Minnesota Sports Myths
By Stew Thornley, Joel Rippel, Marc Hugunin, and George Rekela


In the vein of urban legends, historical stories, especially those involving sports, grow, take on a life of their own, and reach a point where they are accepted as fact even by careful researchers.

Despite the cliché that you can’t believe everything you read, a tendency exists for people to do exactly that. Many think a story must be true because it’s in print, or because the person claiming it is authoritative, or because it’s been told for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just readers but also researchers who fall into this trap.

Some stories have no basis of fact, apparently emerging from thin air through the overactive imagination or outright fabrication of the teller. In many cases, however, the essence of a story may be correct but the details transformed through long-ago memories or corrupted through retelling.

Retrospective memories can also alter recollections. An example revolves around the book Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella, which was the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. In the book, the protagonist, named Ray Kinsella, comes to Chisholm, Minnesota, with reclusive author J. D. Salinger. The two meet with Veda Ponikvar, the editor of the Chisholm Free Press, to talk about Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one game of baseball in the major leagues in 1905 and later settled in Chisholm.

In real life, W. P. Kinsella did visit Ponikvar in Chisholm in the course of researching his book. The author Kinsella was accompanied by his wife, not Salinger, whom Kinsella says he has never even met. However, Ponikvar now has it in her mind that J. D. Salinger came to Chisholm and visited with her.

No doubt Ponikvar firmly believes she met Salinger. What probably happened is that after reading the book Shoeless Joe, with its detailed description of the character Ray Kinsella and Salinger coming to her newspaper office, the fiction of the book became fact in her mind.

In June of 2005, as the 100-year anniversary of Graham’s sole game in the majors approached, reporters from around Minnesota and around the country called Ponikvar and then passed on her story that J. D. Salinger had been in her office.

Another retrospective memory involves Halsey Hall, a Minnesota Twins broadcaster and a real character. As the story goes, a couple in the stands was caught on camera making out, prompting Hall to say, “They have it down to a system. He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him . . . ” Although it’s difficult to prove a negative, it’s apparent this is not true. This is an urban legend that has been attributed to a number of broadcasters who are characters, such as Harry Caray and Dizzy Dean. Beyond those who have heard the story and passed it on, many people claim to “remember” hearing Hall say it on the air. Another person says he “remembers” hearing Dizzy Dean say this on the Game of the Week in the 1960s when CBS was airing the Saturday telecast, which is what prompted Dean to get fired. However, in articles dealing with Dean’s departure from CBS, none indicates that Dean was fired or that he had gotten in trouble for making an off-color remark. However, these people claim to have vivid memories of hearing this. They probably heard the story told enough that they internalized it to the point they actually have a memory of it, even though it never happened.

Regardless of how they started and persevered, myths involving Minnesota sports come in many forms and are worth examining.

Culling Facts from Fiction

John Wooden as Coach of the Gophers?
John Wooden established his legend as coach of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins that won 10 national collegiate basketball championships between 1964 and 1975. Wooden took the coaching job at UCLA in 1948, but he says he nearly ended up in Minnesota as the Gophers sought a successor to Dave MacMillan as their basketball coach.

In his 1988 autobiography, They Call Me Coach, Wooden wrote that he visited both Minnesota and UCLA and had promised to give Minnesota athletic director Frank McCormick and Wilbur Johns, the outgoing coach and new athletic director at UCLA, his answer on an agreed-upon evening. “I had decided to take the Minnesota job except for one problem—the retention of Dave McMillan [ sic ], the man whom I would be replacing, as my assistant. Even though I liked Mr. McMillan [ sic ], I wanted my own man, Eddie Powell. Minnesota had to get approval from its board that was meeting that particular day for me to bring Powell and not keep McMillan [ sic ]. As it was set up, McCormick was to call me for my answer at 6:00 P.M. and Johns would call at 7:00. There was a snow storm raging in Minneapolis that day and Frank got snowed in and couldn’t get to a phone on time. I didn’t know of the problem so when Mr. Johns called, right on time, I accepted the UCLA job. When McCormick finally reached me about an hour later, he told me everything was ‘all set.’

“‘It’s too late,’ I told him. ‘I have already accepted the job at UCLA.’”

Although it’s possible that the essence of the story is true, there are some holes in Wooden’s story, particularly with the timing of any snowstorm that may have prevented McCormick from contacting him. A storm did hit the Dakotas on April 7. McCormick was from South Dakota and still operated a business there, often returning to his home state on weekends. However, this was nearly two weeks before Wooden signed with UCLA, on Tuesday, April 20, and Wooden, in his autobiography, stated that one of the reasons he refused to renege on his acceptance of the UCLA job was that UCLA had “already released the news of my appointment to the press in Los Angeles.” This news did not appear in Los Angeles newspapers until April 21, two weeks after the snowstorm in question.

Could it really be that some snafu prevented Minnesota from getting Wooden as its coach? While Wooden would most likely stick to the story, the unreliability of the details as he tells it calls into question his overall reliability as a source. (An additional note about the unreliability of Wooden in relaying this story: he claimed that he was leaving Central High School in South Bend, Indiana, to enter the college coaching ranks when, in reality, he already was coaching at Indiana State University.)

