A Brief History of the Philadelphia Ramblers

RamblersVsKnoxville1963Frizelle4OConnor6The Philadelphia Ramblers that joined the Eastern Hockey League in 1955 were actually the second minor league hockey team by that name. The first had played in the American Hockey League in the 1930s as a farm club for the New York Rangers, but folded in 1941. One of the Ramblers players during their first go-round was a gentleman named Bryan Hextall. You’ve probably heard of his grandson.

After hockey sputtered in the city over the ensuing 14 years, the Ramblers made a return in 1955, coached by an English native named Chirp Benchley. The team was owned by a rather well-to-do fellow by the name of George L. Davis, who married Grace Kelly’s sister Margaret and who owned The Arena at 4530 Market, which is where the Ramblers played. They were later owned by Bud Dudley, who founded the Liberty Bowl.

The team was entertaining but not particularly good. Their best known players were Ted Harris (who would play for the Flyers second Stanley Cup team many years later) and John Brophy, who would later coach the Maple Leafs.

Perhaps the highlight of their existence was a thrilling 3-3 tie with the Soviet National Team in 1959, a game in which the Ramblers scored twice in the final four minutes before a sellout crowd of over 5,611 at the Arena. The Soviets had steamrolled their previous opponents but were stopped by Rambler goalie Ivan Walmsley.

In 1964, the team packed up and headed across the river, where they became the Jersey Devils, and played at Cherry Hill Arena. Players on the Devils included Bobby Taylor, who later backed up Bernie on the Flyers, and Vic Stasiuk, who would coach the Flyers for two seasons. That team would fold with the rest of the EHL in 1973.

One of the great things about the Ramblers was their game programs. The artwork on them was really, really cool. Here are a few game programs below. At the request of Ray Didinger, who used to attend Ramblers games as a kid, Shibe Sports has created a Ramblers shirt, which they decided to create in the style of one of the game programs. You can also check out some great old photos of the team posted online by the daughter of former player Rocky Rukavina.


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LaSalle’s 1954 Title Team


There was no question who the star of LaSalle’s 1954 championship team was. It was #15 Tom Gola, the 6’7″ junior forward who was more or less the original Magic Johnson, a player who would be at center court for jump ball and then moments later be bringing the ball up the court as point guard. But he wasn’t only a great ballhandler, he was also a superlative scorer and rebounder, averaging over 23.7 PPG and 21.7 RPG in the 1953-54 season. (He is the NCAA’s all time leading rebounder, with 2,201). As the Knicks coach Joe Lapchick stated when asked about Gola in 1954, “Gola is the most completely versatile player in the collegiate game. He can do everything, and do everything amazingly well.” According to the 1954 team program, he was “Calm and cool, off court and on. His lacksadaisical air cloaks a fiery competitive spirit.” According to his coach, Ken Loeffler, “Tom’s poise is his greatest asset.”


Gola takes it to the tin.

After a 21-4 start, LaSalle, the winners of the 1952 NIT, were invited to take part in the NCAA tournament. Their toughest test would come in the first round in Buffalo, as they came one second from losing to Fordham. Down by two with five seconds left, Gola took an inbounds pass at halfcourt and whipped a pass to Fran O’Malley, who was waiting under the  basket. O’Malley laid it in with one second on the clock, and the game headed into overtime. LaSalle took an early lead in OT and held off Fordham to gain the 76-74 victory, led by Gola’s 28 points.

Their next game would be a shootout at the Palestra against a North Carolina State team that had won the first ever ACC tournament a week before in an overtime thriller over Wake Forest. Gola and Charles Singley, the 2nd leading scorer on the 1954 Explorers, each scored 26, and LaSalle poured in 52 2nd half points to win 88-81.


Charles Singley attacks the basket.

On to the Elite 8, where LaSalle again had a more or less home game at the Palestra against Navy. The game was close early on, and the two teams went into the locker room at halftime tied at 21. But LaSalle coach Ken Loeffler, who the 1954 team program said was “highly regarded as a court strategist by coaching and sports writing fraternities” must have made the right adjustments at the half. LaSalle blew the game wide open in the 2nd half, and waltzed into the Final Four with a 64-48 victory. Gola led the team with 22 points, and Singley poured in another 16.

