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"Schemansky is just incredible. He could be so funny with his deadpan delivery. He and Kono were American lifting." Louis Riecke, 1964 U.S. Olympic Weightlifting team member and former world record holder in the snatch.
"This book provides a remedy for those who have never heard the name 'Schemansky.' Once [they] have read his story, they will never forget it, nor will they ever cease to be uplifted." Artie Dreschler, author, The Weightlifting Encyclopedia
"We predict that Norb's story will become a major motion picture." Michael and Del Reddy, Immortal Investments Publishing
MR. WEIGHTLIFTING: Norbert Schemansky
"Best Weightlifter of 100 Years"
We’ve just received our copy of Richard Bak’s long-awaited biography of Norbert Schemansky: MR. WEIGHTLIFTING (Immortal Investments, 2007). I believe it’s the first full-blown biography of an American Olympic weightlifter, certainly the first by a mainstream journalist and author. Bak has written 20 books, including biographies of Joe Louis, Ty Cobb, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry and Edsel Ford. (Within the field, of course, we have Randy Strossen’s excellent biography of Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister.)
Immortal Investments publishers Michael and Del Reddy (father and son) are visionaries in book publishing: they produce books about sport figures (hockey, football, baseball, softball—and now weightlifting) that “move, inspire, and spotlight the best of human achievement and the human spirit.” (Their books bypass bookstores and are sold mainly through personal appearances and direct marketing to maximize income for the authors and athletes, while also assisting a number of charitable organizations.)
No one fits that mold better than national, world and Olympic champion Norbert Schemansky. He set an amazing 75 national, world and Olympic records, while winning nine national and four world championships--and four Olympic medals in four Olympic Games. Bak writes in the Introduction: “What Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis are to boxing, what John Grimek and Arnold Schwarzenegger mean to bodybuilding, and what Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky represent in hockey, Norbert Schemansky is to Olympic weightlifting.”
In 2005, on the occasion of its 100-year anniversary, the International Weightlifting Federation recognized Schemansky (along with Tommy Kono) as “Best Weightlifter of 100 Years.” Bak says that Schemansky is "History's greatest heavyweight lifter." On a pound-for-pound basis he was unbeatable.
Nevertheless, my guess is that most people reading this know little or nothing about Norbert Schemansky. That’s one of the reasons why this book is so important. In his Foreword, Al Oerter, another four-time Olympian, reveals that he never met Schemansky, but that he is “a hero” to him, nevertheless. I never met him either, but I did see him lift a number of times. No one was more impressive than Schemansky, eye glasses on, standing over the bar preparing to lift. He was a huge inspiration to me--and I want to know more about him. I believe that many of you do as well.
Richard Bak does us all a huge favor by fleshing out the Norbert Schemansky story, from his humble beginnings in Depression-era Detroit, to his distinguished military service in World War 2, his climb to center stage in international weightlifting and the Cold War, and after--all as a true amateur struggling to raise a family and make ends meet back home. It’s an epic story, and I can’t wait to read all about it. (My commentary follows.)
Before I was able to get to the Schemansky book, a prominent lifting personality who had already read it told me, "Don't bother, you've already heard it all before." Good thing I didn't listen, because Richard Bak's book is literally packed with fascinating details I did not know or remember. The book has all the earmarks of a professional journalist and biographer. Bak has done a marvelous job of weaving information from an impressive variety of sources into the inspiring and, at times, troubling story of a proud and stubborn man, and a great athlete. It's the real thing and a major contribution to sports history.
I'll tell you about some parts of the book that I found especially moving and noteworthy. They inspired me, disturbed me, made me laugh, and even made me shed a few tears.
Head-to-Head with Russian Legend
Many stirring and inspiring events in Norb's long lifting career are related in the book. One of the high-points was his encounter with the undefeated Russian champion Grigori Novak at 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. I was just getting started as an Olympic lifter at the time, and vaguely remember reading about this historic battle in Strength & Health. Bak makes it come to life, and recounts the Cold War significance.
Russian athletes were participating in the Olympics for the first time in 40 years. Many observers saw it as a battle between communism and capitalism. The athletes on both sides were under added pressure because of the political overtones. Bak quotes defending decathlon champion Bob Mathias: "You just had to beat 'em."
The Russian athletes were a secretive bunch, training in their own separate Olympic village. Norb still maintains, according to Bak, that the most impressive feat of strength he ever witnessed was at a rare open training session when Grigori Novak cleaned and pressed 281. "I mean back then a press was a press," said Norb. "Then just for the hell of it he lowered the weight behind his neck and pressed it three times."
Clyde Emrich, a member of the U.S. team who was there, told Bak: "I think when Novak did that he was trying to send a message to Norb. Norb was impressed, but in his typical way he didn't show it or let the Russians know it. He told me he would get Novak on the other two lifts--and he did."
