Saturday, 30 August 2014

THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD--Part Two


1952 Bowman baseball card of Ralph Branca
(United States Public Domain)

In the second inning, with the score 1-0 Brooklyn and Whitey Lockman on first, Thomson--hot on a 15-game hit streak--came to the plate and smashed a liner to left field. Dodger Andy Pafko, grabbed the ball on the bounce and threw a rope to the cutoff man, shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Rounding first, Thomson was thinking double, and kept going with a burst of speed. But when he looked up, he was shocked to see Lockman--held by manager Durocher--standing on second. Reese threw a bullet to first baseman Gil Hodges who tagged Thomson retreating back to the bag.

In the eighth inning, all hell broke loose when Maglie threw a wild pitch, allowing a runner to score and Thomson flubbed two grounders at third. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers were cruising along to a 4-1 lead. Should the Giants lose, Thomson would be the goat, sure thing.

Then Newcombe gave up a single to Al Dark. Now, for some strange reason, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen elected to hold Dark at first, a questionable move for a team leading by three runs. Sure enough, the next batter, lefty Don Mueller smashed a single through the infield spot where first baseman Gil Hodges would have been playing if he hadn’t been ordered to hold Dark on. Now, Dark was on third base. Two on and none out. The fans who had started to leave began to return to their seats. Monte Irvin then popped up for the first out.

Whitey Lockman kept the rally going by smacking a double to left field off a high-and-outside Newcombe pitch. Dark scored, Mueller raced for third, and Lockman pulled up at second. But Mueller twisted his ankle stepping awkwardly on the bag and was in pain. Durocher immediately called for Clint Hartung, a huge 6-foot-5, 210-pounder from Hondo, Texas, to pinch run. Hartung was once considered a “can’t miss” pitcher in the majors. But he could never quite cut it. He tried the outfield for a while, and found out he couldn’t hit either. Nicknamed “The Hondo Hurricane,” Hartung was now at third to protect Durocher should Newcombe try anything.

While Mueller was taken off on a stretcher, manager Dressen came out to the mound. Leo Durocher really let Newcombe have it with a few colorful metaphors. Next up was Bobby Thomson. Dressen waved to the left-field bullpen for Ralph Branca, who had thrown 133 pitches only two days before. Another bad choice on Dressen’s part because the Giants had been killing Branca with the long ball all year to the tune of 10 homers, Thomson hitting two of those.

The outgoing Newcombe wanted to take on Leo “The Lip” Durocher now. Hartung welcomed Newcombe with a motion to make something of it. Instead, Newcombe turned and started walking towards the Dodger clubhouse in center field. At the outer edge of the infield, he met the incoming Ralph Branca. They patted each other on the back, and both continued on. At the mound, Dressen met with Branca and Rube Walker, the catcher. Instead of discussing how to pitch to Thomson, Dressen simply handed Branca the ball and said, “Get him out,” leaving the two players somewhat surprised.

Bobby Thomson, uniform number 23, the year he was born, stepped to the plate to face Branca, the pitcher with uniform number 13. Two on, one out, the score 4-2 Brooklyn. Again, Dressen goofed. He should have had Branca put Thomson on in order to pitch to rookie Willie Mays with the bases loaded. His batting average down 20 points in the last three weeks, Mays was mired in a hitting slump. But Dressen was from the old school--you don’t intentionally walk the potential winning run. Thomson took the first pitch--a fastball--down the middle for a called strike one. Many people to this day wondered why he didn’t swing. The second pitch was another fastball, this one high and inside, supposedly his weak spot. This offering, Thomson crushed…

As soon as Thomson connected, the crowd began to rise. In his seat, Frank Sinatra, a Giant fan, also wanted to jump up to catch the action. But couldn’t. He was distracted by a full load of fresh vomit in lap spewed there from his friend, Jackie Gleason, a Dodger fan.

The ball took off to left field, towards the 315-foot mark, leaving Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges to utter his classic call…

“There’s a long drive! Pafko goes back! It’s gonna be…I believe…THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hit the ball into the lower deck of the left-field stands! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT AND THEY’RE GOING CRAZY. I DON’T BELIEVE IT! I WILL NOT BELIEVE IT!”

While Frank Sinatra missed one of the greatest clutch home runs ever, the three Yankees, Yogi Berra, Allie Reynolds, and Vic Raschi were listening to the broadcast in a cab crossing the George Washington Bridge. They had left the game early in the ninth to beat the traffic with Brooklyn up 4-1, thinking that the game was all but over and the Yankees would be facing the Dodgers in the World Series. What they remembered most about that day was Russ Hodges going absolutely nuts! The three players now had their wish--a World Series against the Giants and the use of the Polo Grounds. They didn’t know until a few days later that ball cleared the left-field wall by a mere six inches.

With one pitch, Thomson went from goat to hero, turning Branca into the goat. And so, 3 October 1951, at 3:57 PM, the Giants were declared the National League champs, thanks to what soon became known as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Was the New York Giants’ version of “Sign Stealing 101” responsible for taking the pennant?

