Stan Kowalski was introduced to the Target Field crowd Friday night and followed by raising the flag. He was there as the latest member of the Greatest Generation to do the Twins the honor of being on hand to add an emotional edge to the national anthem.
Kowalski enlisted in the Navy as a 17-year-old in 1943 and served on three submarines: the Plaice, the Barb and the Bashaw. He was a gunner’s mate, charged with the 50-caliber artillery piece on the deck.
“The Barb was famous,” Kowalski said. “She did a lot of damage to Japanese ships.”
Stan is a week shy of his 91st birthday and in a wheelchair. These aged American heroes always draw an extra-warm ovation from the arriving crowd at the ballpark.
A greeting such as this in a sports venue was novel for Kowalski, since he spent three decades of his life facing venom merely for walking down an aisle in an arena as a pro wrestling villain.
Kowalski was raised in north Minneapolis as Bert Smith. He served in the Navy as Gunnery Mate Smith. He returned to the Twin Cities and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
“I hadn’t played football in high school, but as a big man and getting bigger, I went out for the Gophers,” he said. “I got in for one play in football, and I was Verne Gagne’s backup as the heavyweight on the wrestling team.”
Joe Pazandak was a pro wrestler, and he worked out at the U. Stan wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do for a job. He was 6-foot-2 and well-muscled and Pazandak suggested that he give wrestling a try.
Bert Smith wasn’t going to cut it as a wrestling name. He tried Buddy Marco and then Sammy Silver.
“He was only Sammy Silver for a few matches,” said wrestling historian George Schire, who agreed that was a few too many.
Finally, the fledgling wrestler decided he needed a name with an edge to it. He went with Stan “Krusher” Kowalski.
“We had a guy around here who didn’t know how to spell,” Stan said. “He spelled Crusher with a C. Everyone knows that you spell it with a K.”
How about Kowalski?
“Koval is the Polish version of Smith, and we added the ‘ski,’ ’’ he said. “When someone says Bert Smith to me, I say, ‘Who’s he?’ ’’
Kowalski was wrestling in Honolulu in the ’50s. Tiny Mills also was there. Tiny and his brother Al (a real brother, not just a wrestling brother) had been a tag team billed as “Murder Inc.”
Al was getting out and Tiny recruited Kowalski as his partner. As you might suspect, a tag team called Murder Inc. was not going to be a crowd favorite.
The National Wrestling Alliance was the umbrella for the sport nationally in the ’50s with territorial promoters. Mills and Kowalski became the tag team champions for the Midwest territory.
There was also a singles match at the Minneapolis Auditorium on Jan. 19, 1960: Kowalski vs. Gagne. There was a crowd of more than 7,000, “largest in several years” according to the Minneapolis Tribune, and they witnessed Kowalski’s lone victory over Gagne.
Stan’s son Scott has the photo and story on his cellphone. “I had a calendar printed for Dad a few years ago,” Scott said. “And all 12 months had that same photo.”
Gagne and Wally Karbo started the American Wrestling Association later in 1960. Kowalski and Mills were the AWA’s first tag team champions. They lost the title to Hard Boiled Haggerty and Lenny Montana late in the year.
Another Crusher — Lisowski — came to town in 1962. Gagne saw him as a big money maker, and in November 1962 there was a match between Krusher and Crusher, with the loser giving up the name (in the Midwest, anyway).
The new Crusher won, and became a main eventer here for years. Stan wrestled here, there and everywhere, including for the WWF in New York in the late ’60s. The East Coast had Killer Kowalski, so Stan’s name became Krippler Karl Kovachs.
“I had a lot of tights with K on them for Krusher Kowalski,” Stan said. “As Krippler Kovachs, I didn’t have to buy new tights.”
Stan retired in the mid-’70s. He promoted wrestlers and ran nightclubs, including Mr. Nibs on 26th and 26th in Minneapolis.
“I never had any trouble,” Stan said. “Everyone respected me.”
Kowalski had a long run as the state commander of the VFW. He spent decades promoting the United Way to companies, to the point the charitable group now has a Stan Kowalski Award.
Who would have guessed that behind the chest of the co-star of Murder Inc. beats the heart of a good Samaritan.