Johnny U's Autograph
As soon as we finished dinner that Friday night I asked my mom if I could go up to the school to watch a game. "At the school'? she asked. "I guess that's OK, but be home by 9:30." Had she really forgotten about that two month's grounding she'd slapped on me after finding me outside the bowling alley with my "hoodlum friends" the other night? I didn't ask, but dashed up the back stairs to avoid my brother and those 3 nosy sisters, grabbed my coat and autograph book and was out the door in a flash.
It was cold outside, but at least it wasn't snowing. A few weeks earlier we had seen the "Storm of the Century," and Lititz had been shut off from the outside world for three days. My biggest adventure was when my dad sent me to the store five blocks away to get some kerosene for our lamps. We had a lot of coal in the cellar for heat, so having no electricity wasn't such a big deal, but it was sure nice not having school for a few days, especially not having to suffer through Miss Enck's English class, where she had us doing sentence diagrams ad nauseum. She was mean, too. Some time later I looked up the term "harpy" in a reference book and there was her picture with a caption that read "Harpy circa 1960."
On day 2 my friend Danny Kraybill called to ask me to go out with him and his dad in their sleigh,but the phone went dead before we could make arrangements. Later that day I was reading an old newspaper and saw an announcement which made my young heart jump with joy--the Baltimore Colts, the World Champion Baltimore Colts -- were coming to town!
Earlier that year the Junior Giants had won the Lititz Six Man League championship, and the Baltimore Colts had won the NFL Championship by beating the New York Giants. The professional football league was still a new thing, and some teams were sending their players out on barnstorming trips to raise fan interest. And here they were, my heroes, the Baltimore Colts with Johnny Unitas in charge, playing basketball against a team from Warner-Lambert, a drug manufacturer which had built a new plant just outside the town limits.
The Colts began to drift in from the far locker room dressed in white gym suits trimmed in Colt blue, with a horseshoe on the side of their shorts. Johnny Unitas was one of the last to show up and received a nice round of applause from the crowd. He smiled and waved and began to take a few little jump shots to warm up.
But where was Big Daddy Libscomb? Aside from his size, surely he would have been visible because of his blackness in the all-white gym. African-Americans were pretty scarce those days in Lancaster County, with the 1960 federal census reporting only 934 males 21 years or older living here. It wasn't until the next Summer that I met my first black person, when Lancaster's Barney Ewell came up to the Lititz Springs Park Summer Program to give us aspiring athletes some tips on running.
"I can't teach you how be fast," he told me that day in the park, holding up one finger in front of me pointing to Heaven. "That comes from God. But I can teach you how to sprint." I looked down at his skinny legs and wondered how he could be fast, but fast he was. After serving four years in the US Army from 1941 to 1945, Barney returned home and finished his education at Penn State, where he had already garnered numerous NCAA championships. He surprised many by qualifying for the US Olympic team in 1948 at 30 years old, somewhat past a sprinter's prime. In London he won two silver medals and one gold, with one of his silver medals coming when he placed second to Harrison Dillard in the 100 meter event in the first-ever Olympic photo finish.
Two years later I was playing for the Manheim Township Football Eagles and traveled to York for a game against a team which had two Negroes (the polite word back then) . "Watch out that color doesn't rub off on you", my father warned. Whether he was joking or not I'm not sure, but it didn't sound right to me. I don't want to criticize the old man too much, because he probably wasn't any more prejudiced than anyone else in his generation, but that's how it was.
Just before game time, the Public Address announcer informed us that Big Daddy Lipscomb would not play because his house had "burned down last night." The crowd was skeptical, and some joker two rows behind me booed. The crowd joined in, timidly at first with only a smattering of boos, but soon a full chorus of 2400 unhappy townspeople filled the gym. I booed, too. And then everyone began to laugh, old men pounding each other on the back, women bouncing up and down in their seats pointing and looking around, everyone feeling good about a bunch of local hicks giving the Bronx cheer to the world champions.
Except for the Colts, that is. They just stood in a loose huddle around mid-court looking surprised and disgusted, a few of them shaking their heads in disbelief and probably wondering why in the world they had taken that long ride into the middle of nowhere to play an exhibition basketball game against some podunk industrial league team. The announcer said something about being polite to our guests and the crowd calmed down, but there was certainly a new feel to the gym, an atmosphere a little more tense and expectant.
The Colt's Sandusky took the opening tip-off and scored an easy lay-up, and after that the Colts began to entertain the crowd with some fancy dribbling and some trick plays, but the best thing was seeing Johnny Unitas in his black high-top sneakers zipping clothes-line passes to his teammates for easy scores. It was pretty neat and things were going well for the Colts except for the fact that the factory team did have one weapon, a fellow who had played for one of the colleges in Philadelphia and who was still pretty quick.
Early in the first quarter he intercepted one of Johnny U's passes and streaked the entire length of the court for an easy basket, and another time he disrupted the Statue of Liberty play by following the guy who was supposed to get the ball from Unitas. He was a thorn in their side for sure, but at the beginning of the second quarter, Eddie Donovan laid a forearm shiver into him which sent him about two rows deep into the stands. He was OK, but the referee, a skinny guy about as big as my mother but not even half as tough, whistled a foul and waved a cautionary finger at the huge lineman.
"You tell'im, Clarence," some farmer called out in a deep, slow voice. Even a few of the players laughed at that one. The Colt smiled and promised to play nice, but from there on it was the Colt's game; they were just too big and fast for the locals and were in control by the end of the first half.
The Colts complained later to the local reporter that the aggressive play of the Warner-Lambert team in the first half had made it impossible for them to provide the razzle-dazzle entertainment they planned, so it probably wasn't such a good idea for me to go autograph hunting, but that's exactly what I did.
I watched the Colts go into the far locker room, and after getting my courage up I walked down to that end and opened one of the double doors leading into the locker. There he was, Johnny Unitas, sitting not more than 10 feet in front of me , shoulders hunched forward with a white gym towel draped around his neck. His left arm was resting on his thigh and he was holding a can of beer. His right hand held a cigarette and was half-way to his mouth when he sensed my presence. He slowly looked over at me, steel-gray eyes piercing every inch of me. I was stunned. A professional athlete drinking beer and smoking a cigarette.
Without a word, he looked away and gave a short head signal to someone opposite him: "Check this out," or more likely "Sic'em, boy." Suddenly a huge man jumped up, pointed a cigar directly at me and bellowed "You, kid, get the Hell out of here. No kids allowed in the locker room."
I swear,not even Bullet Bob Hayes could have made a faster exit.
The walk home seemed much longer than the one just two hours earlier, and I crossed the lonely block by the mill listening to the wind pick up as it coursed through the huge rolls of paper on the loading dock. By the time I hit the railroad tracks and began the long uphill towards home the wind was sharp and attacking from the North, bringing with it a biting snow.
Along the banks of Bender Run the winter grasses were bent and frozen, and the shadows coming off the marsh made the world seem a very large and empty place. I sank deeper into my jacket, wondering what it was all about. A kid couldn't even get an autograph any more. Halfway up the hill, the lone street lamp at Kleine Alley shone dimly , its brilliance cut into a million tiny pieces by the hard snow.
A couple tumbled out of the corner bar holding onto each other and cursing the cold, and as the noise from inside broke my solitude, I realized that those men from Baltimore were not heroes. No, seeing them in that locker room reminded me of my father and his friends sitting around our kitchen table playing cards on a Saturday night: just some guys trying to make a living and once in a while hoping to get a break from it all.