If there was ever a pitcher with potential, Wade Allen Blasingame was it. They nicknamed the Roosevelt High School left-hander, "The Blazer," and his three-year record for the Rough Riders was 26-0. That's right: no losses. Blasingame's Roosevelt coach, Jake Abbott, recalled when he first saw Wade. "Earl Jones, a former left-handed pitcher of note, lived by Sequoia Junior High and I knew him well," Abbott said. "Jones told me to come watch this left-hander who was really good and would be coming to Roosevelt. He just dominated junior high batters and we had a strong junior high league at that time. He came as a sophomore in 1960. The thing I remember I had to [do was] really stay on him to workout and stay in shape..He was easy to coach as long as he worked out. He was the best I ever had and he had the best curve ballI ever saw. He went right over the top and he had this twelve-to-six curveball that just exploded. I remember we went to the Delano Tournament which was big at the time. He worked five innings against Tulare and struck out fourteen of the fifteen batters he faced."
The Milwaukee Braves signed him to a contract on June 5. 1961. In his first workout, Whitlow Wyatt, the Braves pitching coach, said just what Abbott had observed. Wyatt said Blasingame's curve ball was the best he'd ever seen for a pitcher that young. It appeared the sky was the limit. He was being touted by the Milwaukee media as the next Warren Spahn. In 1965, he won sixteen games by the beginning of September and appeared well on his way to a twenty-plus wins season. Then, a series of setbacks struck. Blasingame came down with tonsillitis and dropped in weight from 205 pounds to 189. Even worse, his control left him and he finished the season 16-10. In 1966, he reported to spring training in West Palm Beach after having his tonsils removed and regained his strength over the winter by hunting, weight lifting, and working out in the gym.
He looked good and the Braves were optimistic. Then, pitcher Joce Niekro entered the picture. Blasingame and Niekro were at a bar and Niekro got into a scuffle and Blasingame came to his aid, resulting in a broken finger on his pitching hand. He tried to rush in order to get back on the mound and hurt his arm pitching in Philadelphia. Blasingame finished the season 3-7. The following spring, he looked good in training, but as Blasingame pitched a batting practice, Cookie Rojas hit a line drive, hitting him. He won one more game for the Braves and was traded to Houston. The change of uniforms didn't help. He was hit in the groin by a line drive by Julio Javier and ended 4-7. Blasingame pitched for Houston until 1973 and then retired with a cumulative record of 46-51. "It seemed like every time my arm started feeling good, something happened,"Blasingame said. "It was unfortunate that my career was so short. I guess I could've taken better care of my body off the field, but I was so young."
The upside of the Houston experience was that pitching coach Jim Owens introduced Blasingame to Alaska. For a guy who cherished hunting and fishing, it was love at first sight. Owens accompanied him on his first trip to Alaska. Jim came back, but Wade stayed and he's still there. Blasingame went to work for the Houston Contracting Company. "A good share of the time, we work in the dark. During winter months, we see light six or seven minutes a day. It takes some getting used to," Blasingame said in an interview in 1983. "We work by generators. Of course in the summer, it is light for all, but a couple hours a day." Wade's mother and sister are still in Fresno and his wife's parents are in Atlanta, but most of his time is spent in Alaska.
Bob Burgess was born to be a Bulldog, even if he didn't know it at the time. The big, strong, and tough-as-leather Burgess was head line coach for nine Fresno State football head coaches in a thirty-two year career that spanned from 1948 until his retirement in 1980. Loquacious coach Jimmy Bradshaw used the same tactic to recruit Burgess as a Bulldog that Burgess later used to recruit players from all over California. Following an All-Southern California season as center for Long Beach City College, he was ready to accept an offer to play for Stanford until Bradshaw took him to Fresno. "I fell in love with the San Joaquin Valley and all those ditches full of water, the mountains, and so much open land," Burgess said. Burgess played three seasons for Bradshaw as the starting center in a complicated double wing formation in which he had to snap the ball on every play. In his senior year, he was All-Conference and Little All-Coast for a team that went 10-0-1.
