On May 14, 1914, Hoosier speedster Erwin G. Baker arrived in New York City after driving over 3,000 miles across the country on his Indian motorcycle. Baker’s run from San Diego to New York City in eleven and a half days not only broke the previous transcontinental record set by Volney E. Davis in 1911, it shattered it by almost nine days (Davis’s record was 20 days, 9 hours, and 1 minute). Baker’s feat, coupled with several other speed and distance records he set during this period, quickly earned him the nickname “Cannon Ball;” a moniker he would proudly carry with him for the rest of his life.
Erwin G. Baker was born in southeastern Indiana in 1882 and moved to Indianapolis with his family sometime between 1893 and 1894. In the early 1900s, he worked as a machinist in the city and performed a bag punching routine on vaudeville stages throughout the country. The act required Baker to try and keep a certain number of punching bags going at the same time. In January 1909, the Indianapolis Star lauded him as a “champion bag puncher” and noted that he was “regarded as one of the best in the country.” According to the article, Baker was preparing to compete against Harry Seeback for the national title, contending that he could keep twelve bags going at once, as opposed to Seeback’s eight.
While Baker may have gained some recognition for his bag punching routine, it was his interest and skill riding motorcycles that earned him early fame and jump started his career. In the summer of 1909, Baker was one of many drivers to compete at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The first motorcycle races – which predated automobile races at the famous track – were held in mid-August under the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.). Baker competed in the ten-mile amateur championship. According to the Indianapolis Star, the event lacked a large number of entries due to racer Jake DeRosier’s recent accident on the unpaved gravel track and fear on the part of some of the drivers about being badly injured themselves. Baker, already regarded as a daredevil racer and “rider of great skill and nerve,” took home first place in the event in a time of 11:31 1-5. Just two months later, he claimed two more first place wins, one second place win, and two third place wins at a series of races in Dayton, Ohio.
Over the next few years, Baker traveled all over the country, competing in a wide variety of motorcycle races and setting many new track records.
In early 1913, the Indianapolis Star reported that he had departed on a motorcycle tour of the southern United States, as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and Mexico. The trip was said to cover some 12,000 miles. Baker was constantly testing out the limits of his Indian motorcycle and other vehicles he drove, challenging how far he could make it on a tank of gas or how long he could go without experiencing mechanical problems. Companies frequently hired him or sought his help to test and promote their brands. For instance, during Baker’s motorcycle tour of the South, he served as an experimenter for the U.S. Tire Company and tested the durability of the company’s tires over the course of his journey. Later in life, many motorsport companies would seek his endorsements as the public came to associate him with professional integrity and a sense of nostalgia for early racing.
In 1914, Baker set out to test himself once again. This time, his goal was to break the transcontinental record set by Volney Davis a few years earlier. Rather than departing from San Francisco as Davis had, Baker made San Diego his starting point. In a post card from Baker to William Waking of Waking and Company mailed May 1, 1914, he wrote:
Dear Friend Waking:
Am leaving San Diego, Cal., May 3. Will wire you just before my arrival at Richmond and ask you to assist in guiding me through your city. I’m making an effort to break transcontinental record which stands 20 days, 9 hours, one minute. Such assistance would keep me from losing time.
The trek required the Hoosier speedster to travel through twelve states and across all manner of roads. In the early twentieth century, few roads were paved and the standard highway numbering system we are so accustomed to today was not yet established. While Baker often intentionally sought out demanding, primitive mountain roads or desert paths in order to prove the efficiency of the vehicle he was promoting, even the roads of his mostly flat home state of Indiana would have presented a challenge in these years. Baker also had to battle the weather in his transcontinental run, as his route took him from the scorching desert heat to colder mountain temperatures. The Indianapolis News said it best in a May 5, 1914 article, noting “the ride will not be a picnic.”
Baker was undeterred and well prepared. Newspaper accounts report that he laid out his route ahead of time, planning what roads and towns to travel through and even planting tanks of gas ahead of him in remote areas so as to avoid fuel trouble. Working with a weather expert, he also considered weather conditions for the past decade to determine what month would be best for his trip. He traveled light. According to the Indianapolis News, Baker carried two extra inner tubes, a short and long chain, a small Graflex camera, a half-gallon canteen, and a .48 caliber revolver for protection. His Indian motorcycle was a “two-speed model, equipped with electric lights and speedometer.”
The F.A.M. sanctioned the ride and, as a result, Baker wrote nightly reports updating the organization on his progress and offering details about his journey. Newspapers across the country also covered the story and helped track his route. The first leg of his trip, one which Baker would describe as one of the worst due to the sandy desert and high temperatures, took him from San Diego, California to Phoenix, Arizona. On May 7, the Albuquerque Journal reported that he passed through Albuquerque, New Mexico the previous afternoon and, after a short stay, continued on to Santa Fe, bringing his total mileage that day to just over 350. From Santa Fe, Baker traveled through Las Vegas, New Mexico on to La Junta, Colorado before making it into Kansas. He reached Topeka, Kansas seven days and six hours after starting his journey in San Diego and was well on his way to breaking Davis’s previous transcontinental record.
However, Baker encountered some trouble at this point in his trip. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, while road conditions in Kansas surpassed those of the desert, Baker had to contend with seven nail punctures along this leg and hit a dog that had crossed his path, causing him to topple from his motorcycle and the machine to fall. Baker injured his elbow and knee, but did not allow the incident to discourage him. He made it to Indianapolis on May 12 and even stopped for a quick dinner at home before continuing on. He had been on the road a little over nine days when he made it to his home state and had already covered 2,600 miles. It’s no wonder that the Indianapolis News referred to him as “Here-He-Comes-There-He-Goes Baker.”
Baker arrived in New York City on May 14, having driven well over 3,000 miles. The 11 day trip effectively shattered Volney Davis’s record by almost nine full days. The Indianapolis News rightly wrote on May 15 that the trek represented “not only the sturdy qualities of [Baker’s] machine, but the endurance of the rider.”
Reflecting on his record-breaking run in the days and weeks following, Baker credited his preparation and calculation before the trip as a large factor contributing to his success. He also praised his Indian motorcycle, noting that throughout the entire journey, which included fording streams and riding on railroad ties, he experienced no mechanical troubles. He noted that his batteries needed no recharging and that the original light bulb on the machine still burned brightly. According to Baker:
Four mountain ranges were negotiated. At one point at the northern end of Arizona, I climbed from 200 feet below sea level to an altitude of 9,647 feet into the mountain snows. It was in this mountain work that the two-speed showed its supreme qualities. My [brake] power, too, in making the precipitous descents of the winding mountain trails, never failed me for a moment. If it had I might not be able to tell this story.
Baker even reported that when he arrived in Indiana, the authorities raised the speed limit for one day so he could travel through at a faster pace.
I am a Hoosier, and the welcome and encouragement my home state gave me as I passed from town to town was a generous and appreciated demonstration.
