Last year I asked my good friend, actually my best friend, Ernie Accorsi to write a guest column in my absence.
He did and he did it well.
No surprise to me since Ernie began his illustrious career as a sportswriter with the Philadelphia Inquirer covering the 76ers when their center was a man named Chamberlain.
But my friend’s claim to fame has been his remarkable work in the NFL, notably as the General Manager of the New York Giants.
It was Ernie who put together the team that captured two Super Bowl titles.
His determination to acquire Eli Manning, as the franchise quarterback,paid off in spades.
His trade on draft day sealed the deal.
Ernie Accorsi doesn’t back off from any challenge and that was his personal tour de force.
I’m always fascinated by someone’s beginnings. What were the things that provided the foundation for someone who has been successful?
Like myself, Ernie’s life has been about sports.
Starting early on.
So this native of Hershey, PA now proceeds to tell about the things he recalls, which shaped his future:
I was born and raised in a wonderful little town called Hershey, Pennsylvania. The world knows my hometown for its Chocolate Bars. In fact, to this day my favorite candy is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, also made there.
But for most of us who grew up in the 1950s, although we were proud of the fame The Chocolate Bar brought us, Hershey was a Wonderland of sports.
First of all, when the National Hockey League had six teams, the American League varied from six to eight members, including the Hershey Bears.
During those years at various times the AHL included cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Buffalo and Baltimore.
Do you know who led the league in attendance? The Hershey Bears in a town with the population of 5,300.
In fact, in their history in the league the Bears have led in attendance each year and still do.
My dad started taking me to their games when I was eight years old and as soon as I was old enough, I became an usher through high school. I always claim that I won two Calder Cups as an usher in Section 3 of the Hershey Sports Arena.
But the Hershey Bears are just a part of the story that made this the most unique little town in America.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had their training camp there twice during the war. When World War II depleted the Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles in 1943, the two Pennsylvania Franchises merged, called themselves the “Steagles” and moved to Hershey.
In 1949 the New York Bulldogs trained there and played a pre season game there before subsequently becoming the New York Yanks and eventually the Baltimore Colts.
In 1952, when that franchise moved to Dallas and became the Texans they abandon Dallas after five games and moved to Hershey for the remainder of the 1952 season.
But the major football attraction hit town In 1951.
The Philadelphia Eagles established their training camp in Hershey and stayed for 18 years through 1967.
During that period the Eagles played two or three pre season games in Hershey Stadium every summer.
Now this is what it was like being a kid in my hometown during those years. We would walk 15 minutes from our home to the practice fields right by the stadium and watch the Eagles practice twice a day during our whole childhood. Then two or three Saturday nights a summer we would see them play every team in the league with the exception of the two West Coast teams and the Cleveland Browns. I saw every other team play in Hershey.
Traditionally the Eagles and Baltimore Colts would open the pre season every year in Hershey. There was bad blood between those two teams and with squads, even in camp, limited to about 50 players, the regulars played most of the games.
Because of those contests I saw Johnny Unitas throw his first pass in an NFL uniform and first touchdown pass.
Maybe because everyone else in town was an Eagles fan, and I wasn’t, I adopted the Colts well before they were any good. But they began to beat Philadelphia regularly in Hershey and I relished those nights. Maybe it was the rebel in me.
As an added gem, in Sept. 1952, after the Eagles broke camp, the glamorous Los Angeles Rams in their famed helmets came to town for a week.
They had finished the pre season in New York and were opening the season in Cleveland so when the Eagles moved out, the Rams moved in.
We were star struck!
They were led by two Hall of Fame QB’s, Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, who was married to famed actress Jane Russell.
School had started so we would race through the park after class and walk through the park with the Rams players on their way to their hotel, The Cocoa Inn.
For some reason I gravitated to their great fullback, Deacon Dan Towler.
Deacon Dan sort of adopted me and my cousin Gary Ponzoli, who eventually played football at West Point.
On the Rams final day in Hershey we walked Towler back to the hotel and he said, “You two boys wait here. I want to get you something”. After a few minutes Deacon Dan returned with one team picture. He said, ”I’m sorry kids. Our PR guy would only give me one picture. Since you’re cousins, you’ll have to share this.”
The PR guy who wouldn’t give Towler two team pictures was Pete Rozelle, who become arguably the greatest Commissioner in American Sports history.
My cousin and I faithfully kept that picture one month each until we were in high school. And to this day I have the autograph book with all the Rams signatures.
In addition to all of this lore, from 1941 to 1951, the first ten years of my life, Ben Hogan was the head professional at the Hershey Country Club.
In fact, although it is recognized that Hogan won his first tournament at the North South Open in Pinehurst, actually his first win was the Hershey Four Ball with his partner Vic Ghezzi in Hershey in 1939.
The North South was his first individual victory It was that win that caught the eye of Milton Hershey who hired Hogan in 1941 for $8,000 a year plus an apartment.
In those days it was virtually impossible to make a living on tour even if you were winning tournaments. Most pros had club affiliations to pay the bills.
My dad took me over to the Hershey CC a few times to see Hogan. Hogan told Mr Hershey that he would spend time there when he wasn’t on tour (the tour was much more abbreviated at that time), but he would not give lessons and didn’t want to “glad hand.”
That was Ben.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 1949, while he was the head professional at the Hershey Country Club, Ben Hogan’s car was hit head on by a bus crossing to his lane, outside of Van Horn, Texas.
He had thrown his body across the front seat to save his wife Valerie’s life. At one point he was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident Then, a week later had a series of blood clots and needed emergency surgery to survive. He was told he probably would never walk again. Certainly never play golf tournaments. His body wasn’t broken. It was shattered.
Sixteen months later, Ben Hogan not only won the US Open at storied Merion outside of Philadelphia, he played 36 holes on the last day to finish in a tie. He won in a playoff the following day.
1950 US Open Champion Ben Hogan
He won the Masters in 1951 then in 1953 had perhaps the most remarkable year in sports history.
In 1953, Ben Hogan entered six tournaments. He won five,including the Masters, another US Open and the British Open on his only trip overseas. He couldn’t complete the one season grand slam because the dates of the PGA conflicted with the British Open.
Four years after the accident he won five of the six tournaments he entered, three of them majors.
So when I hear people talk about the great comebacks in sports history, I don’t want to hear it.
For me it will always be the miraculous return to glory of the fabled “Wee Ice Man” as the British called him. The little man who for ten years played the same holes on the same golf course I grew up playing…The Hershey Country Club.
– Ernie Accorsi