Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Nov.22, 1958: Gators against Seminoles...the football game that nearly sparked an act of Congress!

Is there a more exciting moment in football than the opening kickoff of a game between the University of Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles? For fans in the Sunshine State, it's the ultimate moment of truth.

Hard to believe it practically took an act of Congress to bring the two teams together in the first place. The behind-the-scenes machinations required to convince the teams to play were almost as complex as a Double Reverse-Pass-to-Quarterback.

Complications began in 1947 when FSU converted from a women's college to a co-ed school. That's when the State Board of Control, the governing body for state schools, adopted a ruling prohibiting athletic competition between the two universities. "When the day comes that FSU can hold its own against UF," the board announced, "the rule will be recinded."

That day finally arrived in 1954 when, for the first time, the NCAA included the Seminoles on its ranking of "major schools," and the board lifted its ban. Fans were dismayed to learn, however, that UF Athletic Director Bob Woodruff opposed the game, citing previous scheduling commitments.

Finally, State Senator Harry Stratton of Nassau County--himself a former high school football star and pro baseball player--had heard enough. He announced plans to introduce a bill requiring the two football teams to meet.

That spurred a flurry of activity. Woodruff agreed tothe game provided it was played in Gainesville every year and that the Seminoles accept a flat fee rather than a split of the gate.

Stratton proposed a compromise: play in Jacksonville and split proceeds 50/50. No dice, said Woodruff.

In April 1955 Stratton's bill was placed before the senate, where it was defeated by a vote of 19 to 5, despite support from Senators Carraway of Tallahasse and Shands of Gainesville.

Still, negotiations continued between the schools. Woodruff, apparently fearful that a Gator-Seminole game wouldn't draw flies at the gate, proposed that FSU receive only $10,000 if attendance fell under 20,000. FSU rejected the offer.

Finally, the Board of Control stepped in, issuing the following statement to each school president:

"Either play the game or find new athletic directors."

In December 1955--at long last--the deal was brokered: The Gators and Seminoles would meet for the 1958 season at Florida Field. FSU would receive $20,000, but each year thereafter would split the gate 50/50.
If Gainesville officials were worried about attendance they shouldn't have been.

On November 22, 1958, 43,000 fans flooded Florida Field for the schools' historic first confrontation. Naturally, no one expected underdog FSU to win. After all, UF fielded its first team in 1906; FSU's football program was barely a decade old.

On the game's opening kickoff, Seminole running back Bobby Renn faked a handoff and scampered 80 yards to the Florida 15 before being tackled by UF's 140-pound quarterback Jimmy Dunn. That lead to an FSU touchdown, and suddenly the underdog was ahead 7-0.

Still in the first period, the Gators tied the game with a touchdown off a blocked kick. UF scored twice more in the second quarter, both times on runs by Dunn. The second half was a defensive battle with neither side able to score. The Gators had beaten the Seminoles 21-7.

The next day, Daytona Beach News Journal sportswriter Benny Kahn had this to say: "Treating Florida State like a fresh kid who keeps...sassing his elders, the Gators took the Seminoles out behind the woodshed and gave them an old-fashioned spanking."

In the 46 years since, the two teams have met 68 times. UF holds a 27-19-2 advantage.

Whenever the Seminoles and Gators meet, it's magic--no matter their respective records, rankings, or bowl prospects. And to think it nearly took an act of Congress to force them to play!

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 19

The day I defeated Joe Frazier

We'll call this tale--absolutely true, by the way--"A Brush With History, Complete with Twist Ending."

Our story begins in September 1980. I was visiting a friend in Jacksonville, where boxer Joe Frazier was going to be signing autographs at a local mall. Naturally, we made plans to attend.

You remember Smokin' Joe Frazier: The piston-driven former heavyweight champion of the world, the man who had taken Muhammed Ali's full measure--three times!--and remained unbowed.

