Peoria Cats

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Peoria Cats

Postby rlee » Fri Jan 14, 2011 3:38 pm

From the Peoria Journal Star
Feb. 20, 2005

of the Journal Star

One of the greatest amateur basketball programs of all time once played in Peoria.

Adolph H. Grundman argues in "The Golden Age of Amateur Basketball: The AAU Tournament, 1921-1968," that the Peoria Cats, a traveling Amateur Athletic Union basketball team sponsored by Caterpillar Inc. from 1945-60, was perhaps the most accomplished group in an era pre-dating the legitimacy of professional basketball.

Before rising stars like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West helped make the National Basketball Association one of the United States' major sports leagues, many of the best players in the country chose to play for corporately sponsored amateur teams in the National Industrial Basketball League.

The corporate teams provided the safety net of a career for their players, while many pro teams at that time failed to pay weekly salaries.

At the height of amateur basketball's "golden age," the Peoria Cats managed to win five AAU national championships in the 1950s. The Cats also won the 1954 World Championship in Brazil, became the first team in the Cold War era to tour the U.S.S.R., in 1958, and placed players on gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams in 1952 and 1960.

From 1950 to 1960, coach Warren Womble's Cats, also known as the Caterpillar Diesels from 1945 to 1952, went 296-126 (.701) and an incredible 34-0 in international competition.

"The Phillips 66ers won more national championships (11) than Peoria," Grundman said of the Phillips Petroleum Company-sponsored team often referred to as the "New York Yankees of basketball" for winning six national titles in a row from 1943 to 1948.

"But Phillips won most of them in the 1940s. The difference is Peoria won their titles in the '50s when there were more good teams out there. That made Peoria's success pretty impressive. They dominated the game when it was at its competitive peak."

Building a champion

In his book, which reads like a highly detailed media guide for the top amateur teams of that period, Grundman outlined the process of molding Peoria into a national basketball power.

According to Caterpillar archives, employees formed the company's first team, Holt-Caterpillar, in 1915. Basketball became part of the employee activities program in 1937 and the Cat Diesels became a charter member of the NIBL in 1947.

Caterpillar's team, funded by nickels and dimes it collected from vending machines inside company break rooms, just began to scratch the surface of its potential in the annual national AAU tournaments at Denver from 1945 to 1951. The Cat Diesels placed among the top four only twice - a third in 1949 and a fourth in 1951.

However, Peoria would turn a corner without knowing it in 1948 with the acquisition of an obscure 29-year-old guard from Southeastern State College in Oklahoma named Womble.

After playing the 1948-49 season, Womble expressed a desire to Caterpillar executives to move back to Oklahoma to pursue a coaching career.

That's when Cat plant manager Jim Monroe made easily the best move in Peoria's AAU program.

"Monroe came to my office and offered me the coaching job," Womble, now 86 and living in Arkansas, said of replacing the Cats' first coach, Marv Hamilton. "I didn't ask for it. He came to me."

Womble assisted Hamilton, who was promoted to a position within the company that didn't allow him to coach anymore, for the 1949-50 campaign before taking over as head coach the following year.

Womble then became the architect for Peoria's championship teams, blazing a recruiting trail throughout the Midwest.

"I developed a network that helped me," Womble said of his quest for talent. "I knew you've got to have so much size, speed and shooters - things all the painted faces in the stands today don't always consider - to compete for a championship."

Womble found pay dirt with the major building blocks of Peoria's champions - sharp-shooting guard Howie Williams (Purdue), 6-foot-9-inch Frank McCabe

(Marquette), 6-foot-11-inch center Marcus Freiberger (Oklahoma), speedy 5-foot-10-inch guard Dan Pippin (Missouri) and 6-foot-2-inch guard Ron Bontemps (Illinois), who played for Illinois' first undefeated high school state champion, Taylorville, in 1944.

Peoria's renaissance

The Cats ushered in a basketball renaissance in Peoria with a 66-53 victory over the Phillips 66ers in the 1952 AAU national championship game.

