Czech-Americans in Sports
22.11.2010 / 20:51
Another article by Mr. Mila Rechcigl, former President of Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), this time focusing on Czech-American ties in sports history.
CZECH AMERICANS IN SPORTS AND ATHLETICS
© Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr.
THE SOKOL MOVEMENT
Sports, athletics and gymnastics have been an integral part in the life of Czechs for at least the last 150 years. The idea has its foundation in the Sokol movement, inspired by its founders Miroslav Tyrš (1832-1884) and Jindřich Fügner (1822-1865). Sokol, which stands for a falcon in Czech, is the bird known not only for his swiftness and energy, but also the bird which flies high in the free skies and is the symbol of freedom and synchronized beauty.
The Sokol movement became an important factor in Czech national life, not only in the old country, but in the US as well. It was officially founded in 1862 in Prague, at the time when the Czech nation was awakening from lethargy produced by over two hundred years of repression of the national language and national feeling by the ruling Habsburgs. The cities and towns became completely Germanized and it was a miracle the Czech language survived among the peasantry. With the birth of the Sokol movement a new national program was born. "Equality - harmony - fraternity". "A healthy mind in a healthy body". These were their aims and their motto. Physical training for the body, national and patriotic training for the mind. The movement grew and prospered and has always played an important part in the affairs of the young nation. Being composed largely of younger men, and later, also of younger women, it stood for virility, energy, and enthusiasm, as well as for democracy and patriotism. The movement was so powerful that it spread through central and eastern Europe.
Most of the immigrants from the Czechlands were raised on these ideas and it was only natural to bring them along to the US. From their first Gymnastic Society in St. Louis, in a short time its members spread to nearly every Czech settlement in the US, many of which soon boasted of their own Sokol Halls. The Sokol movement in America has survived to date. The members of Sokol clubs meet regularly for practice, give public exhibitions and compete in tournaments. With German Turners, they have been the true pioneers in gymnastics and light athletics in this country. The Sokols do not confine themselves to physical activities alone but are ever in the forefront and ready to take part in various cultural and other ethnic activities.
TRACK & FIELD
Hugo Morris Friend (b. 1882) from Prague, Czechoslovakia emigrated to the US when he was two years old. When the family moved from KS to Chicago, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and in 1905 he captained the first Chicago team to win the Big Ten Championship. Later in the season he scored a double in the long jump and the high hurdles at the AAU championships. After graduation, Friend joined the Chicago AA and at the 1906 Olympics, placed fourth in the hurdles in addition to his long jump bronze medal.
Olga Fikotová Connolly (b. 1932) from Prague took the Czech discus title in 1955 and 1956 and then went on to win the Olympic gold medal with a new record of 176'1''. There she met Hal Connolly, the US hammer thrower champion whom she subsequently married. As an American citizen, she represented the US at the next four Olympiads. She won five AAU titles between 1957 and 1968 and, at the Olympics, she finished seventh in 1960, 12th in 1964, and sixth in 1966. In May 1972 she beat Earlene Brown's 12-year-old record with a throw of 179' 2" and later that month she improved the record to 185' 3". At the 1972 Olympics she was selected to carry the US flag at the opening ceremonies.
There was another discus thrower of Czech origin, i.e. Richard Aldrich Babka (b.1936) of Cheyenne, WY. He won the AAU "Rink" Throw in 1958. In August 1960 he set a world record of 196' 6.5" before going to Rome where he placed second behind Al Oerter at the Olympics, winning the silver medal. Babka enjoyed a remarkable long career at the top and his best mark ever came in 1968 when, at the age of 32, he threw 209' 9"
One of the most popular sports which Czechs brought with them to America is soccer. They soon established their own team Sparta A.B.A. Chicago (standing for Athletic and Benevolent Association), the oldest Czech sport club in America, which marked its 80th anniversary during 1995-96 season. Even though the actual Sparta club was established in 1917, its direct predecessor Slavia had fielded an excellent team already in 1915. During that year several other new Czech soccer teams appeared, including S. K. Union, Cechie, West Side, Bohemians, Olympia and Sokol Slavsky. The first league game between two Czech clubs in the US took place on November 21, when Cechie tied S.K Olympia 1:1. The game way played on the Olympia's field on 51st Street and 42nd Avenue in Chicago.