All these years later, some people say they did. When asked if he got the sign on the Ralph Branca pitch, Thomson would always maintain to his dying day in 2010 that he didn’t and added that no one was going to take his “moment of glory” away from him. Besides, as Dodger great Duke Snider once admitted in an interview, “Even when you know a fastball is coming, you still have to hit it.” Ralph Branca, on the other hand, is certain that Thomson knew exactly what was coming by how he jumped all over the pitch.

1951 New York Giants, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (United States Public Domain)

Apparently, two weeks after the memorable National League playoff, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and eighteen-year-old daughter Terry were waiting at an elevator in a downtown Manhattan office building. Stepping inside, they saw the elevator man, another man, and Bobby Thomson.

“Hello, Bobby,” O’Malley greeted the Giants third baseman who had destroyed O’Malley’s World Series hopes for 1951.

“Hello, Mr O’Malley,” Thomson replied.

The other man grunted, as he immediately recognized the two baseball men. “Why do you even talk to this bum?” he said to O’Malley, pointing to Thomson. “He cost me a hundred bucks!”

O’Malley smiled, as his thoughts turned to the financial windfall he had missed out on had the Dodgers made it to the legendary Fall Classic. Gate receipts. Hot dogs. Beer. Scorecards. Radio, Television. “Is that so,” O’Malley told the man. “He cost me almost a million dollars.”

To which the operator shook his head. “You mean you bet that kind of money, mister?”

Although neither Branca nor Thomson are enshrined on plaques in Cooperstown, and probably never will enter the Hall of Fame, both players are etched in baseball lore by playing their exclusive roles in “The Shot Heard Round the World”…still the greatest moment in baseball history.

FYI—To read more on the 1951 New York Giants sign-stealing undertaking, you can check out The Echoing Green, written by Joshua Prager, published by Pantheon Books, New York, 2006. It’s a real “page turner,” an excellent read, one of a number of sources I used in putting this article together.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD--Part One



The time: Summer, 1951.

The scene:
  New York City, where baseball wasn’t just a sport, but a religion. Three teams were in town back then, all good. The New York Yankees in the American League… and the two bitter, cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in the National League.

The cast of main characters:

Bobby Thomson
--speedy New York Giants outfielder-third baseman

Leo “The Lip” Durocher
--flamboyant New York Giants manager

Herman Franks
--New York Giants coach

Hank Schenz
--New York Giants utility infielder, best known for stealing opposition signs

Ralph Branca
--hard-throwing Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher wearing uniform number 13

Charlie Dressen
--colorful Brooklyn Dodgers manager

Abraham Chadwick
--New York City street light repairman with Local 3 electrician union

1951 Bowman baseball card of Leo Durocher
(United States Public Domain)
Bobby Thomson was one of those ballplayers with a ton of talent, but was inconsistent since breaking into the Giants lineup in 1946. So far, the 1951 season had started out as an off year, this following an off year in 1950 hitting only .252. To make matters worse, the Giants had a bad start, losing 11 in a row in April, and by the end of the month were mired in last place at 2-12. Barely hitting .200 well into May 1951, Thomson was replaced in his center field spot by a flashy rookie named Willie Mays, a call-up from the Minneapolis Millers of the AAA American Association where he had been hammering the ball at a .477 clip.

Anxious to trade Thomson, manager Leo Durocher wanted Chicago Cubs left fielder Andy Pafko, a .304 hitter with 36 homers in 1950. But in mid-June, the Brooklyn Dodgers nabbed Pafko as part of a 4-for-4 deal. Brooklyn fans were ecstatic. Pafko was the one piece missing in completing a Dodger lineup that now had an all-star at every position. The New York Post called the transaction “the most barefaced swindle in years.”

Meanwhile, Thomson got a break. Regular third baseman Hank Thompson sustained a bad-enough foot injury to be out of the lineup for at least two weeks. As a replacement, the Giants considered Ray Dandridge back in Minneapolis, an ex-Negro League star in his late-30s who could still play. However, he had an appendix attack and he too would be out for weeks. So, Durocher turned to Thomson to fill the gap at third. When asked by the press on occasion if he would make any more lineup changes, Durocher vowed that this was his team, the one he was going to stick with, despite the experts now picking Charlie Dressen’s Dodgers to take the National League pennant in a walk.

According to Joshua Prager’s 2006 book, The Echoing Green, Durocher called a clubhouse meeting at the Polo Grounds, the Giants home park, in mid-July, to tell his troops that a secretive plan was being devised to steal the opposing catchers’ signs using a long-range telescope from the Giants center field clubhouse windows almost 500 feet from home plate. The signs would then be relayed to the batter to feast on the pitches. Durocher, who lived by the motto that everything was OK in baseball as long as you didn’t get caught, went around the clubhouse and asked which players wanted to know in advance what was coming. A few wanted no part of the scheme for fear of being crossed up. Most did want to know, however. And Bobby Thomson was one of them.

