Baron Von Raschke clawed his way to pro wrestling stardom
Baron Von Raschke was a goose-stepping, monocle-wearing Teutonic terror who played on the fears of Americans whose memories of the war and Nazi tyranny were not yet that distant.
In professional wrestling, perception is reality. But things don’t always appear as they seem.
German heel Von Raschke was actually a shy but affable athlete by the name of Jim Raschke. His hometown was Omaha, Neb., a far stretch from his storyline birthplace of Berlin.
A high school wrestling standout and state champion in 1958, Raschke attended the University of Nebraska, where he was a two-time All-American and Big Eight wrestling champ his senior year. He served his country — in the U.S. Army — and represented his homeland on the U.S. World Team in 1963 when he became the second American ever to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling by capturing the bronze at the World Games in Halsingborg, Sweden.
Raschke was named to the 1964 Olympic Games, but an injury prior to the event left him unable to compete.
Finding himself on pro wrestling’s doorsteps in the 1960s, the former middle school teacher became one of the sport’s greatest villains, as well as one of the most accomplished amateur wrestlers ever to transition to the squared circle.
Baron Von Raschke was his famously outrageous alter ego, and it was a character he performed to perfection. Scowling constantly and threatening opponents with his feared claw hold, The Baron terrorized foes and fans alike throughout the country.
He also would become one of the Mid-Atlantic territory’s most memorable wrestling characters.
The mild-mannered Raschke, now 72, will return to his old stomping grounds as a special guest during the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest on Aug. 1-4 in Charlotte.
Raschke, who has appeared at previous Fanfests, says the event is one of his favorites.
“I have a great time at Fanfest. I get to see a lot of friends there that I haven’t seen for quite a few years,” says the Hall of Famer. “It’s a great reunion. I also enjoy seeing a lot of great fans. They are always so nice when talking about how they loved the wrestling in this area. The whole atmosphere gives you a big, warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Can this gentlemanly, demure individual be the same man who once could drive the crowd into a frenzy just by walking down the aisle?
“I’ve mellowed a lot,” he says, with a wink and a smile.
It’s true. The man fans loved to hate is a kind, warm-hearted teddy bear with an endearing sense of humor to boot.
But back in the day, Baron Von Raschke, with his crimson cape and hood, replete with the red stripe down the side and iron cross, was as hated as they come.
One of Raschke’s favorite teammates — and adversaries — during his Mid-Atlantic run was “Number 1” Paul Jones.
“I had some great times with Paul,” says Raschke. “He’s one of the funniest guys I know.”
Raschke captured the NWA Mid-Atlantic TV title from the popular Ricky Steamboat after arriving in the Carolinas in 1977. An immediate feud ensued with Jones, Steamboat’s partner, who took the TV crown from the hated Baron.
Raschke, however, would gain a measure of revenge when he and Greg Valentine captured the NWA tag-team belts from Jones and Steamboat.
A heel turn by Jones, one of Mid-Atlantic wrestling’s most popular performers for more than a decade, turned the territory upside down, especially when he joined forces with the despised Baron.
The unholy alliance would go on to defeat Jimmy Snuka and Paul Orndorff for the tag-team belts, later swapping them in a series of matches with Ric Flair and Blackjack Mulligan, before eventually losing them to Steamboat and new partner Jay Youngblood.
One of the funnier moments during their partnership came when Raschke presented Jones — now labeled “Weasel” by his once adoring fans — with a gold medal to wear around his neck to signify that he, indeed, was “Number 1.”
In turn, Jones presented the chrome-domed Raschke with a blond wig to help his self-esteem, which fans and rivals had delighted in tearing down with chants of “bald-headed geek!”
Their paths would cross again six years later when Raschke reunited with his former rival and tag-team partner as part of manager Paul Jones’ Army.
Raschke spent five years at the University of Nebraska.
“I was a slow learner,” he jokes.
“I loved my time at the University of Nebraska. I didn’t have much money, so I worked out a lot. I had some great coaches along the way. It was just a great experience.”
Raschke actually attended the school on an academic scholarship.
“My dad was a baker for a big bakery in Omaha. He was a member of the Bakers Union, and they offered a scholarship. I was lucky enough to win the scholarship, and that opened the door.”
A talented athlete with good size, Raschke immediately walked on to the football team.
“Nebraska was the place I had always wanted to go as a kid. I walked on, and several weeks into the season I started a couple of games ahead of guys who had scholarships.”
Raschke was so impressive that he was offered a full football scholarship,
He was even more impressive on the wrestling mat. He placed second as a sophomore in the heavyweight division and won the Big Eight title as a senior.
