Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Sports Venues

BENNER: Don't forget about famous Hoosier sports heroes

October 8, 2011

Like a lot of folks lately, I have Georgia (Street) on my mind.

Mayor Greg Ballard announced recently that Georgia Street, the redesigned, pedestrian-friendly promenade, will include 30 towers recognizing prominent Hoosiers.

One of the requirements of the honorees is that they be deceased. Ballard mentioned President Benjamin Harrison, pharmaceutical founder Col. Eli Lilly, African-American entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker and astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom as potential candidates for the first class.

Certainly, the Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley; the Hoosier novelist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; the Hoosier composers, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael; and the Hoosier journalist, Ernie Pyle, might also be included. Then there’s the Hoosier artist, T.C. Steele.

The problem is not starting these lists; it’s figuring out where to stop them.

At any rate, Ballard did not designate any sports figures, perhaps not wanting to further antagonize the we-hate-sports crowd that’s already upset that the impetus for the Georgia Street makeover is the Super Bowl.

But certainly, sports figures need to be included among the 30. And they should be Indiana-born or -raised (sorry Reggie Miller, Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, A.J. Foyt and, yes, Bob Knight) and, again, they can’t be living (so happily wait your turn Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, George McGinnis, Bobby Plump, Rod Woodson and Bob Leonard).

Three come to top of mind and if they aren’t among the first list of honorees, the entire concept is significantly diminished.

I’m talking John Wooden, Tony Hinkle and Tony Hulman.

Sure, Wooden made his mark as the Wizard of Westwood at UCLA with those 10 national championships, but no one ever embodied the Hoosier spirit more than the gentleman from Martinsville and Purdue. Hinkle (Logansport) was synonymous with success for decades at Butler. And Hulman (Terre Haute), of course, resurrected the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from ruin and made the Indianapolis 500 the greatest spectacle in racing.

Who’s next? Let the arguments begin.

At Indiana University, Branch McCracken (Monrovia) coached the basketball Hoosiers to two national titles. Purdue’s Ward “Piggy” Lambert (Crawfordsville) coached Wooden and guided Purdue to a mythical national title. Weeb Ewbank (Richmond) coached the winning team in two of the greatest games in NFL history, Colts over the Giants in overtime in 1958 and Jets over the Colts in 1969.

Major Taylor (Indianapolis) was a world champion cyclist at the turn of the century and brought the first national recognition of an African-American athlete. Crispus Attucks High School basketball coach Ray Crowe (Franklin) overcame and then broke down racial barriers in leading the Tigers to two state championships. Oscar Charleston (Indy) labored in the Negro Leagues but was known as “the black Babe Ruth.” Lamar Lundy (Richmond) starred in both football and basketball and was a member of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome.

Indiana produced Major League greats such as Chuck Klein (Indianapolis, National League MVP), Gil Hodges (Princeton, eight-time all-star), Edd Roush (Oakland City, batted .323 over 18 seasons) and Billy Herman (New Albany, played on four pennant-winners and in 10 all-star games). Mordecai “Three-Fingers” Brown (Nyesville) was the ace of the Chicago Cubs’ 1908 World Series champs and a Hall of Famer. Charlie Finley (Gary) was the owner of three Oakland A’s world champions.

Dick Weber (Indianapolis) was a Hall of Fame bowler. Tony Zale (Gary) was a world-champion middleweight boxer who twice defeated Rocky Graziano.

Olympians? Well, just to name a few, there was Ray Ewry (Lafayette), who won 10 gold medals in standing jump events in the early 1900s. Distance runners Fred Wilt (Pendleton) and Don Lash (Auburn) both won Sullivan Awards. Frank McKinney Jr. (Indianapolis) was both an Olympic swimmer and one of the architects of the successful Indianapolis sports strategy.

Back to racing. Wilbur Shaw (Shelbyville) won three Indy 500s and orchestrated the sale of the track to Hulman.

I know I’ve missed some. For sure, the list of still living Indiana sports legends—which includes women—is long and diverse.

What say we rename another street—Champions Way?—and really tick off the anti-sports folks?•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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