The upset of the century

As soon as I walked into Nori’s , I heard my name called.

The caller was Bruce Dudley.

“Hey,” he said, “I’ve got something to show you.”

“So show me,” I said.

“I can’t. It’s in the car,” he said “Be right back.”

He came back with what he wanted to show me -?a scrapbook. It was an old one with a well-worn blue cover and “Scrapbook” written in gold in a fancy script that went out of fashion in the forties.

“Check it out,” he said.

It was an unguided tour down Memory Lane, specifically Saranac Lake sports in the mid to late 1950s, and Bruce was featured in the various sporting endeavors. As I was leafing through it, Bruce said,”There.”

I stopped.

“There it is,” he said. “About us beating the Chiefs.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” I said.

“The Ramblers,” he said, pointing at a crumbling clipping. And there it was – proof of this momentous event, in black and yellow.

Who were the Chiefs? Or who, for that matter, were the Ramblers?

The powerhouse and the peons

The Chiefs were My Home Town’s heroes -?our local baseball team, back when towns had such quaint things. Back in those days, local sports pretty much ended in high school. The Chiefs and their ilk were the exception. Composed of virtual ancients (at least to me, then), they were truly The Boys of Summer – former high school stars who still had their stuff.

They were also right out of Casey at the Bat. They played on the high school diamond, there on the southeast corner of Petrova field. The scoreboard was Americana at its best -?a splintered white wooden hulk with Home, Away, and Innings written on it in red. The runs were recorded by someone hanging a numbered wood square on an eye hook. Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have shown it better.

The games were well played and well attended, and while it might seem hokey to folks today to think of a crowd following a town team, to a world not yet television-addled-and- addicted, it was entertainment at its best.

The Chiefs were the area powerhouse. I suspect it was related to a quote attributed to Napoleon that God is on the side of the biggest battalions. In the case of the Chiefs, coming from a town of 7,000, they had the biggest pool of talent to draw from. This was especially true when dealing with a team like the Brighton Blues, for example, whose home base was Gabriels, with a population of 1,500 at the most. The Ramblers had even fewer people to draw from, being essentially a pick-up team.

And so perhaps hubris contributed to the Chiefs’ defeat at the hands of the Ramblers. But if so, it was only a contribution, because there were two other reasons for the upset. One was the Blues’ pitching staff; the other was its coach.

The pitcher was my dear friend Bob Griffin.

Bruce also pitched for the Ramblers, but as he put it, “I threw. Bobby pitched.”

Certainly Bruce was downplaying his role, but he wasn’t exaggerating Bob’s. By all accounts, as a pitcher Bob had it all – speed, strength, smarts and technique -?and he had them from an early age, having pitched a bunch of no hitters and one perfect game, starting in Little League. In fact, when Bob was on the mound against the Chiefs that day, he was no older than 17.

The Duke

That’s the Ramblers’ pitchers, but what about their coach?

He was the high school’s athletic director, Duke Benz.

Athletic Director was Duke’s job description, but it was no description of the man himself.

Duke was short, dark, ripped, and ready to rock and roll. He was gung-ho, can-do, and he pushed his charges beyond any limits they thought they had, on their way to achievements they thought they’d never have.

He was a fierce competitor, but like many old-school athletes and coaches, he was a honorable one. A poem he had on his office wall best summed this up:

I give no thought to my neighbor’s birth

Or the way he makes his prayer.

I grant him a free place on this earth,

If only his game is fair.

Something else: All other coaches were addressed as either Mr. or Coach. Duke, unlike them, was always Duke. I’ve no idea of his birth name – for all I know it was Duke. Or if it wasn’t his birth name, maybe it was his confirmation name. Regardless, it fit, and he wore it well.

All Duke’s teams loved him, and so did the rest of the kids. He had charisma -?though none of us would’ve said it, since we didn’t know the word. But beyond that, he cared about kids. We knew he didn’t want his charges to be good athletes, but good people. Don’t ask me how we knew that, but we did.

Given his personality, it was likely he’d clash with the powers-that-be, and he did. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but I remember the results clearly. One was he didn’t get his contract renewed. The other was the students went on strike to protest it.

It was a sunny June day in 1959. I was in seventh grade, a wee tyke for sure, but I remember the big kids walking out of the building and sitting on the lawn. Some even had signs, and maybe they chanted from time to time, but it was peaceful and orderly. It was also doomed.

Not only were all the students threatened with expulsion, but the seniors were told that under no circumstances would they be allowed to graduate if they didn’t go back to classes, so they did.

Standing proud

Duke moved on and had other jobs, and I’m sure other adoring charges wherever he went. But he also stayed in touch with the kids from Saranac Lake, and there are stories of him travelling to various graduations and other ceremonies, to offer his congratulations.

Duke was one-of-a-kind – a hardcore who stayed a hardcore.

Bob Griffin told me he visited Duke when he was in his late ’70s and after the usual exchange of pleasantries, Duke asked Bob if he wanted to go down in his basement and do bench presses with him.

Bob declined the offer, and not because he wanted to spare Duke’s feelings.

But for all Dukes toughness, he was no fool.

When the Ramblers pulled off The Upset of the Century, they didn’t just beat the Chiefs, but beat them 3-0!

The Chiefs, suffering from equal parts of shock, shame and simmering fury, approached Duke. They wanted a rematch, and wanted it to be best two out of three.

Duke dismissed them on the spot.

“They beat you fair and square,” he said, “and the record is going to stand.”

And now, over 65 years later, it still does.