Often imitated but never duplicated, Sputnik Monroe became a cultural icon known to kiss black babies, drape his arms around black friends, and generally acted like he was oblivious to the racial divide the South and much of the United States was experiencing during the mid-1950s and most of the ’60s. Being a white man, this infuriated most of his peers and put his family in grave danger. If one man was responsible for the desegregation of sporting events in the state of Tennessee, and later possibly the whole of the South, it was Sputnik Monroe.
Born Around Segregation
On December 18th, 1928, Roscoe Monroe Merrick was born in Dodge City, Kansas, to a single mother. Unfortunately, he never knew his real father because he tragically died in a plane crash one month before his birth. When Monroe was four, his mother remarried with a baker named Virgil Brumbaugh, who had black employees, and Monroe’s nanny was a woman of color. Monroe later changed his last name to Brumbaugh, but it was sometimes misspelled in the newspapers that would later report his arrests for vague dubious laws like mopery (minor offense like loitering), or as Monroe describes it, "an old southern vagrancy thing they made up," and disorderly conduct, for merely socializing or drinking in an establishment with black people. These were examples of the Jim Crow laws still being enforced even though they had been outlawed in 1954. In essence, they mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the states formerly of the Confederacy. This was known as "separate but equal." Nationwide, changes began to be seen in 1964 when president Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress.
At 17, he entered the Navy and was assigned to post-war assignments in Japan before he left and decided to participate in carnival wrestling matches in Wichita, Kansas, where he and a friend discovered that they could get $5 for every minute they survived against the local carnival brute, which in this case was big-bellied Bill Ely. Monroe explains, "It was nearly half a century ago when half a sawbuck and plenty of machismo could get you five minutes in the ring with the strong man and a chance at fifty bucks. I had shovel fights, rope fights, pickax-handle fights, wrestled, boxed, one hand tied down, whatever their specialty was."
He then went to work in midwest cities like Kansas City and St. Louis using guises such as Pretty Boy Roque. He later started working in the South and supposedly got hit on the head with a wooden chair by an opponent where eventually wood splinters had to be removed from his scalp, and a patch of silvery-white hair grew around the wound, almost like a skunk. He insists that this gave him the unique hairstyle we see in pictures and was not bleached, as many have questioned.
Did you know?: When Sputnik Monroe grew in popularity, high school kids of all races began sporting a white streak in their hair!
A Sputnik is Launched!
A trip to Mobile, Alabama, and a subsequent TV appearance has become a renowned wrestling tale that launched Sputnik Monroe into notoriety for many fans, just like the infamous Russian satellite that launched on October 4th, 1957. On the way into Mobile, after a long drive all the way from Washington State, Monroe picked up a black hitchhiker. Accounts vary in what city it happened; some claim it occurred in Mississippi, others believe it was in Citronelle, Alabama. But on this date in 1957, going by the moniker of "Rock" Monroe, he was expected at WKRG.TV studio to cut a promo for Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling booked by Buddy Fuller. And as agreed by most, the story continues as follows:
"[Monroe] offered the guy some money so he could help him drive so he could rest," said Mike Norris, a Gulf Coast wrestling historian. "When they drove up to the TV studio, segregation was obviously a pretty big thing in Alabama in those days. Sputnik heard the crowd grumbling about him being with a black man, so in an act of solidarity, he put his arm around him." But to the shock of the already furious onlookers, Monroe also kissed his companion on the cheek.
Norris continues, "Standing nearby was an irate woman who began hurling invectives at Monroe, and the dirtiest thing she could think of was ‘you’re a damn Sputnik!’"
Russia launched the first-ever artificial Earth satellite and was creating panic in the United States in late ’57, but the name of the infamous vessel became "Rock" Monroe’s new nickname thanks to the irate woman in Alabama.
The country at the time feared that the U.S. had fallen behind the enemy Russians in the implementation of space and weapons programs deemed crucial to national security. So the word Sputnik was a thorn on most people’s side and a very sore topic. Maybe it also mirrored the fear and/or confusion some people felt when they saw a white man fraternizing so openly with a person of color, and a kiss between two males in the conservative South no less! Most didn’t know what to make of this outlandish, unique looking brawler who sported the white streak of hair and ignored the current established norms society had in place when it came to race relationships.
Sputnik Monroe quickly ran with the name and became known as a villain to many (although he never considered himself good or bad), vain, barrel-chested, and with a style he described as "scientific rough," where his own philosophy was: "Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring." At every opportunity, the also nicknamed "Sweet Man" relished in demonstrating a gaudy strut like a rooster as if eternally taunting the crowd and goading them to react. He had a gruff voice and would trash-talk throughout his interviews, with his outlandish boasts wowing the crowd, bringing attention to himself, and, more importantly, bringing people to the wrestling shows.
He would declare himself a "diamond ring and Cadillac man" who claimed he had a hard time being modest when he was "235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women love and men fear."
Watch: Sputnik Monroe in various photos, many hard to find.
