Fresno County native, Rafer Johnson won gold and silver medals in the Olympic Games decathlon, but his legacy will include being one of the founders and ongoing leaders of the Special Olympics. Johnson, a very giving person, was on the original board that created the Special Olympics in 1969, giving children who have physical or mental disabilities an opportunity to compete. He became chairman of the board and was still very involved well into his seventies. "The opportunities are out there every day for special athletes," Johnson said. "As we know, early on those opportunities were not there. The headquarters used to be in Los Angeles, but the California program is so large, it has been divided into Northern and Southern California sections. When we started, the median age of participants was eight or nine years old. Now, it is twenty-five or twenty-six, meaning the participants are staying with the program. The Break the Barriers group in Fresno is a model for all states. It's an unbelievable program."
Johnson was born in Texas, but by age nine, the family had settled in Kingsburg. During the summer of 1948 when he was twelve, Johnson almost had his athletic career end before it began due to a peach cannery conveyor belt accident that nearly cost him his left foot. "Three of us kids would grab a tree branch and drop it onto the conveyor belt, ride for a short time, then grab another branch and swing off or go a few feet more and jump off onto a wooden platform," Rafer said during a telephone conversation in 2008. "I missed the first branch, then the belt went around a curve with a nine-foot drop to cement which would have hurt, but before I could jump, my foot got caught in the belt. It was excruciating and I screamed, So someone ran and hit the lever to stop the conveyor belt. The boss came out and turned it back on. Luckily, it was turned off again before my foot was sliced off."Jonnson said Dr. Norberg in Kingsburg did an amazing job of putting the foot back together. Rafer was in the hospital more than four weeks with his foot raised to keep the blood flowing.
He was on crutches for nearly eight weeks, but was able to play junior high baseball in 1949. "It was a pretty traumatic experience and I still can't walk barefoot on any surface other than the beach or a rug without a lot of pain," Johnson said. "You most often see me with shoes on. Even in 1984 when I climbed the long stairway in the Los Angeles Coliseum to light the torch for the Games, it was aching, but the excitement of the moment, the lights flashing caused me to forget about it." Johnson went on to become an outstanding three-sport athlete in football, baseball, and track at Kingsburg High School, earning eleven letters. He was also equally impressive as a basketball and track performer at UCLA.
While serving as student body president at UCLA as a senior, Johnson re-injured his left knee and was barely able to compete in the 1956 Melbourne, Australia Olympiad. In the grueling decathlon, his left foot launched the take-off in the long Jump and he landed on it in the hurdles. It hurt enough that he scratched from the open long jump where he also qualified. Powerful teammate Milt Campbell set a first day decathlon world record of 4,564 points, but Johnson was close until the initial event on the second day, the high hurdles. Campbell won in 14.0 to Johnson's sub-par 15.1. With hopes of gold gone, Johnson had to fight off Russian Vasily Kuznetsov for the silver which he won by 122 points.
The knee ended Johnson's hope of playing football at UCLA in 1957, but he was a member of Coach John Wooden's basketball team. An operation and therapy healed the knee. Johnson went to Rome and edged UCLA teammate and friend, C.K. Yang, for a decathlon gold medal with a world record performance of 8,592 points in 1960. In addition to his victory, he was captain of the American team and proudly carried the flag in the opening ceremonies. This was his last decathlon.Johnson said he was torn between going to California with veteran coach Brutas Hamilton or UCLA with venerable Ducky Drake. "The coaches were like two peas in a pod, both super-gentleman and great coaches, but the weather was one factor. I was used to warmer weather. Bob Seaman was already at UCLA and he was a good friend of mine and is to this day and he urged me to come. I saw a picture of the African-American student president at UCLA and that impressed me. There were a number of factors, but I chose UCLA and I never regretted it." In addition to the Olympic medals, he won the AAU decathlons in 1956, 1958, and 1960, and the Pan American Games title in 1955. He was the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year in 1958 for his athletic exploits at UCLA. During his school years, he was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Campus Crusade for Christ. After 1960, he appeared in several films for 20th Century Fox, represented the Hershey Company, and befriended the lateRobert Kennedy in 1968. Johnson and former football star Rosey Grier wrestled assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the floor and took his gun away after he had shot Kennedy. In 1971, Johnson married Betsy Thorsen, with whom he had a son, Jason., and a daughter.Jenny. Jason, a javelin thrower, became the UCLA team captain. In the Athens Olympic Trials, he barely missed making the team when he suffered a career-ending torn ligament. One of Rafer's most memorable moments was traveling to the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia and cheering on Jenny, who was the captain of the UCLA volleyball team, and her partner in Olympic beach volleyball. They finished fourth. Johnson still works out four times a week. Rafer Johnson Junior High School in Kingsburg is named in his honor. It is incredible that two small Central California towns could produce two world-renowned decathlon stars like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias.
