"That was something we put out to inspire the kids," he admits. "I was skinny, all right, but there was nothing sick about me. I would have filled out even without swimming."
Another story only partly true was that Weissmuller went undefeated as a swimmer. This conveniently ignores the losses he suffered during his early days with Bachrach, as well as an occasional second-place finish in the backstroke, in which he was never as strong as he was in the freestyle. The account also winks at the time in the mid-1920s when Johnny, who was essentially a sprinter, was outfoxed, if not technically out-swum, by Sweden's Arne Borg, an IAC teammate at the time. Before the meet Bachrach neatly divided up the spoils, decreeing that Borg, a powerful distance swimmer, would win the half-mile and mile, that Weissmuller would take the 100 and 220 yards and that he and Borg would finish one-two in the 400, all for the greater glory of the IAC. But Borg had been upset by the American in the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics, and he felt he had an account to settle. As the 400 began, he went for broke, and before Weissmuller realized it had built up a huge lead. Inches from sure victory, Borg stopped. Having proved his point he had no desire to further risk Bachrach's wrath by actually winning.
"C'mon, Yohnny," Borg called. "C'mon." Weissmuller finally caught up and won a rather hollow victory.
There was nothing fluky about Weissmuller's races against the stopwatch. At one time or another, he held virtually every world freestyle record from 50 yards to the half-mile. His 100-yard freestyle mark (51 fiat), which was set in 1927 without benefit of starting blocks, lane lines or flip turns, stood until 1944. And it may well be, as some oldtimers have contended, that he would have been credited with even faster times except for his coach's distinctive mode of operation on barnstorming trips.
Bachrach, it seems, had fallen into the practice of demanding $100 appearance money in return for a new world record by Weissmuller. Rather than risk putting any record out of reach with a single all-out effort, thereby spoiling his coach's game, Weissmuller learned to shave his times little by little. Sometimes Bachrach simply refrained from submitting a new record at all, and it was on several such occasions that Weissmuller is said to have dipped well below 51 seconds. This, at any rate, would help explain why those who remember seeing Weissmuller set one world record or another probably outnumber even the 350,000 or so who recall having been present in Wrigley Field the day Babe Ruth hit his called-shot homer.
As for the $100 in appearance money, some killjoys charged that such payments made Weissmuller a professional, but Bachrach always denied it. "Johnny's not the pro," he said. "I am." Indeed, Bachrach needed all the extra funds he could get to finance the 12-course meals, Havana cigars and private railroad cars he enjoyed. On their cross-country trips together, the sleeping car would fill up with Bachrach's cigar smoke, often making Weissmuller ill. "Holy mackerel, I'm sorry, John," the coach would apologize. Then he would open the door a few inches and resume puffing away.
Bachrach handled Weissmuller with great skill. Trying to negotiate one of San Francisco's steeper streets after a particularly heavy meal, he once offered 25¢ if Weissmuller would push him to the top of the hill. After Johnny did so, Bachrach paid up, then told the exhausted youth: "Holy mackerel, John, I don't think that pushing was good for your legs. You better go work out in the pool." Weissmuller tried, without success, to return the quarter.
To protect Weissmuller from hometown judges who tended to allow local boys to jump the gun in hopes of upsetting the famous swimmer, Bachrach advised Johnny: "Forget about the gun. When the other guy hits the water, you hit the water." But his idea of gamesmanship did not extend to bragging. When he overheard Weissmuller ask a group of rival swimmers before one race, "O.K., which of you guys gets second place?" Bachrach promptly ordered his swimmer to apologize. "None of the YMCA stuff, John," he said. "You're a world champion."
It was Bachrach who, figuring that Weissmuller had run out of watery worlds to conquer, told him in 1929 to turn professional by signing a $500-a-week contract to endorse swimwear. Three years later MGM cast Johnny in Tarzan, the Ape Man. He was the first Tarzan to talk in the movies, and the script had him do so sparingly, in monosyllables. "Tarzan was right up my alley," he says. "It was like stealing money." But Hollywood has its sharpshooters, and Tarzan was right up their alley, too. High living, costly divorce settlements and bad investments all took their toll, and Weissmuller's money slipped away.
Weissmuller saw Bill Bachrach now and then before he died in Chicago in 1959 at the age of 80. There were many times over the years that he wished he had Bachrach by his side to advise him. Now, pausing before his coach's photograph in the Hall of Fame, Weissmuller remembered something that made him smile. "I used to buy him cigars every Christmas," he said. "He smoked expensive cigars, that son of a gun."