Friday, September 5, 2008

The challenge of beating Vale, and other 50's sports stories

Today Vale is a a small ranching town and still the unlikely Malheur County seat. It’s one of those scattered-seeming agricultural communities that cropped up across the West during the first half of the twentieth century. Some died. Vale has hung on. Situated on the edge of the Eastern Oregon desert, it’s not much changed from 1954 when my father penned this column about the able coaches of its dominating high school football team.

Malheur County’s old court house that was built of the same foot-square chunks of jutting grey-black sandstone as my family’s one-time and long-rued Payette home has been replaced by a plastic-paneled building that is equally characteristic of a certain age. The neon lights along A Street still welcome tired cowboys from out Juntura way for Saturday night action. Recent homage to the town’s heritage can be found in the form of a 1900 Sears Roebuck Bed and Breakfast at 484 North 10th Street and the Wilcox Horse & Buggy “Victorian catering service for your wedding transportation needs” at 4587 North Road East. The population, in the year 2000 census, remained stuck just under two thousand. 2,000. In 1954 it was about fifteen hundred.

The football dominance of Vale’s Vikings over Ontario, a town with population that has stayed five times Vale’s, seems to continue largely unchanged since my class at Ontario High graduated in 1956. We expected to break that hold, but failed. That’s a loss most of the class has never forgotten, even those of us who didn’t play in the game. In a way it was only fitting that in September of 2006, while our surviving classmates were in Ontario holding our fiftieth class reunion, the black-suited Vikings traveled to Ontario to power their way to another win.

To attribute Vale’s 2006 prowess to the lingering influence of the men who coached there in the 1950s would seem more than a slight exaggeration. And yet I think my dad’s November 1954 column fell short of aptly noting just how good Cammann was at coaching high school football players and at developing a program that lingered for years. The single tribute he paid Cammann was to note that “Vale has built football into a great tradition and no other person is as responsible as Cammann.”
There was no explanation of why he was so good. Maybe there was no acceptable way to say what he really thought when he had a son coming up through the Ontario football program with a class that everyone in our town expected to end Vale’s nine-year reign the very next year. By reputation, Cammann was a demanding, no nonsense coach who never let up on his kids and never, ever cracked a smile.

I think of myself in relationship to our Vale games as Ontario’s own Dick Nixon. I was fodder at the practices. But I got something beyond more somewhat more humility than Nixon took with him, which of course is not saying much. My humbling experiences as a want-to-be athlete striving alongside the talented kids in my class shaped attitudes I’ve carried through my life, just as their more accomplished victories and significant defeats must have shaped theirs. I learned early to accept that there were a lot of people better than me at baseball, basketball, football, tennis and track, just about any sport I’d decide to try out. And as good as they were, they must have learned that eventually someone would come along who was more adept. That didn’t necessarily mean accepting defeat --- and they didn’t. Not Larry Horyna who went on to play at University of Oregon and become a major force in Oregon’s vocational education programs. Not Jerry Doman who poured his heart onto the field at Oregon State, or Earl and Verl Doman who have nurtured many good players still working their way through the football program at Brigham Young. Not Stanley Olsen who made himself into a leading local architect. Not Junior Evans who became a military aide to the president of the United States, nor Kenneth Osborn who earned a degree in dentistry, came back to town to make his contribution and, the last I knew, was still running the first-down markers when the Ontario Tigers play their football games at home.

For me, failing on the playing field meant learning how to fill the void with other pursuits. That combined with growing up at The Argus-Observer likely dictated my lifelong tie to reporting and writing as a way to be important in the lives of others.

The true benefit of high school efforts is in the player and not in the game. And it can last a lifetime, of course.

My first meaningful sports lesson centered on a home run, or not a home run. The house where I lived in Ontario fronted on a broad, graveled street and was flanked on its south side by a narrow strip of grass. Beyond that strip of grass, a wider swath of open ground ran from the alley to the street. When I was ten, that weedy strip of land made for a passably large baseball diamond through the spring, at least until my parents planted it in summer vegetables.

Most of the pick-up softball games in the neighborhood occurred on that land, with the street serving as the outfield. A home run had to clear the street without getting caught. The foul lines were less distinct, usually running along an imaginary line from home plate to an Elm tree or a fence line across the street.