The team then headed out to Kansas City to play in the Final Four (Where, interestingly, LaSalle plays Kansas State Friday afternoon). The games would take place in Municipal Auditorium (You can check out a pic here of the same arena at the 1957 Final Four, where you will notice #13 on Kansas, who you may recognize as another former Philly superstar). The first game would match LaSalle with Penn State, who had shocked Bob Pettit and LSU in the Sweet 16, then surprised Notre Dame in the Elite 8.

LaSalle would have an unlikely hero in the Final Four. Frank Blatcher (who you can read about here) was a 24-year old sophomore who had done a tour of duty after graduating from Southern. The 6’2″ outside gunner was too much for Penn State in the first Final 4 game, pouring in 19. The Nittany Lions held Gola to a mere 5 field goals, but he still nailed 9 from the line to also finish with 19, and LaSalle won going away, 69-54.

It was onto the championship game, against Bradley. The Braves had shocked the Hank Iba coached Oklahoma A&M (Now OK State) in the Elite 8, then edged USC 74-72 in the Final Four.


LaSalle head coach Ken Loeffler

The championship game was a thriller…for one half. Bradley took a 43-42 lead into the half, but again it was Gola keying a 2nd half run, and the Explorers ran away with the championship, 92-76. Blatcher again came up huge from the outside, pouring in 23 points. Charles Singley poured in another 23, and Gola added 19, as LaSalle set a new championship game record with 92 points. In the 59 years since, only 3 teams have scored more in the championship.

LaSalle’s stars were all juniors and sophomores, and the next year LaSalle made a serious push for back to back titles. But Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons proved to be a little too much for the Explorers. Gola graduated that year, and the Explorers haven’t been back to the Final Four since.

Gola would go on to a successful NBA career, being named an All-Star five times while playing for the Warriors and the Knicks. He later coached the Explorers to a 23-1 record in the 1968 season (one player on that team was Fran Dunphy) while serving as a state representative and running for Philadelphia city controller. He would run for Mayor in 1983, but lost in the primaries. One of the greatest athletes in Philadelphia sports history, Gola passed away in 2014 at the age of 81.

The Un-Intentional Walk-Off

On May 26th, 1959, Harvey Haddix put on the greatest pitching performance in baseball history, but lost the game. That was because, after losing his perfect game in the 13th, he gave up a home run to Joe Adcock (It was later ruled a double due to a mixup on the basepaths, but the Braves still won.) A mere three days later, Adcock was involved in perhaps an even stranger walk-off.

On May 29th, the hapless Phillies traveled to County Stadium in Milwaukee to take on the powerful Braves. The Braves were led by young sluggers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, as well as an aging but still spectacular Warren Spahn. Spahn wasn’t on the mound that day (He would throw a complete game 4-hitter against the Phils two days later), and the Phillies quickly got to starter Carl Willey, tagging him for 4 runs in 2 1/3 innings. Braves reliever Juan Pizarro came in slow the onslaught, and the two teams entered the 9th inning tied at 5 apiece.

Phillie starter Gene Conley, who had just come over from Milwaukee the past offseason, gave up a triple to Hank Aaron to start the 9th, then walked Wes Covington intentionally. With one out and runners on the corners, he decided to do the same to Adcock, in the hopes of loading the bases and coaxing the next batter, slow catcher Del Crandall, to ground into a double play. But Conley’s first intentional ball came a little too close to the plate, and Adcock smacked it to 2nd. Thinking he didn’t have time to turn two, Phillies second bagger Sparky Anderson (yes THAT Sparky Anderson. He played one season in the Bigs…for the 1959 Phillies) heaved the ball home. The throw was late, Aaron was safe, and Joe Adcock had his second shocking walk-off in 72 hours.

Gene Conley would pitch for the Phillies for two years, and is the answer to an incredibly awesome trivia question. He is the only person to ever do what? Answer in the comments if you think you know.

