Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 1

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Nine of these players have represented the Cubs, and the first three of them are introduced below.


Wildfire Schulte,
1911

     On the Cubs’ pennant-winning teams of 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1910, right fielder Frank "Wildfire" Schulte was overshadowed by teammates who included the immortal pitcher Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown and the famed double-play combo of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. Schulte was adequate in all phases of the game and exceptional in none—until 1911, when he had a year that no one could have predicted. The term “career year” comes to mind. Schulte hit an even .300, belted 21 home runs (along with 30 doubles and 21 triples), scored 105 runs, and drove in 121. He led the league in homers, RBIs, and slugging percentage.
     Although the Cubs finished second to the Giants, Wildfire won the first official National League Most Valuable Player award for his efforts. The trophy was a brand-new car, because the Chalmers Motor Company sponsored the award.
     Schulte’s 21 round trippers marked the first time in modern major-league history that anyone had hit more than 16 in a season. To put the feat in perspective, consider that totals of 10, 12, 7, 10, and 10 had led the league in the five previous seasons. This was, after all, the dead-ball era. Frank “Home Run” Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose nickname (of course) referred to his long-ball prowess, topped the American League with 11 that same year.
     Wildfire soon reverted to the form that made him solid yet unspectacular for 14 of his 15 years in the majors. In the seven years prior to 1911, his best seasonal totals had been 10 homers and 68 RBIs. In the seven years after 1911, his best totals were 13 and 72. He was a .270 hitter for his career.


Rogers Hornsby,
1929

     “Baseball is my life,” said Rogers Hornsby, “the only thing I know and can talk about, my only interest.” He was, as they say today, focused. He didn’t smoke or drink—nor did he read or go to movies, for fear he’d ruin his eyesight. "If you live like I do," Hornsby told teammates, "you can be a great player too."
     Hornsby batted .358 for his career, second only to Ty Cobb in baseball history. He won six straight batting titles for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1920 to 1925, hitting .397 over that span. His single-season mark of .424 in 1924 is an unapproachable standard. But it was not only for his batting feats that Hornsby was exceptional; he was one of the most arrogant, obnoxious personalities the game has ever seen. Despite his incredible ability, he was traded three times in three years after leading St. Louis to the 1926 world championship.
     The 1929 Cubs were Hornsby’s fourth team in four years—and what a team they were! They outscored their opponents by over 200 runs as they breezed to the pennant by 10½ games. Hornsby batted .380, with 229 hits, 47 doubles, 39 homers, 156 runs, and 149 RBIs. Outfielders Hack Wilson (.345, 135 runs, 159 RBIs), Riggs Stephenson (.362, 110 RBIs), and Kiki Cuyler (.360, 43 stolen bases, 111 runs) were other mainstays in the Cubs’ fearsome lineup.
     It was the last great year for Hornsby. In 1930, an ankle injury limited him to 104 at-bats. Wilson’s 191 RBIs established a major-league record that still stands, but the Cubs fell two games short of the Cardinals. In the waning days of the season, Hornsby replaced manager Joe McCarthy (who went on to win eight pennants and seven world championships with the Yankees, but that's another story). The Rajah's managerial tenure of two years was not a success, because, as shortstop Woody English explained, “He expected everybody to be as good as he was.”
     Hornsby was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1942.


Gabby Hartnett,
1935

     The National League’s catcher in the first five All-Star games, Gabby Hartnett contributed mightily to Cub pennants in 1932, 1935, and 1938. His best year was 1935, when he belted 13 homers, drove in 91 runs, and batted .344. Thanks to his deadly throwing arm, he also led the league’s catchers in assists with 77, despite catching only 110 games. Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes said Hartnett had "as good an arm as ever hung on a man."
     On September 4, 1935, the Cubs were in third place behind the Cardinals and Giants. They lost only twice thereafter—on the second-to-last and last days of the season. In between they pulled off an unbelievable 21-game winning streak that catapulted them to the pennant. "All of a sudden we got the notion that we couldn’t lose,” said second baseman Billy Herman.
     Hartnett was the team’s heart and soul for 19 years. He batted .297 for his career and caught over 100 games 12 times—leading the league in putouts four times, in assists six times, and in fielding percentage six times. In 1938, he was appointed player-manager shortly after the midpoint of the season, with the Cubs in fourth place. After going 14-15 for the first month under Hartnett, the team surged to a 30-12 record the rest of the way and won another pennant. Manager Hartnett was helped immeasurably by player Hartnett, whose game-winning home run in the dark on September 28 put the Cubs in first place to stay. It remains arguably the greatest moment in Cubs history.
     Hartnett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pro Football Comes of Age


In the above photo, Red Grange of the Bears carries the ball against the Chicago Cardinals at Wrigley Field on November 26, 1925. As might be expected after 85 years, the uniforms of the players and officials look almost nothing like those of today. Look closely, though, and you see that the Bears are sporting the triple stripes on their sleeves that remain to this day. You also see that the idea of watching a game at Wrigley Field from a Sheffield Avenue rooftop is not new.

     On November 22, 1925, the Bears blanked the Packers 21-0 at Wrigley Field. Observing from the Bears’ bench was Harold “Red” Grange, the Wheaton native whose sensational career at the University of Illinois had concluded less than 24 hours earlier. Immediately after the Illini’s season-ending 14-9 victory at Ohio State, the three-time All-American had secretly boarded a train for Chicago to join the Bears. Thus he was at their game the very next day—but not in uniform, because the final details of his contract had not been settled.
     When Grange officially signed with the Bears on Monday morning, it was a monumental coup for Bears owner and head coach George Halas. He announced that “the Galloping Ghost” would make his debut on November 26, Thanksgiving Day, against the Cardinals. Tickets went on sale Monday afternoon, and the 20,000 that had been printed were sold within three hours. Mounted police were called to quell a potential riot among fans who were still in line when the supply ran out. More tickets were printed the following day, and another 16,000 were sold.
     Thursday afternoon was damp and chilly, but Wrigley Field was filled to the rafters. Seventeen people were arrested outside the park for selling counterfeit tickets. Grange took the field wearing a Bears jersey onto which his familiar No. 77 had been hastily stitched.
     In the first quarter, Grange brought the fans to their feet when he fielded a punt and zigzagged 30 yards before being wrestled down. The rest of his afternoon was less eventful. He ended up with 66 yards on three punt returns and 36 yards on 13 carries from scrimmage. He also attempted six passes, all of which fell incomplete, and caught one pass. His interception thwarted one of the Cardinals’ two scoring threats (the other was a field-goal attempt by Paddy Driscoll that ricocheted off one of the uprights).
     Although the Bears failed to mount a serious assault on the Cardinal goal line and the game ended in a scoreless tie, no one seemed too disappointed. When the gun sounded, Cardinal players lined up to shake Grange’s hand, knowing that his presence in the league was likely to make them all more prosperous. Hundreds of fans swarmed onto the field, and only quick work by a cordon of policemen saved Grange from being stampeded by the well wishers.
     “The Bears and the Cardinals are great pro teams,” the Tribune’s Don Maxwell wrote the next morning. “They have thousands of enthusiastic followers. But the more than 36,000 folks who made the turkey wait until the game was over weren’t there to see their teams play. They were there to see the redhead of Wheaton. They cheered when Grange gained ground; they cheered when he lost ground. They went into vocal hysterics when he trotted on the field, and they almost mobbed him when he left it.”
     To exploit Grange’s tremendous popularity, the Bears played exhibition games in St. Louis, Washington, and Pittsburgh in addition to their five regularly scheduled league games between December 2 and December 13—for a total of eight games in 12 days. Late in December, they set off on a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour that saw them play nine more games before the end of January. As a result of these games, Halas said, “Pro football for the first time took on true national stature.”
     Pro football was here to stay. By the time of his death in 1983, Halas had seen the value of an NFL franchise increase from $100 to roughly $100 million. He had also done more than anyone to make it happen.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cougar Town


