Original publish date: June 8, 2015 Reissued: November 21, 2019
I have many heroes in my life ranging from the rich and famous (Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few) to the not-so-famous (My wife Rhonda, my kids Jasmine & Addison, and my mother Ruth McDuffee) as well as people I admire but really wouldn’t want to emulate (Hunter S.Thompson, Wilt Chamberlain, Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards). However, one of the people from my life that I admire and aspire to emulate has a strong connection to Indianapolis and the month of May is no longer with us. Paul Newman died on September 26, 2008 but his spirit lives on at Indy and he will always be one of the first things I think of when I imagine the Indy 500.
Way back in 1968, when I was a small child living on Bluebell lane (near 34th & High School Road) on Indy’s west side, I remember laying in my room in the middle of the day listening to the sounds of cars whizzing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track and napping to the sound of speed. A.J. Foyt was a frequent visitor to our neighborhood. A.J.’s chief mechanic lived two houses away and my dad was a time keeper in the tower for 40 years. The big deal for us was to walk over to the neighborhoods bordering the track in search of sites usually reserved for carnival sideshows. I remember seeing drunks sleeping in shopping carts and scantily clad women passed out in the grass of the coke lot. We ALWAYS found money, pop bottles to return for 8 cents a piece and coolers full of goodies left over by people watching the race who were obviously flying home.
Even though I was very young, I can remember that in May of 1968, Hollywood came to town to film a major movie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the film was called “Winning,” and starred Paul Newman and his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward. The plot focused on an ambitious race driver determined to win the Indianapolis 500 in an effort to resurrect his flagging career. The film also starred Richard Thomas, soon to become more famous as “John Boy” on “The Waltons” TV series and Robert Wagner (of “Hart to Hart” TV fame). Several real-life racing figures-including the Speedway’s owner, Tony Hulman, and race driver Bobby Unser-portray themselves in the movie.
The Greenie Meanie.
I could have easily ridden my Schwinn “Greenie Meanie” 5-speed with sissy bar and wheelie poppers over to the Speedway Motel and see these guys. After all, they were filming some of the scenes in the motel itself and many of my neighbors and some of my family members could’ve gotten me access with no problem. Things were different then, there were no stalkers, no serial killers, no crazy Manson family maniacs on the Indy radar screen back then. Looking back, I sincerely wish I’d have made the trip.
Born January 25, 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman showed an early propensity for acting and landed his first motion-picture role in 1954. He went on to star in more than 60 movies, including “The Long Hot Summer,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Slap Shot,” “Absence of Malice,” “The Verdict,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Cars.” He garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, including eight for Best Actor. His sole Oscar win came in 1986 (Best Actor) when he reprised his role from “The Hustler” as Fast Eddie Felson alongside Tom Cruise in “The Color of Money.”
Newman began racing cars in 1972, three years after completing the movie “Winning”. Newman and Wagner attended the Bob Bondurant racing school to prepare for the movie, and Newman performed many of the racing scenes himself without a stunt driver. The experience resonated with Newman for the rest of his life, to the point that he embarked on a successful second career as a driver. Newman’s greatest accomplishment as a driver was a second-place finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in ’79, driving a Porsche 935. He remained active in endurance racing, making his last start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in 2006 at the age of 81. When he was racing, Newman kept a low profile at the track and maintained an intense focus on the task at hand. He always raced under the name P.L. Newman to avoid drawing attention to his status as a Hollywood icon.
Paul Newman, who died from cancer at the age of 83, was best-known as one of the most famous actors in the world, one of the most fervent race fans on the planet, one of the best race car drivers as a second career and, as founder of the popular Newman’s Own brand of organic food products, one of the most successful private sector philanthropists in the history of the United States, donating more than $250 million of after-tax profits to charity since 1982.
It helped fuel my admiration for Paul Newman to know that many of the values he stood for in his lifetime were shared by me. For his strong support of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and his strong opposition to the War in Vietnam, Newman was placed nineteenth on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which he claimed was his greatest accomplishment. He attended the first Earth Day event in Manhattan on April 22, 1970. Newman was a vocal supporter of gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Newman was concerned over global warming and supported alternative energy development as a solution to our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels. In short, he was a man with a conscience.
I was lucky, I got to meet Paul Newman several times at the track through my time keeper dad. Contrary to his reputation, he was always a gracious autograph signer for me and for anyone who was polite and said please and thank-you. But it was an unexpected encounter in 1992 that I will always cherish the most. I pulled into the Roselyn Bakery on Rockville road during the month of May to pick up Toffee Cookies for me and Butter Jumbles for my wife. As I waited in line behind a large crowd of people, I didn’t notice that there was a limousine parked idling on the side of the building.
I was standing in line holding my 2-year-old daughter in my arms and waiting for my turn when the crowd of people parted and Paul Newman himself stepped from the crowds wearing his trademark glasses and said “Boo” to my daughter while tickling her tiny tummy. Jasmine squealed with delight and Paul Newman formed his finger and thumb into the shape of a gun and “shot” at us saying “Get the Butter Jumbles, they’re my favorite kid.” It happened so fast that before I knew it he was in the limo and out of the lot. Paul Newman was a good husband, father, grandfather and human being. I’m just happy I had the opportunity to meet him.
When the Speedway Motel was torn down in February of last year, I recalled a quote from Newman’s last visit to the city of my birth a short time before his death, “It’s good to be back at Indianapolis,” he added. “It brings back a lot of fond memories. My favorite tradition was that it took a whole month. Indy started at the first of May, and you had your reservation at the Speedway Motel. If you wanted a room for two days, you took it for the whole month or you wouldn’t get it.”
So, if you really think about it and take that statement literally, it can easily be said that all of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway heroes of our youth, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock, the Bettenhausens’, the Vuckovichs’, and Paul Newman called our city home for one month every year. The month of May in Indianapolis.
On Halloween of 1903, nearly 600 Purdue fans and players were traveling to Washington Park on Indy’s eastside for the Boilermaker’s annual in-state football rivalry game against Indiana University. On that frosty morning, the boisterous Boiler fans filled 14 train coaches to overflowing. The trains never arrived and the game was never played.
A misplaced message from a telegraph operator triggered a fatal train wreck. A train dispatcher failed to inform a coal train that two trains were hurtling down the main line towards disaster. Fifty-nine miles away from its Big Four railroad depot departure point, the train rounded a curve at 18th and Gray near the Mill Street Power House and crashed into a line of steel coal cars that were backing down the track. The first four coaches were shattered; the second car, containing the team, was split in half. According to the 2002 book, “A University of Tradition: The Spirit of Purdue”, “The floor was driven beneath the gondola and the roof fell across the top of another. Bodies were everywhere … players hung from wooden beams and slowly slipped into puddles of blood. Clothing, footballs, padded jerseys and pennants tied to canes were all strewn along the track.”