I almost never hit long balls, not at ten and not at thirty. That was well understood by my nemesis, a big, mean kid with a Huckleberry Finn shock of hair and all the muscles I imagine Huck must have had. He lived in the run-down brick house across the street just behind center field and was playing for the opposing pick-up team that day. When I hit that ball, he announced that it was foul, and I began to scream that it definitely landed fair, inside the tree line.

I would not back down and, since he’d been looking for a good reason to beat on me --- or anyone else younger and smaller --- Huck-personified had no need to give in. With half a dozen neighborhood kids looking on, I weighed in fists flying, struggling to trip him to the ground. Instead, I ended up on my back looking up at a canopy of leaves and the cooling evening sky just outside our kitchen window, unable to move and feeling like I was being choked to death. I looked over to see my mother watching out the window and grimaced hard, hoping to convince her to put a stop to the fight, stalling for as much time as I could. She never showed. I thought I might pass out before I could force got out the words “Uncle! I give up! Let me up!” And I before I was actually freed, I had to agree the ball was foul.

At dinner I asked my mother why she hadn’t helped me out.
“You need to learn to fend for yourself,” she said.

By my sophomore year in high school, I had developed an understanding of my place in the athletic hierarchy of the Ontario High Class of ’56. I thought of basketball as my best sport, but the farm boys that attended country schools came to town for high school, and 6’ 5” Julian Laca was among them. The class behind us had at least five kids who were as good as I was on the court, most of them better, and I knew they’d be the ones the coaches would want to give game experience. Still, when I was cut from the frosh-soph traveling squad as a sophomore, I mooned around the school hallways, hiding out at various unused entrances, all during the lunch hour that the list went up. Nothing much eased the pain: In Eastern Oregon at that time of year, the days were too cold and stormy to turn to tennis, even though I expected to make that spring season’s seven man team. (As it turned out for the next three years I played on the second doubles team, rarely climbing above number six or seven on the boy’s team even though most of the school’s athletes were busy that time of year with track and baseball.)

My most successful sport turned out to be football --- simply because it required 11 players on the field at once. As a freshman, I was assigned to play center behind Larry Horyna. Our sophomore year, he was promoted to the varsity early in the season. From then on, I was a starter for the JV team, and we ran over every team who’d play us but Vale.

Meanwhile, my high school years were premium ones for spectator sports in the Snake River Valley. Some of the athletes who entertained us would have been appreciated anywhere in the country.

In the beginning, the most exciting player in our area was R.C. Owens, who began to redefine the position we still simply called “end” in football. In 1952 Owens came to Caldwell, Idaho, from Santa Monica, California, to play for the College of Idaho football team --- becoming the first black to attend the school.

At the time, my father was beginning to take an interest in the college’s governance problems, and traveling with him to that small city 35 miles to watch Owens play became a special treat.

R.C. would line up well wide of the rest of the line on the right wing of the offensive line and rarely throw a block --- he apparently judged it sufficient that he took a defensive player out of the action just to cover him. By the time he reached his sophomore year, covering him proved extremely difficult at this level of college competition. He was taller and faster than the opposition players, although the College of Idaho’s quarterback sometimes struggled to get the ball to him. When Owens flew down the right sidelines, the pass had to be high and long enough to be catchable but short enough to be within his reach. If the throw was good, R.C. almost always caught it and often scored a touchdown.

Here’s how my father described Owens’ play in a November 12, 1953 column, written after the College of Idaho finished its season undefeated in league play.
“A year ago Owens was sort of a sensational joke. He was a talented pass receiver but he never played any football. He just stood at his end post except on a pass play and then, covered by good blocking, he ran out to make the catch. He never played any defense. He never even threw more than one or two blocks a game. Strictly a specialist.

“This year he has been taught to play football. Now he even pulls back to play linebacker on defense, makes bruising tackles, blocks most effectively, and has learned the ball carriers’ tricky shoulder block to bound off a tackler….

“On (one) play, two Whitman lads had Owens boxed downfield right after a pass reception. Then (he) did something probably never done before on a football field. He held out the pigskin like it was a basketball, teasing the Whitman men, faked once to the right, once to the left and then trotted right between the two for a touchdown.”

When I place a parenthesis around “he” in that last graph I was covering for a grim reality from those days. My father had actually described Owens as “the big colored boy.” Contrasted with the description of the “Whitman men,” it doesn’t sit well. It was not an example of conscious racism on his part, but it shows the way he, and almost everyone who was white, thought at the time.