A simple autograph wasn't going to be enough for me, though--I had a devious scheme in mind. Before I left Panama City, I bought a copy of Muhammed Ali's autobiography The Greatest. My mission: To have Smokin' Joe autograph Ali's book.

Understand that in 1980 Ali and Frazier were bitter enemies. Frazier had always refused to acknowledge Ali's Muslim name and insisted on calling Ali by his old name--"Clay."

No doubt asking Frazier to sign Ali's book would be risky business. So I put my plan into action.

First, I removed the dust jacket to Ali's book and replaced it with the jacket from Nat Fleischer's 50 Years at Ringside, a boxing memoir from the 1950s.

"So," my friend said, "you're going to disguise Ali's book and get Joe to sign it. Pretty good." But I had another twist in mind. I drove to the mall and got in line to meet the ex-champ.

When I handed my book to the Smokin' One I said, "Joe, my name is Clay Monroe and I'd be thrilled if you'd sign this old boxing book and autograph it to me personally..." Frazier never felt the sting.

I waited until I got to the parking lot to let out a whoop. I was now the proud owner of Ali's autobiography, inscribed "To Clay, from Joe Frazier."
Back home in Panama City I showed off the book to friends, then put it in a closet and forgot about it. Not long ago, while sorting through some stored personal items, I found it: My trophy for owning an undefeated lifetime record against Joe Frazier.

I had given Joe the ol' bob-and-weave, and he'd never laid a glove on me.


--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, July 27, 2000

Monday, May 26, 2008

Babe Ruth's love affair with Florida

No wonder Babe Ruth loved Florida...

Here was a kid raised on the unforgiving streets of Baltimore, ten years old and already labeled "incorrigible" for stealing, drinking, and gambling.
But for a preternatural talent for baseball, Ruth would have likely never have escaped those mean streets.

Instead, Babe first visited Florida in 1914 as a pitcher for the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Nearly every spring thereafter, until the final weeks of a life cut short at 53 by cancer and high living, the Babe revelled in Florida's sunny freedom.

By the time Ruth emerged as a home run-bashing star for the New York Yankees in the mid-1920's, Ruth's spring training habits were already the stuff of legend.

In St. Pete, Babe often stayed in a suite at the Hotel Dennis while his teammates bunked at a smaller, less extravagant hotel. Ruth was given the largest room, the better to host his all-night soirees. Guests were known to complain about the smell, all hours of the night, of hot dogs and kraut, Babe's favorite dish.

Babe loved to fish, often returning with a prize grouper for the hotel cook to sizzle. Ruth was a familiar sight at local golf courses as well, often squeezing in nine holes at the Belleview Biltmore course after his Yankee practice. That is, on days when Babe wasn't at either a dog track or a horse race.

Wherever Babe went in Florida, he was beseiged by fans. And never once was the Bambino known to turn down an autograph-seeker. Unlike today's cloistered, spoiled super stars, Babe actually enjoyed the interaction with fans, particularly during his morning ritual in St. Pete, where Babe stopped by the same barbershop each morning for a quick shave.

By the late-1920s, Babe was so enamored with the Sunshine State he invested $65,000--a fortune in those days--in St. Pete waterfront property.

By the mid-1930s Babe's career was done, his body ravaged by drink, smoke, and appetite. Fat and 40 in 1935, Ruth could no longer find a job in the major leagues. He wanted to manage. But the only managerial job Ruth received came from Tallahassee mayor Leonard Wesson, who offered Babe reins of the Class-D Tallahassee Capitols of the Georgia-Florida league. "What we lack in salary," Wesson wired, "we can make up for in fishing and golf." Ruth retired instead.

Ruth continued to visit Florida each spring nonetheless. In 1940 and 1941, Babe worked as a hitting instructor at a baseball camp for kids in Palatka. Fans there remember Babe rabbit hunting at night, sitting on his car's fender and blasting away the moment a rabbit became illuminated by the by the glow of his headlights.