A total of 17 people died immediately, including 13 players, a coach, a trainer, a student manager and a booster. One member of the team miraculously landed on his feet and was unharmed after being thrown out a window. All the casualties were limited to the team’s railcar. Twenty-nine more players were hospitalized, several of whom suffered crippling injuries that would last the rest of their lives. Further tragedy was averted when several people, led by the “John Purdue Special” brakeman, ran up the track to slow down the second special train that was following 10 minutes behind the first. This heroic action undoubtedly saved many lives by preventing another train wreck. One of the survivors of the wreck was Purdue University President Winthrop E. Stone who remained on the scene to comfort the injured and dying.
Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, was grievously injured but refused aid so that others could be helped before him. Bailey would die a month later at the hospital from complications from his injuries and massive blood loss. Purdue team Captain Harry “Skeets” Leslie was found with ghastly wounds and covered up for dead. His body was transported to the morgue with the others. Leslie would later be upgraded to “alive” when, while his body lay on a cold slab at the morgue, someone noticed his right arm move slightly and he was found to have a faint pulse. Skeets was clinging to life for several weeks and needed several operations before he was out of the woods. Leslie would later go on to become the state of Indiana’s 33rd governor, the only Purdue graduate to ever hold that office. As a reminder of that Halloween train disaster, Skeets would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
Harry G. Leslie may be the perfect model of what a Purdue graduate aspires to achieve. Born in West Lafayette, on April 6, 1878, he grew up in the Hoosier countryside, his father serving as chief of police for the town for awhile. He attended public schools and worked delivering groceries as a teenager. In 1898 he was elected town clerk at the age of 20, a year after he graduated high school. He soon enrolled in the recently constructed Purdue University where he was made captain of both the school’s football and baseball teams. His personal story of survival from the Purdue train wreck disaster received statewide acclaim and made him a folk hero.
In 1904, Leslie returned to school and founded the Purdue College Republicans before he graduated. Leslie graduated from the Indiana Law School (now the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law) in 1907 and opened a law office in Lafayette that same year. In 1923 Leslie was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives where he became known for his down-to-earth style of speaking. He was elected Speaker of the House, and remained in that position until he left the body. His term as Speaker was dominated by the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. Their leader, D.C. Stephenson, was arrested and convicted of rape and murder in 1925.
Over the next two years many other Klansman were exposed and forced out of office-including nearly half the members of the General Assembly. The Klan had tacitly supported Leslie in his bid for the speakership primarily because they opposed his rival candidate. However, Skeets fought the KKK on several issues and was pleased with the Grand Dragon’s conviction and the collapse of the Klan. Among the causes Leslie championed during this time in the Legislature was the creation of Riley Children’s Hospital.
Leslie ran for the governor’s nomination in the 1928 Republican primary and won on the fifth ballot. Leslie was elected with 51.3% if the vote, making him the state’s fifth consecutive Republican governor. The beginning of Leslie’s term was a period of economic growth for the city and state and he hosted several high-profile events; the National Governors Association and visits by President Herbert Hoover and aviator Charles Lindbergh. Then, nearly 26 years to the day after the Purdue trainwreck that almost ended his life, the Great Depression began on Halloween of 1929, threatening his Governorship.
The stock market crash caused widespread economic failure resulting in factory shutdowns all around Indiana. Unemployment and poverty began in the urban regions and quickly spread to the rural communities. The decreased purchasing power and resulting decreased consumption struck the agriculture industry hard. This was complicated by a statewide drought. For the most part, Governor Leslie did nothing significant believing that the Depression would soon end. In 1932 he vetoed relief legislation passed by the General Assembly which would have been Indiana’s first old-age pension act. As the Depression continued, Leslie began hiring unemployed workers to work on state road projects. He also advocated that his program be duplicated by the federal government, and his plan was soon implemented as the WPA. Among Leslie’s other projects was continuing to grow the state park system. Leslie died unexpectedly from heart disease on December 10, 1937.
The shock of the Purdue Halloween train disaster not only rocked Purdue, but I.U. as well. The intense rivalry was pushed entirely aside as the Indiana University team arrived on scene a few minutes after the wreck to assist in the work of rescue and caring for the injured. I.U. faculty members paid tribute to the fallen Purdue footballers in an open letter as “honorable and friendly rivals, not our enemies,” and likened their shock at Purdue’s loss as “to brothers who have lost the comrades of their day’s work.”
Naturally, the game was cancelled, as was the remainder of Purdue’s season. Many of those killed and injured were among the best men on the Purdue squad and the accident effectively wiped out the entire team. Although Boilermakers all, kids from all over Indiana died that day. From Butler, Veedersburg, Lafayette, Lawrenceburg, Huntington, Noblesville, Indiana Harbor, Spencer, New Richmond, Indianapolis and a few from out of state. Distraught fans speculated that Purdue may never have a football team again. Most fans thought it might take almost two seasons before a team could be put together again.
The Boilermakers would not take the field again until September 17, 1904 in an exhibition game. The first official game was against Indiana and played in Indianapolis on November 12, 1904. Purdue won 27-0. Purdue stunned everyone by going 9-3 in 1904, including a win over traditional powerhouse Notre Dame 36-0, capping a very successful comeback season for the Boilers. Since then, Purdue & I.U. have alternated every game on their respective campuses and have not played a neutral site game since.
Although the section of railroad that witnessed the tragedy no longer exists, traces of the rail bed at the accident site can still be seen in satellite photos. Google Earth shows that, from the northwest, the rail bed passes through Riverside Golf Course and crosses the White River near North White River Parkway East Drive and Rivershore Place. The rail bed continues southeast between Burton Street and the Central Canal Trail, then crosses to the east side of the canal at Fall Creek Parkway North Drive, continuing southeast onto the property of the Republic Waste Services facility.
In today’s Indianapolis, the crash site would be at the intersection of W. 21st and Senate Blvd not far from where the Crispus Attucks museum now stands (between Attucks and I-65). The actual site of the wreck on the original Big 4 route is now mostly buried underneath the sprawling Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital complex. The present-day accident site is bounded on the north by West 21st Street, on the south by West 16th Street, on the east by Senate Boulevard, and on the west by West Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, West 18th Street, and Mill Street. Prominent landmarks include I.U. Methodist Hospital to the east, the Peerless Pump factory to the north, and an electrical substation on the site of the former Mill Street Power House.
For you present day urban explorers, after crossing West Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street just south of the entrance to the Peerless Pump factory, the rail bed passes between the factory grounds and the electrical substation. There you will find the deadly right turn to the south that continues until reaching Interstate 65. Beyond this point, the rail bed is no longer visible, being covered by the interstate and the west lawn of Methodist Hospital along Senate Boulevard. A map of Indianapolis from 1916 shows the tracks continued south across West 16th Street at Lafayette Street, then along Lafayette Street into the downtown area to Union Station.