Williams drained nine of 11 shots for a game-high 20 points and Pippin added 17 in what proved to be the first of three consecutive national titles for Peoria. The Cats went on to defeat Los Alamitos Naval Air Station (73-62) and Grihalva Buick (63-55), both of California, for titles in 1953 and 1954, respectively.

With the addition of 6-foot-9-inch Bert Born, a member of the Kansas Jayhawks' 1952 NCAA national champion and MVP of the 1953 Final Four for a national runner-up, Peoria added another AAU national title in 1958 with a 74-71 four-overtime classic over the Denver-Chicago Truckers.

When the NBA's No. 1 overall choice of the 1959 draft, Bob Boozer, an All-American from Kansas State, spurned Cincinnati's pro franchise to play in Peoria, the Cats tacked on their last championship. Peoria defeated the Akron Goodyear-Wingfoots 115-99 in the 1960 final.

"Those were exciting times," Womble said of basketball in the River City during the 1950s. "We were winning national championships. Peoria had a Biddy Basketball team win the national championship. Peoria High made the state championship game (1953 runner-up) and Bradley played in the national championship game (1954 runner-up)."

In their first games, the Cats played at the Peoria Armory. But when their reputation and national titles began rolling in, their new home, Robertson Field House, could barely contain all of their adoring fans.

According to McCabe, who still resides in Peoria, reserved seats went for 40 cents, prime bleacher seats 20 cents and "the rest the company gave away."

"They gave away thousands of seats, and we hoped no one would come," joked Born, who has also stuck around Peoria all these years.

"We heard they had to turn away some people who wanted to watch us. We had some pretty big crowds back then."

Despite its unusual look, Boozer, who later enjoyed an 11-year NBA career, including a three-season stint with the Chicago Bulls (1966-69), said the Field House was a fun place to play and watch games.

"They called it the old World War II Quonset hut," said Boozer, who currently lives in Kansas City and had his Kansas State jersey retired at halftime of a game on Feb. 5. "But it was fun to play on because it had a lot of bounce to it. A lot of courts back then played like concrete.

"I made friends with (Bradley players) Bobby Joe Mason and Joe Billy McDade, and I enjoyed watching a lot of their games there. We would go out to eat at Big John's BBQ after the games a lot. I never forgot those nights at Big John's."

International Cats

By virtue of its 1952 AAU national championship, the Cats earned a berth to the U.S. Olympic Trials tournament, which paired the top eight AAU and NCAA tournament teams against each other in order to decide the U.S. Olympic basketball roster.

On a last-second shot by Williams, Peoria beat NCAA champion Kansas to win the trials at Madison Square Garden in New York.

In just his second season as coach, Womble had succeeded in preventing Kansas legend Forrest "Phog" Allen from being an Olympic head coach, a post he had sought since the game was introduced in the Olympics in 1936.

Womble chose his starting five - Bontemps, Williams, McCabe, Freiberger and Pippin - to represent the United States at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

After steamrolling its way to the semifinals, the United States survived a scare from Argentina to meet the Soviets in the final.

So near the Iron Curtain, Bontemps said, the mood of the championship was somber.

"It was a little tense," Bontemps said of a gold-medal game the Americans won by a 36-25 score. "We had an Olympic village, but the Russian government didn't allow their athletes to stay there. They had their own village. They didn't want any of their athletes to hear any of our ideas about freedom."

The Cats' national crown in 1954 earned them a berth to the World Championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Womble's team, consisting of 6-foot-6-inch Richard Gott (Murray State), 6-foot-5-inch Forrest Hamilton (Southwest Missouri State), 6-foot-8-inch Bill Johnson (Nebraska), 5-foot-11-inch Al Kelley (Kansas), 6-foot-6-inch Kirby Minter (Southeast Oklahoma State), 6-foot-9-inch Don Penwell (Oklahoma City University), 6-foot-7-inch Dick Retherford (Baldwin-Wallace), 6-foot-2-inch Kendall Sheets (Oklahoma A&M), 6-foot-5-inch Ed Solomon (West Virginia Tech), 5-foot-10-inch Joe Stratton (Colgate) and Born, easily out-sized all of its competition.