Opening Day Upset: The World Series of Football

It was called the World Series of Football, but in reality it was supposed to be a joke.  To be honest, it was a set-up.  In the game that opened the 1950 season, the big, bag Eagles of the big, bad NFL were supposed to dominate the pass-happy Cleveland Browns of the recently-defunct All-America Football Conference. Nobody thought a team from the AAFC could compete with an NFL team, especially the NFL team that had one the league title for the past two seasons.  All Cleveland’s coach Paul Brown wanted was a chance to play against an NFL team.  And on September 16, 1950, he finally got that chance.

In 1944, Arch Ward (the same Arch Ward who invented MLB’s All-Star Game)  founded the All-America Football Conference, which would have its inaugural season in 1946. Unlike other competing leagues, the AAFC had a real chance to unseat the NFL as the preeminent professional football league in America. It’s owners were richer than NFL owners.  Ward, the sports editor at the Chicago Tribune, would ensure that the AAFC would receive ample media coverage.  With air travel’s rising viability, the AAFC placed franchises from Florida to California, while the NFL was stuck in the Northeast.  And importantly, they had talent: it’s ’46 rosters included 40 of the 66 College All-Stars, 2 recent Heisman Trophy Winners, and over 100 players who had played in the NFL.

Not surprisingly, the NFL’s view of the AAFC and its teams wasn’t very positive.  It was referred to as a “cheese league.”  It was laughed at.  During the advent of the league, Redskins owner George Marshall said “I did not realize there was another league, although I did receive some literature telling about a WPA project.”  He also bluntly voiced what most NFL guys thought: “The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs.”  This type of talk fueled a war of words between proponents of the two leagues, but because there were no interleague games, the debate was never settled.

Though there was talent in the AAFC, it was concentrated at the top of the league.  While those teams were successful, the majority of teams were not.  The talent gap caused many teams to go into the red.  And even though the AAFC enjoyed higher attendance than the NFL, the league’s debt ultimately lead to its downfall after the 1949 season.  After that season, the three successful teams from the defunct league, the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts, merged into the NFL.

The merger finally allowed AAFC teams and NFL teams to compete.  Taking full advantage, NFL commish Bert Bell (who had an unsuccessful run as Eagles coach from 1936-40) elevated opening day of the 1950 season into the “World Series of Football” by pitting the Philadelphia Eagles against the Cleveland Browns. The Eagles were the class of the NFL, having won the championship in ’48 and ’49.  The Browns were far and away the best team in the AAFC.  Under coach Paul Brown, they won the AAFC title in each of the league’s 4 years of existence and went 47-4-3 during that span. However, they didn’t get any respect from the NFL establishment.  They were merely a big fish in a small pond; a little brother compared to the real teams of the NFL.  By scheduling them against the Eagles, Bell looked to put the Browns in their place and prove once and for all that NFL talent trumps AAFC talent.

Earle "Greasy" Neale

Eagles coach Greasy Neale held little regard for the Browns, or any other team for that matter.  Prior to the season, Neale was as confident in his team a certain backup quarterback is in his, “This is the best team ever put together, who is there to beat us?” And with players like Tommy Thompson, Pete Pihos, Steve Van Buren, and Chuck Bednarik, nobody really called into question Neale’s arrogance.

Paul Brown

However, the Browns were stacked with talented players too.  Seven players would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: quarterback Otto Graham, wide receiver Dante Lavelli, fullback Marion Motley, center Frank Gatski, kicker Lou Groza, and defensive linemen Bill Willis and Len Ford.  But more than the players, the Browns had a coach.  Paul Brown was an innovator whose legacy changed the NFL forever.  Just to name a few of the things that Brown did before anyone else:

  • Subjected players to intelligence tests prior to signing them.
  • Implemented specific game plans for opponents.
  • Created the “practice squad.”
  • Called plays from the sidelines.
  • Created playbooks and film study.
  • Hired year-round assistant coaches.

Even with those players and even with that coach, because the Browns played in the AAFC, the Eagles were favored on all accounts.  Prior to the game, Paul Brown said, “The Eagles may chase us off the gridiron, but we’ll be on hand for the game with no alibis…Truthfully, I don’t know what to expect tomorrow night.  We have been told the Eagles out class us, but we will be on hand.”