BY CHRISTOPHER TABBERT

     The Chicago Cougars were the first and presumably the last professional sports franchise to represent my hometown of Mt. Prospect. Likewise, the 1974 Avco Cup final series was the first and presumably the last championship of a professional sports league to be played in Mt. Prospect.
     The Cougars were members of the World Hockey Association, which was founded in 1972 as a rival to the National Hockey League, and the Avco Cup was the WHA's equivalent of the Stanley Cup. Like other upstart sports leagues which have come along over the years, the WHA was initially regarded as something of a joke. But the NHL wasn't laughing after Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull signed with the new league before its inaugural season. Hull's defection to the Winnipeg Jets gave the WHA instant credibility, and 67 other NHL players soon followed.The loss of Hull also proved disastrous for the Blackhawks, marking the beginning of a slow, steady decline in popularity from which they are just now recovering.

     The Cougars finished last in the Western Divison in the WHA's first season, but they made the playoffs the next year, led by three former Hawks: center Ralph Backstrom, defenseman Pat "Whitey" Stapleton, and goalie Dave Dryden. The Cougars won their first two playoff series and advanced to the Avco Cup finals against the Houston Aeros, who featured 46-year-old Gordie Howe—Mr. Hockey himself—and his sons Mark and Marty.
     This was where the sublime met the ridiculous. The Cougars' home arena, the International Amphitheatre at 43rd and Halsted, had been available for the first playoff series, but not for the second series because it had booked a touring production of Peter Pan, starring former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby in the title role. As a result, the second playoff series had been moved to Randhurst Twin Ice Arena in Mt. Prospect, which was named for the vast shopping mall in whose parking lot it sat.
     By the time the Cougars and Aeros were set to start the finals, Peter Pan had moved on—but the Amphitheatre's ice surface had been melted and, for whatever reason, could not be refrozen. The Cougars attempted to shift their home games to Chicago Stadium, but that plan fell through because the Hawks were still alive in the NHL playoffs and weren't willing to share. So, with tails between their legs, the Cougars returned to Randhurst for the Avco Cup finals.
     The Amphitheatre was no great shakes. In fact, it was decrepit, as anyone who attended one of the many concerts it hosted in those days could attest. But it could seat some 7,000 spectators, whereas the Randhurst rink held less than 2,000. The latter had been designed to suit the needs of participants, not spectators, and it could hardly accommodate newspaper reporters, much less radio and television broadcasts. It was probably just as well, then, that Houston swept the series, and the Cougars were spared the embarrassment of hosting more than two games.
     The shopping-mall ice rink made the Cougars a laughingstock, and they never recovered. During the 1974-75 season, the players themselves chipped in to buy the franchise from original owners Walter and Jordan Kaiser when the brothers failed to secure financing for a new arena in Rosemont. The Cougars folded at the end of that season. The arena in Rosemont was eventually built, of course. It opened in 1980 as the Rosemont Horizon, and it's now known as the Allstate Arena. The Randhurst Twin Ice Arena, like the Amphitheatre and the Cougars, is no more.

Postscript: After the Cougars' demise, the World Hockey Association survived for several more years. When it disbanded in 1979, four of its teams joined the NHL: Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. With them came a number of outstanding players, including Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, Paul Holmgren, Rod Langway, Ken Linseman, Mike Liut, Mark Messier, Rick Vaive, and the Great One—Wayne Gretzky.

(c)2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Splendid Seasons: White Sox MVPs

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Three of these players have represented the White Sox.


Nellie Fox,
1959

     “There was never a more bear-down, hard-nosed little guy than Nellie Fox,” said the great Ted Williams. Fox teamed first with Chico Carrasquel and later with Luis Aparicio to give the White Sox the slickest double-play tandem of the fifties.
     In 1959, leadoff man Aparicio and second hitter Fox supplied the octane for the pennant-winning Go-Go Sox. Aparicio stole 56 bases and scored 98 runs. Fox hit .306 with 70 RBIs, while playing every game (his consecutive-games streak eventually reached 798, a record for second basemen). Both players won Gold Gloves. In the MVP balloting, Fox preceded the man he followed in the batting order, winning the award while Aparicio was runner-up.
     It was no coincidence that Aparicio led the league in steals in each of the seven years that he and Fox played together. Fox was the ideal No. 2 hitter: he could take pitches and foul off pitches all day long without fear of striking out, and he bunted with the best of them. He led the American League for 10 straight years in the category of toughest to strike out. He also led the league in hits four times, played in 12 All-Star games (batting .386), and won three Gold Gloves.
     Fox made an indelible impression on fans with his scrappy, hustling play and the ever-present chaw of tobacco bulging out of his cheek. Listed at five-foot-nine and 160 pounds, Fox never backed down at the plate or in the field. “The most important thing to me,” said teammate Billy Pierce, “was his determination and competitiveness, which made up for some of the physical things he didn’t have. He loved the game and he played it hard.”
     Fox was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997—but alas, he never knew it, having passed away in 1975.


Dick Allen,
1972

     One of the most talented and enigmatic players of recent decades, Dick Allen used his amazing strength and bat speed to terrorize pitchers in 1972, his first year in the American League after eight seasons in the National League as Richie Allen. Acquired by the White Sox after wearing out his welcome with three other clubs in the previous three years, he came to Chicago with a new name but with the same old attitude. He skipped batting practice, traveled separately from his teammates, and smoked on the bench. He showed up late even for the All-Star Game.
     Despite all this, Allen flourished with the Sox—for a time. Manager Chuck Tanner blithely admitted that he had one set of rules for Allen and another for the rest of the team. The recalcitrant slugger responded with a then-club-record 37 homers to go with 113 RBIs and a .308 average as the Sox stayed in contention all year; they finished five and a half games behind Oakland after bottoming out with 106 losses only two years before. A particular highlight was a doubleheader sweep of the Yankees on June 4 before a Bat Day crowd of 51,904 at Comiskey Park. In the nightcap, the Sox were trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth when Allen blasted a three-run pinch-hit homer into the upper deck in left field.
     Allen used the heaviest bat in the majors, a 42-ounce war club, and launched the most wicked line drives. He literally hit the ball through the back of a wooden seat on more than one occasion. He always wore a batting helmet in the field, a reminder of his days in Philadelphia, where fans pelted him with coins, batteries, and even bottles. White Sox fans showered Allen only with love, but even so, his limited attention span finally gave out in 1974, his third year in Chicago. He quit the team with three weeks left in the season.


