Wednesday, April 29, 2015

An Empty Victory...

The Jan. 17, 1948, game against Duke was canceled after Frank Thompson Gym was condemned.

What if someone held a sporting event and no one came?

The Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox will find out today when they meet at Orioles Park at Camden Yards with no fans allowed to attend because of violence that has disrupted the city for the last week. It’s the first game in Major League Baseball history to be played in front of an empty stadium, the last four years of the Montreal Expos notwithstanding.

(There was a Miami Marlins doubleheader on Aug. 24, 2011, where the unofficial headcount for first pitch was 347, thanks to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene.)

It certainly won’t be the first sporting event without spectators, however. In my first job as a sportswriter, I worked at the Salisbury (N.C.) Post during an outbreak of red measles in 1989 that resulted in a three-week quarantine and suspension of all athletics activities.

Measles are highly communicable, of course, and just because you are immunized doesn’t mean you are protected because the immunization, at the time, was not 100 percent effective.

Schools from other counties refused to play Rowan County schools. Catawba College canceled its men’s and women’s basketball seasons after Jan. 9 and didn’t play again. More than 1,000 students in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties had to postpone taking the SAT.

The outbreak was nationwide and hit North Carolina particularly hard, with cases reported in 60 of 100 counties. Even at NC State, after a student was diagnosed with measles, students who couldn’t show proof of immunization were not allowed to attend class. A quick immunization center was set up at the student center to give shots to more than 1,200 students and 150 faculty who didn’t have immunization records.

As the outbreak eased, there was a limited quarantine that allowed the high schools to resume their seasons with an odd solution: Only players and support personnel who could prove they were vaccinated were allowed to attend.

I got my immunization records from my parents and was able to cover several of the games without fans. You think it’s loud in a basketball gym? The sound of one ball bouncing, echoing off the walls and empty stands, is surprisingly deafening.

This went on for a couple of weeks. Teams were not allowed to make up all the games that were missed because the North Carolina High School Athletic Association limited all its teams to just three games per week. The tournament seedings were based on won-loss percentage. (College basketball was also affected: the East Coast Athletics Conference played its entire tournament that year without spectators.)

There was also a long-forgotten NC State men’s basketball game that was played in an empty arena, during the first season after men’s basketball changed its name from the Red Terrors to the Wolfpack.

On Jan. 17, 1948, a game between the Wolfpack and neighboring Duke was canceled when Thompson Gym was condemned by order of Raleigh city building inspector Pallie Magnum because the building had inadequate fire exits for a crowd of more than 1,200. A game against North Carolina a year before was also canceled by the fire marshal because there were too many fans in attendance.

The Wolfpack was forced to move its final seven home games that year to Raleigh’s downtown Memorial Auditorium.

There wasn’t enough time, however, to get the auditorium ready for the Pack’s next home game, against High Point College, since the floor needed to be refinished, sidelines and free-throw lines needed to be painted and baskets needed to be erected.

After initially canceling the game, officials from both schools agreed to play the game at Thompson Gym with no fans in attendance. Only a few reporters and college officials were allowed to see the high scoring game.
Red-headed All-America forward Dick Dickey had a school record 29 points in the contest and teammate Jack McComas added 23. Case’s Wolfpack ran rough-shod over the High Pointers with a 110-50 victory over the High Pointers.

It was the highest scoring game in NC State history until David Thompson came along three dozen years later. It was also the last game Case ever coached in Thompson Gym, where he compiled a perfect 18-0 record in his one-and-a-half seasons as his first home court.

The move to downtown Raleigh lit a fire under school officials to complete the shell of the on-campus coliseum that had been standing dormant since 1941. It didn’t hurt that during an 81-42 victory over North Carolina at the Pack’s substitute home, students finished off the game by chanting “We want a coliseum. We want a coliseum.”

Construction restarted on what would become Reynolds Coliseum in the summer of 1948 and the doors opened on Dec. 2, 1949, in a game against Washington & Lee.

The vagabond Pack didn’t seem to be affected by its home-court flux throughout the season. It was the highest-scoring team in the nation for most of the season and it earned the school’s first No. 1 ranking in the national polls. Thanks to a 19-game winning streak from December-March, the Pack finished 29-3 overall, was a perfect 12-0 in the Southern Conference regular season, won the second of six consecutive league tournament titles, despite Dickey being out of the lineup with a case of the mumps.

Passed over by the NCAA in favor of eventual national-champion Kentucky for the eight-team NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack accepted its second consecutive bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Without Dickey, the Pack lost to DePaul in the first round at Madison Square Garden.

Still, it was the most successful season in NC State basketball history until the 1972-73 team posted a perfect 27-0 record, when the stands were full for every game.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Four-Sport Star Dave Robertson

1917 National League champion New York Giants
Most Wolfpack fans have never heard of Dave Robertson, one of new six inductees into the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame announced on Wednesday. Maybe that's because he was born the year the school opened its doors in 1889 and died more than 45 years ago. Also, the soft-spoken former Virginia state game warden didn't talk much about his athletic accomplishments, even to his family.
At the North Carolina School for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts from 1909-12, Robertson was a four-sport standout, excelling at football, baseball and track. For good measure, he was on A&M's first basketball team, which played a pair of games against Wake Forest, a school where Robertson attended for one year before moving south a few miles to Raleigh, in 1911.

