Chapter 18: The Trip
It was as if everyone from the city of Garfield had chipped in for an Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes ticket and collectively hit the jackpot. Against odds that seemed just as long . . . their Boilermakers were going to Miami.
Paperboys around town delivered the glad tidings that rainy morning. The Herald-News screamed, “GARFIELD TO PLAY MIAMI CHRISTMAS” across its front page, pushing the war news down below the fold...
The players wore their lettermen sweaters to school, the underclassmen in purple and the seniors in white. Even the teachers had a hard time concentrating on that day’s lessons. There were pats on the back for Michael Babula as he made his rounds delivering his meat. In the taverns and corner bars such as Klecha’s on Ray Street, the patrons downed shots to toasts of Na zdrowie! (To your health!). Even the looms at the woolen mills seemed to whirr a bit more merrily. Everyone, of course, expected the Boilermakers to return a winner.
It had been a community effort, from Mayor John Gabriel’s behind-the-scenes politicking to Art Argauer working his Florida connections, to ordinary citizens who deluged Jesse Yarborough’s office with telegrams after Art McMahon reported that the Miami coach had the final say in the selection process. Now that Garfield finally got the nod, Hy Goldberg, the Newark News columnist, said that if the committee was looking for an underdog story, it wasn’t getting short-changed in Garfield:
That’s all very unfortunate but the bitter pill for Seward is ice cream for the Garfield boys. There aren’t any Vanderbilts on the Garfield team. Most of these lads are just as much “Dead End Kids” as the Seward boys, even if they don’t live down near the East River. They are the children of mill workers and under ordinary circumstances, trips to Florida are something they read about on the society page, if, by accident, they should happen to turn back from the sport page.
Argauer was buzzing around with preparations with the team leaving in six days on December 19. He wanted to call an immediate practice after school at half-frozen Belmont Oval, but the rain kept the team indoors for a skull session. In the meantime, Mayor Gabriel quickly arranged for subsequent practices to be held at Passaic Stadium.
“Belmont Oval’s days are over,” Gabriel declared, ever hopeful that a new stadium was forthcoming.
“Why should we show our worst side to the visiting newspapermen?”
Argauer had already started working with the team for its basketball season opener in three days against Dickinson in Jersey City, where footballers Ed Hintenberger, Bill Librera, John Grembowitz, John Orlovsky and Al Yoda were in the lineup that came away with a 51-35 victory. There would be another game against Kearny the night before the planned departure. They would win that, as well, but for now, football was back as the number-one focus.
The Bergen Record’s Al Del Greco, the old Garfield Comet, headed back to his old haunt to catch up with Argauer and the boys at No. 8 school, where team manager Louis Kral reissued uniforms and equipment amid the hubbub. Most of the players, as if on a cloud, jaunted through the raindrops up Palisade Avenue from their classrooms at No. 6 to their lockers at No. 8 and engaged in a little horseplay once they got there. Argauer, Del Greco’s old Savage School classmate, was flashing an ear-to-ear smile. For once, the stern coach was letting the team have a bit of fun.
An anxious lad tugged on Del Greco’s arm.
“Look, I’m an assistant manager,” he said excitedly. “There are seven of us. We collect the uniforms, we clean the helmets, we sweep the floor. We see that these guys don’t rob the building and are we going to Miami?”
Del Greco “took a philosophical slant” on the matter and told him, “In every life, some rain must fall.”
The kid got the message. “Nuts.” The basement room was crowded with reporters and photographers, and Argauer was multi-tasking as he pulled on his coaching togs.“We’ve got 500 choice seats. The Bowl seats 30,000,” he told one reporter before instructing the squad to put on their uniforms for pictures.“There won’t be time later,” he explained.He turned to William Capone, Board of Ed secretary and needlessly reminded him: “You had better take care of all the train and boat reservations.”And then to William Whitehead, president of the Board of Ed, he said: “We should order forty-four new rayon jerseys right now with yellow numbers on the purple. They’ll only cost about three-fifty, and that’ll give us a swell set-up. The old jerseys will go two more years.”