If you are looking for traces of the team on the Purdue campus, the school’s Memorial Gymnasium is the best place to start. The gym was built to pay tribute to those who died as a result of the collision. A combination of $5 donations from every senior of the 1903 class and many donations from supportive alumni and partners raised the $88,000 it took to build the gymnasium which was completed in 1909.The plaque outside the memorial states “the appalling event is still considered the worst tragedy in the University’s history.” There are 17 steps-one for each person who died-leading up to the entrance of the building. Although, the building is now home to the computer sciences department, the original entrance still remains, as does the memory of those who died.
It was Saturday, October 31, 1903. The college football season was half over as the Purdue Boilermakers geared up for their annual in-state rivalry game against Indiana University. (The “Old Oaken Bucket” trophy was still 20 years in the future.) The rivalry had started a dozen years before in 1891 and for awhile it looked like a clean sweep for the Purdue squad with the Boilers taking the first 6 games outscoring the boys from Bloomington 227 to 6. Then I.U. reeled off 3 in a row to shock the West Lafayette faithful before Purdue took the 1902 contest by once again swamping the cream & crimson 39-0.
The competition for gridiron glory between these two in-state titans was so hot and intense that, for the 1903 contest, both schools agreed that games should be held on neutral ground to quell “potential hooliganism” on the part of the students and fans. To this point eight games had been played in West Lafayette and two in Bloomington. In the spirit of fair play, officials from both schools decided to play the 11th contest on a neutral field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Washington Park was located at 3001 East Washington Street where it meets Gray Street (in the southwest corner of that intersection). The ballpark, built in 1900 just a stone’s throw from Irvington, was home to the 1902 defending American Association champion Indianapolis Indians.
To get to the new state capital location, both teams joined what seemed like the entire student body as they piled into separate special service trains to travel to the game from north and south of the city. Two special trains, operated by the “Big Four Railroad” (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway), were chartered to carry over 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis for the annual rivalry game. Purdue’s team train was cobbled together like a patchwork quilt and included modern steel streamliner coaches coupled to older wooden coaches. The Boilermakers football team rode in the wooden cars at the front of the train procession.
The train was traveling on what would have been the 101st birthday of school founder and namesake John Purdue (born October 31, 1802). Purdue, a wealthy landowner, politician, educator and merchant, was the primary benefactor of the University. In 1903, if you wanted to get to Indianapolis from either school, you had three choices: ride a horse and buggy, walk or take the train. Since these were the days before automobile travel was popular, train travel was the most widely accepted form of transportation.
It was Halloween in 1903; late October in the Hoosier Heartland. It is hard for our modern sensibilities to imagine those pre-electricity rural landscapes dotted by farmhouses scattered in a wide swath like checkers on a checkerboard. In this era, Hoosiers generally lived in small communities and held tight to their neighbors. News traveled slowly and so did the traffic. As the Gilded age of Mark Twain collided with the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt, it became apparent that something’s gotta give. Safety was an issue in this gargantuan game of rock, paper, scissors where iron and steel trumped wood every time.
In West Lafayette, it was a festive atmosphere and the town was buzzingly, excited for the match up against the Hoosiers. Like I.U.’s Bloomington, West Lafayette draws so much of its identity from their University and the entire community was looking forward to the weekend. Purdue was 4-2 on the season with a big win over rival Wabash College, but losses to Chicago and Illinois. Purdue enjoyed a 7-3 overall advantage in the series against I.U. and was feeling confident. Running at the rate of thirty miles an hour, the John Purdue Big Four special was carrying 954 students and spectators, including the football team, University President and star fullback and team captain Harry “Skillet” Leslie.
Unlike the raucous fans traveling in the 13 plush, modern streamliner train coaches behind them, the Boilermakers team traveled in relative silence, focusing on the task at hand, mentally preparing for their upcoming rivalry game in the cozy confines of an older wooden train car. Unfortunately, the athletes had no idea that a minor mistake would lead to a major disaster. Railroad protocol specified that “Special” trains operate independent of the regular schedule. Timing was everything in the railroad game.
In the early 1900s, the rail service depended on many human components: conductors and their assistants, dining car stewards, ticket collectors, train baggage men, brakemen, and train flagmen on the vehicle itself and yardmasters, yard conductors, switch tenders, foremen, flagmen, brakemen, switchmen, car tenders, operators, hump riders, and car operators on the ground. In 1903, railroad track “switches” were manually operated by lantern carrying tenders fluent in the language of railway lantern semaphore, which, strictly defined, means the act of waving a lantern as a warning.
Switch tenders communicated with brakemen who most often stood atop boxcars waving happily at his railyard cohorts and locals as the train glided past. As the train traveled down the rails, some of these daredevils ran along the top of the cars, adjusting the brake wheels sticking up from each car as they went. The complexities of switching, congestion, and rearranging cars made freight yards a far more perilous workplace and working on a moving train could be downright treacherous. One railyard superintendent, when talking about his workers, once famously said, “Men are cheaper than shingles. . . There’s a dozen waiting when one drops out.”
The trouble was, this apparent dispensability of railway workers could cause havoc in areas where tracks needed to be switched to avoid collisions. As the Purdue Special steamed towards the Circle City at over 30 miles per hour, a clerk up the line from Lafayette failed to inform the yardmaster near 18th Street in Indianapolis that the trains were coming. The first train, carrying the team, rounded a curve at the Mill Street Power House and saw a coal train being pushed back on the tracks. The engineer immediately slammed the engine in reverse, locked the emergency brake, and leapt off the moving train.
The Boilermakers never knew what hit ’em. The engine slammed into the coal car, splintering apart the first few cars while folding like an accordion. When the two trains collided, the lead car hit the debris, causing it to shoot into the air. This gave the full impact to the second train car, causing all the deaths. The wooden train cars splintered like kindling and were destroyed, and the adjacent cars careened violently off the elevated tracks, tumbling to the ground below like jack straws.
The Indianapolis star reported, “The trains came together with a great crash, which wrecked three of the passenger coaches, in addition to the engine and tender of the special train and two or three of the coal cars. The first coach on the special train was reduced to splinters. The second coach was thrown down a fifteen-foot embankment into the gravel pit and the third coach was thrown from the track to the west-side and badly wrecked. The coal cars plowed their way into the engine and demolished it completely. The coal tender was tossed to the side and turned over. A wild effort on the part of the imprisoned passengers to escape from the wrecked car followed the crash. Immediately following the wreck the students and the others turned their attention to the work of rescuing the injured, and by the time the first ambulances arrived many of the dead and suffering young men had been carried out and placed on the grass on both sides of the track.”
The fans at the rear of the train were unaware of what happened and only felt a slight jolt as the train came to a sudden stop. These rearmost passengers wasted no time in coming to the assistance of the victims up ahead. The erstwhile revelers skidded to a stop at the scene of carnage and were horrified at the devastation before them. Acts of unselfish action made heroes out of athletes and ordinary people alike.