The Cats rolled to a perfect 7-0 mark against Brazil, Israel, Formosa, Canada, Uruguay, France, the Phillipines, Peru and Canada for the world title. Uruguay (64-59) gave Peoria its closest call. The Cats won by double figures in the rest of the games.

A few years later, Peoria became the first Western team to compete in the Soviet Union. The Cats swept a nine-game exhibition tour of Moscow in 1958.

"It was a unique experience, that's for sure," Born said. "They treated us fine. We'd go for walks from our hotel and after a while we would notice about 40 or 50 people following us. It was mostly youngsters who wanted to practice their English and learn of America. But we always had KGB people following us around, so it was a little tense."

In 1960, Womble led the Cats to the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials again, only to be defeated by an NCAA All-Star team headed by Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

Boozer and Al Kelley still were picked to represent the gold-medal winning U.S. team in the Rome Olympics that year. Womble served as an assistant coach.

End of an era

Caterpillar decided to end its sponsorship of the Cats in 1960.

Escalating salaries offered by NBA franchises - gaining in popularity because of the infusion of college talent such as West, Baylor, Chamberlain and Russell - caused Caterpillar to think twice about continuing its program.

Womble added: "Caterpillar was interested in developing employees," not becoming a minor-league affiliate for the NBA.

Although the company liked the positive exposure it received from sponsoring a championship basketball team, it decided to pull the plug.

But Womble said he remained at Caterpillar for 38 years because it never forgot its responsibility to Peoria.

"The company believed in sports and families," Womble said. "Caterpillar had programs for children to play baseball, basketball and softball long after our basketball team stopped playing. Cat was most interested in retaining activities to help the community. They were always positive for Peoria."

Kudos to the Cats

The Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame made Womble a charter member in 1981.

The GPSHF later inducted Bontemps, who still resides in Morton and is the father of former Morton High School and University of Illinois guard Kevin Bontemps. Also inducted were McCabe, Williams, Pippin, Freiberger, Boozer, Hamilton, Al and Dean Kelley and all five AAU national tournament championship teams.

The national championship teams had a reunion at O'Brien Field in 2002.

"It was great to see a lot of the boys," Womble said of the gathering. "Whenever we (he and wife Hazel) are back in Peoria, we usually have dinner with guys still in that area. Frank McCabe is kind of like our keeper of the torch. He updates everybody on how everyone else is doing."

McCabe seemed to best sum up what it was like to be a Cat.

"When you were growing up, did you ever think you would play at Madison Square Garden, win national championships and win gold medals at the Olympics? Hell, no," he said. "Most of us were just young kids that liked playing basketball and were trying to find our way in life.

"Cat took care of all of that."

"The Beavers, a group that oversees construction of dams, has handed out three Golden Beaver Awards," McCabe said after working on dam construction projects in his 40-plus years at Cat. "Two board chairmen at Cat and Frank McCabe have won that service support award. When I accepted it in California back in the 1980s, I held up my gold medal and the Golden Beaver Award. In my acceptance, I said it was quite a bookend to my career - winning an Olympic gold medal for basketball and a prestigious award for my life's work at the same company."

Another Hoop Dream Born in Peoria
Frosty welcome aside, Caterpillar's AAU basketball architect embraced Midwest

From the Journal Star
Feb. 22, 2008

of the Journal Star

Overlooked by his home-state heroes and aged by a tour of duty in World War II, Warren Womble sought a place to hatch his hoop dreams before it was too late.

The obscure 29-year-old Oklahoman made Peoria his home in 1948 after accepting an offer to work for Caterpillar Inc., and play for the Amateur Athletic Union team it sponsored.

What followed was one of the most dominant stretches in amateur basketball.

