S.S.W. 33rd Anniversary

S.S.W. 33rd Anniversary

Monday, October 9, 2017

Remembering Whitey Caldwell 45 year after his death.

Picture of Whitey Caldwell taken shortly before his death.

This past Saturday Oct. 7 marked the 45th anniversary of the untimely death of a East Tennessee Legend Whitey "Dynamite" Caldwell. Long before he was a pro wrestler, Whitey Caldwell's name was well known in Kingsport. I never met Whitey, but I have known many people who knew him. Not once have I ever heard anyone say anything bad about him. In fact, when his name comes up to those who knew him, they seem to light up. They all have stories about what a great athlete he was and more importantly what a wonderful man he was.

Many have told me he could run faster, hit a baseball farther, throw a ball faster and longer, and out-wrestle and out-fight anyone else. At his widow Nancy's funeral, the preacher doing the service said, "Everyone wanted to be Whitey.  Even when he was a teenage high school sports star, grown men wanted to be Whitey."

Before Bristol was "Bristol Baby" with NASCAR, before The University of Tennessee was drawing 100,000 people for home football games, and before NCAA and pro sports filled the air waves, the local sports heroes and TV celebrities were pro wrestlers. Whitey was not just a star; he was THE star.

Whitey started wrestling as a teenager at the Kingsport Boys Club. In 1956, a local boxing promoter and independent (outlaw) wrestling promoter named Buddy Russell ran a card at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium. The event drew a large crowd, not for the boxing, but to see two young kids and future legends from the Boys Club take their first steps into a ring. It was not long before the two were working for Mickey's established office out of Kingsport.  It has been legend that Whitey was not interested in becoming a full-time pro wrestler. He told Baarnes that the only way he would turn pro is if Baarnes let his childhood friend Ron Wright start also.

Don Wright, Whitey Caldwell, and Ron Wright Kingsport Boys Club 1950s

Like Ron, Whitey is remembered mostly for their Legendary Feud, but there is much more to this man. There are very few pictures of Whitey because he was too shy and too modest to sell them at the matches. The one that was finally sold at the matches was not for Whitey's gain. The proceeds were used to pay for a young Morristown girl's kidney operation. That was Whitey, always thinking of others.

Whitey and The Wrights were mentored early on by a wrestler they went to see as boys named "Wild" Bill Canney. Bill was a top star in Kingsport in the 1950s. His career was cut short when he had a heart attack at a young age. He made Whitey, Ron and Don promise that they would always have something to fall back on to feed their family because he did not. Bill would be ok thought as he worked for Baarnes as an office man and he also worked over night as a security officer. The Wrights and Whitey always kept their promise even though they made a lot more wrestling than they did at their 40 hour jobs. 

My cousin Iva worked with Whitey at the AFG Glass Plant. One day she and I started talking about him. She said, "What a nice man. He was always so polite and respectful to others."  I was also told by a man who also worked with Whitey that "He truly cared about people. He would always ask about your family and how you were doing. If someone at work had a death in the family, Whitey would go ask if they needed anything or if he could help in any way."

The other thing people would tell me about Whitey was the battle scars he carried proudly. His matches were very physical. He gave a 100% every night no matter who he was in the ring with or where he was at. That is just one of the many reasons he was so loved by the fans. 

There was an old rule by promoters. Never push locals. If they get over and become the big star then they may break away and run on their own. The plans for Whitey was for him to be a preliminary wrestler. Maybe get a Main Event here and there in a tag match teaming with a bigger star. The plan for Ron Wright was for him to be a ref mostly and just fill in as a wrestler when needed. 

Well two major events changed those plans in a big way. In 1961, Mickey Baarnes was able to work out a deal for his matches to be shown live from the new station on the air, WJHL, channel 11. The matches were live from 4 to 5 in the afternoon on Saturdays. Mickey hosted the program himself.  To see what kind of viewership they were getting, they had people write in and tell them their favorite wrestler. The wrestler with the most votes would be crowned the “TV Champion.” The Wrestling office was shocked when letter after letter coming in was about Whitey and how much they loved him. Sam Steamboat, Rocky Smith, and Frankie Cain were all wrestling in the area regular and were much bigger names. They all were established stars across the Southeast. But People wrote in from all across the region, and Whitey Caldwell was named the first-ever TV Champion.

