Professional wrestling’s marriage with collectors is not new. Certainly, Vince McMahon Jr. took pro wrestling out of the grainy black-and-white television era that made his father, Vince McMahon Sr., a rich promoter. The younger McMahon saw marketing possibilities his father never envisioned and circumvented the good-old-boys network of territorial fiefdoms to carve out his own empire.
McMahon became richer in the process and now has a nice licensing deal with Topps that has produced some very attractive sets of his WWE lineup.
It is ironic, however, that a company noted more for its hockey product produced one of the more interesting vintage wrestling sets. The 1955-56 Parkhurst wrestling set packed some strong names into its 121-card set. These men earned their stripes not as slick marketing packages, but on their ability to draw audiences into the smoky arenas of the 1950s. Many of them would wrestle into the 1970s and even 1980s.
The star-power in this set is formidable, beginning with the most flamboyant wrestler of the era, Gorgeous George (card No. 95). There are two cards of Antonino (also knowns as Argentina) Rocca, an Italian-born wrestler who moved to Argentina and was known for his acrobatic moves. Also included is wrestling pioneer Bobo Brazil, one of the first black men to wrestle professionally and certainly one of the more popular wrestlers of the 1950s (No. 6).
There are also two cards of Lou Thesz, who dominated as the National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight champion during the decade. Other champions — past and present — included Bronko Nagurski (No. 97), Buddy Rogers (No. 119), Pat O’Connor (No. 47) and Verne Gagne (No. 43).
Some great wrestling ancestral lines can be found in this set. Prince Maiava (No. 72) is the grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Dory Funk (No. 37) is the father of former NWA heavyweight champions Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk. Warren Bockwinkel (Card No. 21, misspelled “Bockwinkle” in the set), is the father of six-time AWA heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkel.
Even smaller wrestlers — known as midget wrestlers during the less-than-politically correct 1950s — are represented, with Selassi and Little Beaver (No. 44) sharing a card.
The card fronts were simple, with color photos of the wrestlers. Their names are not on the front, but the number in the set is located an upper corner of the card in a small box.
The card backs list the wrestler’s name, his height and weight. As Parkhurst was a Canadian company, the biography of each wrestler is presented in English and French. Parkhurst uses green ink for the type and sets it against a gray background.
The backs also included some interesting trivia: For example, the back of Dory Funk Sr.’s card notes that fellow wrestler Don Leo Jonathan was an original cast member of the “Our Gang” movie series. While I cannot confirm that — Jonathan was born in 1931 and the first “Our Gang” two-reel short was a silent film in 1922 — the wrestler did appear in the 1978 movie “Paradise Alley.” That was a film about professional wrestling starring Sylvester Stallone in which Jonathan played — surprise — a wrestler, along with Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., Ray Stevens and Bob Roop, to name a few.
Some other trivia: Sonny Kurgis is a licensed funeral director. He beat the Undertaker by three decades. And Danno O’Shocker owned a cheese factory in the United States.
Some cards also carry explanations of particular wrestling moves, like the leg dive, the figure four head scissors and the reverse neck breaker.
There are some interesting omissions in the set. For example, Killer Kowalski, Stu Hart, Édouard Carpentier and Mad Dog Vachon are not included. Hart and Carpentier are curious, since both were famous Canadian stars. Vachon may have just been emerging as a marquee wrestler so his exclusion is probably justified.
The nicknames were more colorful in the 1950s, although probably not the most politically correct. Nanjo Singh (No. 48) is called the “Horrible Hindu,” while Zorra (No. 81) was dubbed the “French Tarzan.”
One wrestler whose nickname isn’t mentioned is Reggie Lisowski (No. 52), who was known for many years as The Crusher.
More than 2,100 cards from this set have been sent to PSA for grading, and there are no gem mint graded cards. In fact, it’s quite difficult to find highly graded cards from the 1955-56 Parkhurst set. There are only two graded PSA9s — Toar Morgan (No. 49) and Bates Ford (No. 89) — and 83 graded at least PSA8.
For wrestling fans of the 1950s, the 1955-56 Parkhurst set mirrors the era — not too flashy, but full of interesting information. There are several dozen available on eBay, but for the most part this set remains a hidden gem.