Raschke’s sterling amateur run culminated with him making the U.S. Olympic team in 1964.
“We were at camp making final preparations before going to Tokyo, and I suffered a hyperextended elbow just before we were going to leave. I didn’t get to go. I’m almost over it now,” he quips.
New accent, new look
One of the first pros he bumped into was Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, who had wrestled in the 1948 Olympic Games but was now one of the top heels in the business.
“You’d make a good German,” the menacing Vachon growled.
Raschke, of course, was of German descent. But he’d later learn that Vachon was suggesting that he take it a step further.
“I had never met him, and I really didn’t know that much about him,” says Raschke. “He didn’t say another word to me, went in and did his thing, and did his interview.”
Vachon, though, would tell Raschke the same thing every time their paths would cross.
While Vachon, a main-eventer, delivered intense, money-drawing interviews, the timid and unimposing Raschke struggled to get the words out.
“I was horrible. (Announcer) Marty O’Neill was not a very tall man, and he had to get his arm up so he could interview me. He tried to pull an interview out of me, but it was tough. I’d really get him frustrated. I was just so shy.”
“Verne ... you’ve got to teach that kid to talk. I can’t get an interview out of him,” O’Neill would repeatedly tell promoter Verne Gagne.
“He kept trying and trying, but I was never very good. Jim Raschke was just not a good interview,” admits Raschke.
Raschke eventually formed a connection with Vachon, who asked him to join him in Montreal as his partner.
Raschke shaved what little hair he had left, and with new bride Bonnie, loaded up their small Mustang with their two small rubber tree plants and a few other possessions, and headed for Canada.
It’s where Baron Von Raschke, one of pro wrestling’s greatest characters, would be born.
Raschke had taken German in college, and while both of his parents were of German heritage, neither spoke the language around the house. Raschke practiced the few German words he knew with his wife. “I wasn’t fluent in it at all. I practiced it, and the accent sounded pretty good to me.”
Before his first match in the new territory, Raschke was sent out to do an interview along with Vachon.
“Mad Dog was over like crazy. He was a French-Canadian, but they hated him more than anybody. He was hot, and I was going to be his partner. I automatically got that kind of heat.”
When Vachon finished his promo, the announcer turned the mic over to Raschke, who was now known as “The Baron.”
With the new name came the German accent and an interview style where he occasionally would actually sprinkle in at least a few German words.
The hulking, bald Raschke delivered his spiel — one full of anger and vitriol that would incite the fans — threatening to destroy anyone who got in his way.
It was an amazing transformation. The Baron became Jim Raschke’s alter ego. His new persona unleashed a side of his personality that the withdrawn and introverted Raschke had never seen before. More importantly, the change would result in a box-office bonanza for Raschke and promoters. His portrayal of an evil German madman would make him one of pro wrestling’s top heels of that era.
One of pro wrestling’s most enduring catchphrases originated purely by accident.
Raschke recalls being interviewed by O’Neill.
“I can’t see very far, and when the guys give me the windup with the TV thing, it was really hard for me to see. Sometimes I just kind of guessed. Well, Marty was talking to me, and I thought I saw the guy winding me down. So I finished up, and just as I started to walk away, Marty asked me another question.”
Not fully hearing the question, and with time running out before the next match, “Herr” Raschke stopped, retreated a couple of steps, and blurted out in a deep, raspy, German-accented roar, “Dat is all da people need to know!”
“I said it because I had nothing else to say,” explains Raschke.
The quote , though, struck a chord.
“It cracked Marty O’Neill up. He just laughed and thought that was the funniest thing. So the next time he interviewed me, he asked me to ‘say that thing again.’ So I did it just for him. I did it two or three more times,” says Raschke.
Gagne and matchmaker Wally Karbo then insisted that Raschke recite the phrase at the end of every interview.
And the rest is history.
“Then I was stuck with it. But it seemed to be a good thing to be stuck with after a while.”
That twisted scowl is never far away.
“Just be The Baron when you’re in front of people, and you can’t go too far wrong.”
Palmetto State Wrestling
Palmetto State Championship Wrestling will hold a show June 21 at The Auction House, 195 Main Road, Johns Island.
Among those on the bill will be NWA Hall of Famer Susan Green, Smooth Excellence, LA Tank, Kevin Pheonix, The Amazing Velvet and Many Moore.
Doors open at 6 p.m. and bell time is at 7. All tickets are $8. Bring any school or military ID and get in for $4.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.