In an era when the best players in the country chose the security of a career offered by corporately sponsored AAU teams over the risk of contracts offered by the fly-by-night pro leagues, Womble consistently led Peoria to basketball’s summit.

After taking over as coach in 1950, Womble directed the Peoria Cats to five national AAU titles, the 1954 World Championship in Brazil and placed players on gold-medal-winning Olympic teams in 1952 and 1960.

In his 10-year tenure, the Cats went 296-126 (.701) and were the first team to tour Cold War Russia in 1958.

But Womble, 86 of Arkansas, recalled that all of those feats almost never happened.

“I thought I had come to Alaska,” Womble said of his initiation to Peoria’s frigid winters in 1948. “I only had a letterman’s jacket and a pair of khakis and not even two dimes to rub together.”

The harsh climate change and a pair of aching ankles, taxed by years of playing tennis on concrete, had Womble thinking about leaving Peoria.

He never imagined he would have to leave the Southwest to play, anyway. Womble had always dreamed of playing for the Phillips Oil-sponsored 66ers in Bartelsville, Okla., just hours from his home in Durant.

Phillips, dubbed the “New York Yankees of basketball” during that time for winning six consecutive AAU national titles from 1943-1948, never expressed interest in Womble, though.

When the pain in his ankles became too much to bear, Womble told Caterpillar plant manager Jim Monroe he intended to move back to Oklahoma to pursue a coaching career.

It was then that Womble’s basketball career was forever changed.

“Jim Monroe came to my office and I didn’t expect what he was going to say,” Womble said of their meeting in 1949. “I didn’t have much to do at work that day, so I was diagramming plays. That was the last time I did that at work.

“But he came in and offered me the coaching job. I didn’t ask for it. He came to me.”

Marv Hamilton had coached the team since its inaugural season in the National Industrial

Basketball League in 1947. Womble assisted Hamilton for one year before taking over the helm in the 1950-51 season.

“I kind of picked up a few things,” Womble said of learning from his coach at Southeastern State College, Bloomer Sullivan, a disciple of Oklahoma A&M legend Henry Iba. “But I had to teach myself how to coach, mostly. I just told the boys we were going to work hard and win by out-working everybody else.”

The Cats hadn’t fared well at the annual national AAU tournaments in Denver their first five years.

However, Womble put Peoria in position for a national title in 1952, just his second year as coach.

“I hated recruiting because I didn’t like to leave home and travel all over to look at players,” Womble said. “But I knew it was part of coaching. I knew we needed to get bigger and faster.”

Womble’s haul included Howie Williams, a sharp-shooting guard from Purdue, 6-foot-9 center Frank McCabe (Marquette), and Dan Pippin (Missouri).

The trio became AAU All-Americans in leading Peoria past Phillips 66-53 for the national title in 1952.

Peoria’s championship also earned a berth in the U.S. Olympic trials, a tournament which paired the best AAU and NCAA teams against each other in order to pick players for the Olympic roster.

On a buzzer-beating shot by Williams, Peoria defeated the Kansas Jayhawks to win the trials at Madison Square Garden.

In the process, Womble denied Kansas legend Forrest “Phog” Allen from being an Olympic head coach, a post he had sought since basketball was introduced in the international games in 1936.

Womble and the Cats’ starting five then led the United States to a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics with a 36-25 victory over the Russians in Helsinki, Finland. Womble also served as an assistant coach on the gold-medal winning U.S. team in the 1960 Olympics at Rome.

With the addition of players like Ron Bontemps, Bert Born, Howie Crittenden, Jack Prudhoe, Don Ohl, Bob Boozer and Al and Dean Kelley, Peoria went on to add national championships in 1953, 1954, 1958 and 1960. Only Phillips won more national titles (11) in the tournament’s history.

Caterpillar broke up the team in 1960 after it became harder to attract players because of escalating pro salaries.

But Womble remained at Caterpillar. He worked at the company for 38 years and remains fiercely loyal to it.

