Auto racing, ranging from low budget midgets and modified hardtops to big bucks Indy machines, has enjoyed a large and loyal following in Fresno for more than fifty years. Motor sports old-timers still enjoy reliving memories of steamy summers when midget autos and souped-up stocks roared at Airport Speedway and Kearney Bowl. But nothing surpassed the excitement of the 1950s, an era when Fresno was proudly represented at the Indianapolis Speedway by Billy ”The Mad Russian" Vukovich, Duane Carter Sr., and Johnny Boyd. All three drivers grew up in Fresno.
Boyd drove in a dozen Indy 500s, beginning with the tragic 1955 race when his boyhood idol Bill Vukovich was killed during a crash which involved Boyd and two other drivers, Rodger Ward and Al Keller. Boyd, a handsome crew-cut favorite with female fans, was never happier than he was when racing. He was as impassioned as anyone could be about his sport. It's all he ever wanted or ever expected to do with his life. It was so ironic that Boyd was involved in the wreck that took his hero's life. "Vukie" gave Johnny his first midget ride, shared driving tips with him, and encouraged him when he sensed that he needed an emotional lift. Inevitably, Boyd would be asked repeatedly about his reaction to "the accident" at Indy in 1955. He would be obligated to explain what had happened. The details were that Vukovich had a half-lap lead on the back straightaway during the 57th lap, trailing Ward, Keller, and Boyd when a broken axle sent Ward's car out of control and flipped it over. Keller, attempting to avoid hitting Ward, broadsided Boyd's car and then Vukovich's car sheared off Boyd's rear wheel, causing Vukovich's to sail over the retaining wall, landing upside down, and bursting into flames.
Boyd continued to compete in eleven more Indy 500s, finishing five of them, but also crashing during his first and his last Indy 500 starts. He also competed in six World Championship races when the Indy 500 was part of the FIA World Championship series from 1950 to 1960, finishing on the podium once in third place. Boyd's racing career began on quarter-mile midget tracks. He was one of the most popular wheelmen at tracks from Contra Costa to Gardena. During a stretch from 1954 to 1966, Boyd raced in the AAA and USAC Championship car series and was the runner-up in a major race in Milwaukee in 1959. He was in the top ten thirty-one times in fifty-six starts and won USAC feature 100-lap races in Fresno in 1957, and Pacheco and Gardena in 1957 and 1959. He retired after failing to qualify for the 1967 Indy 500. Boyd received many honors including selection to the 500 Oldtimers, Motorsports Press Association, Bay Cities Racing Association, Kings Speedway, and Fresno Hall of Fame plus receiving the prestigious 2003 Oldtimers Club Meyer Award for his exemplary service to racing. He passed away in 2003.
Called "The Golden Basque" by his legion of friends, Olin Dutra came within a few strokes of winning all four major golf championships. He did win the U.S. Open at the Marion Cricket Club in 1934 and the PGA Championship in 1932 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dutra was runner-up in the 1934 Masters and missed tying for the British Open by one stroke in 1933, the same year that he was named to the U.S. Ryder Cup team. In 1932, he led the PGA Tour in money winnings with $9,000. He returned to Fresno in 1940 and Won the California State Open at Fort Washington. A match play format was used in both the Open and the PGA when Dutra won. In the latter, he was thirty-two under par for the 108 holes played. In the PGA, he edged the legendary Gene "Squire" Sarazan by one stroke, overcoming an eight stroke lead of little Bobby Cruickshank. Dutra's main ties to Fresno came as a young man when he was the second head pro at the fledgling Fort Washington Country Club which was nine holes at the time. He was also a head pro at the Sunnyside Country Club. In four years in Fresno, the big, long-hitting Dutra made a large circle of friends and admirers.