According to Purdue student Joseph Bradfield who was riding in the procession, “We began carrying the people out, the injured ones. There was a line of horse-and-buggies along the whole stretch there for half a mile. We didn’t stop for ceremony; we simply loaded the injured people into the buggies and sent the buggies into town, got them to a hospital…There was no ambulance, no cars…”
Seventeen passengers in the first coach were killed. Thirteen of the dead were members of the Purdue football team. Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, although grievously injured, refused aid so that others could be helped. Team Captain Skeets Leslie was covered up for dead, his body transported to the morgue with the others. It was the first catastrophe to hit a major college sports team in the history of this country. The affects would be felt for decades to come and one of those players would rise from the dead, shake off accusations of association with Irvington KKK leader D.C. Stephenson, and lead his state and country through the Great Depression.
During a spring training Cactus League exhibition game on March 26, 1961, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tito Francona hit a 350-foot home run against the Boston Red Sox at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona. It’s 349 feet to right field, 366 feet to left field, and 410 feet to “dead” center. Unwittingly, when Tito’s homer flew over the right-field fence of paim-fringed Hi Corbett field and finally stopped rolling, it helped solve a murder case. As John Cota, a city parks employee, chased after it, he pulled up short at the edge of a shallow water trench. The ball rolled to a dead stop beside a body, partly covered with a coat, a .22-caliber revolver clutched in his hand. Police identified the body as that of Fred Victor Burden, 50, a house painter from Toronto. Burden was wanted by Tucson police in connection with the shooting death of former prize fighter James Cocio.
The front page of the Tucson Daily Citizen on March 27, 1961 ran a story headlined, “Practice Homer Leads To Body”. The story detailed, “An over-the-wall smash by Cleveland Indians’ Tito Francona yesterday led to the discovery that Frederick Victor Burden had carried out his threat to commit suicide after killing a man in the home of his estranged wife. Burden’s body, with a bullet in the head, was found by city parks employee John C. Cota, 52, of 238 E. E. 19th St., while he was looking for a ball that had just been knocked over the west wall during the practice at Hi Corbett Field in Randolph Park. The partially concealed body was found lying in a shallow watering trench under low – hanging palm fronds when discovered about 11:30 a m.”
A few days prior, the same paper covered the story about the fatal shooting of 45-year-old James Contreras Cocio. Burden’s body was found lying face up with a .22 automatic pistol clutched in the right hand, his glasses found hanging on a small palm tree nearby. County Pathologist Louis Hirsth said Burden had been dead at least 48 hours. The killer had shot himself in the roof of the mouth, the bullet lodging in the skull. Before the discovery, Burden had been charged in absentia with the first-degree murder of Cocio, a World War II Marine veteran and former three-time Arizona featherweight boxing champion.
Burden, out of the country since January, had returned home from Canada unexpectedly to find his 46-year-old wife Irene and Cocio together in the couple’s home at 2207 E. 20th St. Mrs. Burden told police the two men had argued over her and investigators said it was obvious that the Tuesday night killing was the result of that quarrel. Police said the woman’s husband fired five quick shots at the victim when Cocio opened the rear door of the home and discovered Burden standing outside in his stocking feet. A sixth shot fired at Cocio’s body nearly two hours later wounded Mrs. Burden in the left leg. Burden drove his wife to the home of her employer after discovering the wound, and told her he was going to kill himself. She was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital for treatment of the leg wound and discharged the same day her husband’s body was found. No record survives as to whether parks department employee John Cota retrieved, much less saved, the baseball.
What many might have viewed as a bad omen didn’t derail Tito’s season however. Francona kicked off the season with a Chief Wahoo Indian “Ki Yi Waugh Woop!” He was batting .293 with eleven home runs and 53 RBIs at the All-Star break of the 1961 season and Tito was named to the American League All-Star squad for the only time in his career. He finished the season batting .301 with sixteen home runs, 85 RBIs and he lead American League left fielders in fielding percentage.
Despite having emerged as the best defensive left fielder in the league, Francona was shifted to first base during spring training in 1962 and finished the season leading the American League in double plays turned as a first baseman. He finished with 14 homers, 28 doubles and batted .272. When Birdie Tebbetts took over as Indians manager in 1963, Francona was moved back into left, but his numbers fell drastically. His .228 batting average was a career low, and his ten home runs and 41 RBIs were his fewest over a full season. The Indians acquired All-Star Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner to play left field prior to the 1964 season, so Francona split time between right and first base. After the season, he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later and cash.
Tito had quite a career, spanning 15 seasons and including stops with eight other teams, including the Braves, Cardinals, A’s, Orioles, Phillies, Tigers, Brewers and White Sox. He was originally signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1952 but left the game for two years to serve in the U.S. Army, by the time he returned, the team had relocated and was now the Baltimore Orioles. In 1956 upon returning to the O’s, Tito finished tied with the Cleveland Indians’ Rocky Colavito for second place in American League Rookie of the Year balloting behind Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio. For his career, Francona hit .272 with 125 homers, 656 RBIs and a .746 OPS in 1,719 games. Francona spent six seasons (’59-64) with the Indians.
And what about that curse? The curse of Rocky Colavito? Well, in recent years, it has dampened a little with the Indians “rebuilding years” of the past two decades. But. although they’ve played in three World Series Championships since 1995, they still haven’t won one. Here are just a few of the mishaps blamed on that curse since Colavito’s 1960 trade. September 1961: Fireballer “Sudden Sam” McDowell breaks two ribs throwing a fastball. June 1964: Third Baseman Max Alvis suffers an attack of spinal meningitis on a team flight. January 1965: The Indians reacquire Rocky Colavito from the Kansas City A’s in exchange for Rookie of the Year winner Tommie Agee and future 286-game winner Tommy John. July 1970: Reds star Pete Rose plows over catcher Ray Fosse in the All-Star game, effectively ending Fosse’s career in Cleveland. June 1974: Drunken fans pour onto the Cleveland Stadium field during ten-cent beer night, forcing a forfeit while destroying the diamond. March 1977: 20-game winner Wayne Garland hurts his arm in Spring training, effectively ending his career. March 1978: Indians trade Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox. July 1981: Cleveland hosts the All-Star game which is delayed until August by the MLB strike. August 1981: 1980 AL Rookie of the Year “Super Joe” Charboneau is sent down to AAA, never to be heard of again. April 1987: Sports Illustrated picks the Indians to win the pennant but they lose 101 games and finish last. March 1993: three Indians pitchers die in car crashes and a fourth is seriously injured. July 1994: Indians are speeding towards the World Series when the season is cancelled by a player’s strike.
It is believed by some that the curse extends to the Indians’ old spring training home in Tucson as well. Hi Corbett Field served as the spring training home of Cleveland from 1947 through 1992. Hi Corbett has not been used for Spring Training games since, but parts of the movie Major League were filmed there which ironically portrayed the Cleveland Indians as the laughing stock of the league.