Frank Thomas,
1993, 1994

     Frank Thomas joined the White Sox on August 2, 1990, fully formed as a major-league star. He hit .330 in that first partial season. He never experienced the growing pains typical of rookies. He never suffered through a prolonged slump. It soon became apparent that he was the most dangerous offensive force to come along since Ted Williams, half a century before him. No one since Williams had put up such gaudy numbers so consistently from the start of his career. In his first six full seasons, Thomas batted .327 and averaged 36 homers, 116 RBIs, 106 runs scored, and 121 walks.
     The imposing, six-foot-four Thomas played football at Auburn University, where he was a little-known teammate of Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. When the two were reunited with the White Sox, it was Bo’s turn to be eclipsed. In 1993, Thomas slammed 41 homers, knocked in 128 runs, and batted .317 to earn his first American League MVP award as the Sox won their division by eight games.
     In 1994, the Sox were in first place again and might have been destined for their first World Series in 35 years when a labor dispute ended the season on August 12. For the first time since 1904, there was no World Series. Thomas’s second straight MVP was bittersweet, but comparisons to the immortal Williams didn’t seem far-fetched in light of the Big Hurt’s .353 average, 38 homers, 101 RBIs, 106 runs scored, .494 on-base percentage, and .729 slugging percentage in just 113 games.
     Thomas appeared almost exclusively as a designated hitter after the age of 30, and his production declined rather sharply. He had one more monster year in 2000 as the Sox ran away with the division title; he hit .328 with 43 homers, 143 RBIs, and 115 runs scored, finishing second in the MVP voting. Unfortunately, Thomas missed the Sox' unforgettable 2005 postseason with an injury, and he was let go the following winter. By the end of his career in 2008, he ranked among the top sluggers of all time in every pertinent category. It seems safe to assume that he will soon be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Mildly Interesting Trivia Department: Frank Thomas of the White Sox, 1994 American League MVP, and Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros, 1994 National League MVP, were born on the same day—May 27, 1968.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Long Time Coming

RAY MEYER
For DePaul men's basketball coach Ray Meyer, it was 32 long years between George Mikan's graduation in 1946 and the Blue Demons' return to national prominence in 1978. Now, another 32 years have gone by, and DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is searching for a new head coach to lead the Demons back to glory. Her future husband Joe was one of the key players who helped turn the program around in Meyer's day. Below is the story of how it happened.

     The George Mikan era at DePaul ended with a lopsided 65-40 victory over Beloit College in the regular-season finale on March 9, 1946.
     Coach Ray Meyer began to face life without the man who would later be voted the greatest player of the first half of the century. “While he was around,” Meyer wrote, “I was a great coach.” For his part, Mikan said of Meyer, “I’d be nothing without him.” The Demons had won 81 of 98 games in the four years and finished third, second, and first in their three postseason tournaments. Now Mikan was bound for greater glory in the pro ranks, while Meyer was destined for decades of obscurity. The 32-year-old coach would see his age double before he and DePaul returned to national prominence.

     Fast forward to March 9, 1978. The Blue Demons have concluded their regular season with 12 consecutive victories and a No. 3 national ranking, and they are awaiting the start of the NCAA tournament. Fame, that fickle companion, has returned to Meyer after all these years. In the meantime, seven Presidents have occupied the White House, and Meyer has gone to work at DePaul day after day with no fanfare and little reward beyond the enjoyment he derives from coaching. He and his wife Marge have raised their six children, all of whom call him “Coach.”
     Since Mikan’s departure, the Demons had made six appearances in the NCAA tournament and five in the NIT. They had also endured a stretch from 1967 to 1973 in which they won 74 games and lost 75. The 1970-71 team, captained by Meyer’s son Joey, inadvertently became the catalyst for DePaul’s return to glory. After the Demons struggled to a record of 8-17, the university responded to the debacle by giving Meyer a recruiting budget and allowing him to hire an assistant coach for the first time. There followed a procession of top-flight players to DePaul: forward Bill Robinzine in 1972; center Dave Corzine, guard Ron Norwood, and forward Joe Ponsetto in 1974; guard Gary Garland and forward Curtis Watkins in 1975; and guard Clyde Bradshaw in 1977.
     Like their forerunners of three decades earlier, the 1977-78 Blue Demons were led by an outstanding big man. At six-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Corzine was more or less the same size as Mikan, and comparisons between the two became inevitable. Meyer considered Mikan to have been quicker and generally more athletic than Corzine, while rating both as exceptionally intelligent and competitive. “There is not a better shooting center in the country,” Meyer said of Corzine. “He’s a better outside shooter than Mikan was. George could take the ball inside, though, and I’d sure like to have him back. I’d move Dave to forward and find a way to keep both of them happy.”
     Of DePaul’s 12 straight wins to end the regular season, the biggest one by any measure was the seventh, on February 12 at Notre Dame. The Demons came into the game at 19-2 and ranked 11th in the nation; the Irish were 16-3 and ranked fourth. This was the game that made people take notice of the resurgent Blue Demons. It was a tough afternoon for Corzine, who was suffering from the flu and was double-teamed every time he touched the ball. He managed 23 points and played the entire game, but it was DePaul’s guards who made the difference in the end.
     “The din in Notre Dame’s Athletic and Convocation center,” Bill Jauss wrote in the Tribune, “defied description.” Regulation play ended with the score tied 61-61. Notre Dame led 68-63 with 90 seconds remaining in overtime when DePaul’s little guys took over. Garland scored off a rebound to make it 68-65. Then Bradshaw stole the ball and took it in for a layup to make it 68-67. As the clock ticked down into the final seconds, Randy Ramsey stole the ball and fired it to Garland in the corner for an open 15-footer—which missed. Bradshaw fouled Rich Branning as the latter grabbed the rebound for Notre Dame, sending him to the foul line for a one-and-one with 10 seconds left. “I was sure I’d blown it,” said Garland.
     But when Branning missed the first free throw, Corzine secured the rebound. “I knew we were out of timeouts,” he said. “I looked up court for the first person I could see open. There he was.” He was Garland, streaking up court. Garland fielded Corzine’s baseball-style pass, dribbled to the top of the key, pulled up and let fly. The shot hit, as they say, nothing but net. Almost simultaneously the buzzer sounded. DePaul had won 69-68. “I knew it was going in,” said Garland, who had gone from goat to hero in 10 seconds. “I definitely felt it.”
     “We don’t know when we’re beaten,” Meyer said proudly.
     Exactly a month after their victory at Notre Dame, the Blue Demons opened the NCAA tournament against Creighton. Thanks to red-hot shooting, Creighton led by 20 points late in the first half and by 14 at halftime, but the Demons kept their composure and doggedly battled back. DePaul eventually won 80-78 on two free throws by the virtually unknown William Dise, who’d come into the game when Watkins fouled out. Corzine notched 19 points and 11 rebounds, but it was the unsung Ramsey, normally a defensive specialist, who sparked DePaul’s comeback. Focused to the point of obsession on Corzine, Creighton’s defenders paid no attention to Ramsey, whose scoring average was four points per game. “I told Randy to shoot!” said Meyer. After scoring his usual two points in the first half, Ramsey tallied 12 points after the intermission. “The best half he ever played,” Meyer said. “Without Ramsey, we wouldn’t have won.”
     Corzine was absolutely unstoppable in the next game as DePaul subdued Louisville 90-89 in double overtime. He made 18 field goals, almost all of which were within several feet of the basket, including the game winner with six seconds remaining. He also went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. His 46 points gave him 1,879 for his career—nine more than Mikan’s previous school record.
     DePaul was now 27-2 and one win away from the Final Four. To get there, the Blue Demons would have to get past none other than Notre Dame. The rematch with Meyer’s alma mater was a compelling story—more compelling, it turned out, than the game itself. Corzine had dislocated a finger in practice the day before; the injury contributed to his relatively pedestrian output of 17 points and particularly hindered his rebounding. Notre Dame’s 22-8 surge early in the second half transformed a one-point game into a rout. The final score was 84-64. “We just didn’t come back,” said Meyer. “The way they rebounded on us, they just took everything away. The well just ran dry.”