Hubert "Dutch"Leonard experienced a baseball season in 1914 that modern day major league pitchers can only dream about. The Ohio native who was raised in Fresno forged a win/loss record of 19-5 for the second place Boston Red Sox, but that wasn't the eye-popping statistic. What really turned heads was a 1.01 ERA in thirty-six games in which he started twenty-five times, finished seventeen, and averaged a league-leading 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings. For seven straight seasons, Leonard's ERA was under 3.00. In 1915, he went 15-7 and in 1916, 18-12 for manager Bill Carrigan's American League pennant-winning Red Sox. Both years, he had identical 2.36 ERAs for the world Champions including two complete game victories in the world Series. When Leonard was 18-12 in 1916, teammate Babe Ruth was 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA.
Leonard, a left-hander who starred at Fresno High School, struck out 176 and walked sixty. After Leonard graduated in 1910, he attended St. Mary's College in Moraga, California until 1912 when he signed with the Red Sox. His first major league season was in 1913 when he was 14-17 with a 2.39 ERA. Leonard was with the Red Sox for six seasons and was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1919. His eleven-year major league record was 139 wins and 113 losses with an accumulative ERA of 2.76. The year that Leonard went to the Tigers, Ruth hit twenty-nine home runs and drove in 114 runs as an outfielder for Boston. He was also 9-5 on the mound. The following season, Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees. Leonard left baseball in 1925 and retired to his Fresno County ranch. He took up golf and was a Sunnyside Country Club and Fresno County champion. Dutch Leonard died on July11, 1952.
Although his own playing career ended nearly six decades ago, Emory Ratcliffe has probably made the greatest contribution of any one man to athletics at Fresno State College.
As the organizer and coach of many of Fresno State’s early athletic teams, as coach (for a brief period) of FSC’s football team in 1921, as chairman of the Fresno State board of athletic control until his retirement in 1948, as leader of the drive to construct the stadium which today bears his name, and as one of the founders of the West Coast Relays, Ratcliffe has left a deep and lasting imprint on athletics at Fresno State and in Fresno.
Emory Ratcliffe was born in 1878 in New Castle, Indiana, an attended Earlham College in Indiana, where he graduates in 1903. Despite his small size, he starred in football, baseball, and track and set a collegiate record by drop kicking 10 field goals in one game. After teaching assignments at Vermillion (Ill.) Academy, Plainfield (Ind.) Academy, Beloit (Wis.) College, Santa Ana High School, and Whittier College, Ratcliffe came to Fresno State in 1913 to organize the social science department, which he headed for 35 years. Since his retirement, he has maintained his interest in FSC athletics, being a constant visitor at football practice despite his 82 years.
Charles Seaver was the finest amateur golfer to ever call Fresno home. He was a good friend, a gentleman, and a links legend in California. For years, Seaver was a Northern California Golf Association official before becoming president of that group in 1980. He was a Walker Cup golfer at Stanford University and a winner of every California amateur tournament of note. Seaver was a six-time Fresno City Golf Tournament Champion and a 1964 Pro-Am champion with Mike Fetchik during his record thirty-nine wins of the Bing Crosby/AT&T Golf Tournaments at Pebble Beach. There is a Seaver Golf Academy at Poppy Hills Golf Club and a NCGA North versus NCGA South tournament called The Seaver Cup played every two years. Yet for all of his golf successes, Seaver, who died in 2002 at ninety-three, is best recognized by the younger generation as the father of Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.
