Saturday, October 15, 2005

How Sports Helped Mold My Life

Even though I spent at least forty-four years of my life playing and thinking about sports, I have only blogged on the subject a couple of times. Tonight, I’ll throw out some thoughts how sports rescued me from the farm; where I told one of my older sisters, that I was day dreaming my life away. My interest began as a Cub fan in 1939 and I fantasized my way thru grade school as being a good ball player. I told my brother-in-law that I hit a home run in a softball game when actually the ball went thru the shortstop and by the time everybody got done fumbling the ball, I circled the bases. My relative of course didn’t believe me because I was a scrawny kid and we only played a couple of softball games a year. Our one-room school teacher packed the whole school into two or three cars and we went to play another rural grade school team. Everybody played that wanted to play including the girls.

On the farm, I hit so many rocks with a broomstick off our driveway that my Dad made me go out in the cornfield and pick them all up. With nine of us in the family; seven sisters and a brother 11 years older than I, it was a rare treat when Dad had time to hit me a few balls and our yard was only about 40 feet wide so it wasn’t till I arrived in high school that I ever had a real baseball experience.

I had never shot a real basketball or played in a gym until my freshman year. Marbles was my game and I was still playing marbles as a freshman until my more sophisticated city slicker classmates (Congerville) started making fun of me. I was so bad in basketball that when I made my first basket as a sophomore playing on the “B” squad, the whole bench erupted.

In 1942, I was a senior and cut from the basketball squad with my only connection to sports being a spectator and the Sports Editor of our high school paper. That year, NCHS made it to the “Sweet Sixteen” State Basketball Tournament as it was called back then. Normal lost in the opening round to Streator by the score of 47-37. I was sad that three of my friends sat on the bench and never got to say they actually played in a State Tournament. When I was writing the article describing the game, I wanted to praise the coach for coaching the team to the State but wanted to criticize him for not letting everybody play even if for only 10 or 20 seconds. That day, I decided to become a coach.

For five years I was a head high school backtrack coach and three years I was also head grade school coach. One night I played 40 out of 51 boys eligible by having them play each other between halves of the lightweight and heavy weight games. The kids were always changing shirts when they went in and out. I don’t recall ever coaching a complete game without everybody dressed for the game playing at least a little at some point in the game.

The Daily Pantagraph called me one of the most successful grade school coaches in Central Illinois and my Varsity record was 60 wins and 58 losses, 13 wins my first and last year combined and 47 wins in the middle three. My grade school teams won 27 trophies most of them in two years, trophies that included a 2nd place in the state.

In the three years after high school, between the ages of 16 and 19, I grew five inches and became as Fred Young, the legendary sports Editor of the Daily Pantagraph said “one of the best basketball shooters in the Bloomington-Normal area.” Fred ran a “Did You Know” column and all we jocks wanted to see our names in his column. He wanted me to attend Wesleyan University but I thought Wesleyan was for rich and snooty kids. I was less than half right.

I started at ISNU (It was Illinois State Normal University back then) where my friends were and finished at Western in Macomb because I needed to get away from my friends so I could study and graduate before my GI Bill ran out. I did.

Back in the forties and fifties, independent sports were all the rage for so inclined young men. I played on three Championship baseball teams including Danvers in the Sunday afternoon Tri-County-we won sixteen in a row- I got three hits in that game and still have the clipping along with dozens of other clippings because all independent sports results in baseball, softball and basketball made the Pantagraph sports page. I played on the Heyworth Sangamon Valley Championship Sunday afternoon league batting either 2nd or 5th with the cleanup hitter from Illinois Wesleyan, Ed White and the Illinois State cleanup-hitter Loren “Buck” Weaver hitting 3rd and cleanup. Weaver had a promising baseball career abruptly ended when he came down hard on his right shoulder, an injury from which he did not recover. Loren still lives in Tucson and now has Alzheimer’s. I lost track of Ed White years ago. I still see some of my old teammates from time to time including Jim Dixson, formerly from Danvers, who lives in E. Peoria. I’ve probably misspelled his name.

I played for the coach most considers the best athlete to ever play sports at ISU; Pim Goff. Goff lettered and starred in football, basketball, baseball, tennis and track, winning five letters in one year, a feat impossible to repeat by anyone today. Pim got angry (his eventual downfall as a coach was his temper and he died in his late fifties) with me when I grounded out to end a ballgame and benched me. I was eventually traded to Eureka-Williams, yes we had official contracts in the Bloomington-Normal Municipal League, and E-W won the league championship. I was so proud to wear my new jacket with League Champions emblazed on it when I attended Western that fall. I felt at home with all the jocks from Chicago that wore similar jackets. Unfortunately, I had no high school record in baseball and none in basketball except my one Air Force season. Almost all the players were recruited on their high school records and I didn’t get much chance to show my ability as a walk on.

During my few years playing as an independent, all baseball games were played during the week and in the late afternoon because none of the baseball fields were lighted at that time. However, some of the towns had lighted softball fields and it was not unusual for me to play baseball in the early evening in Bloomington Normal, head to a small town like Carlock or Congerville and play softball under the lights and play every Sunday afternoon in league baseball games.

By the age 18, I surpassed all my high school basketball and baseball teammates and eventually was a starter for my First Air Force Traveling Post basketball team at the age of 21. We won one of four nationwide 1st Air Force championships in 1947. To my knowledge, I was the only starter in the 1st Air Force who never played first team on a high school basketball team.

It was at the Army Base called Fort Dix where I played against and guarded the first black man to ever play on an armed forces traveling sports team. His name was Maurice Kellogg, who was 6 feet, four inches tall which was considered big in those days. I was 5’ 11 ¾ and the second tallest man on our squad. I scored 16 points before I fouled out and Kellogg finished with 24. Kellogg eventually attended Manhattan University and was the broken link of the basketball scandals of the early fifties when he reported the first bribe attempt by gamblers to get players to “shave” points. The arrest of the bribers caused the eventual downfall of some of the Bradley players who are still the talk in Bradley basketball circles today; names like “Squeaky” Mellichoire, Billy Mann and Mike Chianakis of Eureka; all who admitted to taking money to shave points for the gamblers. Paul Unruh and Joe Stowell also played on this team with Unruh rising to All-American status and Stowell being a legendary coach at Bradley. Neither was involved in the point shaving.

Once I entered the business world, except for two years that I was a basketball official in Central Illinois, working two freshman games at Robertson Field House when Joe Stowell was freshman coach, I pretty much disconnected from everything but some golf. (The days of freshman teams are long gone with the rise of freshman eligibility and women’s sports.) I was Vice President of the Bradley Chiefs Club, resigning when Stowell was relieved of his head coaching position and replaced by Dick “the mouth” Versace.

Then at the age of fifty five, I discovered tennis, spending a lot of time on the tennis courts in Phoenix, AZ. where I had a business. Long established as a “competitor”, I have won approximately 200 first, second or consolation prizes of one kind or another. (Three 1st place finishes and 2 second place finishes in the local Tri-County 65 age division.) One of my best memories was when in year 2000, Bob Orr (from Pekin) and I won the Midwest Super Senior Championship at Lansing, Michigan. This five state tournament was played over a period of three days. Our record was 8-O and our big win was over the former Wisconsin College players, Woyhan and Kelton, both former University of Wisconsin tennis players (Kelton was captain of the Wisconsin tennis team in college.) We also beat a team composed of the former Captain of Michigan State’s tennis team and a former Western Michigan tennis coach.

Other “big” wins were over a former national clay court champion from Philadelphia, my consecutive year wins in the Twin City Senior Tournament Championships in Normal over John Morehouse, former Bradley tennis coach now deceased in 1996 and the afore mentioned Bob Orr in 1997. Bob played tennis for Bradley University and seemed to get better each year he got older. Other achievements were two Gold Medals and two Silver Medals and numerous Bronze Medals won at the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. I also was a finalist at Dayton, Ohio with the legendary Dan Miller a numerous times National Champion whose regular doubles partner is Irv Converse, father of local businessman Ralph Converse. Both Dan and Irv now play in the eight-five age division and have more than a few “gold balls.” I have thirteen first of second place trophies from the Danville Western Hard-court Championships and was a Finalist at Cowichan Bay in Vancouver, British Columbia, playing in the longest consecutive year running grass courts tournament in the Western Hemisphere.

I still daydream of someday winning a National tennis championship in the 80, 85 or 90 age division. The draw in the nineties is fairly small so my chances improve each year. (I think)

If you are still reading, I’ll come back to the original subject. My early interest in sports gave me a future other than being a farmer. Farms back then required work everyday of the week. My participation in sports, playing, managing and coaching, honed my competitive drive, made me a successful businessman and taught me to win and lose as gracefully as my personality would allow me, kept me from the smoking and drinking crowd (I enforced that rule as best I could during my coaching days but in these times, I would probably be assaulted by the parents if I tried to enforce ANY standards.) Today with the emphasis on having enough “players” to even field a team at some Peoria Schools, a great majority of today’s coaches are not going to boot a player from the squad for offenses as “minor” as these. In fact some Peoria Schools will let you play varsity for just “showing up.” Unexcused absences; no problem, we need you when you decide you want to play. I know first hand a volunteer coach for a number of years in Peoria High Schools.

Why do I write all this? If I lost you some time ago, no problem. I write for posterity so that maybe someday when I’m dead my children or grandchildren might wonder what all did I do with my life. At least a small part is being chronicled in these blogs with clipping to back it al up if anybody cares. I like to think they may someday because I sure don’t know what all of my Dad’s accomplishments but having nine kids to feed, he worked almost every day of his life until he retired at age 67. I was too selfish to spend my time listening to him once I had my own family. But then again, he wasn’t much of a talker, but then I could have been a better listener and asked more about what my Mom and Dad did. Too late to ask now. Maybe years from now someone will ask “what were some of the things Grandpa Merle did” and come across this document in my files. This late hour is more than worth it to me to take time to record it. If some read it, I’m a winner both ways!!


dewayne said...

Nice post Merle.
I was especially struck by this comment: "My interest began as a Cub fan in 1939 and I fantasized my way thru grade school as being a good ball player."
The same fantasy of being a good ball player must have gone thru the mind of every player who grew up to play on the Cubs.
Too bad none of them achieved it. LOL!
I couldn't resist, being a Cardinal fan, of course.

Anonymous said...

Apparently with all your self-proclaimed "successes", you were never taught, or understood, humility.

Merle Widmer said...

Humility!! and self-proclaimed?
Hardly, I overcame obstacles. If you are who I think you are you could never hold a well paying job until you inherited a bunch of money. But then I recall you were discharged from a couple!

I am a clipper. I can back up everthing I post in my files. Can you?? Yours are generally your personal opinions without much backing.

(the above is in answer to "anonymous")

Thanks for your comments, DeWayne.
You are an early riser!

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