Greater Peoria: A Mecca for Great Athletes

by Roger G. Monroe

The athletic achievements of area teams and individuals have not gone unrecognized.

Peoria loves sports, and that love affair has grown over the years. Few cities our size can compare with the number of athletes we claim who became professionals. Name almost any sport, and there's at least one local athlete who achieved the highest level possible, whether it's baseball, basketball, football, golf or soccer. How and when did it all begin?

New Game in Peoria
The first organized baseball game took place in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1846 when the New York Knickerbockers lost to the “New York Nine,” 23-1. Sixteen years later, on grounds near Greeley School on North Jefferson, crowds gathered under sunny skies to watch this new game, featuring the Peoria Olympia Baseball Club. It was June 23, 1862, and the home team won, 38-31. As baseball became more popular, ballfields started cropping up like Midwestern corn—and so did young athletes good enough to make it as professionals.

As schools were constructed, so were adjoining baseball fields. Energetic, creative kids could quickly change an empty neighborhood lot into a ballfield using just about anything for bases—from paper plates to rags and even t-shirts. With a developing park district, Glen Oak and Bradley parks provided two quality diamonds; other early fields included Waterworks Park, Sylvan Field, Woodruff Field, Swords Field and Voris Field. Sporting goods stores opened in downtown Peoria, and what a thrill it was to buy that first glove, emblazoned with the name of your favorite player… like Charlie “King Kong” Keller or Phil Cavarretta.

Interestingly, Cavarretta graduated from Lane Tech in Chicago at the age of 17 and signed with the Chicago Cubs. He was sent to Peoria, where he hit a home run in his first plate appearance at Woodruff Field on May 17, 1934. Later that year, he was called up to play for the Cubs, hitting a home run in his first game at Wrigley Field. But, this article is about local athletes and their quest to play in the majors.

A Big-League Roundup
Research indicates that John Seery of Princeville may have been the first local player to make it to the “big leagues.” In 1884, the five-foot-seven, 145-pound Seery took the outfield for the Baltimore Monumentals, ending the season with an impressive .313 batting average. In nine years in the majors, he played for seven different teams.

Then there was Peorian Mike Donlan. “Turkey Mike,” as he was called for his flamboyant strut to the outfield, made his first appearance with the St. Louis Perfectos on July 19, 1899. A star on the 1905 World Champion New York Giants, Donlan hit an amazing .333 during his 15-year career.

Despite health problems, Darby O'Brien had a rather remarkable career from 1887 to 1892, playing with the New York Metropolitans and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms/Grooms. He stole 91 bases in 1889, helping Brooklyn win the pennant against St. Louis. Norwood “Gibby” Gibson was a rookie pitcher for the Boston Americans when they won the World Series in 1903, and Allyn Stout also worked his way to the majors, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1931. The Peoria pitcher won six games without a loss, but missed the World Series that year due to arm trouble.

From 1952 to 1963, local sports fans were excited about a young outfielder by the name of Bill Tuttle. Living just outside of Farmington in the town of Cramer, Illinois, Tuttle played for Bradley University before signing with the Detroit Tigers. Considered one of the game’s best fielders, he led the American League in assists (as in throwing out runners) in 1959 and 1960. Tuttle played 1,270 games before retiring with a batting average of .259.

Mike Dunne, a pitcher by way of Limestone and Bradley, made headlines in 1987 when he was named Rookie of the Year after a 13-6 season. Three years earlier, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic 

baseball team that won a silver medal. Meanwhile, Zack Monroe, a graduate of Woodruff and Bradley, became the first and only Peorian to pitch in a World Series—throwing relief for the Yankees in 1958. The Yankees won in seven games and Monroe ended the season with a 4-2 record, an ERA of 3.26 and a World Series ring.

Peoria High’s Danny Goodwin made history as the first player to be the number-one draft pick in two different years. In 1971, as the top pick of the White Sox, he opted instead for a college education. Four years later, Goodwin was the top pick of the California Angels. For the next seven years, he played 252 games for the Angels, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s.