On Feb. 5, 1948, Babe arrived in Florida for the last time, his train greeted by 150 fans at Miami's FEC station. Suffering the ravages of throat cancer, Babe retreated to the Golden Strand Hotel near the Dade-Broward line. Two days later Babe celebrated his birthday, his last, by cutting slices of cake for guests. Babe passed on the cake--the pain was too great--and drank beer instead.

Too weak for golf, or to fish, Babe appeared at a number of ceremonial events: he was handed the keys to the City of Miami Beach, placed the crown atop Dania's Tomato Queen, and was named "mayor" of National Children`s Cardiac Home at Flamingo Park.

By April, Babe returned to New York for treatments. Before he left, following a final tour of big league camps, a hopeful Ruth told reporters, "I haven't felt this well in years. You can't beat Florida sun when you're sick. I'll be back..."

It was not to be. Ruth lived long enough to appear at a day in his honor at Yankee Stadium--The House That Ruth Built--in June. But on August 16, 1948, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, 53, breathed his last.

Ruth is often credited with singlehandedly turning baseball into America's pastime. But one could argue that Ruth helped put Florida on the map as a spring destination as well. After all, thousands of fans each spring were drawn to the power and charisma of this once-incorrigible kid from Baltimore who came to love Florida as his own.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18

Christmas 1989: The year that mullet rained from the sky

Locals who dream of a White Christmas may as well face it: This is Bay County, and we're no more likely to have snow on the ground for Christmas than we are for mullet to fall from the sky.

In fact, in Bay County history we've enjoyed but one snow-covered Christmas. That was 1989, when--on Saturday, Dec. 23--a record arctic cold front dropped three inches of snow across the Panhandle.
The next day, mullet fell from the sky.

Really. (More on that intruiging subject later).

On Christmas Eve '89, many youngsters across North Florida witnessed snow for the very first time in their lives. Chris Gardner, now 27, was eight-years-old and clearly recalls helping his neighbors create a snowman.

Not all Bay Countians were so enthralled, however. The snow, sleet, and sub-freezing temperatures left roadways covered with ice. The Florida Highway Patrol reported over 100 accidents in Bay, Gulf, and Calhoun counties, including numerous wrecks on both the Hathaway and DuPont bridges.

It was a mess--a surpassingly gorgeous, virgin-white powdery, heaven-sent mess.

Then it rained mullet.

Gardner remembers how the fish, killed by the freeze, floated atop the canals lining his Bay Point neighborhood. "Pelicans swooped down and carried off the mullet," Gardner said, recalling the feeding-frenzy that caused the greedy fowl to overstuff themselves. As the pelicans flew off, mullet were dropped into yards and driveways and onto roofs.

Only in the Florida Panhandle--where a White Christmas occurs about as often as mullet rain from the sky.

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Dec. 22, 2000

The last public appearance of Al Capone

He cut quite a charismatic figure, even in those days.

Al Capone bounded up the steps of Miami's federal courthouse. Flashbulbs popped. Reporters shouted questions. By-standers reached out to pat his broad back--"I touched him!" one of them shouted.

When a reporter for the Miami Herald asked Capone for a statement, Al took the enormous, freshly-lit cigar out of his mouth as if to speak. Suddenly, Abe Teitlebaum, Capone's Chicago attorney, stepped between his client and the pressing mob.

"No statements today!" Teitlebaum barked.

It was 9:30am on Feb. 17, 1941. No one knew it at the time, but this would mark the last-ever public appearance by the legendary former king of American crime.

Capone had spent most of the previous decade in federal prison, serving eight years of a ten-year sentence for tax evasion. Released in November of 1939, Capone retired to his walled-in 14-room estate in estate in Dade County's Palm Isle on Biscayne Bay.

Now he was back in court to answer questions regarding his ability to pay $200,000 in back taxes.

Ever since Capone's release from prison, rumors began to circulate about Capone's declining physical and mental state. "He's nutty as a fruitcake," one of his former cronies reported.

