There was a little bit of Dizzy Dean in the makeup of the flamboyant actor, comedian, and radio-TV announcer, George Bryson, who was born in Missouri and grew up watching the St. Louis Cardinals. The "Ole Cottontop" as he was affectionately nicknamed, had the same folksy style of delivery as Dean, but was smoother and used better English.
Bryson came to Fresno in 1939 where he appeared as a singer and comedian on radio station KMJ. He spent two years in the U.S. Marines during World War II and returned to Fresno after being discharged. Fresno Cardinal general manager Marvin Milkes hired him to be the "Voice of the California League Cardinals" from 1947 and 1948. Milkes left Fresno to become GM in Pocatello, Idaho, but returned in 1950 and hired Bryson again.
Bryson worked all of the home games from Euless Park, but Bryson re-created the experience for away games by using tickertape to follow the progress of the game in a colorful way at the local radio station studio. Bryson also helped organize youth baseball clinics in Fresno and with Al Radka, was instrumental in the formation of the Fresno "Hot Stove" dinner which became one of the finest annual events of its kind in the nation.
After the 1955 season, Bryson jumped from Fresno to the major leagues to announce the televised games for the National League Cincinnati Reds. He was in the booth in 1960 when the Reds played the first night television game ever shown in color. Bryson left the Reds and spent two years with the Los Angeles Angels before three seasons with the Kansas City A's, sharing the booth with Monte Moore and being bossed around by Charlie Finley, who added a female to the broadcasting twosome. Bryson suffered a heart attack in 1964 and died at the early age of fifty. He was buried in Belmont Memorial Park in Fresno.
Jack Hannah was a two-sport athlete at Fresno State and pitched six seasons in the minor leagues, then went on to coach Hoover High School to two Valley Championships in baseball. The son of a ranch foreman, Hannah was also a modern-day cowboy who later formed the Sons of the San Joaquin singing group and was inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Born in Marshland, Missouri to Lon and Melba Hannah in 1933, Jack and brothers, Joe and Bob, loved the great outdoors. Hannah’s father was known as “Broad” Hannah because of his wide shoulders and work ethic. Broad Hannah was a ranch foreman and Jack’s early years were spent living the country life. He was too young at the time to realize the consequences of the Great Depression, but as with a lot of families of that era, the Hannahs headed to California, seeking a better life. Broad Hannah went out west to find work first. In the spring of 1937, the rest of the family drove to Elderville, in the Woodland area of the southern San Joaquin Valley. Family life was good for the Hannahs as they worked, played sports, trained horses, and sang together. Jack Hannah took up the guitar and family picnics were filled with music.
Work was hard on the ranch, but the family always made time for baseball. Jack and his brother, Joe, would often play catch with their dad, who had been a semi-pro ball player back in the Ozarks. The family followed the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio and the boys dreamed of playing for them. At Visalia High School, Hannah was a pitcher and outfielder and also excelled in football and basketball. Joe Hannah, a catcher, signed a pro contract with the Chicago Cubs right out of high school. Jack decided to play at Fresno State and hoped for a pro career as well. Hannah played for the Bulldogs under the legendary Pete Beiden. "He was the best. I loved him as a coach; he was the most knowledgeable baseball man I ever knew," Hannah said. "He was a great teacher and scholar of the game, and a wonderful friend as well."
Hannah also played football at Fresno State as a fullback on offense as a linebacker on defense. He damaged his shoulder in his sophomore season, an injury that would later hamper his athletic career. Hannah stayed with baseball for the 'Dogs for three seasons and won All-Regional recognition as a pitcher, going 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA. He played right field when he wasn't on the mound and hit .328, batting third or fourth in the lineup. In 1955, after his junior season at Fresno State, Hannah signed with the Milwaukee Braves as a pitcher. Even as a rookie, his close to 100 mph fastball generated excitement, once earning praise from New York Yankees skipper, Joe Gordon.
But his old football injury caused an arthritic condition that caught up with him before he reached the majors. Hannah spent five years in the Braves' system as a pitcher and outfielder and a year with the California Angels Triple-A team before doctors said his shoulder would never fully heal. “I was happy to be playing in the pros and grateful that I was able to play outfield, but my heart had been in pitching, : Hannah said. “They kept me around, hoping that the arm would recover, but it really didn’t.” During the off-season, Hannah had completed his schooling at Fresno State, ultimately earning his Master's degree in guidance counseling. He began a career spanning twenty-eight years at Hoover High School as a teacher, coach, and counselor. The Patriots won two Valley championships under Hannah, and in 1980, he was named the California High School Coach of the Year. He was also selected the National Coach of the Year for the Southwest Region and inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. His overall coaching record at Hoover was 314-148.
