ON DECK: 'Ask Walt Bee’
Every so often I get calls or emails from local sports enthusiasts with various tips, questions or suggestions.
I recently received one of those calls from 91-year-old Walt Bee, who attended Carpenter School through third grade and then Blaine School before graduating from Central High School in 1943. He currently lives in the South End.
The first thing Walt said on his message was that he loved reading the Sports Echoes that run every once in a while in the Telegram.
The next thing he said was that he wanted to take me out to lunch and not only tell me about a couple of Sports Echoes he was involved with, but fill me in on a few other things.
It turns out that Walt is full of all kinds of Sports Echoes.
The first topic during lunch at the Family Restaurant in the Androy Hotel was the 1942 Superior Central basketball team.
The Vikings struggled through the regular season with a 6-10 record. They caught fire in the playoffs with wins over Drummond, Superior East and Hurley and entered the state tournament with a 9-10 record.
Central’s playoff wins were over Drummond, Superior East and Hurley.
At the state tournament, Superior defeated Laona (26-22) and Madison Central (28-25) before losing to Marinette 27-24 in triple overtime in the semifinals to finish the season with a record of 11-11.
For their efforts Central players were given medals, but the team never received a team trophy to display in the school’s trophy case.
The tournament was played during World War II, so because of rationing, state tournament awards were limited to a medal a little bigger than a quarter. Travel restrictions also handicapped the attendance, which totaled 14,658, about 1,000 less than the 1941 state tournament.
The second topic we discussed was the lack of scoring in the state tournament.
During the 1942 tournament the WIAA experimented with the rules. One new rule was that after every made basket, the referee was to hold on to the ball for five seconds.
The reasoning behind the move was to limit fast-break baskets.
That rule came back to haunt Central as at the end of regulation Superior took the lead with less than five seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings expected the referee to hold on to the ball, which would have run out the clock and given Central a berth in the championship game.
But in all of the excitement, the ref handed the ball to a Marinette player, who went on to score and send the game into overtime. Marinette eventually lost to Shorewood 34-17 in the title game.
“Duane Peil put us two points up and the referee must have been as excited as we were because instead of holding the ball for five seconds, he gave it to the guy and he sunk a half-court shot to tie the game,” Bee said. “We finally lost in three overtimes.”
The starting lineup of the 1942 Vikings included Peil, Charlie Billmayer, Red McDermott, Don Walsh and Bud Grant, who went to coach with the Minnesota Vikings and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Other team members were Bob Molner, Don Crist, Ed Lentz, Art Bredal and Selene (his first name was unknown). They were coached by Harry Conley, and the team manager was Bob Olson.
What’s a dope bucket?
While researching the 1942 state basketball tournament, I came across the term “dope bucket.”
The first reference was in the state tournament program — “Harry Conley’s dark horse team, almost upset the dope bucket and only failure from the free-throw line kept them from going to the finals.”
Then there was something in the Evening Telegram along the lines of, “The Vikings kicked the dope bucket into the St. Louis Bay,” after they advanced to the state tournament.
After a Google search, it seems that the term refers to proving the so-called experts wrong.
In a story about a 1938 basketball team somewhere in the United States, it says that dope or dopesters is an archaic term for knowledgeable sports fans — those who had the inside dope.
Where’s the trophy?
Another topic Bee brought was the Northwest Fast-pitch Tournament, which back in the day drew thousands of fans and teams from all across the Midwest.
Superior has always sported successful fast-pitch softball teams, but only one local team ever won the Northwest Tournament.
That team was Frankie’s Tavern in 1953.
Bee was a member of that team, along with Bill Johnson, Bob Goligoski, Joe Warnack, Marsh Liebaert, Chet Beetcher, Don Walsh, Bill Torguson and Bruno, Leo, Al and Walt Anecki. Torguson was the team manager, and Pat Walsh was the bat boy.
Bee didn’t bring this up to brag about the team’s distinction but to point out that the trophy they received for winning the tournament has gone missing.
“The last time I talked to Frankie Rozowski (senior), he said it was in the basement of the bar,” Bee said. “The last time I remember seeing the trophy was when we posed for a reunion photo in 1978.”