Frank McCormick, the person who could best answer the question, died in 1976. Others who may have been present in 1948 are still alive, but the question of whether their memories would be products of what really happened at the time or influenced by subsequent reports of Minnesota’s near miss would leave their accounts unclear.

This is a story that will have to remain in the category of possible but not necessarily positive. Sports fans can only speculate on how close Wooden came to Minnesota along with how this might have changed the course of Gophers basketball history.

Proving a Negative

Andy Oyler Connects for Two-Foot Homer
One of the many stories connected with the lore of Nicollet Park, home of the Minneapolis Millers minor league baseball team from 1896 to 1955, is a two-foot home run hit by Millers shortstop Andy Oyler. On a rainy day, so the story goes, Oyler hit a ball into the mud in front of home plate and circled the bases as the opposing team searched for the ball. According to John Oyler, Andy’s grandson, Andy told him of the short home run in the mid-1950s, when John was around 12 years old. Minneapolis sportswriter/announcer Halsey Hall later told this tale to Dave Mona of the Minneapolis Tribune but without any further details. Many years later, a book came out titled The Twenty-Four-Inch Home Run, a compilation of strange but supposedly true baseball tales with Oyler’s home run being the title story. The author, Michael G. Bryson, provided more details and great embellishment but did not give the date of the game.

The fact is that in the years that Andy Oyler played for the Millers, from 1903 to 1910, he hit only one home run. It came in an 8-6 loss at Milwaukee on August 2, 1904, and the newspapers made no mention of there being anything special about the home run, something that surely would have been noted had the ball traveled only two feet.

However, a home run in the mud was hit by Minneapolis third baseman Heine Berger during a Northern League doubleheader in Virginia, Minnesota, on July 17, 1913, as reported by the Minneapolis Journal the next day: “The contests were both played in mud. Center field flies in deep water went for two base hits. Heine Berger got credit for a home run when his hard hit ball got lost in the mire near second base and he made the circuit before it was recovered.”

Dead Man Decides Baseball Game
In a 1958 book, Sports Shorts: Astonishing Strange but True, author Mac Davis tells of a game between a pair of Minnesota teams, Willmar and Benson. According to Davis, Benson took a 1-0 lead in the top of the tenth. In the bottom of the inning, the Willmar pitcher, Thielman, singled, and the next batter, O’Toole, “smashed out a terrific drive into the outfield. The crowd roared in a frenzy of excitement, for here was the game if both Willmar players could score. Thielman, utterly exhausted by the tension of the tight game he had pitched for ten innings, gritted his teeth and ran as fast as he could. He touched second and legged it for third, with O’Toole’s spikes pounding behind him. Benson’s outfield had not yet retrieved the ball. Thielman rounded third—and then collapsed. O’Toole rounded the base close on his heels. Unable to pass him on the homestretch, O’Toole picked him up and carried him, throwing him across home base ahead of his own home touch. Not until then was it discovered that Thielman was dead of heart failure. But stranger than that, the umpire allowed the two runs, giving the game to Willmar, and making this the only baseball game won by a dead man!”

Any reader or researcher should be wary of such a story. Not only does it fail the smell test (it smells fishy), no date is provided for this game other than it occurred around “around the turn of the century,” a nebulous timeframe that is a hallmark of apocryphal stories.

As it turns out, this story was addressed by Lefty Ranweiler in the Centennial History of Kandiyohi County, 1970. Ranweiler wrote of the tale, “You can believe it if you want, but it never happened here in Willmar. The story was a figment of the imagination of a railroad man here who got together with an umpire and concocted the story, sending it out on the telegraph wire. It was told so many times that even the people in this county started to believe it.”

Myths with a Nebulous Impact

Did the 19-18 Basketball Game Lead to a Shot Clock?
There is no doubt that the Minneapolis Lakers once lost a National Basketball Association (NBA) by a score of 19-18. But what impact, if any, did this game have on the eventual adoption of a shot clock by the NBA?

The Lakers were professional basketball’s first dynasty. Led by George Mikan, voted the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century, the Lakers won six league championships in seven years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, their most famous game was one they lost, to the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons on November 22, 1950.

Rather than play a full 48 minutes of action, which almost certainly would have resulted in a Minneapolis win, Fort Wayne coach Murray Mendenhall decided to “shorten” the game by having his team stall and hope for a few breaks. Even with the Minneapolis Auditorium crowd of 7,021 booing and stomping their feet at the inactivity, Fort Wayne stuck to its game plan as they held the ball for as long as three minutes at a time. The standoff was interrupted by brief flurries of activity, but the stall was having its desired effect for the Pistons, as they stayed close to the Lakers and trailed by only a point, 18-17, into the final seconds. Then came the break they were hoping for as Larry Foust broke toward the basket, took a pass, and put the ball over Mikan’s outstretched arms and into the basket to give the Pistons a 19-18 win.