There is so much about Tito Francona that typifies that which makes baseball so interesting. Aside from one of the greatest nicknames in sports history, he was considered a journeyman for most of his career, but a damned good one. Tito Francona was a baseball player, a great husband and father and an even better teammate. When he died at the age of 84 he left a lasting legacy. Tito was there at the beginning of “The Curse” and although he’s gone, he’s likely to be there when the curse ends because “Little Tito” just might lead the Indians to a World Series Championship this season. After all, it was Francona who broke the Boston Red Sox Curse of Babe Ruth by winning two World’s Series titles in four years. Yep, baseball is a funny game.
Spring training baseball is back. I am one of those legion of fans who wait every year to hear the five most beautiful words in the English language: “Pitchers and Catchers Report.” As a kid growing up, spring training baseball was always synonymous with Florida. In the Mid-1970s, my family took our spring break vacations at the Island Towers resort hotel in Fort Myers. It just so happened that the hotel was the spring training headquarters of the Kansas City Royals. So it was no big thing seeing guys like George Brett, Frank White, Freddie Patek, and Cookie Rojas hanging out at the pool or chasing my older sisters on the beach. Years later, I ran into Jamie Quirk at old 16th Street Bush Stadium and he informed me that the Island Towers were owned by Buck Martinez’s parents.
My grandparents retired to Cape Coral in the late 1970s and I recall one of their oldster neighbors showing me a photo album from the 1930s with pictures of the New York Yankees at Spring Training down there. Turns out his family lived near the facility, Fort Lauderdale if memory serves, where the Yankees trained. I can remember the photos in there of Lou Gehrig in a bathing suit (MAN that dude was HUGE!) and Babe Ruth in full uniform on the beach, two bats resting on his shoulder with his fielder’s glove and cleats hanging from the back like a hobo pouch. In his pin striped uniform! On the Beach! Everything in that photo would be worth a small fortune today, including the photo itself!
Somehow, I became a Blue Jays fan. Probably because I went to their first spring training game in franchise history in Dunedin. March 11, 1977 they beat the Mets 3-1 at Grant Field, which was built in 1930 and looked like it. I went to a few games that year. I distinctly recall sitting on a wooden bleacher seat right next to Tom Seaver who was talking to me like it was no big deal. And he was pitching that day. Within a few weeks, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine.” Florida meant Spring Training, period. Somewhere along the line that changed.
They had spring training games in Arizona, something called the “Cactus League”, but that didn’t count for much back then. Today, more teams call Arizona home for spring training than ever before. The teams that play in Arizona now are the Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs & White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. More than 100 games are scheduled between Feb. 21 – March 26, 2019. The broadcasters say that the travel in Florida is brutal, sometimes 3-4 hour bus rides, while the travel between stadiums in Arizona is usually less than an hour. When it comes to Arizona baseball, I think of a spring training story from the Cactus League that happened before I was born. The story emanates from Hi Corbett Field in spring training of 1961. But first a little background.
March of 1961 was a busy time: America’s brand new President John F. Kennedy creates the Peace Corps, The Beatles start performing at the Cavern Club, Nine African-American students from Mississippi’s Tougaloo College made the first peaceful attempt to end segregation by staging a “read-in” at the whites-only main branch of the Jackson municipal public library, NASA launches a Mercury-Redstone BD rocket from Cape Canaveral as one final test flight to certify its safety for human transport. Alan Shepard had volunteered to take the flight and become the first man to travel into outer space, but was stopped by Wernher von Braun from going, Less than three weeks later, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would, on April 12, would reach the milestone, Actor Ronald Reagan bursts onto the political scene with his speech “Encroaching Control” before the Phoenix chamber of commerce and the Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo is captured.
Hi Corbett Field is located in Tucson, Arizona. Opened in 1937, it was originally called Randolph Municipal Baseball Park. In 1951, it was renamed in honor of Hiram Stevens Corbett (1886–1967), a former Arizona state senator who was instrumental in bringing spring training to Tucson, specifically by convincing Bill Veeck to bring the Cleveland Indians there in 1947. Veeck owned a ranch in Tucson, and he and players sometimes rode horses there after games. Veeck claimed that he moved the team’s training camp from Florida to Arizona in order to avoid Florida’s Jim Crow laws.
In the mid-1940s, while Veeck was owner of the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the AAA American Association, during one of his team’s spring games in Ocala, Florida, the owner took a bleacher seat and started talking with the fans around him. Veeck had no idea that he had sat in the part of the stadium that was designated for African American fans. That turned out to be a big deal in the segregated “Jim Crow” South of the 1940s. Veeck had no idea that he was breaking a law that kept black fans from mixing with white spectators. In his book, “Veeck as in Wreck”, he wrote, “Within a few minutes, a sheriff came running over to tell me I couldn’t sit there.” The Brewers owner refused to move, and soon the mayor himself was threatening to force him to sit in another section. Veeck countered that if they wanted him to move from his seat, he would would move his team right along with him; to another city. The mayor finally backed down, but Veeck never forgot it.
In time, Veeck sold his stake in the Brewers and bought the Cleveland Indians. Veeck chose Phoenix, Arizona as the Indians’ spring training home for 1947. Veeck convinced the New York Giants to join his Indians so that the two teams could prepare for the season. The next season, Veeck signed Larry Doby to a contract, making him the American League’s first black player. Doby made his major league debut with the Indians on July 5, 1947, about 11 weeks after Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants followed by signing Hall of Famer Monte Irvin the next year and the Cactus League was born.
Last year, John Patsy Francona, a Cleveland Indians fan favorite better known as “Tito” died on the eve of spring training. It was the day before Valentine’s Day and the Indians’ pitchers & catchers were just trickling in to their spring training park in Goodyear, Arizona. The passing was made all the more bittersweet when you consider that the team was managed by Tito’s son, Terry Francona. Terry grew up in the Indians dugout where players called him “Little Tito.” As a member of the Montreal Expos, Terry played against our Indians here in Indianapolis at the old 16th street stadium. Before that he played college ball for Arizona State and led his team to the 1980 College World Series Championship. Terry Francona’s dad’s nickname of “Tito” was naturally passed down to his son, and although the broadcasters and news media still call him “Terry”, Tito is what the manager’s friends and players call him.
The elder Francona arrived in Cleveland in 1959 with baby Terry (born April 22 of that year) in tow. That season, Tito was at the top of his game and his presence knocked some all-time Indian greats right off the roster. Francona came to Cleveland in a one-for-one trade that sent Hall of Famer Larry Doby to the White Sox. (Ironically, it was the second time Tito had been traded for Larry Doby after the O’s traded him to the White Sox in 1958) Tito arrived at the “Mistake on the Lake” with big shoes to fill, but Francona, who began the 1959 season as a pinch hitter and utility man, quickly earned a regular place in the lineup. After going five-for-nine with a home run in a June 7 doubleheader against the Yankees, Francona replaced Jim Piersall as Cleveland’s starting center fielder. By the end of the season, he displaced Indians regular first baseman Vic Power, who was shifted to second base.