     Corzine’s college career, as well as Ponsetto’s and Ramsey’s, ended with DePaul’s departure from the 1978 NCAA tournament. Unlike in 1946, however, when Meyer had faced the dismal prospect of going forward without Mikan, this time DePaul had another superstar waiting in the wings. He was Mark Aguirre, a chunky, six-foot-six scoring machine from Chicago’s Westinghouse High School and perhaps the most coveted recruit in the country. “Mark was a symbol of the revival of DePaul basketball,” Meyer wrote, “for he was the sort of player we would have had no chance to get in our darkest days just a few years earlier.”
     Aguirre was joined in the starting lineup by holdovers Bradshaw, Garland, and Watkins, and center James Mitchem. His debut on November 25, 1978, at UCLA showed that he was intimidated neither by all the national championship banners hanging from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion nor by the Bruins themselves. On the first play of the game, Aguirre dunked resoundingly over UCLA’s All-American center David Greenwood. He finished with 29 points in a 108-85 loss. “He’s just going to keep getting better and better,” said Meyer. “It’s awfully tough to come onto UCLA’s home court for your opener, but it didn’t faze Aguirre. I don’t think the [Los Angeles] Lakers would have fazed him.”
     After the defeat at UCLA, the Blue Demons won their next four games by an average margin of 22 points. They lost at Wichita State, then won eight in succession. They gathered steam as the season progressed. After two narrow losses in January, the Demons won eight more in a row before hosting Notre Dame on March 2. A boisterous overflow crowd at Alumni Hall saw DePaul upset the No. 2-ranked Irish 76-72. Playing his final home game, Watkins scored 21 points while holding Notre Dame’s leading scorer, Kelly Tripucka, to eight. “You turn on the faucet and expect water to come out,” Meyer said. “You put a uniform on Watkins and expect so many points and so many rebounds.”
     DePaul opened the 1979 NCAA tournament with wins over USC and Marquette, setting up a rematch with UCLA in Provo, Utah, on March 17. From the opening tip, the Demons showed that they were not the same team the Bruins had dispatched in November. Because Mitchem could not handle Greenwood by himself, DePaul abandoned its customary man-to-man defense in favor of a zone. “We have a very active zone,” explained assistant coach Joey Meyer. “The guards go out to cover the passing lanes and make steals.” Indeed, the quickness, athleticism, and general relentlessness of DePaul guards Bradshaw and Garland proved overwhelming as the Blue Demons built a 17-point lead by halftime.
     After the intermission, Meyer and the Blue Demons were somewhat mystified when they emerged from the locker room to a thunderous standing ovation. They later learned that in returning to the floor themselves, the UCLA players had disrupted the performance of a dance troupe from Brigham Young University, which was hosting the game. The previously neutral crowd fervently cheered DePaul’s every move from then on and might have helped the Demons withstand a frantic rally by UCLA in the closing minutes. The Bruins narrowed the gap to two points before Garland’s layup with 10 seconds left decided the outcome. DePaul won 95-91, with the two seniors Garland and Watkins each tallying 24 points. “Now, when I walk down the street,” Meyer said, “people will stop asking, ‘Coach, where’s DePaul?’ Pretty soon, everybody will know.”
     DePaul was in the Final Four, and Meyer was becoming a favorite of even casual fans. His craggy, expressive face, gap-toothed grin, and ample midsection made him unmistakable either in person or on television. He was portrayed in the media as an affable, cuddly old grandpa, and his aw-shucks demeanor in interviews reinforced this impression. If he resented that he was just now being discovered by most of the audience, he never let on.
     In their national semifinal game in Salt Lake City, the Blue Demons discovered why Larry Bird was the college player of the year and, not coincidentally, why Indiana State was undefeated. DePaul battled gamely throughout, and even took a one-point lead with 1:37 remaining, but Bird simply would not be beaten. The blond, six-foot-nine wizard hit 16 of 19 shots, grabbed 16 rebounds, and had nine assists as the Sycamores prevailed 76-74. Between his 35 points and the assists, Bird was directly involved in 70 percent of his team’s scoring. (Indiana State lost the championship game to Michigan State, in the first chapter of the legendary rivalry that Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson continued in the NBA for a dozen more years.)
     DePaul was at the peak of its success and notoriety for the next few years. The Blue Demons were arguably more popular than the Bulls in this pre-Jordan period. Meyer was now a beloved elder statesman, basking in the respect of opponents, fans, and the media; he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, only the fourth active coach to be so honored. Aguirre proved to be the genuine article; his career output of 2,182 points and average of 24.5 per game dwarfed those of Corzine and Mikan, and he was the first player chosen in the 1981 NBA draft. Virtually every DePaul game was now televised, and a crowd of reporters followed the team even on the road. The Demons left the cozy 5,500-seat Alumni Hall at Belden and Sheffield, moving to the Rosemont Horizon, which held 18,000. The trickle of prize recruits coming to DePaul became a torrent. Whereas Meyer’s previous teams had carried the aura of gritty underdogs with perhaps more heart than talent, the new Demons were a bunch of thoroughbreds.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Day of Sweetness and Sorrow


WALTER PAYTON
     October 7, 1984, was an unforgettable day for Chicago sports fans. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times (for White Sox fans, it was only the former). At dank, drizzly Soldier Field, Walter Payton became pro football’s all-time leading rusher. At sun-kissed Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, the Cubs suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in their 109-year history. The weatherman had it backwards.
     At Soldier Field, on the second play of the third quarter, Payton took a pitch from quarterback Jim McMahon and went around the left end for six yards. With this gain, the man who had personified excellence and dedication for a decade’s worth of mediocre Bear teams surpassed Jim Brown’s career total of 12,312 yards, which had stood as the NFL record since 1965. Payton finished the day with 154 yards on 32 carries (it was the 59th time he had gained 100 or more yards in a game, also a record). The Bears defeated the New Orleans Saints 20-6 to advance to 4-2 for the season; they were headed for their first division title in 21 years.
     As he had accepted everything throughout his brilliant career, Payton accepted the record with grace and humility. “The win means everything,” he said after the game. “If we would have lost this game today, the record would just be something in the past. Now, everybody here has something to talk about.” He dedicated his performance to three running backs who had died too soon to have their potential realized—David Overstreet, Joe Delaney, and Brian Piccolo: “What I did out there today is a reflection of those guys, who didn’t get the opportunity, because they made the sacrifices as well.”
     Then the phone rang in the media tent, and it was President Ronald Reagan on the line. “Good luck on your next 12,000 yards,” he told Payton.