Many Minnesota fans remember the NBA responding to the game by quickly implementing a shot clock, one that would force a team to shoot the ball within 24 seconds or lose possession of it. Some even claim the clock was introduced during the 1950-51 season, within a few weeks of the game.

However, the shot clock did not make its appearance until the 1954-55 season, nearly four years later. Still, some maintain that the 19-18 game was an impetus for it. It’s hard to refute or confirm such a nebulous claim, but it’s difficult to see a connection between the game and the shot clock when they are separated by so much time.

Even without a shot clock in the NBA, a full-game stall never occurred again. It’s likely that NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff made it known there would be dire consequences for such tactics, even if no rule prohibited them. But while a full-game stall never occurred again, stalling toward the end of games remained common. Barely six weeks after the Lakers-Pistons game, on January 6, 1951, the Rochester Royals and Indianapolis Olympians played a six-overtime game. Exciting? Hardly. Only 18 points were scored in the additional periods. In two of the periods, no points were scored, and in one neither team even shot. The strategy was for a team to hold a ball and try for a last-second, tie-breaking shot. It was this type of situation that eventually caused the NBA to introduce the shot clock.

Related to the lack of a device to force a team to shoot, fouling was another major problem. A team trailing had to foul to try and get the ball back. But there were other reasons for fouling. In a non-shooting situation, a player who was fouled got only one free throw; thus, a team could remove its opponents chances at a two-point field goal by fouling. Some historians believe the fouling was more of a problem than stalling. Nevertheless, the NBA addressed both by adopting a shot clock as well as instituting a limit on team fouls in a quarter. By the time the new rules were adopted, on April 23, 1954, the Lakers-Pistons game was a distant memory.

Manipulating the Truth

Did the National Basketball Association Force the Target Center to be Built?
In 1994, the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team was in doubt. Co-owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner had decided to build their own arena, the Target Center, as a home for the team. Even before it had opened in 1989, it had become a financial burden to Wolfenson and Ratner. With their initial financing having fallen through with the demise of their lender, the pair had been forced to borrow at high interest rates to complete construction.

The financial situation was taking a toll on the owners, who eventually determined that they would have to sell the team as well as the arena, seeking to have the state take ownership of the latter. Fueled by fears that Minnesota could lose its National Basketball Association team only a year after having lost its National Hockey League team, the North Stars, the Minnesota Legislature considered a public buyout of the Target Center. The debate culminated in a deal for the public purchase of the arena.

During the debate, supporters of the buyout tried to develop sympathy for the Wolves’ owners by pointing out that the National Basketball Association had required them to buy a new arena if they hoped to have any chance of landing an expansion franchise. After all, when the NBA finally granted a franchise to Minnesota, it was contingent upon the construction of a new arena in downtown Minneapolis

However, the initial decision to build a new arena was one that already had been made by Wolfenson and Ratner at the time they submitted their application.

Russ Granik, then the executive vice president of the National Basketball Association who served as a liaison between the expansion applicants and the NBA’s expansion committee, said, “There was no mandate [that the Minnesota contingent would need a new arena to have a chance at getting a team], but when you weigh the different applications against each other—knowing going in that you were going to be a prime tenant with certain marketing rights in the building and other benefits that come from that, that looks a lot more advantageous than just being in some place and paying your percentage lease.”

In a September 1989 interview, Wolfenson said they had considered the other options in the Twin Cities, including the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis (which ended up serving as the team’s home for the first season while the Target Center was being built), the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, and the St. Paul Civic Center.

They were turned down in St. Paul. Civic Center managing director Marlene Anderson said the facility already had more than it could handle during this time of the year with high-school tournaments and other events.

The Metrodome and Minneapolis Auditorium, which was still standing at the time, were really not feasible alternatives. That left the Met Sports Center, which was controlled by brothers George and Gordon Gund, who owned the Minnesota North Stars. Wolfenson said after they were turned down by the Civic Center, the Gunds thought they “had us in a position where they could drive a hard deal. So we decided to build our own place.”

Of the decision to build a new arena, Wolfenson added, “We were forced into it,” but he made it clear that it was local circumstances, not an edict from the NBA, that caused them to pursue this option.

Excessive Hyperbole

Pudge Heffelfinger Saves Brick Owens
William W. “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a member of one of the most prominent families in Minneapolis history, has figured prominently in one of the most famous stories about baseball in Minneapolis in the early 20 th century.

Heffelfinger, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the first professional football player (when he was paid $500 in 1892 to play for a Pennsylvania team), is credited of rescuing an umpire from an angry throng at a Minneapolis Millers game in 1906.

While Heffelfinger, who was 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, likely played a role in preventing umpire Brick Owens from being hurt by a mob at Nicollet Park, the story has been repeated with much hyperbole. One source is a familiar one—longtime Minneapolis sports writer George Barton, who recounted the heroic tale in his 1958 autobiography, My Lifetime in Sports.

The Minneapolis Millers were riding a 10-game winning streak and had climbed to third place as they opened a four-game series at Nicollet Park with the league-leading Columbus Senators on July 18. A close call at the plate by umpire Brick Owens in the eighth inning went against the Millers, and, as a result, the game went into extra innings. After the Millers lost in the 12th, hundreds of fans swarmed onto the field in pursuit of the man they held accountable for the defeat. Owens ducked into the visitors’ bench and took cover.