That season Tito batted .363 with a career high twenty home runs and 79 RBIs to help the Indians to an 89–65 record and second place in the American League. His .363 average would have led the league, however, he fell 34 at-bats short of the 3.1 per game necessary to qualify. The batting championship went to the Detroit Tigers’ Harvey Kuenn, with a .353 batting average, ten points below Tito. Francona finished fifth in balloting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award that season. He compiled 20 home runs, 17 doubles, 79 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 145 hits, a .414 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage in 122 games.
Ironically, the next season, Francona was shifted to left field when the Indians traded home run leader Rocky Colavito for Kuenn, the same player who edged out Tito for the batting title the year before. With former Indianapolis Indians slugger Colavito gone (Indianapolis was Cleveland’s minor league affiliate from 1952-56), Francona was inserted in the clean-up spot in manager Joe Gordon’s batting order. Tito tallied only six home runs through the All-Star break and was dropped to the number six spot in the batting order for August, and then back up to number two by September. Tito hit eleven home runs over the rest of the season to finish with seventeen overall. He batted ,292 and his 36 doubles led the American League for 1960. The trade of Colavito for Kuenn is considered by longtime Indians’ fans the beginning of the “Curse of Rocky Colavito” and as you might imagine, Tito Francona was right in the thick of it.
Its February in Indianapolis. As I sit at my keyboard in 10 below zero weather, my power is out, the candles are lit and my compy is running on battery power. So…time for a happy warm memory. 55 years ago, on February 18, 1964 The Beatles met a young Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali at his training camp in Miami Beach, Florida. The Fab Four were wrapping up their whirlwind tour of America (including two shows at the Fairgrounds in Indianapolis) and Clay / Ali was prepping for his February 25 fight against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Although both events would change history, for that brief moment in time, they were just five kids goofing around and mugging for the camera.
In the previous nine days, the lads from Liverpool had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York before a record television audience (and taped another program for later broadcast), played concerts at Washington, D.C.’s Coliseum and New York’s Carnegie Hall, then traveled south for their second Sullivan Show appearance at Miami’s Deauville Hotel. Their Meet the Beatles album was dominating the U.S. Billboard charts and their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was blasting out of every transistor radio in the country. Beatlemania, which had already swept Britain for a year, was exploding worldwide. America hadn’t seen anything like this since Elvis Presley the previous decade. The band’s Svengali manager, Brian Epstein, decided the boys needed a rest and what better place to take a break than in Miami Beach?
The Beatles arrival in Miami is legendary and offers a great snapshot on the innocence of “Beatlemania” in South Florida. Some 7,000 screaming teenagers greeted the Beatles at Miami International Airport. The Fab Four were thrown in a limousine, raced across town, and rushed into the Deauville Hotel. The Deauville hotel was built in the mid-1920s, and was transformed into the Deauville Beach Resort in the mid-1950s. Towering over Miami Beach, the Deauville featured 500 rooms, on-site restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, a beauty salon, swimming pool, an ice skating rink and it’s own radio station that routinely hosted Frank Sinatra and his rat pack. The Beatles stayed on the 12th floor, which has become a shrine to Beatlemania festooned with memorabilia and photographs on the hallway walls around the actual rooms where the Beatles stayed for those eight days in February 1964. There is a guard posted by the elevator and a sign that requests: “Silence.”. John and then-wife Cynthia Lennon stayed in room 1211. Paul, George, Ringo, manager Brian Epstein and others in their entourage shared rooms. There was no backstage in the Napoleon Ballroom. The band traveled from their hotel rooms, down the elevator, across a lobby packed with screaming girls to make their way into the ballroom and through the room filled with thousands of adoring female fans waiting to see them perform for millions more watching them on TV.
On the other hand, Cassius Clay was training hard in the ring and talking smack outside of it to anyone within earshot. The brash 1960 Olympic champion had earned his shot, raising steadily through the heavyweight ranks while racking up a 19-0 record including 15 knockouts. His 1963 victory over Doug Jones and subsequent drubbing of Englishman Henry Cooper rounded out his “Bum of the month” schedule and set up his shot at the title shot at the menacing Sonny Liston. While Clay / Ali was an intelligent technical fighter, Liston was a brute whose appearance, like Mike Tyson afterwards, screamed pain. Liston had won the championship in 1962 by flooring Floyd Patterson in the first round of their title bout. Ring experts proclaimed the lithe and lean Clay / Ali didn’t have a ghost of a chance against the mammoth brawler Liston.
Problem was, like a scene straight out of “Rocky”, while “the champ” Liston was training in the relative splendor of the North Beach community center, “the upstart” Clay / Ali was sparring hard at the decrepit Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. Despite its run-down appearance, the 5th Street Gym was a boxing mecca visited by the likes of Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster during its heyday of the 1950-60s. The gym opened in 1950 on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach by Chris Dundee brother of Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Angelo Dundee. The rings were located on the second floor of the building and besides Clay / Ali, the gym was used for training by other champion boxers including Joe Louis, Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Willie Pastrano, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
In shades of taunts to come, 22-year-old Cassius was unmercifully needling his opponent, going so far as to take his entourage by bus to Liston’s training headquarters to heckle the champion in front of the media gathered outside. Clay quickly branded Liston as the “big, ugly bear.” For his part, Liston, who was 35-1 when he met Clay / Ali, remained relatively silent, furrowed his brow, bowed his back and brushed the loudmouth youngster’s taunts off summarily. Liston was known for his toughness, formidable punching power, long reach, and intimidating appearance and was widely regarded as unbeatable.
The Beatles-or more likely someone in their entourage-requested a photo-op with heavyweight champion Liston. Fleet street photographer Harry Benson, traveling with the band on their first American trip, tried to set it up. But the grim Liston, made even grumpier from the constant harassment by Clay, had had enough youthful enthusiasm and decided he wanted no part of Beatlemania. 25-year-old New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, in town covering the lead up to the big fight, said Liston rebuffed the request by asking, “Who are these little sissies?”
So Benson made a detour to the dingy Fifth Street Gym with the Beatles in tow for a hastily arranged session with Clay, whose own press agent welcomed the publicity. Because of dire predictions by experts promising a short, unmemorable contest, ticket sales were slow, even though it was title fight. Clay / Ali was a 7-1 underdog and aside from his antics outside the ring, he was still relatively unknown. While fight fans found Clay’s smack-talk amusing, they also believed the increasingly irritated Liston would quickly dispatch the braggart and shut the upstart’s mouth for good. Even the Beatles weren’t exactly thrilled at the proposed meeting.