“It was the best company to work for and it was hands-down the best AAU program because they gave me complete reign of it,” Womble said. “As a coach, that’s all you can ask. I’d still be working there today if they let me.”

As proud as Womble is to have won national championships and gold medals, he said he is even prouder of his impact on the lives of his players.

“A lot of the boys stuck around (Caterpillar),” the 1981 Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame inductee said. “Many of the boys stuck around Peoria.

“We were asking a lot of them - to work an eight-hour shift and then practice five nights a week. They played because they wanted to, they got paid to work. It just makes you proud to see many of them accomplish so much in their lives.”

Womble said he had an offer to coach in the NBA years later but turned it down because he already found his place in the world.

“I preferred what we had,” he said of life in Peoria for himself and his wife, Hazel. “We helped a lot of young families, and I don’t think you can do that in pro ball.”

Offered a chance, players ran with it
Posted by Kirk Wessler under History

Caterpillar, its AAU team provided number of men career on and off court

From the Journal Star
Feb. 22, 2005

of the Journal Star

Caterpillar Inc. is known for building equipment to move, shape and mold the earth.

Frank McCabe claims the company made a similar impact on his life.

“I was actually working in Alaska when I was offered the job at Cat,” McCabe said of a call he received after completing an impressive basketball career at Marquette in 1949.

“I studied engineering and I was in an apprenticeship program where you went to school for three months then you worked three months. I was thrilled to get an opportunity to work at a company like that.”

Six-foot-8 McCabe, a four-year letter winner and leading scorer (12.7 ppg) in 1949 for Marquette, became a centerpiece for the National Industrial Basketball League team Caterpillar sponsored from 1945-1960, the Cat Diesels (1945-52) and later the Cats.

McCabe joined Ron Bontemps (Illinois), Howie Williams (Purdue), Marc Freiberger (Oklahoma) and Dan Pippin (Missouri) as starters on three of the Cats’ five Amateur Athletic Union national championships during the ‘50s and the gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

But McCabe’s affiliation with Caterpillar didn’t end with his playing days.

“I worked there for over 40 years,” McCabe, 77, said. “I was an engineer before I moved on to sales. I fell in love with Cat and I married a Peoria native. (Cat) is a major part of who I am today.”

Caterpillar’s hand in the construction of McCabe’s career path is hardly a rarity. More than a handful of the champion players coach Warren Womble recruited to Peoria during the 1950s never detoured from a livelihood forged by the industrial giant.

“(Peoria) is my home because of Cat,” Bert Born said of the company where he worked for 43 years in the personnel department.

Growing up in Medicine Lodge, Kan., where a stretch of road in the town of 137 people is named in his honor, Born never figured he would stray far from the familiar wheat fields southwest of Wichita.

“I only have my sister and my wife (alive) now,” Born, 72, said. “But my whole family, for the most part, was born, lived and stayed in Kansas. But after I spent a few years here (Peoria), I fell in love with the company, the people were great and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Stars of the Cat team such as Bontemps (Morton resident), John Prudhoe (East Peoria) and Chuck Wolfe (Pekin) and bit players like Dick Gott (Peoria) were unified on one front. The opportunity to play for Cat changed their lives.

Cat yellow turns to gold

Editor’s note: In the 1950s, the Bradley Braves shared Robertson Field House with the Peoria Cats, a national powerhouse in the AAU. This 2002 column by the Journal Star’s Phil Theobald reports on a golden-anniversary reunion of some of those players.

From the Journal Star
Aug. 2, 2002

Journal Star sports columnist

All golden anniversary dinners are warmed by the sharing of memories worth their weight in gold.

They could have worn their gold to this one.

‘‘This might be the last time we get together,’’ said Frank McCabe, who called with the invitation to join the group at Gil’s Tap in Hanna City.

They got together for the first time long ago at Robertson Memorial Field House and helped put Peoria on the national basketball map.

Exactly 50 years ago today, the United States captured the men’s basketball gold medal at the Helsinki (Finland) Olympics with a 36-25 victory over the Soviet Union.