Then he came back to the reporters, offering them a cigarette.
“They’re on the desk,” he said. “Honest, I think we’ll play a better game than any crowd of All Stars. Of the twenty-two All Stars picked on the World-Telly team, only two played the double wingback system (to be used by Seward Park coach Jerry Warshower). How can you get any place that way?”
Benny Babula was in demand. A photographer asked him to pose with his coach. Babula ran his finger through his wavy blonde hair and asked for a comb.
“Thinks I got all day,” the photographer whispered underneath his breath.“Nothing the matter with your hair,” Argauer told him.“One of you fellows hold a football,” the photographer said. So Wally Tabaka found one and threw it against the wall, nearly knocking out the camera.
“No brains,” Argauer chided.
“Here, throw it right this time,” he said as he tossed the football back. Tabaka caught it easily, looking the ball into his hands then sent back a low spiral that Argauer missed somewhat clumsily.
The players howled.
“Now settle down,” Argauer said, getting back to business. “There are some things I want to make clear to you about this game.”
The room emptied out except for the players and coaches.
“The door closed,” Del Greco wrote. “And the assistant manager peered into the room through the keyhole.”
Garfield already rivaled the Stingarees in enthusiasm, especially after a rather depressing occurrence that took place in Miami over the past weekend. With some free time between games, Jesse Yarborough headed out for a round of golf at Miami Springs, where the $10,000 Miami Open, featuring Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ralph Guldahl, Jug McSpaden and Henry Picard, would be played later that week. He asked Jay Kendrick to caddie for him as he teed it up with state official E.D. Fancher, Dr. A.F. Kasper of the Orange Bowl Committee, and Milton Chapman, managing director of the Miami Biltmore Hotel, where the Missouri Tigers stayed during the Orange Bowl.
The conversation was carefree and Yarborough, after a decent front nine, was hoping to break 90 again. They were on the 11th tee, a long par four, when Chapman took a mighty cut with his driver and hit one off the club’s toe. Kendrick was standing in the most unfortunate spot imaginable, at Chapman’s two-o’clock (just in front and to his right). He had no time to react and the golf ball hit the star lineman just under his right eye. Blood gushed from a gash requiring three stitches at nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital. Kendrick had been one of his most durable players, and now he was injured in a freak accident. The Miami Herald reported that Kendrick’s availability for the Christmas game wouldn’t be known until his X-rays were viewed. But the coach knew that, outside of Eldredge, there wasn’t a more valuable member of his team than Kendrick. What he didn’t know was that a big, bruising back named Benny Babula would soon be banging away at his line and that Kendrick would be needed more in this game than in any other.
The Boilermakers, meanwhile, had to make up for the week that was lost before they were finally extended the bid. They hadn’t played a game in the nineteen days since the anticlimactic win over Clifton. Miami, meanwhile, never broke training while playing two huge games in that span, one for the city championship against Edison, the other for the Southern championship against Boys High. In fact, while a handful of Argauer’s two-sport athletes were already playing basketball, Eldredge and the other gridders who also played on Clyde Crabtree’s basketball team were not going to join the cage squad until football was finished.
Of course, it could work both ways. The Stingarees had been through a long season and had gotten emotionally charged up for two championship games. This was not necessarily their biggest game. The Boilermakers were, in a way, fresh and rejuvenated. This was unquestionably their biggest game, not just of the season but of their lives.
Miami’s two newspapers gave the Garfield announcement equal billing with the golf tournament and its record 217-player field, happily noting that the national championship was back on the table with the demise of the Met All Stars.
Yarborough began his preparations for the game with a light practice the same day Garfield got back to work. It was mostly a photo session. The hard practices would start the next day as he tried to gather information on Garfield. The coaches would exchange their offensive and defensive formations but not their game films. And, in that, Argauer held an advantage.