More Than Just a Wrestler, Sputnik Monroe was a Civil Rights and Cultural Icon
Wrestling historian and writer Scott Teal from Crowbar Press calls Sputnik Monroe a "civil rights icon." Jerry "The King" Lawler, a WWE Hall of Famer and Memphis wrestling legend in his own right, praises Monroe as well. "He really changed, especially in the South, the culture of wrestling… He broke the color barrier as far as people attending wrestling matches."
Monroe really began to draw large crowds in a time when Memphis wrestling was not doing so well. For the most part, these people truly hated him, but nonetheless, these were paying customers that had not been regularly coming to the show beforehand.
"Monroe was the porcupine, and the southern social establishment got pricked." – Steve Johnson and Greg Oliver from the book, The Heels.
He later single-handedly desegregated the spectators from the wrestling community. Monroe would exhort praise from the crowd, but not from the front rows which seated the white observers, but from the small upper rafters. He focused on the nosebleed section, also called "The crow’s nest," where the blacks were seated and segregated in the former Ellis Auditorium located in Memphis, Tennessee. He, a white man from Kansas, was focusing on the most down-trodden and much less economically well-to-do fans, the fans who had been pushed way up into the darkness to occupy the worst seats in the house.
At the time, Ellis Auditorium, like practically all public venues in the South, segregated its seating. The area for "blacks only" was very controlled by the building administration, but Monroe took it upon himself to bribe the employee that counted the number of black people who entered and so he would report a much lower number to his supervisor. This led to more black fans being able to enter the building. When they didn’t fit in the area assigned to them anymore, the administration was forced to integrate the seating. This allowed them to mingle with the white fans in the lower sections. A well-known fixture of the Memphis music scene, Jim Dickinson recalls, "There’s no other single event that integrated the audience other than the wrassling matches and Sputnik paying the guy to lie."
Later, Monroe also used his popularity and would coerce the promoters and venues to allow more black people to enter. There were times when several thousand black fans were not allowed to enter the building, not because they didn’t have tickets, but because the area designated to them was full. So Monroe usually got his way when threatening to no show if his black friends were not let inside. Sputnik Monroe indeed had a direct effect on the gate, and this gave him a lot of clout in getting more black people to the shows and for them to not have to sit way up in the nosebleed section.
Monroe once explained, "I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue."
Believing that wrestling wasn’t being properly marketed to the black fans of the area, he decided to seek them out and frequented Beale Street — a center of African-American business and nightlife — every single night for six months. Monroe dressed outlandishly as a "diamond ring and Cadillac man" and socialized at black bars and restaurants (called Negro Cafes), as confirmed by his daughter Natalie.
"Monroe was hated so much because of his activity with the blacks. He would spend his weekend on Beale Street and promoting wrestling and hanging out at the black bars and restaurants. They absolutely idolized him and thought he was some kind of hero. I really don’t know how else to explain it. I know that he always felt that they didn’t get a fair shake in life, and he wanted to make things better for them." She adds, "I used to tell him, ‘You were cool before it was cool.’ Daddy was comfortable around everyone."
Monroe’s point in all this was equality, and he was using his craft to promote social change. But the bottom line in wrestling is money, and money is colorblind. It was their livelihood and that the only color that should matter was green (as in money) and not what skin color the paying customers happened to have. Turning away, paying customers to him was morally wrong and financially senseless. According to famed wrestling manager Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart, Monroe would go to a promoter and say, "We work for a percentage of the house, so doesn’t it make sense to get everyone’s money?" Eventually, other sporting events followed suit and also desegregated.
"Sputnik Monroe was a force. He was a guy who made a difference. There just was never anyone exactly like him. There’s the Jerry Lawlers, the Jackie Fargos, the Ric Flairs, and all these guys who are great in their own right, but Monroe was an absolute one-of-a-kind-character." – Lance Russell, the voice of Memphis wrestling for half a century.
Sputnik Monroe Becomes a Monster Draw
John Dougherty (Johnny Dark) was a retired disc jockey and media personality who used to run Monroe’s original fan club in Memphis and would associate with him, along with Jerry Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (former producer of Elvis Presley). He can attest to what a powerful influence and draw Sputnik Monroe was becoming. "When he came to Memphis, they were averaging 300 people a night. By the time he started wrestling, 7,000 people were coming out to see him.
He also remembers the first time he saw a tear in Monroe’s eyes. "I remember one time Sputnik was wrassling in Louisville, and this little black lady came up to him with tears in her eyes and said, ‘You don’t remember me, you never met me, but I used to live in Memphis when they made us sit upstairs in those buzzard seats. You’re the one that got them to change that.’"
Because of his strong rapport with black people, they absolutely came to love and root for him. Venues continued to fill with black fans who wanted to see this "champion of their cause," but also with many whites who despised him and wanted to see him get beat!
In the book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, written by Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson, Southern star Tom Drake offers his opinion on Monroe. "He was the best agitator that ever came down the pike. When he got in that arena, he was hell to pay, a hellraiser, but wrestlers all liked to have him on the card because when he was there, we made a lot of money."
