Who is Our Top Athlete?

by Grantland Rice
Sport Magazine, October 1946.

 

Is it Blanchard? Fenimore? Glenn Davis? Buddy Young? The Consulting Editor of SPORT looks them all over, picks the Hawaiian Hurricane.

Who is the greatest athlete in America today?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer. It’s a question to make one pause before rushing into a jungle of controversy, where even the dinosaur, the mastodon, and the mammoth would fear to tread.

In the past there have been many names on the roster of all-around greats—men who rose to fame in more than a single sport. That old Carlisle Indian, Jim Thorpe, won his greatest fame in football, baseball, and as an Olympic track champion.

Ace Parker, star of pro football for many seasons, could have had a major-league baseball career if he’d wanted it. Sammy Byrd, one-time Yankee outfielder, gave up baseball to scale greater heights as a golf tournament champion. Ellsworth Vines, national tennis singles champ in 1931 and ’32, switched to golf with no loss of prestige. A few years back, Lou Boudreau, scrappy young manager of the Cleveland Indians, was a star and captain of the University of Illinois basketball squad.

As every year, many of this Fall’s grid luminaries also shine in other phases of sport. Take Army’s scoring twins, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Blanchard’s football prowess is matched by his gift for piling up points in the weight throw and the shotput. Davis is captain of the West Point baseball team.

Buddy Young of Illinois couples grid talent with an ability to flit one hundred yards on a cinder path in less than 10 seconds. He holds several national sprint titles. Bob Fenimore, Oklahoma Aggie back, is another lad who can match strides with the best on the running track.

But for outstanding all-around ability in all sports, I’ll stick with a selection I made at the close of the ’45 season, and repeat my choice.

To me, Herman John Wedemeyer, the Hawaii-born cog of Jimmy Phelan’s St. Mary’s eleven, is the greatest all-around athlete in the country at the moment.

This opinion will be indignantly refuted by supporters of the above mentioned stars, and of others similarly endowed—but I still think Wedemeyer is the most versatile college athlete I’ve yet encountered. In addition to being a football All-American, Herman is rated a good bet to reach the major leagues if he choose a career in pro baseball. He is also a fine swimmer, a top-flight light heavyweight boxer, and an expert golfer.

The Hawaiian Hurricane completely dominates a football game when he’s on the field. "I can’t find a way to stop him," coach Jeff Cravath of USC once commented. "You never know if he is going to skirt the end, pass, hit the line, or punt."

Wedemeyer comes by his athletic prowess naturally. That is to say, by heredity. His great-grandfather was a noted athlete in Germany—back in the days when Europe hadn’t even heard about Walter Camp or All-America teams. The great-grandfather lived and died in Germany. But, I was told by a friend of the family, "he had a restless, husky, athletic son who left home and ran away to sea."

This son landed in the Hawaiian Islands from a sailing vessel in the sugar trade. He settled in Hawaii, married there, and so started the line of athletic Wedemeyers that bring you to the St. Mary’s star.

Herman’s father, William, was also a football player. Shorter than Herman, powerfully built, husky and active, he played in the line with football teams around Hilo and Honolulu. As a youth he was a member of the once-famous Thundering Herd of Kalihi, in the island’s Barefoot League.

Since his football days, Herman’s father has been a shop worker at Pearl Harbor. No native-born American was ever keener about sport than William Wedemeyer was, and is. I can tell that by the glint in his eyes when any sporting topic is brought up. He knows most of the answers.

Herman himself is an authentic product of Hawaii’s "melting pot." In his veins there flows a mixture of German, Irish, Scotch, Hawaiian, and Chinese blood. He was born in Hilo, Hawaii, May 20, 1924. His first schooling, from 1929 to ’30, was in a little kindergarten in a remote part of the Big Island. His father was then working in a stone quarry. But even in those days Wedemeyer Senior was determined that his son should become one of the greatest athletes of his time.

From St. Anthony’s Parochial School and the Kapalama public school over in Honolulu, where the Wedemeyers moved from Hilo, Herman went to Roosevelt High and then St. Louis College, a Catholic school noted both for scholarship and athletics.

"He was a good boy in school and out," his father says. "He was always obedient, clean living, good natured—and always willing to do more than his share around the house. He never gave anyone any trouble—his own people, his school teachers, or his coaches."

Even when he was still a barefoot kid of fourteen, his coaches saw the promise of future greatness, for he could pass, kick, tackle, and block with much older boys. Even then he was a crack punter and his barefoot spirals drove far down field.

It was not until he reached St. Louis, a prep school rather than a college in the accepted sense, that he drew his first regulation football equipment and really started to move. In 1943, at the age of nineteen, the stocky and sturdy Hawaiian reported to Jimmy Phelan at St. Mary’s to become a member of the Moraga Raiders.

"It took me less than two minutes to see that I had the football player every coach dreams about, but seldom gets," Phelan said. "Here was a kid who had everything—speed of foot and body and hands, speed of brain, perfect coordination, amazing flexibility, and the ability to be at his best when you needed him the most."

In 1944 Wedemeyer was in Navy pre-flight school and later in the Merchant Marines. He was a shining star in the ’44 East-West game, and helped his team earn a 13-13 deadlock.

He returned to civilian status early in the summer of 1945. Wedemeyer decided to keep busy while he awaited the start of the semester at St. Mary’s, so he took an $80 a week job in an Oakland bar. During his tenure as barkeep, the tavern was haunted by pro football scouts, and the bidding went as high as $21,000.

But Squirmin’ Herman had no intention of becoming a pro, and when the fall rolled around, he reported to Jimmy Phelan. That’s when he became a member of the youngest and one of the smallest teams, physically, in the history of college football.

Little was expected from Jimmy Phelan’s youthful, inexperienced, and light players. But in addition to Phelan’s coaching craft (one of the best jobs last year that football has ever known), there were three remarkable members of this squad.

First, there was Wedemeyer, 173 pounds of football stardust. Then there were Spike Cordeiro and Dennis O’Connor, around five feet four inches in height, weighing about 153 pounds. Cordeiro was an old friend, a fellow islander, who was a rival of Herman’s back home. The three sparked the team that had to meet the pick of the West Coast—the team that crushed Southern California. This wonder-team lost only one game, 13-7 against UCLA, and was invited to the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans. Here a big, fast, powerful outfit from Oklahoma A&M beat them 33-13, but St. Mary’s remained, without any question, one of the best teams in college football.

When it came time for final selection of my 1945 All-America team, there were five outstanding backs. These were Blanchard and Davis of Army, Gilmer of Alabama, Fenimore of the Oklahoma Aggies, and Wedemeyer of St. Mary’s. The final choice lay between Wedemeyer and Fenimore.

I picked Wedemeyer over Fenimore for the simple reason that I thought he had contributed much more, with far less team support. When I reached New Orleans before the bowl game, after watching the two teams practice I could foresee the panning I was going to get for picking this 173-pound Hawaiian over the fast and brilliant 195-pound Fenimore, who was playing with a far stronger squad, with blockers who averaged around 195 or 200 pounds.

I happened to run into Wedemeyer before the game. This is all he had to say:

"Thanks very much for picking me on your team. I’ll work to see that you don’t regret your choice."

Wedemeyer looked smaller than he was. But I noticed that in addition to good legs and a halfbarrel chest, he had a pair of great-looking hands, developed from pushing hand trucks loaded with cases of pineapples, a job that called for both strength and dexterity. This work undoubtedly helped him to get that firm grip on a football, so that he seems almost to palm it as he roves around looking for a pass opening.

When I saw Wedemeyer handle a forward and a lateral passing attack, where eleven laterals were thrown without a fumble; when I watched the combination of his offensive and defensive play against a much bigger and faster football team, I understood that the Hawaiian had come to New Orleans with something more than raving press notices from the West Coast.

I found out later that young Wedemeyer is in no sense a shy violet. Neither is he a fresh person nor a braggart in any way. He has the modest assurance that comes from complete confidence in his ability to handle a football job. He can pass, run, kick, block and tackle—and he can think in a hurry.

"There are only a few, a very few," Jimmy Phelan said, "who are natural athletic stars. I mean those who have the physical and the mental blend, the poise and the balance, needed to reach the top."

Ty Cobb had this in baseball. Babe Ruth had it. Football has known many, such as Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe, Cal Hubbard, and Mel Hein, to name a few. But they were also physically fast and strong. They were usually big men. They had power. The great little man has to have speed of motion and brain.

Wedemeyer, of course, isn’t too small. At 173 pounds he his about on a physical level with Red Grange. Like Grange, he just happens to have the knack, which is something hard to explain. It is something you are born with.

Football’s 1946 season promises to be one of the best in many years. The game will be star-studded with many great backs—Blanchard and Davis of Army, Young and Patterson of Illinois, Gilmer of Alabama (one of the best passers of all time) and Charlie Trippi of Georgia. Fenimore may be there if the Army doesn’t take him—and these are only a few. It will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old Hawaiian, Herman Wedemeyer, makes out.

I have an idea that you will hear from him more than once before we reach the next Bowl season. Through this 1946 season he will have the physical support in the line and the backfield that he lacked a year ago, which is something every star needs. Given the proper support, I believe Wedemeyer will take his place as one of the great football players of all time.

The one major worry that has confronted Phelan is this—too many outside interests have been steaming hot on Wedemeyer’s trail to lure him into a professional career. At least three fight managers have been after him in the belief that he might become a light-heavyweight champion.

Any number of big-league baseball teams have likewise been trying to sign him up. It is reported that St. Mary’s Hawaiian star has been offered a $30,000 bonus to sign. A brilliant outfielder, Wedemeyer pitches strikes to the plate from right or left, and has shown rare ability with a bat.

In his first time at bat at St. Mary’s, he pounded a long home run against Stanford. A natural hitter, he connected eighteen times in forty-six trips to the plate, finishing the season with a .391 average, and stole fifteen bases to add to the opposition’s consternation.

Participating in golf, he again proved his versatility, turned in a neat seventy-nine. To top it all off several movie outfits have been after him, but so far, Herman has handed them all the same answer. No soap.

There’s no reason to believe the little Hawaiian won’t turn pro one of these days, but probably not until he’s completed his education at St. Mary’s.

Johnny Vergez, St. Mary’s baseball coach and former manager of Oakland in the Pacific Coast League, says that Wedemeyer is better on the diamond than he is at the grid game. Although it sounds hard to believe, Herman may be the first Hawaiian representative in big-time baseball since Prince Henry Oana played alongside Joe Dimaggio on the San Francisco Seals in 1932.

At any rate Herman Wedemeyer’s seriously come a long way since the days when he tossed pineapple crates around the fields in Hawaii—and today I consider him the top all-around athlete in America.

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