Wildcats caught fire in 1934December 22, 2020
By GREG ECKERLE
If ever a sports year was an everlasting triumph, a tearful tragedy, and yet an enduring tribute, it was the legacy created by the 1934 Jasper basketball team.
A strong case could be made that the team’s unprecedented success started Jasper’s continuing passion for its athletic teams that is admired state-wide to this day. The 1934 squad won the school’s first-ever regional, earned the first-ever Final Four appearance, came within one referee’s misstep from likely winning a state championship, and still holds the best basketball won-lost record with a gaudy 29-2 mark.
The achievements of the team’s players still resonate loudly. Center Cyril Birge became a noted basketball referee, officiating in the Big 10 Conference and in three IHSAA Final Fours, including the famous 1954 Milan triumph over Muncie Central that spawned the hit movie “Hoosiers.” Birge’s playing and officiating ability landed him in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Those exploits, along with his endearing personality, made him a local legend long before his passing in 2008. Guard Marty Gosman was probably the 1934 tournament’s smallest player at 5’6” and 130 pounds, but maybe had the largest heart, too, and was recognized by winning the prestigious Gimbel Award, the first in a long string of metal attitude award winners for Jasper. And then there was star guard Eddie Rottet, likely the town’s greatest all-around athlete to that time. He was Jasper’s first all-state basketball player, one of only two unanimous selections in Indiana in 1934. He was the star shortstop on Jasper’s American Legion state championship baseball team in 1933, and a two-time city tennis champion. He was surely destined for stardom on the next level, but tragically never got the chance. Rottet and Birge were best friends, and each had been impressively awarded athletic scholarships to Purdue. Rottet also had a scholarship to Northwestern, where he planned to attend. But while they were working together on a summer road surveying crew just after their high school graduation, Rottet and Birge both contracted typhoid fever, presumably from drinking contaminated water from a nearby well during a work break. Both were in weeks-long comas. Rottet died on Aug. 18. His death was reported in newspapers from Indianapolis to Louisville. Birge finally awoke in September, too late and in no shape to pursue his college dream.
Rottet and Birge had become fast friends in grade school. Along with classmate Johnny Steffen, their basketball prowess soon earned them the nickname “The Big Three.” As a freshman, Rottet improved enough to earn a spot from first-year coach Tom Rea on the Wildcat varsity for the 1931 sectional. Although Jasper lost in the third game to Stendal, Rottet was named all-sectional.
As sophomores, Rottet, Birge and Steffen quickly became starters. They sometimes slept in the gym on weekends to get extra practice time. In his 1995 autobiography, Birge wrote, “Early in the season after practice, Coach Rea took the three of us to the side and (said), ‘We are going to the state tourney before you three graduate.’ ” That 1932 team went 21-5, but lost to Stendal in the sectional championship.
The 1933 team (22-5) won Jasper’s second-ever sectional, the first crown since 1922. The squad then hit a major milestone by beating Washington for the first time, a 31-19 whipping at the Washington Regional. Washington was a perennial power at the time, having won the 1930 state title under Hall of Fame coach Burl Friddle. Jasper lost in the regional title game to Vincennes, another area power that had won the state in 1923.
The Wildcats were bolstered for the 1934 season when the town’s other high school, the Jasper Academy, moved to Illinois. Two of the Academy seniors, Bill Carnes and Tony Berger, gave the Cats some much-needed depth.
Jasper opened with eight straight wins, but in the Mitchell game, Rottet was clipped while shooting, fell and broke his collarbone. He missed the next seven games, including the Wildcats’ only regular season loss, when Evansville Reitz hit a long last-second shot to win in Jasper’s Holiday Tourney, 26-24. Carnes also missed that game with an infected knee, and Birge had to leave the game late with a leg cramp.
Highlights of the regular season were winning tough road games at Tell City, Loogootee, Evansville Memorial, Louisville St. Xavier, and twice at Washington. Gosman, interviewed in 1987 by the late area sportswriter Jack Schneider, recalled, “Johnny Steffen was hitting the bucket really good from out, scoring a lot of points. There was an article in the paper about how hot he was. Washington coach Burl Friddle read that, then said in the paper to be sure to bring Steffen along when you come over to play us, we are going to show you how good Mr. Steffen is not. Well, Steffen hit his first three shots (and eventually his first five). Friddle was about to crawl the floor underneath the bench. At a timeout we just sat there and laughed.”
Schneider also interviewed Steffen and Birge in 1987 about the 1934 season. “We all felt that nobody could beat us,” said Steffen. “Cyril led the team in scoring. Eddie was the sparkplug. He had a fire in him, and had a good one-hand shot. Not many shot one-handed in those days.”
Those were also the days of a center jump ball after every made basket. As only a center who was only six feet, one inch tall, Birge was often at a disadvantage. But Birge told Schneider, “Eddie was tremendous at stealing tips. He was real quick, moving all the time, setting up plays. And he was a fighter and a leader. After coach turned us loose on the floor, Eddie kind of took over. If things weren’t going right, he’d let you know about it. Gosman was a good ballhandler. He brought the ball down the floor a lot. And he was really good at breaking down the floor quick. Steffen was a good shooter. What made us is that we were close-knit, we practically lived together. We were all for the other one to do their best. And Coach Rea got along with the kids. He’d build you up. He had a way of getting on you without cursing you. At one halftime he said, ‘You guys don’t need a coach, come out in three minutes.’ ”
“Our team was quicker than most,” said Gosman, a junior in 1934. “Cyril was like he was wound up. When he would make up his mind to get the ball, he was a mad man, and fast. Eddie could do everything, one of the best athletes ever from Jasper.”