I first discovered and wrote the following story about Robertson's place as NC State's first significant professional athlete in the book
NC State Basketball: 100 Years of Innovation. Here's what made Robertson a hall of famer.
NC A&M pitcher and third baseman Dave Robertson.
One of the two reserves on the first basketball team was Dave Robertson, a sophomore from Norfolk, Va. Robertson played only a few moments as a backup center in the two games against Wake Forest’s Baptists, but he eventually became the first accomplished professional athlete in the early history of North Carolina A&M.

Davis Aydelotte Robertson (b. Sept. 25, 1889–d. Nov. 5, 1970) was a four-sport letterman during his college days, whose speed in football, basketball and baseball was rivaled only by teammate Harry Hartsell. On the track, he excelled at the 100-yard dash, the broad jump and the high hurdles.
It was on the baseball diamond, where he played third base and pitched, that Robertson was a superstar, paving the way for future NC State multi-sport stars like Roman Gabriel, Tim Stoddard, Andrew Brackman and Russell Wilson.

Robertson was a terror at the plate and he and future football and basketball coach Tal Stafford gave the Farmers a 1-2 pitching punch that was second to none in the southeast. In Robertson’s final year, A&M lost only two games all season.

His greatest achievement in college came on April 15, 1911, when the sophomore lefthander struck out 23 batters in a 5-2 victory over Guilford College at Riddick Field. The Agromeck breathlessly proclaimed it to be “the world’s college strike-out record” and “the greatest performance of its kind ever to fall to the lot of an amateur pitcher.” In fact, it is a record that no individual NC State pitcher has matched in the 100 years since. It wasn’t until the spring of 2009, in an 18-inning game against Akron, that a Wolfpack team surpassed Robertson’s single-game total, as the staff combined to strike out 31 batters in the longest game in NC State baseball history.

A local scout who saw the game against the Quakers recommended Robertson to legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw, whose team was in the midst of winning three consecutive National League pennants. McGraw agreed to sign the young pitcher if he promised not to play football the following fall. Robertson, the team's top halfback and kick returner, talked the crusty manager into letting him play in three games for the Farmers during the 1911 season.
Football halfback
Against Bucknell in the season’s second game, however, Robertson suffered a career-altering shoulder injury in a mass pileup of players.

“He had the shoulder strapped up and went back into the game. But he was speedily put out of commission with another damaged shoulder, and as that exhausted his supply of shoulders, he quit,” said a 1916 story in The Baseball Magazine. “Later it came to light that both shoulders were broken, although he didn’t realize it in the heat of battle.”

The football injuries cost Robertson his pinpoint control on the mound, but not McGraw’s commitment to signing him to a professional contract. He became an excellent outfielder, known for his combination of speed and power that earned him the nickname "The National League's Ty Cobb."

Less than three months after leaving A&M (and only seven weeks after the Titanic sank), Robertson made his major league debut for McGraw on June 5, 1912 in a 22-10 blowout against the Cincinnati Reds. The Giants, en route to an NL-leading 103 wins and 828 runs, didn’t really need Robertson’s power and speed that season, so he played in only three games.

He spent all of 1913 with the Mobile (Alabama) Sea Gulls in the South Atlantic League, where he batted .335 and smacked a whooping (during the dead-ball era) 11 home runs. He returned to the Giants in 1914 as a utility player. In 1915 and ’16, Robertson tied for the National League home run championship, with 12 in each season.
Robertson loved to tell the story of how one of his homers in 1915 cost him the unheard of sum of $100.
“We were playing the Chicago Cubs in the Polo Grounds in 1915. We had a man on base and John McGraw instructed me to bunt,” Robertson once told the Virginian Pilot newspaper. “A fat pitch came over and I couldn’t resist. I slammed the ball into the right field bleachers for a homer, winning the game 3-2.

With the Giants, Robertson played right field.
“But instead of receiving congratulations for my feat, McGraw said the homer would cost me $100 for disobeying orders.”

He was the starting rightfielder for the Giants in the 1917 World Series against “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox. Robertson had 11 hits in 22 at-bats against the White Sox, becoming the first player in baseball history to get a hit in every championship game. His .500 batting average also set a record that stood for 36 years until it was broken by New York Yankees outfielder Billy Martin.

He after stints with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, Robertson returned to the Giants in 1922, but did not play in the only fall classic played in one stadium, the Polo Grounds, which both the Giants and the Yankees called home at the time.

His major league career ended because of a knee injury after nine seasons.

Robertson served as state game warden for 28 years after his baseball career ended and successfully operated a sporting goods store. He died at the age of 89 on Nov. 5, 1970 in Virginia Beach, Va.
Five Fun Facts
  • The opposing pitcher in Robertson’s recording-setting game against Guilford was future major leaguer Ernie Shore, longtime sheriff of Forsyth County and the namesake for Winston-Salem's minor league ball park. Shore was famous for pitching a perfect game in the majors after replacing Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth, who was ejected after arguing with the umpire when he walked the first batter of the game.
  • In one of his biggest brushes with fame, Robertson was sent in to replace Jim Thorpe in right field in Game 5 of the 1917 World Series, the only major league game Thorpe ever played.
  • On Aug. 30, 1921, Robertson became just the 29th player of the modern baseball era (44th overall) to hit for the cycle.
  •   In 1953, Robertson received one vote for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • After his major league career ended, Robertson continued to play and manage in the minor leagues, primarily for the Richmond Colts and Norfolk Tars in his home state of Virginia. In 1926, he hit a career-high 35 home runs in a 140-game season for the Tars. He was second in the league in both homers and batting average (.385). He retired to Norfolk in 1931.