1937 Melrose Shamrocks: The Championship Season

After The Championship

Several Melrose Players reading about their achievements on
Sunday morning.  From Left: Ray Navin, Jim Thynne, Jim Carr
Walt O'Connor, and Ray Parks

  When the championship game ended with a Melrose win, the Melrose fans began their celebration.  The celebration continued the next day when the team returned to Melrose for an unofficial victory parade and ceremony.  The celebration then continued a week and a half later at the official championship ceremony.  Other towns and groups also celebrated the unlikely champions.

As the fans rushed the court after the final whistle, Walt O’Connor’s brother rushed up to him and said, “You don’t know what you did!  You don’t know what you did!”  Walt replied, “We just beat Marshalltown for the state championship.”  Reflecting on that moment years later, Walt said that it seemed to him that it happened, “just like it was supposed to happen.”  Even Walt was caught up in the moment back in 1937.  He told one reporter after the game, “We’re more surprised than anybody.”

Coach Hlubek, who got so excited that he missed part of the final game, didn’t know what to say after the victory.  When speaking to reporters, he said, “My only regret is that we had to beat the finest team in Iowa.”  Later, while waiting for a newsreel photographer to take their pictures, he said, “Are we good?  Or, was Marshalltown off its form tonight?  Anyway, we licked ’em.”  Before he could say any more, the Marshalltown team came into the room.  The Melrose team immediately went over and shook their hands.

The Des Moines’ Register was also surprised by the Melrose win.  It had roughed out the front page of the Sports section with a picture of the Marshalltown team.  After the game, they had to get a quick picture of the Melrose team to use.  The Marshalltown team picture ended up on the back page of the Sports section.

The team stayed in Des Moines that night.  The next morning, they attended Mass at St. Ambrose Cathedral.  A newspaper photographer snapped a picture as they entered St. Ambrose.  One of the players, perhaps Ed Callahan, lost one of his shoes that morning and had to attend Mass wearing only one shoe.  The shoe was later found.  When they packed up to leave the hotel, a photographer again took pictures.  This was quite a change for the team that did not get its picture in the State Tournament program.

Back in Melrose, a crowd started to gather.  Since it was still Lent, the Irish Catholic town decided not to have a formal, official celebration until after Easter.  However, this didn’t stop the people from coming out to cheer their team.  

When the two cars carrying the team came over the hill into town, dozens of townspeople walked in front of the cars to form an informal victory parade.  Father Browne, whom many said was the team’s biggest fan, was so excited that he clung to the outside of the first car as it came into town.  The parade went to Haley’s corner at the center of town.

The crowd that gathered was estimated by various reports to have been between 600 and 1,500 people.  They were all crammed into a town of only 420.  Since Melrose was too small to have its own band, an Albia band and the Chariton Junior American Legion Championship Band provided music.

Some brief speeches were made.  Melrose Mayor Cummins proudly exclaimed, “We’ll kill the fatted calf” at the official celebration.  The players and Coach Hlubek tried to escape notice, but all had to make short speeches and shake many hands.  Team Captain O’Connor said, “You can’t beat us Irish.”  The crowd appreciated that comment, since 80% of the town and team were Irish.  Reporters thought that Jim Thynne’s grandmother was the most excited of all.  She stood up on a chair, so she could kiss her 6’3” grandson.

Melrose partied some more at the official celebration on the next Wednesday, March 31.  An impromptu stage was built at the corner of Shamrock and Erin streets for the ceremony.  Many members of the media were present, including a radio station.  Speakers included Father D.C. Browne, town priest; Father Charles O’Connor, priest in neighboring Chariton; Earl Parks, President of the Melrose School Board; Charles Miller, an Albia attorney; Dr. T.A. Moran, the Melrose doctor who had delivered many of the members of the team; and Melrose Mayor James Cummins.  An estimated crowd of 1,000 to 1,500 people feasted upon 1,000 pounds of roasted pork and beef during the celebration.  The crowd had two types of dances to choose from, a square dance or the 1937 version of a “modern” dance.  The official celebration would continue into the wee hours.

