Marlin Briscoe: Still Making History
Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next?
Marlin Briscoe was just inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday in New York City and a strong contingent of Omahans made the trek to honor one of their own. Here is a tribute video of Marlin that UNO Athletics created from the two-day ceremony earlier this fall that paid homage to this sports legend who, pound for pound, might have been the greatest athlete to ever come out of Nebraska.
Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next? I think it will happen sooner rather than later now. Certainly, all the attention that’s come his way the last couple decades helps and with the movie of his life in the works, it should be plenty to put him over the top with the Veterans Committee. What he did by making it in the NFL as a defensive back, a quarterback, a wide receiver and a holder, and playing nine productive seasons in the league, is more than enough to get him in. The fact that he was the first black starting QB should seal the deal. But in my opinion, his transitioning from a very good quarterback who nearly won Rookie of the Year honors to being a Pro-Bowl caliber wide receiver is enough all by itself to get him in.
Link here to an appreciatIon I wrote about Marlin on the occasion of that UNO recognition–
You can also link to this profile I wrote about Marlin as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness–
And you can link to the entire Out to Win collection of stories at–
Look for my coming Omaha Magazine feature on Marlin. And look for updates on the movie to be made about his remarkable life, “The Magician” is due to start shooting in the spring.
And look for a new post making the case for Marlin as the best athlete, pound for pound, that Nebraska’s ever produced.
UPDATE: I was fortunate enough to attend the Thursday, Sept. 22 An Evening with the Magician event honoring Marlin Briscoe. It was a splendid affair. Omaha’s Black Sports Legends are out in force this week in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, if ever. A Who’s-Who was present for the Magician event at Baxter Arena. They’re back out at Baxter on Sept. 23 for the unveiling of a life-size statue of Marlin. And they’re together again before the kickoff of Omaha South High football game at Collin Field. Marlin is a proud UNO and South High alum. This rare gathering of luminaries is newsworthy and historic enough that it made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald.
It’s too bad that the late Bob Boozer, Fred Hare and Dwaine Dillard couldn’t be a part of the festivities. The same for Don Benning, who now resides in a Memory Care Center. But they were all there in spirit and in the case of Benning, who was a mentor of Marlin Briscoe’s, his son Damon Benning represented as the emcee for the Evening with The Magician event.
So much is happening this fall for Marlin Briscoe, who is finally getting his due. There is his induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. John Beasley, who was a teammate of Marlin’s, is producing a major motion picture, “The Magician,” about his life. This week’s love fest for Briscoe has seen so many of his contemporaries come out to honor him, including Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Ron Boone and Johnny Rodgers. Many athletes who came after Marlin and his generation are also showing their love and respect. Having all these sports greats in the same room together on Thursday night was a powerful reminder of what an extraordinary collection of athletic greats came out of this city in a short time span. Many of these living legends came out of the same neighborhood, even the same public housing project. They came up together, competed with and against each other, and influenced each other. They were part of a tight-knit community whose parents, grandparents, neighbors, entrepreneurs, teachers, rec center staffers and coaches all took a hand in nurturing, mentoring and molding these men into successful student-athletes and citizens. It’s a great story and it’s one I’ve told in a series called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, I plan to turn the series into a book.
Check out the stories at–
Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the afterglow of the recent Rio Summer Olympics, I got to thinking about the athletic lineage of my home state, Nebraska. The Cornhusker state has produced its share of Olympic athletes. But my focus here is not on Olympians from Nebraska, rather on history making athletic figures from the state whose actions transcended their sport. One figure in particular being honored this week in his hometown of Omaha – Marlin Briscoe – shines above all of the rest of his Nebraska contemporaries.
Briscoe not only made history with the Denver Broncos as the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, he made one of the most dramatic transitions in league history when he converted from QB to wide receiver to become all-Pro with the Buffalo Bills. He later became a contributing wideout on back to back Super Bowl-winning teams in Miami. He also made history in the courtroom as a complainant in a suit he and other players brought against then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The suit accused the league of illegal trust activities that infringed on players’ pursuit of fair market opportunities. When a judge ruled against the NFL, Briscoe and his fellow players in the suit won a settlement and the decision opened up the NFL free-agency market and the subsequent escalation in player salaries.
The legacy of Briscoe as a pioneer who broke the color barrier at quarterback has only recently been celebrated. His story took on even more dramatic import upon the publication of his autobiography, which detailed the serious drug addiction he developed after his NFL career ended and his long road back to recovery. Briscoe has devoted his latter years to serving youth and inspirational speaking. Many honors have come his way, including selection for induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. He has also been the subject of several major feature stories and national documentaries. His life story is being told in a new feature-length film starting production in the spring of 2017.
You can read my collection of stories about Briscoe and other Omaha’s Black Sports Legends at–
Briscoe’s tale is one of many great stories about Nebraska-born athletes. Considering what a small population state it is, Nebraska has given the world an overabundance of great athletes and some great coaches. too, The most high-achieving of these individuals are inducted in national sports halls of fame. Some made history for their competitive exploits on the field or court.
Golfer Johnny Goodman defeated living legend Bobby Jones in match play competition and became the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. Gridiron greats Nile Kinnick, Johnny Rodgers and Eric Crouch won college football’s most prestigious award – the Heisman Trophy. Pitcher Bob Gibson posted the lowest ERA for a season in the modern era of Major League Baseball. Bob Boozer won both an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring. Ron Boone earned the distinction of “Iron Man” by setting the consecutive games played record in professional basketball. Gale Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rulon Gardner defeated three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Sydney Games to record one of the greatest upsets in Games history.
Terence Crawford has won two world prizefighting titles and in the process single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown of Omaha, where he’s made three title defenses before overflow crowds. He also has a gym in the heart of the inner city he grew up in that serves as a sanctuary for youth and young adults from the mean streets.
Some Nebraskans have made history both for what they did athletically and for what the did away from the field of competition. For example, Marion Hudson integrated Dana College in the early 1950s in addition to being a multi-sport star whose school records in track and field and football still stood on the books decades when the college closed in 2010. Tom Osborne became the first person to be named both the high school and college state athlete of the year in Nebraska. He played three seasons in the NFL before becoming the top assistant to Bob Devaney at the University of Nebraska, where he succeeded Devaney and went to a College Football Hall of Fame coaching career that saw his teams win 250 games and three national titles. After leaving coaching he served as an elected U.S. House of Representatives member. The Teammates mentoring program he established decades ago continues today.
