The Best of the Texas Century—Sports

December 1999By Comments

Athletic Supporters of the Century

The mere thought of the Dallas Cowboys makes Texas bosoms swell with pride, but none swell quite so fetchingly as those of the team’s official pom-pom girls, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Since 1972, when the brunette and blonde bombshells exploded onto the field, the scantily clad squad has championed the champions with precisely choreographed half-time performances and sideline sex appeal. In the process the America’s Team girls became America’s dream girls, embodying two much-admired attributes of Texas womanhood: beauty and strength. Runner-up: the Kilgore Rangerettes, whose militarily crisp routines launched the whole state on a drill-team kick. Anne Dingus

Golfer of the Century

You could stand with your back to the practice range and tell just by the sound when Ben Hogan hit the ball. A short, compact man who weighed only 135 pounds, he had such great speed and strength in his legs and wrists that he was able to swing the club head through the ball impressively, almost like a whiplash. And he willed himself to perfection. “I don’t think anybody worked as hard at it as Hogan did,” Jack Nicklaus once said. He spent hour after hour practicing and would slam his club against the ground if he made the caddie shagging his balls move more than a step. He won 63 professional tournaments. He won the British Open, the Masters twice, the PGA twice, and the U.S. Open four times. In 1949 he was in a terrible automobile accident, and it seemed that he would never walk again. Instead he returned to dominate golf, even though he walked with a noticeable limp. In 1953 he won the British Open, the Masters, and the U.S. Open; he remains the only golfer to have won all three in the same year.

He was not an easy man to know, and few knew him. He was quiet and remote, and what little he did say was often sarcastic. Asked how to win the U.S. Open, he snapped, “Shoot the lowest score.” His childhood was tragic. At nine he was either in the same room or in the next room when his father, a blacksmith, committed suicide. He began caddying to earn money. Nothing came easy for him, not even golf. He played on the tour for seven years before he won his first tournament. Nevertheless, in Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, without doubt the finest instructional book ever written, he said, “Up to a considerable point, as I see it, there’s nothing difficult about golf.” Only a legend, perhaps only a genius, could make a statement so filled with mystery, contradiction, and truth. Runner-up: Byron Nelson, Hogan’s friend and contemporary. Why is Hogan the best and not Nelson? “Ben’s a great friend of mine,” Nelson himself said, “and he, in my book, is the greatest golfer that ever lived.” Gregory Curtis

Quarterback of the Century

When a skinny young quarterback named Sammy Baugh arrived at the Washington Redskins training camp in 1937, fresh from a spectacular career as a two-time All-American at Texas Christian University, no one realized that he was about to revolutionize offensive football. “His special magic was the forward pass, as it had never been thrown before,” wrote Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich. Previously regarded as a third-down desperation play, the pass as practiced by Slingin’ Sammy took the Redskins to four NFL finals and two titles over the next seven years. A great athlete—his best sport may have been baseball—Baugh led the league in passing, punting, and interceptions in 1943 and ultimately collected more passing and punting records than any man who ever played the game. Runner-up: Don Meredith, all-state in basketball and football at Mount Vernon before becoming a two-time All-American at Southern Methodist University and a revered leader of the early Dallas Cowboys. Gary Cartwright

Coach of the Century

Eleven Southwest Conference championships for the Texas Longhorns in twenty years from 1957 through 1976. Three national championships. A thirty-game winning streak. The numbers only begin to describe the kind of football coach Darrell Royal was. He exuded self-assuredness, success, and class, thereby personifying the image so dearly sought by the University of Texas. He could have passed for a governor, a banker, or a professor of philosophy. He had a folksy way of saying things—“When you pass, three things can happen, and two of them are bad” and “Dance with the one who brung you”—that made talking about football seem like talking about life. His teams played an uncompromising style of grind-it-out football that reduced the game to its essential elements of discipline, confidence, will, and raw physical power, and yet the 1963 Longhorns won a national championship by outpassing Roger Staubach. Halfway through his career, he suffered through three mediocre seasons, and there was talk that the game had passed him by. He responded by unveiling the wishbone offense, the most explosive running attack ever devised, and won six conference titles in a row. When he retired, in 1977, the players he left behind went undefeated in the regular season. Runner-up: Gordon Wood, Texas’ most successful high school coach ever, with 405 victories and seven state championships at Brownwood High School. Paul Burka

