Written by Walter Hines
The success of sports at New Mexico A&M in the pre-World War II years can in some ways be traced to none other than Abraham Lincoln. Under the Morrill Act signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, a land grant institution like NM A&M was intended to serve the children of the "industrious classes." The "industrious classes" were, quite simply, the working families of America. They manned the factories, the farms, the ranches, and the small businesses. Their sons and daughters needed a fair break at getting an education. And in athletic endeavors, these sturdy young men and women would prove to be more than the equal of those at the larger, more urban colleges.
In 1893, soon after the founding of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, an ‘Athletic Association’ was formed to promote sports and “physical culture.” Later-to-be-famous agriculturist, Fabian Garcia, was a founding student member. Association members were chosen by vote of faculty and students. The Association President was a faculty member who also served as coach of virtually all sports, male or female. Dues were assessed and several hundred dollars were raised each year, most notably for football, tennis, and women’s basketball.
Whereas men’s basketball was not played against outside teams until 1907, women’s basketball was an intercollegiate hit from the start. A team was formed in 1893 and journeyed to Albuquerque to play the ladies of UNM. The game was contested in a makeshift gym with baskets suspended by wires with no backboards. The Aggie women, unfortunately, lost by the resounding score of 4-2. But they rebounded quickly and soon became a strong team known throughout ‘the territory’ as the Aggiettes. Outfitted in long dresses emblazoned with a large “A C” for Agricultural College, they were formidable. Through the mid-1920s, the Aggiettes were the terrors of the New Mexico, West Texas, and Mexico. The sturdy farm and ranch gals trounced most of their foes, and were the uncrowned basketball champions of the region.
Large intramural ‘Play Days’ were held at College Field with the best competitors picked for Aggie teams that competed with others in track and field and tennis (which in some years had coed teams). Teams from other New Mexico colleges, area high schools, and El Paso military and business teams made up most of the competition. Located just southwest of the present-day intersection of Espina and University Streets, College Field was renamed Miller Field in 1908. Later in 1932, the main athletic facilities were moved to Quesenberry Field, a stadium (just south of present-day Williams Hall) that was named in honor of early Aggie footballer Joe Quesenberry, fiancé of long-time Registrar Era Rentfrow. Quesenberry was killed in combat in World War I, ending the engagement with Ms. Rentfrow, who became the long-time registrar at NM A&M, but never married.
Football was the most popular intercollegiate team sport and the Aggies were a rough and spirited bunch. The pre-1920s were the days of no helmets, little padding, and few passes. Under the tutelage of unpaid faculty members who doubled as coaches, the Aggies had a sparkling winning record of 32-18-7 from 1894 to 1910. The two best known early coaches were William Sutherland, and the indomitable John O. Miller who also served the college as registrar. These men were followed by a succession of fine coaches like Arthur Badenoch of the University of Chicago (an Amos Alonzo Stagg protegee) and Robert ‘Cap’ Brown of Dartmouth. From 1911 to 1928, the Aggie footballers were 76-47-6, including a 7-7-2 record against their big brothers from UNM.
The 20s were a time of great interest in college football with the likes of sports writer Grantland Rice and gridiron heroes such as Knute Rockne and his Four Horsemen at Notre Dame and the "Galloping Ghost", Red Grange at Illinois. College basketball, though hindered by unimaginative coaching and primitive dribbling and shooting techniques, was also growing in popularity. The legendary coach ‘Phog’ Allen of Kansas led a drive to create and organize coaching strategies and implement new rules aimed at improving the college game. The sports boom was felt even in sleepy little Las Cruces. Early Aggie opponents, which included teams like El Paso Cactus, El Paso YMCA, Waltz Independents, Las Cruces High, and 7th Cavalry (Troop L), had been replaced by Arizona, Sul Ross, and Hardin Simmons.