With Frankie’s recently being sold, and now closed, Bee is hoping the current owners can find the trophy and save it from being lost forever.
The Northwest Tournament got its start in 1949 and was discontinued around 1980. It took place every year at the Wade Bowl complex near 12th Street and Clough Ave.
Bee was with a group of Superiorites who helped build the Wade Bowl field in the 1940s.
“Superior State College was making a new field or something, so they gave us their lights for free, and the water and light company put them up for free,” Bee said. “Doug Sutherland’s dad, who was a carpenter, got a bunch of us together and we built the bleachers. That’s where we played all of our games.”
Early softball games were played without gloves (except a couple of players, including the catcher).
“The ball would soften up a bit, but at the beginning it was hard,” Bee said.
Referee dies during game
Back on the basketball court, Bee remembered playing in a game when local referee, William C. McNeils, passed away.
In Dec. of 1942 the Central Vikings were playing at Duluth Cathedral. With the score tied 2-2 just 2:30 into the game, Bee was fouled and was standing at the foul line waiting to attempt his free throws when McNeils collapsed.
“In those days the referee would stand next to you and hand you the ball,” Bee said. “Well, when he was handing it to me, the ball dropped on the floor, so I was just going to go down and pick it up for him. The next thing you know he’s sliding down me and fell right on the floor.
“The poor guy, his 12-year-old son was in the audience. That’s something I’ll always remember.”
The game was called right away and coaches Harry Conley (Central) and John Vucinovich (Cathedral) agreed to make the game up later in the season.
McNeils’ death was due to natural causes, according to the St. Louis County coroner.
Where did ‘Putta’ come from?
The final thing we talked about was how my dad got the nickname “Putta.”
While growing up, we asked Putta many times how he got his nickname, and he would never really give us a straight answer.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he let it be known that Putta was the nickname of a fast-pitch softball player he liked to watch as a kid.
My dad would get to Wade Bowl early when his favorite team was playing and the older Putta would play catch with him — which eventually led to my dad being called “Little Putta.”
When my dad’s leukemia came back for a third time, and it eventually led to lung cancer and heart failure, we asked him one more time about his nickname and this time he answered back, “Ask Walt Bee.”
My brother Bernie eventually called Walt, and even though we didn’t know Walt, he took time out of his day to attend my dad’s funeral visitation and we had a nice chat.
It turns out that the older Putta was a guy by the name of Hart Zielsdorf, who just happened to be a teammate of Walt’s on the powerful Ekstrom’s softball team in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Zilsdorf was the center fielder and Bee play in left.
One of Bee’s memories of Zilsdorf was that he “could slug the ball.”
“When Hart was up to bat, and you saw him wiggle his rear end, you knew he was going to hit a home run,” Bee said.
My final analysis after writing this column is that Walt Bee is himself a walking “Sports Echo.”
Another bit of advice — don’t ever turn down the opportunity to listen to stories about the “olden days.”
The free lunch turned out to be a bonus.
BEE BITS: Walt’s brother Frank was a pretty good athlete and played football with the Oregon Ducks. When World War II broke out, Frank joined the military and was eventually shot in both legs during the Battle of the Bulge. … Walt’s nephew is Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk, who is projected to be a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft. Ramczyk is from Stevens Point. … Some other players on Bee’s Ekstrom’s team were manager Bob Gagnon, pitchers Ed Anecki and Leo Lien; Bill Torgerson, Bob Walker, Ed Novozinski, Floyd Lien, Bernie Arseneau, Don Walsh, Frank Huron and Allie Laurila.
Sports Echoes - 1953
Frankie’s Tavern served notice it will be tough to keep from winning its third consecutive Class A Softball League title. The champs defeated LaFayette Bar 22-4 in a season-opener as Bruno Anecki pitched a five-hitter and his teammates broke out their big bats to collect 18 hits. Walt Bee walked the first time up and then completed the perfect cycle, successively hitting a single, double, triple and home run. Joe Warnack also poled a home run in his 3-for-5 night. (1953)