The next day, fans came equipped with eggs and other projectiles, which they hurled at Owens, causing the umpire to declare a forfeit victory for Columbus.

“Fans rushed the field to attack Owens, and policemen, caught in the whirl, were helpless,” wrote Barton in his book. “When it seemed Owens was to be a victim of the mob, a giant of a man pushed his way through the crowd, wrapped his arms around the umpire and ordered everyone to stand back. The man was Pudge Heffelfinger, acclaimed the greatest guard in football history.

“‘Friends,’” shouted Heffelfinger, “‘You are about to do something that will forever disgrace the good name of Minneapolis—an act you will always regret. I am going to escort this man off the field and to his hotel. I warn all of you that anyone who harms him must answer to me!’

“Heffelfinger was a public idol and his words had a magic effect. He was permitted to lead Owens off the field. The police, anticipating trouble, had parked a patrol wagon outside the park and Heffelfinger helped Owens into the Wagon, got in with him, and took the umpire to his hotel.”

There were several inaccuracies in Barton’s account, written more than 50 years after the event. He claimed that the pennant race had evolved into a two-team affair, although the Millers were only in third place and still six-and-a-half games behind Columbus. Barton also claimed the riot occurred after Owens had declared a forfeit in favor of the opposing team. The mob scene in which Heffelfinger helped Owens was in the previous game, the one the Millers lost in extra innings after a controversial call by Owens. Beyond that, his description of Heffelfinger is rich in color but short on accuracy.

Newspaper reports differed as to how serious the threat from the mob was to Owens. Frank E. Force in the Minneapolis Tribune wrote, “He [Owens] ran for the Columbus bench where he was surrounded by the police called quickly by Mr. Kelley. Although the Minneapolis manager had been robbed of the game he acted very promptly in the matter of protection of the umpire, and Owens was escorted to the Columbus bus and rode to his hotel with a police escort. Before he left the park brickbats and small stones were thrown at him, but he was taken from the ground safely without injury.”

However, the Minneapolis Journal account stated that police were forced back by the mob as they tried to escort Owens from the field. As the horde grew thicker and surlier, Pudge Heffelfinger, a former All-America guard at Yale and a Minnesota native, worked his way through the crowd, took Owens by the arm and started for the street. According to the Journal, “The stone throwing continued altho [ sic ] there was a general recognition of ‘Pudge’ and a seeming reluctance to bounce any paving material off his head.”

The calming of the crowd was evidently not because of Heffelfinger’s muscular development but more because of a reluctance to hit a popular man, and it was not accompanied by the oration as described by Barton. Heffelfinger, who served on the Hennepin County Board for 24 years, died in April of 1954 at the age of 86. The lengthy news obituary described in detail his football career, but never mentioned the Brick Owens incident.

Myths with Staying Power

Who Really Started the Minnesota State High School Basketball Tournament?
For 50 years or more, old-timers gathered at the state tournament and reminisced about the first tournament held at Carleton College in Northfield in 1913. From time to time a newspaper reporter would overhear and publish their reminiscences, so eventually they became accepted as the official tournament history.

The old-timers remembered long-time Carleton athletic director Claude J. Hunt as the tourney’s founder, for example. So the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) gave him a plaque honoring him as such in 1957. Some also remembered Fosston native and Gopher All-American Francis H. “Dobie” Stadsvold coaching Fosston to the first state title. So he was a “special honoree” on the occasion of the tournament’s 50th anniversary in 1963.

The only problem with these reminiscences is that neither Hunt nor Stadsvold was actually in attendance at the first tournament.

The tournament was held on April 1-4, 1913. Hunt first set foot on the Carleton College campus when he became athletic director and coach in the fall of the year. As anyone can easily ascertain by reading the campus newspaper, The Carletonia, for 1913, the tournament was founded by the Faculty Committee on Athletics with an assist from Philosophy Professor Leal A. Headley, the head of the school’s student recruiting program.

First among equals on the committee was the Reverend and Professor of Biblical Literature Fred B. Hill, who had attended Carleton and was remembered as a star pitcher on the baseball team. When Hill suggested that Carleton host a basketball tournament, all were enthusiastic in their support, especially as Hill offered to defray the participants’ travel costs. And when the tournament participants met after the Friday night banquet, they appointed a committee, charged it with assuring that another tournament would be held in 1914, and appointed Hill as its chairman. Hill was the first leader of what would become the MSHSL.

It would be 20 years before basketball fans began to inquire as to the tournament’s origins and history. By then Hill was already dead and forgotten, a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1919.

In fairness, Hunt was never quoted as claiming to have founded the tournament, though he also was never quoted as protesting the honor. Stadsvold, on the other hand, is quoted in Fosston’s Centennial History as “recall[ing] that famous day when [Fosston] won the state trophy.”

