Konkle presents history of Rockford athletics
by BETH ALTENA
Rockford Area Historical Society President Terry Konkle had some surprising facts and tidbits of the early years of the Rockford athletics as he spoke before the Rockford Area Historical Society during the November 4 meeting. Konkle has long been a participant in Rockford sports as coach and said when the district hired the new athletic director Dave Price in 1989, Price challenged all the coaches to improve Rockford’s reputation in athletics. A showcase to highlight athletic accomplishments was part of the plan for a soon-to-be-built new high school and Price asked Konkle to be the one to research the history of Rockford athletic accomplishments.
Konkle explained that in researching athletics, there were two avenues to explore: town sports and school sports. Rockford had a town baseball team in 1871 called the Pioneers and, in the 1900s, the town team was called the Redwings. Konkle said he has fruitlessly tried to discover a field in Rockford where the team played, looking over aerial maps and old plat maps, but has been unable to discover its location.
“A lot of important games were held at Ramona Field in East Grand Rapids,” Konkle said, noting old-timers will remember the field. The location of the field was about where East Grand Rapids High School’s football field is now.
Rockford and Sparta were long-time rivals and in 1911 challenged each other to a five-game baseball series with bragging rights over which town had the best team. The teams were tied at two wins each after four games, but the fourth game which was held in Sparta was declared by Rockford to be flawed. The field they played on had a creek running through it and Rockford claimed the umpire cheated.
For the fifth game, the two teams met at a neutral location at Ramona Field. Cuppy Groeschow was umpire and the game was so hotly contested that bets totaled over $2,000. The Sparta team manager bet $500 on his team, and Seymour Hunting, the Rockford team manager, took the bet. E.W. Dickerson, the Grand Rapids Evening News sports editor, took certified checks from each of the men and locked them in a safe. One thousand sixty-three fans came in on train and paid a total of $685.50 to be split 60/40 between the teams after $75 for expenses was subtracted.
History tells that Rockford pitcher Lefty McDonald struck out 17 Sparta batters and gave up only one hit, but Rockford lost the game 2-0 nonetheless. In the one hit Lefty gave up, Sparta had two runners, who were on base because of Rockford errors, make it home, and that was the only scoring in that historic game.
“From then on, whenever Rockford played Sparta, it was always hotly contested,” Konkle stated.
Rockford continued to have town baseball teams until the 1940s, when fast-pitch softball became the favored sport. Rockford was known for the quality of its athletes, such as John Shogen and Red Schwab, who were outstanding pitchers.
School athletics arrived on the scene in 1910 when new Superintendent Henry MacNaughton was hired. He introduced football, baseball, track and basketball for boys, and basketball and tennis for girls. The first football season was at Union School, located where Independent Bank is today. Although the team practiced the year of 1910, they never played a game. The basketball team played in the upstairs of the Rockford Hotel, now Sam’s Joint. In the 1920s and ‘30s Rockford became to be known for having very strong teams. Prior to Rockford joining the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), some athletes continued to return to play football long after what is legal now. One player kept returning to high school year after year, only during football season, playing and then dropping out again after football was done. He played a total of seven seasons, six in Rockford and one in Grand Rapids.
During the 1930 season, at a game held in Lowell, the water boy got his water for the team from the Flat River and two players, brothers Ken and Forrest Colby, became very ill. Many townspeople thought the water was the source of the illness, but no other players became ill. Research in the newspapers showed some doctors thought the water might not have been the source of the illness since no other teammates than the brothers became ill, and it seemed a grandfather or other family member was also sick at the time. One brother, Ken, recovered, but the other, Forrest, the team captain, died.
The town was rightly shocked at the loss of the popular young man, and many felt that football should be eliminated. This feeling and the fact that Rockford had an injury-filled season in 1931 and ended the year with only a few able-bodied players caused the school board to vote not to continue football and Rockford had no team in 1932. In another year, 1918, influenza swept the town and that football season was also cancelled. These two cancelled seasons are the reason Rockford, playing football since 1910, is still two years away from its 100th season.
In 1921 Rockford hired its first sports coach and he was responsible for all teams. This was the first paid coach in Rockford’s history. Rockford athletics, in the early years consisted of six sports at most, compared to 35 offered now. Rockford became well-known for producing excellent athletes. Joining the MHSAA changed everything for Rockford and was the end of players continuing on into their 20s.
“If you join the MHSAA, you have to follow their rules,” Konkle said.
Players were limited to four years of high school sports and could not play after age 19. Players used to provide their own equipment, which meant gear was varied or nonexistent. Before there were facemasks required for football, one player broke his nose seven times in one week. Fundraisers were held to cover costs and the Krause family was very generous.
The biggest rivals for Rockford were Cedar Springs and Sparta. Belding was invited to play, but was unreliable and often failed to show up for games. Later Rockford began playing East Grand Rapids and Kentwood.
New athletic director Dave Price in 1990 established the first Athletic Hall of Fame for living and deceased Rockford athletes. The hall now has 92 individuals recognized for their efforts in athletics, coaches and community members.
Rockford had no team nickname during much of its early history. Konkle said he wondered about this and was once told by Red Schwab, brother to Jack Schwab, how the name “Rams” came to be. In the season of 1937-1938, Red said he and other athletes were searching for a name and were in a sports store looking at lists of team names. The Fordam team was the top team in the United States that year, and they were the Rams. The players went to the principal of the high school and suggested the name. The principal said it was unfair to arbitrarily approve the name and said there would have to be a school-wide vote between the Rams and another name. The vote wasn’t close, so there was little danger that Rockford would be forever known by the second choice, the Roosters. No one knows why the school colors are orange and black.
Konkle said as the school athletics continued to improve year after year, town sports died out. He remembers a fierce competition in church fast-pitch softball leagues, and showed his own old jersey from the 1960s.
Rockford had its first homecoming football game on October 26, 1929. Two friends and teammates from Rockford’s Class C football championship team of 1922 came up wit the idea. Lyle Bennett was the coach at Rockford in 1929, and Ron Finch was the mentor at Lowell, so they decided to make their game at Rockford a homecoming event. Rockford lost 19-0, but the homecoming game has become a Rockford tradition.
As Rockford continued to improve in athletics over the years, enthusiasm, attendance and fundraising made possible many new and improved facilities. Having quality places to play also adds to the enthusiasm of players, a circle of cause and effect that continues today.
Konkle said when the new high school—now the administration building on Main Street—was first built with Rockford’s first indoor gymnasium and first scoreboard, a motto was painted on the room’s wall. “When that one great scorer comes to mark against your name, he marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game,” it reads to this day.
“Over the years, I believe Rockford athletics has become known for that,” Konkle said.