After a career in sports, education, coaching, and cowboy wrangling, Hannah pursued another life-long passion: music. Along with his brother, Joe, and Joe's son, Lonnie, Jack formed the Sons of the San Joaquin, one of the most successful cowboy singing groups across the globe The Sons have sold many albums and performed around the world. Hannah offered this advice to young athletes: "Finish your education. It is so important. Even if you feel that academics are not your thing, it could be a trade or whatever. It's most important because you might not go as far as you would like in athletics for one reason or another."
David Lewis was an All-Pac10 quarterback whose college career included leading Stanford University to victory in one of sports' greatest traditions, the Big Game football rivalry between Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. In the 1964 match-up, Lewis, a sophomore, completed five of eight passes for 92 yards as the Stanford Indians (later changed to the Cardinals) won 21-3. Lewis also put his toe to a punt that reportedly sailed 75 yards, although it is not listed among the official National Collegiate Athletic Association record punts.
Lewis was a real American Indian who graduated from Clovis High School in 1962 via the Auberry Indian Mission. Lewis' family descends from the Central San Joaquin Valley's Chukchansi Yokotch Tribe. Lewis, at 6'2" and 216-pounds, was a standout in football and basketball for Clovis High as well as in college and the starting quarterback in the 1966 East-West Shrine Game. He was selected in the fifth round of the 1967 National Football League Draft by the New York Giants as the 109th overall pick. Lewis began his professional football career with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, showcasing his versatile talents as a quarterback, receiver, punter, and defensive back. He signed a contract with the Cincinnati Bengals, who were more interested in him as a punter than a quarterback. He played for the Bengals from 1970 to 1973, leading the NFL in punting in 1970 and 1971. He averaged 46.2 and 44.8 yards per punt, respectively. He dropped off to 42.1 yards per kick in 1972 and 41 yards in 1973. Lewis' four-year career totals with the Bengals boiled down to 285 punts in 56 games for 12,447 yards with a 43.7 yard average. His longest kick was a 63-yarder in 1970 and, most significantly, he never had a punt blocked during those four years. Lewis' punting proficiency paid off with big dividends, not only financially, but with individually bestowed honors. He was named to All-Conference and All-Pro First Teams in 1970.
Wende Ward Lourenco was one of the greatest pitchers to play for Fresno State and helped put the Bulldogs on the map when they played on a dinky field with no fences and few bleachers. The Tulare Western High School athlete helped pitch Fresno State University into the 1982 College Softball World Series. The Bulldogs lost the series opener, but went on to reach the finals, losing 2-0 to UCLA.
Before she graduated after the 1983 season, Lourenco rewrote the Bulldog record book in pitching. She was also a dangerous hitter with home run pop and played third base when not in the circle. "I grew up loving sports, all sports, but softball was my favorite at least until I took up the game of golf," Lourmenco explained. "I started playing softball when I was ten with the Bobby Soxers.
At Tulare Western, I played whatever was in season. One summer, I played in three softball leagues plus a basketball league. That was almost too much." Lourenco's Fresno State coach, Donna Pickel, said Lourenco was the best athlete she ever coached and probably the most enthusiastic. "She was a delight," Pickel said, "Always followed directions and was a real leader. We played on several fields that didn't have fences, so gappers were often home runs. She was our first All-American." Lourenco recalled Pickel's organizational and recruiting skills and also had high praise for pitching coach Ralph Salazar, who she said taught her so much about technique and attitude. "Ralph showed me the windup, stance on the mound, game plan, intimidation, [and] how to strike out batters. To me, he was the best pitching coach in the world.
The straight back, windmill pitching motion was easy on my arm,"Lourenco said. In her four years at Fresno State, Lourenco won 77 games, pitched 877 ⅓ innings, had 691 strikeouts, thirteen home runs, 85 runs batted in, and a 0.61earned run average. She threw six no-hitters and two perfect games. Against Santa Barbara in 1982, she went twenty-one innings and also struck out seventeen in a five-inning game. Her cumulative batting average was .268 and that was before the juiced softball. Fresno State retired her #19 uniform in 1987. "I think I just loved to play softball; it was so much fun and we had some very good teams,"Lourenco said. Lourenco played in the 1983 Pan-American Games and was on the winning American team.
