70 years ago: future baseball legend dominates football opener

By Dave Ross - Contributing columnist

As I began to follow Sidney High School football in 1962 I periodically heard about the great games played at Julia Lamb Stadium especially the 1948 season opener with Cincinnati Western Hills, a contest lost by the locals 14-12 after holding a 12-0 halftime advantage.

Memories of that encounter actually grew brighter over time around Sidney as the top Western Hills player went on to spend 65 years in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager. That player was all-purpose back Don Zimmer (1931-2014).

Friday September 17, 1948 was also the debut game for new Sidney head coach Wayne Gibson who recently recalled that night from his home in Oxford where he’s long retired from Miami University. “I’m 95 years old and I remember that game like it was yesterday. My guys played well but we couldn’t overcome Don Zimmer.”

In 1988 I met Zimmer along with his twin brother which was quite a sight with both resembling Popeye the Sailor of cartoon fame. We were in the paddock area of River Downs Race Course in Cincinnati hours before he managed the Chicago Cubs against the Reds that night. Without mentioning my hometown, I inquired if he recalled the first game of his senior football season in 1948 and got a quick reply, “We were fortunate to beat Sidney and that was a very long trip before I-75 was built.”

Seven years after that, Sidney Daily News sports editor Ken Barhorst was preparing to write about that 1948 opener when I told him it would be worth finding Zimmer to get some quotes since he definitely remembered the game. A Cincinnati source provided the phone number which was actually listed and available to the public. Ken made the call to the Tampa Bay area, got an enthusiastic response, and wrote a fine article.

Facing a 12-0 deficit Zimmer took control in the second half seven decades ago with a “dazzling performance” according to Zack Crusey of the Sidney Daily News. The visitors initial score came on a Zimmer pass that was first touched by a pair of Sidney defenders.

He explained to Barhorst, “I was going to the right and we had an end who was a great pass-catcher. We threw a lot of passes that year. When I let go of it I saw him in the open. Then I heard something smack. I saw the ball out there so I grabbed it and ran it in.” Turns out the “smack” was one Sidney player knocking the ball away from another and into the air as recounted for the article by Sidney end Tom Schlagetter. The play covered 12 yards as Zimmer caught his own touchdown pass.

He also scored the final TD on a short run that followed his 42 yard punt return from midfield. Both extra points were drop-kicked by Cliff York to provide the winning margin 14-12.

The Western Hills Mustangs went on to the Cincinnati City championship and lost only one game. The school was known as a “baseball factory” as it produced many major leaguers including one who was in the first grade when this game was played. His name is Pete Rose, major league baseball’s all-time hit king.

During this era Western Hills could also be termed a “show business factory.” Wikipedia identifies Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and Andy Williams as alumni of the school.

The Sidney Yellow Jackets finished 5-4-0 in 1948 but those four losses were by a total of just 22 points. This was a solid Sidney team as shown throughout the season 70 years ago.

By Dave Ross

Contributing columnist

Dave Ross is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News. Next Wednesday.: Excitement in Sidney to start the 1968 season as a legendary period gets underway.

Dave Ross is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News. Next Wednesday.: Excitement in Sidney to start the 1968 season as a legendary period gets underway.