The optics of the trip did little to encourage the Fab Four’s hope as they rambled up the gym’s decaying steps. Even John Lennon referred to the young challenger at one point as “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.” The lads were ushered into the dark and dank warehouse where they waited in the stale air for Clay / Ali to arrive. The fighter was late and the boys clowned around the rings, bouncing on and off the ropes like subjects in a Charlie Chaplin film. Photographer Benson busied himself by scouting out the best angles in the gym for his photos. The lads were tired and ready to hit the beach and chase chicks. As the time ticked away, the band became increasingly impatient and annoyed. “Where is he?!” Ringo Starr angrily asked. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lennon muttered as he headed for the door. Instead, Clay’s promoter had a couple security guards herd the band into a dressing room, where reporter Lipsyte found the boys fuming and cursing Harry Benson’s name.
Suddenly the door swung open and the startled band-mates looked up to see the biggest man any of them had ever seen framing the doorway. “Hello there, Beatles!,” Clay exclaimed. “We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!” The Beatles were instantly mesmerized. Amid laughter, playful nudges and jostling, the five young men who would come to define their generation, headed into the gym. There they posed, mugged and improvised slapstick situations for the cameras like old time vaudevillians. The media image-savvy young boxer at first posed in his street clothes and then changed into his white trunks. Clay characteristically bit his upper lip and posed knocking the Beatles down like dominoes. The Fab Four dutifully lay on the canvas in mock defeat before as the young fighter towered over them. Clay suddenly picked the diminutive Ringo up off the floor and effortlessly cradled him in his arms like an infant. “Man, you guys are the greatest!” Cassius enthused. “The whole world is shook up about you!” One UPI reporter said Clay ad-libbed a little verse for the occasion: “When Liston reads about the Beatles visiting me / He’ll get so mad I’ll knock him out in three!”
The exhausted Beatles were thunderstruck by the encounter. As the dunned Fab Four fled the gym and piled back into their limo, they swore oaths to photographer Benson that they’d never speak to him again, with one unidentified Beatle carping that the whole experience had been “degrading. You made a fool of us!” The feeling was apparently mutual. Back at the gym, Clay completed his workout, then hit the dressing room for a rubdown as the press prodded him for details. Cassius turned to Lipsyte with a puzzled look and asked about the four long-haired young Englishmen he’d spent the morning clowning with earlier by asking, “Who were those little sissies?”
A week later Sonny Liston threw in the towel by refusing to come out of his corner for the seventh round of the title fight. Of the encounter, reporter Robert Lipsyte later wrote, “In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care.”
“As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.” He turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece. And then it was over and they left.”
The Ottawa Journal newspaper of February 19, 1964 ran an article titled, “BRITAIN’S BUSH-HAIRED BEATLES MEET BOXING’S BARON OF BRAY” which reported, “Britain’s bush-haired Beatles met boxing’s Baron of Bray, Cassius Clay, Tuesday and it ended up in clowning, off-key pandemonium. Boxing and singing probably were set back 100 years when Gaseous Cassius teamed up with.. the four mop-haired singers during a break in training at the Fifth Street gym. “Man, you guys are the greatest. The whole world is shook up about you,” said Clay, apparently a longtime Beatle fan. The raucous meeting represented two firsts: Clay admitted that someone other than himself is “great,” for the first time, and he predicted that he will flatten Liston in three rounds, even though the brash 22-year-old contender is a 6-1 underdog at the moment. The Beatles, dressed in flashy sport shirts, snow-white vests and beach shoes, enjoyed the meeting as much as Clay. They entered the training ring with a “yeah, yeah, yeah” and pretended to attack Clay en masse. Clay shouted “no, no, no” and feigned horror. It was about what you’d expect from Clay – Beatle meeting: noise, poems and more noise. Photographers had a field day during the clowning, which didn’t end until trainer Angelo Dundee reminded Clay that he had a date in exactly one week. Before they left, Clay lifted Beatle drummer Ringo Starr two feet off the floor, tossed him up and wished him good luck.The other three Beatles, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, watched laughing. For the Beatles, the confrontation with Clay was the kickoff of a leisurely day on the beach. They have no more appearances to make and are vacationing until Friday when they return to London. For Clay, it was a respite from the serious business of hard training. Loudmouth or not, Clay apparently realizes what he is here for. He snapped back into the routine as soon as the Beatles left.”
As for Liston, rumors circulated that the champ had been drinking heavily the night before the fight. Liston was still a world-ranked boxer when he died under mysterious circumstances at the estimated age of 39 (Sonny’s birth certificate has never been found). Almost a year after defeating Chuck Wepner on January 29, 1970, whose 1975 title fight with Muhammad Ali was the model for the “Rocky” films, Liston was found dead by his wife, Geraldine, in their Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. Upon returning home from a two-week trip, Geraldine smelled a foul odor coming from the main bedroom. There she found her husband slumped up against the bed atop a broken foot bench. It was believed the champ was undressing for bed when he fell backward breaking the bench. Geraldine called Sonny’s attorney and his doctor, but did not notify the police until two to three hours later. Police found a quarter-ounce of heroin in a balloon in the kitchen and a half-ounce of marijuana in Liston’s pants pocket.
Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play and declared Liston’s death a heroin overdose. The coroner said Sonny’s body was too decomposed to be conclusive and officially declared the cause of death to be “lung congestion and heart failure” to save embarrassment for the family. The date of death listed on his death certificate is December 30, 1970, which police estimated by judging the number of milk bottles and newspapers around the front door of the property. Many people who knew Liston insisted that he was afraid of needles and never would have used heroin. Some claim Liston was murdered by the mob and a loan-sharking ring in Las Vegas. Others said Liston was murdered by drug dealers with whom he’d become involved. Underworld connections and his unrecorded date of birth added to the enigma.
For their part, that evening The Beatles went to a drive-in movie, where they watched Elvis Presley in Fun In Acapulco. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, “THE” heavyweight champion of a generation. It was a title he’d retain on and off for the next 15 years, twice as long as The Beatles lasted as a group. That hastily-arranged photo op of greatness from 55 years ago has become an iconic mixed-metaphor snapshot of the sixties. The participants are all shown smiling, jostling and cajoling each other in the ring, betraying no trace of the resentment being felt on all sides. Three of the five subjects are gone from this earth, but those images have achieved pop culture immortality.
Were you alive on January 22, 1973? If so, consider this a reminder, if not, let me show what a typical day was like for a late-stage Baby Boomer like me. January 22, 1973 was a Monday in the Age of Aquarius. All in the Family was # 1 on television and The Poseidon Adventure was tops at the box office. Carly Simon was riding the top of the charts with her hit song “You’re so vain.” A song that has kept people guessing who she’s singing about to this day. Is it Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Cassidy? Cat Stevens? David Bowie? James Taylor? All of whom have been accused. Carly has never fessed up, although she once admitted that the subject’s name contains the letters A, E, and R.