     Half a continent away at Jack Murphy Stadium, the Cubs and Padres were engaged in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Championship Series. With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, a routine ground ball skipped under Cub first baseman Leon Durham’s glove, allowing the tying run to score for San Diego. A check-swing single followed. Then Tony Gwynn hit a hot shot toward second baseman Ryne Sandberg that looked like an inning-ending double play. But the ball took a bad hop and bounded over Sandberg into the gap for a two-run double. A solid single by Steve Garvey scored Gwynn. With that, Cubs manager Jim Frey finally lifted pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, but the train had left the station. The Padres were ahead 6-3, and that proved to be the final score.
     The Cubs had lost three straight in San Diego when winning just one would have given them their first pennant in 39 years. Now the Padres were on their way to the World Series, and the Cubs were left to contemplate how their glorious season had so suddenly and sickeningly ended. Sutcliffe’s loss in the decisive Game 5 was just his second against 17 victories since he'd joined the Cubs in a June trade; he would soon receive the National League Cy Young Award. It was understandable, if regrettable, that Frey had trusted in the towering righthander's invincibility beyond the point of no return.
     A big man not only in stature, Sutcliffe bravely faced the media after the game. He refused to blame Durham for the ball that didn’t come up or Sandberg for the ball that didn’t stay down. “I take the responsibility for this,” he said. “It’s my fault. These guys have been great behind me all year.
     “This will hurt me for a long, long time,” Sutcliffe continued. “It will stay with all of us for a long time. It’s hard to deal with. Very hard.”
     Millions of Cubs fans knew exactly how he felt.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Chicago MVPs

ERNIE BANKS
     With the exception of the Bulls' stupendous run in the 1990s, it has been a pretty thin stew as far as Chicago world championships go. While the Bulls won six titles in an eight-year span, the other major hometown franchises have combined for only five since the end of World War II. Although championships have been few and far between, Chicago fans have at least had their share of individual heroes to cheer for. Ernie Banks is the classic example, contributing two decades of excellence to a team that never qualified for postseason play. Mr. Cub is one of 19 Chicago athletes who have earned Most Valuable Player recognition for their splendid seasons and one of five who’ve done it more than once. One, Michael Jordan, has done it five times.

     The list, in alphabetical order:
  • Dick Allen, White Sox first baseman 1972 
  • Ernie Banks, Cubs shortstop 1958, 1959
  • Max Bentley, Blackhawks center 1946
  • Phil Cavarretta, Cubs first baseman 1945
  • Andre Dawson, Cubs outfielder 1987
  • Nellie Fox, White Sox second baseman 1959
  • Gabby Hartnett, Cubs catcher 1935
  • Rogers Hornsby, Cubs second baseman 1929
  • Bobby Hull, Blackhawks left wing 1965, 1966
  • Michael Jordan, Bulls guard 1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998
  • Sid Luckman, Bears quarterback 1943
  • Stan Mikita, Blackhawks center 1967, 1968
  • Walter Payton, Bears runnning back 1977
  • Al Rollins, Blackhawks goalie 1954
  • Ryne Sandberg, Cubs second baseman 1984
  • Hank Sauer, Cubs outfielder 1952
  • Frank "Wildfire" Schulte, Cubs outfielder 1911
  • Sammy Sosa, Cubs outfielder 1998
  • Frank Thomas, White Sox first baseman 1993, 1994
     No official Most Valuable Player awards were given in the National League for the years 1900-1910, 1915-1923, and 1930, or in the American League for 1901-1910, 1915-1921, and 1929-1930. The following Cubs and White Sox most likely would have won the award in their respective leagues if it had been offered for these seasons:
  • 1906  Frank Chance, Cubs first baseman 
  • 1908  Ed Walsh, White Sox pitcher
  • 1915  Eddie Collins, White Sox second baseman
  • 1917  Eddie Cicotte, White Sox pitcher
  • 1918  Hippo Vaughn, Cubs pitcher
  • 1919  Joe Jackson, White Sox outfielder
  • 1930  Hack Wilson, Cubs outfielder
     In the National Football League, no Most Valuable Player award was given for the years 1920-1937 and 1947-1952. If the award had been offered for these seasons, it is likely that the following players would have won it:
  • 1929  Ernie Nevers, Cardinals halfback
  • 1932  Bronko Nagurski, Bears fullback and tackle
  • 1933  Bronko Nagurski, Bears fullback and tackle
  • 1934  Beattie Feathers, Bears halfback
     So there. We'll have more to say on this subject, with profiles of the aforementioned players in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tiger's Back


Tiger Woods—whose career to date has featured 14 major championships, 71 PGA Tour victories in all, and one hugely embarrassing scandal—announced yesterday that he will return to competitive golf at the Masters on April 8. Woods has had a soft spot for Augusta National since winning his first major there, in spectacular fashion, in 1997. Later the same year, Woods won the Western Open before record crowds at Cog Hill. Woods's Western experience is described below. He was just a kid then, and (perhaps more than most of us) he is a lot older now.

     When Tiger Woods arrived at Cog Hill in Lemont for the 1997 Western Open, he was the biggest phenomenon not only in golf, but in all of sports as well. The 21-year-old prodigy was 10 weeks removed from his astonishing triumph in the Masters—in which he’d become the youngest champion and recorded the lowest score (270 for the 72 holes) in tournament history, while enjoying the widest margin of victory (12 strokes) in any major tournament since 1870.
     Tiger’s presence swelled attendance at the Western to 199,955, breaking the old tournament record by 30,000. There were 156 players in the field, but the spectators seemed intent on watching only one. “I feel for the guys who play in front of me and behind me,” said Woods. “Their concentration sometimes is interrupted. As I always tell people, you’ve got to understand that not only myself but other players are out here on tour, and we’re actually trying to make a living here.”
     On Thursday, July 3, Woods shot a five-under-par 67 to trail his playing partner Mark O’Meara by a stroke after one round. On Friday, Woods’s 72 and O’Meara’s 73 were the worst scores among the leaders; they ended the second round tied with four others for seventh place—four strokes behind Justin Leonard, who had carded a 64 to go nine under par for the tournament.
     O’Meara continued to slide on Saturday, shooting a 75 to drop out of contention. But Woods climbed back up the leader board. His 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th gave him 68 for the day and 207 for the tournament. It also triggered a deafening roar from the gallery. “Yeah, the people were going crazy,” Woods said. “It was kind of wild, especially since it’s late afternoon, and it’s kind of warm and they’ve been sipping.”
     Woods was now tied with Leonard and Loren Roberts for the lead at nine under par. A crowd of 49,462 turned out for the final round on Sunday, erasing the single-day attendance record that had been established Saturday.
     Sunday’s spectators saw just what they had come hoping to see—eventually. There was a touch of doubt early on: Woods shot even par for the first five holes, while Roberts carded two birdies to take the lead. On the sixth, a challenging 213-yard par three, Woods placed a four-iron within 12 feet of the cup and knocked it down for birdie. Roberts began to implode; he lost three strokes to Woods on the next four holes and gave up the lead for good.
     Woods bogeyed the par-four 10th hole to fall back into a tie with Leonard and Frank Nobilo. Thereafter he put on a clinic. On the par-three 12th, he sank a birdie putt from 25 feet out. On the 14th, another par three, his tee shot landed a mere foot from the cup, and he made birdie. Woods added another birdie on the par-five 15th for good measure. As he strode up the 18th fairway with victory securely in his grasp, hundreds of spectators broke through the ropes on either side and fell in behind him, their Pied Piper, and marched to the green en masse. “I really didn’t see them,” Woods claimed, “because I’m facing forward. I definitely heard them, but when I got up to the green, I was just looking at my putt.”
     After Woods putted out, he hurled his ball into the gallery. His 34 on the front nine and 34 on the back gave him 68 and a four-day total of 275 (13 under par). Leonard managed a 72 to finish tied for third. Nobilo shot 70 to end up second, three strokes behind Woods.
     Woods’s win was his sixth in less than 11 months since his graduation from the amateur ranks. He ended 1997 as the first golfer ever to earn more than $2 million in a single year. There was no telling how many more victories or dollars lay before him. “If I play my normal game,” he said, in a monumental understatement, “I should be able to win out here on tour.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm Milton Bradley, And You're Not