The beginning of 1916 brought two more Czech teams into the league: AC Rangers and S. K. Atlas. Because of the number of interested teams, the league had to form a new division where more Czech teams competed. New members of the league became American-Bohemians, S. K. Union and S. K. Slavoj. All these clubs but Sparta, would later dissolve or merge with other clubs.
Initially, Sparta played a minor role in the Chicago soccer scene which was dominated by the Irish and Scottish teams. However, in 1923 Sparta was able to sign several good players from Czechoslovakia and moved among the elite clubs of Chicago. Sparta was also one of the first teams to field women's teams. The biggest triumph of Sparta was achieved in 1938 when the team became Champion of the USA with an impressive record, winning 36 out of 39 matches. During the time of its 80th anniversary, Sparta teams could boast of two US championships and eleven victories of their league competitions, and very popular Peel Cup. They played eight times in the finals of the Western Cup and six times conquered St. Joseph tournament in Michigan.
One of the earliest Americans of Czech descent to make a name for himself in football was Joseph K. Taussig (b. 1873) who started as a quarterback for the Navy in 1897 and 1898.
Hugo F. Bezdek (b. 1884), a native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, nicknamed "Thirteen-Inch Shell" by his classmates, was the only man to coach major college football and manage big-league baseball. He played for University of Chicago and coached Arkansas (1908-12), Oregon (1906, 1913-17), Penn State (1918-29) and Delaware Valley (1949). As a player he was a pitch driver on offense. His 1905 team was the Big Ten championship. At Oregon, in first years of coaching, Bezdek led team to unbeaten season. In addition to coaching responsibilities, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates (1917-19).
Of national fame was also George S. Halas (1895-1983), of Chicago, the last of eight children of the first-generation Bohemian immigrants, nicknamed "Papa Bear". During World War I he led the Great Lakes Naval Training Station football team to 1919 Rose Bowl. Played outfield for New York Yankees. Became player-coach for the Stanley football team which later became Chicago Bears. "Papa Bear" was associated with the team until his death in 1983 and through 1929 as a player-coach. During his forty seasons as the Bears coach Halas won 325 games, lost 151 and tied 31. The Bears won NFL championships in 1921, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1946, and 1963. He was a pioneer in many aspects of the game. His introduced T-formation, man-in-motion attack in 1940 which set style for modern football. He was the first coach to hold daily practices, to utilize films of opponents, to barnstorm teams, to have game broadcast on radio, and to use tarpaulin on field for weather protection.
One of the most successful football players was George F. Blanda (b. 1927) of Youngwood, PA, whose mother was a native of Prague and his father of Slovak ancestry. All of George's brothers were outstanding athletes in basketball or football. Peter, the oldest, played football at Texas Tech; Paul, younger than George, played the game professionally with the New York Giants; and Major Tom Blanda, the youngest, a career army officer, was a quarterback at West Point. George was drafted by Chicago Bears in 1949 and played with them thru 1958. In 1960, after a year's absence, he signed as free agent by Houston Oilers and in 1967 he was dealt to the Oakland Raiders. He played more seasons than any other pro player. He holds many records, more than any other player, among them are: seasons as active player (24), games played (312), consecutive appearances ((196), lifetime points (1842), seasons leading with passes attempts (5), lifetime passes attempts (855), lifetime field gold attempts (600), lifetime field golds (311), consecutive games scoring (40), etc. He is a holder of nine championship game records, including game passing yds. (301) and longest pass competition (88 yds).
Jay McKinley Novacek (b. 1962) of Gothenberg, NE has gained his reputation as Dallas Cowboy's tight end. His football career began at Gothenberg High School, becoming the school's All-State quarterback. He went on to become an All-American receiver and to star in track and field at the University of Wyoming. He was a sixth-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1955 NFL draft, but had an injury-riddled five years with St. Louis which moved to Phoenix in 1947. His career blossomed after he moved to Dallas in 1990. He won his first Pro Bowl invitation 1991, and helped take Dallas to the 1993 and 1994 Super Bowls. His steady excellence brought him a fifth Pro Bowl invitation, a Sporting News All-Pro selection, and United All-Conference selection.