Five members of the National Industrial Basketball League team sponsored by Caterpillar were on that Olympic roster.

Two of the five - McCabe and Marc Freiberger - were joined by players and their wives from AAU Peoria Cats teams of other years to eat chicken and swap stories with their coach, Warren Womble.

Ron Bontemps couldn’t make the dinner, Howie Williams is too ill to travel and Dan Pippin is deceased.

Al Kelley, whose late brother Dean played in ‘52, was also present Thursday night to talk about the ‘60 Olympics. He and Bob Boozer carried the Cats banner in Rome.

They spent much of the day touring Caterpillar Building SS in East Peoria before taking a trip to the firm’s demonstration area near Edwards to see machinery manufactured by Big Yellow.

They’ll be honored tonight when the Class A Chiefs play at O’Brien Field.

‘‘We’ll play golf, too,’’ said McCabe, ‘‘but I don’t think anyone wants to watch that.’’

Peorians packed first the Peoria Armory and then the Field House, however, to watch the Cats play from 1948-60.

‘‘No doubt in my mind we could have beaten any team in the National Basketball Association,’’ said Freiberger.

The NBA paid little in those years. The chance to begin their working careers with an established, thriving firm and also play basketball appealed to many collegiate basketball stars of that era.

‘‘It’s been a long time . . .’’ were usually the words, followed by handshakes and hugs, as they greeted one another at the reunion dinner.

Bert Born, Bill Dempsey, Ollie Helderle, Jim McCabe, John Prudhoe, Wilbur Reeser, Elmer Tolson and Chuck Wolfe are among the former Cats players who set this weekend aside to replay old games.

The U.S. has a record of 108-2 in Olympic basketball games since basketball became a medal sport at 1936 in Berlin.

The ‘52 Cats team, after winning the AAU championship in Denver, emerged from an eight-team Olympics tryout field to lead the U.S. into postwar Helsinki.

They should write a book about this Olympiad. Or, if someone has, grab a copy and immerse yourself in some of the most colorful sports history I’ve come across.

Now, of course, the U.S. is represented by NBA players in the Olympics. ‘‘I liked it better the way we did it,’’ said Womble, ‘‘because you had to earn your way there.’’

Womble was assisted by legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen at Helsinki, where the team practiced outdoors and played games, recalled Freiberger, ‘‘on converted indoor tennis courts. Conditions were awful.’’

They wore swimsuit-type basketball pants. ‘‘I’m old-fashioned,’’ said Kelley. ‘‘I liked those better than the (long) pants they wear now.’’

The game for the gold medal would come down - as it did so often - to a game between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

But first there was a fourpoint game over France, and then the rowdy bunch from Uruguay had to be defeated.

The Uruguay team was involved in several brawls that summer and twice assaulted American ref Vincent Farrell. He was carried off the floor the second time after being kicked in the groin.

Uruguay didn’t mess with the U.S. ‘‘We were too big for them,’’ said McCabe about the 57-44 victory.

The United States had beaten the Soviets handily in the semifinals, so the bad guys decided to put the basketball in a deep-freeze for the championship matchup.

Didn’t work. ‘‘The ball we used had 16 or so pieces of leather sewn together,’’ said McCabe, ‘‘and it didn’t bounce true. It was goofy.’’

The ball, the bumpy playing surface and superior U.S. talent added up to an 11-point loss for the Soviets, who had won more than 100 games in a row over European competition prior to the Olympics.

‘‘You never saw one of their players without an (KGB?) official or two,’’ said McCabe. ‘‘All of them wore the same dark suits and dark hats. Cloak and dagger kind of stuff.’’

The world has changed. The Cats’ last season was 1960, and the gold medals are framed and hanging on den walls throughout the country.

‘‘We had the fans sitting in the rafters (at Robertson),’’ said Dempsey, who grew five inches after attending Spalding Institute and played five years in the NIBL. ‘‘Of course, admission was free . . .’’

As are the priceless memories they have 50 years later.
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