Stadsvold was a son of Fosston’s wealthiest and most prominent family. Add to that his status as a Gopher basketball star, and he was a local celebrity whose comings and goings were slavishly chronicled in the local newspaper, The Thirteen Towns. He was home for the Easter break on the day the team left for Carleton and he returned to school at the University of Minnesota the next day. If The Thirteen Towns failed to report that he was in Northfield with the team, it can only be because he was not there.

Yet the myth persists that Stadsvold and Hunt were the pioneers of the state basketball tournament while its true founder, Fred Hill, has been lost to history.

Origins of the Little Brown Jug
The Little Brown Jug, one of the most famous trophies in college football, came into existence on October 31, 1903. That much is clear; the rest of the details of the jug’s origins are not.

Since that day, when the unbeaten University of Michigan team came to Minneapolis to play the unbeaten Minnesota Gophers, there have been nearly as many different stories told about the jug’s origins, as there has been games played in the series.

The tales include the claim that Michigan coach Fielding Yost brought the jug, filled with water from Michigan, with the team because he was thought Gophers fans might tamper the team’s water. A different version has the jug being purchased in a downtown Minneapolis store prior to the game with another saying the jug was bought at halftime at a drug store in Dinkytown, the university village near Northrup Field, site of the game. In 100 Years of Golden Gopher Football, Dick Gordon, a retired Minneapolis Star sportswriter, called the jug “an insignificant 35-cent water crock from a Hennepin Avenue variety store.”

Accounts have also varied as to when and where the jug was recovered after the game, which ended in a 6-6 tie. The University of Minnesota football media guide says that Michigan team manager Tommy Roberts forgot the jug after the game. It was picked up by Minnesota custodian Oscar Munson and brought to L. J. “Doc” Cooke. When Fielding Yost asked for Minnesota to return it, Cooke replied, “If you want it, you’ll have to win it back.” The University of Michigan football media guide also contains this version.

How the jug became the impetus for a rivalry has also been reported several different ways, although most claim that the tradition of the Little Brown Jug began in 1909, which was the next time the teams met.

The papers of L. J. Cooke in the University of Minnesota archives contain a different explanation, written by Cooke in 1929: “The jug was suspended from a hook above my desk where it remained for six years. A few days prior to the 1909 game, John McGovern, Minnesota’s first All-America player and now sports editor and special writer for the Minneapolis Journal, dropped into my office and we discussed not only the coming game but the Jug. It was suggested that it might be material to build a fine tradition between the two institutions. John was appointed to present the matter to Yost and their captain and they approved immediately.” Michigan won the game in 1909 in Minneapolis to claim the jug, which changed hands frequently in the ensuing decades.

In 1953, to commemorate the 50 th anniversary of the 1903 game, a banquet was held in downtown Minneapolis the night before the Wolverines-Gophers game, prompting several stories about the jug’s origins. In an article for the Minnesota alumni magazine, Oscar Munson wrote, “After our 6-6 tie in 1903, I was cleaning out the faculty room where the Michigan players dressed. I came across the earthenware crock in which Michigan had carried its own water. I took it home to my room. Monday I showed it to Doc Cooke. I asked him if he wanted me to send it back to Michigan. Doc roared ‘Heck, no! Make them win it back.’ We didn’t play Michigan until 1909. The day before the game, Coach Yost came into Doc’s office for a visit as usual. The first thing he saw was that old water jug hanging in the ceiling. ‘What’s that?’ he asked Doc. He told him it was the water jug Michigan had left behind six years ago. ‘That’s the first time I heard about that,’ laughed Yost. Doc suggested Michigan should try to win it back and it was all right with Yost.”

At the banquet, Tommy Roberts, who was a 21 years old when he was team manager for the Wolverines in 1903, told the Minneapolis Tribune’s Sid Hartman, “I bought the jug for 30 cents between halves of the 1903 game. We needed something to carry water in. And when it was all over I left the jug behind.” Hartman added, “Up until last night, it had been the consensus the old jug had been brought from Ann Arbor by football coach Fielding Yost.” Hartman also quoted Munson as saying, “I always thought it was a Michigan jug until tonight when I met Roberts for the first time. I just picked it up and made something of it.”

Although the origin is murky, one thing is clear. The Little Brown Jug has been an enduring tradition and a great source of discussion.

Dan Patch a Blur on the Track and in Ensuing Legends
Horse-racing legend Dan Patch is one of the greatest and most well-known figures in Minnesota sports history. One of the biggest events of Dan Patch’s storied racing career was when he set a world record at the 1906 Minnesota State Fair. For years, the account of that record-setting day was accompanied by reports that a record-setting crowd had witnessed the feat.

In his 1958 autobiography, My Lifetime in Sports, longtime Minneapolis newspaperman George Barton wrote, “On [Saturday] September 8, 1906, in a race against time on the Minnesota State Fair track, he [Dan Patch] electrified the turf world by stepping off the mile in 1:55 flat to establish a world record for racers. . . . The amazing performance of Dan Patch, before a crowd that numbered upwards of 93,000, on that sizzling hot September day in 1906, was no fluke. . . . Every individual in that vast multitude of 93,000 persons, who overflowed the stands and jammed all available space between the stands and the track and in the infield area, senses a new world record was in the making.”