The best known Czech American basketball player is John Havlicek (b. 1940) of Lansing, OH. He was an All-American in 1962 who, together with Lucas, led Ohio State into three straight NCAA tournament finals, winning in 1960. After his initial football career with Cleveland Browns of the NFL, he joined the Celtics for the 1962-63 season. He played for six championship teams in the first seven seasons, went through a few years when the Celtics were down, and then played for two more championship teams before retiring after the 1977-78 season. In 1974 he was named the most valuable player in the playoffs. He was the first NBA player to score 1,000 or more points for 16 consecutive seasons. He was also an excellent defensive player who was named eight times to the NBA all-defensive team. In his 16 seasons, Havlicek played 1,270 regular season games and scored 26, 395 points, an average of 20.8 per game. He had 8,007 rebounds and 16, 119 assists.
The earliest Czech American baseball player was Edward Joseph Konetchy (b. 1883) of La Crosse, WI He began playing first base for the Cardinals in 1907, had a 20-game hitting streak in 1910, and in 1911 led the NL with 39 doubles. He was one of very few players to hit a ball out of old Robinson Field in St. Louis. In 1913 he was traded to the Pirates and in 1915 went to Pittsburgh with the Federal League. With the Dodgers in 1919, he became the third of eight NL players to collect a record of ten consecutive hits. He also played the entire major-league-record 26-inning game in 1920 between the Dodgers and the Braves. Batting over .300 four times, Konetchy compiled 100 or more hits in 14 consecutive seasons and broke up four no-hitters.
Another old-timer was Joseph Franklin Vosmik (b. 1910) of Cleveland, OH. He was considered by baseball experts the best hitter to come from the Cleveland sandlots, averaging .300 in his major league career. He reported to the Indians in September 1930, after batting .397 with Terre Haute of the Three-I League. In his debut in 1931 against the White Sox, he went 5 for 5, including 3 doubles off the right-field wall. His greatest season was 1935, his batting averaged .3483. In 1935 Vosmik led the League in base hits (216), doubles (47), and triples (20), driving in 119 runs. In 1938 he was sent to Boston and led the league with 201 base hits. Finishing his career with Brooklyn in 1942 and Washington in 1944, Vosmik compiled lifetime batting average of.307. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he managed teams at Tucson, Dayton, Oklahoma City, and Batavia and scouted for the Cleveland Indians.
Another baseball player of note was Robert H. Cerv (b. 1926) of Weston, NE. He first joined the Yankees and made a grade almost immediately by hitting .304 in 94 games. In 1951 he boasted his to .344 in 109 games, with 28 homers and 108 RBI (runs battled in). During 1942-53 he was with Yankees and Kansas City, then 3 years with New Yorkers and then in Kansas City again. In 1960 he was transferred to the Yanks, then played with LA Angeles, Houston and again with the Yanks. Cerv's major league record showed .276 average for 829 games. He made 624 hits, 32 runs, 96 doubles, 26 triples, 105 homers with .374 RBI. He was a member of 1958 All-Star squad for AL.
A baseball player of international fame was, of course, Stanley Frank Musial (b. 1920) of Donora, PA, half Czech (after his mother), and half Pole. It was reportedly his mother who encouraged him to enter baseball. Stan set or equaled so many baseball records making it impossible to list them here. The Sporting News named him in 1956 Player of Decade. He compiled a total of 3,630 hits. He played 3,026 big league games, 23 World Series contests and 24 All-Star games. His life time average was .331. He led NL in hitting seven times and hit well above .300 in first 16 full seasons in majors. After the 1963 season he retired from his playing career but continued serving with St. Louis Cardinals as general manager.
Among the recent players, a person deserving to be included here is Kent Alan Hrbek (b. 1960) from Minneapolis, MN. He was an instant favorite when he joined the Twins in 1982, following a .379 batting average in the California League, best among all pro hitters in 1981. He hit the first home run in April 1982 in an exhibition game against the Phillies. He was second to Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1982 and the Twin MVP in 1984.With the Twins from 1981 to 1994, the left-handed-hitting, right-handed-throwing first baseman ranked among the best all-around AL players. In 14 major league seasons, Hrbek batted .282 with 1,749 hits, 293 round-trippers, and 1,086 RBIs. He played in the 1982 All-Star Game, two AL Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers in 1987 and Toronto Blue Jays in1991, and two World Series against St. Louis Cardinals in 1987 and the Atlanta Braves in 1991. The Twins won both 7-game World Series.
Tennis is one of the most popular summer sports in the Czechlands and its players have belonged among the best in Europe, starting with the sensational win of Jaroslav Drobný at Wimbledon in 1954. At the height of the Communist oppression a number of top players defected from Czechoslovakia to the West, some of whom emigrated to the US and Canada. Of these, two players in particular, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navrátilová, achieved international fame.
Ivan Lendl (b. 1960), of Ostrava, turned professional in 1979 after having won the French, Italian, and Wimbledon Junior titles in 1978. He took the Australian Open singles championship in 1983 and the French Open in 1984. In 1985, he won the US Open and claimed the number One world ranking for that year. He held onto that ranking in 1986, winning the US and French Opens, and finally reaching the finale at Wimbledon, only to lose to Boris Becker. In 1987 Lendl won his third straight US Open title and his third French Open. He lost again in the finals at Wimbledon but retained top ranking. After slipping to second place in 1988, Lendl was back atop the rankings in 1989 when he won the Australian Open. He won the latter tournament again in 1990. Through 1993, Lendl was the top money winner with over 19.5 million and his 92 victories were second only to Jimmy Connors. With eight grand slams, singles titles, he is tied for fifth all-time with Jimmy Connors.
Martina Navrátilová (b.1956), from Prague, at the age of 16 was the highest ranking female tennis player in her homeland and remained so until 1975, when she defected. After several years of adjustment, she won her first major American tournament, the 1978 Virginia Slims championship in Oakland, and then went on to win the British Open, title at Wimbledon with back-to-back victories in 1978 and 1979. She then teamed with Chris Everet and Billy Jean King, winning the Wimbledon doubles title in 1978 and 1979, and added 1979 Avon and Colgate Series championships to her victories. In 1979 she was considered first in the world. She continued her winning streak in the British Open, at Wimbledon nine times between 1978 and 1990. In 1982 and 1984 she added the French Open and won the US Open on four different occasions and finished second between 1981 and 1987. She also won the Australian open in 1981 and 1983 and the Canadian National championship in 1983 and 1984. She was named the Female athlete of the Year in 1983 by the associated press. That year, she played in 17 tournaments, winning 16 of them, had 86 victories, losing only one against Kathleen Horvath. Many tennis experts consider her the finest women's tennis player of the 20th century.
One of the most popular winter sports in the Czechlands is hockey and it is therefore not surprising to find its players among the best in Europe. Following the overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia, a number of their players have been offered lucrative franchises by various American professional hockey teams. The National Hockey League clearly benefited from the arrival of these players.
Jaromír Jágr (b. 1972) from Kladno, the right wing of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dominik Hasek (b. 1965) from Pardubice, the Goaltender of Buffalo Sabres have almost become household names in the US. During the 1998 Winter Olympiad these two players were briefly released to the Czech National Hockey Team and were largely responsible for the Czechs' success in winning the world championship and the Gold Medals.
The stars of the Ice Capades were Aja Zanova (nee Alena Vrzáňová) (b. 1931) and Otto and Maria Jelínek, all Czech born and Olympic and world champions, the former for Czechoslovakia (1949 and 1950), the latter two for Canada (1962).
Among the younger generation, Nicole Bobek (b.1977) of Chicago, daughter of Czech refugee Jana Bobková, shows real promise. She relocated with her mother, first to the West Coast, then to Colorado Springs, then to Cape Cod, and eventually to Detroit, MI. She won her first title in 1991 - a gold medal at the Olympic Festival and another at the 1991 Vienna Cup in Austria. Under the guidance of Coach Callaghan in 1995, she won US Women's Figure championship, by beating the favored Michelle Kwan. She then went on to win a bronze medal at the world championship. During her appearance with "The Nutcracker on Ice", she aggravated an ankle injury which curtailed her practice time and severely affected her future performance, including her disappointing showing at the 1998 Winter Olympiad.
The 1967 US champion in ski jumping was Gene Kotlarek of Duluth, MN, of Czech origin.
Jack Root (nee Kořínek) (1876-1963), a native of Prague, Bohemia, knocked out Charles Upton and Pat Brastand in his first and second pro middleweight bouts in 1897. He remained undefeated in 13 fights in 1898. He had a standoff with Australian Jimmy Ryan in 1899 but won his next six fights that year by knockout in only fifteen composite rounds. Root had been top-ranking middleweight till 1903, during which time he developed into an intelligent, "scientific" boxer. When 175-lb. class was born, Root easily won the first contest against Kid McCoy at Detroit in April 1903. He held the championship until his next bout against George Gardner which he lost. Root won his next two fights and in February 1904 he fought a draw with Gardner. Root and Gardner battled again in May with Root capturing the decision. By this time, Root had passed his peak. His next two fights yielded him only a no-decision and a draw. After losing a fight against Hart in 1905, Root fought once more before retiring, taking a ten-round decision over Fred Russell in early 1906. Together, Root won 44 of 53 bouts, including 24 by knockout, fought 5 draws and 1 no-decision, and was knocked out three times.
For some unexplained reasons most of the Czech American wrestlers came from Nebraska. Joe Zikmund (b. ? ) who immigrated to the US from Czechoslovakia and settled in Barnard, NE, became one of the greatest wrestlers, competing with the best in the game. The climax of his career came when he wrestled for the Lightweight Championship of the world with the match ending in a tie. Later he was an acknowledged winner of the World's Lightweight title.
Then there were three Stecher brothers, sons of a Czech Nebraska pioneer Frank Stecher, from Dodge Co., NE. Anton Stecher (b. 1889), the oldest son, attracted attention as a Middleweight wrestler but gave up his wrestling career to devote his time to managing his brother, Joe.
Lewis Stecher (b. 1891), after graduating from the Naval Academy, won the National Intercollegiate Light-heavyweight wrestling Championship in 1915 and the Heavyweight crown in 1916.
The greatest glory came to the youngest son, Joe Stecher (b. 1893), who was acknowledged by his contemporaries as the greatest wrestler that ever lived. Joe had the strongest legs ever known to man which led to his being labeled by his opponents as the "Python-like Legger" or "Scissors-King". His leg scissors hold could not be endured. He won the world's title first in Omaha in 1915 against Charlie Cutter, the second time from Earl Caddock in 1920 and the third time from Stanislaus Zbyszko, the "Polish Giant" in 1925.
Another wrestler among the Czech Nebraskans was John Pesek, known as the Nebraska "Tiger-Man" who became the wrestling Heavyweight Champion of the world in 1932. In 1957, he was named to the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame as the greatest wrestler of his time. He was named the "Tiger-Man" because of the ferocity of his attack in matches . Through experimentation and endless training he mastered most every hold of his profession: the half-Nelson, hammer-lock and the double-wrist lock which could break a foe's arm. Pesek's match with Charlie Hanson in 1920, which Pesek won, was described as the fiercest and most terrifically fought battle in mat history.
His son, Jack Pesek, followed in his famed father's footsteps, winning the Nebraska state Heavyweight Championship.
Jerry (Jaroslav) Adam of Omaha, whose parents immigrated there from Bohemia, became known as the Nebraska's professor of wrestling. Upon enrolling at the University of Nebraska, he lettered in both football and wrestling. After graduation, Jerry was named the University of Nebraska mat coach. For 14 years he produced top athletes who proved their skill throughout the US. He went on to also become the University assistant football coach and line coach, both at Nebraska and later at Wesleyan University. In addition to coaching, he also made his professional mat debut in wrestling. His wrestling career included bouts throughout the Mid-west, where he was always a favorite. In his some 1,500 wrestling bouts, Jerry remained a champion who could be depended upon to thrill his fans with his chancery bar-lock, reverse body-lock, or crushing toe-hold.
Anthony A. Matysek (b. 1893), originally from Moravia, was a champion wrestler and body builder, billed as "America's Strongest Man". In 1915 he established a world weight-lifting record of 241 and 3/5 lbs. He followed this in 1917 by a world shoulder lifting record of 278 lbs.
Rose Rosicky, History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska (1929)
Vladimír Kučera and Alfred Novacek, Czechs and Nebraska (1967)
Claire E. Nolte, "Our Brothers Across the Ocean: The Czech Sokol in America to 1914," Czechoslovak and Central European Journal 11 (1993), 15-37.
Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan, Quest for Gold. The Encyclopedia of American Olympians (1984).
Ralph Hickok, A Who=s Who of Sports Champions (1995).
George Halas with Gwen Morgan and Arthur Veysey, Halas by Halas: The Autobiography of George Halas (1979)
Zdeněk Nerada, ed., Sparta Chicago 80 (1996)
Denise Willi, Martina Navratilova: Tennis Star (1994)
Various publications by Greenwood Press.