Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

Jim Thorpe-Indiana Hoosier. PART II

z Thorpe Part II

Original publish date:  March 5, 2020

The September 2, 1915 Indianapolis Star ran the headlines: “Jim Thorpe to Coach Indiana”…”World’s Greatest Athlete Will Help Childs with Backfield Men” and “Noted Indian Will Start Work When Baseball Season Is Ended.” The article reported, “This news, coming as it does on the eve of the opening of the season, should serve to act as a tonic to athletics at the Bloomington institution…Thorpe should be – and no doubt will be – of great assistance to Coach Childs in developing a powerful football eleven at Indiana this year. Coach Childs said last night over the long-distance telephone that he proposes to turn over the backfield men to Thorpe and devote most of his own time to the linesmen. Thorpe probably will be unable to join Coach Childs’ staff until the close of the National League baseball season, for he is now playing with the New York Giants.”
The September 28 Indiana Daily Student announced, “James Thorpe, the famous Carlisle Indian athlete, reputed the world’s greatest athlete, will arrive here in a few days to assist Coach Childs in football …Thorpe will take charge of the backfield upon his arrival and will, no doubt, be able to turn out a strong offensive from the fine material on hand…. As Coach Childs has a large squad of nearly forty men, Thorpe will be of great assistance.”
It is hard to put that announcement into perspective today. Imagine if NBA & Olympic star Michael Jordan had paused at the height of his career to come and coach the foundering IU football team. No one knows for sure when Childs contacted Thorpe about joining the Hoosiers football staff, but what is certain is that by early October, Thorpe was in Bloomington.
z indiana-university-1916-jim-thorpe_1_43612a04b8a2e52238e89bc2ca652714The Indianapolis star reported, “After some three weeks of anxious waiting, (John) McGraw’s national pastimers turn over to the University coaching staff one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known, James Thorpe. He and his family will arrive in this city Thursday evening at 7 o’clock. Thorpe will take up his duties as assistant coach Friday afternoon…Students, alumni and, in fact, the entire college world looks forward to the coming of this great athlete, with great eagerness to know exactly how his coaching will compare with his known ability as a player. In fact, the thing foremost in the minds of these men is, can this All-American star teach the Indiana backfield men the tricks that made him so famous at Carlisle?”
An article in a Greencastle newspaper noted, “Thorpe, however, wouldn’t arrive in time to help the Hoosiers for their season opener vs. DePauw. Still, as the campus buzzed over the unveiling of plans for a new gymnasium to be built north of Jordan Field, Childs and his IU squad got off to a fast start to the season, beating DePauw 7-0. A player only identified as McIntosh scored the only touchdown of the game in the second quarter.” The campus was abuzz when, a few days after the DePauw victory, it was announced in the Daily Student newspaper that Jim Thorpe would be arriving by train in Bloomington on Thursday, Oct. 7. The news sent a shockwave through the Indiana football community.
Thorpe made his first appearance on campus the next day. Even though it was just a practice, the IU faithful showed up in droves, first gathering at 4 p.m. outside the Student Building before marching through campus to Jordan Field. Chic Griffis, the yell leader for the Hoosiers, taught the standing room only crowd new cheers for the game including one called “nine cheers for Thorpe,” and another named “nine cheers for Childs” as the Hoosiers practiced. A number of alumni made their way into town to get a glimpse of the superstar on the Hoosiers’ staff. The next day, Thorpe made his Hoosier coaching debut against the Miami Redskins.
z jtThorpe’s presence fired up the crowd as IU jumped out to a 34-0 lead by halftime. IU fans thrilled to the sight of Thorpe pacing the sideline. IU hammered Miami 41-0 in front of a huge crowd at Jordan Field. By the next Tuesday, Thorpe was finally getting in some real work with the kickers. The Daily Student noted, “Before the scrimmage, assistant coach Thorpe had the kickers out in the center of the arena instructing them in getting off their punts in good form…The Indian’s long, twisting spirals were not duplicated by either Scott or Whitaker, although both Crimson backs showed much improvement over past performances.”
A few days later, before the University of Chicago game, Thorpe wowed observers again. The IDS observers noted, “In showing the kickers how to boot the ball, the Indian sent the pigskin seventy and seventy-five yards on an average and was roundly applauded.” Despite Thorpe’s expert training, the Hoosiers’ lost to Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Maroons 13-7. The Chicago media hyped Thorpe’s appearance in the city, completely overlooking the fact that Childs, not Thorpe, was IU’s head coach. One paper described the team as “Indian Jim Thorpe’s Hoosier footballers” and Thorpe far overshadowed the IU football team.
z e1f92b1294e556241326b76c0b818552After the game, Thorpe spent his time on Jordan Field practicing kicking by himself. One IDS reporter noted on October 19th, “No one was around – there was no grandstand play – just a step, a quick swing of the leg and a double-thud as the ball hit ground and cleated shoe at the same instant. The kicker was “Jim” Thorpe, late addition to the Crimson coaching staff. He stood on the line which divides the gridiron into two equal portions, a little toward the sideline to avoid the mud. There was a flash of red and brown as his leg swung to meet the rising pigskin and away sailed the ball, end over end, squarely between the white posts at the end of the field. The long kick was accomplished with so much ease and grace that it appeared the least difficult feat in the world, but the big Indian merely smiled. It’s not “being done” on many gridirons this season, however, so old Jordan Field ought to feel mighty proud.”
With a bye week on the schedule following the Chicago game, the coaching staff focused on the fundamentals during a closed practice on Jordan Field. Barbed wire was placed along the top of the wooden fence surrounding the field and guards were posted at every entrance and more were on hand to discourage anybody peeking through a knothole. It was during Thorpe’s tenure at IU the ground was cleared near the football field for the new Men’s Gymnasium. Tradition claims that Jim Thorpe was on hand for the groundbreaking when axes were handed out and male students chopped down an apple orchard that occupied the site. Coeds handed out cider and sandwiches, and a good time was had by all.