The month of January 1973 had started on a somber note with memorial services in Washington D.C. for President Harry S Truman on the 5th (he died the day after Christmas 1972). Then, Judge John Sirica began the Nixon impeachment proceedings on the 8th with the trial of seven men accused of committing a ” third rate burglary” of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. Next came the Inauguration of Richard Nixon (his second) on the 20th. Historians pinpoint Nixon’s speech that day as the end of the “Now Generation” and the beginning of the “Me Generation.” Gone was JFK’s promise of a “New Frontier,” lost was the compassionate feeling of the Civil Rights movement and LBJ’s dream of a “Great Society.” The self-help of the 1960s quickly morphed into the self-gratification of the 1970s, which ultimately devolved into the selfishness of the 1980s.
The line between want and need became hopelessly blurred and remains so to this day.
Twelve years before, John F. Kennedy decreed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” On January 20th, 1973, Richard Nixon, purposely twisted JFK’s inaugural line by declaring , “In our own lives, let each of us ask—not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” At that moment, the idealism of the sixties gave way to narcissistic self-interest, distrust and cynicism in government of the seventies. Although it had been coming for years, when change finally arrived, it happened so fast that most of us never even noticed.
January 22nd was warm and rainy. It was the first Monday of Nixon’s second term and it would be one for the books. That day, Nixon announced that the war in Vietnam was over. The day before, his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Lê Đức Thọ signed off on a treaty that effectively ended the war; on paper that is. The settlement included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam. It addition, the United States agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and advisers (totaling about 23,700) and the dismantling of all U.S. bases within 60 days. In return, the North Vietnamese agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war. It was agreed that the DMZ at the 17th Parallel would remain a provisional dividing line, with eventual reunification of the country “through peaceful means.”
That same day, the United States Supreme Court issued their landmark decision 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Better known as Roe v. Wade. Instantly, the laws of 46 states making abortion illegal were rendered unconstitutional. In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy extended to her right to make her own medical decisions, including having an abortion. The decision legalized abortion by specifically ordering that the states make no laws forbidding it. Rove V. Wade came the same day as the lesser known ruling, Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), which overturned the abortion law of Georgia.
The Georgia law in question permitted abortion only in “cases of rape, severe fetal deformity, or the possibility of severe or fatal injury to the mother.” Other restrictions included the requirement that the procedure be “approved in writing by three physicians and by a three-member special committee that either continued pregnancy would endanger the pregnant woman’s life or “seriously and permanently” injure her health; the fetus would “very likely be born with a grave, permanent and irremediable mental or physical defect”; or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.” Only Georgia residents could receive abortions under this statutory scheme: non-residents could not have an abortion in Georgia under any circumstances. The plaintiff, a pregnant woman known as “Mary Doe” in court papers, sued Arthur K. Bolton, then the Attorney General of Georgia, as the official responsible for enforcing the law. The same 7-2 majority that struck down a Texas abortion law in Roe v. Wade, invalidated the Georgia abortion law.
The Roe v. Wade case, filed by “Jane Roe,” challenged a Texas statute that made it a crime to perform an abortion unless a woman’s life was in danger. Roe’s life was not at stake, but she wanted to safely end her pregnancy. The court sided with Roe, saying a woman’s right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Dozens of cases have challenged the decision in Roe v. Wade in the 46 years since the landmark ruling and the echoes of challenge are heard to this day.
And what did Nixon think about that day’s ruling? The same Oval Office taping system that would bring about his downfall in the Watergate Scandal recorded his thoughts on Roe V. Wade for posterity. “I know there are times when abortions are necessary,” he told aide Chuck Colson, “I know that – when you have a black and a white, or a rape. I just say that matter-of-factly, you know what I mean? There are times… Abortions encourage permissiveness. A girl gets knocked up, she doesn’t have to worry about the pill anymore, she goes down to the doctor, wants to get an abortion for five dollars or whatever.” Yep, that was the President of the United States talking. And his day wasn’t even over yet.
At 3:39 p.m. Central Time, former President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a call to his Secret Service agents on the LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas. He had just suffered a massive heart attack. The agents rushed into LBJ’s bedroom where they found Johnson lying on the floor still clutching the telephone receiver in his hand. The President was unconscious and not breathing. Johnson was airlifted in one of his own airplanes to Brooke Army General hospital in San Antonio where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Johnson was 64 years old. Shortly after LBJ’s death, his press secretary telephoned Walter Cronkite at CBS who was in the middle of a report on the Vietnam War during his CBS Evening News broadcast. Cronkite abruptly cut his report short and broke the news to the American public.
His death meant that for the first time since 1933, when Calvin Coolidge died during Herbert Hoover’s final months in office, that there were no former Presidents still living; Johnson had been the sole living ex-President Harry S. Truman’s recent death. Johnson had suffered three major heart attacks and, with his heart condition recently diagnosed as terminal, he returned to his ranch to die. He had grown his previously close-cut gray hair down past the back of his neck, his silver curls nearly touching his shoulders. Prophetically, LBJ often told friends that Johnson men died before reaching 65 years old, and he was 64. Had Johnson chosen to run in 1968 (and had he won) his death would have came 2 days after his term ended. As of this 2019 writing, Johnson remains the last former Democratic President to die.
Nixon mentioned all of these events (and more) on his famous tapes. All the President’s men are there to be heard. Along with Colson, Nixon talks with H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (whom ha calls a “softhead” that day), Bebe Rebozo, Ron Ziegler, and Alexander Haig. Haldeman is the first to inform Nixon of LBJ’s death in “Conversation 036-051” by stating “He’s dead alright.” For his part, Nixon states in “Conversation 036-061” that it makes the “first time in 40 years that there hasn’t been a former President. Hoover lived through all of 40 years” and then refers to the recent peace treaty, “In any event It’ll make him (LBJ) look better in the end than he would have looked otherwise, so… The irony that he died before we got something down there. The strange twists and turns that life takes.”
Another event took place that night to round out the day, but unlike the others, you won’t find mention of it on the Nixon tapes. In Jamaica, a matchup of two undefeated heavyweight legends took place. Undisputed world heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier (29-0) took on the number one ranked heavyweight challenger George Foreman (37-0) in Jamaica’s National Stadium. Foreman dominated Frazier by scoring six knockdowns in less than two rounds. Foreman scored a technical knockout at 1:35 of the second round to dethrone Frazier and become the new undisputed heavyweight champion (the third-youngest in history after Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay). This was the fight where ABC’s television broadcaster Howard Cosell made the legendary exclamation, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
“This is a peace that lasts, and a peace that heals.” Nixon announced to the American people the next day. The announcement came exactly 11 years, one month and one day after the first American death in the Vietnam conflict: 25-year-old Army Specialist 4th Class James Thomas Davis of Livingston, Tenn., who had been killed in an ambush by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon on Dec. 22, 1961. For you budding numerologists out there, that translates to 11-1-1. It was all downhill from there. LBJ’s death precipitated the cancellation of several Inauguration events and a week later, on January 30, former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy, James W. McCord Jr. and five others were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. The dominoes were falling and eventually “Down goes Nixon! Down goes Nixon!”