MILTON BRADLEY WITH LARRY VANOVER 
     Spring training is here, and Milton Bradley is not. Thank heaven.
     The Bradley era was a brief but eventful one in Cubs history, to be filed under the heading “Hendry, Jim: Worst Mistake of Career.” After back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008 failed to produce a single postseason victory, the Cubs’ general manager concluded that the club needed more “balance” offensively. So he traded the popular and productive Mark DeRosa, a righthanded hitter, and signed free-agent Bradley, a switch-hitter, for three years and $30 million. Bradley was never going to be the RBI man in the middle of the lineup that he was hired to be—his career high in that department was 77. In his one season with the Cubs, he managed 12 home runs, 40 RBIs, and a .257 average. He was paid a quarter of a million dollars for each RBI.
     Bradley’s first at-bat at Wrigley Field began with a standing ovation from the faithful and ended with him ejected from the game for disputing a called third strike. It was all downhill after that. As the season went along, Bradley alienated almost everyone he came in contact with, including his teammates, coaches, and manager. He suggested, among other things, that Cubs fans were racists, that umpires were out to destroy him, and, strangely, that restaurant waiters in Chicago were “bad-mouthing” him. Having finally had enough, Hendry suspended Bradley in mid-September for the remainder of the season. Upon hearing the news, the rest of the Cubs players applauded.

“I knew when I left the restaurant that night that he was our guy.”
--Jim Hendry, Cubs general manager, describing a dinner meeting with Milton Bradley in November 2008

“I believe in blessings, and I consider myself the most blessed man on the face of the Earth today.”
--Milton Bradley, upon signing with Cubs, January 8, 2009

“I've been in this league a long time. It didn't matter what he was about to say—because when Milton gets that crazy look in his eyes, that means it's time to send him to the showers.”
--Larry Vanover, umpire, explaining why he ejected Bradley from the latter’s first game as a Cub in Wrigley Field, April 16, 2009

“I've never made a mistake like that in my life. Sue me.”
--Milton Bradley, after catching a fly ball and tossing the ball into the stands—even though it was only the second out of the inning, June 12, 2009

“You’re not a ballplayer; you’re a piece of shit.”
--Lou Piniella, Cubs manager, speaking to Bradley, June 26, 2009

“I just pray the game is [only] nine innings so I can be out there the least amount of time possible and go home.”
--Milton Bradley, August 26, 2009

“You can understand why they haven’t won in 100 years here. I need a stable, healthy, enjoyable environment.”
--Milton Bradley, Sept. 19, 2009

“Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror and realize that maybe the biggest part of the problem is yourself.”
--Ryan Dempster, Cubs pitcher, discussing Bradley

“Obviously it didn’t work.”
--Jim Hendry, referring to his signing of Bradley, Dec. 18, 2009

Reprinted from Quotable Cubs
To be published in Spring 2011
(c)2010, 2011 by Bristol & Lynden Press

Monday, March 15, 2010

Iron Men

JERRY HARKNESS
     When Loyola University basketball coach George Ireland came into work on Monday, February 4, 1963, he discovered that he had lost two key players. Guard Pablo Robertson and forward Billy Smith, both sophomores, had failed to pass their midterm exams and were therefore ineligible for the remainder of the season.
     It says something about the academic integrity of the university and its athletic department that Ireland’s top two reserves could be booted off a team that was undefeated, ranked No. 2 in the country, and taking aim at a possible national championship. Many other universities would have finagled a way to keep the two players on the team, but at Loyola the term “student-athlete” retained its intended meaning. Loyola’s players were students first and athletes second. As if to drive the point home, the Ramblers’ five starters went on to earn 11 college degrees among them.
     The five were forwards Jerry Harkness and Vic Rouse, center Les Hunter, and guards Ron Miller and John Egan. They were four African Americans and an Irish kid from the South Side, representing a Jesuit school that was virtually unknown outside of Chicago. Their climb to the top of the college basketball world was an inspiring story in itself, which also took on greater significance as a harbinger of changing times.
     Segregation was still a fact of life in 1963. In the South, African Americans were expected to pursue their higher education at traditionally black institutions such as Alabama A&M, Jackson State, Grambling, Southern, and Tennessee State, or not at all. The more prestigious universities, even state schools funded by taxpayers and theoretically open to any qualified resident, were off-limits. James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi in September 1962 had triggered rioting that left two people dead and 160 injured. It took the intervention of the federal government to get Meredith admitted, and he could not set foot on campus without an escort of U.S. marshals to ensure his safety.
     Even in the rest of the country, where the universities were integrated, most athletic teams featured no more than a few African Americans. Basketball coaches observed an unwritten rule limiting the number of black players on the court at any given time to three for home teams and two for road teams. Ireland defied the quota system with his four African-American starters, regardless of whether the Ramblers were at home or away.
     The absence of Robertson and Smith meant that Loyola’s five starters were going to be pretty much on their own for the rest of the season. The five “iron men,” as they soon came to be called, had been a cohesive and productive unit since the previous year, when they’d carried Loyola to a 23-4 record and a third-place finish in the National Invitational Tournament. Harkness, an All-American in 1962 and destined to repeat in 1963, was the only senior; the other four were juniors. “Harkness leads us,” said Ireland, “like the leader of a hungry pack of wolves.”
     Harkness was a native of the Bronx who had not played high-school basketball until his senior year, after baseball great Jackie Robinson saw him in a pickup game and encouraged him to give it a try. Miller was also from the Bronx. Hunter and Rouse were high-school teammates and best friends from Nashville. They had decided to stick together when it came time to go to college. “I had offers from Massachusetts, Notre Dame, and UCLA,” Hunter said, “but Rouse had a knee operation and they weren’t interested. Loyola was the only one that would take us both.” Egan was the lone Chicagoan, a product of St. Rita High School. As the only white player among Loyola’s starters, he’d inadvertently made history by fouling out against Wyoming on December 29, 1962. When Robertson replaced him, it marked the first time that an integrated university’s team had five black players on the floor at once.
     Ireland was an alumnus of Notre Dame, where he’d been a teammate of DePaul coach Ray Meyer on the 1936 national championship team. He had gone directly into coaching after college, spending 15 years at Marmion Academy in Aurora before coming to Loyola in 1951. Ireland’s philosophy was very simple: to run, run, run on offense and to press, press, press on defense. His current group of players was perfectly suited to this approach. “Our whole premise was to get out and run,” recalled Hunter. “We pressed regardless of how far we were ahead or behind. A lot of teams tried to freeze the ball and we stole it.” Assistant coach Jerry Lyne would file an extensive scouting report on each opponent, which Ireland and the players all but disregarded. “We’d go over everything,” said Harkness, “and then at the last minute Ireland would look at us, rip up the report and say, ‘They’ll never get into their offense. We’ll press ’em and throw everything off.’”
     Loyola was 20-0 and had throttled its opponents by an average margin of 29 points when Robertson and Smith departed. Ireland was optimistic that his team could overcome the setback. “We can keep going,” he said. “We have a group of kids who are thoroughbreds. They don’t fold up. They respond when they’re asked, just like thoroughbreds.”
     There were six games left on the schedule. On February 12, the Ramblers squeaked past Marquette 92-90 in overtime. On February 16, top-ranked Cincinnati lost 65-64 at Wichita State (the Bearcats’ first defeat after 37 straight wins), but status quo was maintained in the rankings when Loyola also lost that same night, 92-75 at Bowling Green. Two days later, after learning that they’d been invited to the NCAA tournament, the Ramblers routed St. John’s 70-47 in New York.
     The Ramblers had slipped to No. 3 nationally, behind Cincinnati and Duke, when they visited Houston on February 23. Houston’s first black students were to be admitted in the fall; among them would be future NBA stars Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney. This was Houston’s last home game as an all-white university, and many in the crowd seemed sorry to see the old era pass into history. “They called us all the ‘n’ names,” Miller recalled. “They said everything.” Fans also pelted the Ramblers with coins and ice cubes. After Loyola escaped with a hard-earned 62-58 win, Houston coach Guy Lewis apologized for the fans’ behavior.
     On February 27, the Ramblers trailed Ohio 54-47 at halftime and were tied 78-78 midway through the second half, but their running and gunning finally wore the Bobcats down. Loyola pulled away in the stretch to win 114-94. Hunter scored 34 points and Harkness 32 in his final game at Loyola’s Alumni Gym. Harkness left the court on the shoulders of exultant Rambler fans.
     Loyola took on Wichita State in the regular-season finale before a full house at the Stadium. The Shockers were still basking in the notoriety of their upset over Cincinnati 10 days earlier and had climbed to No. 8 in the rankings. Against Loyola, they exploited foul trouble by Hunter and Rouse (both eventually fouled out) to achieve a 52-38 advantage in rebounds which proved decisive. Wichita State won 73-72. Of the three losses that Cincinnati and Loyola had suffered between them, two had come at the hands of the aptly named Shockers.