On hand they were.  From coaching to kicking, the Browns absolutely dismantled the Eagles in every aspect of the game.  And they did so in front of 71,000+ fans at Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, a record for the largest home crowd for a regular season game that still stands.

Marion Motley and his Chuck Taylors

Philadelphia got on the board first with a field goal. However, it didn’t take long for the Eagles players to realize that they were the ones in over their heads, not their counterparts from the AAFC.  The Browns aerial attack, developed by Brown and orchestrated by Graham, was more sophisticated than that of any team in the NFL. A 59-yard touchdown pass from Graham to Dub Jones gave the Browns a 7-3 lead.  On the ensuing drive, the Eagles marched right down the field to a first-and-goal at the Cleveland 6.  Knowing there wasn’t any room to throw, Paul Brown subbed in his monstrous  fullback Marion Motley as a middle linebacker.  Motley stuffed three straight runs to contribute to a debilitating goal-line-stand and the Eagles morale quickly sank.

Graham gave the Browns a 21-3 lead on touchdown passes to Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, and then punched in a 1 yard touchdown run to put the game well out of reach.  The final score was 35-10, but to most observers, that score didn’t reflect how dominant the Browns really were.  Graham threw for 346 yards and 3 TDs while the Browns defense stifled the Eagles, holding the defending NFL champions to less than 250 total yards.

The New York Times described the game as follows:

Certainly, the beautifully coached Browns, with Otto Graham, as great as he ever was at Northwestern and since he became a professional, leading the attack, Greasy Neale’s Eagles were made to look bad. The Eagles’ defense against Graham’s passes was woefully weak, even if they managed to minimize the Cleveland trap plays, featuring Marion Motley. Graham went overhead thirty-eight times and completed twenty-one, good for 346 yards and three touchdowns. His was a magnificent display of aerial artistry and his was a job so well done that the difference between the elevens was greater even than the actual margin.

After the game, the Eagles players were reserved.  Tackle Bucko Kilroy said, “It was no upset.  Man for man, they were just a better team.”  Greasy Neale wasn’t gracious in loss and instead criticized Brown, saying “he’d be a better basketball coach because all he does it put the ball in the air.”  Paul Brown, not one to respond verbally, instead let his team answer Neale’s criticism: When the Eagles and Browns next met, the Browns beat the Eagles 13-7 without one official pass attempt.

Fans of the Eagles today hardly ever go into games with unshakable confidence that we are going to walk away with a victory.  No matter how much better we are than our opponent on paper, there’s always that voice in the back of our heads rifling off the “what ifs” and the “buts.”  From what I can tell, that voice was born on September 16, 1950.

Click here for an NFL Films piece on the game, ranked as the 4th biggest upset in NFL History.

Richie Ashburn Kicks You While You’re Down

On August 17, 1957, Richie Ashburn showed the world his true colors.  Although he is universally beloved in Philadelphia for his performance on the field and the relationship he forged with fans as a broadcaster, he was actually a belligerent grandmom hater.  Just ask Alice Roth.

Mrs. Roth, the wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth, decided to take in the Phillies-Giants game with her two grandsons, Preston and Tom, at Shibe Park.  She and the two young boys were seated in the press box behind third base when Richie Ashburn stepped to the plate.  Whitey, known as one of the best pitch-spoilers in baseball history, lined a foul right at Mrs. Roth.  Unluckily, she was paying more attention to her grandsons than the game and didn’t see the ball coming.  It struck her directly in the face and broke her nose.

As medical personnel rushed to take care of the bleeding and dazed Roth, the umpires called time. After she was attended to for a short while, play resumed.  The next pitch came in and Ashburn did the unthinkable: He sent another foul ball to the left side that hit Alice…while she was lying on a stretcher being carried out of the section.

For another foul ball related article, check out the story of Robert Cotter

Eagles Legend Pete Pihos Dies at 87

Hall of Fame receiver Pete Pihos, known as “The Golden Greek”, passed away this morning at age 87. This from Comcast Sportsnet:

Eagles Hall of Fame receiver Pete Pihos died Tuesday morning at the age of 87. Pihos, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died in his sleep at 1:40 a.m.