There are many more stories of Nebraska athletes doing good works during and after their playing days. Yet no one from the state has made more of an impact both on and off the playing field than Marlin Briscoe. He is arguably the most important athletic figure to ever come out of Nebraska because his accomplishments have great agency not only in the athletic arena but in terms of history, society and race as well. Growing up in the public housing projects of South Omaha in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Briscoe emerged as a phenom in football and basketball. His rise to local athletic stardom occurred during a Golden Era that saw several sports legends make names for themselves in the span of a decade. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest but he might have been the best overall athlete of this bunch that included future collegiate all-Americans and professional stars.
Right from the jump, Briscoe was an outlier in the sport he’s best remembered for today – football. On whatever youth teams he tried out for, he always competed for and won the starting quarterback position. He did the same at Omaha South High and the University of Omaha. This was at a time when predominantly white schools in the North rarely gave blacks the opportunity to play quarterback. The prevailing belief then by many white coaches was that blacks didn’t possess the intellectual or leadership capacity for the position. Furthermore, there was doubt whether white players would allow themselves to be led by a black player. Fortunately there were coaches who didn’t buy into these fallacies. Nurtured by coaches who recognized both his physical talent and his signal-calling and leadership skills, Briscoe excelled at South and OU.
His uncanny ability to elude trouble with his athleticism and smarts saw him make things happen downfield with his arm and in the open field with his legs, often turning busted plays into long gainers and touchdowns. He also led several comebacks. His improvisational knack led local media to dub him “Marlin the Magician.” The nickname stuck.
Briscoe played nine years in the NFL and thrived as a wide receiver, quarterback, holder and defensive back. He may be the most versatile player to ever play in the league.
He also made history as one of the players who brought suit against the NFL and its Rozelle Rule that barred players from pursuing free market opportunities. A judge ruled for the players and that decision helped usher in modern free agency and the rise in salaries for pro athletes.
His life after football began promisingly enough. He was a successful broker and invested well. He was married with kids and living a very comfortable life. Then the fast life in L.A, caught up with him and he eventually developed a serious drug habit. For a decade his life fell apart and he lost everything – his family. his home, his fortune, his health. His recovery began in jail and through resilience and faith he beat the addiction and began rebuilding his life. He headed a boys and girls club in L.A.
His autobiography told his powerful story of overcoming obstacles.
Contemporary black quarterbacks began expressing gratitude to him for being a pioneer and breaking down barriers.
Much national media attention has come his way, too. That attention is growing as a major motion picture about his life nears production. That film, “The Magician,” is being produced by his old teammate and friend John Beasley of Omaha. Beasley never lost faith in Briscoe and has been in his corner the whole way. He looks forward to adapting his inspirational story to the big screen. Briscoe, who often speaks to youth, wants his story of never giving up to reach as many people as possible because that’s a message he feels many people need to hear and see in their own lives, facing their own obstacles.
Briscoe is being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame this fall. A night in his honor, to raise money for youth scholarships, is happening September 22 at UNO’s Baxter Arena. Video tributes from past and present NFL greats will be featured. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is also unveiling a life size statue of him on campus on September 23. That event is free and open to the public.
There is an effort under way to get the Veterans Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to select Briscoe as an inductee and it’s probably only a matter of time before they do.
The fact that he succeeded in the NFL at three offensive positions – quarterback, wide receiver and holder for placekicks – should be enough to get him in alone. The cincher should be the history he made as the first black starting QB and the transition he made from that spot to receiver. His career statistics in the league are proof enough:
97 completions of 233 attempts for 1697 yards with 14 TDs and 14 INTs.
49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs
224 catches for 3537 yards and 30 TDs
Remember, he came into the league as a defensive back, only got a chance to play QB for part of one season and then made himself into a receiver. He had everything working against him and only belief in himself working for him. That, natural ability and hard work helped him prove doubters wrong. His story illusrates why you should never let someone tell you you can’t do something. Dare, risk, dream. He did all that and more. Yes, he stumbled and fell, but he got back up better and stronger than before. Now his story is a testament and a lesson to us all.
The Marlin Briscoe story has more drama, substance and inspiration in it than practically anything you could make up. But it all really happened. And he is finally getting his due.
Bruce Chubick cuts a John Wayne-like figure with his tall frame, square jaw and plain-spoken, don’t-mince-words ways. He is, for sure, a throwback to an earlier era and in fact at age 65 he represents a distant generation and hard-to-imagine time to the players he coaches at Omaha South High. But the well-traveled Chubick, who is nothing if not adaptable, has found a way to reach kids young enough to be his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and gotten them to play hard for him. The South High boys basketball program was down when he took it over about a dozen years ago. It was the latest rebuilding job he took in a long career that’s seen go from school to school, town to town, much like an Old West figure, to shake things up and turn the basketball fortunes around before lighting out for the next challenge. Much like his counterpart at South, boys socer coach Joe Maass, who has risen the school’s once cellar-dweller boys soccer program to great heights, Chubick has elevated South High hoops to elite status. After coming close the last few years, Chubick’s Packers finally won the state Class A title this past season – he survived a heart attack en route – and for his efforts he’s been named Nebraska High School Coach of the Year. His team’s championship came just weeks after South’s soccer team won the Class A crown, giving the school and the South Onaha community it represents the best run in sports they’ve had in quite a while.
A good man’s job is never done: Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
Omaha South High 2016 Nebraska High School Coach of the Year Bruce Chubick and his wife Dianne envision one day taking off in their new motor home and not coming back. The couple recently made a road trip by car, but duty still calls the much traveled Chubick. At 65 he’s the metro’s oldest head coach. He’s back prepping for the next boys basketball season with his reigning Class A state champion Packers.
He lost key players from that 28-1 squad that won South’s first state basketball title since 1990. South is the latest rebuilding project he’s engineered at Nebraska and Iowa schools. South came close to hoops titles under him in 2015 and 2012 before breaking through versus Fremont in last March’s finals – giving him his second title after leading West Holt to the C1 crown in 1988 behind his son Bruce.
“It was real satisfying we got it done. I think I appreciated this one a lot more just knowing how valuable that is for a community and school,” he said.
This coming season Chubick lacks depth but has talent in returning all-Nebraska star Aguek Arop. The athletic wing bound for Nebraska may be the main reason Chubick’s coming back despite health concerns. In the midst of last year’s dominant run Chubick suffered a heart attack during a game and elected to coach through it before seeking treatment.
“I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he explained.
He’s no stranger to toughing out difficulties. His son Joe had brain cancer and the family endured an ordeal of doctors, tests and procedures. To get away from it all, Chubick built a cabin in the Montana wilderness, where the family went off the grid for two years. It was a trying but healing time.