Following World War II during which Burgess was a crew chief in naval aviation in the South Pacific, he returned to Fresno to coach the freshmen team for two years before head coach Kenny Gleason made him line coach in 1948. Darryl Rogers was born in Long Beach and went to Jordan High while Burgess went to Woodrow Wilson High School, but both played at Long Beach City College. Burgess always said Darryl was one of his favorite reclamation projects. Rogers laughs at that statement, but had a lifelong affection for Burgess. "I was younger, but we followed the same trail except we went to different high schools," said Rogers, now retired in Fresno. "I loved the guy. He recruited me to Fresno State, so I played for him, I was assistant coach with him and later I was head coach over him. Bob was everything to his players. He kicked your butt, he loved you, he encouraged you, he could tell you everything you did wrong, he would talk to you off the field. He was in charge of the job program, giving jobs to guys for $50 a month. He could motivate, he had a story for every topic. I never had a bad day with Bob...he loved Fresno State."
In that respect, he was a lot like Jim Sweeney. Darryl agreed and wondered what it would be like if they had been on the same staff. "Bob created some controversy at times and I was usually in the midst of it, but he was loyal to his country and his school," Rogers continued. "I wanted him to go with me to San Jose, but he said no. He was tied to Fresno State." Rogers said Burgess was the same as all the other coaches at that time including Dutch Warmerdam and Pete Beiden, who all had to teach classes along with coaching. "I am not sure whether Bob ever got to a full professorship which means that, most years, he probably didn't make more than $20,000," Rogers said. "And it was [a] nine-month contract, not twelve. So several coaches had summer jobs to augment their pay." Some other notable head coaches that he worked under after Bradshaw and Gleason were Pix Pierson, Duke Jacobs, Van Galder, Cecil Coleman, Phil Krueger, Rogers, and J.R. Boone.
Chandler played a key role in fielding some of the best men's and women's softball teams in the country. "Dutch" surfaced early as his nickname and he was born in Champaign, Illinois, but his family moved to Bloomington, Indiana when he was still a youngster. Chandler was a versatile athlete at Bloomington High School, playing football, baseball, basketball, and track prior to his graduation in 1939.
From 1939 through 1941, he toured the United States as a member of the famed House of David basketball team and also played semi-pro baseball. Chandler was a natural entrepreneur who later became a successful used car salesman. When World War II erupted, Chandler enlisted in the Air Force and was assigned to Hammer Field in Fresno in 1943. He immediately organized, managed, and caught for the Hammer Field Raiders, who won World Championships in 1943 and 1944. Kermit Lynch of Delano was already an outstanding pitcher and Chandler induced big Al Linde to enlist in the Air Force.
Hammer Field had a solid all-around team, but Lynch and Linde were the backbone of the championship teams. Chandler remained in Fresno following his discharge and went to work for Roma Winery. It was then that he put together the Fresno Rockets, one of the finest women's softball teams in the history of the sport. Chandler managed the early teams, but shared that role with Bernie Amaral when Fresno won three world titles. Chandler was part of the Rockets for eleven years which produced Softball Hall of Fame players Kay Rich, Ginny Busick, Jeanne Contel, and Gloria May. He also had ten All-American players.
Crossland took his first springboard dive as a youngster at the old Fresno YMCA pool which he laughingly described as "bathtub-sized." When he reached Fresno High School, he won the San Joaquin Valley Division championships for several years in a row. Crossland was captivated by the springboard and continued to compete. The old college pool next to the gymnasium on Weldon Avenue didn't have facilities to satisfy his development, so he switched to the downtown indoor Crown Plunge which had a ten-foot springboard. The change paid immediate dividends while at Fresno State College. He met 1924 Olympic champion Al White, who took Crossland under his wing and was his personal coach for several years. In 1932, White induced him to join the famed San Francisco Olympic Club. Crossland wore that banner for six years. In 1936, he placed second in the Pacific Association Amateur Athletic Union Championships and, a year later, took top honors in the same event. Another notable win came in the ten-meter dive at the 1937 Duke Kahanamoku Swimming and Diving Championships in Honolulu, Hawaii. Crossland, White, and Ike Walton pioneered swimming and diving competition in the Valley. For more than twenty years, Crossland officiated as a diving judge. He also led the way from 1946 to 1950, bringing international swimming and diving events to Fresno.