     There were serious questions confronting Ireland and the Ramblers as they entered the NCAA tournament. They had not looked like the same team without Robertson, a lightning-fast point guard, and Smith, a fierce rebounder and inside scoring threat. The previously unbeaten Ramblers had lost two of their last six games and just narrowly averted two more losses. The Wichita State game proved beyond a doubt that Loyola’s starters were working without a safety net. Ireland’s bench had produced a total of 15 points in the six games, all but two of them in the lopsided wins over St. John’s and Ohio. The five iron men had their work cut out for them.
     Loyola opened the tournament on March 11 against Tennessee Tech at McGaw Hall in Evanston. The Ramblers were ready. They scored 16 of the game’s first 18 points and surged to a 61-20 lead by halftime. Loyola shot 56 percent from the floor and presented an almost perfectly balanced attack—none of the five starters scored more than 21 points or fewer than 17. Ireland called off the dogs when Loyola went over the 100-point mark with five minutes left. He emptied the bench, and all four of his remaining reserves not only played but scored. (None of the backups scored another point in the tournament, and just one of them, Chuck Wood, saw further action.) The final score was 111-42.
     Among the awestruck spectators was Babe McCarthy, coach of the Mississippi State team that was due to face Loyola next. “I wish I’d stayed home,” McCarthy said. “Nobody can beat a team like that. They are the best fast-break team, the best ball hawks, I’ve ever seen.”
     McCarthy, his players, and the Mississippi State administration emerged as heroes of a sort in the following days. Not only was their university all-white, but its athletic teams were forbidden by tradition to even play against integrated teams. Nonetheless, the Maroons intended to keep their date with Loyola on March 15 in East Lansing, Michigan.
     The Maroons had accepted an automatic bid to the tournament as champions of the Southeast Conference on March 2, and the question of their participation might have ended there. However, when the brackets were published and the likelihood of a matchup with Loyola became apparent, newspapers and politicians in Mississippi saw a chance to make some hay. A paper in Jackson invited readers “to clip the photo of the Loyola team and mail it today to the board of trustees” of the university. An editor in Meridian was more explicit: “Especially in these times we should make no compromise regarding our Southern way of life; we cannot afford to give a single inch.”
     After Loyola dispatched Tennessee Tech (itself an all-white team), the issue came to a head. When asked about the controversy, Harkness showed that he was wise beyond his years. “I think that Mississippi State wants to play us,” he said. “If they don’t, they’ll never know how good they are.”
     Mississippi State did want to play Loyola—and went to great lengths to do so. The Maroons were scheduled to fly from Starkville, Mississippi, to East Lansing on Thursday morning, March 14. On Wednesday, a state legislator obtained an injunction prohibiting the team from leaving the state. That night, coach McCarthy and several other officials drove from Starkville to Memphis, then flew to Nashville. On Thursday morning, the Hinds County sheriff showed up at the Starkville airport to enforce the injunction. The injunction was duly served—to the Maroons’ freshman team, which had been sent to the airport as a decoy. The varsity team had already left from a small private airport. They met up with McCarthy and the others in Nashville, then continued on to East Lansing.
     The game attracted an overflow crowd of 12,143 at Michigan State’s Jenison Fieldhouse. Flashbulbs popped all over the arena when Loyola captain Harkness shook hands with his counterpart, Leland Mitchell, before the game. Mississippi State came in with a record of 21-5. The Maroons were a methodical, disciplined team whose tallest starter was only six-foot-five. The Ramblers also were under-sized (the lithe, six-foot-seven Hunter was their tallest starter), but their athleticism made up for what they lacked in height and heft.
     From the opening tip, Mississippi State did everything but deflate the basketball in order to slow the pace. The Maroons held Loyola off the scoreboard for almost six minutes as they crept out to a 7-0 lead. A pair of three-point plays by Harkness jump-started the Ramblers, and strong rebounding by Hunter and Rouse carried them to a 26-19 edge at halftime. In the second half, the Maroons patiently stuck to their plan on offense, allowing 90 seconds or so to elapse in each possession before taking a shot (there was no shot clock in those days) and not attempting any shot that was closely contested. Mississippi State was poised and determined throughout, but ultimately Loyola’s superiority on the boards proved too much to overcome. Loyola won 61-51. Harkness tallied 20 points, Rouse 16 points and 19 rebounds, and Hunter 12 points and 10 rebounds.

