Preview Of ‘Shamrocks & Salsa’

by Gerald F. Cox, September 20, 2017

The Catholic football community in northern California was divided between St. Mary's Galloping Gaels of Moraga, a Christian Brothers college in the East Bay, and the Broncos of the Jesuit-operated Santa Clara University in the West Bay. At the time the Gaels were coached by Edward “Slip” Madigan, a product of Notre Dame and protégé of Knute Rockne. It was inevitable that this unreconstructed extrovert, master publicist, and entrepreneurial wizard became an early hero for me.

When Slip arrived in 1921 at the faded five-story “Brickpile” on Broadway in the heart of Oakland, as St. Mary’s was called, the college department numbered seventy-one, but during his overhaul of the football program it grew to 700 undergraduates and in 1928 moved to a lush new campus in suburban Moraga. In the year before his arrival, the Gaels had lost to U.C. in Berkeley 127 to 0, the Golden Bears scoring eighteen touchdowns, holding the visitors to 16 yards of total offense, and forcing St. Mary’s to cancel the rest of the season. But this humiliation was to be no more than a Pyrrhic victory -- the next year Slip fielded his inaugural team, which beat Cal 21 to 0. The word spread that a new, though unlikely, powerhouse had begun to emerge in the Bay Area. In time, when local sports writers invoked the names of the great coaches of the past like Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg, they began to refer to Madigan in the same breath as a genius of defensive combat. Shortly that assessment could not be disputed: in 1929 the Gaels allowed only three touchdowns all season.

A Saint Mary's Football player goes airborne as Madigan looks on in this 1930s publicity photo.

Under Slip’s leadership St. Mary’s Gaels appealed greatly to Irish Catholics and soon guaranteed full stadiums in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Los Angeles – at its peak the team drew a season’s total of 500,000 paid attendance. One year Madigan designed new uniforms for the season’s opener at Kezar. Though the college’s colors were red and blue, the fans howled in laughter as Slip’s players emerged from the tunnel in red satin pants and Kelly-green “tear-away” jerseys emblazoned with a golden Irish harp, a combination never seen before on a gridiron! A thrilling football game was only part of the spectacle that St. Mary’s staged every Saturday. Today the college has a “Sports Band,” a group of casually dressed volunteers who play at social events and games in the stands, but Madigan’s games featured a smartly drilled official “Marching Band,” dressed in red and blue uniforms and wearing gleaming steel helmets shaped like the ones our “doughboys” were issued in World War I. These parading silver-tipped Gaels wowed crowds everywhere with their music and maneuvers and challenged even Ohio State University for claiming to be “The Best Damn Band in the Land.”

Though invited to play teams in the Pacific Coast Conference like Cal, USC and UCLA, the college quickly developed an intense rivalry with Santa Clara that became an annual sports fest in the Bay Area labeled “The Little Big Game,” considered a diminutive version of the traditional “Big Game” between Stanford and Cal, diminutive perhaps but no less entertaining and thrilling. This gave birth to the “Catholic Subway Alumni Society” in Oakland in which hundreds of Gael boosters rode the trains across the bay bridge into San Francisco during the 1930s, and I was one of them. Our efforts seldom went unrewarded – the Gaels dominated the duel that played out in Kezar Stadium annually until another Rockne protégé, Slip’s former teammate, and a football legend in the making took over the Broncos – Lawrence “Buck” Shaw.

This trans-bay commute was a prelude to Slip’s ability to generate loyal boosters in the Bay Area; he was also prepared to go national. His first task was to beat a powerhouse in the East. This required not only the development of an outstanding team but also the inconvenience of a cross-country train trip that jeopardized normal preparation. His target was Fordham University, home of the “Battering Rams” that were undefeated and untied. This East-West rivalry began in 1930 with a meeting at the Polo Grounds in New York. Before the game, I was one of the many boosters who were amazed at reading the unfamiliar Polish-Lituanian names for the Fordham starting lineup: Pieculewicz (fullback), Weiniwski (left guard), Miskinis (right tackle), and Elcewitcz (right end) with Szeszkowski and Zaleski as backups -- names that would be a nightmare for any play-by-play announcer in California. When the Gaels went on to upset the Rams 20-12, a team considered the best ever to wear Fordham’s maroon colors, Madigan created a tsunami of support for the “little” college in Moraga that had shocked the East, and I was hooked too. Again the coach had proved his mastery of defense, mighty Fordham scoring all its points in the first half but being held to nothing in the second. He also displayed his talent for showmanship. His “Galloping Gaels” came home not only with a victory but also with a goat alleged to be Fordham’s mascot named “Rameses IV” and a couple of new nicknames like the “Marauding Moragans” and “Madigan’s Mad Men.”