The story was repeated in 1967 when, as part of its 100th year of publishing, the Minneapolis Tribune ran an ad that included the claim, “We were there on September 8, 1906 when Dan Patch set a record in front of 93,000 people.” Since then the attendance figure has grown with some accounts saying “an estimated 100,000 people witnessed the event.”

However, estimates made at the time of the event have the number who watched Dan Patch break the record at 25,000 to 30,000. So how did the crowd size become magnified by more than three times what it actually was? The attendance for the day for the entire fair was 93,199 on Monday, September 3, the opening day of the fair and the day Dan Patch set a state fair record, but not a world’s record, in the mile. It’s possible the overall fair attendance for its opening day became the number who watched Dan Patch.

In The Great Dan Patch and the Remarkable Mr. Savage, Tim Brady wrote, “The crowd for the exhibition on Saturday was closer to 35,000 than 90,000, a fact that would take on more importance in years to come as the numbers who would claim to be at the track on September 8, 1906, would jump considerably.”

A Rose Bowl Not Missed
A controversial roughing-the-passer penalty was a key call in the Minnesota Gophers’ loss to the Wisconsin Badgers on November 24, 1962, the final conference game of the season. The teams led the Big Ten with 5-1 records, and the Gophers held a 9-7 lead in the game when they appeared to have stopped a late Wisconsin drive as John Perkovich intercepted Ron VanderKelen’s pass. However, Minnesota’s Bobby Bell was flagged for roughing VanderKelen, and the Badgers eventually scored the winning touchdown.

Some longtime fans who continue to complain about the referee’s call add the erroneous lament that this cost Minnesota another trip to Pasadena, California, for the Rose Bowl. In writing of the game in Gopher Sketchbook, Al Papas, Jr. noted, “The Big Ten championship and a third trip in a row to the Rose Bowl were at stake.”

However, a Big Ten rule in place at the time did not allow for its teams to go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row. (The Gophers had gone to Pasadena following the 1960 and 1961 seasons; the latter trip, however, happened after Big Ten champion Ohio State declined the invitation. This occurred during a one-year lull in the Rose Bowl contract between the Big Ten and then Pacific-8 conferences. Even with no contract in effect during 1962, a Big Ten team was chosen for the Rose Bowl, but the Big Ten was unable to apply its longstanding policy against teams repeating. When the contract resumed the following season, the Big Ten again decided against allowing teams from its conference to make repeat trips, a rule it eventually dropped.)

The Big Ten’s Rose Bowl representative had actually been determined in action the week before the Minnesota-Wisconsin game. The Badgers defeated Illinois while contenders Northwestern and Purdue were losing to Michigan State and Minnesota, respectively. As a result, the only challenger to the conference title left to Wisconsin was Minnesota, a team that was not eligible for the Rose Bowl that year.

“There is still the formality of a vote which, under Big Ten regulation, must be taken to select the Rose Bowl representative,” wrote Dick Cullum in a November 18, 1962 Minneapolis Tribune article. “However, custom makes it virtually certain that Wisconsin will be chosen since it is certain now to finish ahead of all Big Ten teams but Minnesota, which is not eligible for selection.”

Thus, while the loss prevented the Gophers from winning their first outright Big Ten title (meaning by themselves rather than tied with another team) since 1941, it did not cost them a trip to Pasadena.

Myths with a Credible Source

Some legends don’t need embellishment, particularly anything written about Bronko Nagurski, a member of the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. As the only player to be named an All-America at two positions in the same college football season (1929) and a player who played one game wearing a steel corset to protect two broken vertebrae, Nagurski is one of the legends of football for the first half of the 20 th century.

With Bronko Nagurski, the basic facts are more than enough.

However a 2003 biography of Nagurski by best-selling author Jim Dent, Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever, contained tremendous prose that unfortunately was not matched in terms of accuracy.

Dent describes Nagurski’s exploits in a game between the University of Minnesota football team and a team made up of University of Minnesota alumni in May of 1958. Nagurski, who was 50 at the time, was suiting for a football game for the first time in 15 years.

According to Dent’s account, “The Bronk received a standing ovation from the home crowd when he trotted onto the field during pregame introductions. [Billy] Bye decided to insert Nagurski into the starting lineup as the alumni team would receive the opening kickoff. They wasted no time in putting him to work. He carried on the game’s first play and plowed five yards straight up the middle. The big man carried again on the second play. His second carry netted seven yards, and now the crowd was going wild. ‘How are you feeling?’ Bye asked in the huddle. ‘Good enough to keep going,’ Nagurski said, breathing heavily.

“He carried for a third straight time and broke two tackles on a six-yard gain. When Nagurski carried a fourth straight, the stadium erupted in an ovation that was beyond anything anyone could remember for a spring game. He powered through three tacklers and gained another seven yards. The ageless wonder jumped to his feet and trotted back to the huddle with vigor in his step. Bye decided to give Nagurski a breather. He called for a pass to [Bud] Grant and completed it for a 13-yard gain. Then Nagurski carried for the fifth time and moved the ball all the way to the varsity 20-yard line for a gain of 12 yards.