There was no way Yarborough could know anything about the strengths and weaknesses of Garfield, especially on short notice as the National Sports Council fumbled for an opponent. This left Yarborough a bit on his heels, a bit sucker-punched when it came to pre-game surveillance. Argauer, on the other hand, had a spy, of sorts. The vacationing Art McMahon attended the Stingarees rout of Boys High. The newsman could tell Argauer not only what plays the Stingarees used but also in what circumstances they were employed. Additionally, he imparted to Argauer reconnaissance on Eldredge’s play and how the Purples had strategically plotted to thwart the speedster.
McMahon’s wasn’t the only brain Argauer picked. Ever meticulous, he would leave no detail unattended. He phoned Charles Benson, the coach at Pompton Lakes. Benson’s team had played in Clearwater, Florida, in 1938 and lost 20-6 after defeating the Floridians, 13-7, in New Jersey in 1937.
Benson’s advice? Don’t drink the water.
That gave Argauer an idea. Garfield operated its own artesian well water works in neigh- boring East Paterson, where groundwater was contained in aquifers under pressure between layers of permeable rock. Residents claimed, then as now, that there was no better drinking water in New Jersey. Maybe it was because of the exotic name “Artesian,” but in any case, that was the water that would slake his players’ thirsts in Miami. But, how to get it there? Ah, convenient connections, again. Mayor Gabriel’s family ran a dairy farm. They would fill twelve forty-gallon stainless steel milk cans with artesian well water and load them onto the train.
Argauer would also get an idea of the strength and merits of Florida football from Nutley. On the same day the Boilermakers were back practicing, the Maroon Raiders were going through their first workout in Gainesville, where they would meet Suwannee High that Friday night. Suwannee High was out of Live Oak, a once rich cotton-producing area that was devastated by the boll weevil infestation of the 1920s. Farmers had since transitioned to growing tobacco as their main cash crop—that and high school football players. They grew them big and strong in Live Oak.
The Maroon Raiders were already in Florida when they opened the local papers and read that Garfield had been chosen for the Health Bowl. Now, they suddenly felt as though they were on the undercard. In fact, the Florida Times-Union reported that the entire Nutley crew was “sort of steamed” about it.
“There wasn’t a boy here today who didn’t believe his team could whip Garfield,” the paper said.
The Maroon Raiders pointed to their edge in the comparative scores against Bloomfield and Clifton and claimed that Garfield refused to play them or to even consider it. They had also been led to believe that they were a favorite—over Garfield—to play Miami.
It had been reported by Walt Maloney of the Nutley Sun that, according to a story in the Washington Times-Herald by-lined Vincent X. Flaherty, the Health Bowl committee was about to name Nutley as the northern representative before the nod went to Seward Park. Flaherty’s source of information was McCann, the fast-talking guy who’d been keeping up everybody’s hopes. Had Maloney known that, he might not have written that, according to the “grapevine,” the bid was “as good as in Nutley coach George Stanford’s hands.”
Disappointed by the Miami verdict, Nutley accepted readily when the invitation from the Jacksonville organizers of the Gainesville game came “like a bolt out of the blue.” Nevertheless, there seemed to be a lot of envious Maroon Raiders. Garfield was stealing their thunder.
Now, as a way of building up the Gainesville game, The Nutley Sun was calling the Suwannee team “the most feared in Florida” and reporting that Miami had turned down a challenge to play the Green Wave. Of course, the Stingarees would have had a hard time squeezing another game into their crammed schedule, especially at the end of the year. They had little to prove playing a northern Florida club after defeating Robert E. Lee, the champion of the Big Ten, the biggest football conference in Florida.
Suwanee had won all nine of its games by a combined 321-37 score and had an All Southern guard in Rudolph Fletcher. The papers hyped the game as a battle between two hard-driving fullbacks, Frank Cardinale for Nutley and Suwannee’s Nicky Tsacrios, who scored 133 points to Cardinale’s 132 on the season. Stanford, meanwhile, proclaimed his team “ready for any schoolboy team in the country.
“The caliber of football played by high school elevens in this state (New Jersey) I think is the best of its kind,” he said. “Sure, we’re going to beat them.”
He was right. The game wasn’t close. Nutley was the superior team.