The 1914 transcontinental run was just one of numerous record-setting trips Baker would make in a variety of vehicles from the early 1900s through the early 1940s. In 1915, he set the “Three Flags record” for “touching three countries” during a run from Canada to Mexico on an Indian motorcycle. According to the Wichita Daily Eagle, he “crashed down the Pacific Coast . . . at a speed faster than any man ever rode before on a motorcycle on any long journey.” It took him three days, nine hours, and fifteen minutes despite facing mountainous terrain and even passing through forest fires. It is not surprising that reporters christened him “Cannon Ball” Baker, as he barreled through towns and states at ever-increasing speeds. Baker died in 1960, but his legacy and contributions to motorsports continue to live on.
In the fall of 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau will help commemorate “Cannon Ball” with a historical marker near his former home across from Garfield Park in Indianapolis. The marker celebrates the pioneer racer and test driver, while also paying tribute to his 1922 Indianapolis 500 run, in which he finished in 11th place, and his role as the first commissioner of NASCAR. Follow IHB’s Facebook page and Twitter for information about the marker dedication.
After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.
They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”
The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:
My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.
By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and into the otherwise standard guidebook.
While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,” published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:
The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut
He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:
I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.
That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement. A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.” The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.
While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving. Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure. He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:
I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.
This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service. He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses. However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.
Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.
Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment. He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.” He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”
Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war. Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”
While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in SanFrancisco Magazine:
Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.
Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.
According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”
Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.
Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:
Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.
In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.
Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.
On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”
Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:
Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.
Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”
Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet. In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”
Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.
Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s. Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”
While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) andThe Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977). By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.
In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.” However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.
Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).
At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.
As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.
Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth:An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.
In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.
Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:
This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.
While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.
However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.
Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.
Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.
Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.
Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:
“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”
Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”
Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:
“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”
Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”
He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:
“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”
As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribunereported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:
This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.
Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.
In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.
Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation
For more information:
Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar proclaimed April 22, 1970 as “a day for contemplation, conversation, and action to halt and reverse the impending crisis of the decay of man’s environment.” Throughout Indiana, Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis. In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. Some even donned gas masks or abandoned their cars, all to dramatize the need for citizens to “Give Earth a Chance.”
This was the first Earth Day. Historian Adam Rome describes the day as “the most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history.” He notes it was “bigger by far than any civil rights march or antiwar demonstration or woman’s liberation protest in the 1960s.” A whopping 22 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. About 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools, in addition to numerous churches, temples, city parks, and lawns in front of various government and corporate buildings hosted Earth Day activities. The event was so popular that Congress even shut down on Earth Day. About two-thirds of congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans, returned home to speak to their constituents at Earth Day rallies. President Richard Nixon, one of the only major politicians not to make a public speech on Earth Day, even admitted in a press release that he felt “the activities show the concern of people of all walks of life over the dangers to our environment.”
Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, conceived Earth Day in 1969. After the Santa Barbara oil spill in January and February of that year, Nelson decided to ignite a mass protest in support of increased environmental action. He had crafted environmental legislation throughout the 1960s, including efforts to ban harmful chemical products, like the pesticide DDT and non-biodegradable detergents. He found few supporters for his initiatives in Congress. However, he surmised many citizens, worried about radioactive fallout, suburban sprawl, and smog, would care. Inspired by anti-war teach-ins in the 1960s, Nelson envisioned a nationwide teach-in event to educate people about pollution and encourage them to take action. If constituents supported environmental regulation, it was reasoned, politicians would follow.
Though Nelson came up with the general premise of Earth Day, he knew the movement would not flourish if he dictated the event. Instead, he announced plans for the teach-in in September 1969 and enlisted the help of Pete McCloskey, a Republican, as co-chair. Soon, individuals all over the country called Nelson’s office, asking for more information. To handle all the activity, Nelson set up a separate organization, Environmental Teach-In Inc., in December 1969. A small staff of twenty-somethings ran the organization. Though Nelson originally created the organization to help local organizers implement ideas and make contacts, Environmental Teach-In mainly became a publicity hub. Community organizers, which often included housewives, students, and scientists started planning Earth Day events before the organization opened.
Thus, the national office spent most of their time fielding calls from journalists to inform them about Earth Day plans in locales across the nation. Organizers planned programs to explore a variety of topics including population growth, pesticide use, nuclear fallout, waste disposal, suburban sprawl, in addition to mainstays like air, water, and land pollution.
Back in the Hoosier state, Governor Whitcomb issued an executive order endorsing Earth Day activities in Indiana. He wrote “I urge all of our citizens to act responsibly to alleviate the pollution menace to the environment.” In particular, Whitcomb noted:
Our educational institutions have the expertise and capability both to inform us of present dangers resulting from the ways we use our natural resources and to define and develop new technologies and systems needed to abate the pollution problem.
Whitcomb’s emphasis on educational institutions highlighted the primary role students played in Indiana Earth Day. Most of these activities took place at universities, colleges, and schools, which were all open to broader community members. However, it was mostly students, rather than faculty that organized the day’s events. Elizabeth Young, a sophomore at St.-Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute summarized why young Hoosiers rallied around Earth Day. She told the Indianapolis Star “if the kids our age don’t do something, we won’t live to be the age of our professors.”
Though most activities took place on April 22, students and community members often could attend ecological events at their local university or college throughout the week. Almost all the major secondary education institutions in Indiana sponsored panels, lectures and discussions featuring a variety of speakers, including politicians, scientists, and industry representatives. Senator Nelson even spoke at rallies at IU Bloomington and Notre Dame. Most of the Indiana congressional delegation returned from Washington, D.C. to speak to their constituents. At Purdue, industry representatives from Inland Steel, Eli Lilly, and General Motors participated in a panel discussion. Each talked about the measures their company was taking to abate pollution and answered questions from audience members. Many universities organized tree planting ceremonies or litter clean-up operations along Indiana waterways.
A few students staged more dramatic events to draw attention to environmentalism. At Ball State University, students constructed a pile of cans and bottles they collected from Muncie residents and created a “non-disposable, non-returnable monument” on the terrace of the Art Building. The monument symbolized junk, which students perceived as one of America’s primary pollution problems. At Purdue, students picked up litter along the Wabash River and displayed it all in front of the Lafayette courthouse for the public and local government representatives to see. DePauw students sponsored bus tours for community members to take throughout Greencastle, which would showcase Putnam County’s dirtiest and cleanest spots, including a junkyard, a pig feed next to a stream, homes designed specially to preserve the terrain, and an industrial plant featuring the latest pollution control measures. Others specifically tackled air pollution issues. Tri-State College in Angola (now Trine University), initiated a campaign urging students and faculty to leave their cars at home and walk to campus. One DePauw student rode a horse to campus bearing the sign “Ban the automobile.” DePauw also put an electric car on display.
Numerous younger students participated as well. Schools received packets detailing available speakers, films, materials, and suggested programs and activities to coordinate for Earth Day activities. Elementary school students picked up litter and participated in art and essay contests about environmental issues. In Portland, elementary students started a “Be a Pollution Policeman” campaign and created posters advising community members to report polluters that they later put up all over town.
North Central High School students in Indianapolis hosted an Earth Day program filled with speakers, seminars, and films. Students created a pollution themed skit and a collage made with all the litter they collected in the area. Several student musicians played music alongside a slide show of photographs of local pollution. At Southport High School, a group of students all wore gasmasks to class to highlight air pollution. Logansport physics students marched through town sporting posters and signs. At Edinburgh, high school students even produced a television program “Project Earth Day,” aired on a Columbus news station that examined water, air, and land pollution in the area.