“It made the family close. I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “it was a simple but tough life. There’s a lot of stories there, trust me.”
He later survived a kidney cancer scare. Then the recent heart issue. Stints opened clogged arteries. He’s still coaching because he keeps his word.
“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word,” said Chubick, who may have his best player ever in Arop. “Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them, i mean, he’s really special.”
It’s no accident Chubick calls rebuilding programs “the fun part” of his job. He’s been building things his whole life. That cabin. Houses,. Until now, he’d always left after building a program up. “Once you get ’em built I never thought it was that much fun.” But he’s still at South even years after laying a successful foundation. “South happened toward the end of my career. It’s pretty comfortable. I really like South. It’s a good place for us. We found a home when we landed in South Omaha. Once we got this thing built I thought I might as well enjoy it a few years before I turn the keys over to somebody else.”
His “logical” successor is his son Bruce – his top assistant.
This lifelong student of the game grew up in Council Bluffs, where he played whatever sport was in season. “I was the one who usually organized teams. One neighborhood played the other.” He starred at Abraham Lincoln High. While at Southwestern Junior College in Creston, Iowa and at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, he coached junior high ball. “That was my work study program,” he said. At SJC coach Ron Clinton let Chubick and his mates help strategize “how to play teams.” Game-planning and leading got in his blood.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work with kids.”
His wife Dianne, who’s seen nearly every high school game he’s coached, said she most admires “the way he can touch kids,” adding, “When they come into his program they’re like his family and he wants the best for every one of them.”
He said his son Joe’s resilience in the face of struggle has affirmed for him that “things are what you make of them.”
Chubick still hungers to coach. “Honest to God we were on the bus after we won the championship headed back to Omaha and before we got out of Lincoln city limits I was thinking about next year. How we’d have to build around Aguek and figure out which players would have to step up.” He said he believes in “that old adage – when you’re through learning, you’re through. That’s true with coaching. You think you know it all, you should quit because you never know it all. I use the analogy that coaching’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You pick up pieces here and there and you try to put the puzzle together. For most coaches, the puzzle’s never complete. I’m not sure mine’s complete.”
His health will determine when he retires. “As long as my health holds up, I don’t think it’s time. Not yet.”
He won’t take it easy in the meantime. “A lot of people go through life and they don’t really live – they just kind of go through the motions. We’ve gotten our money’s worth. We’ve lived.”
Follow his and his team’s viviendo en grande (living large) journey at http://southpackerspride.com/.
Historically, South Omaha is the city’s receiving community for new immigrants and refugees, though North Omaha plays some of that role, too. Blue collar jobs in the commerical, industrial labor sector have provided the livelihood for succeeding waves and generations of ethnic groups to have settled there. South O once had and to some extent still does have neighborhoods with distinct concentrations of ethnic groups. Traditionally, these ethnic enclaves become communities within the larger community. At one time, there were neighborhoods where Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats and other peoples of Eastern European origin established their own enclaves. There were also strong Italian, Irish and Mexican contingents. And the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the Deep South here as well. The railroads and packing houses were the main employers for many of these new arrivals. World War II-era manufacturing jobs were lures as well. The residents living in the various ethnic neighborhoods that took shape were bound by their shared birthplace, language, customs, religious affiliation and so on. They had their own churches and community centers that reinfoced their tight-knit connections. Festivals celebrated their hertiage and traditions. Having long ago assimilated and with second-third generation descendants moving to other other sections of the city and with the wartime, railroad and packing house jobs disappearing, those once ethnic-centric areas in South Omaha became more homogenized over time. Today, only trace elements of their once ethnic identities remain. The last three decades have seen the emergence of new emigrees from Latin and Central America, Asia and Africa, thus repeating the patterns that happened with earlier groups in the late 19th century through the late 1920s. All of this is context for an art project now underway in South Omaha that celebrates the different heritages that have made it such a melting pot over time. The South Omaha Mural Project is creating a mural for each of the major ethnic groups that have populated the area. A future mural may also commemorate the stockyards-packing plant epoch that dominated the South Omaha landscape for decades with that industry’s acres of buildings and structures that emplpyed thousands of people and with all the ancilliary businesses that served those workers.
Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
What began as a one-off neighborhood mural by Richard Harrison and his daughter Rebecca Van Ornam has morphed into a project with several artists depicting historical South Omaha ethnic groups and landmarks.
When historian Gary Kastrick saw the South 13th Street mural Harrison and Van Ornam did illustrating the area’s Czech heritage, it sparked an idea for a mural culture series celebrating South Omaha’s role as a gateway for ethnic immigrant and refugee assimilation.
More murals followed through the help of the South Omaha Business Association (SOBA), who secured grants for a history mural at the Metropolitan Community College south campus and a Magic City Mural at 24th and N. Thus, the South Omaha Mural Project was born.
Artist Hugo Zamorano joined the team for a Lithuanian mural on the Lithuanian Bakery at 5217 South 33rd Avenue. A Mexican mural in the Plaza de la Raza was unveiled July 10. New murals are planned for the Polish, Irish, Croatian, Italian, Jewish, African-American ethnic enclaves that traditionally called South Omaha home. The more recently arrived Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran communities will get murals, too. There’s talk of one celebrating South O’s stockyards-meatpacking legacy as well.
The Polish mural will adorn a wall of Dinker’s Bar at 2368 South 29th Street. The Irish mural will grace another popular hangout, Donohue’s Pub, at 3232 L Street.
“We’re looking for walls that have good visibility in relationship to the neighborhood,” Harrison said. “Size is a good thing.”
Every wall poses its own challenges.
“When a wall is rough and covered with obstacles like water meters and things we are coming up with solutions of putting up profile cut sign boards with characters and symbols on them, so the wall has sort of a pop-up book, three-dimensional feeling to it,” Harrison said.
Project funding comes from SOBA, the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Grants Program, the City of Omaha’s Historical Grant initiative and various community sources.
David Catalan served as SOBA president when the organization decided to support the mural project. He said the project aligns well with SOBA’s mission of “preserving the diversity and heritage of South Omaha.”
Some ethnic organizations hold fundraisers to help underwrite their individual murals. The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance is a new partner.
Harrison is a project facilitator and a supporting artist. Michael Giron and Zamorano trade-off as lead artist. Kastrick serves as the history consultant. Catalan is an advisor and liaison.
This labor of love entails extensive community engagement and input for each mural. Multiple public meetings elicit information and ideas. The public can view the final sketch projected on a wall and can join community paint days.
