A conversation with Jerry Izenberg, part VIII: recollections of Fidel Castro and other Cuban tales

In an undated photo (from left), Jim Simpson, Jerry Izenberg, Dan Patrick and Rick Reilly. NATIONAL SPORTSCASTERS AND SPORTSWRITERS ASSOCIATION & HALL OF FAME

In an undated photo, (from left) Jim Simpson, Jerry Izenberg, Dan Patrick and Rick Reilly. NATIONAL SPORTSCASTERS AND SPORTSWRITERS ASSOCIATION & HALL OF FAME

Fidel Castro (right) in 1959. BOGDAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Fidel Castro (right) in 1959.
BOGDAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Nov. 16, 2015) — The geopolitical landscape — and realities — of the Cold War changed the world at a rapid pace.

Longtime sports columnist Jerry Izenberg remembers those days and key individuals from that time.

In a September phone interview, Izenberg talked about some of the great Cuban athletes, including dynamic Olympic champions in heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson and middle-distance runner Alberto Juantorena, who excelled during the early years of the Castro regime.

Izenberg is a 15-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a winner of the Red Smith Award, recognized as a lifetime achievement accolade and presented annually by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

Decades before he interviewed Nelson Mandela during an Olympic boxing tournament, the Newark Star-Ledger (New Jersey) columnist had an interest in asking Fidel Castro one question.

Some background precedes that tale from a conference years ago…

“Every year of the Olympics, like six weeks before, they have the International Scientific Congress (promoted as ‘Olympic Sport and Sport for All’), and they discuss all subjects of sports and I was speaking about the frauds that take place during the Olympics,” Izenberg said by phone from from his home near Las Vegas. “And also speaking with his own little group (at that event) was (Alberto) Juantorena, and we got to be friendly, and he told me Stevenson was his friend.

“And I said, ‘I know Stevenson because he won the Olympics four times in 16 years. … I said I want to go to Cuba, but they’ll take my passport if I do, and I don’t want that to happen,’ ” Izenberg recalled telling Juantorena.

“And he said, ‘You can get on Mexican Airlines and go, and I can help you out with that. And why do you want to go?’

I said, ‘I wanna see if I can get half an hour with Castro. I have one question I want to ask him about the boxing team and the way they train for the Olympics and how a little country wins so many golds.”

Juantorena handed Izenberg, now 85, a business card “that he threw out recently.” Printed on the card was the name of the chargé d’affaires at the United Nations “who we were dealing with occasionally from Cuba.”

According to Juantorena, Izenberg remembered the great runner saying that the diplomatic contact “knows you very well. He said that if you show him this, maybe he can set you up with Castro. And then he said, ‘Why do you want to do this? What is the one question you want to ask him?’ ”

Helping connect the dots from national leaders to the Olympics to interviews to boxing to baseball, Izenberg then told me about Preston Gomez, who passed away in 2009. Born in Cuba, Gomez had a long career as a baseball manager, both in the minor leagues (farm systems of the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees) and in the bigs (Padres, Astros, Cubs).

Gomez, who played for the Washington Senators in 1944, also led the Havana Sugar Kings to the International League title in 1959 as their manager, and piloted the club to the Junior World Series crown the same year.

“His brother was arrested and sent to the Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos) after the revolution,” Izenberg said. “And he got his brother out because he knew Castro.”

As manager of the Sugar Kings (Cincinnati Reds affiliate), Gomez worked under owner Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, who lived in Miami at the time.

One day, Gomez told Izenberg a story about how shortly after the Cuban revolution the Sugar Kings played against an opponent and Castro, a former University of Havana pitcher, let it be known that he wanted to pitch.

“So he stopped the game and came out of the stands and he wanted to pitch to one batter,” Izenberg continued, saying this atypical stoppage of time happened in 1960. “Well, he could do whatever the hell he wanted.”

“Well, Castro threw three pitches that were like nine miles over the batter’s head. It was strike one, strike two, strike three, and he cheered and they fired guns in the air and he went back in the crowd.

“Well, one of those balls landed near Gomez in the coaching box, and he called up Maduro and said, ‘Listen, we’re going on a road trip tomorrow and you’re coming back after that without me. I ain’t gonna stay here.’

“And Maduro said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t stay, either.’ ”

“And that’s how they made the arrangements to go to Jersey City, where they played half the season.”

(Indeed, after the Castro regime nationalized all American-owned business that year, the Sugar Kings relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, and became known as the Jersey City Jerseys.)