Enter fifty-three-year-old Abraham Chadwick, a local electrician whose part-time job was to turn on the lights at the Polo Grounds before each night game and stay in the park and watch the game to turn the lights off after. Once he got the go-ahead from the Giants, following the Durocher clubhouse meeting, Chadwick began his task in the center-field clubhouse where he installed a button near one of the windows and a series of buzzer wires that ran underneath the stands to the Giants bullpen along the right-field wall and into the Giant dugout. Although he was a staunch Dodger fan, Chadwick was very proud of this work, and only a few tight-lipped members inside his Local 3 union knew anything about it.
1952 Bowman baseball card of Bobby Thomson
(United States Public Domain)

Once Chadwick had finished his task, seldom-used infielder Hank Schenz positioned himself safely inside the clubhouse window, away from prying eyes. With his American-made 35mm Wollensak telescope, Schenz zeroed in on the catchers finger signals. Alongside of him, coach and ex-catcher Herman Franks would do the decoding. Then one of them would hit the button--one buzz for a fastball and two buzzes for a breaking pitch. The buzzes would then be picked up by a certain player in the right-field bullpen, usually back-up catcher Sal Yvars, who would then relay the pitch to the batter by a system consisting of either dropping a ball for a certain pitch or crossing his legs, etc. From the dugout, a system was used whereby the relay man there might shout out the batter’s first name for a certain pitch or his last name for another pitch. Sometimes the prompts changed for each game. After a few games, Herman Franks became the lone man by the clubhouse window, while Schenz stationed himself in the dugout to help with the system.

Did stealing the signs help?

By mid-August, the Dodgers were leading the National League by 13.5 games. Then the Giants started winning, sixteen straight before closing out the month. Then in back-to-back games against the Dodgers to open September, right fielder Don Mueller--normally a singles hitter--clubbed an astonishing five homers. Inside of a few weeks that month, Bobby Thomson secured his spot in the lineup by hitting .433 in 90 at bats, lifting his batting average almost 100 points to just under .300. The Giants won 20 of 25 in September, and 37 of their last 44, including their last seven straight, to catch the Dodgers. Down the same stretch, the counterpart Dodgers played slightly above .500 ball, winning only 23 of their last 44 games. It got so bad that the sixth-place Boston Braves, of all teams, had beaten the Dodgers three of four games in late-September, including a doubleheader romp on the 25th by scores of 6-3 and 14-2. 

Two days later during a 4-3 win by Boston, Dodgers outfielder Bill Sharman, a call-up from the AAA Montreal Royals, argued too loud from the dugout on a close play at home where the Braves scored. Yet to play in a major league (and he never would), Sharman made history by being thrown out of a major league game without ever having played in one.  

After the full 154-game schedule, the Dodgers and Giants were deadlocked at 96-58, forcing a three-game playoff to decide the 1951 National League pennant and the right to play the New York Yankees in the World Series.

At Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, the Giants won the first game 3-1 on a home run by Thomson off Ralph Branca. Despite the sign stealing, the Dodgers came storming back in the second game by winning 10-0 at the Polo Grounds on the shutout pitching by Clem Labine (his first start in 10 days), and on home runs by Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Andy Pafko, and Rube Walker, replacing the injured Roy Campanella at catcher. Labine had been in manager Dressen’s doghouse since he had pitched from the stretch against the Philadelphia Phillies to get his curve over and had promptly given up a bases-loaded home run to Willie Jones to lose the game. Up to that time Labine had been the Dodgers best pitcher in August and September.

Thus, the stage was set for the third and final game, also at the Polo Grounds, the winner facing the  American League champs New York Yankees the very next day. Durocher chose Sal Maglie and Dressen picked Don Newcombe, both 20-game winners. The New York streets were tense. Businessmen all over the city had their radios tuned to the broadcast. The Dow-Jones tickers were going to carry the highlights of the game along with the stock numbers. Some people booked off work. Others went but huddled around a radio. NBC cashed in by covering it on TV.

Yankee teammates Yogi Berra, Allie Reynolds, and Vic Raschi arrived at the ballpark. They were hoping the Giants would win because the Polo Grounds held 20,000 more seats than Ebbets Field, meaning more gate receipts, thus more money for the participating players. Entertainers Frank Sinatra, a Giants fan, and  Jackie Gleason, a Dodgers fan, also showed up. Both had been into the sauce, especially the robust Gleason. 

Durocher, coaching at third base, was on Newcombe’s case right from the beginning of the game, yelling that the pitcher was all washed up, a choker, and other choice words. Many not printable.  To keep in the spirit of things, Newcombe yelled back.

In other words, it was a typical heated Giants-Dodgers game, only this time a pennant was on the line.


Part Two--Next Week

Monday, 18 August 2014

New eBook!