Owens went on to play in the NFL from 1957 to 1964 and win two Super Bowl rings while with the San Francisco 49ers. Recently --- in the spring of 2007 --- he was still actively working with youth and raising money for charity while living in Manteca, California, just north of Modesto.

One of his major contributions to the College of Idaho was to help lure Elgin Baylor there from Washington D.C. for a single basketball season.

Baylor led the College of Idaho Coyotes basketball team to an undefeated season that school year, 1954-55, scoring a record 53 points in his last conference game of the season, played at Nyssa, just south of Ontario.

Owens played with Baylor on that team, and the two were a major force in a league that had seen nothing like the pair.

Baylor, for the season, was a man among boys. His favorite two plays indicate just how dominant he was. In his Argus Observes column published March 3, 1955, my father described how on a pair of free throws, Baylor’s teammates would try to aim their second shot so that it would bounce Baylor’s direction off the rim. If the bounce was right, he’d leap high to catch the ball and flick the ball through the net.

And when he had a chance to dunk, “he jumped high in the air, shot his wrists over the rim before reaching the peak of his jump and whipped the ball downward into the net with a sharp wrist snap. Then while he completed upward motion to the peak of his jump and appeared thus to hang suspended in air, he quickly brought his hands downward in a parenthetical arc to the bottom the net and caught the ball as it emerged from the net.

“He would return to the floor with the ball having been out of his hands for the barest perceptible instant of time and toss it gently to the referee.”
The next season he went to Seattle, sat out a year, then carried the Seattle University team to the NCAA championship game in 1958, where they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats. By the next year he was playing with the Minneapolis Lakers, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1960.

It was during the early 1950s that our area produced its most famous locally grown athlete of recent years. That was Harmon Killebrew of home run hitting fame, who grew up in Payette.

My first memory of Harmon is the sight of his bulk carrying half our football team toward the goal line in the fall of 1953. He didn’t have much blocking and never made a touchdown in that game, which we won 40-0. But he went on to be named Idaho’s number one high school running back. A victory over Ontario was about all he was to be denied that year.

The summer of 1954 belonged to Killebrew even though the excitement only lasted about a month.

That June, Payette used a local semi-pro baseball team, the Border League Payette Packers, to show off Killebrew’s hitting talents. Teenagers and their parents from throughout the Valley found their way to the high school field in Payette for the Packers’ home games to marvel at his swing. During one stretch of three games, he batted twelve times and got twelve straight hits, four home runs, three triples and five singles. It quickly became clear he was going to be offered a professional baseball contract.

Before the end of June, Harmon signed to play for the Washington Senators, getting a $30,000 bonus up front and a salary of $10,000 year --- essentially guaranteeing him $50,000 over two years. It was a huge amount for a rookie at that time. He flew east to make his major league debut on June 29, 1954, under a new rule that required major league teams to keep their bonus babies on the major league roster for two seasons, even if they rarely got into a game.

On June 21, the Monday after the amazing youngster signed his contract and eight days before Harmon’s 18th birthday, my father’s column carried an account of the young man’s debt to his father --- stories passed along by Harmon’s brother Eugene Killebrew, editor of the Payette Valley Sentinel, which was published in nearby New Plymouth:

“Young Harmon had chores to do at home as a boy and sometimes when he was playing sandlot baseball his mother would send the father to fetch the son home for family duty. If Harmon was playing ball his father just couldn’t bear to interrupt. He would come home quietly and do the chores himself so his prospective ‘big leaguer’ could get in a few minutes more of precious practice.”

My father noted that his brother Eugene “has been Harman’s business manager during recent weeks when 12 of the nation’s 16 major league (teams) were trying to sign him….Harmon had about decided to go the University of Oregon, play football and then move into baseball. But when the bonus offer got so big, he couldn’t afford to turn it down. He will do his college work in off-season months until he does get his degree.”

My father later recalled talking with Eugene Killebrew during the contract negotiations they discussed whether signing before college was a good idea. One scout, apparently Oscar Bluege of the Senators, had said that the young man could be one of the great hitters in baseball. My father thought that “this is just a bunch of bullshit” and told Eugene “This guy is trying to lead you on.”

Even later, when Killebrew had proven his hitting prowess and won his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dad maintained his signing so young had been a mistake.

But for all of the interest in Killebrew, no sports event raised the interest of folks around Ontario so much as the annual football game with Vale.