Despite the major successes of Earth Day, a lot of issues remained unsolved. Whitney M. Young Jr. addressed the major deficit of the Earth Day celebration and of the ensuing environmental movement, in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1970: Earth Day programs often failed to incorporate race or class into the problem of pollution. Though pollution was finally spreading to the suburbs, people of color had often been forced to live and work in places containing dangerous pollutants for years through zoning ordinances and prejudiced real estate practices. He noted, “I get the uneasy feeling that some people who have suddenly discovered the pollution issue embrace it because its basic concern is improving middle class life.” He concluded:
The choice isn’t between the physical environment and the human. Both go hand in hand, and the widespread concern with pollution must be joined by a similar concern for wiping out the pollutants of racism and poverty.
Earth Day did, however, inspire landmark legislation and institutions to address pollution. In later years, some environmental justice organizations tackled the issues Young brought up. Adam Rome notes Earth Day “inspired the formation of lobbying groups, recycling centers, and environmental studies programs. Earth Day also turned thousands of participants into committed environmentalists.” Before Earth Day, Americans addressed environmental issues in disjointed ways. Old conservation groups from the Progressive era focused mainly on wilderness preservation. Other groups focused on single issue campaigns, like air pollution. Earth Day pushed numerous related environmental concerns into one platform and provided a space for concerned citizens to come together and decide how America should fight the environmental crisis of the 1970s. The constituent support Earth Day garnered encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation after Earth Day, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Indiana politicians also dedicated more of their time to environmental issues after Earth Day. Governor Whitcomb started “Operation Cleansweep” in May 1970, a massive campaign to clean up polluted and littered landscapes across the state. On the first anniversary of Earth Day in 1971, Mayor Lugar launched Indianapolis’s first recycling program to collect cardboard and metal. Indiana also became the first state in the nation to ban phosphate detergents, which scientists discovered as a major polluter of waterways, in 1971. Additionally, more Hoosiers joined or formed environmental organizations to make sure the state government stayed on top of environmental regulation. For example, the Indiana Eco-Coalition formed in 1971 to serve as an umbrella organization to represent the majority of Indiana’s environmental activist groups and provide information on impending environmental legislation.
Clearly, when people shouted “Give Earth a Chance,” it worked.
On April 8, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau, working alongside historical marker applicants Tom Graham and Bob Hammel, members of the Bill Garrett family, staff from Indiana University, and a host of others, helped unveil a new state marker honoring Hoosier basketball star Bill Garrett. The timing of the dedication and commemoration of this important athlete in IU and Big Ten history was most fitting, coming just days after the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game and two weeks after Crispus Attucks won the 2017 Indiana high school basketball state tournament. It was Attucks’ first state basketball title since Garrett coached the team to victory in 1959.
The marker celebrates Garrett’s accomplishments as a player and coach, while also commemorating some of the men who helped him break the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement,” which barred African Americans from playing on Big Ten varsity basketball teams into the late 1940s.
On April 19, 2017, IHB is honored to dedicate a new state historical marker to commemorate another Hoosier hardwood hero, IU basketball player and coach Branch McCracken, who also had the distinction of coaching Garrett at IU from 1948-1951.
Emmett Branch McCracken was born in Monrovia in Morgan County, Indiana on June 9, 1908 to Charles and Ida McCracken. He attended Monrovia schools and became a star on his high school basketball team, leading the small town school to consecutive Tri-State Tournament championships in 1925 and 1926. The Tri-State Tournament was an annual basketball tournament played in Cincinnati between high school teams from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In 1925, the Muncie Star Press reported that fourteen of the fifty-three teams entered in the tournament that year were from Indiana, with Anderson, Columbus, and Logansport considered favorites. Not surprisingly, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune favored Logansport High School, coached by Cliff Wells, as “a leading contender for the title.” However, Logansport would lose in the semifinal game to Aurora High School, which McCracken’s Monrovia team would then defeat in the final, 29-21. After six consecutive victories, Monrovia had earned the title of Tri-State Tournament champion. Tournament officials selected McCracken on the mythical All Tri-State Team, a testament to the skills he exhibited during the tournament.
Monrovia returned to the tournament the following year as one of twelve Indiana teams to compete. The team won for the second year in a row, defeating Summitville High School (Indiana) in the final game, 19-17. In a December 1927 article, the Richmond Item reported that Monrovia’s high ranking during the 1926 tournament “was largely due to the playing of McCracken,” captain of Monrovia’s team. McCracken won highest individual honors for a player during the 1925 and 1926 Tri-State Tournaments when he received the medal for most valuable player both years. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune praised McCracken’s play in its February 27, 1926 issue, reporting that he had not only led the offense, but that he was also “the bulwark of the Monrovia defense.” According to the paper, “The star pivot player gave one of the best exhibitions of basketball displayed by any individual player here this season.”
After completing his senior year at Monrovia, McCracken entered Indiana University in the fall of 1926. In early November 1927, the Indianapolis Star reported that he was one of the chief candidates for the center position on IU’s basketball team for the upcoming season. His position on the varsity football team prevented him from joining basketball practice though until after November 19. After just a few games, the Star reported on December 18: “The first new man to come through with promise is Branch McCracken of Monrovia.”
McCracken may not have had much Big Ten basketball experience at the time, but he was already beginning to excel under Coach Everett Dean. On New Year’s Eve 1927, IU played the University of Cincinnati and defeated them, 56-41. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer the following day noted that McCracken “was high point man along with [Dale] Wells, the two accounting for 28 of Indiana’s points by virtue of their accurate shooting from various angles of the court.” The following game, IU defeated fellow Big Ten member the University of Chicago, 32-13. In this game, McCracken showed his true potential. According to IU yearbook, TheArbutus, he “became at once a hero and a marked man,” having scored 24 of the team’s 32 points. The Star also took note, writing: “With the Hoosier victory came a new Indiana star on the horizon in Branch McCracken . . . The Indiana sophomore scored eleven more points than the entire Chicago team.”
McCracken continued to be a strong presence on the court throughout the 1927-1928 season. Despite his youth, he was the high scorer for the Hoosiers and led the Big Ten Conference in scoring during most of the year, only losing the lead to Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan in the last few weeks of the season. McCracken finished the season tied for second place in conference scoring. In late November, he again turned in his football jersey to join the basketball squad for the 1928-1929 season. He returned as center and continued to put up big points, again finishing second in Big Ten scoring as a sophomore.
McCracken’s junior season in 1929-1930 would prove to be his best. According to IU’s yearbook TheArbutus:
After three years of hard struggle Capt. Branch McCracken plowed his way through the Conference foes to score a total of 147 points to top all other players and to break the all-time record set last year by [Charles ‘Stretch’] Murphy of Purdue. McCracken was one of the best pilots ever in charge of an Indiana basketball team and was named on nearly every all-conference team.
McCracken graduated from IU in 1930 and soon after accepted a position as head basketball coach at Ball State Teachers College (now Ball State University). An article in the Columbus Republic in 1938 noted that during his time coaching the Ball State Cardinals, he made them “a constant threat in Indiana collegiate conference competition,” leading them to an 86-57 record over eight seasons.