“We are connecting with a lot of people in each successive community we focus on,” Harrison said. “We’re happy how fast this connects with people and how much it matters to them. They come to the meetings and share their stories and memories. Everybody we talk to finds it meaningful to them.”
He believes the community taking ownership of the murals explains why none have suffered graffiti.
After the communal paint days, Harrison, Giron, Zamorano and other artists paint for a month or two – working in acrylics to sharpen images and to apply shading and highlights. A clear protective sealer is added at the end.
When a mural’s finished, a public celebration is held.
This community-based approach is much more involved than the private commissions Harrison does under his A Midsummer’s Mural business but he said it’s all worth it.
“What’s really special is bringing the community together to talk about what’s important to them and what memories they have.”
Kastrick, a retired Omaha South High history teacher who leads South Omaha history tours, hopes the murals educate and entertain about South O’s long, unfolding melting pot story.
“It’s about rekindling South Omaha roots in people who moved away and reestablishing those roots with their children and grandchildren. I envision people coming to see the murals and talking about the people and the history they see on them.”
He and Harrison believe the murals can be destination attraction urban maps for residents and visitors wanting to learn about the area’s cultural history.
None of the primary artists working on the project are originally from Omaha and for these transplants each mural is an education.
“There is a lot that I did not know before this project and still more to learn.,” said Zamorano.
The Mexican mural he took the lead on is a perfect example.
“Almost everything I learned was new information to me. I learned about some of the different waves of Mexicans that moved to Omaha, why they moved, and where they came from. I never knew how much the Catholic church and Lutheran church were involved in the community helping people move forward in education and empowerment. The list goes on. I never knew how much history there is in South Omaha alone.”
Fostering appreciation for place is what the project team wants every mural to encourage. Zamorano said Mexican mural images represent “topics and themes about unity, struggle, education, work, identity, education and celebration.” A working couple eats dinner with their family. A “Dreamer” graduates high school. Community anchors, such as the American GI Forum and Chicano Awareness Center, loom large. “In the center,” he said “an ancient Aztec god and two children share a history book to symbolize the past and future.”
Follow the project’s progress at http://www.amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/.
The College World Series has me all nostalgic for the way things were and by that I mean the CWS and Rosenblatt Stadium enjoying a long-lived marriage as the home to the Boys of Summer. It was a pairing that seemed destined to last decades more. My story here from 1998 appeared at the peak of CWS glory at The Blatt. It was coming on 50 years for this event and venue. But within a decade all the platitudes uttered by the NCAA and others about this match made in heaven began to erode and the business interests and metrics that control big-time college athletics erased any sentiment and moved forward with cold, calculated speed to a new CWS era. The powers that be abandoned Rosenblatt and made plans to develope the new TD Ameritrade ballpark in order to keep the series in Omaha because the Grand Old Lady, as Jack Payne refers to the vintage Blatt, was showing its age and could not accommodate fans in the manner the NCAA demanded. Of course, Omaha had already put put tens of millions of dollars into updating Rosenblatt to keep the series here. The city then spent much more than that again to build a new park to keep the series here. Those who said The Blatt had to go called it a relic and anachronism in an age of expansive stadiums with unobstructed views and wide concourses. There is no doubt that Rosenblatt’s guts were cramped, claustrophobic-inducing and offered limited or nonexistent views of the field from the concourse. Defenders cited the history, legacy, tradition and character of the old park that would be sacrificed, lost and irreplacable in a new venue. We all know what happened. But for a glorious run of more than half a century, The Blatt reigned supreme.
The series and the stadium: CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”
Yes, there’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character, both immutable and enigmatic.
Within baseball’s rigid standards, idoosyncracy blooms. A nine-inning contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded and one team is ahead, but getting there can take anywhere from two to four hours or more. All sorts of factors, including weather delays, offensive explosions and multiple pitching changes, can extend a game. An extra inning game results when the two teams are tied after nine stanzas. The number of extra innings is limitless until one team outscores the other after both clubs have had their requisite turns at the plate. There are countless games on record that have gone 10, 11, 12 or more innings, sometimes upwards of 15 to 18 innings and some have even gone beyond these outlier limits to 20 or more innings, when they become true marathon contests of will for players and fans alike. The hours and plays can add up to the point that you can’t remember all the action you just sat through and witnessed.
Stadiums may appear uniform but each has its own personality – with distinctive outfield, dimensions, wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies. Balls play differently and carry differently in each park. The way the infield grass and dirt are maintained differs from park to park. The way the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box are aligned differs, too.
Look in any almost American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.
The city and the stadium have become synonomous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.
This year’s CWS is scheduled for May 29-June 6.
The innocence and the memories
In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of Major League free-agency squabbles, the threat of player and umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.
The action unwinds with lesiurely grace. The”friendly confines” offer the down home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to “scooch in a hair more” and be obliged?
Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst. In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is a chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin.
The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it’s just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ’70s and ’80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.
Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.
Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.
Negro Leagues clubs passed through in its early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major League teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ’50s and ’60s. St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.
For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ’57. Since ’69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.
With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father Johnny led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years held special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the first bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”
For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ’64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ’96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ’87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”
Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ’51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”
Terry Forsbeg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens . Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ’91 CWS stands out. “That was a reall thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.” The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings suffered by CU, is considered an all-time classic.
Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejays squad, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”
A game that’s always mentioned is the ’73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.
Poignant moments aboud as well. Like the ’64 ceremony renaming the former Municpal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor. Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ’79. Another emotional moment came in ’94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.
Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and tourney are made for each other. “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”
Due to its storied link to the CWS the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux would like to see a college baseball-CWS hall of fame established there.
Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ’44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was an earlier version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena. With the goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ’45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond to finance the project.
Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed. The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.
Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ’48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed. The final cost exceeded $1 million.
Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.
Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ’90s and is ongoing today.
A new look
Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era – with its steel-girded grandstand and concrete concourse – and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.
“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Terry Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see what mid-America is all about.”
Jack Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it. The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment. She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ’90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”
Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s, and by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.
NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.
“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.
Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.
“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way the championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”
For Dedeaux, who led the Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.
Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an Omaha tailored clothing salesman. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.
For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer. “To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else – just baseball.”
Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ’50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year it looks better.”
Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was 8 years-old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”
There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet, meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.
Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ’70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), college (Omaha University-University of Nebraska at Omaha) and pro football (Omaha Mustangs and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill, too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ’64 and ’79. But that’s not all. It accommodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there. Except for the annual fireworks show, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.
“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a Major League level. The new field is farily sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.
A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some big league clubs.
