Joe Stecher: Our Champion
by Mike Chapman
On a crisp fall day in 1915, sports enthusiasts from the Midwest poured into the little town of Dodge, Nebraska, located some 60 miles north of Omaha. There were just 1,000 residents of the town and maybe another 2,000 in all of Dodge County but on that day over 5,000 people crowded the streets. They had come to celebrate the fact that one of Dodge’s citizens was the very best in the entire world in his chosen field of endeavor.
Dodge had declared October 9 as ‘Joe Stecher Belt Day’ to honor the young athlete who had become the world heavyweight wrestling champion three months earlier with a shocking, upset victory over Charley Cutler, the recognized American champion from Chicago. In fact, the match, held on July 15 at Rourke Park in Omaha before a sellout crowd of 15,000, wasn’t even close; the farm boy from the Great Plains had toyed with the larger, more experienced Chicagoan, pinning him twice in a total time of less than 30 minutes.
With the victory, Stecher became just the third generally recognized world heavyweight champion, following such icons as George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch, the latter among the spectators at the July 15 match. And to top it off, Stecher was just 22, making him the youngest world heavyweight champion for many years to come.
The victory stunned the Chicago group that had come to Omaha to watch their athlete score a quick victory. They had also expected to pick up some easy money from the Nebraska “hicks”; instead, they left Omaha with broken hearts and empty pockets. Stecher’s victory meant thousands of dollars in payoffs for his Nebraska supporters.
The tremendous triumph put the state on the nation’s sporting map and made the Dodge phenom the toast of the Midwest. Soon, there were Joe Stecher cigars, a Joe Stecher soft drink, a Joe Stecher baseball team, and a song called Our Champion Joe.
Arriving on April 4, 1893, into a farm family of modest means, Joe was the last of eight children (five girls and three boys) born to Frank and Anna Stecher, of Bohemian heritage. Handsome and unassuming, even a bit shy, he grew up in and around the Dodge community, working hard on the farm three miles northwest of town during daylight hours and playing baseball with Dodge boys during the off hours.
The oldest of the Stecher boys was Lewis, who earned a reputation at the YMCA in Freemont, a larger town nearby, and then accepted an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he won local honors. While Lewis was away at college, Joe and the other brother, Anton, began attracting attention for their own grappling skills.
Joe had his first professional match in 1912 and quickly rattled off a series of victories, using his legendry leg strength to subdue foes with a punishing scissors hold, then turning them with a half nelson or bar arm. He had developed his tremendous leg power by wrapping his long limbs around sacks of grain and squeezing until they popped. And, he said, by riding horses bareback on the farm.
“Sometimes I’d get a wild one and I’d have to grip pretty tight with my legs to stay on. I found out after a while that no horse could throw me and that my mount would stop bucking when I used all of my leg power.”
For decades, Dodge folks loved to talk about seeing the young Stecher boys wrestling at various spots around town. In the 1990s, one local resident said his father told him that “he saw a hay rack going past his house one day…and Joe and another brother were on top of the mounds, wrestling away as the horses pulled the wagon by his house.”
“I am proud of the title of ‘farmer,’” Joe said shortly after winning the world title. “My parents are farming people and from an early age, I knew what it meant to plow and sow and harrow. I attribute much of my physical prowess to the fact that the out-of-door life and the virgin soil developed my strength, made my muscles firm and my nerves steady.”
He was very good at all sports he tried, particularly baseball.
“You know, he was a good enough athlete that he could have played major league baseball,” said Ruth Cada, a cousin who followed his career closely. “He was a real good baseball player and sponsored a team here in Dodge.”
Legend has it that Joe participated in a tryout by a major league team and was offered a contract. But when he saw the money, he just chuckled, and said, “Heck, I make lots more than that wrestling. I guess I’ll stick to my wrestling.”
At the time of his match with Cutler, Joe had fashioned a record of 28-0, earning the nickname “The Scissors King” due to his crushing leg power. But waiting in the wings was an old foe, Earl Caddock. The two had first tangled years earlier in an unofficial match in Iowa, with Joe claiming a hard-fought triumph. But since then, Caddock had won three AAU national titles and then moved into the pro ring, under the tutelage of Farmer Burns and Frank Gotch.
When Stecher and Caddock met in Omaha on April 9, 1917, the full house of nearly 6,000 fans were about to witness one of the classic bouts in history. Stecher had compiled a record of 60-0 as a professional, while Caddock was 79--0 overall, combining his 53 amateur wins with 26 pro victories. Stecher was the larger man at 6’1” in height and 208 pounds to Caddock’s 5’10” and 188 pounds.
