City of Champions (Tatra Press, 2018)
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It’s 80 years since the Garfield Boilermakers stunned the high school football world with a 16-13 win against the Miami High Stingarees in the national championship at the Orange Bowl. It was such a major achievement for the city of Garfield, which today has a population of around 30,000, that the story is still told today.
Hank Gola, a longtime sportswriter and Garfield native, was one of those raised on stories of the ’39 Boilermakers and, in particular, the exploits of star player Benny Babula. His father told him the story and Gola and his friends would thrill at the sight of Babula in town, where the former football star ran a meat distribution business.
City of Champions is an exhaustively-researched history that brings to life small-town America in the late 1930s in ways that are genuinely moving. The level of detail here is astonishing. Gola has gathered the game-by-game scores and rosters for both teams, as you would expect, but it’s the stories he tells beyond that that make the book so frequently absorbing.
These often come in asides, like the story of Walter Bradenahl, who leaves Garfield High and eventually returns to Germany with his family, taken in by his father’s love of Hitler. His story returns, grimly, at the close of the book.
Then there’s the story of East Orange High School, in New Jersey, that opts to fill its swimming pool with concrete rather than allow it to be used by black students. The decision was ultimately forced by the bravery of 16-year-old Robert L Carter:
“One day, he climbed down into the pool before the white students went in. With Carter alone in the water, the white boys refused to swim. Carter was later threatened with expulsion by the gym teacher, who feared he would lose his job over Carter’s refusal to abide by the Jim Crowish rules. Yet Carter persisted. He attempted to enlist other black students in his protest. No one did.”
Carter went on to a distinguished legal career and was a New York judge from 1972 until his death in 2012.
Asides like that give a real sense of what life was like for ordinary Americans in the 1930s. Gola covers the emerging threat of polio, and how its cause was a mystery at the time. Meanwhile, the story of the flourishing of Miami, in sunshine and opulence, is set against post-Depression New Jersey, where immigrant families are still establishing themselves and their communities in a new country. In the background, of course, looms the threat of war.
Football provided a community focus amid the many challenges. To get a sense of what a big deal it was, consider the fact that more than 2,000 fans crammed into the gym at Garfield High on Christmas Night 1939 to hear the play-by-play being relayed as the game unfolded a thousand miles away. It was the only way to know what was going on.
My wholehearted recommendation of this book comes with two warnings. First, the editing is sloppy in the opening chapters. There are a significant number of mistakes, the most notable of which is that Joseph Goebbels’ name is misspelled, but for some reason the rest of the book is largely fine.
Second, a central chunk of the book – roughly a third of the whole – is devoted to a game-by-game recap of the seasons of the Boilermakers and Stingarees during the 1937, 38 and 39 seasons. This dragged somewhat for me. Though those sections establish the key players for both teams and give you a sense of each team’s rivalries, the same effect could have been achieved in much less time.
I’m left torn about that part of the book. Including it means that this is a definitive history, with every detail an interested fan could hope for. However, I think that a different editorial direction could have produced a book with much more widespread appeal – the Friday Night Lights for the 1930s, if you like.
I don’t know that either decision is wrong but it seems like a missed opportunity. Cutting 100 or so pages could have produced the kind of book that you press into the hands of friends with even the slightest interest in football. That book is in here but it’s occasionally obscured by an overgrowth of sheer detail.
Nevertheless, City of Champions is an exceptional achievement. It is Gola’s tribute to a game, a team and to his city. It’s a tribute that more than does justice to those it celebrates.