“Bye called for another pass to Grant. Before breaking the huddle, he whispered to the end, ‘Catch it but don’t score. Let’s save it for the Bronk.’

“The completion to Grant moved the ball down to the five. Everybody in the stadium knew what was coming next. The Minnesota varsity stacked 11 men near the line of scrimmage. [Leo] Nomellini, [Clayton] Tonnemaker, and [Frank[ Youso opened a hole in the middle of the line and Nagurski crashed into the defense for what appeared to be a three-yard gain. He was stopped momentarily at the two-yard line by a wall of tacklers. But his aging legs had one last power surge left in them. Three tacklers fell away and Nagurski dived into the end zone for the final touchdown of his glorious football life. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet as he trotted back to the sideline. A tired Bronko Nagurski watched the rest of the game from the sidelines as the alums rolled to a 26-2 victory.”

While it is an exciting, well-written account of the game, other than two facts—the Alumni did win, 26-2, and Nagurski did receive a big ovation when introduced—it is untrue.

According to the detailed statistical summary of the game, Nagurski carried the ball two times for six yards and did not score a touchdown, far different from Dent’s account, in which he had Nagurski carrying the ball six times for 42 yards and a touchdown. Nagurski was not prominently mentioned in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune and Minneapolis Star accounts of the game, which consisted of the game story, a sidebar, and two columns.

The Chicago Daily Tribune had a three-paragraph account of the game, provided by the Associated Press, that included this passage: “Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota’s all-time football great, return to action of the age of 50 today. The 14,129 fans cheered wildly as Nagurski gained 2 yards on a falling plunge in the first quarter. He was stopped short trying to run for two extra points after a touchdown in the third period, but plunged for a 4 yard gain a few minutes later.”

Just playing a football game against a team of college-aged athletes at the age of 50 should have been legend enough. There was no need for a respected writer such as Dent to add fiction to the fact.

What’s a Researcher to Do?

Information from any source needs to be checked as thoroughly as possible. Interviews can be valuable sources, particularly for colorful stories, but they can’t be taken as the gospel and must be considered with information from other sources. Memories may fade and tales often get embellished over time. When separating fact from fiction, the more one talks to people, even those who were present at an event, the more it may add to the fiction rather than the fact. Accounts written at the time of an event can provide more reliable information. For sports, game accounts and box scores from the newspapers can provide the real details. But sometimes even these accounts don’t tell the entire story, and it’s left to a researcher to put the available pieces together and make some judgments. Sometimes the judgment might be that we’ll never know entire story.

More important than technique for a researcher may be attitude, an attitude of having a strong commitment to accuracy. A researcher must be willing to expend the time and effort to check things out, to go to primary sources rather than just retrospective accounts or long-ago memories of those who were there. The attitude should include a willingness not only to let facts stand in the way of a good story, but also to be willing to look for facts that may invalidate a good story.

Perhaps the most important attitude for a researcher is skepticism. Being a skeptic in this sense isn’t a negative thing. It’s not a matter of rejecting everything that’s said, it’s a matter of just not blindly accepting what’s been said or written.

One of the contributors to this article, George Rekela, displayed a healthy skepticism after reading an interview with Bill Daley, a fullback for the Minnesota Gophers in 1940. Daley told of carrying the ball downfield, run after run, in the season finale, against Wisconsin. However, it was halfback Sonny Franck who got the ball for the final two yards of the drive and the touchdown. “Sonny called a play for himself and ran it in the end zone,” Daley claimed. “He looked at me with a big smile and said, ‘Thanks, Bill. I needed that touchdown to make All-American.’”

Rather than accept the story, Rekela checked the newspaper account and statistical summary for the game that appeared in the next day’s Minneapolis Tribune and found nothing that would support Daley’s tale. He checked the newspapers for the entire season in case it had taken place at another time and that Daley was merely remiss in recounting the game in which it occurred. From that, Rekela concluded, “It never happened.”

A motto from the 1960s was “Question Authority.” A researcher’s creed should be “Question Everything.”

Sources

Veda Ponikvar: Interview by Thornley with Veda Ponikvar, June 8, 1989 ; Interview by Thornley with W. P. Kinsella, February 24, 1995; “A One-game Flop, But a Lifetime Hero” by Larry Oakes, Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities, Wednesday, June 29, 2005, p. 1A.

John Wooden: They Call Me Coach by John Wooden with Jack Tobin (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988), pp. 75-76; Correspondence between Thornley and UCLA Sports Information Department, 2005; “New Candidate Enters Bruin Cage Picture,” Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, April 13, 1948, p. A9; “John Wooden Signed as Bruin Cage Mentor,” Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, April 21, 1948, p. 8; “Coach Wooden Arrives Tonight,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 25, 1948, p. 18; “Wooden Goes to California: Leader of Indiana State Basketball Team Takes New Field,” Terre Haute Tribune, Tuesday, April 20, 1948, p. 1.