Meanwhile, President Kent and Professor Hugh Milton, later to become president, were involved in organizing an association of Southwestern universities that formed the Border Conference in the early 1930s. With Texas Tech, New Mexico, Arizona, Tempe (ASU), Texas College of Mines (UTEP), and Flagstaff Teachers (NAU), the Border Conference was prestigious company for a ‘cow college’ of only 500 students.
The Aggies' basketball court through most of the 1930s remained the incredibly tiny ‘Crackerbox.’ With a capacity of 200, mostly standing room on the elevated one lane running track suspended above the floor, the ‘Crackerbox’ took on an aura all its own. Alumnus Michael Taylor wrote a vivid description.
When erected in 1911 it had been considered an architectural wonder. In my day we wondered why. The spectators at a game sat in one of the narrow balconies on either side. The gym was a hot box and an echo chamber, and yet we loved it. Its very smallness made for a sort of enforced intimacy. All the college hops were held there. The stark interior imposed great difficulties on the decorating committees that labored for days before each dance. We were not critical, however, and when the lights were low and the music swelling, the old monstrosity became an enchanted pavilion. As you entered with your date on dance night you became aware of a strange aroma. This was due to the mingling of Evening in Paris, a popular, inexpensive perfume, and vinegar. The young ladies shampooed, of course, before such important occasions and many used vinegar in their rinses.
By today's standards, football and basketball games in the early 30s were low scoring, unimaginative affairs. Football was dominated by the box, single- and double-wing formations, plodding power sweeps and off-tackle plunges. The "pigskin" was large and round, requiring an odd flat-handed passing motion. The quarterback was "the man", carrying the ball 75 percent of the time, passing rarely, handing to the other backs occasionally, and punting often. Strategy dictated punting on third down if inside your own 40-yard line, and 18-20 punts a game were the norm.
In the Border Conference, interior linemen typically weighed 170 to 190 pounds and the backs 155 to 170. The Aggies were even smaller, and usually outweighed by 10 to 15 pounds per man. Black, high-topped, steel-cleated shoes, helmets without face guards, and small, rounded shoulder pads were standard. Substitution rules were harsh and most players went ‘both ways.’ Broken noses, dislocated fingers, cleat gashes, and utter exhaustion were all part of the game.
Basketball in the 20s and 30s was a small man's game. Players were seldom over 6'3", and more commonly 5'9" to 6'0". The standard shot was two handed. The jump shot was unknown, and dunks were extremely rare. Set shooters rained looping, back spinning shots on rims that were above the reach of the average player. Dribbling and ball handling skills were awkward, almost mechanical.
Most teams used deliberate teamwork and passing, though the Aggie teams of the mid-30s went against the grain and introduced the fast break with much success. Officiating was tight. ‘Banging’, hand-checking, and rough play were quickly whistled and, by the rules, four fouls meant disqualification. Typical scores were 33 to 26, and often the losing team was held to less than 20 points. A winning team with 65 points was virtually unheard of.
By 1933-34, the Aggie athletic program was on the upswing. Vaughn Corley, fresh from his success at Las Cruces High, was hired as an assistant to Coach Hines. Corley, who was in the first graduating class at Texas Tech, was pivotal in developing freshman teams in both basketball and football. He was also a trackman, and introduced track and field as a real varsity sport with obvious benefit to both the football and basketball programs. Cigar champing, wheeler dealer Dan Williams, a crony of new Democratic Governor Clyde Tingley, made the scene as a regent in 1933. Williams was also the County Road Superintendent, a powerful patronage-granting position in its day. He soon became President of the Board of Regents and led a much-needed drive for better facilities and funding for Aggie athletics.
In 1933 Coach Hines married Nona Mossman. Nona, a gay divorcee, was the daughter of Walter Chauncey and Annie Freeman Mossman of Mesquite. Raised on the Mossman cattle ranch, which stretched from the Organs to the Rio Grande, Nona had been educated in finishing school and women’s college in Texas. She was an accomplished musician, artist, and as a ranch girl, a fair athlete. She was instrumental in reforming a women's sports program at NM A&M, which had deteriorated during the late 1920s. Skill clubs were organized to promote "activities that may be adapted to the leisure time of after-school life." Captains were appointed as club leaders in activities such as volleyball, softball, basketball, tennis, hiking, rifle, and archery. An annual "Play Day" was reinstigated in Las Cruces for competition among "girls from the colleges in New Mexico." Although women’s sports were not at the ‘varsity level’, the women were at least competing again.
