Smiling John: The forgotten Tunney

Frank Tunney was Toronto's greatest wrestling promoter and one of the most successful and respected promoters in the world.

But if it hadn't been for a fluke illness, he may never have had the chance to rise to that level. When Tunney took over the wrestling operations of the Queensbury Athletic Club -- the main Toronto booking office -- from Jack Corcoran in 1939, he was the junior member of the new promoting team. The head matchmaker was his older brother, John Tunney.

It isn't clear exactly when the Tunneys started to work for Corcoran. Frank would say in later interviews that he was working in the office as a teenager at the time of the first Maple Leaf Gardens show in 1931. A story in the Star at the time said the Tunneys became involved in 1933. But whatever the date was, John and Frank spent years helping Corcoran behind the scenes.

Corcoran was reported to have caught pneumonia in March 1939, and Toots Mondt -- who was or had been a partner in the Toronto office (more about that another time) -- came up to run the Gardens show on March 16, which featured a world title bout between Jim Londos and local star Vic Christie.

The following week, it was announced that John Tunney had become the head matchmaker. Attendance through the rest of 1939 averaged 3,000-4,000 per show, and John brought in Wild Bill Longson (an immediate hit), Bronko Nagurski, Frank Sexton, and Lou Thesz for their Toronto debuts in the fall of that year.

According to the attendance figures in the Globe, John Tunney's biggest show was on Thursday January 12, 1940. The main event was Longson vs Jumping Joe Savoldi with Gus Sonnenberg on the undercard. It drew 6,000. It would also be John's final show at the Gardens.

He started feeling sick the next day, but -- against the advice of friends -- decided to work through what seemed to be a bad cold. On Monday, he made the drive to Ottawa to oversee a show there. "Upon his return, he was ordered to bed by the family physician and his condition was not considered even remotely serious," reported the Globe.

Tunney remained at home -- his house was near Danforth and Woodbine -- but things took a sharp turn for the worse on Thursdsay, the day of his next scheduled Gardens show. He died early that morning at age 32. The Star said it was influenza and the Globe added that he had suffered a heart attack. The Gardens show that night was cancelled.

"The entire sports community is prostrated by this blow which took away one of its youngest, most pleasant and most promising promoters," wrote the Star.

Tunney's wife had given birth two weeks earler to their fourth child and was herself in the hospital suffering from complications. Among the couple's other three children was their oldest son, Jackie.

John Tunney was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. Frank immediately became Toronto's head promoter. John's son, Jack Tunney, would go on to work for his uncle Frank starting in the early 1950s and took over the business with Frank's son Eddie Tunney after Frank's death in 1983.