Pitcher of the Century

He hoped to be a veterinarian but instead gave professional baseball a shot. The former Alvin High School pitcher never won a Cy Young award, saw fewer than three innings of World Series play, and lost nearly as many games as he won. Yet 27 seasons, seven no-hitters, and 5,714 strikeouts later, he would retire as the greatest power pitcher the game has ever known and the only Hall of Famer to be claimed by both Texas franchises. Nolan Ryan stayed true to his roots; he once opted for a pickup truck from his team in lieu of a Cadillac. On the mound, though, he was a fierce competitor, pitching for all or nothing; among his fifty-plus major league records are those for walks and wild pitches. And his blinding inside heat struck fear in the sturdiest of sluggers—“Not because he could get me out,” explained Reggie Jackson, “but because he could kill me.” Runner-up: Smokey Joe Williams of Seguin, whose habitual twenty-plus strikeouts a game for the New York Lincoln Giants and Pennsylvania’s Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. Jeff McCord

Fighter of the Century

The modern boxer Galveston’s Jack Johnson most resembles is Muhammad Ali. He held his hands low like Ali, and also like Ali, he was primarily a defensive fighter who often cruised through the early rounds of a fight, evading blows with speed and agility while occasionally snapping counterpunches so fast they seemed to arrive on the opponent’s chin spontaneously. He liked to taunt and tease his opponents as Ali did. He loved showmanship even more than Ali; he appeared in vaudeville skits and in the opera Aïda. But he endured more hatred even than Ali. The lone black man in a crowd of whites who were all against him, he knocked out Jim Jeffries, the first of many Great White Hopes, on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada—one of the greatest examples in history of one man standing firm against thousands and prevailing. Runner-up: George Foreman, because he won the heavyweight title a second time at age 45 and because, as his own manager, he was able to keep the money he made in the ring. Gregory Curtis

Hitter of the Century

It’s been more than thirty years since baseball’s last Triple Crown winner and more than fifty since a player hit better than .400 in a season. But as second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals between 1921 and 1925, Winters native Rogers Hornsby did just that and then some, averaging .402 and winning two Triple Crowns (he led the National League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in). It was his love for the game, however, that distinguished the greatest right-handed hitter of all time from today’s big leaguers. To protect his hitting eye, he refused to read books or watch movies, and to secure a spot on his first professional ball club, a sixteen-year-old Hornsby donned wig and knickers to barnstorm through Texas on the all-female Boston Bloomer Girls. Mark McGwire in drag? Yeah, right. Runner-up: Dallasite Ernie Banks, who traveled around the state with the Negro Amarillo Colts before winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards and clubbing 512 home runs as Chicago’s beloved Mr. Cub. John Spong

Rassler of the Century

A bad guy’s bad guy, one-time Southern Methodist University football standout Jack Adkisson launched his wrestling career in 1954 by adopting a German moniker (Fritz Von Erich), pasting a nasty scowl on his face, and employing a paralyzing hold known as the Iron Claw. The gimmicks worked well enough that he became the first Texas rassler to graduate from circuit venues like the Sportatorium in Dallas to stadiums across America and in Germany and Japan. He was also one of the first in his trade to convincingly cross over from bad guy to good guy; take that, Stone Cold. Runner-up: Jose Lothario, the first Hispanic wrestler to achieve widespread fame in Texas. Joe Nick Patoski

Basketball Player of the Century

A long, lanky country girl, Sheryl Swoopes mastered her game in the High Plains town of Brownfield early enough to win recognition as the state’s high school player of the year in 1988. After transferring from the University of Texas, she led the Texas Tech Lady Red Raiders to their first national championship in any major sport in 1993, scoring 47 points in the finals, a modern record for a female or male player, and winning the Naismith Award as the top college female in the game. After helping the U.S. Olympic team win a gold medal in 1996, she joined the Houston Comets of the Women’s National Basketball Association, which—not coincidentally—won three league championships. Runner-up: Hakeem Olajuwon, the seven-foot center who came to the University of Houston directly from his homeland of Nigeria and took the Cougars to the NCAA championships and the Houston Rockets to two titles. Joe Nick Patoski