Charles Johnson's athletic career started in the humble surroundings of Citrus Union High School in the town of Azusa where he was born and raised. There were only thirty-five boys at Citrus, but they won the Southern California Basketball Championship one year and track titles for two years. Johnson won the pole vault, 50-and 100-yard dashes, and ran on the 880-yard relay team.
After high school, Johnson enrolled at Occidental College where he captained the baseball team. While completing post-graduate work at USC, Johnson played football and baseball for the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Following World War I, he moved to Fresno and was a teacher and coach first at Washington Junior High and then at Longfellow Elementary School. He was credited with honing the skills of many future Fresno athletes, especially those from the Armenian community.
During his thirty-six years as an administrator and coach, Johnson found time to play baseball in the Fresno Twilight League as well as the Raisin Belt and Valley Leagues. His peers credited him with molding individual young men, not only as top athletes, but judges, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen. He died in 1976.
Gib Rambo had the heart of a lion while competing in basketball, football, and track at Wasco High School and Fresno State. The kind man, who served as executive director of the SPCA for nearly half a century, had the patience of Job and was as gentle as a lamb with animals. His motto when dealing with animals was "kindness builds character, cruelty destroys it." horses, and plowed the fields. Rambo was born in Semitropic, a small town west of Wasco, and learned a strong work ethic while toiling on his father's 1,000-acre ranch. After attending classes at Semitropic's one-room schoolhouse, Rambo returned home. The walls of Rambo’s home are lined with pictures denoting his athletic trophies and SPCA honors. Gib was teammates with Dutch Warmerdam and Kermit Koontz at Fresno State.
In a story written by Lou Lampe on the occasion of the 50h anniversary of the SPCA, Rambo said that when the family moved to Wasco, it was like "a seventh heaven." The school was across the street from their home, so he didn't have to walk two miles like he had in Semitropic. He finished the seventh and eighth grade there and then moved to Wasco High School where his exceptional athletic ability began to surface. Rambo's defining asset in athletics was speed. He was quick on the basketball hardwoods and fast enough to win the Far Western Conference 440-yard championship for Fresno State in a good time of 48.7 seconds. Rambo was a slender 6'2", but he could dribble, pass, and shoot with the best guards on any team that the Bulldogs played. He scored in double figures in nearly all his games during an era where that was a rarity.
For three of his four years at Fresno State, he played halfback on the football team. He helped both the basketball and football team under coach Stan Borleske to win conference titles. Rambo graduated from Fresno State in 1937 and married Ruthelaine Farley. He found a job with Pittsburgh Plate Glass and worked there until 1942 when he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. After boot camp in Alameda, he was put in charge of the K-9 corps for the 11th Naval District. Rambo's district extended from San Diego to north of Morro Bay. He directed fifty-six sailors and 234 dogs whose duty was to patrol the beaches looking for submarines or enemy ships trying to drop off saboteurs along the Pacific Coast. Rambo was discharged from the Coast Guard in 1946 and he returned to Fresno. Rambo-trained dogs won blue ribbons all over the western states.
The SPCA was founded in 1946 and struggled financially until Rambo was named executive director in 1961. He initiated fundraising events and solicited big givers which enabled the growth of the organization and the building of new facilities. It was through his efforts that the local SPCA is recognized as one of the finest in the nation. Rambo was able to bring in celebrities like former world boxing champion Max Baer and notables from both the athletic and entertainment world to headline his fundraising banquets. It was a labor of love from one of Fresno's finest.