Professional baseball hasn't always been integrated. Up until the 1940s, there were white leagues and negro leagues. Regardless of talent, white team owners fought long and hard to keep blacks from entering their exclusive clubs. Then the Brooklyn Dodgers took the other owners on by scouting two black players of equal talent.

The goal -- two players breaking the color line together... 
One was Jackie Robinson. The other had a past.



Available August 28th! 
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Saturday, 16 August 2014

VICTORIAN ARISTOCRACY ON THE PRAIRIES

Cannington Manor tennis courts, 1894 (University Archives and Special Collections, University Library, University of Saskatchewan, MSS C555/2/14.20)

According to some information I found recently, Saskatchewan’s Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park is supposed to be haunted. Apparently, a woman in an old, 1880s-style dress has been seen on occasion blocking the doorway of one of the rebuilt period-piece structures, preventing visitors from entering. Then she disappears without a trace. Not far away, in the Anglican church graveyard, people in nineteenth-century attire have been noticed wandering about aimlessly and speaking indiscriminately. They disappear after a short while, also. Whether these occurrences are real or not or just stories, sightseers visit the historic site in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan each year from Victoria Day to Labour Day. Not to see the ghosts, though. Well, maybe not.

So, what is Cannington Manor?

Enter Captain Edward Michell Pierce, an English gentleman--a wine merchant by trade in his home country--who lost his fortune in a bank failure, and came to Canada with a dream of creating a Victorian aristocracy on the prairies revolving around agriculture. In 1882, thirty-seven miles south of the newly-incorporated village of Moosomin, Pierce built a log farmhouse for his wife and eight children in the Assiniboia region of the North West Territories (before this area of Canada was renamed Saskatchewan more than 20 years later). Pierce quickly established an agricultural college to teach English gentleman how to farm. He called the settlement Cannington Manor. Pierce also co-founded the Moose Mountain Trading Company, which supplied the community and surrounding area with assorted goods.

Pierce advertised his college in British newspapers and his pupils--called Remittance Men--came. For 100 pounds a year, they were given room-and-board, and lessons on farming. However, it was the blind leading the blind. Pierce didn’t know much more than his pupils did about farming. Besides, these pupils--almost all being bachelors --were from the British upper classes and the last thing they wanted to do was get their hands dirty. Good Lord. They were out for a good time. Eating up the money sent by their rich families, they embarked instead on other activities that were soon set up on the site, such as tennis, cricket, polo, fox hunting, and horse racing. However, there were some middle-class families that did settle in the community and they were the ones who took farming seriously, few and far between as they were.

In 1884, my great-grandfather Arthur Percy Wyatt, his wife, and three children left Somerset County, England to homestead in the Broadview area, about 70 miles as the crow flies northwest from Cannington Manor. My ancestors took up wheat farming and worked hard. They didn’t have it easy. I wonder what they must’ve thought of these Englishmen living the good life down the road from them?

Captain Pierce died in 1888. By this time, the 2,600-acre Cannington Manor community had grown to 200 residents, and included an Anglican Church, a hotel, a land titles office, a general store, a dairy, a school, a sawmill, a town hall, a flour and grist mill, a meat-packing plant, a blacksmith shop, a carpentry shop, two cheese factories, and several residences.

Two mansions were constructed during Pierce’s time. The first was a frame-built one called the Humphrys/Hewlett House. The other was a grand, two-story, 26-room limestone monstrosity called “Didsbury,” established by brothers Ernest, Billy, and Bertie Beckton, and named after the wealthy Manchester, England suburb where they grew up in.  Others knew it simply as the Beckton Ranch.

The three fun-loving Becktons came to the Territories with money. Lots of it. Both sides of their family made their fortunes in the textile industry, and when their maternal grandfather, Matthew Curtis, passed on in 1887, he left the boys with more than enough money to purchase land on the prairies and to build Didsbury. The mansion was the most beautiful house for hundreds of miles around. It had a gabled roof and a large veranda. Inside stood a billiard room, ballroom, servants’ quarters, hand-carved fireplace mantles, expensively-framed oil paintings, and Turkish carpets. Behind the mansion was a stone bunkhouse for the workers, kennels for the foxhounds, and fieldstone stables that flaunted stalls made of mahogany with brass nameplates for the thoroughbred horses. All this splendor while surrounding prairie homesteaders like my great-grandparents were barely cutting it on the bare essentials in their sod houses.

Cannington Manor racetrack (Canadian Public Domain)


In the 1890s, Cannington Manor, not too unlike England, had its own class system inside the community. There were the young bachelors; the upper class families; and the true homesteaders who did the actual work.  Leaderless since Pierce’s death, the English Utopian community began to deteriorate. The young bachelors took to drinking and chasing women, including trying to make out with some of the wives.

