:

Fritz von Goering is on Facebook.

"Yeah," von Goering said the other day, "I'm on it. People told me that's the way to connect with people."

Fritz von Goering on a social network ... something just seems wrong. He always seemed to be the most anti-social human being on the face of the Earth.

At least he did from the vantage point of the third row on Saturday afternoons during the 1950s, which is where I always sat when I watched him work. I was 9, and my friend Kenny Stone and I would ride the bus to Old Memorial Hall in Franklin County, Ohio, where, for 50 cents, we purchased tickets to observe in person a weekly television broadcast called "Lex's Live Wrestling." Lex Mayers, a highly excitable local Chevrolet dealer, was the sponsor and host, and Fritz von Goering was the ultimate scowling villain.

He did terrible things to his opponents. Just terrible.

The hero of the telecasts was the blond, golden Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers. In most of the country, he was promoted as a bad guy, but for whatever reason, in central Ohio, Rogers was as beloved as Woody Hayes. Nature Boy could do no wrong.

"Don't even say that name to me," von Goering told me the other day. He is 82 now, and we were talking over a telephone line, but I instantly obeyed.

"I hated Nature Boy's guts offstage as well as on," von Goering said. "Don't bring him up again."

As it was, I could scarcely believe I was even talking to von Goering; it had been more than 50 years since those afternoons at Old Memorial Hall, with people screaming vile invective at him as he stepped between the ropes and into the ring, staring daggers at the audience and wearing a leather, military-type jacket. Out of curiosity this month I had decided to try to find out if he was still alive, and here he was, on the phone from his home in Northern California, sounding quite pleasant.

So, Fritz ... why do you think people hated you so much?

"Fans never did like me from day one, and I never knew why," he said. "I was a good-looking young kid when I was first getting started, and they put me in the ring against a bunch of ugly, hairy guys, and yet I was the one who got booed. The promoters said to me, 'You know, nobody likes you.' "

Biting the inside of my mouth, not knowing whether I should offer an opinion, I said:

"Perhaps it had something to do with your name being Fritz von Goering?"

"Yeah, I guess so," von Goering said. "But I didn't give myself that name. A promoter in Minnesota did."

In the years after World War II, the most certain way to turn fans against a wrestler was to give him a German or Japanese name. Wartime wounds were still raw. "I wasn't even of German heritage," von Goering said. "I was born in Chicago to an Irish-American family."

(In case you're wondering what von Goering's name was as a boy: I asked him, and he said he didn't feel like discussing it. Do you want to be the one to tell von Goering to do something he doesn't feel like doing? Be my guest.)

"When I first started wrestling professionally, I was billed as Fritz von Ulm," he said. "But I guess that didn't sound like a bad-enough villain. So they changed it to Fritz von Goering."

Made a certain sense, in the context of the times -- Hermann Goering, one of Adolf Hitler's henchmen, was not exactly a beloved figure in a 1950s United States filled with returning servicemen.

"They told me, 'You're Fritz von Goering now,' and my attitude was, 'Fine, if you say so.' "

He had never been outside the United States, but ring announcers from coast to coast proclaimed that he was "from Berlin, Germany," or "from Frankfurt, Germany," or "from Nuremberg, Germany" (they seemed to make it up as they went along), and thus he was able to make a pretty good living.

Although it did have its downside.

"I was wrestling one night in Marion, Ohio," he said. "Against Nature Boy Rogers. The fans found where I had parked my car on the street and smashed it to pieces. They knocked out all the windows, banged the fenders, cut the tires. I had no idea until after the match."

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"Lex Mayers had the car towed to his dealership, and he fixed it up, which was a nice thing for him to do seeing that he had a Chevy dealership and I drove an Oldsmobile."

There were no pensions for the professional wrestlers of his day, so when he got too old for the job he found work as a truck driver, and for a while, perhaps inspired by Mayers, he sold cars. (Although it is difficult to imagine how, after spending a career persuading people to despise him, he could beckon them to purchase an auto from "your friendly neighborhood used-car dealer, Fritz von Goering.")

He always seemed like a loner, but he told me that if there had been Facebook when he was competing, he would have accepted just about all of his fellow wrestlers, heroes or heels, as friends. Every name I threw at him -- all of the men who, when I was a boy, I witnessed sharing a "Lex's Live Wrestling" ring with him -- he said yes to.

Buddy "Killer" Austin? "Yes." Oyama Kato? "Yes." Sweet Daddy Siki? "Yes." Frankie Talaber? "Yes." Handsome Johnny Barend? "Yes." The Magnificent Maurice? "Yes."

I had to say it:

"Buddy 'Nature Boy' Rogers?"

"Absolutely not. Not in a million years."

In retirement and heading toward his 83rd birthday, von Goering said he does not miss the mayhem that once defined his life. And when he does find himself in the mood for unsuppressed anger, bellicose posturing and high-decibel insults, he knows where to turn.

"I watch cable news," he said.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.