Next, the Hoosiers traveled to Indianapolis’ Washington Field to take on Washington and Lee Oct. 30 in a sold out game attended by an estimated three-quarters of the IU student body. Indiana Governor Sam Ralston was also in attendance. Despite all of Thorpe’s work, IU’s kickers missed twice in the third quarter, one from less than 40 yards out. Those misses were critical in IU’s 7-7 tie with Washington and Lee in front of the largest crowd ever to see a game in pre-Hoosier Dome Indianapolis-8,500. Thorpe’s presence in the capital city translated into big money for the University as IU cleared between $5,000-$6,000 for the game, a staggering amount for the time worth over $ 150,000 today.
Indiana then traveled to Ohio State Nov. 6. Perhaps in shades of things to come, the Buckeyes won 10-9 in a game that saw the Hoosiers flagged for more than 100 yards in penalties. Once again, Thorpe’s work with the kickers didn’t pan out as IU missed five field-goal attempts, including one that skidded across the ground and over the goal line and another that was blocked. Childs returned to Bloomington and drilled his squad hard while Thorpe worked with the offensive players in search of a new kicker. He found one in a freshman walk-on who went 6-of-8 from 40 yards in practice.
Indiana traveled back to Chicago by train for its Nov. 13 battle with Northwestern. After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter, the Hoosiers scored a pair of touchdowns and kicked both extra points to lead Indiana to a 14-6 victory. At halftime, Thorpe wowed the windy city crowd with a kicking and punting exhibition. By now, reality was setting in for Jim Thorpe. His love for football could not overcome his impatience for coaching others to perform a task that he was still the best in the game at. So Jim Thorpe went back to what he knew best.
He signed his contract with the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League and took a train from Chicago to Massillon (Ohio) while still under contract as an IU coach. In that Nov. 14 game, Thorpe came off the bench for the Bulldogs and although Canton lost 16-0, more than 5,000 fans packed the stands to watch the game. Since previous attendance had been 1,500 fan, it was obvious that most of them were there to see Thorpe. After the game, Thorpe hopped a train back to Bloomington just in time for the old oaken bucket game and Homecoming Weekend. Adding to the excitement was the thought that Jordan Field would be hosting its last game. The new football stadium, next to the Men’s Gymnasium, was under construction.
z SCREENOn the day of the game, Nov. 20, Jordan Field was covered with sawdust to try to dry the water left by the snow, sleet and the rain of the past week. A crowd of more than 7,000 packed Jordan Field to see IU battle the Boilermakers in the old oaken bucket game. Purdue won 7-0. Thorpe put on another punting exhibition for the crowd at halftime. This one wasn’t as spirited as the Chicago exhibition the week before. Understandable because, Thorpe had a game to play the next day in Canton. Thorpe arrived in time for the second game in three weeks between Canton and Massillon, and he took over as head coach of the Bulldogs. In the game, Thorpe drop-kicked a field goal from 45 yards out in the first quarter and added a place kick of 38 yards in the third quarter to push Canton to a 6-0 victory.
And just like that, the Jim Thorpe Era at IU ended. Thorpe proved to be a better player than he was a coach. His much ballyhooed addition to the staff did not help the Hoosiers that season. They finished with a 3–3–1 record; eighth place in the Western Conference. While Thorpe remained a hero on campus and in the Bloomington community for years to come, coach Childs was fired and replaced in early December by former Nebraska coach Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm. Childs never coached football again. He was sent to France, where he served in the Army during World War I, and eventually he became the athletic director at the Colombes Stadium in Paris. He left the military with the rank of major, and he became an industrial engineer. He passed away in Washington, D.C., in 1960.
z Jim-ThorpeJim Thorpe left Bloomington to continue his professional athletic career in baseball and football. He helped Canton win three Ohio League championships, reportedly sealing the 1919 title with a wind-assisted 95-yard punt late in the game. Thorpe eventually played for six NFL teams, although he never won a title, and he retired from football in 1928. He played Major League Baseball with the Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves, compiling a career batting average of .252 in 289 games before retiring in 1919. He would be named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
After his playing days ended, Thorpe struggled. He dabbled in Hollywood with little success, descended into alcoholism, and he worked a number of odd jobs later in life, including serving as a doorman, a ditch digger and a security guard. When he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was broke and had to be admitted as a charity case. Thorpe finally succumbed to his third heart attack March 28, 1953 at the age of 64. Following his death, the town of Mauch Chunk purchased his remains and erected a monument in his honor, even though there is no proof he ever visited the area in life. The town renamed itself Jim Thorpe, Pa. In 1982, the Olympic committee reinstated Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals from the 1912 games.
z thorpe old manOne of Thorpe’s odd jobs was serving as a traveling softball umpire. When I was young collector, I purchased an old World War II softball in a box. It belonged to man who had received the ball as his own personal trophy for being named MVP of some long forgotten tournament. He mentioned that the ball had been signed by the tourney umpire. A man named Jim Thorpe. I opened the box and looked at the fountain pen signature, crisp as the day it had been signed. “You probably don’t know who that is.” the old man said. To which I answered, “Oh, I know who it is,” I answered. I’m an IU grad as are both of my children. And for a time, Jim Thorpe was one of us. That ball was sold off many years ago when the responsibility and expense of raising children trumped the need for sentimental objects. But the memory remains,