One thing that the middle and upper-class British failed to comprehend was the importance of harvesting their crops once they were ready. Usually in late-August or early September. My family background--both sides--is prairie farming. Sudden frosts can hit almost without notice. So, when the crops are ready for cutting…you’re supposed to get them off. Pronto! The Cannington Manor group, sometimes, had other priorities once the crops had matured, such as a horse race to watch and bet on or participate in a tennis match. Or, maybe, a play was scheduled in the town hall. Or there were poetry or glee club meetings to attend.  And we can’t leave out their famed foxhunts, complete with top boots, breeches, red riding jackets, and a generous shot of liquor to give them a good jolt. Subsequently, the crops would freeze, then end up rotting in the fields.  That’s if they ever had planted the seeds in the first place. Oftentimes, they had trouble getting around to doing that in the spring, what with all the activities at their disposal.

In their spare time--we’re talking the bachelors mostly--the Cannington young men enjoyed a good game of roughhouse rugby. After a few years, they joined a group of men from Moosomin and formed the Moosomin-Cannington Combines. Together, they won the 1891 Western Canadian Rugby Championship by upsetting a strong Winnipeg squad. One of the stars on the team was Bertram Tennyson, a nephew of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign.

As the 1890s drew to a close, the upper class families saw the writing on the wall and began to move away, taking the vital cash flow with them that had kept the community afloat. By 1900, when the CPR line went around Cannington Manor by six miles to the south, the 18-year English Victorian experiment on the prairies was over. The rail line might as well have been 100 miles away. In the age of horse and buggy, this was devastating. Add to that, a series of droughts, falling grain prices, and a late-1890s world-wide depression. Most of the families returned to Great Britain while a few of them--the working class with the agricultural experience who had toiled for the rich families--did stay and farmed, and did see better days when the rains, better grain prices, and the automobile came. Some of their descendants remain in the province today and still farm.

What was left of the site was abandoned for over 60 years until 1965, when the Saskatchewan government provided funds to refurbish the remaining structures and established Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park. At a decent cost ($9 family, $4 adults, $1 students), sightseers can now view the grounds, the renovated buildings and meet the “period dress” guides who answer your questions about the community that failed in its attempt to combine their limited knowledge of farming with the “English Gentlemen” style of life.

My father, Jack Wyatt, was a grandson of the Arthur Percy Wyatt mentioned earlier who had come from England with nothing but a dream. Unlike those at Cannington Manor, my great grandfather Arthur’s dream was within reach with some hard word that required getting his hands dirty. He and his descendants made it happen. Back in the 1980s, my parents and my dad’s sister, Ruth, took the time one afternoon to visit the Cannington Manor site. They didn’t see any ghosts, by the way. But returning to the car after the tour, my Auntie  Ruth said to my parents, “I’m sure glad we’re not related to that lazy bunch of Englishmen.”


Me, too, Auntie Ruth! We were raised better than that.

Friday, 8 August 2014

THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED TOBIN ROTE

1955 Bowman football card of Tobin Rote
(United States Public Domain)
OK, if they used to refer to Canadian Football League quarterback Sam Etcheverry as “The Rifle,” then maybe they should have called his QB adversary, Tobin Rote,   “The Cannon.” Or, maybe, “The Howitzer.” The big difference was that Rote could also scramble, while Etcheverry was a pocket man. Rote also has the distinction of being the only quarterback in pro football history to win championships in both the National Football League and the American Football League. And  that’s not all he did…

Tobin Cornelius Rote was born 18 January 1928 in San Antonio, Texas, the home of “The Alamo.”  Graduating in 1946 from Harlandale High School in his hometown, Rote attended Rice University in Houston from 1946-49 where he starred under head coach Jess Neely, one of the best college football coaches ever in the game. In his final season, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Rote with the huge forearms led his ninth-ranked Rice University Owls of the Southwest Conference to a 10-1 season and 27-13 Cotton Bowl win over North Carolina. During one game in the regular season against Southern Methodist, he turned a 14-0 deficit into a 41-27 victory. The next week, a repeat. Down 9-0 at the half to Texas Christian University, he led the Owls to a 17-15 win.

Following graduation from Rice University, he was drafted in the second round, 17th overall, by the Green Bay Packers of the NFL. Poor guy, the team was so bad back then. This was before Hall of Fame  coach Vince Lombardi took over in 1959, turning the Packers into the league’s dominant team up to the mid-sixties.  That early Packer defense was the culprit. Nevertheless, Rote always gave it everything he had. In 1954, he led the NFL in pass attempts with 382 and completions with 180, despite the Packers  registering 4-8 for the season. In 1955, the team improved to 6-6, and Rote led the league with 17 TD tosses. On a 4-8 Packers team in 1956, he led the NFL in 2,203 passing yards and 18 TD passes, and was second in rushing TDs with 11. His 29 total TDs was an all-time 12-game-season record that remained intact when the schedule increased to 14 games in 1961. All the other Packers players scored only five TDs between them. 