The year that he won the Open, Sunnyside members wired him congratulations. On the occasion of Jack Nicklaus Open title at Baltusrol in 1980, he was glued to his television set and rooting for the Golden Bear. "It was a tremendous show and I know Isao Aoki [Japan] wanted to win and played a courageous game,"Dutra said. "It was a great spectacle and it was a tremendous victory for one of the greatest golfers, a gentleman, and a real credit to our profession and to the country."From Sunnyside, Dutra was hired at the posh Brentwood Country Club in southern California and the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. "Most men playing in the Open in those days were club pros whose main job was to tend shop, teach, look after members, keep everyone happy, and play mostly local tournaments," Dutra said. In 1969, he became the head pro at the San Luis Obispo Country Club.
Dutra was regarded by students and colleagues as one of the finest teaching pros in the business. Dutra also organized the Mexican PGA and staged the first Mexican PGA tournament which he won. "Yes, I won the championships of two countries," Dutra said, "But one of my most satisfying victories was when I returned to Fresno and Sunnyside and won the 1940 State Open."Dutra got his start as a caddy in Monterey, but his older brother, Mortie, urged him to make golf his career. He was inducted into the PGA, Northern California Golf Association. and Helms Foundation Halls of Fame. The big PGA Tour pioneer died on May 3, 1983 in Newman, California at eighty-three.
Only the shortness of a career, so reduced by a sore arm, prevented Fresno-born Alex Metzler from becoming a longtime fixture in the major leagues. After signing his first professional contract with Topeka of the Western Association in 1924, it took the stocky and fleet Metzler just three years before he started in center field for the Chicago White Sox. Prior to making it big in 1927, he played nine games for the Chicago Cubs in 1925 and twenty for the Philadelphia A's in 1926. One of the first people chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the immortal Ty Cobb labeled Metzler as a future star the first time he saw him play. Cobb was quoted: "This kid Metzler has the fire and stuff that make a ball player.."
In 1927, Metzler showed what Cobb was talking about. He played 134 games, batted .319, had 173 hits which included twenty-nine doubles, eleven triples and three home runs. He drove in sixty-one and scored eighty-three. The following year, he hit .303 with eighteen doubles, fourteen triples, and three home runs. In his third year as the starting ChiSox center fielder, his average tailed off to .275, but he still had pop in his bat with twenty-three doubles, fourteen triples, and two home runs. Then came a collision with the center field wall while chasing down a fly ball. He injured his right shoulder and was unable to throw properly. He played fifty-six games each for the White Sox and St. Louis Browns in 1930 and then retired.
Metzler continued to play some type of semi-pro baseball for another sixteen years, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. He was a dangerous hitter with the Fresno Tigers prior to turning professional and later starred in the Fresno Twilight League and with the strong Roma Wines team. His longtime hunting and fishing companion, Larry Powell said of Metzler: "Alex was the salt of the earth. Totally honest, never made excuses, and played every game to the best of his ability. He was a line drive hitter with power. He received the nickname "Steer Knee" when he and a teammate went to a Chicago feedlot. Alex remarked 'Look at the knees on that steer!' The name stuck. Alex could run which is why he had so many triples. He had an upbeat, cheerful attitude, no matter the circumstances and could always see the bright and humorous side of life. He told me many times 'Larry, everything I have to baseball and anytime Ican give something back or help a youngster along the way, I am tickled to do it."
After Metzler's death on November 30, 1973 at seventy, the legendary Fresno State baseball coach Pete Beiden said: "Alex was one of my first idols. I think more than anything, he opened the way for young men of the German-Russian community to do something in athletics. It was the custom in the old country for boys to stay at home and work, work, work. Alex was a pioneer and the first of this group to reach the majors. As I got to know him better I liked him tremendously. He was sincere, effervescent, and a good farmer." Metzler also served on the staff of The Fresno Bee Baseball School.
Basketball was a bruising contact sport when Ed Orman played for Brazil High School and captained a team that went to the state high school tournament in Indiana, the hotbed of basketball. There were no dunks and everyone shot with two hands. Orman also lettered in baseball, football, and track. When Orman arrived in Fresno in 1921 after a brief reporting job with the Venice Lifeguard in Southern California, he joined the sports staff of the Fresno Republican.