In late spring 1938, newspapers began reporting that IU basketball and baseball coach Everett Dean was close to accepting a basketball coaching position at Stanford University. McCracken, who had played under Dean at IU, was among those considered to replace the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. By June, IU hired McCracken as the school’s head basketball coach.
McCracken coached the Hoosiers to a 17-3 record in his first year with the team. It was a strong season, but one that would be eclipsed quickly the following year. McCracken’s squad finished the 1939-1940 regular season 20-3. Despite finishing second in the Big Ten, one game behind Purdue, IU was invited to represent the Midwest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Eastern tournament. IU had won all of its non-conference games and beat Purdue twice, while the Boilermakers had lost two non-conference games, bringing their total losses to four on the season.
On March 22, IU defeated Springfield College (Massachusetts), 48-24 in the first round of the Eastern tournament. The following day, the team topped Duquesne University, 39-30, earning the opportunity to play the “Phog” Allen coached University of Kansas team for the national college basketball championship. McCracken’s Hoosiers defeated Kansas 60-42 to claim IU’s first national basketball championship. In expressing his pride and congratulations to the team, IU President Herman B Wells told the squad “the game which you played at Kansas City was to the glory of yourselves, to Indiana basketball, and to Indiana University.”
In just his second season at the helm, McCracken led IU to their first national title, setting the bar high for the seasons to come. He would not let the school nor the state down. After a three-year break (1943-1946) to serve in the United States Navy, McCracken returned to his alma mater ready to resume his coaching responsibilities and again lead the Hoosiers to victory.
After starting the 1952-1953 season with a 1-2 record, McCracken’s team would go on to win its next seventeen straight games. By mid-January the United Press board of coaches ranked them fifth in the country. On February 23, 1953, IU trampled Purdue 113-78. According to the Indianapolis Star, IU’s 113 points in the game broke the previous Big Ten record of 103 set by the University of Iowa in 1944. By March 1, the Hoosiers were guaranteed sole claim to the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois, 91-79.
By the end of the regular season, Indiana’s record was 19-3, with seventeen conference wins to one loss. The team defeated DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, and Louisiana State University, in the postseason, earning the chance to play Kansas once again for the national championship on March 18. With thirty seconds remaining in the title game, Bob Leonard of the Hoosiers made his second of two free throws to give IU a 69-68 lead and their second national basketball title.
McCracken’s team won the Big Ten conference again the following year and twice more under him in 1957 and 1958. In 1960, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. The Indianapolis Star reported on the induction on April 27, 1960, noting that “Purdue and Indiana had hit the jackpot.” Three of the five men inducted as players were from the two universities: Charles (Stretch) Murphy and Johnny Wooden from Purdue, and McCracken from IU. Ward (Piggy) Lambert of Purdue was also one of the three coaches inducted that year.
In 1965, after twenty-four seasons, McCracken retired as head coach of IU’s varsity basketball team. Between his thirty-two years at Ball State and IU, his teams had amassed a 450-231 record (66% win percentage), complete with two NCAA titles, and four Big Ten titles. Reflecting on his experiences as coach, McCracken stated:
I’ve never regretted my profession. Taking kids and helping to make something out of them is the most rewarding part of my job. Basketball has been good to me. It’s made me lots of friends and I owe the game more than I can ever repay.
In September 1918, the sports reporter for the Bloomington Evening World wondered how the expanded Selective Service age range (revised to include 18-21 year olds) would affect the local high school basketball team’s prospects. Only two of Bloomington high’s players were young enough to be exempt from draft registration. A month later, the World reported that the influenza epidemic had incapacitated six of the squad’s fourteen players. The intrusion of World War I and a worldwide influenza pandemic disrupted the lives of many Hoosiers. In particular, this article explores how war and the Spanish flu affected Indiana athletes and sports. The Great War and the Great Pandemic had calamitous short-term effects on Indiana athletics, but long-term benefits in developing athletes and sporting culture in Indiana.
A month after Congress declared war in April 1917, the legislature passed the Selective Service Act re-instituting the military draft. The first draft registration began in June 1917 for men ages 21-31. A second draft registration occurred a year later in June 1918 for those who had turned 21 since the last draft, and by September 1918 Congress expanded the conscription ages from 18-45. Indiana as a state contributed 130,670 soldiers to the conflict, over 39,000 of them volunteers. Indiana University claimed that 35% of their alumni and current undergrads had enlisted. Purdue University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute stated that over 12% of their alumni were in the service, whereas Butler College [changed to university in 1925] and Quaker affiliated Earlham College counted around 2% of their graduates at war.
Enlistments of college men would ultimately erode the short-term quality of college athletics. A March 1918 article in Indiana University’s Indiana Daily Student reckoned that enlistments and the draft would reduce the number of quality players for the upcoming football season. At Wabash College, several athletes left school at the close of the 1917 football season and enlisted, including multi-sport star Francis Bacon. A Crawfordsville Journal reporter assessed that these athletes had attributes that would make them excellent soldiers. The reporter wrote, “Training, alertness, physical fitness and courage to tackle a hard task and stick to it along with the habit of “team work” have all contributed to their advancement [in the military].” Meanwhile in Lafayette, a Purdue sports reporter held out hope that Purdue’s athletes could avoid military service. He wrote, “If Uncle Sam can do without several of Purdue’s basketball stars until the present season is over, Purdue should be able to look forward to a very successful season.” Uncle Sam could not do without, and Purdue lost the athletic services of several basketball players as well as basketball Coach Ward Lambert, a future Naismith hall-of-famer, to the military.
College athletics experienced great uncertainty during the war, especially regarding the loss of student athletes to the military. South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call calculated that 13 of the 15 Notre Dame basketball players from recent years were in the armed forces, which was a higher service percentage than any of Notre Dame’s four major sports. Among Call’s statistics was multi-sport athlete, and basketball captain-elect Thomas King, who, in October 1917, awaited a summons to Camp Zachary Taylor, the mobilizing center for Indiana recruits near Louisville.
Similar to Notre Dame, IU lost three-sport letterman, and 1917 team basketball captain, Charles Severin Buschman, to the Army when he graduated at the end of the spring semester, enlisted, and received a captain’s commission in September 1918. College athletes who became officers in the armed forces came as no surprise to DePauw University coach Edbert C. Buss, who had seen seven of his football eleven* enlist. He assessed the military value of athletics and said, “We feel that college athletics is as big a factor in developing our men as any other department in the university, and it is a well known fact that army officers are picking football and basketball men for some of the most important branches of service.”Arguably the most-famous Indiana college (or ex-college) athlete to be drafted into the Army was 6’4” basketball sensation Homer Stonebraker of Wabash College. College authorities stripped Stonebraker of his collegiate athletic eligibility his senior season in 1917 because he violated his amateur status. Although not an active college athlete, the Army’s drafting of Stonebraker carried such importance that the New York Tribune and the Boston Herald both carried news items on the matter.
An Indiana Daily Student reporter surveyed the college athletic landscape at IU in 1918, and wrote the following:
Athletics at Indiana, like all other activities, have been materially affected this year by the war. Not only has the status of the primary sports been changed but nearly every one of last year’s stars who were eligible to play this year are in the service, and the participants for this season must be culled largely from the ranks of the inexperienced.