Andy Oyler Home Run: Telephone interview with John Oyler, May 16, 2005; “Nicollet Park: A Colorful Page in Baseball History—Hard-to-Believe Anecdotes Had Grain of Truth” by Dave Mona, Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, November 6, 1966, pp. 1, 8; The Twenty-Four-Inch Home Run by Michael G. Bryson, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990, pp. 21-23; “Bronks Take Two Muddy Victories,” Minneapolis Journal, July 18, 1913, p. 21.

Dead Man Scores in Willmar-Benson Game: Sports Shorts: Astonishing Strange but True by Mac Davis (New York: Bantam Books, 1958), p. 143; “Sports of the County” by Lefty Ranweiler, Centennial History of Kandiyohi County, 1970, p. 323.

19-18 Game: Newspaper accounts of the game that appeared in the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers, Thursday, November 23, 1950; “Olympians Beat Royals, 75-73, in 6 Extra Periods,” Chicago Tribune, Sunday, January 7, 1951, p A4; “N. B. A. Adopts Rule Aimed to Cut Stalling,” Chicago Tribune, Saturday, April 24, 1954, p. A2; Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years by Robert W. Peterson, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990; 24 Seconds to Shoot: An Informal History of the National Basketball Association by Leonard Koppett, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

Target Center: Stew Thornley telephone interview with Russ Granik, September 20, 1989, and interview with Marv Wolfenson, September 21, 1989.

Pudge Heffelfinger: My Lifetime in Sports by George Barton, Olympic Press, Minneapolis, 1958, pp. 280-281; “Owens Chased Again by a Thousand Fans” by Frank E. Force, Minneapolis Tribune, Thursday, July 19, 1906, p. 3; “Ruled Out of the Race for Pennant,” Minneapolis Journal, July 19, 1906, p. 1; “More Trouble with Arbitrator” by O’Loughlin, Minneapolis Journal, July 19, 1906, p. 9; “Yellow Shower for the Umps” by O’Loughlin, Minneapolis Journal, Friday, July 20, 1906, p. 12.

Claude Hunt: The details of the founding of the tournament at Carleton in 1913 are found in the college weekly, The Carletonia (later The Carletonian), and also in the history of Carleton by Leal A. Headley and Merrill E. Jarchow. Rev. Fred B. Hill and Claude J. Hunt files at the Carleton Aarchives were also consulted. Francis J. “Dobie” Stadsvold’s story is from the pages of The Thirteen Towns as well as the city of Fosston’s Centennial History. Sources concerning the Northfield tournaments of 1913-1922 include the local newspapers of the participating high schools, including the Mankato Free Press, Mesabi Miner, Red Wing Republican-Eagle, Rock County Herald (Luverne), The Thirteen Towns (Fosston), and the Virginia Daily Enterprise as well as the The Carletonia (later Carletonian) and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Little Brown Jug: “The Little Brown Jug: A 35-Cent Water Crock Becomes an Enduring Trophy” by Dick Gordon in 100 Years of Golden Gopher Football, edited by Ralph Turtinen and published by University of Minnesota Men’s Athletic Department, 1981, pp. 17-20; University of Minnesota 2006 football media guide; University of Michigan 2006 football media guide; Minnesota Alumni Magazine; History of Minnesota Football, published by the University of Minnesota General Alumni Association, 1928. Papers of L.J. Cooke, University of Minnesota Archives; Minneapolis Tribune.

Dan Patch: My Lifetime in Sports by George Barton, Olympic Press, Minneapolis, 1958, pp. 321-326; Minneapolis Tribune, September 4-10, 1906; Boston Daily Globe, September 9, 1906; New York Times, September 9, 1906; Washington Post, September 9, 1906; The Great Dan Patch and the Remarkable Mr. Savage by Tim Brady, Nodin Press, Minneapolis, 2006.

Gophers 1962 Loss to Wisconsin: Big Bowl Football, The Great Postseason Classics by Fred Russell and George Leonard. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1963, pp.372-373; Gopher Sketchbook by Al Papas, Jr., Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 1990, pp. 100-101; “Rose Bowl Ineligibility No Gopher Problem” by Sid Hartman, Minneapolis Tribune, Friday, November 16, 1962, p. 22; “Badgers Win for Bowl Bid” by Dick Cullum, Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, November 18, 1962, p. 1 Sports Peach; “Badgers, Penalties Beat Gophers in Final Minutes for Title 14-9” by Dick Gordon, Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, November 25, 1962, p. 1 Sports Peach.

Bronko Nagurski: Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever by Jim Dent, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press. New York, 2003; Chicago Daily Tribune, May 18, 1958; Minneapolis Tribune, May 18, 1958; Minneapolis Star, May 19, 1958

Bill Daley: “Former Gopher Still Looks Like an All-America; Bill Daley Was Bruce Smith’s Fullback: It’s A Mystery Why Daley Isn’t in the College Hall Of Fame” by Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune, Newspaper of the Twin Cities, Sunday, December 18, 2005, p. 1C; Minneapolis Tribune game accounts and summaries of the Minnesota Gophers 1940 season.

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