Slip Madigan, Babe Ruth

At that moment I became an obsessive fan, and I wasn’t alone. Among its admirers St. Mary’s counted Babe Ruth, Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers, Al Smith, and JFK’s father Joe, who sat on the team’s bench several times. Even Will Rogers in Hollywood caught the fever, saying, “We have a team out here called St. Mary’s (which sounds effeminate), but they haven’t lost a game since the gold rush.” And, to sweeten the pot, my cousin Frank Coakley was chairman of the Board of Regents, and the renowned Brother Leo Meehan was teaching English literature there. But no team is invincible, even Madigan’s, and I had to learn to cope with disappointments to come. When I was nine, before the Gaels left to play Fordham again in 1934, the Catholic schools in the Bay Area were admitted free to a St. Mary's-Nevada game, a routine matchup in which the Gaels were expected to win easily. What an unforgettable upset! I can still see that football spinning over the goal post for a field goal that awarded the lowly Wolfpack a 9 to 7 upset victory. Slip was never a sore loser, but at first I was inconsolable because my Gaels had allowed Nevada steal a national championship from them.

One of the best-kept secrets for his success is that a number of his players had majored in Physical Education that prepared them for careers as athletic directors and coaches. Today this field has morphed into such courses as Kinesiology, Recreation Management, Structural Biomechanics, Exercise Physiology, and related specialties. In Slip’s time his young men formed an active network of recruiters that fed promising youngsters to his program at St. Mary’s. I was headed in that direction with the goal to become a “triple threat” excelling in passing, running, and punting. I would have attended St. Mary's High School in Berkeley, which had a decent football program that led to Moraga, and I believed I had a chance to succeed under Coach Madigan. My creative imagination had me even imitating announcer Dave Scofield, the “Voice of Kezar,” on the stadium’s public-address system, describing “the overpowering Jerry Cox” weaving untouched through a porous ribbon of clueless defenders all the way to “pay dirt.”

But I was never destined to play under Madigan. With attendance slipping during a miserable season in 1939, the Gaels were scheduled to travel east to face another Fordham eleven who were determined to even the score. To build up a discouraged rooting section at the Polo Grounds, Slip chartered a Pullman train called the “Gael Express” to go from Oakland to New York, and the return trip was routed with a stops in Atlanta, New Orleans, Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Los Angeles, probably the only itinerary in history that covered 10,000 miles and promised not only a football game but also a bull fight. Unfortunately this detour south of the Rio Grande opened a bigger flood of controversy than a dismal defeat in New York. The college’s governing board questioned how visiting historic landmarks, eating in cramped dining cars, resting in rattling sleepers, stopping briefly at scattered hotels, and producing disturbing reports in the Oakland Tribune for 22 days had prepared the team for the last game of the season. Conceding that the Gaels had suffered eight straight losses including a shutout at the Polo Grounds, Slip argued that his traveling Gaels had trounced Loyola in the Coliseum 40 to 7 before returning home. This response was not sufficient to dissuade the board from firing him before his contract expired. To add additional perspective on the Gael Express, a similar excursion had been planned in the same year after Cal’s post-season game with Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but at the last minute the Yellow Jackets accepted an invitation to the Orange Bowl, which canceled the game with U.C. and its tour and may have saved the head coach’s job.

While Slip Madigan’s bright star was steadily flaming out, I searched my heart again. To allow those fantasies of gridiron glory to go unchecked would have dimmed my sights on another dream -- the Catholic priesthood.

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