Suwannee squandered an early opportunity when Tsacrios intercepted a lateral from Motz Buel to Cardinale, only to fumble himself with a clear field ahead of him. Later, Tsacrios was hit hard while fielding a punt in the second quarter and he fumbled again at the Green Wave 19. Cardinale finished off that drive and scored again once more before the half. The heat got to Nutley in the second half—Stanford used just three subs trying to keep the slippery Tsacrios in check—but the teams played a scoreless second half and Nutley earned a 14-0 victory, as convincing as 14-0 win could be.
Charley Bozorth, writing in the Gainesville Sun, acknowledged it a was a one-sided contest with Nutley, “working with precision and grace that was beautiful to watch.” He added: “While a power in themselves, the Suwannee eleven just couldn’t cope with the faster, harder running New Jersey team.”
Suwannee wasn’t on the same level as Miami. Anyone who’d seen both of them play agreed. But because Nutley’s win reinforced the strength of New Jersey high school football, Argauer had to be heartened. New Jersey teams had now won five of the six games played against Florida squads since 1936, and McMahon reported from Miami that “cocky” Stingaree supporters were suddenly a bit jittery. Of course, that did not stop The Sun’s Maloney from predicting doom for Garfield based on what people were telling him down south:
Being a Northerner, we should say that the Boilermakers will annihilate the Stingarees but reports on Miami make us think the Floridians will be victorious next Monday night. Although they were crowned Northern Jersey champions and acclaimed by many as state kings, we were not overly impressed with Garfield’s record during this season. Certainly, they do not rate as being one of the contenders for the national championship, which Miamians (but not Floridians) are calling this game.
It turned out to be one of the last of Garfield putdowns, at least in North Jersey. For the most part, though, everyone in New Jersey, and even the metropolitan area, wished the Boilermakers well. Lodi coach Stan Piela, who starred on Garfield’s unbeaten 1924 team, even offered his team up as scrimmage fodder to Argauer the day Nutley played Suwannee. Piela knew the Boilermakers needed to knock off the cobwebs and he was happy to help his alma mater. “I’d like to see his boys in good shape for that Miami game,” he explained. Argauer called it “a gracious move” that he “appreciated very much.”
“The boys are in good condition but need some work to sharpen themselves. That long train ride to Miami isn’t going to do them any good,” he said, somewhat worriedly.
Of course, the Lodi boys couldn’t wait. When Piela told them to prepare for the scrim- mage, their faces lit up with thoughts of: “Get Babula.” Big Stan quickly put a stop to that.
“Listen. If any of you boys dare to touch that big boy, I’ll personally see that you’re fried in the best olive oil. Let’s get it straight. We’re friends for a while, not enemies,” he said, firmly.
“I can’t imagine anything more terrible than Babula getting hurt in practice now,” Del Greco wrote. “Argauer would never live it down. So don’t be surprised if Benny doesn’t do any running.”
Babula did a lot of running, in fact, and the Lodi kids never really touched him. He burst off the end for several long runs and completed a series of passes (9-of-11 in all) that left the Lodi defenders bewildered. He came out of the scrimmage unscathed. But Argauer would still be left second-guessing himself about the wisdom of accepting Piela’s offer.
Early on in the scrimmage, Wally Tabaka made a cut on a field still soggy from the previous days’ rain. He felt something go in his left knee and, although it wasn’t terribly painful, it didn’t feel right. He came off the field limping, and Argauer sent him into the grandstands next to John Grembowitz, who was sitting out the scrimmage with a staph infection on his arm. The Bergen Record’s Art Johnson reported that neither seemed to be serious, but Argauer wasn’t going to take any more risks. Only light practices were scheduled for the next three days before the long trip over the rails Tuesday. Team physician Dr. Erwin Reid would join them and try to nurse Tabaka’s knee back to playing condition. Hopefully, it would respond well in the warm Florida sun.
Now, each team had a major injury concern. By Sunday, it became official that Kendrick would not be available. He was taken back into Jackson Memorial and kept in a darkened room. The injury was much more serious than it first appeared.
Yarborough couldn’t believe how fortune was beginning to turn against his team.