Fast forward to November 2015, and the Castro regime is still in charge. And baseball has gone through massive changes in that span, though.

“There were so many interesting things happening in baseball in those days,” Izenberg declared.

Part IX: TBA

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Jack Mitchell: Oklahoma’s All-American QB in 1948

This article on former quarterback and football coach Jack Mitchell appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 13, 2002.
(Reporter’s note: Mitchell died in 2009 at age 85 in Sun City, Arizona.)

Memories of football glory

By Ed Odeven

Old guys love to tell tales of their younger days. Jack Mitchell, a former All-American quarterback for Oklahoma, is no exception.

In a recent interview at his Munds Park home, Mitchell, 79, reminisced about his career — a career that brought him in close contact with exceptional athletes like Gale Sayers and Wilt Chamberlain.

PLAYING DAYS

Mitchell grew up in Arkansas City, Kan. and was an all-state basketball and football player and a state tennis champion.

“I played athletics all through school, from first grade and up,” he said. “The Lord was just good to me in that direction.”

Mitchell went to the University of Texas to play for coach D.X. Bible in 1943 after graduating from Arkansas City High School. He spent one semester at the university before he was called to serve in World War II. He was a platoon leader, an Army lieutenant in an infantry division, serving in Germany, France and England.

After the war, Mitchell resumed his football career. It was a time of fierce competition.

“We were all back from the Army,” Mitchell said. “In other words, when we came back in ’46, there were three classes all together in one. The competition coming back was all mature. We were all in the same boat. … The competition was much more severe in ’46, ’47, and ’48.”

Mitchell went to Oklahoma in 1946, and the Sooners won the Big Six Championship, when the conference consisted of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Iowa State. Mitchell earned all-conference accolades at QB in 1946 and 1947.

In 1948, he was named an All-American quarterback, leading Oklahoma to a 14-6 Sugar Bowl victory over North Carolina on New Year’s Day.

Mitchell was named the Outstanding Player Award for the 1949 Sugar Bowl.

“I didn’t play my best game,” he said, “but I’ll tell you why I got the trophy, mainly. It was a defensive game all the way.”

Perhaps his best work, however, was done in the film room during pre-bowl preparations.

After an Oklahoma defender returned an interception back deep into Carolina territory in the first quarter, Mitchell’s smarts were on display as he called running play after running play, plays that kept gaining positive yardage.

“On the film I had noticed that [North Carolina] went into its eight-man front, its goal-line stand, at the 12- or 13-yard line,” Mitchell explained.

“As long as they were going to line up that way, you were going to make two or three yards.”

Mitchell kept running QB sneaks and finally picked up a 2-yard touchdown run, the game’s first score.

“I was basically not a good passer,” he said. “I did; I had to throw some.”

Mitchell also excelled on special teams. He holds the NCAA career record for punt-return average (23.8 yards per return). The record for most punts for touchdowns is shared by three: Mitchell, Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and Kansas State’s David Allen.

Looking back, he’s proud of those accomplishments.

“In those three years I can’t remember if I ever made a fair catch,” he recalled. “Today, 90 percent are fair catches, and when you do catch it they are all right on top of you, because they are all rested. They are specialty teams. They are covering like hell. They are all picked for speed. So that’s why it’ll never be broken. … I don’t think the career average will be broken”

Another highlight of Mitchell’s playing day was appearing in the 1949 Chicago College All-Star Game at Soldier Field. That game pitted the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles against college’s best gridiron stars.

“It was a big thrill when you ran out and they had that full house,” Mitchell said. “And they played the Oklahoma ‘Boomer Sooner’ (song). “[The announcer said], ‘Now, at quarterback will be Jack Mitchell, All-American from Oklahoma.”

Mitchell’s counterpart in the game was Tommy Thompson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was blind in one eye.

The Eagles won the game, 38-0, and Mitchell separated his right shoulder in the game. Although he was signed by the Green Bay Packers, he never played due to his injury.

COACHING DAYS

In 1949, Mitchell started coaching at Blackwell (Okla.) High School. It was a challenge for which he felt prepared.

“By gosh, with my background, with [OU coach] Bud Wilkinson and through my college career and the little time I had with the pros and the All-Star game and all that, I was so far ahead of the old guys that were coaching high school,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t even funny.”

Mitchell’s college coaching career lasted from 1953 until 1966, with stints at Wichita, now called Wichita State (1953-54), Arkansas (1955-57) and Kansas (1958-66). He was named the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 1954 and the Big Eight coach of the year in ’60.