Omaha’s desire to keep the CSW has made the stadium a priority. As the series begain consistenly drawing large crowds in the ’80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium. Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, officials placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ’80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.
In the late ’80s Omaha faced a decision – improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In the ’90s the club’s then owner, Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s Inc. chairman Walter Scott Jr. , who together purchased the Royals in 1991.
Urged on by local organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals new ownership the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ’91.
The Beach Boys in concert at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD
A carnival or fair atmposphere
The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.
The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five stories high.
Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious, thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.
Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar South Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.
There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd – from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sioux” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.
The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek , shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels.
But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, soundproof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills. “That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”
When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.
Baseball’s internal rhythms bring fans back
Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 204,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn 400,000-plus fans every year but one since ’92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single season attendance 447,079 came in ’94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.
Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch. For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.
They come too for the kick back convivality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain. There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball. Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.'”
The season’s end brings withdrawl pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.
As dusk fell at Rosenblatt once recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez , a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”
Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go – if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”
That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal.
Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling.
Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood.
So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…
I have been meaning to post this story for some time and only now got around to it. It’s a Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story from 1999 that takes a look back at the Omaha Stockyards only months before the whole works closed and was razed. Its demise, after years of decline following decades of booming business, ended a big brawny empire that at its peak was a major economic engine and a dominant part of the South Omaha landscape. I interviewed several men and one woman whose lives were bound up in the place and they paint a picture of a city within a city about which they felt great pride and nostalgia. The Stockyards was its own culture. These stockmen and this stockwoman were sad seeing it all go away, as if it was never there. Around that same time, I wrote a second depth story about the Stockyards for the New Horizons that gave even more of a feel for the scale of operation it once maintained. Here is a link to that story–
It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Unfolding a stone’s thrown away from a South Omaha strip mall is a scene straight out of the Old West. A sturdy codger called B.J. drives a dozen burnt orange cows through a mosaic of wooden pens and metal gates. As he flogs the recalcitrant beasts with a whip, his sing-song voice calls to them in a lingo only wranglers know.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey…yeh, yeh, yeh…Whoa! Get up there. Whoa! Yeh, yeh, yeh…Go, get up there. High, high, high, high. Whoa. Gip, gip, gip, gip…High, high, high, high…Yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh…C’mon, babies. C’mon, sweethearts. C’mon, darlings. Get up there.”
Welcome to the Omaha Stockyards, a once immense marketplace and meatpacking center which, owing to changing marketing trends and public attitudes, has gone to rack and ruin. Since 1997, when Mayor Hal Daub announced a city-led plan to buy the site, raze nearly the entire complex and redevelop it, the Omaha Livestock Market, which operates the yards, has been marking time. In March, market staff and traders vacated offices in the Livestock Exchange Building and have since taken up makeshift quarters in a nearby cinder-block structure. The yards are expected to close early this fall, possibly by October, and the market will move from the site it has operated at for 116 years and re-open in Red Oak, Iowa. Just as the Stockyards will soon disappear, its halcyon days are now distant memories.
But for survivors of those times, like Bernie J. McCoy, the past is very much alive. As painful as the impending end is for them, they revel in the spirit of the people who worked there and their special way of doing business. To the hard physical labor performed, the injuries incurred, the grueling dawn to dusk schedule and harsh elements endured.
“You had to want to be here and work those long hours. It was a different breed then,” McCoy says.
Yes, the fat times are long gone, never to return, but their legacy lives on in the work McCoy and others still do there. They retrace the very paths taken by countless others before them, forging a direct link to the area’s frontier past. In the yards’ cavernous, skeleton-like environs, McCoy’s voice blends with the sound of bawling calves, squealing hogs and creaking gates to resonate like the mourning, wailing echo of restless souls from long ago. Requiem for the Stockyards.
Recently, McCoy and some fellow Stockyards veterans recounted for The Reader the good old days at this soon to be vanished landmark. Their memories unveil a rich, vibrant, muscular chapter of Omaha’s working life well worth preseving. Their words celebrate an enterprise that dominated the landscape and shaped the city unlike no other. Where the once overbrimming yards pulsed with the lifeblood of Omaha’s economy, it is now a relic condemned to the scrap heap – a decript place largely given over to pigeons and rats. Blocks of abandoned, weed-strewn pens stand empty. Crumbling, sagging buildings blight the landscape. Where it took hundreds of men many hours to drive, feed, water, sort, weigh, trade and load livestock daily, now all activity unfolds in an hour or two amid a dozen pens holding perhaps a hundred cattle, a few hands putting them through their paces.
The traffic whooshing past on L Street overhead is a metaphor for how this forsaken former juggernaut has been passed by in the wake of progress, leaving it an anachronism in a city grown intolerant. Yet, it lingers still – a ghostly visage of another era.
By the close of 1999 only tracts of of dilapidated pens and barren livestock barns will remain. Soon even these meager traces will vanish when the city levels the whole works in a year or two. leaving only the looming presence of the massive Exchange Building – for decades the focal point and symbol of the sprawling , booming market. Even its future is not secure, hinging on if if developers find financing for its pricey renovation.
We helped build this city
Today, from atop the weather-beaten wooden high walk spanning the grounds, it’s hard imagining when the yards teemed with enough acitivty to make it the largest livestock market/meatpacking center in the nation. Oh, animals still arrive at market every week but comprise only a trickle of the mighty stream that once flowed around the clock.
Unless you’re pushing middle age, you never saw the Stockyards at its peak. When tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep arrived daily by rail and truck. Millions of animals a year. All transactions, each worth many thousands of dollars, were consummated by word of mouth alone. Trading generated millions of dollars a day, perhaps billions over time.
Livestock were sold primarily to the big four packing plants and the many smaller independent plants then dotting the yards’ perimeter. Stock were also shipped to other parts of the country, even overseas. The place was once so big, its impact so vast, that the Omaha market helped set the prices for the industry nationwide and ran its own radio station and newspaper. As a center of commerce, the Stockyards ruled. At their peak, the packing plants employed more than 10,000 laborers. The Stockyards company itself employed hundreds, including office staff to manage the business as well as outdoor crews to handle animals, maintain pens, chutes and barns and run its own railroad line. Hundreds more did business there as livestock commission salesmen, order-buyers, inspectors, et cetera. The people converging there on any trading today ranged from frugal farmers to rough-hewn truckers to smooth-talking traders to well-heeled bankers.
