Rockford has been very excited about sports lately. Native Fred Van Vleet has managed to bring Rockford together in a way that nothing has for decades. Though most people have forgotten, Rockford has celebrated a rich heritage of great athletes almost from the very beginning.
The city was a part of the first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players back in 1865. The man making Rockford buzz back then was Cap Anson. Some believe he was the best baseball player of the entire nineteenth century. Cap played third baseman for Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club in 1871. Cap would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Another baseball star to play for the home town team was Albert G. Spalding. A.G., as he was called, was born in Byron in 1850. Spalding was a pitcher for the Rockford Forest City Nine, though the newspapers stated that he excelled at all aspects of the game. Spalding left Rockford and made his way to Chicago where he played for the Chicago White Stockings (the team would later become the Chicago Cubs). Legend has it that his pitching was the reason that Chicago won the first ever National League Pennant in 1876. Later Spalding would travel to bring the sport to the world.
In the 1920’s if you were to ask anyone who the best coach in Rockford was chances are they would say “Honk Garret. Prior to moving to Rockford, Honk was a coach at Hyde Park High School in Chicago. He was hired by the Rockford High School Association to coach all of the athletes in football, basketball, baseball, and track. Some of the best athletes in the Midwest were fortunate to be coached by this very talented African American man. He would lead his football team to the state championship in 1909 and 1910.
After he retired from coaching at the high school level, he opened up a gymnasium for amateur boxers in the 300 block of East State Street. He also managed the Olympic Athletic Club (O.A.R.), one of the first of its kind. The newspapers from the 1920’s talk about the events that he arranged, one mentioned that there was a crowd of 400 spectators at the Pioneer Hall for a boxing competition.
Honk was proud of turning these talented boys into exceptional young men. But the achievement he was most proud of was his own son William.
William attended Rockford High School and was skilled on the track and the basketball court as well as the football field. Everyone who watched this extraordinary young man was in awe of his speed and great athletic ability. William (according to one newspaper) “won the respect of every man and boy who were his team-mates, companions, and every spectator who ever watched him play.”
But what made William even more unusual and why he really inspired so many people was the way he handled himself. As an African American, Bill, as he was called by his team-mates, was often the target of insults and foul tactics from players on the opposing team. In fact, there were times when the opposing team refused to even play against him. Bill never let this break his determination to give his very best and he always returned the sneers with his amazing smile.
When William died of a sudden illness in 1924, he was only 20 years old. His untimely death shocked and saddened many. His funeral was attended by an astonishing 1200 people. The newspapers stated that the crowd was made up of people of all races and walks of life. People who knew or were trained by Honk, those who loved to watch William play sports, young men who had been motivated by him or his father, friends, and complete strangers all gathered to pay their respects for the humble, gifted young man.
It was said that watching William play was so thrilling that everyone who saw him admired and respected him. Maybe that was his real talent, to play sports so well and with such humility and dignity that it made all who watched him focus on his talent and not his color.
One of Honk Garret’s athletes that became a super star in his own right was Sammy Mandell. During the 1920’s and 30’s Sammy became a household name in Rockford when he won the Lightweight Boxing Champion of the World. Sammy trained with Honk at his boxing ring in down town Rockford. After training, Sammy began his amateur fighting career at Camp Grant and was only 16 years old when he had his first professional fight.
It was not long before Sammy’s lightning fast footwork and his devastating left hook earned him the nickname of Rockford Flash. Sammy also had something else going for him. Unlike most of the boxers of that time period, he was considered to be very handsome, which earned him the nickname of The Sheik. This name was chosen because of his resemblance to the very popular actor of the day, Rudolph Valentino.
Another thing that made Sammy Mandell stand out was the fact that even though he reached a place of national recognition, he remained humble and proud of his beginnings. His family came from Sicily in 1906. His mother passed away shortly after the family arrived in Rockford and his oldest sister filled the void left by her mother’s death. After he won his title, Sammy would buy his sister and father their own homes.
In 1923, before Sammy won the Lightweight Champion title, Rockford held a grand banquet to honor their hometown hero. The Knights of Columbus threw the grand bash at the luxurious Nelson Hotel. 10,000 people lined the streets along the route just to get a glimpse of this hometown boy. The crowd went wild when he flashed his famous grin.
Sammy won the Lightweight Championship title in 1926 when he was twenty two years old in the first legal fight in Illinois at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He fought Rocky Kansas. Sammy held the title until 1930 when he lost to Al Singer.
His signature fight took place in 1924 when he faced Jack Bernstein. Sammy broke his hand in the second round. Bernstein realized that Sammy’s hand was broken and gave him such a horrible beating that most watching were surprised that the fight was not stopped. Those four rounds were agonizing to witness. Those spectators were never sure if Sammy found his bearings or he had been pushed to his limit. But when the bell rang to begin the seventh round, Sammy came out of the corner with one arm hanging uselessly at his side and gave Bernstein the beating of his life. The fight was a draw and Sammy’s reputation was born.
Sammy would participate in 168 fights that included 28 knockouts and 8 losses. Sammy stayed in Rockford after losing the title and opened a gym with his brother where they trained new boxers. Sammy, Elizabeth and their son Richard moved to Chicago after World War II where he acquired a job as a collector for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. In October 1962, Sammy Mandell was inducted into the Illinois Sports Hall of Fame.
These men are just a few of the many athletes who have been shining stars for Rockford. Though they have been mostly forgotten, they once stood in the limelight, admired by thousands as they claimed fame for the Forest City through their hard work and determination.
Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events