Curiously, even while experienced college-age men were leaving academia for the military, college enrollment grew. At IU, student enrollment increased, even though the quality of their athletics decreased. The Daily Student in October 1918 reported the largest enrollment in the history of the school with 1,953 students; 1,100 of that number were freshmen, and 875 of the freshmen were men, or 600 more males than the first year class enrolling in 1917. More males enrolled to take advantage of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) classes that were also available at Purdue, Notre Dame and other college campuses around the state. The 1918 freshman class at IU also saw a decrease in female enrollment: 695 down from 780 in 1917. The university authorities speculated that the decreased number of female enrollees was due to young women entering the workforce to take the place of men going to war.
The SATC proved a mixed blessing for the campuses that housed the corps. The War Department initially advised that intercollegiate football in institutions with SATCs be discontinued as a war measure. This policy would allow students to devote 14 hours a week to military drill and 42 hours a week to studying military tactics. Wabash College was without a SATC, and had no such time demands. The Crawfordsville college planned to proceed uninterrupted with their football schedule. The proposed change did not go over so well in football-crazed South Bend with first year coach Knute Rockne. The War Department ultimately backed off their initial proposal and instead set limits on travel, mandating that only two away games could be played during the season that would require the team to be absent from campus for more than 48 hours.
Another change the war prompted was changing freshman eligibility rules. Freshmen were eligible to compete in varsity athletics at smaller schools like Wabash and DePauw. Larger schools like IU, Purdue, and even Notre Dame prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity. While not concerned with varsity athletics specifically, the War Department encouraged mass athletics participation by every enrollee in the SATC so that “every man . . . may benefit by the physical development which . . . athletics afford.” The Daily Student reporter assessed this development:
Sports on a war basis will probably lose some of the excitement and glamour, but the benefits derived from them will be much greater than it has been in the past. Not a favored few, but the mass of the student body will profit by the advantages thus afforded.
Notre Dame Coach Rockne opposed freshman eligibility. The South Bend News-Times explained Rockne’s position: “men . . . might be strong football players but not genuine college students.” Representatives of the Big Ten and other Midwestern college athletic associations met in Chicago and voted to allow freshmen to play in 1918. While Rockne may have opposed the measure in principal, in practice it was a good decision since he had only two returning lettermen including the famous George Gipp. Among the freshmen Rockne coached in 1918 was Earl “Curly” Lambeau from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Notre Dame’s need for athletes was not unique. At IU, only six players, including three who had never played football before, turned out for the team’s first practice. IU football coach Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm remarked, “I have never before faced a season with so few experienced men to rely upon.” The Daily Student explained, “The teams will have to be built up almost entirely from green material, strengthened by men who had training on the freshmen squads throughout the year.” In Crawfordsville, seven Wabash College freshmen won varsity letters at the conclusion of the 1917 football season. To which the Crawfordsville Journal commented on the benefit, “This is an unusually large number of first year men to receive such recognition and the situation is brought about by war time conditions which have depleted the ranks of the older athletes. However, it is encouraging as it means that the majority of these men will be on hand to form the nucleus of next year’s team.”
As if the effects of mobilizing for war were not enough to inhibit Indiana athletics, the state also had to deal with an influenza epidemic. Indiana health authorities reported the first cases of influenza in September 1918. While the flu pandemic in Indiana was less severe than in other parts of America, it still afflicted an estimated 350,000 Hoosiers, and claimed 10,000 lives between September 1918 and February 1919. In October 1918, the South Bend News-Times reported on how the flu impacted college football:
Already staggering under the new military regulations, middle western football was dealt another blow tonight when a score of colleges and universities cancelled gridiron games scheduled for tomorrow because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Nearly 20 of the 30 odd games scheduled were called off. Reports received at Chicago indicated that some of the games had been called off because members of the teams were slightly indisposed, others because of probable attendance due to the influenza epidemic, and still others for the reason that it is feared crowds cause a spread of the disease.
Authorities cancelled the first three games on Notre Dame’s 1918 schedule on account of flu quarantines. Health officials even forced Rockne to cancel a practice. IU football coaches cancelled the team’s season finale, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day in Indianapolis, on account of the influenza situation in the capitol city.
The flu also affected high school sports. Bloomington High School expected to play their first basketball game of the season on October 18, but the city’s influenza quarantine forced the team to cancel games against Waldron, Orleans, Mitchell, Sullivan, Greencastle, and Indianapolis Technical. Coach Clifford Wells hoped that they could open their season on December 6 against 1918 runner-up Anderson. Hoping to stay sharp, the team played an exhibition game against an alumni team on November 17, but it was not much of an exhibition since health officials mandated the gym doors be closed to the public. The team succeeded in playing their first inter-scholastic game 43 days after their season was set to begin when they defeated Greencastle in Greencastle on November 29. The Bloomington team did not expect to play a home game until after the New Year on account of the flu.
At South Bend, the high school cancelled the first game of the season against Elkhart on account of the flu. They scheduled a replacement game against Michigan City, who had not practiced much indoors on account of the flu. The next game on the schedule against LaPorte was cancelled for the same reason. A replacement game against Valparaiso saw South Bend at half strength as one player was recovering from the flu, and two others had fallen ill.
While the Great Pandemic in Indiana officially lasted from September 1918 to February 1919, another wave of severe respiratory problems afflicted Indiana the following winter as well. In South Bend, there were 1,800 reported cases of the flu in January 1920. Notre Dame basketball coach Gus Dorais was among the afflicted and lay in the hospital for weeks. In his absence, Knute Rockne took over coaching the basketball team. Mishawaka High School lost a star player for the season on account of an attack of pneumonia that nearly cost him his life. At Goshen High School, basketball captain Clement McMahon recovered from scarlet fever, only to die a short time later from double pneumonia.
The effects of war and disease should have been enough to end competitive inter-scholastic sports for at least one season. Instead, Hoosier athletes played on. The ordeals Indiana sportsmen experienced at home and abroad strengthened athletic teams, developed sporting culture, and contributed to the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. As one observer noted, “On every side there is convincing evidence that the war has and will prove a great stimulus to sport.”
The playing experience first-year college athletes gained while upperclassmen were away became a competitive advantage to teams in the war’s immediate aftermath. As a Notre Dame sports reporter observed, Rockne made “a team out of a lot of fatheads” whose year of seasoning “will bring back the [glory] days [of Notre Dame].” Major college athletic associations rescinded freshmen eligibility after the war, but they allowed the athletes who had competed as freshmen to have a total of four years of athletic eligibility.