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Knute Rockne

Oh, and that coach that C.C. Childs passed over in favor of Jim Thorpe? Well, that was a young man who was working as a lifeguard at Cedar Point in the summer of 1913. A young man named Knute Rockne. He would go on to become one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Pop Culture, Sports

Jim Thorpe — Indiana Hoosier, Part 1

Thorpe Part I
Jim Thorpe’s photo in the 1916 Indiana University yearbook.

Original publish date:  February 27, 2020

So, are you going through football withdrawals yet? It’s been three weeks since the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl, the team’s first in half a century. Ironically, that victory came just over a century after the most famous Native American Indian athlete in our country’s history landed on a gridiron in the Hoosier state. Notre Dame? Nope. Purdue? Nope. Jim Thorpe, the world’s greatest athlete, was once an assistant coach for the Indiana University Hoosiers in Bloomington.
If you’ve never heard the story, then its worth a visit. If you already know it, then let us refresh. Thorpe began his athletic career at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1907 (a stone’s throw from the Gettysburg battlefield) where he played baseball, football, and was the star of the track team. He learned the game of football at the foot of a legend: Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner. Coach Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his best track and field athlete, to compete in such a physical game as football. Thorpe, however, convinced Warner to let him try some rushing plays in practice against the school team’s defense. According to author Glen Jeansonne, Thorpe “ran around, past and through them not once, but twice” before walking over to Warner and saying “Nobody is going to tackle Jim”, while flipping him the ball.

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Jim Thorpe-Carlisle Indian School.

In 1911 Thorpe made headlines when, while playing running back, defensive back, placekicker and punter, he scored all of his team’s points in an 18–15 upset of highly ranked Harvard. The game is considered one of the greatest upsets in early NCAA history. With Thorpe moving the ball, the tiny Carlisle team was winning against powerhouses like Harvard and Yale. Carlisle finished the season 11–1. In 1912 Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of Thorpe’s efforts. That season, Thorpe ran for 27 touchdowns and accounted for 224 points. Recorded stats show that Thorpe rushed 191 times for 1,869 yards in 12 games but those figures do not include statistics from 2 of Carlisle’s 14 games in 1912 because full records were not kept.
That 1912 season included a 27–6 victory over Army. In that game, a 92-yard touchdown by Thorpe was called back by a teammate’s penalty. On the very next play, Thorpe rushed for a 97-yard touchdown. Future General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played against Thorpe that day, recalled Thorpe in a 1961 speech: “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
In the spring of 1912, Thorpe started training for the Olympics in Sweden. He had confined his efforts to jumps, hurdles and shot-puts, but soon added pole vaulting, javelin, discus, hammer and 56 lb weight throw. At Stockholm, Thorpe smashed many records and won gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon (the first time both events were held at any Olympics). In 1912, the medals were presented to the athletes at the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with his two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon.

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Jim Thorpe-Olympian.