Once his seven years of hell in Green Bay was up in 1956, Rote was third overall in passing touchdowns, first in QB rushing yards, and second in QB rushing touchdowns. All this on a Packers team that never made the playoffs once in all the years he played there. Mercifully, he was traded to the Detroit Lions during the 1957 NFL training camp for the Packers to make room for rookie quarterback and future Hall of Famer Bart Starr.

Finally, in Detroit, on a team with a good defense and a pretty fair offense, Rote split his QB time with the colorful, legendary Bobby Layne, another future Hall of Famer. When Layne broke his leg in three places during a pileup in the next to last game of the season, Rote took the reins and guided the Lions to two straight wins and an 8-4 season tie with the San Francisco 49ers, forcing a one-game playoff for the Western Conference title.

The game started badly for the Lions in front of 60,000 San Francisco fans. At the half, they were behind 24-7 to the 49ers, who were acting pretty arrogant and jubilant in their dressing room. “We could hear them laughing,” Rote said, later. “The walls were paper thin. They were going on about how they were going to spend their championship game money. It made us angry.”

The Lions roared out and scored three TDs in five minutes to close out the third quarter. They eventually beat the 49ers 31-27, then took on the 9-2-1 Eastern Conference champs Cleveland Browns (with legendary Jim Brown in the backfield) and embarrassed them 59-14 before a packed-house Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Rote threw for four TDs and rushed for another, while completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards, with one of the TD tosses a 78-yarder to Jim Doran.

This was the Lions third NFL championship in the 1950s. Earlier, Bobby Layne had taken them to back-to-back titles in 1952 and 1953. Impressed so much with Rote, the Lions traded the 31-year-old Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers early in the 1958 season, leaving the Motor City in shock. The hometown fans loved Lane and hated to see him go. From then on Rote was often booed. He lasted two more seasons in Detroit on an aging team going nowhere…4-7-1 in 1958 and 3-8-1 in 1959. The Lions’ glory days were over. The 1957 championship would be their last.

While we’re at it, let’s take a quick look at the infamous “Bobby Layne Curse.” What curse, you say? Well, when the Lions traded Layne away, he was furious. And that’s a reported fact. Then, leaving in a huff, he supposedly cursed management by saying, “This team won’t win anything for 50 years!” Whether he blurted that out or not, no one knows for sure. It’s something never documented, merely passed along through the press, the Lions’ upper organization and players in Pittsburgh and Detroit by word of mouth. Layne’s son, Alan, said recently in an interview that he wouldn’t doubt his dad saying something like that because he was a fiery guy at times.

So what have the Lions done since 1957? You be the judge. They haven’t come close to winning anything, certainly not with a 1-10 record in 11 post season appearances. The Lions have the league’s worst winning percentage of all NFL teams in the last 50 years and are one of only two pre-merger NFL teams to not appear in a Super Bowl. The only thing I wonder about now is that if there really is a curse, then it still must be going. So, when’s it going to stop?

Released by the Lions after 1959, the 32-year-old Rote headed north to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and a $25,000 contract, the highest salary in the league. Here, the Texan with the southern drawl lit up the Eastern Conference with passing records galore, some of them still standing. Besides taking a Toronto team from a dismal 4-10 mark in 1959, to a turnabout 10-4 in 1960--the Argos first season finishing first since 1937--and one game away from appearing in the coveted Grey Cup, he completed 256 passes of 450 tries for a 56.9 completion rate, good for 4,247 yards and 38 TD passes. He really aired it out in TO, in a league that was predominately a running game back then and continued to be well into the 1970s, despite only three downs. The CFL fans had never seen a quarterback quite like Tobin Rote. Twice he threw seven TDs in a single game. In another he threw 38 completions, in addition to throwing three 5-TD  games, and six 300-plus yard games.  Whew!

1953 Bowman football card of Bobby Lane
(United States Public Domain)
Rote found he didn’t have to scramble as much for the Argos because he had running back stars in Cookie Gilchrist and Dick Shatto carrying the mail. Today, Rote’s 38 TDs are still the second most in the Argos single-season history, eclipsed only  by Doug Flutie’s 47 in 1997, and that took 18 games to do it. Rote still holds two single-game Argo records--on August 19, 1960 against Montreal, he threw the ball 54 times and collected 524 yards. Although the Argos slipped to 7-6-1 in 1961, they were one game away again from the Grey Cup. In his three years in Toronto, he remains fourth on the team’s all-time list with 9,872 passing yards and 66 TDs. Some older fans still say that Tobin Rote was the best quarterback in an Argo uniform. Better than Doug Flutie. Better than Joe Theismann.

It also seems Tobin Rote was quite the character in Toronto. A party man. And I’m not talking politics. He loved our Canadian beer, which has always been known for its stronger alcohol content than the American brands. Apparently, Rote had business promotions with Molson’s Brewery in town and they gave him free case after free case that needed to be disposed of. And there were always teammates around to help him do just that. While in the huddle during practices, according to teammate Fred Black, Rote oftentimes had beer on his breath. Many of his Green Bay and Detroit teammates had testified to that too. Bobby Kuntz, another teammate admitted that Rote supposedly threw his one-game record of 38 completions with only three hours sleep the night before.