The combination of game-tested underclassmen, returning war-tested veterans, and an infusion of good athletes from the SATC who remained in college after demobilization produced extremely strong post-war teams. The best example of this was at Purdue for the 1919-20 season. Coach Lambert returned from his military service, which was enough of a boost in and of itself for the Boilermakers’ prospects. Several pre-war veterans returned to the court and joined four returning lettermen from the previous season. United Press reporter Heze Clark, who had followed college basketball for 25 years, forecasted a strong season for Purdue that should “net them not only the Big Ten Championship, but also western collegiate high honors.” Purdue ended the season as runner-up in the Big Ten, but they tied for the lead the following season, won the Big Ten outright in 1922, and continued to have strong teams throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The war’s aftermath not only created stronger teams it also gave an incredible boost to American sporting culture in terms of increased public interest and participation in sports. The fact that sports continued to be played during a war and in spite of a national health pandemic shows that sports meant something special to Americans, perhaps as an escape from worldly worries. In military camps, soldiers regularly engaged in boxing, baseball, basketball and football in military camps. In some cases, soldiers gained exposure to sports they never played, which developed not only new athletes, but also new sports enthusiasts. This was not unlike the growth baseball experienced after the Civil War when soldiers learned the game in camps, and brought it back to their communities after the war. One newspaper reporter assessed, “With thousands of Uncle Sam’s soldier boys equipped with baseball, boxing and football paraphernalia while in the service, thousands of young bloods coming [home] . . . will demand red-blooded recreations and pastimes on a larger scale than ever before and the country at large weary of death-dealing conflicts and grateful for the chance to relax, sports should thrive on a greater scale than ever.”
Reporters all around America drew the same conclusions. International News Service reporter Jack Veiock observed, “In spite of the war and the hardships it worked in college circles, the pigskin is being booted about by more elevens* today than in any season that has passed.” He observed that public interest had not only increased for the sport, but participation exploded in colleges and army camps. Men who had never even tried the sport drove the increased participation. A syndicated article printed in the News-Times agreed, “Boys who came away from desks to go into the fight have come back trained men who will want to continue in good red blooded competition. . . . The war has made an athletic team of about four million men.” South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call added,
This world conflict has proved a number of things but none more emphatically than that intercollegiate athletics, often as they have been questioned in time of peace, have made sinewy and adroit the army of a nation hastening to the ordeal of battle.
Another positive effect of World War I on sports was the growth and emergence of professional athletics in Indiana, including football, but specifically basketball. Professional football had a weak hold in Indiana in the early-twentieth century. Pine Village was a notable professional team before the war. After the war, Hammond was an inaugural member of the American Professional Football Association/National Football League from 1920-26.
On the other hand, professional basketball in Indiana boomed in the 1920s. Todd Gould in his book Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball just gives passing reference to the war and does not examine the impact war mobilization, male social fraternization, athletic competition in military camps, and demobilization had in the birth of professional basketball. During the war, an all-star amateur squad of members of the 137th Field Artillery, which was constituted of men from northern Indiana, fielded a basketball team in France to compete against other military units. Many such groups of athletic veterans would continue to play as league-independent teams, often with local business sponsorship after the war.
Indiana’s basketball star, Homer Stonebraker, made the acquaintance of Clarence Alter while serving in France. In pre-war civilian life, Alter managed an independent basketball team in Fort Wayne that competed against other independent clubs in the state. Alter and Stonebraker discussed joining forces after they were discharged. Their relationship became the basis of the Fort Wayne Caseys, one of Indiana’s most successful, early professional basketball teams. Alter recruited other veterans for the team, including Stonebraker’s old Wabash teammate Francis Bacon. Semi-professional teams cropped up all around the state in the 1920s in cities such as Bluffton, Hartford City, Huntington, Indianapolis, and Richmond. The athletes on these teams were often former local high school stars, but more often than not they were also veterans.
The Great War and the Great Pandemic changed sports in Indiana. In the face of severe, outside adversity, sports emerged from the war with greater popularity. In high school basketball, attendance at the state basketball tournament went from 2,500 before and during the war to 15,000 several years later. More racial diversity slowly appeared on high school teams because of the influx of African-American emigrants from the South during the war (although segregated black high schools were barred from IHSAA competition until 1942, individual black athletes could be on teams at non-segregated schools). Some military veterans returned to college and gave a boost to college sports fandom, if not actually contributing on the field of play. The veterans who returned home probably had a greater appreciation if not love of sports from being exposed to them in camp life. This rise in post-war interest in sports strongly contributed to the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, and the adulation of sports heroes like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Rockne.
*“Elevens” is a term commonly used at this time to refer to the eleven players on a football team. Similarly, baseball teams were often called “nines” and basketball teams “fives” or “quintets.”
In 1917, basketball was only twenty-five years old. Indiana high school basketball was a bit younger than that, and the state tournament was only in its seventh year (its sixth under Indiana High School Athletic Association control). Hoosier Hysteria was quickly taking root, as year after year more high school teams entered sectional tournaments with dreams of hardwood glory. Basketball in Lebanon began a bit later than other communities, but it quickly became a favorite sport of the town’s teenage boys. The school team’s reputation and skill-level improved year after year and culminated in a state title in 1912. Many influential figures in basketball’s development in the state walked the halls of Lebanon High School in the 1910s. The following narrative provides an overview of some of those people, and their accomplishments that culminated in Lebanon winning a second state basketball title in 1917.
Lebanon High School’s coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert was among the best Indiana high school coaches in the nineteen-teens. He came to Lebanon after their first state championship, and started coaching in the fall of 1912. He won 79% of his games in four seasons on the bench. His teams were perennial title contenders. Perhaps the best team that he coached at Lebanon was the 1914 squad, which due to an unfortunate draw in the state tournament played six games in a little over twenty-four hours before succumbing to fatigue and the well-rested, Homer Stonebraker-led, Wingate team, which won the 1914 crown. In 1915, Thorntown’s team surprised Coach Lambert’s squad in the sectional, and went on to win the 1915 title. Lambert and his boys reclaimed the sectional in 1916, but suffered a narrow, and disappointing defeat to Martinsville in the second round of the state tournament.
Lebanon projected to return most of its team the following season, including two impressive underclassmen who were first and third on the team in scoring. Unfortunately, Coach Lambert would not return for a fifth season. In the summer of 1916, he became the head basketball coach at Purdue University where he would go on to a hall-of-fame career, and positively influence generations of players, including John Wooden. Lebanon’s high school administrators hired Wabash College graduate Alva R. Staggs to replace Lambert, and teach English. However, Lambert’s coaching in the years before had honed athletic skills, developed high basketball IQs, and created a winning culture in his high school charges, and set the stage for Staggs’ successful season.
THE REGULAR SEASON
Due to injuries and eligibility issues, the 1916-17 Lebanon squad did not start the season as anticipated. Three year letterman and team captain Frank “Doc” Little, who played back guard, would miss most of his senior season due to a hip injury. Gerald Gardner, who the Indianapolis News described as “evasive as a mosquito,” had been a third team all-tournament player in ’16 after accounting for 42% of Lebanon’s points. Yet, academic eligibility issues erased most of the forward’s junior season.
Even with these personnel losses, the Lebanon coach and players adapted. Staggs cycled through six different starting line-ups in the first ten games of the season. The two constants in the line-up were floor guard Don White and back guard Clyde Grater. White, a junior, was the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore and would retain the honor for the rest of his high school career. Grater, a sophomore, was in his first year on the varsity. At 5’ 8½” in height, he was much shorter than the prototypical back guard who was at this time the tallest and heaviest player on the team. Despite his average stature, Grater played the defensively-obsessed role very well. Other players who started for Lebanon in the early part of the season were George White (Don’s older brother), Charles “Dutch” Frank, Bob Ball, Harry “Peck” DeVol (the Whites’ first cousin), and Fred “Cat” Adam (the second-leading scorer from the previous season).