Besides being THE meeting place for anyone who was anybody in the agriculture industry, the Exchange Building offered an oasis of comfort with its cafeteria, dining room, ballroom, bar, soda fountain, cigar stand and barbershop. Basement showers let you wash the stink off but somehow you always knew when a hog man was around. Nearby watering holes, eateries, stores and hotels catered to the stock trade’s every pleasure. The aroma of sweat, blood, manure, hay, grain, cologne, whiskey and tobacco created what Omaha historian Jean Dunbar calls, “The smell of money.”
“Fifty years ago the Stockyards and packing plants were the hub of Omaha, Nebraska. Nowadays, young people don’t appreciate what the Union Stockyards Company did for Omaha. We helped build this city. Everyone wanted to work here. You don’t know the pride we had. Come November, there will be nothing left to remember we were ever here or even existed. Nothing,” declares McCoy, 69, a livestock dealer who’s worked at the Omaha Stockyards for 54 years.
It was the people
From 1934 to 1969 Doris Wellman, 83, was one of the few women executives in the livestock trading business. Her ties to the place run deep. Her grandfather and father worked there, as did her late husband Ralph and his grandfather and father before him. Incidentally, she never minded the stench because she never forgot “that was my bread and butter.” Above all, the genuineness and the esprit de corps of the people there impressed her. “Every man at that Stockyards was a gentleman as far as I’m concerned. Everybody was always very cordial to you. Everybody spoke to everybody else. There was nothing phony about it. We had our own little community there. That camraderie you will never find anyplace else.”
“When someone was in the least anount of distress,” she adds, “a collection was taken up.” McCoy says, “One trip through the Exchange Building might net 10 or 15,000 dollars,” like the time enough funds were raised to stop foreclosure on Carl “Swede” Anderson’s house.
“Of course, it was the people that made the Stockyards. They took care of their own. That’s what I miss more than anything about it,” says Jim Egan, 66, whose memory of the place goes back before World War II, when as a boy he hung around his father, a livestock order-buyer. Egan later became a livestock dealer himself. “I kind of grew up there as a little kid. I looked up to the head cattle buyers for the big packers, but they were as common as could be. They didn’t look down at anybody. There was never any airs put on. Absolutely not.”
Not that there wasn’t a caste system owing to one’s position and seniority. “There was kind of a pecking order,” Egan says. The more experienced men bought and sold the prime, top-dollar beef, while the green ones learned the trade from the bottom up. Those who carried the most weight and the longest length of service, he says, earned a wider berth, a choicer selection and a primer office location. “Back in the ’50s the head cattle buyers with Armour. Swift and Wilson all wore suits and ties. They had on boots, too, in those days. If you wanted to sell one some cattle you didn’t call him by his first name – it was Mister,” says Ron Ryhisky, 63, a packer-buyer now in his 46th year at the yards. “They thought they were God,” says cattle seller Art Stolinski, who adds that cattle buyers were made even more intimidating by working on horseback.
Men only advanced after an apprenticeship learning breeds, grades, weights. “I drove cattle 10 years for Omaha Packing Co. before I got a chance to buy a few cows, Ryhisky says. Stolinski, now in his 61st year, adds, “I came to work as a yardman for my father. I was a gofer – I cleaned pens, I shook hay, I drove cattle. That’s how you came up the ladder.”
Haggling in the yards got heated. Bidding became a pitched battle. Harsh words exchanged between buyers and sellers were soon forgotten though because everyone understood being an S.O.B was just part of doing business. “That was the other guy’s way of trying to beat you,” Ryhisky says. “Sure, the guys argued and everything, but as soon as the trade was done, it was done. Nobody stayed mad,” Egan notes. He adds that men cursing each other over the price of bulls played cards or shared a meal and some drinks a few hours later.
Egan found no “softies” among buyers. “The only time they’d be a soft touch is if they were really desperate for cattle.” Stolinski says some shippers made for tough customers. “Some guys were just hard to sell for. They’d go, ‘Well, that ain’t enough. Get more. Them cattle are worth more than that.’ So you didn’t sell them cattle and then risked not getting them sold for what they were bid, and getting set.”
Like any other traded commodity, livestock were subject to supply and demand dynamics. As Egan explains, “The buyer was trying to buy the cattle for as cheap as he could. The salesman was trying to get as much as he could for his customer. Both knew pretty close where those cattle were going to sell. When it got right down to the nitty-gritty, if the buyer had another load of cattle he thought he could get, then he probably had a little leverage. If he didn’t, then the man selling the cattle had the leverage. That knowledge moved around the yards fairly quick.”
One way the latest market updates and bid orders reached buyers and sellers was by runners. “The packer might decide to take off 50 cents or a dollar (per hundred pounds) and the only way to tell those buyers was to send a runner, usually some kid, who’d run around that high walk trying to get the word to the cow buyers, the heifer buyers, the steer buyers. That kid was running, too,” Stolinski says. “When you saw that kid running fast, you knew he had something to tell the packer-buyer.” Later, radio transmitters replaced runners.
Ball-busting tactics aside, the yards brooked no dirty deeds. As soon as a swindler got exposed for “welshing on a deal,” Egan says, the word spread and he was banned. “You’d never get another animal.”
“If you were a cheat,” Ryhisky adds, “you never came back in.”
Badmouthing a competitor was strictly taboo. Wellman explains, “I can remember whenever my husband Ralph hired a cattle salesman the first thing he told him was, ‘When you go to the country to solicit business, don’t knock any of your opponents. Every knock is a boost. I never want to hear you maligned another commission man on the road.’ We trained people like that and they grew up knowing that’s the way to do business.”
A sense of trust and fair play permeated the yards. It’s what allowed trading to unfold entirely by spoken word – with no written contracts. A man’s word or handshake was enough. It’s still done that way.
“The uniqueness of the way business was conducted,” distinguished the stockyards industry,” Egan says. “Everything was done by word of mouth. It was an honor system you adhered to. It’s just the way it was.”
“Integrity is a word that comes to mind. Anyone that was here any time at all had it. There was nothing signed,” Stolinski says, adding sarcastically, “Now, you go buy a necktie and you gotta make three copies.”
As Wellman put it, “Do you of another business where you can transact millions of dollars worth of business everyday without signing a paper? Where you word is your bond, and if it isn’t, you won’t last?”
According to Gene Miller, a long-time commission man, any livestock deal was the sole province of the buyer and seller. The shipper or producer who consigned his livestock for sell to a commission firm was usually present but only participated if the salesman conferred on the bid. Rare disputes were mediated before a board of livestock exchange officials. “It was up to the buyer and seller to settle. If they couldn’t settle then they went before the Livestock Exchange Board. At any rate, your word had to be all of it or otherwise you had no market.”