The U.S. weightlifting team was the strongest ever assembled. Every member came home with either a gold or silver medal. Schemansky was the headliner, however, largely because of his unexpected win over Novak Six years earlier, in 1946, Novak had pressed 309 in winning the world title in the 181 pound class. "As wards of the government," Bak writes, "favored athletes like Novak enjoyed numerous perks while pursuing their fulltime livelihood in the gym."
"Most people in Europe didn't think I could beat him," Schemansky told Bak. "Few men today could beat him at strict pressing." As Emrich related, Norb was not intimidated. "I'll send him to the salt mines," he reportedly said.
As expected, Novak prevailed in the press, succeeding with 308 to Norb's 281. Novak's cushion didn't last long, however; he took three tries to make his starting snatch with 275. Norb took the lead with a middle-heavyweight world record snatch of 308, and won going away with 391 in the clean & jerk. It was another world record, making Schemansky, at 196 pounds, the heaviest man to C&J double bodyweight. (Norb tried--and almost made--402.)
Norb's total of 981 pounds was a world record by 40 pounds, decisively beating Novak, who took the silver medal with a total of 904. Team coach and sponsor Bob Hoffman said, "Norb was the sensation of the meet."
The Americans won the team title by a narrow margin, spear-headed by Norb's stirring victory over the Russian legend. Dietrich Wortman, incoming president of the International Weightlifting Federation, said at the time, "[Novak's] such a big man he eats with Stalin."
"The Russians, who appreciated brute strength over all qualities," Bak writes, "were impressed enough by what they considered the biggest upset of the entire Games to invite the Detroiter and his teammates to their embassy for an official reception."
On top of the world, Schemansky was soon to be let down by the reaction in his hometown.
"I got off the plane from Helsinki and took the bus downtown," Norb told Bak. "Then I got on another bus and went home. Nobody knew who the hell I was except this porter at the bus terminal. He said, 'Nice going, Schemansky.' He even mispronounced my name. And that was it."
A Bitter Man?
"If Schemansky was growing bitter about anything, it was always being portrayed as being bitter," Bak writes.
Norb has a lot to be bitter about. For example, he asked for an unpaid leave from work to train for the the 1952 Senior National and Olympic trials. His request was met with hostility. "Tell him he can have all the time off he wants," was the response. "He's fired."
"Norb went upstairs, exchanged a few harsh words," Bak writes, "then left Briggs Manufacturing for good. Whether he was fired or quit really didn't matter. He was more concerned about winning the Nationals and grabbing gold in Helsinki."
Briggs offered Norb a job when he came back in triumph from the Olympics, says Bak. "Proud and stubborn, he turned the company down," and went to work running errands for Detroit accountant Clarence Johnson, then chairman of the U.S. Weightlifting committee. The job only paid a few dollars a week, but it left him time to train.
This was pretty much the pattern throughout Norb's lifting career. Unlike today, amateur rules prevented him from profiting from being arguably the "Strongest Man in the World." He was almost always broke. Had it not been for his wife's job as a secretary, his family might've gone hungry. (The book is dedicated to the memory of Bernice Schemansky, "Olympic wife.")
Dr. Pete George, a teammate and three-time Olympic medalist (now a dentist), summed up Norb's situation:
"There is no question in my mind that he was the greatest unsung hero in Olympic history. There is no one who has accomplished what he has and yet been so unknown, even in his hometown....He just came along too soon....When Norb defeated [Novak] it really crushed the Russians....Every time he took a trip to compete he had to worry if he had a job waiting for him when he got home. By comparison, when the Russian lifters returned home they got all sorts of prizes--apartments and cars and so forth--and were hailed as heroes....For me, weightlifting was a different life back then. I had school and a career. But for Norb, weightlifting was his life. It was everything to him."
Is he bitter? Bak doesn't really answer that question, leaving it up to the reader to decide based on the facts presented. Clearly, Norb has some regrets about career opportunities he passed up to continue competing internationally. I believe he is a little bitter; he has a right to be. Equally clear, however, is the fact that he is an intelligent and aware man. (Bak says his I.Q. has been measured at 132.) He had many choices--and decided to devote his life to what he did best, probably better than anyone else: weightlifting.
Bak quotes a perceptive profile by Vernon Hollister in Strength & Health indicating that he was more misunderstood and misrepresented than bitter: "When pressed or asked, Norb has comments and opinions," Hollister wrote. "They are often witty, always precise, full of candor, and often satiric; yet honest beneath it all. Everything he says can't be taken literally, which may be why he has been so often misunderstood and maligned."
Norb's dry wit is evidenced at many places in the book and is clearly one of his most endearing traits--for those that understood.
Bak devotes the better part of one chapter to some stories showcasing Norb's understated, clever, dry wit. Here are several that I especially enjoyed.
The first story comes from Tommy Kono, who had just won the 1954 Mr. World, a physique contest held in conjunction with the world weightlifting championship. "Norb came over to congratulate me. As he was shaking my hand he was weaving his head around and around, as if to say, 'It's a small world.'" Laughing hard at the memory, Kono added: "That's the kind of humor he had."
Lou Riecke tells about checking into the Los Angeles YMCA. with Norb. This was back in the '60s, when the Black Panthers were in the news. "The clerk at the counter handed us some forms to fill out. So we fill them out and the clerk looks at Schemansky and says, 'You didn't fill in your religion. What's your religion?' Norb's got the blonde hair and blue eyes. He looks back at him as deadpanned as he can and says, 'Black Muslim.'.....It took [the clerk] a few seconds to realize Norb was kidding."
The next story is also from Lou Riecke. They were at the Tokyo Olympics. "A little Japanese guy comes up to us with some postcards," Riecke recalled. "Schemansky...asked how much. The guy says, 'Six dollars each.' Schemansky says, 'I'll give you two dollars.' The guy says, 'Oh no, six dollars.' So Norb throws up his hands and starts yelling, 'Police! Police!' The guy goes, 'Okay, okay, two dollars.' Norb didn't want them. He was just pulling the guy's leg."
The last one is a classic; I've heard it before. It happened during a car ride one evening in Detroit in 1958 on the occasion of the U.S.-Soviet match. It's told by Charles Fraser, who was in the backseat sandwiched between Schemansky and big Jim Bradford. Bob Hoffman and some other lifters were also in the car. Fraser, then a student at Michigan State, spoke Russian and had helped with translation back stage. They drove by Briggs Stadium (note the name, Briggs), where the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis cardinals were playing.
"Looking to make conversation, Fraser brought up the the name of Cardinals star Stan Musial. Norb, slightly grumpy over his convalescing back, threadbare finances, and lack of renown, was in no mood to discuss one of the most beloved and well-paid athletes in the country. 'Yeah?' he grunted. 'So what?'
"'Well, uh,' Fraser carefully responded, 'he's a great ballplayer. You know, a great athlete.'
"'Yeah?' Norb shot back. 'How much can he press?'
"There was a moment of silence, followed by an explosion of laughter. Everybody in the car was howling, except Norb, whom Fraser noted always made his wisecracks funnier by maintaining a stony face.
"'Good old Norb,' Fraser reflected. 'He made you proud to be a weightlifter in three ways. By how he looked, by how he lifted a barbell--and by his outspoken pride in his chosen sport.'"
Okay, I'll buy that; but my guess is that the name of the stadium added a little steam to Norb's comment.
A True Champion
Pressed for time, I almost skipped the Afterword by Mike Kuhne: "In Praise of a True Champion." I'm glad I didn't, because it's truly one of the most delightful parts of the book. It made me cry. (Don't tell Norb.) I'm not entirely sure why, but it touched me in a deep place.
I can't tell you all that's in the Afterword; it runs more than 15 pages. But I can give you a taste to stir your interest.
Kuhne grew up in Detroit and got the iron bug when, at about 14, he and another boy started lifting weights in a friend's basement. All three were soon devouring muscle magazines, reading about and admiring action photos of champion lifters, including Norbert Schemansky. Mike couldn't believe his good fortune when he learned that Norb lived in Detroit. He phoned his friends and they soon determined from the phone book that Norb resided only about a mile away.
"We were beside ourselves with excitement," Mike writes. It was some decided that they would call him. A coin flip determined that he would be the one to make the call. "It was Norb himself who answered....I explained that we were just a couple of teenagers who had no idea whether we were executing movements correctly....Much to my surprise" he asked us to meet him the following night at the YMCA.
They were waiting when Norb walked in. "He shook our hands and simply said, 'Come along with me.'" It was soon arranged that they could come in once a week to watch Norb and others lift. One thing led to another, and Mike was soon lifting there as one of guys--with a front row seat as Norb trained for national and international competition over a number of years. Kuhne proved to be a keen observer and proceeds to tell about it in a most wonderful way.
One part that captures the spirit of whole piece is his word picture of Norb's return after becoming the heavyweight lifting champion of the world and making a triumphant tour of Europe. It's enough to make any true lifting fan cry:
"I can still see Norb coming towards us down the long corridor running alongside the big gym. The cheers increased with much patting-on-the-back as he entered. Once again, though, the frequent European press articles were reduced to a scant paragraph or so on the third page of the sports section in his hometown newspapers. We had expected front-page headlines with the mayor of Detroit shown handing Norb the key to the city!"
* * *
Take it from me, if you like athletes and sports, you'll want to read the Norbert Schemansky story. I'd love to see it made into a major motion picture, as Michael and Del Reddy predict. I just don't know who could play Norb convincingly. He'd sure have to have some muscle and athletic ability--and be a real man.
NOTE 2014: We have just sold out of this book and are not expecting any more because it is out of print.
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