The elder Seaver was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but his father, Everett, moved the family to California in 1922. Everett, a fine golfer in his own right, taught his son to play the game. "My father didn't let me touch any club, but a wedge or putter for a year," Seaver admitted. "That was smart advice because when I became proficient with those clubs, the others came easier. Good use of the wedge and putter enable you to shoot low scores."
At Stanford University, Seaver's teammate was Lawson Little and they played on the United States Walker Cup team in 1932. Seaver did his part in the U.S. 8-1 victory at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, winning one single and one foursome match. Seaver was a charter member of the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. Little went on to win the U.S. and British Amateur titles in 1934 and 1935 and the U.S. Open in 1931. Seaver and Little played each other in the finals of the inaugural Stanford University Championship in 1931 and Little won on the 36th hole. The following year, Seaver won on the 37h hole. Seaver had qualified for his first U.S. Amateur in 1929 and made the tournament again in 1930, 1931, and 1932. In 1931, he came close to making the finals, but was defeated one-up by Gene Homans in the semis. If he had won that match, he would have faced the great Bobby Jones, who that year won the "Grand Slam" consisting of the U.S. and British Amateurs as well as the U.S. and British Opens. Seaver said he played with Jones three times, but not the most important time.
Charlie is one of two players to hold the California Amateur, North California Golf Association Amateur, and the Southern California Golf Association titles at the same time. He won the California state crown in 1932 and 1933 and repeated as NCGA champion. In 1934, he again captured the SCGA. Seaver and Betty Cline were married April 6, 1935 and naturally, they spent their honeymoon at Pebble Beach. Their first child, Katie, was born in Los Angeles in 1936 and, one year later, she was joined by son, Charles H. Seaver, Jr. At the time, Charlie was working in the Bakersfield oil fields.
In 1939, he made it to Fresno, working on the Friant Dam for Griffith and Bent. Carol was born in 1941 when the Friant job ended. It was in 1944 that Seaver began his thirty-two years with Bonner Packing in Fresno and, the same year, George Thomas Seaver was born. Charlie got to know Bing Crosby when his father would take him to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, when Crosby was singing with a group called the Three Rhythm Boys. Through golf, Crosby and Seaver became friends, although they never actually played together. When the famous "Groaner" started his first Pro-Am at Rancho Santa Fe, Seaver was invited to join. Due to Seaver's overbooked schedule, he was unable to play his first Crosby until 1947, the year that the event was moved to Monterey. From then on, he never missed, playing his thirty-ninth event in 1986. Three times, he played with his son, Tom. When Seaver and Fetchik won the Pro-Am, they opened with a fifty-eight. Fetchik had a seventy, so Seaver helped twelve strokes. They finished thirty-under for four rounds after a typical Crosby rain storm on the final day. PGA professionals who drew Seaver in the Crosby Pro-Am segment of the tournament always benefited from his knowledge of the courses and the many holes that he won to support their team. The downside was when his hip problems became so bad in his latter years that it greatly diminished how far he could hit the ball. Also, his difficulty in walking the long courses, though his own handicap was still low, was an obstacle for his pro partner. When he finally agreed to a hip operation, he was able to begin playing regularly again. Seaver won the Fresno City Amateur six times when it was match play and also became a member of the Sunnyside Country Club where he and his family spent many happy years.
When Seaver became president of the NCGA in 1980, he was able to realize the dream of building the members' course at Poppy Hills. He had help from many capable people, but it was his dream. It opened for play in 1986. One of Charlie's treasured moments was in 1992 when he traveled to Cooperstown to see Tom inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Charlie was a great storyteller, especially when talking about some of the first Crosby Tournaments and U.S. Opens. He was a walking encyclopedia on the game that he loved. He and Tom would become the first father-son duo inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.