Dynasty of the Century

In 1932, six years after Coach J. Eddie Weems started up the track and field program at Abilene Christian University, one of his best students, half-miler Elmer Gray, actually made it to the U.S. Olympic trials. Although Gray failed to qualify for the U.S. team, he started a winning tradition at the tiny school. Twenty-four years after Gray, a sophomore sprinter from San Benito named Bobby Morrow went all the way, winning the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Although Abilene Christian’s enrollment has never exceeded 4,700 students, the school has been a consistent track powerhouse, winning 42 national team track and field titles and claiming 32 Olympians; present and former students have held or tied twenty world records. In 1996 ACU became the first school in NCAA history to win national team titles in the men’s and women’s divisions of both the indoor and outdoor Division II championships. Runners-up: the Fort Worth Panthers baseball club in the Jake Atz—Clarence “Big Boy” Kraft era, which won six consecutive Texas League championships. Joe Nick Patoski

Speed Racer (Four Wheels) of the Century

The son of a Houston mechanic, A.J. Foyt is the most successful driver in United States Auto Club history, a four-time winner of the fabled Indianapolis 500 and a first-place finisher in the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and the 24 Hours of Daytona. Runner-up: Carroll Shelby of Leesburg, a speed demon who invented the Shelby Cobra, the fastest street-legal car in history. Jordan Mackay

Female Athlete of the Century

Born in 1911 in Port Arthur, Babe Didrikson Zaharias grew up a tomboy of the first order, eschewing domestic chores and the feminine pursuits of her peers in favor of running, jumping, and playing catch and roughhousing with the boys. She was not like other little girls and would not be like other women; even before reaching her teens, her goal was to be “the greatest athlete that ever lived.”

Her performance on her high school basketball team led her to one of the few sporting organizations available to women at the time, a semi-pro league of company teams. While working as a secretary for the Employer Casualty Insurance Company in Dallas, she played for its Golden Cyclones, earning All-American honors, as well as its softball, tennis, and track and field squads. She even performed in diving exhibitions. In 1932 the company sent her to compete in the national AAU championships, which doubled as the tryouts for the Olympics that would be held later that year in Los Angeles. She entered eight of ten events, winning five—shot put, baseball throw, javelin, hurdles, and broad jump—and tying for first in one, the high jump. More impressive, she broke three world records and beat acknowledged stars from around the country.

At the Olympics, she won the gold in the javelin, setting world and Olympic records on her first throw even as she tore cartilage in her shoulder. She also set records in the 80-meter hurdles. In the high jump, she tied a fellow American, but her style of passing over the bar headfirst was against the rules at the time; her jump was disqualified, and she was awarded second place.

Given the tenor of the times, her existence challenged the prevailing beliefs as to how a woman should behave and what she should do with her life. Her talent was thought to be unnatural and freakish, and Zaharias was derided by some for being brassy, mannish, and a vigorous self-promoter. But she was unbowed. After her appearance in a car ad cost her her amateur status, she barnstormed with semi-pro men’s and women’s basketball and baseball teams, once pitching against future Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx.

She trained her sights on golf, hitting so many balls at practice sessions that her hands bled. In 1935 she only played two tournaments before the polite country club circles that ran women’s amateur golf declared her ineligible. It wasn’t until 1943 that she was allowed to play again, and later she won thirteen consecutive tournaments, including the U.S. Women’s Amateur. After winning the British Women’s Amateur Championship—the first American to do so—in 1947, she turned pro, helping to found the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was the LPGA’s leading money winner between 1948 and 1951, taking home the first two of her three U.S. Women’s Open trophies during that time.