Pihos spent his entire nine-year career with the Eagles and helped lead them to consecutive championships in 1948 and 1949. He caught the game-winning touchdown in the ’49 championship game against the Rams.

A six-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, he led the NFL in receptions for three straight seasons (1953-55). He also led the league in receiving yards twice (1953 and 1955) and once in touchdown catches (1953).

Despite the fact that he played in a “run first era”, he still has the 3rd most catches in Eagles history.Furthermore, he was a 2 way player, and was an All-Pro on defense in 1952. In 1953, he became the first Eagle receiver to have a 1,000 yard season (while playing 12 games), and he still has the 3rd most career catches and the 4th most career yards receiving in Eagles history.

But he was more than just a Hall of Fame football player. We don’t really get to know our sports heroes personally, and if we’re honest with ourselves we know that we’re primarily cheering for the uniform, and rarely the human inside of it. But Pete Pihos’s daughter Melissa has made sure that her father is remembered as more than just a Hall of Fame athlete. She is a performance artist in North Carolina, and she made this short but moving documentary about her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago. More than just a great athlete, her video makes it clear that her father was also a heck of a guy. RIP, Pete Pihos.

This Date in Phillies History: Ted Kazanski’s Inside-the-Park Grand Slam

Ted Kazanski (not to be confused with Kaczynski) didn’t have a stellar career in the majors.  In his six-year career, all of which was spent as a Phillie, the utility infielder batted .217 with a total of 118 runs, 116 RBI, and 14 HR.  But on August 8, 1956, Kazanski made a mark that no Phillie has since matched.

On this date 55 years ago, the Phillies were facing the New York Giants at Polo Grounds.  The Phils were up 3-2 heading into the top of the 6th inning.  Giants pitcher Jim Hearn, coaxed a leadoff ground out from Del Ennis and then gave up consecutive singles to Elmer Valo and Willie Jones.  After Granny Hamner was intentionally walked, second baseman Ted Kazanski stepped to the plate with the based loaded and one out.  Kazanski smoked a liner to the center field wall, which stood 483′ from home plate. Even with Willie Mays sprinting to the ball, the fact that Polo Grounds boasted the deepest center field wall of any stadium in major league history gave Kazanski all the time he needed to round the bases and score.

Kazanski completing the round-tripper with Valo giving him the signal to slide. (AP)

Kazanski was the 4th, and last, Phillie to hit an inside-the-park granny.  The others were Irish Meusel (1918), George Harper (1924) and interestingly one of the guys who crossed the plate before Kazanski: Willie Jones (1951).  Five Philadelphia Athletics accomplished the rare feat, two of whom did it twice: Harry Davis (1902 and 1904), Danny Murphy (1904 and 1908), Stuffy McInnis (1911), Lee Gooch (1917) and Ferris Fain (1947).

Eight-Year-Olds, Dude.

We’d love to think all of our hometown players throughout history were the “good guys.”  Philadelphia athletes reflect on Philadelphia, and therefore, on Philadelphians as well.  Even if they don’t make All-Star teams or bring us a championships, we remain ardently devoted to any player who works hard on the field and carries himself well off the field.  It’s a lot more fun to relive the good guys, but we know not all of our players have lived up to that standard.  And because this is a history site, not a party-line blog, we bring you stories of both the good and bad.

Ed Bouchee broke into the majors with the Phillies in 1957.  He batted .293 with 35 doubles, 8 triples, 17 home runs and 76 RBI, which placed him 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting.  The Montana-born Bouchee had quite a career ahead of him, and fans quickly jumped on the Bouchee-bandwagon.  However, it didn’t take long for off-the-field issues to hurt the rising star’s career.