Consistent with its open market concept, the Stockyards brought many buyers and sellers together in one spot to arrive at the fairest market price. A single load of cattle might be shown to and bid on by any number of buyers. To prevent a free-for-all, rules governed the bidding process.
If a buyer looked at a load of cattle and made a bid that the salesman accepted, the buyer was bound to take them. However, if the buyer left the salesman’s alley before the bid was accepted, the buyer was not obligated. Similarly, Egan explains, “If a guy was buying, say, steers and another order-buyer or packer-buyer came along, he had to wait outside the alley until the salesman got through showing that first buyer. If the salesman got the price, he might sell a load of cattle to the first guy that looked at ’em. But that buyer wouldn’t sit on a load of cattle and let everybody in the Stockyards look at ’em because he’s got the pressure of the second buyer breathing down his neck.”
Once cattle arrived at the yards, they were usually bedded down a night before traded. The idea was to feed and water stock in order to put weight back on lost (shrinkage) during shipping. While the market didn’t open until 8 or 8:30 a.m., commission men started their workday by 4:30 or 5 in order to get the cattled consigned to them out of holding pens and driven to their firms’ alleys and pens. As the cattle were locked up, sales agents had to find a “key man” at the yards to unlock the pens. Each saleman hustled to get his cattle released ahead of the others.
Stolinski says tempers often flared over who was first in line. “If he happened to be bigger than you, you wouldn’t argue, but some of that happened, too.”
The volume of livestock being traded was so thick that men often had to wait hours in line to get their bunch released or weighed. Each time cattled were moved they were counted, a serious business too given the sheer numbers of animals and the hefty dollar values they represented. A paper trail of receipts and weigh bills followed each load.
Livestock being led to a local packinghouse were driven through an underground tunnel. To help track each load chalk marks were applied to animals. Aptly named Judas goats were used to lead the packs, mostly sheep, placidly through. Steers were run through to chase out the foot-long rats. To control fighting bulls cows were often mixed in. Even with this confluence of activity – trucks and trains arriving and departing and assorted livestock being sorted and driven through a mazework of pens – the stockmen agree there were few major screwups. “It was amazing to me that with the thousands and thousands of livestock that moved through here, we kept them straight,” says Carl Hatcher, a 44-year veteran of the yards and today manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.
“It was amazing how few miscounts we had,” Stolinski says.
More amazing still because despite the paper trail dealers kept most of the figures in their head. “When I went to work for my dad I came out with a tab and pencil and started writing stuff down, and he said, ‘Throw that away. If you have to start writing everything down, forget it. Learn to remember.’ You did,” Stolinski recalls. “You developed your memory that way. Even now, I can remember cattle I sold a couple weeks ago – what they were, what they brought, what they weighed. A lot of buyers could just look at cattle and remember, too.”
Out of harm’s way
As smoothly as it all ran, some things could still foul up the works, like one of the 11 scales breaking or an animal going down and not being able to get back up. Then there were close calls with ornery animals. Some broke containment, leaping fences and escaping into surrounding streets, where crews shooed them into the yards or cowboys roped and dragged them back. The wildest ones were shot dead. A mean animal in an alley or a pen sent men scurrying for the fences; the lucky ones clambered atop unscathed; the less fortunate ones got pinned, stomped or gored. Every man can tell you about his close calls and rough scrapes. Harold Hunter, a 78 year old cattle delaer who’s been hit by a heifer and rolled by a bull, among other things since his 1944 start, recalls, “I’d only been here two weeks when I was holding a gate while my boss was on a horse sortin’ these steers. They were probably 3 and 4 year-olds, weighing 1,250, and they moved fast. Two of ’em went by me just like that. My boss said, ‘Kid, they ain’t going to hurt you, just stop ’em.’ Well, the next one went right through the gate and broke it down. Those western range cattle had never seen a man on foot, They respected a horse, but not a man on foot.”
It paid knowing how to stay out of harm’s way. “If you had the gate,” Stolinski says, “you didn’t get behind it to hold ’em back because they’d hit that gate and you’d go with it. You always had to have that gate on the side of you, so when they hit it the gate went and you climbed up the fence…maybe.”
Hatcher, who saw plenty of busted noses and broken bones from swinging gates, says you were well advised “to have your escape route” planned. “Like when we unloaded cattle off the box cars, the way the railroad set the cars , they wouldn’t match up with the opening into the chute. Well, when you’d open a box car door and flop a board in for them to come out, you hoped you could shout and move ’em into the chute opening. But sometimes they’d get upset seeing the fences and turn the wrong way and go down the dock where you were standing. One night a fellow named Dale Castor was there with our night foreman, Orlin Emley, when some old western wild cows came out and turned down the dock, Emley already had the escape route figured. He was climbing the fence when Castor, who hadn’t figured his out, grabbed a hold of Emley and tried to crawl right up his back. Emley was shouting, ‘Get off me, find your own goddamn fence.’ That happened a lot.
“The sound of a gate slamming or people yelling can cause soome animals to run over or through everything they can fin. A wild or mean one like that won’t stop no matter how much you yell or wave a stick or whip or cane or anything else. You know which ones are comin’ out lookin’ for you. you can’t top ’em. You look for your spot on the fence and keep your distance. You gotta know what your doin’ and pay attention.”
Egan says hard to handle animals were often red-flagged on the paperwork accompanying them to give men a heads-up warning.
The risk of injury never goes away. Only two years ago Bernie McCoy had a run-in with a heifer that left him with three cracked ribs. There’s no end of hazards either. Try negotiating a narrow, icy, wind-swept high walk in winter. Or lashing a cow with a whip and a piece of leather tearing off into your face or leg. “It’s like getting shot with a pellet gun,” says Stolinski.
Bulls, because of their size and disposition, pose real trouble. As Stolinski says, “If a bull hits you, he don’t (sic) let you fall to the ground. He just keeps hittin’ you into the fence. Gettin’ kicked would hobble you most because you either got it in the knee or hip.”
But other animals could hurt you, too. Stolinski recalls a yardman named Dale Lovitt who had a leg ripped open by a boar in the hog yards and, true to the stockmen’s macho creed, got stitched and returned for a snort.
“They took him to the hospital, sewed him up, and he got back here and went rght to the bar and had a shot.”
Hatcher witnessed the grit of yardman Hubert Clatterbuck, who took a nasty spill “when the wild horse he was training reared up. causing him to lose his balance. He went right over the back of the horse and fell right on the concrete in the alley…landing on his shoulders and head. Hell, I thought sure he was dead. I called a rescue unit but, shoot, he just shook it off.”