Lebanon rolled through the first half of the season. They compiled an 9-0 record against Veedersburg, Advance, Rockville, Washington, New Richmond (twice), Thorntown, Lafayette Jefferson, and Martinsville. The squad averaged ten points better than their opponents during this span. The game against defending state champ Lafayette Jeff was such an anticipated early season event that a Jeff physics teacher sent in-game updates via wireless to an amateur radio operator in Lebanon. The Lebanon receiver subsequently relayed updates of the game to local businesses via telephone.
After the triumph over Jeff, a few cracks appeared in the quality of the team’s play. A revenge-hungry New Richmond team played a physically rough game in which Lebanon escaped with a five point lead. In the next game, Lebanon had to go into overtime to defeat Martinsville by a last second field goal. They returned home to play Advance, and the wheels fell off. The up-start Boone County rival shellacked Lebanon, 28-6. A week later Lebanon lost to another Boone County team in Thorntown, 30-20.
Although on a two-game losing streak, the “Black and Gold” had a 9-2 record and a favorable schedule ahead against Frankfort (twice), Crawfordsville (twice), an away game against Rochester, and home games against Jeff, Washington, Martinsville, and Bedford. Over the final ten games, Coach Staggs settled on a regular line-up of DeVol and Adam at forwards, Ball at center, and White and Grater in the back court. With this line-up, Staggs fielded a trio of his best scorers. White was the team’s most consistent scorer all season with ten points per game. Ball and Adam disappointed over the first ten games with averages of less than three points. However, once inserted into the starting line-up the duo averaged ten points a piece over the final 10 games. With five games left in the season, “Doc” Little and Gerald Gardner returned to the team. Their immediate contributions were minimal, but they bolstered the bench of a booming Lebanon team. Over the final nine games, the Lebanon cagers routed their opponents by over 26 points a game. On the season, the team compiled an 18-2 record, with an offensive average of 33.15 points a game, and a defensive average of 17.9 points against.
THE SECTIONAL TOURNEY
The Indiana High School Athletic Association selected Lebanon as a district host for a sectional tournament, which was held on March 9 and 10, 1917. The townsfolk welcomed squads and fans from Boone, Carroll, and Clinton counties, including: Advance, Bringhurst, Burlington, Colfax, Cutler, Delphi, Flora, Frankfort, Jamestown, Kirklin, Thorntown, and Zionsville. Don White and company had little trouble with their first two sectional opponents, Cutler and Delphi, and defeated the Carroll County teams by an average margin of victory of 59 points.
Their next challenger, Thorntown, would present a much tougher match-up. The friendly rivals had split their regular season series. Thorntown also had the advantage of having three players and a coach from their championship season in 1915. The scores were close throughout the sectional game. Thorntown held a 10-9 lead at intermission. This was only the third time all season that Lebanon trailed at half time, and they lost on the previous two occasions. Don White determined to not let it happen again. He came out white hot in the second half with seven unanswered points. His scoring whipped the fans into a frenzy. Thorntown was down seven with a quarter to play. They clawed back, and cut Lebanon’s lead to three, but a series of miscues including two missed free throws sealed the fate of the Sugar Creek Township team.
Prognosticators picked the sectional final between Lebanon and Advance to be another tough contest, especially after Advance’s surprise victory over Lebanon at mid-season. However, Advance lost their star player to injury in the semi-final. To compound matters for Advance, Lebanon’s bench depth allowed Coach Staggs to flex his line-up to rest his regular starters and give “Doc” Little and Gardner some additional playing time. In the final, White’s 17 points almost outscored Advance single-handedly as Lebanon powered past Advance, 37-18.
THE STATE FINALS
On March 16, twenty sectional winners convened at Indiana University to vie for the state title. Lebanon played three uncompetitive contests in the early rounds to advance to the finals. They sank Trafalgar in their first contest, 34-14. In the quarterfinals, the Lebanonites left Kendallville tilting at windmills, 43-8. In the semis, the Boone County boys sent Martinsville packing, 36-12.
The final pitted Lebanon against the speedy Gary Emerson team. The majority of the crowd of 4,000 rallied behind the underdogs from Gary at the start. Yet the crowd grew silent as Lebanon built a 25-15 lead by half time. The Steel City team went on a run in the second half to make it a three point game. With the score at 25-22, Lebanon surged ahead with a 9-4 run to ice the game, 34-26. White and Adam tied for team highs with ten points a piece.
With the win, Lebanon won its second state championship. White was a consensus all-state tournament first team member. Adam, Little, and DeVol appeared on various all-tournament lists either on the first or second teams.
Coach Staggs left Lebanon after the school year to accept a job at Anderson High School. Little, DeVol, and Frank would join mid-season graduate George White in the ranks of Lebanon alumni. Bob Ball although technically a junior would leave high school and enter DePauw University, depriving the team of its second leading scorer. Yet the core of White, Grater, and Adam would return for the 1917-18 season. Under the tutelage of a new coach, Glenn Curtis, and a younger cast of supporting characters they would win the state tournament again, and join the historical annals with Wingate as back-to-back state champions.
After graduating in 1918, Don White reunited with his old coach, Ward Lambert, and continued his athletic career at Purdue. He was second in the Big Ten in scoring as a sophomore, and led the conference in scoring as a junior while also leading the university to the conference title in 1921. After college, White entered the coaching ranks where he had a thirty-five year career at Washington University (St. Louis), the University of Connecticut, and Rutgers. He even coached Thailand’s Olympic team in 1956.
After high school, Adam and Grater teamed together again at Wabash College where they were multi-sport athletes, and fixtures in the basketball line-up. After graduation they both became high school teachers and coaches.
During his 50 year career, Norman Norell crafted beautiful costumes, worked under war-time limitations, resisted pressure to substitute quality for quantity, and worked to bring the NYC fashion houses on Seventh Avenue on par with those of Paris. During his time in the industry, Norell managed to escape the pomp and circumstance of New York City and is remembered for leading a simple, “moral” life in the often cutthroat world of high-class fashion design.
Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. His father, Harry, owned and operated a men’s clothing store in the town and this is undoubtedly where he developed an eye for fashion. Harry soon opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis, and in 1905 moved the family to the city once the business experienced success. Norman completed high school in Indianapolis then moved to New York to begin his fashion education at Parsons Institute. At 19, he began studying at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fashion illustration. It was here that he combined the first syllable of his first name with the “l” sound of the beginning of his last name and adopted the name Norell.
His early years in the fashion industry were spent designing costumes. He designed for a variety of projects, including silent film, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. Norell costumed Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and Gloria Swanson in Zaza, but soon shifted his focus to women’s apparel. In 1928 he began a 12 year stint working for Hattie Carnegie. While a “fierce perfectionist . . . brilliant in her own way,” her process was considered fairly unoriginal – she bought pieces from Parisian couturiers, pulled them apart in New York, and turned them into more affordable clothes for her American clientele. Original or not, working with Carnegie gave Norell invaluable experience by visiting the Paris fashion houses and allowed him to fully understand the construction of women’s clothing. After a falling out with Carnegie over his designs for the Broadway production Lady in the Dark, Norell left and joined forces with Anthony Triana to form Triana-Norell in 1941.