Dick Weik, another Peoria High graduate, made his first appearance for the Washington Senators at the age of 20. Tom Gilles, who attended Bergan High School, was drafted by the Yankees in 1984 and saw action with Toronto in 1990. Jimmy Robertson, son of Bradley’s legendary athletic director, A.J. Robertson, spent a number of years in the Yankees’ farm system and played with the Athletics in 1954 and 1955. And there were others.

Today, locals can watch Eureka's Ben Zobrist play for the Cubs, Chillicothe's Zach McAllister with the Cleveland Indians, and East Peoria's Joe Girardi managing the New York Yankees. Called “Zorilla” by his teammates, Zobrist played for Tampa Bay from 2006 to 2014, appearing in All-Star games in 2009 and 2013. After brief stops in Oakland and Kansas City, he signed a four-year, $56-million contract with the Cubs, and became an All-Star once again this year. McAllister signed a professional contract after high school and was selected as the New York Yankees’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, only to be traded to Cleveland. His first major-league win came against the Chicago White Sox on May 7, 2012, and he's recorded over 400 strikeouts.

Though his family lived in East Peoria, Joe Girardi spent most of his athletic time in Peoria; his high school days at Spalding included quarterbacking in football and catching for the baseball Irish. After drafting him in 1986, the Cubs sent him to Peoria to play for the Chiefs at the request of owner Pete Vonachen. He debuted with the Cubs in 1989, was later drafted by the Colorado Rockies, and then played for the Yankees (and Cubs again), before closing his playing career with the Cardinals. Hired to manage the Florida Marlins, he was named Manager of the Year in 2006. Two years later, he was chosen to manage the Yankees, where he remains today.2013. After brief stops in Oakland and Kansas City—where he earned a World Series ring—he signed a four-year, $56-million contract with the Cubs, and became an All-Star once again this year. McAllister signed a professional contract after high school and was selected as the New York Yankees’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, only to be traded to Cleveland. His first major-league win came against the Chicago White Sox on May 7, 2012, and he's recorded over 400 strikeouts.

Of course, the most famous of local ballplayers is Jim Thome. A sure bet for the Hall of Fame, Thome was skilled at both baseball and basketball at Limestone High School and Illinois Central College. After his first year at ICC, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, and so began his rise to become one of the most accomplished long-ball hitters in history. Twenty-two years and six teams later, Thome had hit 612 home runs—seventh on the all-time list.

Basketball Fever
While we're featuring local athletes, Bradley University could be considered the catalyst for infecting Peoria’s sports fans with basketball fever. In their 1976 book, Good Evening Bradley Basketball Fans, Bob Leu and Henry Jacobs wrote, “For many years, it was the tradition at the Peoria YMCA to stage a basketball game on New Year's Day. In 1903, that holiday game was Bradley's first.”

The Bradley team had no coach or gym, but it had a love for the game—just like those who play today, whether in a backyard or the National Basketball Association (NBA). Bradley won its first contest, 12-8, in the “Y” gym on North Jefferson. The competition consisted of YMCA and high school teams, and the team’s record for the season—if one can call it that—was 5-2. Speaking of high schools, Peoria High started in 1856 and Spalding followed in 1899, and yes, both of them played Bradley. In the 1907-08 season, Bradley beat Spalding 18-16, but lost to Peoria High 36-17. That Peoria High team went on to win the first Illinois state tournament held in Oak Park, Illinois.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments by a local athlete was Shaun Livingston’s jump from Peoria High School straight to the NBA. Dubbed “Illinois Mr. Basketball” his senior year, he played in the McDonald's All American Games and was listed as the number-two player in the nation in 2004. Selected fourth overall by the L.A. Clippers in the league’s draft, Livingston now plays for the Golden State Warriors, following seasons with seven other NBA teams.

Livingston wasn't the only Peoria High player to make it to the NBA. After four years at Indiana University, where he won numerous honors, A.J. Guyton was named an All American and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls; he also later played for Golden State. After 80 NBA games, Guyton played with several international basketball teams.