In 1953 she underwent a colostomy to remove cancerous tissue; fourteen weeks later, she was back in competition. In 1954 she won her third U.S. Women’s Open. Sadly, the disease recurred, and she died in 1956 at the age of 45. Runners-up: Jackie Worthington and Wanda Harper Bush, who dominated women’s rodeo at mid-century, winning 56 world championship titles between them. Jane Dure

Buck of the Century

The biggest nontypical buck (that is, one with a rack of unusual shape) killed in modern times was a 36-point buck shot by Jesse B. Thomas in Brown County in 1943; it scored 260 5⁄8 points on the Boone and Crockett scoring system. In case you’re wondering, that isn’t even close to the all-time champ: In 1892 (we think), a 47-point buck was killed near the town of Brady; the Brady Buck, as it’s known, is rated 284 3⁄8 points. Runner-up: The biggest typical buck was killed by Tom McCulloch in Maverick County in 1963. It had 14 points and scored 196 4⁄8. Brian D. Sweany

Play of the Century

Great moments are the accumulation of thousands of tiny fragments. So it was that the Roman Catholic Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys closed his eyes and said a familiar prayer as he released the famous Hail Mary pass that beat the Minnesota Vikings in the final seconds of their 1975 NFL playoff game. Receiver Drew Pearson used an old basketball trick to separate himself from the defender, then managed to trap the ball against his hip as he backed into the end zone. Runner-up: the desperation fourth-down pass from James Street to Randy Peschel that set up the winning touchdown in Texas’ 15—14 victory over Arkansas in 1969, a victory that helped preserve the Longhorns’ second straight perfect season and a national championship. Gary Cartwright

Football Player of the Century

There have been many great passers, receivers, kickers, kick returners, and defensive backs in Texas, but running back Doak Walker was on a whole other level. He did it all, and did it better than anyone. From Highland Park High School to Southern Methodist University to the Detroit Lions, he was the most graceful and accomplished player this state ever produced. The only three-time All-American in Southwest Conference history, Walker took SMU to two conference titles, led the Lions to two NFL titles, and secured a place on the all-time college team and in the NFL Hall of Fame. Runner-up: all-pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly, whose strength, agility, and feel for the game was the essence of Dallas Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense. Gary Cartwright

Catch of the Century

Imagine bringing a thrashing bowling ball into your boat. That’s the way it was on a cold January morning in 1992, when Barry St. Clair reeled in the all-time Texas champion, an 18.18-pound largemouth bass. At 25 1⁄2 inches long, St. Clair’s bass wasn’t the longest one ever caught in Texas—that honor goes to Tommy Shelton, who reeled in a 28 3⁄4-inch bass in Sam Rayburn Reservoir on May 31, 1997—but it outweighed the previous record holder by more than half a pound. It’s no surprise St. Clair was fishing Lake Fork, just northeast of Emory, which is known worldwide for its bass; 34 of the 50 biggest bass caught in Texas were from that impoundment. And that’s no fish tale. Runner-up: The biggest tarpon ever caught off the Texas coast was landed in the Gulf of Mexico on November 13, 1973, by Thomas Gibson, Jr.; at 210 pounds and more than seven feet long, the silver king was longer than San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. Brian D. Sweany

Rodeo of the Century

Long after the real Wild West was tamed, its old ways managed to live on in the sport of rodeo, where cowboys rode broncos and bulls and horses and wrestled steers and roped calves while cowgirls on horses raced around barrels—sort of like it used to be back on the ranch. In Western towns and cities where cowboys once gamboled and ranching still means something, the sport has endured and evolved into something bigger, in the manner of what used to be called the Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, which was and still is the city’s social event of the year. Rodeo has grown so big in Houston that crowds in excess of 60,000 attend individual performances of the 25-day event (though usually for the musical entertainment), and the weekly Mesquite Rodeo Championship even has luxury sky boxes. Those kinds of exhibitions are a far cry from what was billed as the world’s wildest rodeo—the Texas Prison Rodeo, which was held in Huntsville every weekend in October for more than fifty years. If there ever was a bunch who had nothing left to lose on a ride, it was these convict cowboys, who bucked crazier, rode harder, got thrown farther, and ate more dirt than anyone, putting it all on the line for just $10. Runner-up: the Pecos Rodeo in Pecos, the first rodeo to award prizes. Joe Nick Patoski