     Less than 24 hours after their physically and emotionally draining victory over Mississippi State, the Ramblers were back on the court facing Illinois in the regional championship game. Far from being exhausted, the Ramblers seemed to be gathering strength as the tournament progressed.
     The Illini had arrived by defeating Bowling Green, thus denying Loyola a chance to avenge one of its two losses. They were 20-5 and had shared the Big Ten championship. But they were no match for the Ramblers, whose swarming full-court press forced a succession of Illini turnovers and turned the game into a blowout shortly after halftime. Loyola led 40-34 two minutes into the second half. Three minutes later, the score was 53-34, and the rout was on. Loyola piled up a 28-point lead late in the second half and coasted to the finish. The final score was 79-64. In a sensational performance, Harkness scored 33 points. Rouse grabbed 19 rebounds and Hunter 15. “Loyola is the greatest offensive rebounding team I’ve ever seen,” said Illini coach Harry Combes.
     Cincinnati, Duke, and Oregon State joined Loyola in the Final Four at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Cincinnati, ranked No. 1 since the first preseason poll, was appearing in its fifth consecutive Final Four and was seeking its third straight national championship. Before worrying about the Bearcats, however, the Ramblers had to contend with Duke, which was riding a 20-game winning streak and sported a record of 27-2 (identical to Loyola’s).
     Duke came out in a zone defense which caused no trouble for Loyola. Time and again in the early going, Duke defenders strayed too far from the basket chasing Harkness and Miller, leaving the lane wide open for Hunter, who had a field day inside. Loyola’s offensive rebounding was devastating as well. “We just went out and jumped higher,” Ireland explained succinctly. The Ramblers built a 13-point lead by halftime. Led by their All-American forward Art Heyman, Duke played better in the second half and closed the gap to just 74-71 with 4:19 remaining. “Then,” Roy Damer wrote in the Tribune, “the Ramblers took off in their usual breathtaking manner, pouring in 20 points in four minutes and leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference champions crushed.” Loyola won 94-75, with Hunter matching Heyman’s game-high 29 points and also snatching 18 rebounds. Again the Ramblers spread the scoring around, with Harkness contributing 20 points, Miller 18, Egan 14, and Rouse 13.
     So it was that the iron men took the floor for the national championship game on Saturday, March 23. The standing-room only crowd was announced at 19,153—the same as the night before and the maximum allowed per fire regulations. The contest was televised nationally and carried in Chicago by WGN Channel 9; it was the very first Loyola game to be televised all season, which would have been inconceivable in later years when college basketball in general and the NCAA tournament in particular generated far more hoopla (not to mention revenue).
     Not surprisingly, the Cincinnati Bearcats also were there, having drubbed Oregon State 80-46. The Bearcats were now 29-1 for the season and 11-0 in the tournament since 1961. There was no question by this time that Loyola was for real, but many wondered whether any team could stand up to the Cincinnati juggernaut. The game presented two extremes in style and approach: Loyola was the top scoring team in the nation, at 93 points per game, while Cincinnati was the stingiest defensive team, with 53 points per game allowed. Something had to give.
     For most of the game, it looked as though the Ramblers were finally giving out. Cincinnati’s vaunted defense was airtight early on, forcing Loyola to miss 13 of its first 14 shots. As the Ramblers grew increasingly frustrated on offense, they began to let down at the defensive end. Cincinnati ran its plodding half-court offense nearly to perfection, setting screens, cutting to the basket, getting rebounds and tip-ins, and making numerous trips to the foul line. The Bearcats led 29-21 at the intermission, and it could have been worse. Most of Loyola’s field-goal attempts had been launched from the outskirts, and on the rare occasions when they’d gotten the ball down low, the Ramblers found a wall of defenders waiting. Harkness had been shut out entirely; he had not made a single field goal.
     The Ramblers were down by six points early in the second half when Hunter missed a bank shot that would have trimmed the deficit to four. Then Cincinnati tallied three times in short order to extend its lead to 37-25. A few minutes later it was 45-30. “We knew we didn’t have a chance to catch up,” Ireland said later, “unless we put the press on.”
     Less than 12 minutes remained on the clock. Loyola’s full-court press caused a turnover that resulted in a three-point play and gave Cincinnati center George Wilson his fourth foul. Wilson went to the bench for four minutes, and in the meantime forward Tom Thacker and guard Tony Yates each committed his fourth foul. The foul trouble forced the Bearcats to play even more conservatively than they always did. Loyola still trailed 48-37 with 7:38 left, but a jumper by Rouse and two free throws by Hunter made it 48-41 with just over six minutes to go. After Yates missed a free throw, Hunter secured the rebound and Harkness bagged a turnaround jumper from the foul line.
     Harkness’s first basket had come more than 35 minutes into the game. His second came a mere six seconds later, as he picked off an errant pass and glided in for an easy lay-up. Now it was 48-45 with 4:24 remaining, and the Bearcats were clearly rattled. They continued trying to stall, but the Ramblers fouled them each time to stop the clock. With the score 50-45, Harkness made one free throw and missed the second. Luckily, Cincinnati tipped the ball out of bounds under the basket. Loyola’s in-bounds pass went to Harkness, whose jumper made it 50-48 with 2:42 left.
     Hunter’s clutch tip-in of a missed jumper by Harkness kept Loyola’s hopes alive as the end of regulation play loomed. The Ramblers now trailed 53-52 with just 15 seconds left. As soon as Cincinnati inbounded the ball, Harkness fouled guard Larry Shingleton. Shingleton made his first free throw and could have all but clinched the game by making the second. But the ball bounced off the rim into the eager hands of Hunter, who hurled an outlet pass to Miller, who in turn fired the ball along to Harkness. Harkness unleashed a 12-foot jumper with five seconds left. It was good. The stunned Bearcats neglected to call timeout, so the horn sounded with the game tied at 54 (it was the first time Loyola had drawn even since the score was 4-4).
     When Harkness notched the first two points of overtime, the Ramblers had their first lead of the game. Wilson tallied on a layup for Cincinnati, then Miller canned a high-arcing 20-footer for Loyola. Shingleton got behind the Ramblers for a layup that tied the score at 58 with 2:15 remaining. Now, strangely, the Ramblers decided to hold onto the ball and go for the final shot. Almost a minute had elapsed when Miller tossed a bounce pass that hit Egan in the foot and rolled away. Shingleton dove after the ball for Cincinnati, followed closely by Egan, resulting in a jump ball between the two shortest men on the court. “Shingleton wasn’t much taller than me,” said Egan, “only about six feet. But I didn’t really question whether or not I could get the jump ball. The idea was to tip the ball between two of our guys to control it.”
     Egan did tip the ball first, and Miller caught it. There was just about a minute left to play. Miller got the ball to Harkness, who dribbled up court. Harkness, Egan, and Miller played keep-away from the Bearcats while Harkness looked for an opening. Finally, inside the final 10 seconds, Harkness made a move along the left side. Finding his path to the basket blocked by Ron Bonham, Harkness slid the ball across to Hunter. Hunter’s short jumper rolled around the rim and fell out. Rouse, slicing in from the right side, got both hands around the ball and guided it into the basket as time expired.
     The Ramblers were national champions.
     The five iron men had played the entire game, including overtime, without relief. They had shot just 27 percent and scored their lowest total of the season but had prevailed nonetheless. “I never thought we’d lose it,” said Rouse. “We came too far to lose it.” Ireland, among others, admitted that he hadn’t been quite so sure. “Man,” Miller said, “that must be the greatest comeback in the history of the tournament.”
     In later years, as the Ramblers looked back from across the decades to their miracle season, their stirring and unlikely victory over Cincinnati was a fond memory, of course. But the earlier game against Mississippi State was perhaps even more meaningful in the final analysis. “In a game like that you have two winners,” Harkness said. “Mississippi State made a statement to the community that broke down some of the barriers, and we played a part in it.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert