Hilton Smith pitched for the Fulda Giants in 1949, with my father, Richard, as the manager. He had been a great pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, so much so that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 2001, the same summer as Kirby Puckett.
I was in Kansas City often as a Twins beat writer in the 1970s, and never thought to look in the phone book at the hotel to see if Hilton Smith’s number might be there. I finally did that in the early ‘80s and there it was: Hilton Smith.
I called and he came to the phone, and I introduced myself as Dick Reusse’s son, and we had a fine conversation and I said: “Hilton, next time in K.C., I’ll pick you up and buy lunch at Arthur Bryant’s.’’
Hilton said that was a deal, and before I got back to K.C., Hilton died – in November 1983. I met his family at the induction ceremony, and those folks were great, but I’ve always regretted not having that sit down with Hilton himself.
And now I can add Gene Okerlund to that list of regrets. Yes, I ran into Mean Gene and talked with him on the phone fairly often over the decades, but for the past few years, I’ve had some extra time in Fort Myers, and always arrived there with the full intention to get to Sarasota for a long, laugh-filled conversation/interview with him.
As too many great characters from the AWA have passed, I’ve called Gene, and gotten some quick, terrific stories, and I’ve always ended with: “Gene, I’m coming to Sarasota from The Fort, and we’ll have dinner,’’ and we agreed that was going to happen.
And it didn’t, but I was going to make sure it did this time, this winter/spring, and now it can’t, because Mean Gene died on Wednesday – age 76, a month after a fall, and with some long-time health problems.
You would never know that Okerlund was dealing with such issues, though, when he answered the phone to pay tribute to another wrestling character. Here’s what I loved about Mean Gene:
He always knew that when it came to landing a gig, he was among the luckiest people on the planet.
Okerlund was selling ads for Channel 11 in the early '70s. Channel 11 was then WTCN and the independent among the Twin Cities’ four TV stations. The AWA’s weekly TV show was taped in a studio at the station in the Calhoun Beach Hotel.
There was an AFTRA strike and Marty O’Neill, the AWA’s legendary TV interviewer, was a union member and didn’t cross the picket line. AWA owner and star attraction, Verne Gagne, found Okerlund at the station and recruited him to fill in as the interviewer.
Gene knew nothing about wrestling. He was a natural showman -- a member of rock bands in his youth and also a radio personality – and got through the first telecast.
He got better quickly and started sharing the interview duties when O’Neill returned. He took over when Marty stepped away, and became a celebrity as “Mean Gene’’ – the nickname famously given him by Jesse Ventura, "The Body'' from the beaches of San Diego, Calif.
It was only years later that those of us who believed everything we heard from Mr. Okerlund found out that Jesse actually was from south Minneapolis and would use those deep Minnesota roots to be elected as the state’s governor.
Last story Gene told me was when I called after the death of Bobby Heenan. The conversation started with me suggesting Heenan had to be in his top five for interviews and Gene responding:
“Top three at least, and I’m not sure who was better. You always had to be careful with him. He was always up to something.
“Early on, Marty was doing an interview with Heenan and Bobby came out with this big portfolio. He said, ‘Marty, this is my plan for Nick Bockwinkel to defeat Verne Gagne and win the title.’ And he opened it and held it in front of Marty, and inside the portfolio was a Playboy centerfold.
“Marty was wearing those sunglasses, of course, and he paused briefly, and said, ‘That’s a very interesting plan, Bobby.’ ‘’
I had a plan, too: In the next few weeks, for sure, I was going to make the 90-minute drive to Sarasota, share a steak with Mean Gene at the place he always could be found on a Monday night, and digest a few dozen more grand stories.
Now, it can’t happen, but I talked to him enough to detect this: Mean Gene left this place knowing he was a lucky man, stumbling into something where he was great, and it was fun and a fine living.
What more can you ask?