The townspeople started a petition drive that day for the construction of a community center that would provide a new home court for the state champions.  The families of many of the team members, Coach Hlubek, and Mayor Cummins were among those who signed the petition.  The Community Center was not completed for the next basketball season, but was finished by September of 1939.

Learn More About The Hall Restoration

Also during the official celebration, a newspaper photographer raised a ladder against the Post Office to gain a high vantage point for pictures.  A group of young boys took this opportunity to climb up to the roof of the Post Office.  One of the speakers noted that at first glance, he thought the figures on top of the Post Office were “statuary.”

One of the highlights of the celebration was the presentation of the championship trophy to the school by Team Captain Walt O’Connor.  O’Connor had prepared an eleven-word speech that grew by one word:  “I take great pleasure in presenting this trophy to Melrose High School.”

Beyond the official celebration, the championship team was invited to many special banquets in their honor.  One very special event took place at the Ritz Theater in Chariton, where the Shamrocks viewed newsreels containing tournament action.  Just about everybody wanted to play host to the state champions.

Not everybody was happy with the Melrose team, however.  Coach Hlubek received several “sour grape” unsigned letters from Marshalltown fans who were not thrilled by the upset victory over their team.

Huron, South Dakota even wanted to take on the Shamrocks.  The team was thwarted in its efforts.  The Board of Control of the South Dakota High School Athletic Association decided the challenge would give Huron a preseason advantage over other South Dakota teams.  Everyone wanted a shot at Melrose now.

The Shamrocks faced an uphill battle in their next season, however, with the loss of Walt O’Connor to graduation, and Jim Thynne, who moved to Sac City.  Without their two leading scorers from the championship team, the winning streak finally ended at 36, with an early season loss at Lovilia.  Defying the odds, the Shamrocks were able to come back and make it to the State Tournament again, with another close victory over Rathbun, 22 – 20.  Jim Thynne also returned to the tournament with his new Sac City team.  Unfortunately, the Shamrocks lost in their opening round game to Mitchellville, 27 - 18.  Every Mitchellville player had a height advantage over the tallest Melrose player, an advantage that was too difficult to overcome.  Diagonal, another Class B school, became the new championship team in 1938 with a final game victory over Rolfe, 31 - 29.

The two tiny championship schools decided to battle on a neutral floor, in front of 900 fans in Chariton, during the 1939 season.  Melrose won the battle of state champions, defeating Diagonal by a score of
41 - 31.  The Melrose tradition of producing great basketball players would continue, as Donald “Pinky” Knowles, just a freshman on the 1939 team, would go on to have a great career at both Melrose and Creighton University.  In just a few short years, Knowles went from starting his basketball career on the floor of the Melrose Opera House to playing for Creighton in Madison Square Garden!  Knowles was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame, and is the nephew of Walt O’Connor and the first cousin of my grandmother, Madeline Knowles Carr.  Even though Melrose had some great teams and players, none of them ever accomplished what the 1937 team was able to do.

Coach Hlubek summed up his emotions about the championship, stating, “Long after we are gone, this trophy will remain, a lasting tribute to the fighting team of 1937 – one of the greatest outfits ever assembled.”  Ironically, Coach Hlubek was proven wrong when, only seven years later, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1944, the Melrose school burned to the ground.  The state championship trophy burned with the school.  Fortunately, a replica was made of the trophy, but the original didn’t outlive any of the team members.  The old Opera House has long been gone too, replaced by the Community Center.  

Even though the town of Melrose has shrunk from 420 in 1937 to 150 today, the town still honors the memory of the championship team.  At the 2000 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Des Moines, Melrose won the state championship again for its parade entry.  Melrose marchers in the parade reenacted the 1937 championship game, complete with cheerleaders, referees, a sports announcer, and Marshalltown and Melrose players.  Newspaper vendors handed out newspapers proclaiming Melrose’s victory and marchers handed out potatoes and cabbages to the crowd.  

The 1937 basketball team is still winning championships for Melrose EVEN TODAY...

Written By:
Jimmy Anderson

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