Legend states that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world”, to which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King”. On his return to the United States he was honored in New York City with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Thorpe recalled later, “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
Along with his standout track and field appearances, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball games at the 1912 Olympics, a decision that would come back to haunt him. In late January 1913, the Worcester Telegram published a story revealing that Thorpe had played professional baseball, and soon, U.S. newspapers followed up on the story. In 1909 & 1910, Thorpe had played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for the Rocky Mount Railroaders. For his efforts, Thorpe was reportedly paid $2 ($55 today) per game and as much as $35 ($960 today) per week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) secretary Edward Sullivan, Thorpe explained, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.” The letter did not help. The AAU withdrew Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively. Later that year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards and declare him a professional.
z SignThorpe played professional football in 1913 as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning streak against local teams during the 1910s. Also that year, Thorpe signed pro contracts to play baseball with the New York Giants and football for the Chicago Cardinals and Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs. The Bulldogs paid Thorpe $ 250 per game ($5,919 today) a huge sum for the time. Overnight, the Bulldogs went from drawing 1,200 fans per game to 8,000. Thorpe was front page news, leading the Bulldogs to league championships in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In 1920, the Bulldogs and 13 other teams formed the APFA (American Professional Football Association) the forerunner of today’s NFL and Thorpe was elected the league’s first president. You might say that Jim Thorpe was a big deal.

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Olympian & I.U. Football Coach Clarence Chester Childs.

What is perhaps the least known era of Thorpe’s career was the season he spent at Indiana. In 1914 IU hired Clarence Chester Childs as its head football coach. C.C. Childs, captain of the Yale track team, competed for the United States in the 1912 Summer Olympics alongside Jim Thorpe. Childs won a bronze medal in the hammer throw. Childs was an interesting man in his own right. He served in France during World War I and afterwards was appointed by President Warren Harding to a position within the U.S. Treasury Department. However, he was fired after he attacked a US Secret Service agent, who was following him on suspicion that Childs had illegally removed sensitive documents.
After being hired at I.U., Childs contacted his fellow Olympic teammate Thorpe, who was wrapping up a season with the Giants. Thorpe was asked to assist with IU’s 1915 football season. He was paid a salary of $1000 plus a room for his family at a Bloomington hotel and ftoke his meals on campus. The students were thrilled to learn that the World’s Greatest Athlete would be joining their team on notoriously soggy Jordan Field, a gridiron famous for its inability to shed water. Often, Coach Childs had to move practice to the school’s track oval, which recently had been fitted with temporary high-power electric lights. Now, with the hiring of Jim Thorpe, the Hoosiers were moving up a notch. Not only is C.C. Childs best remembered for the man he hired as an assistant coach, but also for the man he passed over to do it.

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The 1916 Indiana University Yearbook.

Next Week: Park II of Jim Thorpe-Indiana Hoosier.

Hollywood, Indianapolis, Indy 500, Pop Culture, Sports

Paul Newman and the Indy 500.

Paul Newman

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.

z WINNING1SHHRws           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.

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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.

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Paul Newman’s US Navy photo.

            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.

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Mario Andretti & Paul Newman.

            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.

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Roselyn Bakery.

            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.

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Paul Newman on his last visit.

           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.

Indianapolis, Politics, Sports

The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster. PART II

1903-Purdue Part II

Original publish date: November 7, 2019

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.”
Z purdue 2A 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.
IU Purdue ticket pair leslieWalter 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.

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Governor Harry G. Leslie.

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.

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Aviator Charles Lindbergh & Governor Harry G. Leslie.

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.

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September 7, 1932 Indianapolis Star photo.

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.

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Purdue Memorial Gymnasium

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.

Baseball, Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

“The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster” PART I

1903-Purdue Part 1

Original publish date:  October 31, 2019

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.

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1902 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.
wash park baseball for web 1The 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.

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Namesake John Purdue.

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.
z Dq2VB3-XQAA21c8Unlike 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.

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Switchman

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.
Z purdue 2The 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.
Z purdue 1The 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.”
z LARGE (1)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…”
z purdue_football_wreck_8Seventeen 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.

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Harry “Skeets” Leslie.
Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Pop Culture, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART II

Curse Part two

Original publish date:  March 28, 2019

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.
z tito_francona_solves_murderThe 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.
z 58558-5FrDespite 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.
z ,logo images 1And 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.
z 2 dudesThere 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.

Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART I

Curse Part one

Original publish date:  March 21, 2019

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.
Ruth Jersey AuctionMy 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!
z seaver 1Somehow, 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.
HiCorbett1March 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.

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Bill Veeck

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.
z B99629538Z.1_20180214121756_000_GTU1S68FU.1-0Last 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.
z AR-304189941That 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.Francona Tito 2053.68WTC_Bat_NBL