In the winter of 1958, school children in Spokane, WA began reporting that a man in a white and blue station wagon was driving around and offering rides and showing them pictures.  These reports went on for weeks and an intensive investigation was launched.  A tipster jotted down a suspicious station wagon’s license plate and turned it into the police.  The next day, investigators were at the doorstep of the car’s owner: Ed Bouchee.  At the police station, he was placed in a lineup and identified by three separate young girls.  With the ID, Bouchee was charged with child molestation.  With the evidence mounting, Bouchee admitted to luring a 6-year-old girl into his car, showing her indecent photos and then exposing himself to the young girl.  He also admitted to similar conduct in four other cases that were under investigation involving girls that were 10, 11, 14 and 18 years old.  After the arrest and charge, Bouchee said “I knew I’d get caught.  I’m glad I got caught now.”

In the end, Bouchee pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent exposure involving the 6 and 10-year-old girl.  A psychiatrist testified that Bouchee suffered from “compulsive exhibitionism,” a neurosis caused by emotional illness.   Indecent exposure to a minor is a felony in Washington state that, at the time, carried a maximum of 20 years in prison.  However, Bouchee was placed on probation for 3 years and forced to undergo psychiatric treatment.  With the sentence, Bouchee was also indefinitely suspended from baseball.

He was admitted to the Institute for Living in Hartford, Conn. in early March and discharged on May 30 after his doctors determined he had recovered.

On July 1, 1958, commissioner Ford Frick reinstated Bouchee to baseball.  Frick said:

It was the only decision I could live with…I have made an exhaustive study of all the evidence and I am convinced Bouchee is completely cured…If there was any evidence that he would fail again, I would not have reinstated him.  I am assuming sole and complete responsibility.

When Bouchee returned to the Phillies, he was generally accepted back by his teammates and fans.  However, he never matched the production of his rookie year.  He played in Philadelphia until 1960, when he was sent to the Cubs.  He played his last year in the majors in 1962 as a member of the 40-120 expansion Mets.

Today, Bouchee is reportedly living in Arizona, maintaining the low profile he has kept since his guilty plea.

Robin Roberts Helps a 4th Grader With His Book Report

Phillies Nation lost one of their finest last year, when Robin Roberts passed away at age 83. Incredibly, despite the fact that he was considered one of the finest players in team history, he was perhaps better known for being such a gentleman. Well, add more fuel to that fire. I just stumbled across this story. Pretty freaking cool. It turns out that a few years ago a 4th grader named Kellen decided to write a book report on Roberts’ My Life in Baseball. And to make the project better, his father called Roberts and asked the Hall of Famer if his son could interview him. Roberts said sure. The result was a 4th grader interviewing one of the greatest pitchers in Phillies history.

This was not for exposure or PR. ESPN didn’t shoot video of the interview to show the whole world what a great guy Roberts was. This was simply a school project that was meant to be seen and heard by a small 4th grade class. The result can be heard above. The first minute is just music and pictures, but once the interview starts, Roberts tells some cool stories to an obviously star struck 4th grader. In the “Hey Everybody Look at Me! Era”, it’s refreshing to find stories like this.

Tip of the cap to Big League Stew for the info on this.

Curt Simmons is Nearly Perfect

On May 16th, 1953, Phillies pitcher Curt Simmons took the hill to face the Milwaukee Braves in front of 23,000 plus at Milwaukee County Stadium. The Braves had a strong squad that was destined to win 92 games and finish 2nd in the NL that year. The Phils, 3 years removed from their 1950 World Series, would go on to win 83. But at the time of this meeting the season was still young, the Phillies were a game ahead of the Braves in the standings, and both teams still had high hopes of a pennant run.

The Phils went down in order in the top of the first, and the Braves came to bat. Leadoff hitter Bill Bruton stepped into the batter’s box and knocked a single. He’d make it to 2nd on a passed ball, then to third on a fly out. But he was left stranded on third, as Sid Gordon popped out to first to end the rally. Bruton would walk off the field, frustrated by the blown chance, and certainly not knowing that he would be party to a strange piece of history. As it turned out, he would be the last Brave to touch base all afternoon. Incredibly, after giving up that leadoff single, Simmons was perfect. 27 up, 27 down. The Phillies would win the game 3-0. A leadoff single was all that the Braves could muster on that Saturday afternoon, the day Curt Simmons was nearly perfect.

RELATED: Box score of that game.