The once-mighty Capone--an invalid?

No wonder crowds began to gather that crisp February morning in Miami, many arriving over an hour in advance of Capone's court appointment.

If Capone was hoping to keep a low profile, he failed miserably. He arrived in a double-breasted navy pin-stripe suit, white shirt, floral-print tie that--according to the Herald--"was so loud it screamed," dark sunglasses, and two-toned shoes polished to a blinding sheen. The outfit was topped by a hard, white straw hat. Al looked every bit the fashionable Roaring Twenties gangster.

Trouble was, of course, it was 1941, and Capone's get-up looked positively cartoonish. But who was going to tell him?

Certainly not the blokes Capone brought with him. In his heyday, of course, Capone traveled with at least a dozen armed henchmen. These days, Capone's only companion, other than Teitlebaum, was his brother, Ralph "Bottles" Capone, a low-level syndicate operative.

Capone's closed-door hearing lasted 45 minutes. When it ended, Capone sprinted down the courthouse steps and into his getaway vehicle--an elongated, expensive, maroon-colored sedan. Ralph stayed behind and arranged to pay his brother's tax debt.

According to the next day's Herald, Capone "answered all questions promptly, with reasonable intelligence, and without assistance," a performance that "refuted all stories which have pictured him as a
doddering old wreck who sits behind the walls of his mansion cutting out paper dolls."

In truth, Capone was indeed seriously ill with a nervous-system disorder, despite the front he'd managed to stage for his final public appearance.

As his disease progressed, Capone's body and mind retreated into a prison of its own making. His last days were spent in a wheelchair at the end of his dock feeding breadcrumbs to minnows.

Capone, 48, suffered a stroke on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1947, and died four days later. The body was brought to a Miami Beach funeral home. There was speculation that Capone would be buried in Miami, near the retreat he liked to refer to as, "My sunny Italy of the New World."

But at 3 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 31, on orders from Ralph, the inexpensive sheet-bronze coffin was loaded into a hearse bound for Chicago. Funeral services were held there on Feb. 4, where the mortal remains of Al Capone were laid to rest in 4-degree temperatures that numbed mourners to the bone.

* * *
Capone in the Florida Panhandle...

Mention the name Al Capone and the image springs to mind: Scar-faced czar of the underworld, boss of bootleggers and gamblers, mastermind of the bloody St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

And the city those images conjur?

Chicago, of course.

You might be surprised to know that by the late 1920s, Capone--at the height of his power--considered Florida his adopted home, returning to the Windy City only when pressing business beckoned.

And it was in Florida--at his beloved mansion on Palm Isle on Biscayne Bay--that Capone breathed his last, in 1947 at the age of 48.

If Capone's Chicago legacy was one of murder and vice, his Florida visits contained no such salaciousness. To Al, Florida represented a welcome respite from smuggling whiskey and filling rivals full of lead. Florida, Capone told the Miami News, was "the garden of America...where life is good and abundant, (and) happiness is to be had by all."

In the 1930s, in fact, Capone, made frequent jaunts to the Florida Panhandle.

"One of Al's favorite recreation spots was Grayton Beach," recalled Frank Pericola, Editor Emeritus of the Panama City News Herald. Another Capone retreat was the Valpariso Inn just north of Ft. Walton Beach. "Capone liked luxury," Pericola said, "and he got it at the Valpariso Inn, which was quite a showplace."

While here, ol' Scarface towed the line. "I don't think he even pulled up any sea oats," Pericola remembered. "The last thing Al wanted was attention."
--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 14

The Olympic star and the heavyweight champion

Here's a quiz for you: What do Jesse Owens and Primo Carnera have in common?

If you answered, "Both were world champions in the 1930s," you're only partly correct. Sure, Owens won four gold medals for track at the 1936 Olympics in Munich. And yes, Italy's Carnera held boxing's heavyweight crown in 1933.