Fitness Guru of the Century

In 1968, before Dallas physician Kenneth Cooper published his strangely-titled book Aerobics, fewer than 100,000 Americans called themselves joggers. But Cooper’s theories about exercise (“Vigorous activity has more and more proved worthwhile both as preventive medicine and as a cure”) got us moving. Today, more than 34 million people run regularly, and everyone who reads knows they should be doing some form of aerobics. Cooper, meanwhile, is pushing the exercise envelope again, encouraging anyone who exercises regularly to take large doses of a group of vitamins called “antioxidants” to keep their immune systems from breaking down. Runner-up: angry, burr-headed Dallas screamer Susan Powter, whose moment in the national limelight was brief—but will anyone forget those years in the early nineties when she had millions of women eating plain baked potatoes? Skip Hollandsworth

Streak of the Century

On October 1, 1954, the Abilene High School Eagles’ coach, Chuck Moser, saw his hopes for an undefeated season dashed in a 35—13 trouncing at the hands of the hated Breckenridge Buckaroos. It would be his last depressing night for quite some time. The Eagles would not taste defeat again until December 14, 1957, after 49 straight wins. Along the way they outscored their opponents 1,774 to 311, earned three state championships, and produced fourteen all-state selections. Runner-up: the Cuero High School Fightin’ Gobblers, who logged 44 consecutive victories from 1973 to 1975. Jordan Mackay

Football Game of the Century

The verdict was unanimous. Both Grantland Rice, the best sportswriter of his time, and Dan Jenkins, the best of a subsequent generation, proclaimed that the 1935 battle between Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University was the ultimate college football game. It doesn’t matter that Jenkins was only seven years old when his daddy took him to TCU that November day. Though the stadium seated only 30,000, more than 40,000 stormed the portals, the largest crowd of its time in Texas. “Fans drove their cars through the wire fence,” Jenkins writes in his recently published history of the Southwest Conference, I’ll Tell You One Thing. “And other fans leaped over the fence from the tops of automobiles.” The stakes that day were enormous: the Southwest Conference championship, the first-ever national championship won by a SWC team, a trip to the Rose Bowl, and the civic pride of Fort Worth. (“Dallas had already been chosen as the official site for the upcoming Texas Centennial celebration of 1936,” Jenkins recalls. “And this had annoyed the hell out of Fort Worth’s bidness leaders.” In retaliation Amon Carter announced that the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial would open the same time as the Dallas pageant and hired Broadway showman Billy Rose to arrange the entertainment.) The game matched two of the greatest players of all-time, TCU’s Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and SMU’s Bobby Wilson, the Corsicana Comet. SMU won it, 20—14, on a stunning 50-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from Bob Finley to Wilson, who made a leaping, diving catch in the end zone. Runner-up: the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game, in which a sellout crowd that included President Richard Nixon watched the Longhorns win a national championship. Gary Cartwright

Speed Racer (Two Wheels) of the Century

After successfully battling cancer, he became the second American ever to win bicycling’s most grueling event, the Tour de France. No wonder the French press accused Austin’s Lance Armstrong of taking drugs to enhance his performance: No mere mortal could have done what he did. Runner-up: Kevin Schwantz of Houston, who logged 25 wins in the 500cc Grand Prix class of motorcycle road racing and took the 1995 Grand Prix world title before embarking on a new career on the NASCAR four-wheel circuit. Joe Nick Patoski

Team of the Century

Five Super Bowl titles speak for themselves. The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most overpowering and popular franchises in NFL history, and probably the most colorful. Starting with Tex Schramm and Tom Landry, the club has placed seven in the NFL Hall of Fame. At least two current Cowboys—Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith—are certain future picks. Lest we forget, this isn’t merely our team, but America’s Team. Runner-up: the Aggies of Texas A&M, not just for their consistently good football, but for their indomitable Twelfth Man spirit. Gary Cartwright

Underdogs of the Century

The 72—65 final score of The Game, as the 1966 NCAA basketball championship is known in El Paso, is nowhere as significant as its role in breaking the unspoken color barrier in college athletics, when Don Haskins’ Texas Western squad started five black players against Kentucky’s five white starters. By pulling off the upset, the Miners opened the door to every athlete in every sport, regardless of race. Runner-up: The undersized, outmatched teams of fatherless boys who played for Fort Worth’s Masonic Home Mighty Mites improbably constituted a state basketball powerhouse in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Jordan Mackay

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