In the late 1990s, Rote said that he would always try extra hard against the Montreal Alouettes because so many fans and reporters considered Sam Etcheverry the better throwing QB. “I wanted badly to prove that I could throw better than him.” And Rote  usually did demolish the Als secondary. Etcheverry presented another side. “We had a new coaching staff,” he said, “who wanted a zone defense. Our guys didn’t know what they were doing.”

After three seasons as a Toronto Argo, the San Diego Chargers of the four-year-old American Football League came calling with a $35,000 a year contract offer.  Rote grabbed at it and headed south. His first year in California, the 35-year-old veteran led the Chargers to an 11-3 record in which his team was first overall in offense. He was named First Team All-Star with stats of 2,510 yards passing, 170 completions out of 286 attempts for a 59% average, plus 17 TDs passing and two rushing. In the AFL Championship Game, he passed for three TDs and another rushing while his team crushed the Boston Patriots 51-10 to take all the marbles. For all that, he was named American Football League MVP by the Associated Press.

In 1964, previous year back-up John Hadl, a young quarterback with promise, saw more of the action. The offense fell from first to fourth, but the Chargers still made it to the title game, which Rote started. However, the Buffalo Bills won 20-7. Rote then announced his retirement. He returned to the game in 1966 with the Denver Broncos, threw eight passes, then promptly returned to retirement. This time for good. Rote moved to Detroit, where he worked as an executive. He retired with his wife to a Lake Huron waterfront property in Port Hope, Michigan. He died 27 June 2000 from a heart attack, shortly after undergoing triple-bypass surgery and a knee replacement. He was 72.

Although he played only two full seasons in the American Football League, Tobin Rote is a member of their Hall of Fame. He’s also in the Texas Hall of Fame, but not in the CFL and NFL halls. Nevertheless, he had accomplished many milestones in his football career as a passer and a rusher. Many are landmark records that still stand.


Tobin Rote was a star in three pro leagues, with two championships to his credit, plus he won a Cotton Bowl in college. Not bad for the guy whose talent may have been responsible—indirectly, of course—for the “Bobby Lane Curse.”

Saturday, 2 August 2014

THE MAKING OF THE TOMBSTONE LEGEND



Wyatt Earp, 1885 (United States Public Domain)
The peace-loving residents of Tombstone, Arizona had no idea what was in store for their silver boomtown of 10,000 only 30 miles from the Mexican border on the morning of 26 October 1881 when they woke to light patches of snow on the ground. The bright morning sun quickly melted the snow, but the day remained unseasonably chilly and windy on this treeless desert plateau in the middle of nowhere.

A tent city of a few hundred only two years before, Tombstone--by day--was now a sophisticated center of commerce with grand hotels, newspapers, banks, churches, a school, a bowling alley, an opera house, gambling halls, saloons, and plenty of merchants ready to sell ice cream, cigars, and various imported wines and beers. One brewing company, in particular, from Colorado--a new one established in 1873 called Coors--was selling its brand of beer to several local saloons. After dark, Tombstone then became a mix of “booze and broads” that kept the good, decent people in their homes.

Almost as soon as silver had been discovered, Tombstone divided itself upon the lines of two political groups. On one side, there were the mine owners and local businessmen who came from the Northern States, bringing with them their right wing Republican views. They used their influence to appoint the lawmen they wanted to protect the town and their own best interests--strong arms such as Virgil Earp and his brothers. On the other side were a group of area ranchers who were staunch Democrats. Far from law-abiding individuals, they had Confederate Civil War sympathies and resented the Northerners moving in and taking over, restricting their illegal empire. Many of these ranchers were nothing more than horse thieves, cattle rustlers and stagecoach robbers. They were known as the Cowboys.

A few minutes before 3 PM, town marshal Virgil Earp, and his recently sworn-in deputies, brothers Morgan Earp and Wyatt Earp, and alcoholic friend Doc Holliday met on the corner of Fourth and Allen Streets. All four were wearing black slacks, black hats, and long, black coats. Virgil took Holliday’s cane and handed him a shotgun with orders to keep it concealed under his coat. Then the four men walked along Fourth Street--Virgil and Wyatt in front, Morgan and Holliday in tow directly behind. Many town residents could see the determined looks on the faces of the four walking briskly down the dusty road. Something was up. The lawmen turned left onto Fremont Street, as a gathering crowd of people started to follow at a safe distance. The men continued walking, their destination a vacant lot at the far end of Fremont between two buildings in the back of the OK Corral.

Halfway up Fremont Street, Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan came out from a nearby building and said to the lawmen, “Don’t go down there or there’ll be trouble.”