You gotta have it in you
“The hours got terrible with the commission firms, let me tell you,” says Gene Miller. “Today, you couldn’t pay any man enough to work the way we did, and those hours, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. The hours were too long . The work was too hard. It was seven days a week.” Yet, to a man, they say they don’t regret any of it. Not one hour or day.
And Bernie McCoy adds, “You were always moving,” whether fetching cattle from the hill (the west yards stretching clear to 36th Street) or driving them to the hole (the sloping southwestern yards). “I don’t how many miles we walked a day,” Ryhisky adds. The work went on regardless of the weather. “Sometiimes the conditions were just just rotten,” Stolinski notes. “Standing out there weighing cattle when it was rainy and sloppy like hell. The cattle snapped their hoofs in a puddle and it would splash all over you. We didn’t have rain suits in those days. You had a jacket and you just got wet. You had to keep just working. There wasn’t time to go in and change because those cattle had to be weighed in so many minutes.”
Away from the yards, commission men traveled weekends soliciting business from farmers and ranchers. It was not uncommon for a salesman to put 40,000 miles a year on his car. Since the advent of direct selling in the ’60s. packer-buyers like Ryhisky now solicit customers.
Yardmen have always had it the roughest, facing the same risks from animals and the same dismal weather conditions while building and repairing pens, throwing bales of hay, cleaning alleys and chutes, et cetera. “You gotta have it in you,” Stolinski says. Plenty haven’t. Hatcher saw many men quit after a day or two slogging through muck and shoveling manure. He says the worst jobs included clearing snow atop the auto park, aka, Hurricane Deck, in the winter and picking up animal dumps and hauling them away in the summer.
Stockmen’s and farmers’ and truckers’ hotel near Union Stockyards. South Omaha
They played hard
After a hard day’s work or big sell, men unwound bending an elbow at nearby gin joints. A few braced themselves before punching in each morning, like notable imbiber Claude Dunning, who is said to have drained a half-pint daily before the market even opened. “Some of the old guys would walk in the front of the building, make a left turn into the bar and get a drink of whiskey, then change clothes and off they’d go,” Stolinski says. “Most of the commission men had charge accounts in the bar. If you were a regular, they’d give you a second shot free.”
Fights inevitably broke out.
“They played hard,” Hatcher says, so much so the yard company cracked down. Still, there were ways, like riding in the caboose of a train shipping bulls to Chicago. Two men went along to see the bulls go watered and got tanked themselves on a case of beer. “We had fun,” Ryhisky says.
Other diversions ranged from regular craps and gin rummy games to sports betting. Once, the Stockyards took up a collection to bankroll local gin rummey king Art Jensen, a livestock trader, for a Las Vegas tournament. “They bought shares in him,” Jim Egan says. “He lost.” A good friend of Jensen’s was future Nevada gambling maven Jackie Gaughan, then a bookmaker, who allegedly used a livestock trading office as a bookie front. “You could get a lot of bets laid down there,” recounts Egan. Legend has it local stockmen sold cattle on a cash-only basis to one shady character back east who reputedly once brought a suitcase with $250,000. It’s said the fellow eventually ran afoul of the mob and was killed.
Francis “Doc” Stejskal, a former livestock commission salesman and later a packer-buyer, says people at the yards were not necessarily the raucous bunch many outsiders assumed. “I think a lot of folks thought it was rough and rowdy. That when business was over we all went down to some South Omaha cathouse. It wasn’t that way.”
Doris Wellman adds, “It was the wrong interpretation completely.” That’s not to say there weren’t establishments where women of ill repute rendered certain illicit services. “The dollies were in the Miller Hotel. The guys would take care of things there,” Harold Hunter says. “Big Irene” is said to have been a favorite among johns frequenting the whorehouses and clip joints comprising South O’s red light district.
Those who could not control their appetites were brought down. “Wine, whiskey and women ruined quite a few guys out here,” Ron Ryhisky contends. “I’d hate to have seen the casinos here back in the ’50s. We would have had a lot of broke men.” Adds Stolinski, “A lot of money was made and a lot of good men were lost to high living.”
But for most a big night on the town meant downing a few drinks and eating a hearty meal at Johnny’s Cafe, where stockmen had carte blanche. Many a farmer came to market with his family. While his stock was traded his family waited in the Exchange Building and later, fat check in hand, they went for a shopping spree. Philip’s Department Store was a favorite stop. In an industry that was a crossroads for people from nearly every strata of society – rural-urban, rich-poor – the Stockyards saw its share of memorable characters. Take Gilley Swanson, for instance. The stockmen say Swanson, a farmer, had such utter disregard for his own hygeine that he was infested with lice and slept in the yards’ hay manger. It got so bad, they say, that he was barred from the Exchange Building and people steered clear of his approach. Then there was Bernard Pauley, a mammoth shipper who overwhelmed his bib overalls and had a habit of stepping right from the feedyard into his latest Cadillac, soiling the interior. Forbidden from drinking at home by his wife, he went on benders in the big city, buying endless rounds for himself and his cronies.
Looks could be deceiving. A rancher might pass for a ripe vagrant after traveling by rail with his cattle, yet could pocket enough from one sale to pay cash for a new car and still have ample money left over. Eastern dudes passing through often didn’t know one end of a cow from the other, but knew balance sheets and some say the New York-based Kay Corp., which bought the ailing ards in 1973, simply wrote it off.
These are Stockyards people
Then, as now, money talked. For decades the Stockyards pumped the fuel powering Omaha’s economic engine. Sotuh Omaha owed its existence to the place. The Stockyards wielded power and commanded respect via the jobs it provided, the charitable works its 400 Club performed, the goodwill tours its members made and the boards its executives served on. This far-reaching impact is why stockmen feel such pride even today. “More than you’ll ever know,” says Ryhisky. As business there steadily declined the last 25 years the Stockyards saw its influence wane, operations shrink and grounds deteriorate. Now, with the City of Omaha practically running the Stockyards out of town and erasing any remnant of the past (although, as bound by law, the city is paying the relocation costs and commissioning a historic recordation of the site), it’s no wonder survivors feel forgotten and belittled.
Doris Wellman tells a story about Johnny’s Cafe founder Frank Kawa that sums up how stockmen were once regarded and would like to be remembered. “A group of us were having dinner at Johnny’s one evening years ago and the people nest to us thought we were a little too noisy, so they complained to Mr. Kawa. He told them. ‘If you don’t like it, get up and leave. These are Stockyards people. They built this place.'”