He coached three times against Alabama’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, when Mitchell was at Arkansas and Bryant was with Texas A&M.

Asked what those experiences were like, Mitchell said, “It was just playing against another team. The guy that’s got the best players is going to win. They are all good coaches when you get in college.

“High school is a different story,” he continued. “You can out-coach a lot of them, because, heck, I played defenses that did stunts, and then I had an option play. They didn’t think you could do that in high school. And I put in the option play and taught the quarterback how to do that. Hell, we ran ’em crazy. We went to the state finals and they’d never been to the finals in the history of Blackwell.”

Mitchell guided the 1961 Kansas team to a 35-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Rice.

Once dubbed “a great motivator,” Mitchell now wonders if that’s an appropriate description of his coaching style.

“You never know if it’s because you’ve got great players or if it’s because you are motivating them,” he said. “But I had to get them. We were fortunate in doing good recruiting. We worked awfully hard on recruiting players.”

Mitchell crossed paths with Chamberlain, when “Wilt the Stilt” was an exceptional all-around athlete at KU. Mitchell tried to persuade Chamberlain to join the football team for a specific purpose — short yardage situations.

“I was going to play him at quarterback, but never put him in the game unless we just needed a yard. … “He could step over them.

“In track, he could out-high jump, out-shot put everyone. He was not only 7-foot-2, but he was built like a guy 6 feet with strength and muscle who could run just as fast. He said he wanted to box. He would’ve been a helluva boxer.”

Mitchell mentioned former KU quarterback Johnny Hadl, who earned All-Pro distinction with the San Diego Chargers and Sayers, the ex-Chicago Bears great, as two of the best players he’s ever coached.

“Sayers might’ve been the finest running backs I saw, and one of the great defensive players,” said Mitchell, an avid golfer.

Of all the college football rivalries Mitchell has been associated with, he said the biggest one involves Ole Miss and Arkansas.

“By God, that’s a war,” he said.

NOWADAYS

Mitchell retired from coaching in 1966 to pursue a full-time career in business. He’s been involved with running a variety of different businesses ever since, including a bank, an insurance company and Mitchell Publications, Inc., which owns several newspapers in Kansas.

Although he’s no longer coaching, Mitchell, who also maintains residencies in Sun City and Kansas, is still passionate about football. That’s especially true during the autumn.

“I love to go the high school games,” he said, revealing he attends several games in the Phoenix area during the fall.

On Saturdays, Mitchell prefers to remain home rather than go screaming and shouting at a college football venue in the Southwest or Midwest.

“I don’t go to college games, because I want to stay home and be able to watch Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. I get to see three or four of the games on Saturday,” he said. “If I go to a game, I don’t see anybody else.

“I’ve got two TVs going and a radio on the side. Most of my buddies do the same thing,” he continued, smiling.

Remembering Ron Clarke, the legendary runner

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 21, 2015) — Ron Clarke, Australian running legend, is the subject of my Sunday Olympic Notebook.

Clarke’s death a few days ago at age 78 was prominent news around the world, with major coverage in newspapers and on websites, as well as broadcast reports.

Here’s what I wrote: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/06/20/olympics/clarkes-legendary-records-still-resonate-50-years-later/#.VYbMLPntmkp

Clarke is featured in numerous YouTube videos, including:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT2ANRbiiH8 (documentary)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0 (1964 Tokyo Olympics’ 10,000-meter final)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVlKVWFmfhk (’64 Olympics’ 10,000 final lap)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs6G8NfEyVk (interview with Billy Mills’ about his 10,000 triumph

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znpRcVJjr8I (ABC News Australia “Ron Clarke: The Road to Tokyo”)

‘To watch him run was to witness music, dance and song’

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 14, 2015) — Today’s Olympic Notebook, featured in The Japan Times, begins with a look at Henry Carr’s remarkable accomplishments as a track sprinter.

One of his 1964 Olympic teammates, 10,000-meter gold medalist Billy Mills, gave an unforgettable summary of Carr’s running style: ““To watch him run was to witness music, dance and song.”

Carr left Tokyo with gold medals in the 200 meters and the 4×400 meter relay.

The former Arizona State track star passed away on May 29 at age 73.

The surviving members of the winning 4×400 relay, Ollan Cassell and ex-Sun Devils teammate Ulis Williams, reflect on Carr’s life, his personality, their friendship with him and some details about the lineup change for the 4×400 final that are not widely known.

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/06/13/olympics/carr-starred-tokyo-games/

Here’s YouTube footage of the 200-meter final in Tokyo:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdfB8ni1FK0