“I’m going to disarm them,” Virgil replied, as his party looked straight ahead, not missing a step.
Virgil had every right to disarm anyone who carried firearms inside the Tombstone city limits. At the end of the street was a gang of five Cowboys who were disobeying the city’s Ordnance #9. The Earps and the Cowboys had been at odds for almost two years, and townspeople knew it would all come to a head now.

“There’s no need for that. I’ve disarmed them,” Behan answered.

“Then there won’t be any trouble,” Wyatt replied, not believing Behan.

The Earp party breezed past Behan. As the lawmen came upon the vacant lot, Morgan and Holliday fanned out in order for the four of them to be in an even line. They stopped about six feet away from the Cowboys--leader Ike Clanton, brother Billy Clanton, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. The two parties were close enough to spit on each other. The Cowboys had nowhere to go.

“All right, boys,” Virgil demanded, “throw up your arms!”

The Cowboys didn’t. Two of them cocked their pistols. Holliday threw back the edge of his coat and brought out the previously-concealed shotgun. Two of the Cowboys, Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury immediately went for their guns.

“Hold on,” Virgil said, “I didn’t mean that.”

Then the firing started. No one knows for sure who started it. Thirty shots in about 30 seconds, according to witnesses. Both Billy Claiborne and Ike Clanton ran off. When the smoke cleared, Billy Clanton, and the McLaury brothers were spread out, dead. Morgan and Virgil Earp were badly injured. Morgan in the shoulder and neck, Virgil in the leg. Holliday was slightly wounded in the hip. Wyatt Earp was the only one of the combatants untouched. There are different versions of it, of course, but that in a nutshell was the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”

Following the gun battle, Holliday and the Earps were charged with murder, but were acquitted. In the next few months, Virgil was ambushed and maimed for life, while Morgan was shot to death playing pool with his brother Wyatt only a few feet away. Wyatt formed a posse and went on a personal vendetta, killing the remaining members of the Clanton gang, except for Ike, then fled Arizona for good in 1882 with Sherriff Behan hot on his trail for more possible murder charges.

Tombstone’s prosperity peaked in the middle 1880s, as the area continued to mine silver until all the shafts in the area began to absorb too much water. The region produced as much as $80 million ($2 billion today) in silver bullion between 1879 and the final year of operation in 1890. As Tombstone’s silver industry died out, the OK Corral gunfight faded into obscurity as a mere footnote in history.

By 1900, Tombstone’s population had dwindled down to 700. The only thing keeping the town alive at the turn of the 20th century was its political importance as the Cochise County seat, but when it lost that in 1929, the future seemed bleak for the once-great silver boomtown. Then in 1931, Stuart Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was published, two years after Earp’s death. The piece brought to light the famous gunfight 50 years before, although the book was far from a factual depiction of Wyatt Earp’s life.

Then Hollywood helped Tombstone’s cause by making the 1946 movie, My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp; followed by The Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 starring Burt Lancaster as the famous lawman. Tombstone built on this new-found interest in Wyatt Earp and the many other recent movies centering on the infamous gun battle. When it comes to realism, Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, is the best of them all, I think. Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell runs a distant second. Both came out in the early 1990s. The 1967 movie, The Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner, is third. My opinion, anyway.

Today, Tombstone profits from a second boom--the hot tourist market. By glamorizing “The Town Too Tough to Die,” as it is nicknamed, Tombstone can boast of over 400,000 yearly visitors making their way to their town of 1,380 residents to catch such events as a reenactment of the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West. And a political gun battle at that. Republicans verse Democrats.


The bodies of Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton in the window of the undertakers
following the OK Corral gunfight, 1881 (United States Public Domain)

I had a chance to see Tombstone for myself one day in late-November 1999 when I vacationed in Arizona with my son and my brother. I loved every minute of it. Although the reenactment was not scheduled that afternoon for some reason, we did get a chance to have a beer in the Oriental Saloon where Wyatt Earp had been employed as a faro dealer. We also saw inside the notorious Bird Cage Theatre (apparently haunted and has 140 bullet holes imbedded in the walls), and the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper building from the outside. It was the Epitaph--run by Mayor John P Clum--and its Right Wing perspective that had supported the Earps in print from the beginning, including their actions in gunning down the Cowboys opposite the OK Corral. And you also have to go through Boot Hill, which is on the way into town, and see the graves of the three Cowboys shot to death that cold, windy 26 October 1881.

What surprised me was that Tombstone really is on a plateau. You can see it vividly on approach a few miles away while driving south on Highway 80. I discovered something else too. Although Tombstone is farther south than Phoenix and both centers are right smack in the middle of a desert, Tombstone (due to its higher elevation) is several degrees cooler on any given day than the hotbox of Phoenix nearly 200 miles to the northwest. Tombstone is at 4,500 feet above sea level compared to Phoenix at just over 1,000 feet.  Big difference.

Another thing…enjoy a steak dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants in Tombstone. That part of the States is well known for its outstanding beef. And last but not least, I love the billboard outside the town, near Boot Hill which states…

Welcome to Tombstone. People are dying to get here
.