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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Mayer: Historic Eldridge Hotel has rich athletic heritage

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I get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the fact Bobby Douglass is so deeply involved in the renaissance of the Eldridge Hotel. With the depth of the sports heritage at the storied old hostelry, it's fitting and proper that somebody like the former Jayhawk and NFL quarterback is a caring owner along with Mitchell and Susan Chaney and the Fritzel Family.

Oh, the stories one can tell (some I dare not relate) about occasions where the Eldridge has hubbed exciting, entertaining and pivotal events regarding athletics and the people in them. Douglass came here from El Dorado as a raw but promising kid and blossomed under Jack Mitchell and Pepper Rodgers to achieve All-America status in the 1966-68 span. His 1969-81 professional career included stints with the Bears, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. The fierce, combative, 6-foot-4, 240-pound rascal still holds the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback.

Bob's also done well in non-football ventures, such as the Eldridge caper to revive for the community an entity that should never die.

Long before Holiday Inns and such, the Hotel Eldridge was a gathering place for countless community ventures. Many a great team, athlete and sports follower has holed up there or come for dinners, slap-thigh, rub-gut Quarterback Club sessions and various other fun and games.

Owner Billy Hutson's daughter, Virginia, married Mike Getto Sr., who had a tremendous football background. He'd been an All-America tackle at Pittsburgh when the legendary Jock Sutherland was coach and the Panthers were a powerhouse. Mike coached with Jock a while, then came back to manage the Eldridge. He served under George Sauer as a key assistant coach in 1946 and 1947 when the Jayhawks tied Oklahoma twice for the Big Six title and earned their first bowl trip (Orange, Jan. 1, 1948).

Mike Getto's presence brought sports celebrities from everywhere and he presided over one of the golden eras at the hotel. Kansas basketball icon Phog Allen used the Eldridge on home game days to gather his squad, discuss a little basketball, send the guys to rooms for naps, then get a pregame meal of stuff like toast and tea. Doc often was available for afternoon chats while his players presumably were resting, though not always. Now and then some would innovate. Boys would be boys in those days, too.

Every major jock banquet was at the Eldridge. The legendary Bear Bryant spoke there. One can't be blamed for wishing for a return of those evenings when football coaches J.V. Sikes or one of his cornpone assistants, Chuck Mather, Jack Mitchell and now and then Pepper Rodgers would show up to narrate films from the most recent game. With spinmeisters like Frank McDonald as the rousing and ribald master of ceremonies and with the inventive Mitchell always coming up with some new and innovative notion (some of it even true), guys couldn't wait for Monday nights.

Before the main QB meeting, there'd be a meal and libations in the now-restored Big Six room downstairs. As good as the yarns and insights were later on upstairs, the downstairs antics and anecdotes were even more titillating. Sorry, girls, but Title IX hadn't hit and except for the banquets, there was virtually no distaff participation, though several gals I know could have been as entertaining and definitive as the class clowns.

Visiting teams and coaches stayed at the Eldridge, including the likes of Cincinnati in the Oscar Robertson heyday. It was a smorgasbord of schmoozing for ultra-lucky ducks such as I. Any sportswriter would have thought he'd died and gone to heaven. I can't walk into the Eldridge without being hit in the heart by some delightful experience, sports and otherwise. It was the pre-motel town hall. There was the popular drug store in the building where many an afternoon confab took place among diehard fans and occasional sugar-daddies. There were ways to help kids a little extra then, too.

The afternoon of Dec. 3, 1956, the Journal-World ran on front-page right a two-column, full-length Bill Snead photo of dunking basketeer Wilt Chamberlain, about to make his collegiate debut against a highly touted Northwestern team. The Wildcats were staying at the Eldridge. Colleague Earl Morey and I waited until the papers had been delivered, then went to see what the visiting jocks were saying.

"Anybody can get on a chair, jump off and get his hands above the rim," barked one Wildcat. "That's staged!"

None of the Cats, including 6-9 sophomore sensation Joe Ruklick, would believe us when we said, "The guy can do that, no chair! Ever hear of Bill Russell?" Apparently not.

That night, The Big Dipper got 52 points and 31 rebounds, and the awed Ruklick told me, "I felt like a junior high kid against an all-pro. Helpless. On one of his dunks, I had to cover my face to keep from getting it caved in."

Ruklick later played with Wilt on the Philadelphia Warriors and dished out some assists that 1962 night Chamberlain scored his monumental 100 points in Hershey, Pa.

There was one grisly moment at the Eldridge I'd rather forget, but never will. The Journal-World had gone to press at noon on a Saturday (before we had a Sunday edition) and I took off for the Eldridge Pharmacy to get something, maybe one of those great chocolate sodas. As I started to enter the east door, I heard a sickening SPLAT! No delicate way to put it. Sounded like 100 pounds of hamburger hitting the sidewalk.

I looked furtively to the south; crumpled horribly on the walk just the other side of the old Eldridge marquee was a young woman, still breathing but barely. I rushed inside, told them to call an ambulance and dashed back out to find a crowd from which had emerged a doctor. "Not much chance," he said grimly. The girl soon died. She'd been a KU student with problems, her folks had come to comfort her and take her home. They had overnighted at the Eldridge, she'd found a fifth-floor window and leaped. That solitary sound and sight were as sickening as anything I ever encountered, military or civilian casualty.

But most Hotel Eldridge memories for me are delightful, and it's so good to have Bobby Douglass and Co. here to help create some more. And thereby hangs another tale of renaissance.

Onetime KU athletic trainer Dean Nesmith wore a lot of hats, including one that entailed keeping errant jocks out of jail. In one moment of deep candor, he told me: "One of the greatest blessings Kansas University ever had was that hell-raisers like Bobby Douglass, John Zook, Bill Nieder and John Riggins weren't all here at quite the same time."

Bright personality, full of rascality, that's our Bobby D. Sure glad to have him. He's one of those once-rowdy sports stars who decided what he wanted to be when he grew up, and Lawrence is richer for that productive metamorphosis.

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