Mathias went to Tulare High-School where he was an outstanding athlete on the football field, the basketball court, and the track. Bob was a force on the Tulare Redskins, leading the team to division championships and the CIF playoffs. He was also an All-Conference basketball player for Tulare and averaged eighteen points per game as the Redskins took titles in Bob's junior and senior years. In track and field where he was adept in sprint, high jump, discus, long jump, and hurdles, Mathias attracted much attention throughout the area. His continual record-breaking performances were already generating substantial press coverage. In the 1947 and 1948 West coast Relays, Bob set new marks while winning the shot put, the low hurdles. the high hurdles, and placing in the high jump and the discus. He twice received the WCR Zeta Mu Alumni Trophy as Outstanding High School Athlete. In 1948, Mathias was the California State Champion in both the low and high hurdles and placed in the shot put.
During his high school track and field career, Bob took forty first places and set twenty-one records. At the suggestion of his Tulare High football and track coach Virgil Jackson, Mathias tried out for a decathlon meet in Los Angeles. After watching Bob in high school, Coach Jackson felt that Mathias was versatile enough to compete in many of the genres but it would be quite a process to master unfamiliar elements such as the javelin. In addition, Bob would have to jump higher hurdles and conquer the grueling 1500 meters within two weeks. Mathias figured he had nothing to lose and began training to take on some of the best college and AAU athletes in the country. His preparations required assistance from family, friends, and neighbors, but the effort definitely paid off. After shocking track and field veterans with a victory in Los Angeles, newbie Mathias learned he was eligible to compete in the Decathlon Olympic Trials in New Jersey.
Once again, Bob's own work ethic and community support teamed up and he not only qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, but won the decathlon trials. At seventeen, Mathias found himself in the U.S.S. America, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to compete in the 1948 Olympics. History was made in London as Bob Mathias stunned the world by becoming the youngest track athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal. This was the beginning of the inspiring career of Robert Bruce Mathias. He captured gold again in the decathlon at the 1952 Olympic Games, topping the second place finisher by 912 points. Now known as the world's greatest athlete, Mathias continued as a football standout as well. He led Stanford University to the Rose Bowl by demonstrating feats of epic proportions in the Pacific Coast Conference showdown game against USC. In front of over 100,000 screaming fans, Bob ran back a kickoff for an electrifying ninety-six yards to give Stanford the lead. A second touchdown romp in the fourth quarter helped Stanford prevail in the battle, 27-20.
After college, Bob turned down a National Football League draft offer from the Washington Redskins and enlisted in the U.S. Marines. In 1956, Bob was denied an opportunity to earn a third Olympic decathlon gold medal when he was ruled ineligible by Avery Brundage of the Olympic Committee. In those days, only amateur athletes could participate in track and field in the AAU or at the Games and Mathias was deemed a professional due to his starring role in an Allied Artists movie called The Bob Mathias Story for which he received a salary. This was a sad decision particularly because Bob was in great shape at twenty-five and undefeated in decathlon competition. However, Hollywood came calling again and Mathias appeared in six more movies in addition to starring with Keenan Wynn in "The Troubleshooters" on NBC. He enjoyed working in the movies and on television shows, but didn't much care for the glitter of Hollywood. In his heart, he was a small town guy who enjoyed being with family and friends.
Mathias eventually bought land in Kings Canyon National Park and built the Bob Mathias Sierra Boys Camp, followed by the Bob Mathias Sierra Girls Camp. Over the years, Bob was a traveling ambassador for the United States, beginning in President Dwight Eisenhower's administration. His activities took him across the globe where he was greeted by presidents, prime ministers, and kings. Years later, Bob would run for political office and spent four terms as a Congressman in Washington, D.C. He also served as the director of the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. During his eight years in that position, Bob built the camp into a state-of-the-art training facility and one of the best training centers anywhere. One of Mathias most outstanding traits was his remarkably caring and considerate personality. He would always take time to give a smile, a handshake, or an autograph to anyone who asked. Mathias lived in Fresno for the last years of his busy life. He and wife Gwen, enjoyed traveling, sometimes by plane, but also in their pickup truck and camper, often to their vacation home in Kings Canyon where they welcomed many friends for weekend campouts and parties. Bob Mathias passed away on September 2, 2006 in Fresno, leaving behind an unparalleled and memorable legacy.