Before Jackie Fargo vs. Al Greene and the popularity of Jerry Lawler facing all challengers, the rivalry of Monroe and old school "catch" wrestler Billy Wicks became the hottest ticket in the state. It drew huge crowds, and an estimated 15,947 fans witnessed their final match on August 17th, 1959, at Russwood Park. This may or may not include the thousands of fans that wound up getting into the event after breaking the outfield fences, as Jim Cornette mentions while speaking with Steve Austin about Monroe. The numbers may even be as high as 18,000 for this blowoff match, depending on sources.
Some months before, they set an indoor arena record in Memphis that stood for more than 30 years with a reported 13,749 in paid attendance. Special guest referee and former boxing champion Rocky Marciano got involved and struck Monroe. Needless to say, the match was ruled a no contest. Wicks said about Monroe, "He used to bring out the ugliness in me, so we would have some pretty good battles. He was rough, very rough. He’d fight a buzzsaw." About Monroe as a person, Wicks comments, "He liked the challenge of doing certain things society and culture didn’t want people to do. He was going to do it his way. He was his character, and he didn’t take any baloney."
Getting Arrested but Later Putting His Family in Danger
As mentioned before, Sputnik Monroe was often arrested on bizarre charges such as mopery, and another time for disorderly conduct for simply drinking beer in what was then called Negro Cafes. He hired a black attorney by the name of Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., future General Sessions judge. Judge Boushe expressed surprise during it all and said that it was the "first time he could recall that a white man was represented in City Court by a negro attorney."
Monroe’s attorney argued at length that Monroe "had a right to be where he was, that he is a professional wrestler and has a lot of black fans, and he was simply creating goodwill by visiting negro cafes and having a glass of beer where he could be seen and talk with the people."
Monroe paid the $26 fine without comment and did not appeal.
All through this, Monroe did not stop socializing with black people in the least, which soon endangered his family’s well-being.
Marjorie "Midge" Bell, who was married to Monroe for ten years during the grappler’s prime, had to change the children’s last name from Brumbaugh to Bell in part for their own safety, her house was egged several times, and she had to be careful when she went to the grocery store with the children. They later had to move back to Louisiana.
Daughter Natalie recalls both her mother and father getting threats and being asked, "Do you know where your kids are?"
Monroe later divorced Midge (he married a total of six times) and left the area after business dwindled when tensions began to ease in the South. Taking up odd jobs and drinking heavily, he never again saw the same success he had in Memphis during the late ’50s to mid-’60s. But in the early ’70s, even after the supposed desegregation of the South, Monroe had an idea.
He returned to Memphis in late 1971, but this time he had a partner named Norvell Austin. Austin was in his early 20s and happened to be black. This interracial pair was not received well in an area still trying to evolve from its biases. When the odd-looking pair would take advantage of their opponents, Monroe would empty a can of black paint over them and yell, "Black is Beautiful!" Norvell added a blonde stripe to his afro and would be known in the interviews to reply, "White is wonderful!" Robert Fuller was on the receiving end of this paint on at least one occasion, greatly riling up the fans.
The Legacy of Sputnik Monroe
"But for all his achievements, perhaps nothing Monroe did between the ropes could even compare to the impact he made outside of them, as the acclaimed grappler tirelessly fought to end segregation in Memphis," reads his WWE bio for his Legacy Induction into their Hall of Fame in 2018.
In the early ’90s, when asked about the current wrestling product, Monroe pulled no punches and lamented the direction the sport had gone. "My business is dead," he said. "There are no more tough guys left in wrestling."
Former referee Tommy Fooshee, who was the best man at one of his weddings, says, "There was something about Sputnik, kind of like magic. I liked the attitude he had on life. He was colorful, but no matter what happened, he took care of business."
Son Quentin Brumbaugh followed in his father’s footsteps and wrestled as "Bubba Monroe, The Cajun Brawler" and says, "I look like Evel Knievel when I get down to my boxers, I’m scarred from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I look just like my daddy." Monroe’s son loved to watch his father wrestle, but his sister Natalie remembers things differently.
"It was fun for Bubba but traumatic for me," Natalie said of life in the front row of a Sputnik Monroe match. "It would make me cry because I didn’t like anyone hitting my daddy."
Years after Sputnik Monroe had retired from the squared circle, and a few years before he died, he was still recognized in Memphis and even from children who were never able to see him perform. As told by friend John Dougherty, "We were walking down Beale Street, and a teenage black kid came up to us and said, ‘Sputnik Monroe.’ Sputnik answered, ‘You weren’t even born when I was here.’ The kid said, ‘My mom’s family has a picture of you on the wall.’ He said that they had a picture of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sputnik Monroe, and Jesus Christ."
As of the completion of this piece, his wrestling boots, sequined jacket, and cape are on display at the Rock’ n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, with a plaque that reads: "Sputnik Monroe played a major part in destroying the color lines in Memphis."
He is inducted into the PWHF, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Wichita Falls, Texas, as well as the WWE Hall of Fame.
Sputnik Monroe died in his sleep in Florida on November 3rd, 2006. He was 77 years old.
Watch: Otis Gibbs performs the song "Sputnik Monroe"
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