Over the next three years, 1936-38, the Aggie footballers continued their winning ways, going 20-8-3. They were paced by Lem Pratt and then Eddie Miller at quarterback, and by the great Joe Yurcic at tackle. In 1938, Eddie Miller was joined in a potent, speedy backfield comprised of Mert Gillis, Otis Shows, and ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith. With lights added to Quesenberry Field, night games and "huge crowds" of more than 5,000 fans were becoming commonplace in Las Cruces.
In 1938, despite tying for the Border Conference championship with a record of 7-2, a heartbreaking 6-2 loss to UNM put the Aggies out of, and the Lobos into the 1939 Sun Bowl against Utah. Losing to the Lobos had been bad enough, but added to a perceived "Miner conspiracy" to keep the Aggies out of the Sun Bowl, it was sour medicine indeed. A rally was held on campus to honor the players and soothe indignant students and fans. It featured the award winning Aggie band and pep squad, newly inaugurated President Milton, and Coaches Hines and Corley. Muttering was heard about getting even during the upcoming basketball season of 1938-39.
There was clearly reason for optimism in Las Cruces about the 1938-39 basketball season, and for despair in Albuquerque and El Paso. An example of Lobo frustration occurred in Albuquerque in March 1938 of the previous season. Trailing by 25 points and unable to influence the outcome "by howling for Aggie blood," the Lobo students tried distraction. A group of freshmen ran to the Aggie huddle during a timeout to present nippled milk bottles to the ‘farmers.’ To the delight of the crowd, Joe Jackson and Pecos Finley smiled, accepted the bottles, and calmly sucked down the refreshing liquid.
During the 1937-38 season, the Aggies were undefeated in the Border Conference and had extended their winning streak against the Lobos to nine and eventually to 17 by 1940. Over the same period, the Miners, termed the ‘muckers’ by the increasingly cocky Aggie student body, went down nine straight times and 11 - 2 overall. Over, the period 1934 to 1938, the Aggies were 82 and 32 with two Border Conference titles and two wins in the 1938 National Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament in Kansas City.
By winter 1938, the Aggies were legend in the Border Conference. They returned all five starters from the conference championship and NIB teams -- Joe Jackson, ‘Kiko’ Martinez, Pecos Finley, ‘Pucker’ Wood, and Mel Ritchey. All, save Ritchey, who was a fine end on the football squad, were all-conference. There simply was no team in the conference in their class. Though playing below their potential at times, the Aggies finished 19 - 3 overall, and 16 -2 in the conference to win a third straight title.
They relied on a dizzying fast break triggered by Jackson's rebounding and outlet passes, Martinez's ball handling and generalship, and Finley's running, Cousy-like one handers. A week after a thrilling victory over Texas Tech at Williams Gym, a telegram from the Metropolitan Sportswriters arrived at State College. The Aggies had been invited to the second annual National Invitation Tournament in New York City. The team left El Paso's Union Station by train amidst great ballyhoo. The entourage included Jerry and Nona Hines, Mr. and Mrs. Dan Williams, and Paul Walter of the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.
After a three-day trip, the Aggies arrived in Gotham and were awestruck. They toured the sites, including the Empire State Building, Radio City, the unfinished World's Fair site, Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Grant's Tomb, and the Statue of Liberty. They appeared on closed circuit TV, saw a hockey game at Madison Square Garden, and attended a dinner in their honor at Jack Dempsey's restaurant. The Manassa Mauler wowed the group with his charm and stories of his youth in northern New Mexico and Colorado. The Aggies, according to John Kieran of the New York Times, were colorful and resplendent in "ten-gallon hats, cowboy boots, fawn-colored corduroy pants, crimson [letter] jackets and cerise shirts! But they were great big fellows, so it was no laughing matter."