Lot of what is remembered about Ron and Whitey is more legend than fact. Many people today talk like Wright and Caldwell wrestled every week, but that is more legend than anything. As you will see in my book, Ron Wright also had major money programs with Lester Welch, Rocky Smith and World Junior Heavyweight Champion Danny Hodge, among others.  They also were not on every card as people remember, as they would both take time off when they felt they were growing stale and then return when they felt it was the right time. 

What is true is that Ron vs. Whitey was, is, and forever will be THE feud of this area. I'm sure many people would like to take credit for it, but it all happened by accident. They were last-minute replacements for two well known national stars. It was their time to shine. They had been wrestling and rough-housing each other for years. Now they were getting paid for it.

Ron was mostly a referee and wrestled some as a preliminary. This match put him on the map and started a decade of bloody matches, titles, and sold-out arenas. “I didn’t mean it,” said Wright about the incident that kick-started his career as a heel. “It was an accident. I threw him over the top ropes and he came down wrong. Every time I talked about that, that’d set him off. He didn’t like it when I badmouthed him. That made me do it even more. So when he got in the ring, he was already mad.”

As you may guessed, this made Ron an overnight success, even though the office did not see it yet. The first round of the feud was just two locals against each other. Ron had not become a full-fledged heel because they wanted him to go right back to being a ref. Fate had a different plan for Ol' Brother Ron.

Paper Clipping Nov 30 1961 Kingsport, TN

There are very few pictures of Whitey and even less video. Thanks to Nancy Caldwell a few minutes of film of Whitey has survived. Even better it's vs. Ron. Below is the only known footage of Whitey from a match in November. 1962. (I know video says October I've got to fix that.

Did you know that Whitey and Ron were not only Tag Team Partners in 1967 but they also were the Kingsport Version of The Southern Tag Champions? Below is a rare picture of Ron and Whitey Together in Greeneville, TN.

At one point in his career, Whitey did not wrestle in Kingsport for over two years. It was in protest to change of ownership in the Kingsport Territory. He was loyal to Mickey Baarnes and did not like the new owner Lester Welch.  Whitey also missed a year with the shoulder injury.  And yet, despite missing over three years of 1960s decade, he was still the most loved wrestler. His pro career was only 14 years long. Three years of that he did not even compete in the Tri-Cities. Other years he was not featured so he may only wrestled here a couple times a month. Yet he is remembered and look at as being above most all others.

Whitey was tragically killed October 7th 1972 on his way home to the Colonial Heights section of Kingsport. Where he had just built a new house for him and his family near Warriors Patch State Park. He had did Knoxville TV in that after noon. Then wrestled in Morristown TN at the famed Tally Ward Building that night.

Interstate 81 had not been built yet so Whitey left Kingsport and came up 11e to Greeneville and was planning on getting on highway 93 in Greeneville then up to Fall Branch and then take Fordtown Road to Colonial Heights. That was the fast way back then. Whitey's was hit head on just a mile before Geeneville at 11:10pm by a young man name Beecher G. Dunn who was driving at a high rate of speed and was trying to pass cars when he met Whitey in a curve.

The crash scene the morning after you can see skid marks and how Whitey tried to miss being hit. 

Whitey was taken to a hospital in Greeneville then rushed to the Johnson City Trauma Unit where he dies at 2:15am. This was before all night news stations, the internet, or social media. Most everyone found out of Whitey's death when they saw it on the front pages of newspapers around East Tennessee. 

Whitey's car the morning after the crash.

He was seen on TV just hours before his death. A packed building cheered him on in Morristown. Went home talking about him and woke to find out he had died. His death was a shock and heartbreaking to everyone who knew him or was a fan of his. The day of his funeral stores in Kingsport closed. People lined the streets to pay respect as his procession came by. 

The wrestlers who knew him from who were wrestling in other areas flew in to say good bye. His most hated opponent Ron Wright shocked the towns the following week as he went out before what was to be Whitey's match and told the people he might of  fought Whitey but he respected him. Then Ron took his place as a tribute. 

There was a benefit wrestling event ran in Johnson City to help pay for Whitey's funeral and raise money for his family. The event was shown in full on area TV two days later. 

There was also a TV special put together with wrestlers talking about Whitey and showing clips from his matches. So many people wrote in and called the TV station that the program was repeated for several weeks. The fans did not want to let go. Truth to be told neither did the wrestlers.