There's more. Both men were forced by hard times to barnstorm for small-change once their athletic careers were finished. And both men brought their barnstorming acts to Panama City, Florida.

In 1936, Jesse Owens returned to America a conquering hero, but found few job opportunities. A promoter offered to send Owens on a nationwide tour of ballparks in which he would race a horse around the bases. "You can't eat gold medals, " Owens said, and accepted.

Owens came to Panama City's Pelican Park--at the time the home of Panama City's minor league Class-D ballteam, the Pelicans--in the fall of 1939.

"I was working for Royal-Crown Cola," retired local businessman Tom Bingham told me, "and we promoted the event. They brought in a big white horse; the starter fired the gun and Jesse took off, beating the horse by a wide margin. The horse couldn't turn the corners like Jesse could." A crowd of nearly five-hundred paid twenty-five cents apiece. Jesse's take was a hundred dollars.

Primo Carnera came to Panama City as a wrestler--not a boxer--on July 29, 1954. The mobsters who'd controlled his boxing career had left the six-foot-seven-inch "Ambling Alp" destitute. A wrestling promoter offered Carnera $200 per match, and Carnera accepted.

The forty-eight-year old Carnera didn't do much in his bout at Panama City's old Civic Center. "Slow but exciting," reported the Panama City News-Herald. The fight ended the way all of Carnera's matches were scripted. The champ threw a "punch" that "knocked out" his opponent.

For Owens and Carnera--two athletes forced by life's exigencies to exploit a faded fame--the story has a happy ending. Before his death in 1980 Owens had transformed himself into a highly-sought, well-paid motivational speaker. Carnera saved enough money from wrestling to put a son through medical school. Before he died in 1967, Carnera fullfilled his dream and became a naturalized American citizen.

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Aug. 1, 2000

Peace at last for family twice-cursed

Was it coincidence, or in the stars? Random happenstance, or preordained by a destiny man can scarcely comprehend?


The first person to die in an airplane crash in Bay County was the son of the first county resident killed in an automobile accident.

It's a cosmic coincidence eerie enough to make one cluck a tongue in wonder. I know I did, some 15 years ago when I first encountered this bizarre tale.

In 1986 I was researching newspaper microfilm when a headline from Feb. 11, 1939 grabbed my attention. Aspiring pilot Mitchell Wilcox, 27, was killed when his plane nose-dived to the ground at the Panama City airport. This was Bay County's first fatal air crash.

Twenty-five years earlier, Mitchell's father R.W.Wilcox had been struck and killed by a car. R.W. Wilcox was Bay County's first automobile fatality.

I mentioned my fascination with this story to a staff writer for the Panama City News Herald and we decided to dig deeper. Forty-seven years had passed since Mitchell Wilcox's death. Still, his obituary provided us with a list of surviving realtives. A phone call to a nephew revealed Mitchell had a brother named Rod.

We discovered that Rod had no phone and spent most of his time cruising the rustic fisherman's bars that dotted the aging St. Andrews marina. So the writer and I hit the bars. We found him.

"My Daddy was crossing the street," he told us between sips of beer, "and was hit by the first dang car in the county--a Star car, it was called. Daddy was a shipbuilder and the best dang fiddler in the county." The driver of the car, we were told, was a local physician so shaken he vowed never to drive again, and thereafter made his rounds on horseback.

Rod spoke too of his brother's love for flying, and how Mitchell had volunteered to fly the mail from Panama City to Pensacola. "He told Mother, 'I'm going to take up flying.' She said, "Mitchell, that's going to be your undoing.' "

When Rod described sitting through the night at A.H. "Doc" Lisenby's office, where Mitchell was taken after the crash, we hardly knew what to say.

Not long ago I tried to reconnect with Rod. A relative informed me that Rod--last of the Wilcoxes--had since passed away.

Peace at last, I thought, for this family twice cursed by man's endless desire to move faster, and to fly higher.

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Jan. 5, 2000