Peoria’s Manual High School claims the most NBA players: Al Smith, Howard Nathan and Frank Williams. Smith was drafted by the Chicago White Sox, but opted instead for basketball at Bradley. After college, he became a Denver Rocket in the American Basketball Association, playing three seasons before being traded to the Utah Stars. He scored over 3,200 points and was credited with 1,700 assists. Howard Nathan was named “Illinois Mr. Basketball” in 1991 following a remarkable career at Manual. After attending DePaul University, he became an Atlanta Hawk, playing five games in the 1995-96 season. Sadly, Nathan was severely injured in an auto accident, which left him paralyzed. An outstanding high school player on equally outstanding teams, Frank Williams garnered many honors, including “Illinois Mr. Basketball” in 1998. From 2002 to 2005, he split his time with the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, before spending his final basketball years playing in Italy and Argentina.

East Peoria's Roger Phegley was a two-sport star, excelling in baseball and basketball in high school. Recruited by Bradley, he was named a Converse All American in 1978—the same year he was selected to play in the NBA by the Washington Bullets. He later played for numerous NBA teams before closing his basketball career in France. He scored 3,001 NBA points and had 486 assists.

Tazewell County residents point to two others who played in the NBA: Doug Lee of Washington and Derek Grimm of Morton. Lee was drafted by the Houston Rockets and spent three seasons with the New Jersey Nets and Sacramento Kings, before the love of basketball took him overseas to Israel, Italy and Croatia. Grimm played for the Sacramento Kings in 1997-98, and later in the Far East and Europe, competing internationally for teams in Serbia, Poland, Netherlands, Philippines and Japan.

The NFL Calls
A total of 16 players from the Peoria area made it to the National Football League—make that 18 if you count Harold “Ham” Weldin and Fred Venturelli, who each played one game. Weldin, a Manual graduate, was on the roster for the Cincinnati Reds/St. Louis Gunners in 1934. Venturelli was born in Farmington, graduated from high school in Wisconsin, and played for George Halas’ Chicago Bears in 1948.

But we'll begin with Henry Bruder, born in Pekin in 1907. He was a halfback, fullback and occasionally a quarterback, who played for Northwestern before becoming a Green Bay Packer for famed coach Curly Lambeau from 1931 to 1939. One of the most popular NFL players from Peoria was Billy Stone, a halfback and defensive back who attended high school in Springfield before playing at Bradley. Stone scored 31 touchdowns in six pro seasons, but is best remembered as the 16-year coach for the Braves, closing the season (and its football program for good) in 1970.

Though born in Streator, Dick Jamieson was all-Peoria, as well as all-athlete. The son of prominent Peorian Bob Jamieson, he was tabbed a “Little All American” in his second year as quarterback at Bradley. He spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system and played with the Baltimore Colts and New York Titans from 1959 to 1961, but was best known in the NFL as a coach with St. Louis, Houston, Arizona and Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most acclaimed player and coach born in Peoria was Dick Manuel Jauron, though it may be a stretch to claim him, since he grew up in Massachusetts. A Parade All American in high school, Jauron had a spectacular football career at Yale before playing in the NFL for eight seasons, primarily as a free safety. In his second season, he led the NFC in punt return average and was selected to play in the 1974 Pro Bowl. In 1985, he entered the coaching ranks as defensive backs coach for the Buffalo Bills; 14 years later, he became head coach of the Chicago Bears, and in 2001, was named Coach of the Year by the Associated Press.

Harry Jacobs wasn't from Peoria, but Bradley football fans knew about the tough linebacker from Canton. What a record he had in pro football, playing for the Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills from 1960 to 1969. He was in the playoffs four straight years with the Bills, helping them win the AFL championship in 1964 and 1965, and he was an AFL All Star in 1965 and 1969. An All American at Peoria High, Darryl Ashmore was destined for professional football, garnering All Big Ten honors after his first season at Northwestern. The lineman played 119 games as a pro from 1992 to 2002.

Another tough high school player with visions of tackling the NFL was Ed Sutter of Richwoods High School. The son of Ken Sutter, who played for the University of Illinois, he also attended Northwestern, where he was a prolific linebacker. His stats opened the door for 79 games in five seasons as a pro with Cleveland, Baltimore and Atlanta. Another NFL linebacker from the area was Bill Roehnelt of Chillicothe. Roehnelt, who was also a catcher, attended Bradley before signing with the Chicago Bears in 1958. He also played with Washington and Denver, with tackles in 54 NFL games.