Years ago I was talking to Ron and Don Wright about Whitey and I realized they never got to mourn his death. They all were partners in the Kingsport operation. They were the biggest stars for John Cazana in Knoxville. They were heartbroken and sad Whitey was gone but they had to make sure that business kept running. They were in all the towns. They never stopped. They could not stop they had families, wrestlers, sponsors, and others depending on them. 

I've also been told over the years that John Cazana was crushed by Whitey's death. The two were great friends and John along with everyone else's hearts were not into Wrestling like they were before Whitey passed. It's also been said John would have not sold Knoxville in 1974 to Ron Fuller if Whitey was still alive and business was as usual.

There are so many what ifs. I sure history would be very different if Whitey lived longer. How? I have no idea. Times were changing with TV and how wrestling was presented. No matter what changes that would have came. I know somethings that would have remained the same. Whitey would have always been over and seen as a Superstar here. He would still have been loved. He would still have given back to his profession and fans. He still would have been well liked and respected by the other wrestlers.

Whitey is still considered the most loved wrestler ever in this area.  This is attested by the fact that to this day, 45 years after his untimely passing from injuries in a car wreck, fans still visit his grave and leave flowers. How do I know this? Because I am one of them. He is buried in The Garden of David at East Lawn Cemetery on Memorial Blyd. in Kingsport. Several of my family members are buried around him. 

Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your Whitey stories. Also if you have any pictures of him I would love to seem them as well.

If you would like to know more about Whitey, Ron, Bill Canny, or wrestling history in this area. Check out my book and DVD on Kingsport history. You can get them on the right hand side of the page.

Beau James
Sinner saved by Grace, Pro Wrestler


  1. Beau James thank you so much for the story, about whitey caldwell,and Ron Wright, my name is Mike Hartsook,I was born and raised in Johnson city and still,live,here I got to see whitey wrestle,against Ron Wright, a few times but can't remember most of it I was, 4 or 5 years old my mom and dad would go to the Johnson city Recreation center on Tuesday nights to wrestling, my mom was a big fan of whitey I remember she would be talking about some of the matches between whitey and Ron Wright, we could be sitting at,home watching wrestling and me or my,girlfriend could say that guy is a good wrestler,my mom would say whitey caldwell was the best and her favorite one she would always say that.its a shame he died. I don't know if you knew Larry,Bennett that was from Johnson city he was a professional,wrestler,when he wasn't wrestling he was in charge of the Ring getting set up on Tuesday nights at the Johnson city Recreation center on Legion street,in the 1970,s I helped set the Ring up for 2 years from 1976-1978.i got to see a lot of matches in that time,we went to Kingsport and set Ron Wright's Ring up at dobbins Bennett auditorium Ron Wright was a great guy I talked to him a bunch of times he always was my favorite, I seen Randy macho man savage wrestle at the Johnson city Rec in 1981,.they have been some great wrestlers that have been at that legion street Rec.you should write a book about it, it has a lot of wrestling history. I remember Tora Tanaka wrestle, there he has been in a lot of movies now. Ron and Robert Fuller Jimmy golden Ronnie Garvin, David Shultz butch malone Don Carson The great mafisto Bob Armstrong. Dick stineborn AKA the gladiator he wore a mask. I remember one manager called General homer Odell, the Mongolian stomper they were others that I can't remember their name. Those were the good old days. Sorry to write so much. Thank you for your story about whitey caldwell.
    Thank you. Mike Hartsook Johnson city.

  2. Back in the early 70’s, I remember going to see the outdoor wrestling matches at Chilhowie Park on Magnolia Avenue in Knoxville on Friday nights. Ron and Don Wright, Jackie Fargo and Whitey Caldwell. There was a short period of time when Whitey wore a mask in his matches with Ron Wright. Ron always used the loaded boot, always a lot of blood! Also went to matches at an old baseball park, also off Magnolia but closer to downtown Knoxville. An older gentlemen sitting in front of me had a heart attack, got a lot to upset at Ron Wright that night. But great memories from long ago!

  3. I'm from Maryville was he ever here to Wrestle. I hope in some way we are related

  4. I remember those great wrestlers from their matches at the Kingsport boys club.That was great entertainment for a boy of 11 years old.I'm now 80 yrs old and still remember those great wrestlers.RIP too them all.🗽👍💕