The Aggies drew the undefeated Long Island University Blackbirds as their first NIT opponent. Nona remembered Jerry as so nervous by game time that he mistook the Star Spangled Banner for Aggies Oh Aggies! Given little chance by the sophisticated New Yorkers, the Aggies set 14,443 fans in Madison Square Garden on their collective ears according to Arthur Daley of the NY Times.
Bee also installed a safetyman, football style, to guard the basket and inserted Dolly King, one of the first great collegiate black players, to help stem the tide. By halftime the talented Blackbirds had knotted the score at 29 to 29. With five minutes left the score was tied 42-42, when Pecos Finley, and then, Joe Jackson fouled out. The Aggies, who had complained about the smoky atmosphere and lack of ventilation in the Garden, finally wilted under the Blackbirds' depth. The final score was 52-45. L.I.U. would complete an unbeaten season and capture the mythical ‘National Championship’ by defeating Loyola in the final NIT game.
Several nights later and to the delight of 18,000 newly found fans, the Aggies defeated a 21-2 Roanoke College team in a consolation game. The game was much different than the earlier encounter with L.I.U. This time it was Roanoke jumping to a 22-10 lead before Martinez, Jackson, and Finley sparked the Aggies to a 55-52 victory.
Returning by way of Washington D.C., the Aggie group toured the sights and lunched with Senators Dennis Chavez and Carl Hatch and Congressman John Dempsey. Arriving by train in El Paso on March 23, The Aggies were met by the band and pep squad and hundreds of well wishers who convoyed them to Las Cruces. They hadn't won the NIT but it was a proud and exciting time for all of New Mexico.
By 1940 the traditional spring winds and the foreboding "winds of war" were both blowing strongly at State College. As battery commander of the 120th Combat Engineers, a New Mexico National Guard unit assigned to the 45th Infantry Division, Coach Hines and a number of Las Cruces men were among the first called to duty by the impending war. Many other Aggies were activated early and sent to the Philippines with New Mexico’s other guard unit, the 200th Coast Artillery. Still others, many of whom were ROTC graduates, were rushed to the Philippines to bolster the green Filamerican forces that awaited attack by the Japanese.
By Registrar Era Rentfrow's records, more than 2,100 Aggies would serve in the military. At least 130 would lose their lives.
Among the ex-athletes killed were the beloved Ray McCorkle, Jesse Mechem and Pecos Finley. McCorkle died on Bataan in early 1942 leading an infantry attack on the Japanese. Lt. Colonel Mechem, in command of the 382nd Infantry Batallion of the 96th Division, died in combat on Leyte during the retaking of the Philippines in October 1944. Finley died of dysentery in a POW camp in June 1942 after surviving the Bataan Death March.
World War II effectively ended a glorious chapter in the history of Aggie sports. The dedication of Aggie Memorial Stadium on the site of Quesenberry Field in 1950 recognized the wartime sacrifices of NM A&M students and faculty. And it also symbolized the remembrance of a proud athletic tradition. That tradition, founded in competition and in the striving for success by the young men and women of the “industrious classes,” is still there in two tangible forms – the second Aggie Memorial Stadium dedicated in 1978, and by the twelve names of the pre-WW II members of the Aggie Sports Hall of Fame.
Walter Hines has a BS and MS in Civil Engineering from NMSU ('66,'67) and is a Senior Project Manager with the consulting firm, CH2M HILL in Albuquerque, NM. Born in Las Cruces, he is the son of Jerry Hines, former Aggie athlete, head football/basketball coach and athletic director at New Mexico A&M, now known as NMSU, from 1929-40, and 1946-47. Hines' mother, Nona led the women's sports program at New Mexico A&M from 1933-40. Walter won the 1999 James F. Cole Award for service and the 2000 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from NMSU in 2000. He is also the author of the book Aggies of the Pacific War: NM A&M College and the War with Japan.