Stecher took the first fall after one hour and 22 minutes, pinning Caddock with a tortuous scissors and arm bar. It was the first pin Caddock had ever suffered in his career. After a 20-minute break, the two warriors returned for the second period, and Caddock won after another hour and forty minutes, applying a crotch hold and half nelson. Following another short break, the Iowan climbed back in the ring but Stecher remained in his dressing room, for reasons that are still unclear a century later. Suddenly, Earl Caddock was the new heavyweight champion of the world.
The drums began beating for a return match but World War I intervened. Caddock served as a soldier along the Western Front in France while Stecher was in the Navy, stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago. The long-awaited second bout finally occurred on January 30, 1920, with the matmen escorted into the ring by flagcarrying soldiers and sailors. The old Madison Square Garden was filled to capacity with 14,000 fans, and Stecher prevailed after a grueling two hours and three minutes.
Joe was back on top of the wrestling world. But the game was changing. Other sports surged dramatically in popularity and wrestling matches were often too long and boring. The promoters began making drastic changes to the old athletic contests that men like Gotch, Stecher and Caddock loved.
During his lengthy career, Stecher met the best in the world and defeated them all. He lost his title for the second time to Ed Lewis in 1921 and regained it on May 30, 1925, by beating Stanislaus Zbyszko, then lost it the final time on February 20, 1928, again to Lewis. The showdown was such big news that it was the top headline on the front page of one St. Louis newspaper! Complete records from that era are sketchy at best, but one source puts his overall record at 317-31, with most of the losses coming after his peak years.
On December 6, 1916, Joe married Frances Ehlers, the daughter of a bank president in Scribner, Nebraska. They had two daughters, Susan and JoAnn. The family lived in Dodge until 1933, when it moved to Minneapolis, where his brother Anton had become a promoter. When Joe was inducted into the Lou Thesz-George Tragos Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2000 in Newton, Iowa (created by me and Lou Thesz), JoAnn came from California.
At the Dodge celebration on October 9, 1915, Joe was given a fabulous belt from the proud citizens of Dodge. It was studded with diamonds and trimmed in gold and was presented to Joe by the Nebraska governor. At the time of the Newton inductions, JoAnn said the belt was in a bank vault in California.
Though he had made huge money for his times, Stecher lost most of it through bad investments and the 1929 stock market crash. He wanted to quit the game and retire to a quiet farm life, but he was forced to go along with the new style in order to earn a living and worked matches for wrestlers who were far inferior.
He retired for good in 1934. He suffered from what can be termed as depression and his brother Anton committed him to a Veterans Hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He lived there for nearly 30 years, often sitting on the back porch and playing checkers. One of the men who came to visit him was his old foe, Earl Caddock.
Joe Stecher, a distant relative of the legendary wrestler, served several years as the county attorney in Hooper, not far from Dodge. He fondly recalled the day his father took him to St. Cloud to meet the real Joe Stecher, late in the great man’s life.
“I was about ten years old,” said his namesake. “He was sitting on the back porch playing checkers. He was very nice, and carried on a good conversation. I remember my dad asking him, ‘Joe, who was the best wrestler you ever went against?’ He said Ed Lewis was the best, with Earl Caddock and Jim Londos close behind. He had a lot of respect for Ed Lewis, I remember that.”
It was a mutual respect as Ed Lewis told Lou Thesz that Stecher was the best wrestler he ever faced, by far. When in college several years later, the younger Joe visited the elder Joe again, and asked him what it felt like to be such a great wrestler. “‘Well, there was Jack Dempsey….Babe Ruth….and me,’ Joe said, with a sly grin.”
The Dodge hero passed away on March 29, 1974, just a few days shy of his 81st birthday. Through the decades, his legacy faded but it has made a soft comeback in recent years. He has been inducted into several halls of fame and in 2001, Dodge held its first Joe Stecher Day in 86 years. In 2018 a local restaurant hosted another Joe Stecher Day, with lots of memorabilia on display. I was honored to be the guest speaker at both events and to show the DVD I had produced called A Joe Stecher Tribute. In 2018, a large sign was erected on the outskirts of Dodge where it proudly proclaims it is the hometown of Joe Stecher.
Mike Chapman has been to Dodge several times to talk with folks who knew Joe Stecher. He purchased the wall pulleys and punching bag Joe worked out with, and his wrestling shoes. Chapman has been the guest speaker at two events in Dodge to honor Joe’s career. In 2015, Mike produced a 30-minute DVD with clips from the 1920 epic match between Stecher and Caddock, taken from film provided by Caddock’s sons. The DVD includes rare photos and is available at www.mike-chapman.com.