Although he was a salaried employee of Triana, Norell was the designer of the company and as such was making waves in the fashion world. Bonwit Teller said of the new fashion house in the October 1941 edition of VOGUE, “The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone’s talking.” Just two months after that article ran, the United States’ entry into World War II changed nearly every industry in America, including fashion.
Up until this point in the 20th century, women’s clothing styles changed at a faster pace than ever before. Silhouettes changed entirely about every 10 years, much more quickly than in previous eras. War time restrictions stopped this fast progress in its tracks. On March 8, 1942 the War Production Board issued limitation order number 85, or L-85, which set rules for the production of women’s clothing. Manufactures were banned from making blouses with hoods, blouses with more than one pocket, coats with epaulets, coats with sleeve circumference larger than 16 ½ inches, and reversible skirts. All of these measures reduced the use of material used for clothing production. Hems, which for the previous years had been widening from the sleek, narrow skirts of the 1920s, were reduced from 81 inches to 78 inches. These restrictions challenged American fashion designers, one which Norman Norell met.
Drawing inspiration from his favorite era of fashion, the 1920s, Norell introduced the chemise dress, or shirt dress in 1942. This design featured a simple round neckline, a departure from the “fussy” necklines of the time. The simplicity of this trend worked well within the restrictions imposed by L-85 and chemise dresses, along with a fur-trimmed trench coat, became the staple of the Traina-Norell label.
World War II cut American designers off from their long time inspirational lifeline of the Paris fashion houses. Until this point, American designers took their lead almost exclusively from Paris (recall Hattie Carnegie’s method of deconstructing Parisian pieces previously discussed). In 1942, Coty, Inc. introduced the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Awards to address this issue by promoting original American fashion design during the war. Fashion editor Bernadine Morris later wrote, “What Norman Norell had accomplished in the first collection was to give American fashion – producers and wearers alike – a freedom from dependence on foreign sources of inspiration. The American industry felt it could set its own directions, its own styles.”
Norell never compromised on quality; oftentimes, a single suit jacket would take a week to stitch. This quality came with a price tag, though. One article said, “Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades.” The prices for a Traina-Norell piece ranged from $500 for a simple jersey dress to upwards of $4,000 for an evening gown.
The Traina-Norell brand continued to set trends throughout it’s nearly twenty year existence. Oftentimes, competitors would copy his designs and sell them for much less. This was so common that the year before he introduced his revolutionary wool culottes suit, he offered the pattern to any manufacturer who wanted it in order to prevent the manufacture of inferior versions of the design. One of his signature evening looks, the “mermaid dress” would not look out-of-place at a gala today. Other signature designs of Norell included the 1961 wide-flaring skirt, impeccably designed coats, the evening jumpsuit, and sweater topped dresses.
In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and Norell began his solo carter with the Norell fashion house. Although the name of the brand had changed, the reputation for high quality, long-lasting clothing stayed the same. During his career, Norell won the Coty award three times and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. When the Coty Awards were discontinued in 1985, Coty’s parent company said it was because they had achieved their goal of bringing American fashion houses to the same level of those in Paris, and there’s little doubt that Norell played a big role in that.
Norman Norell became known as the dean of American Fashion and was active in the industry up until his death on October 25, 1972, just before a retrospective exhibit of his work was to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was to open. Even today, Norell pieces are highly sought after and sell for high prices in vintage clothing shops. In December 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage Norell dress at a White House Christmas party, one of the few times a first lady has worn a vintage piece at an official White House event.
View over 200 Traina-Norell and Norell pieces on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.
On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.
While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:
It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.
Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3
Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.
A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.
Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.
Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.
Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.
The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:
Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.
While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.
These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).
The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.
In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”
Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:
These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . . We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.
In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”
Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.
It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.
Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.
Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:
Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.
In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.
Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.
For all of basketball’s cultural worth to the state, finding a photo of a basketball game from before the 1920s is a difficult task. Early basketball team photographs are rather plentiful, and frequently appeared in yearbooks, and newspapers. Action shots are much rarer, likely due to early-20th century Hoosiers having cameras that required long exposure times, which were unable to clearly capture moving subjects.
The introductory photo at the top of this blog post is the earliest that the Indiana Historical Bureau has yet to encounter of Indiana high school basketball players on the court, and about to play a game. The story behind the picture is an interesting one. The photo depicts the teams from Wingate High School and Kokomo High School before a January 16, 1915 game at the Kokomo Y.M.C.A. This moment was photographically commemorated because Wingate was the defending state champion, having won back-to-back titles in 1913 and 1914. Situated in northwestern Montgomery County, Wingate was a small school with only 67 students. Among those enrolled in that student body, however, was one of the best Indiana basketball players of that generation, Homer Stonebraker. The 6’4″ Stonebraker was a giant among his competitors. In 15 of the 18 box scores that research could uncover from Wingate’s 1913-14 regular season, Stonebraker averaged 24.9 points a game. By comparison, Wingate’s opponents only generated 17.3 points a game. After leading Wingate to consecutive state titles, Stonebraker graduated in 1914, and matriculated at Wabash College where he continued his athletic success and eventually carved out an eleven season career playing with professional clubs and early American Basketball League affiliates like the Fort Wayne Caseys, the Detroit McCarthys, and the Chicago Bruins.
Wingate was hardly the same team after Stonebraker’s graduation. On the eve of their Kokomo game in 1915 they could not even boast about their 5-6 record. To complicate their season, they cancelled most of their December games as a result of the entire town falling under a small pox quarantine. Despite their struggles, fans and the press continued to hype any contest against Wingate. The Kokomo Tribune announced:
This game Saturday will be the most important home game for the locals this season. Wingate’s team is a real championship contender again this year and a victory for Kokomo would mean that we also have a team of first class ability.
The very calm composure of the players in the photo taken before the game hardly indicated the animosity that developed in the ensuing contest. Kokomo lost the contentious game 31-15. The Indianapolis Star reported that “Wild scenes, which threatened frequently to break up the game, marked the second period of play and may result in . . . breaking off athletic relations.” The hired referee failed to show up for the game. Consequently, the two schools agreed to let a representative of each of the respective teams officiate one half each. Wingate led 13-7 at half time with Kokomo’s ex-player Tyner Spruce officiating. Wingate’s coach Hugh Vandivier refereed the second half and according to the newspaper reports showed favoritism to his own team, which drew the ire of the Kokomo fans. Ultimately, both squads would finish the season with disappointing records [Wingate (11-8) and Kokomo (7-10)], and neither team would advance out of their division tournaments to qualify for the state tournament.
Attempts at basketball action photography continued to be a novelty throughout most of the 1910s. The 1918 title game between Lebanon and Anderson is one of the earliest-known attempts to photograph an Indiana high school championship game. Even then the visual chronicle leaves much to be desired, as the camera’s exposure time had yet to catch up to the action on the court. All of the players are out of focus, and several are nothing more than blurs in the image. Despite this, these pictures can give modern viewers small windows to glimpse the earliest years of Hoosier Hysteria.
For your bonus enjoyment, here’s another photo of a non-high school basketball practice from the 1912 Purdue University yearbook, The Debris. This photo is likely posed, which is why all the players are in focus with the exception of the top right defender’s blurry arms.
Do you know of any Indiana basketball action photographs that are earlier or contemporary with these shown here? If so, let us know at email@example.com.