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Baltimore athletes remember being 'dazed,' 'shaken' on weekend of JFK's death

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Fifty years ago Friday, Orioles farmhand Bobby Floyd sat in a dugout, wondering why umpires were huddled grimly at home plate in the fifth inning of a Florida Instructional League game.

Quickly, word spread. President John F. Kennedy was dead. In unison, it seemed, players and fans let out a collective gasp.

"It was like all the air had been sucked out of the ballpark," Floyd said.

Game over. The Baby Birds, as they were called, retreated to their clubhouse — budding stars like Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Curt Blefary and Andy Etchebarren.

"Some guys were crying," said Floyd, 70. "Others just sat there, dazed. Being athletes, we lived in such a protected world anyway. A few of us stepped outside and sat in a grassy area and tried to collect our thoughts. You felt as if someone had suddenly dumped a tub of ice water on you.

"I mean, Kennedy was a tremendous idol — a young, good-looking, wealthy, athletic war hero — and to hear that he'd been killed by a sniper was almost surreal. It was then that we realized we weren't invincible, that it wasn't a 'Leave It To Beaver' world."

Throughout the Baltimore sports scene on Friday Nov. 22, 1963, news of Kennedy's assassination stopped folks in their tracks. Pimlico Race Course cancelled its last four races, and the Baltimore Bullets postponed their NBA game that night against the New York Knicks at the Civic Center. But an afternoon high school football game between archrivals Gilman and McDonogh went on, with coaches keeping word of the president's death from players until afterward.

That Saturday, all college football games in the state were called off; nationally, most schools concurred. Navy, which had adopted Kennedy — a World War II PT boat commander — as its own, had the week off.

All U.S. tracks were dark Saturday except Pimlico, which re-opened for the afternoon, despite a hail of criticism, to hold the traditional Pimlico Futurity Stakes. Quadrangle won under jockey Bill Hartack, who replaced Willie Shoemaker, the Hall of Fame rider who'd bowed out of the race out of respect for the late president.

The Baltimore Clippers, an American Hockey League team comprised mostly of Canadians, played Saturday night and defeated the visiting Providence Reds, 2-1 before a crowd of 7,644, largest of the year. Beforehand, fans stood in silent prayer as the Clipperettes, a group of female skaters, carried flags draped in black to center ice.

Sunday's seven-game NFL card went off without a hitch, to normal crowds, though neither television nor radio broadcast the games. In Los Angeles, the Colts lost, 17-16 to the Rams before an announced 48,555 at the Coliseum. Beforehand, fans and players observed a minute's silence, after which the Rams' marching band played "Taps."

'They needed a distraction'

Bonehead plays cost the Colts that day. A wide-open John Mackey dropped a sure touchdown pass, halfback Tom Matte lost a fumble and kicker Jim Martin missed a 24-yard chip shot that would have won it. Even now, players wonder if distractions played a part.

"I was in my hotel room Sunday morning, watching TV, when I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. I just about fell off of the bed," recalled the Colts' Dan Sullivan, a starting guard. "You tried to get the thoughts of all that had transpired out of your mind by game time, but it was difficult to do that."

In hindsight, the crowd size wasn't suprising, said Raymond Berry, 80, the Colts' Hall of Fame receiver.

"People had been sitting at home, watching TV for two days. They needed a distraction," he said. "What surprised me was how quiet the fans were. I remember being on the field and hearing absolute silence, not one sound. It was one of the eeriest things I've ever seen."

The Colts had learned of the assassination during their charter flight to L.A., as the pilot informed them of the shooting and, moments later, of Kennedy's death. It was, players said, a nightmare at 30,000 feet.

"I wondered, is this an isolated incident or an attack on the U.S.?" said Sullivan, 74. "We didn't know what kind of a world we were coming back to, until we landed."

In the rear of the plane, Gino Marchetti was playing poker with a group that included Johnny Unitas when the world changed.

"I'd just won a big pot and was bragging about it when the announcement came on," said Marchetti, a Hall of Fame defensive end. "I was really shaken.

"See, I had campaigned for Kennedy in 1960 as a favor to [Colts' owner] Carroll Rosenbloom, who was a good friend of his and who'd helped me get started in the burger business.

"The first time I met Kennedy, at a fair in Washington, he shook my hand and thanked me. I looked in his eyes and, swear to God, it was like he could see through you, like he had come from heaven. But I didn't tell anybody that because they'd have thought I was nuts."

One Saturday, Marchetti said, the future president invited him and other well-known athletes to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., for a rousing game of flag football.

"He was a great player," said Marchetti, who had to temper his aggression that day. "You had to be careful not to hurt him."

Though the NFL took heat for playing two days after Kennedy's death, the 87-year old Marchetti stands by the league's decision.

"The president would have wanted it that way," he said. "He loved the game that much."

'A sad day all around'

Pro football wasn't the only sport to carry on. Racing also continued Saturday at Pimlico, not that the president's death had any less impact on horsemen there.

On Friday, Walter "Mousey" Blum, the nation's leading rider, was bounding up the stairs to the jockeys' room, having just won the fifth race, when he heard the announcement. Blum froze. Could it be? Confirmation came soon enough. Pimlico cancelled the remaining races and lowered the infield flag to half staff as 9,407 fans filed out in tomb-like silence.

"I was sad, upset, in shock. It was unbelievable," said Blum, 79, who changed clothes, got into his car and drove home to Cherry Hill, N.J.

Though a stoic bunch, many horsemen broke down that day, Ron Turcotte recalled.

"So many people were sobbing," the 72-year-old Hall of Fame jockey said. Ten years later, Turcotte would win the Triple Crown aboard Secretariat. This fateful day, however, he finished fourth in the final race at Pimlico.

His mount's name was Realism.

In Owings Mills, McDonogh and Gilman players were warming up before 3,000 fans for the 48th game in their storied rivalry when reports of the shooting spread. Tom Beck, Gilman's captain, was punting near McDonogh's grandstand when he heard a radio bulletin: . . . and the coffin of the dead president . . .

"I thought, my goodness, there's been another coup d'etat in South America," Beck, now 67, said.

The coaches knew the truth but agreed to stay mum until the game ended. McDonogh won, 8-7, on a two-point conversion pass by its captain, Andy Beath.

Moments later, in Gilman's somber locker room, Beck led the team in prayer:

"Lord, please help us to keep our heads up as Americans."

For McDonogh, victory was bittersweet.

"There wasn't a lot of celebration afterward," said Beath, 68. "As soon as the game was over, we were involved in the same circumstances that the whole country was involved in."

Half a century later, Dick Working, then McDonogh's coach, defends the decision to play that day.

"Was it hard to stay focused? Nothing could take my mind off of the Gilman game," said Working, 91. "But it was a sad day all around."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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