My class, Ontario High School’s Class of ’56, pursuit of a victory in that game came to an end on November 4, 1955. That year it was our turn to travel to Vale for the anticipated match-up. The evening was cold and we had no locker room --- just our school bus --- to use to get out of the weather. As I recall, we were at full strength with four strong running backs in the three Domans and Stan Olsen as well as a high-functioning quarterback in Reed Vestal. The critical center of the line was at full strength with Horyna snapping the ball and anchoring the defense and Evans and Osborn at guards.

We knew that Vale’s team included one of the strongest players in the state in Gene Bates, who worked well with his backfield partner Tater Smith. But we had a strong starting eleven with a half dozen solid back-up players. As my father would write in the aftermath, “before the game sports writers and opposing coaches generally considered Ontario the better of the two teams.”

The Argus-Observer’s story of the game does not, in my mind, quite do justice to the knock-down battle I watched that night from the bench. But most of the details are there in the Nov. 7 account. The game did not start well for us:

“The Vikings received the opening kickoff on the thirty-two and carried to the forty-six. There they failed to break through the Tiger defense and were forced to kick. On their first play the ball was fumbled by Ontario and Vale recovered on the Ontario thirty-seven. From here the Vikings started their drive goal ward. A twenty-two-yard pass from Bates to Derald Swift put the ball on the nineteen where Bates kicked for a field goal.”

Bates started the Vale drive that led to his teams second score by intercepting an Ontario pass at Vale’s at midfield early in the second quarter. Swift and Kay (Tater) Smith pounded out a series of short gainers to put the ball on our ten-yard line. Bates then powered it over the goal line but the play was called back on a penalty. It was a short reprieve. Smith punched in from the three a few plays later.

What followed was our most successful sequence. As the Argus-Observer story described it: “The Tigers put the ball into play on their own forty-nine. With a short pass from Reed Vestal to Norman Olson and a series of short runs by Stan Olson the ball was brought down the Vale 24 where Jerry Doman took a pitch out from Vestal and galloped around the left end to the one. From here J. Doman again took the ball and plunged through the line to pay dirt.”

But then our kick for the extra point failed, leaving the score 9-6 at half time.
For most of the third quarter the teams moved the ball up and down the field without getting close to a score. Then as the quarter drew to a close, Vestal connected on a long pass to Verl Doman who carried to the Viking 18 before he was brought down.

With that play as a jump start, our hopes to turn the game around rose to take the lead rose high in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. On a series of short runs our backfield punched the ball to the two. There a big hole opened up in the Vale line, but the ball tumbled to the turf and although we recovered the fumble, we had stalled out. On Vale’s first play from scrimmage at the two yard line, he was caught for a touchback. The score stood 9-8 Vale’s favor and another Bates interception later in the quarter sealed the game for the Vikings.

My father felt the loss as keenly as we in the senior class.

He penned an editorial for the paper that aptly described how he felt about some of my classmates. Titled, “These Were Our Boys,” it concluded:

“It was hard to hold back the tears driving home from Vale that night. That was partly because we knew from experience the nobility of these kids in defeat as well as their grandeur in victory.

“You see, they played knothole baseball for us five or six years ago. And they really learned how to take it. They were under-age, playing with a league of older kids in order to fill out the league schedules for summer play. If we ever won a game that summer, it has long since been forgotten.

“We couldn’t help but wonder if we hadn’t given some of these youngsters such adequate early training the philosophical acceptance of reverses on the playing field, if the result might not have been different at Vale on the critical evening this November. No bunch of kids ever wanted more to win a ball game. We know because we’ve listened to them work on it conversationally for the past nine years.
“For all that, w wouldn’t trade away that summer. What a sight it was to watch the Doman kids come in to town, covered with the dust of a day’s work in the field, and then take on an evening’s work on the playing field. And Larry Horyna, crouched behind the bat, whipped the gang in those days to higher performance, just as he has in recent years.

“Another sight we’ll never forget. Horyna eating watermelon --- seeds and all --- at the kids’ picnic in our backyard. That Larry could go through more watermelon in less time than any kid we’ve ever seen.”

In basketball, most of the same athletes with some help from the towering Julian Laca earned some payback. We trounced Vale three times on the hard court that season and went on to take second place in the state A-2 tournament, with Earl Doman and Jerry Doman named to the All-State first and second all-tournament teams, respectively.

No comments: