Northwestern Panel Gives Rance Crain a Scoop 50 Years Later

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My alma mater, Northwestern University, has just digitized all the back articles from the campus newspaper, the Daily Northwestern. And that's a lot of back articles -- the Daily's first issue was in 1881. The digitized Daily covers more than 13,000 issues and 900,000 pages of newsprint.

Charles Whitaker (l.), Donna Rosene Marx Leff, Christine Brennan, Rance Crain, George de Lama and Michael Wilbon.
Charles Whitaker (l.), Donna Rosene Marx Leff, Christine Brennan, Rance Crain, George de Lama and Michael Wilbon. Credit: Bruce Powell

So to celebrate this amazing feat, the Library Board of Governors and the Northwestern Archives organized a panel of former Daily staffers to talk about their days on the paper.

The presentation came at an exciting time for Northwestern. The undefeated Wildcats were getting ready to play the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes, and ESPN had designated the clash the game of the week. So ESPN broadcast some of its most popular shows from the NU campus.

One of the panelists was Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," and he did his side of the show from the network's Chicago studio on the 37th floor of the John Hancock building.

Other panelists were Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today; George de Lama, former managing editor for news at the Chicago Tribune and now head of startup education-solutions company Answers Learning; Donna Rosene Marx Leff, a journalism professor at NU's Medill School of Journalism and before that an investigative reporter and assistant city editor for several Chicago papers; and last but not least yours truly, the sports editor of the Daily in 1959-1960.

The moderator was Charles Whitaker, the Helen Gurley Brown Research Chair in magazine journalism at Medill. He asked us about our reaction when we first stepped into the Daily offices, in the basement of the Medill building. My answer was that everyone looked very serious.

"I was as terrified walking into the Daily the first day as I will be Saturday night when we kick off against Ohio State," Michael Wilbon said. "And I hope Saturday turns out as well." (It didn't.)

The other panelists attended Medill when Northwestern had a lousy football team, but when I was there the Wildcats under coach Ara Parseghian started the season 6-0, were No. 2 in the country and made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

After fumbling the game away against Wisconsin for our first loss, we ran out of gas and lost the last two games.

But for me Northwestern sports was not just about football. The coach of the baseball team was Fred Lindstrom, who was a Hall of Famer from the New York Giants. I wrote one story about the greatest game of his career.

"It was the bottom half of the 13th inning and New York Giant third baseman Fred Lindstrom was on the spot," I began my story.

When Lindstrom came up to bat with two on and the Giants trailing 7-5, Giants manager John McGraw failed to flash the expected bunt sign. So Lindstrom asked him what he wanted him to do.

"Hit the first pitch out of the park," McGraw instructed.

"Is that all?"

"That's all."

So Lindstrom had his orders. Babe Adams pitching for the Pirate's figured to taunt Lindstrom with a high, outside fast ball, but it wasn't quite far enough outside.

Lindstrom hit the first pitch -- out of the park.

Lindstrom was always good for an interview when I needed to fill some space. He raised the heretical notion that the Cubs trade Ernie Banks, and he also said he believed that umpires at every base were stifling the players' creative instincts. He lamented that the ballplayers were "suppressed" because they couldn't engage in the antics of old-time pitchers. Lindstrom told me about a player he once coached who pitched with a piece of sandpaper hooked to his belt. "When he went out to throw he looked like a carpenter going to work."

After the panel session, a guy who played backup fullback on that "59 team, George Platt, introduced himself to me. He told me that the reason the players ran out of steam at the end of the season is that Ara Parseghian didn't want to send in substitutes for many of his first-stringers. In those days, players played both offense and defense and so Northwestern relied on about 15 to 17 players to carry the load. Platt said that the Wildcats had good players on the bench who didn't see much action and who could have given the starters a much-needed breather.

So over 50 years later I finally got to the bottom of why that "59 team collapsed.

Hey, it's never too late for a scoop.

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