Central Illinois grows its linebackers big and tough. Spalding Institute points with pride to Mike LaHood, who earned a scholarship from the University of Wyoming, where he was a lineman on both sides of the ball. He totaled 51 NFL games with the L.A. Rams and St. Louis Cardinals from 1969 to 1972. Another Peorian who could tackle was J.T. Taylor of Woodruff and the University of Missouri, who played in 57 games for the New Orleans Saints. East Peoria's Tim Simpson played football for the University of Illinois before hooking up with the Pittsburgh Steelers for one season. He later played for the London Monarchs, Peoria Pirates and Bloomington Edge before retiring.

Before we leave football, longtime Peorians will recall Peoria Stadium with fondness as the home for many Bradley games. Fans enjoyed watching “rock-and-sock-‘em” battles and outstanding players, including opposing stars like Johnny Bright of Drake. But the best memories are those of Turkey Day games on Thanksgiving mornings between Central and Manual, and late-afternoon contests between Spalding and Woodruff. So popular were the Manual-Central games that the stands were often packed with 8,000 to 10,000 fans! Those were the days.

Golf, Soccer, Racing and...
The Peoria area has seen a number of outstanding golfers, some who could drive the ball a mile: guys like Gus Moreland, Ron Ghidina and Rick LeHew, who each won the city men's golf tournament seven times. But the only Peoria golfer who made it to the PGA was Art Schilling, who earned nine athletic letters in three years at Manual, as well as All-City, All-Conference and All-American honors. Schilling played baseball and football at Northwestern, then transferred to North Arizona and lettered three years in the same sports. He turned to golf after college, made the cut in 1973, and played in eight PGA tournaments.

D.A Points is another pro of significance. A graduate of Pekin High and the University of Illinois, Points won the Illinois State Amateur Championship in 1995, 1998 and 1999. In 1996, he lost in the quarter-finals of the U.S. Amateur to Tiger Woods. Since turning pro in 1999, Points has had an exciting career, and is listed in the top 50 of the Official World Ranking. His first PGA title win came in 2011 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Three years ago, he won the Houston Open by one stroke after sinking a 13-foot putt on the 72nd hole.

While interest in golf and bowling has declined over the years, there's been a surge of interest in soccer. No matter where you go, central Illinois’ school grounds and backyards are filled with girls and boys kicking around a soccer ball. Under Coach Jim DeRose, Bradley University's soccer program has been one of the most successful in the nation. Bradley soccer has won the Missouri Valley Conference title four times and gone to the NCAA tournament seven times. Just one local soccer player has reached professional ranks: Vince Cicciarelli, who joined St. Louis FC this year and became the first St. Louis player to be named USL Player of the Week.

Peorians have always been fascinated with auto racing—especially stock cars. For many years, fans looked forward to Saturday nights at the Mt. Hawley Speedway, in what is now Pioneer Park. Drivers had their supporters and loved to boo the “bad guys,” who challenged their favorites. One of the favorites was Don Bohlander, who won the Peoria State Championship seven times during 45 years on the tracks, and totaled 350 feature wins at racing venues all over the country. Les Snow, too, won his share at the Mt. Hawley track. He competed on the national level, winning the ARCA 200 at Daytona.

Bohlander and Snow are both inductees of the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame, as is Herb Shannon Sr., a three-time Peoria state champion, who won 19 of 26 features in 1957. He was active on the national circuit, setting a world record for a one-mile dirt track at the Duquoin State Fair, placing third at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb and racing at the Daytona 500. And let’s not forget auto dealer John Bearce, who finished 13th in a 9,800-mile race in South America, as well as setting five world speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Not every sport has been covered in this article, nor has every individual been recognized for achieving greatness—but they are not forgotten. Many are immortalized in the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame, with plaques of inductees hanging on the outer concourse walls of the Peoria Civic Center. iBi

Roger G. Monroe is past president of the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame and former Sports Director of the American Forces Radio Network in Germany.

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