The Cats romped through the sectional, winning games by 22, 23, 16 and 16. But a measles and flu outbreak during regional week threw a scare into the team. Rottet was affected. Gosman popped out with a few “real red spots” when warming up for the final game. Steffen was in bed most of the week and woke up sick on game day. Jasper beat Carlisle in the first game, 32-17, to set up a title game match against a team they had never beaten, Vincennes. And they had to do it on the Alices’ home floor. “I wasn’t up to par,” said Steffen, who was the team’s defensive stopper. “I was a step behind that Chester (Vincennes’ leading scorer) all night.”
But Jasper hung tough, tying the score late on a Birge field goal to force overtime. Then came one of the most dramatic and important shots in Wildcat history. Down by one with time running out, Berger had an open shot. Rottet yelled, “Shoot!” But Berger passed the ball to Rottet, who shot with four seconds left from between the free throw circle and the center line. Birge thought it was about a 30-foot shot. The ball ripped through the net into the waiting hands of Birge, the remaining two seconds vanished for a 27-26 win, and ebullient Jasper fans vaulted over railings about eight feet above the floor to swarm the Wildcats. Birge’s girlfriend and future wife, Antoinette, broke a high heel off a new pair of shoes on her landing.
“People were laying on top of us,” said Gosman.
There was no semi-state in those years, but a 16-team state final. Jasper beat North Vernon, 30-15, after a third quarter score of 15-15. The Wildcats next beat Richmond, 29-27, and its tough six foot, five inch center. Both Birge and Steffen thought Richmond was their toughest foe. Back in Jasper, factories blew their whistles after each Wildcat win, just as they did at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Then came the heartbreaking Final Four loss to eventual champion Logansport, who featured six foot, six inch and six foot, five inch inside players. Although Carnes popped out in measles on the floor and was removed, Jasper had Logansport on the ropes, leading 25-16 late in the third quarter. But Jasper tired, and was behind by one, 27-26, with under two minutes to go when one of the most unusual and unlucky plays ever derailed their title hopes. “Logansport had the ball,” said Gosman. “They had a habit of throwing a little lob pass in to this big center. I thought, I’m going to get that ball if they throw it. Lo and behold, there she come, and just about when the ball hit his hands, I got it. I started to dribble. I got around one guy, and I was open. I had my head down and was really pouring it on. And I ran into the referee. Nobody else between me and the basket. The ball was lost (out of bounds). Can’t do it over.” Gosman reacted to the misfortune of the misplaced official with no complaints and such grace that Birge felt it helped Gosman win the mental attitude award. Jasper ended up losing, 31-28. Logansport beat Indianapolis Tech in the final.
But Jasper’s fire for basketball had been lit. “All of a sudden, people thought we can compete with the best of them,” said Birge. “Before, people just took it for granted we couldn’t compete.” Anna Mae (Haller) Gosman, one of the team’s two cheerleaders and Marty’s future wife, remembered how the townspeople wanted the cheerleaders to look their best, even though it was in the middle of America’s Great Depression. “Some Jasper ladies said they weren’t going to let us wear our old sweaters to the state finals because they looked horrible,” Anna Mae said in a 2009 Dubois County Museum interview. “So they made us a gold satin top. And my aunt took one of my old spring coats and dyed it black to make a skirt for me.”
Sportswriters from Indianapolis, Louisville, and Evansville all noted that the Wildcats, the scrappy underdogs from a small town, were the most popular team at the state finals. The Wildcats also gave the Logansport champs their toughest game. But Jasper’s toughest loss came just five months later, with the tragic death of Rottet. Birge wrote about the day after Rottet and he drank the contaminated water, “We met as usual on the Dubois County Bank corner to be picked up and taken to work. We were feeling so bad, however, that we told the surveyors we couldn’t go. Eddie and I both said, ‘See you later,’ and went home. That was the last time we saw each other. . . . Eddie died at home. His doctor and family friend threw his stethoscope across the room in anguish when Eddie breathed his last.” Birge awoke from his coma the next month. When he learned of Eddie’s fate, “it was as if my life was gone also,” wrote Birge. “I went home to spend the loneliest night I had ever gone through.”
As upsetting as Rottet’s untimely death was, it motivated some honors in his memory that continue to inspire others. The Eddie Rottet Memorial Trophy, instituted in 1935, is still awarded annually to a Jasper Boy Scout whose academic, athletic, and scouting achievements, and character, most live up to Rottet’s excellence in those same areas. The trophy is adorned by figurines of Rottet’s three best sports — baseball, basketball and tennis. Birge long maintained that Rottet would have become a major league baseball player, saying the slick infielder had “sure hands, a real good arm, and could hit the ball a mile.” Ironically, Rottet’s tennis prowess eventually linked to his only nephew, Ed Yarbrough, who was named Ed upon his 1946 birth in honor of his late uncle. As a tennis coach, Yarbrough led Jasper to a boys’ team state championship and a girls’ doubles state title in 1999. Rottet would have been proud. And Rottet’s parents were proud to install a fitting gravestone for him — one side has a regulation-sized stone basketball inscribed “All State” and appropriately overlooks Jasper’s high school baseball field. It stands in tribute to a player, a time and a team that should forever be known as a real catalyst for Jasper’s love affair with sports.
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