Orman worked under sports editors Tom Spink, John Lee, and Jack Perry before switching to The Fresno Bee where he was named sports editor in 1927. Under his wing were such former Fresno Staters as O.M. "Diz" Shelton, Howard Lane, and Burton Leiper. Orman worked at night and took college classes during the day which enabled him to get his degree. He was a 1928 Fresno State graduate and a lifetime Bulldog booster, but that never impacted his coverage. If there was a negative story in Bulldog sports, he reported that as well as the positive stories. For the next forty years, Orman was "Mr. Sports in Fresno and his "Sports Thinks" column became a must-read. He had so many sources feeding him information that he scooped some of the bigger papers on important stories.
Orman and John Voenes met for a morning coffee break and agreed to explore the possibility of a Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. Orman pushed the idea in the paper and both men recruited a group of sports-minded Fresnans to bring their dream to fruition. From a modest beginning in1959 with eighty-nine in attendance, the FCAHoF celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008 with more than 600 people filling the Fresno Convention Center. It would be difficult for any Hall of Fame to top the six inaugural inductees, but the remarkable thing is the steady stream of superstars inducted that continue to put Fresno on the sports map.
Orman covered the first West Coast Relays and all thirty-nine stagings of that world-recognized event until he retired in 1966. He saw all of the forty-three world records including Walter Marty's national high school high jump record and Marty's outdoor world record. Orman was ringside in San Francisco when Young Corbett III became the world welterweight boxing champion. He was in the Indianapolis garage getting firsthand information shortly after Billy Vukovich was killed while lapping the field in an attempt to win his third straight Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1955.
Orman covered the highs and lows of Fresno State football. He also was press side for such blue ribbon events as the World Series, the Rose Bowl, the East-West game, and the U.S. Olympic trials. Orman played a big role in convincing the St. LouisCardinals to put a California League Class "C" farm team in Fresno. He also helped start the California League and recruited an old St. Louis fan, John Euless, to build a ballpark in time for the 1941 season opener. Orman was the official scorekeeper and the first president of the California League Baseball Writers Association. One of his closest friends was Associated Press scion Russ Newland. Orman would get midnight calls from some of his friends in Bay Area bistros to settle bets on boxing questions. He was a virtual encyclopedia on early sports and resno personages.
He ran his department as a benevolent dictator and he was the only opinion that counted. But that was the way it was in most papers of his day and his staff recognized that. Orman married Helmond Barstow from one of Fresno County's pioneer families in 1934 and from that union came three girls and four boys. For a few years after his retirement, he wrote a popular Sunday "Down Memory Lane" column for the Bee where he highlighted important happenings and the people involved in Fresno's early days.
In the 1930s, the Fresno County Sportsmen's Club was in its heyday with a membership of more than 1,000 and satellite branches in several smaller communities. It was at this club in 1934 that a young sharpshooter named Joe Yrulegui entered and won the club championship in skeet shooting. It was the beginning of a stellar career with a gun.
Two years later, Yrulegui set a world record by breaking 245 out of 250 clay targets. He was the California State Champion in 1937 and 1939. His 1939 title was achieved with a perfect 100 out of 100 targets. That same year, he finished first in the World National Team Skeet Championship. As a member of the U.S. team, he had the fifth highest U.S. average of 98.25 targets broken and was named to the All-American skeet team.
Through 1942, the Fresno High School graduate was among the elite U.S. skeet shooters with scores of 99 x 100, 246 x 250 and 247 x 250.Yrulegui began his athletic career at Fresno High and continued at Fresno State College, playing varsity basketball and baseball. He pitched in the old Twilight League from 1930 to 1933. In the late 1940s, Yrulegui was a member of the City Champion Peerless Pumps and Dale Brothers softball teams. He took up the game of golf under the tutelage of Fresno links great Charlie Seaver and soon was shooting in the 70s.