“Do you remember the Johnny Cash song: A Boy Named Sue? The father calls his son Sue because he knows he won’t be around to protect him as he grows up, and the lad has to learn to fight because he’s constantly battling those who want to take the mickey out of his name? Well, that song described me down to a tee now I think about it, and after a while, I started to get very angry. The desire to defend myself became overwhelming and the bully’s days were numbered because I hit back twice as hard.”
Born into poverty in industrial Halifax, Yorkshire in 1930, Shirley ‘Big Daddy’ Crabtree shared his first name with his absent father. Much closer to his mother (who Crabtree called “a hell of a woman”), it wasn’t long until he started to be bullied at school, with Shirley finding solace in the library. Stumbling upon a picture of Eugene Sandow, the father of modern bodybuilding, Crabtree was inspired to take up weightlifting, partly to impress the ladies.
After being trained by Norman Morrell, Shirley debuted in 1952, choosing bone-bending over his other passion, rugby. A muscular, serious wrestler at this stage of his career, he began as a heel before the crowds took to him and he was turned ‘blue eye’ (babyface). Leaving Dale Martin’s powerful Joint Promotions in 1958, Crabtree began working for his brother Max, a rival promoter, and within two years was British Heavyweight Champion, adding the European Championship to his résumé soon after.
Max was tasked with rescuing the sinking Joint Promotion in 1975, and the newly christened Big Daddy wasn’t far behind him. Over the next six years, Shirley would become a mainstream icon in the UK and wrestling a Saturday afternoon institution, culminating in the 1981 contest with Giant Haystacks at Wembley Arena.
There’s more, of course; Crabtree’s rocky family life, his wife Eunice’s battles with the booze, and his special relationship with his daughter Jane. Mal Kirk’s death in the ring is covered, with the sobering revelation that it still haunted Shirley on his own deathbed. This was not the only moment in Big Daddy’s career that divides fans and those in the industry to this day, with the aforementioned bout with Giant Haystacks also being a contentious point.
With the atmosphere of a Premier League football match, the match was the peak of UK wrestling’s popularity in the 1980s. It was also the beginning of the end, with Daddy and Haystacks plodding through main event contests for years after it had begun to get stale. Eventually, the powers that be at the TV station decided wrestling no longer fit the demographic they were looking for, and began airing the World Wrestling Federation. The glossy, colorful production and big personalities of the Americans made British wrestling look antiquated overnight and, after 33 years on air, it was pulled for television.
Credit where credit is due: Who’s The Daddy lays the blame at the feet of Max Crabtree, who paid poorly, kept his brother headlining way beyond his sell-by date, and failed to invest in the future of the business, both financially and in terms of younger talent. Shirley was not an egotistical, scheming type, with the biography painting him as a quiet man who enjoyed country walks and filling in the daily crossword.
The story is bookended by Big Daddy’s appearance on This is Your Life, a biography show that was screened in the evenings in the UK. As a complement to this book (or this review!) it’s a great watch.
Ryan Danes’ book undersells itself; rather than being a straight biography of the big man, it’s about the history of BritWres in the 20th Century, and indeed the UK itself during the same period, too. While fascinating if you are into the history of pro wrestling, some of the cultural references may go over the head of anyone born after 1990, or from abroad.
There are a few issues with the book. Danes’ writing style takes some getting used to, reading like a grandfather relaying the stories of old around the fireplace. The colloquialisms may confuse some, especially those not from the UK. The story skips around a lot, and the conclusions on the fall of wrestling on British TV sneer at American wrestling too much. There are also some facts that are completely off (both British Bulldogs returned to the WWF in 1995?).
In spite of these flaws, Who’s The Daddy – The Life and Times of Shirley Crabtree is an in-depth read that will particularly appeal to BritWres fans, wrestling historians, and fans of Big Daddy himself.