With the school’s recent rallying around the men’s soccer team after a record-breaking season, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams beginning their seasons, The Weekly is taking a moment to look back at what sports mean to the Muhlenberg community. Not now, but during World War II.
On Sept. 25, 1941, Jack Blair ‘38 wrote one of the first letters archived in the Trexler Library Special Collection from World War II. Blair had recently started basic training as a paratrooper, an experience that in later letters he would detail as a grueling process that included crawling through animal feces to simulate the smell of casualties on the battlefield. Blair, an exceptional athlete in his time, was best known for his contributions in the win against Vince Lombardi and the Fordham Rams, reached out to his teammate and friend Charles L. Garrettson ‘39. Since graduation Garretson had continued to work at the College, continuing his commitment to his peers that he had displayed as a leader in football and basketball as well as president of ATO. Blair could not foresee his approaching deployment to the pacific front writing that he “Will try to arrange to get up and see Muhlenberg play sometime this fall. Am playing professional ball on Sundays and am making almost as much money for an hour’s work of football than I do in the army for one whole month!” For Blair, Muhlenberg and football were two parts of his life that provided stability in a country that was on the brink of entering another world war, with him on the front lines.
Once deployed, Blair wrote to the Fister about the Muhlenberg alumni he ran into on the front lines on Oct. 11, 1942. As he met with them he would reminisce on his days in Berks hall, now East, saying “[he and William Laing] wished our other roommates were with us—Eagle [‘39] & Farrell [‘39].”
In the years to come many Muhlenberg soldiers would continue to look to reconnect with the sports that had filled their college days. One Muhlenberg staff member was essential to keeping the red doors open for the men fighting abroad. Gordon Fister, the director of public relations, wrote weekly about campus events including the scores and success of the Muhlenberg football and basketball teams.
Wilmer Cressman ‘42, in his time at ‘Berg, was an editor for The Muhlenberg Weekly and was praised for his exemplary communication skills. Once deployed to the navy as a Lieutenant, Cressman was elected as one of the key writers in the alumni magazine that was sent out to the troops.
After graduation Cressman had moved to Notre Dame, IN to train as an apprentice shipman before leaving for the navy. On Oct. 12, 1942 he wrote to inform John Wagner the Alumni Secretary, of his new address adding that “It is a grand place, though if you’ve never seen this campus and all of us are admitted to home football games free-that’s how we saw Stanford-Notre Dame last Saturday. But it was a disappointing game-I’ve seen a lot of Berg games better played. And I’ve noticed our boys are really playing ball this season if that Gettysburg score is any indication.”
Indeed, the Gettysburg game had been a triumphant demonstration of the Mules resolution with “A spine-tingling 50-yard pass play in the final period brought victory over a favored Gettysburg eleven the following week-end,” as described by the 1943 edition of The Muhlenberg Ciarla. Over the course of the next few years Cressman would continue to write letters about his prized Mules. On Sept. 11, 1943, the Mules faced off with Yale University’s Bulldogs in their first game of the season, suffering a 13-6 loss. Nonetheless Cressman held out hope, writing a week later that “The news of Berg’s first football game with Yale was good reading, even though it wasn’t a victory. Sounded like a good game, and even the pre-write made the radio and newspapers around here. I’d like a schedule so that if luck is with me I can perhaps get back for a home game.” Still, he held out hope that he could return home to the game and campus he loved. Even as the years at sea passed by and Muhlenberg football sank deeper into their slump Cressman wrote home on Oct. 10 1944 “It’s a fighting team, planting right down to the very last minute of the game and that’s something we can be proud of regardless of the score,”.
In the winters, Muhlenberg soldiers turned their attention to basketball, just as we are still doing 80 years later. The 1940’s saw the rise of exceptional play in Memorial Hall as teams were led by Doggie Julian. Under Julian, the Muhlenberg basketball program would set three all-time records for most wins in a season and produce a win percentage of .640 from 1936-1945. For the boys on the front lines every drive to the basket and pass was detailed in their alumni letters. On Dec. 13, 1944, Fister reached out to Warren Himmelberger ‘43 to inform him of the Basketball team’s recent success, “I suppose you have heard of the great record the basketball team is making. We won our fifth straight on Saturday when we ran Lehigh [University] all around Rockne Hall, even with the bench cleaned. Of course, we don’t expect the boys to win every game, but from the looks of things, they’ll come through with a record 66 which all of us can be proud. That’s the kind of news we like to pass on to you fellows because it gives you something else to stick your chest out about.” The Weekly reported that “An unusually weak Lehigh University basketball team made it easy for Muhlenberg’s quintet to register the fifth win of the season last Saturday night at Rockne Hall, 67-25.”
Then on Feb. 4, 1945, Himmelberger wrote to Fister about his high aspirations for the basketball team, “Naturally I’m following the basketball scores. I was afraid of those Owls, but perhaps if Baldwin gets back into shape, we shall have a chance at a Garden invitation — which is the important thing anyway.” An invitational that may seem foreign to current Muhlenberg fans, but at the time was on the minds of many Mules across the world. The Garden Invitational was the NCAA competition of the time when eight elite schools would go head to head in Madison Square Garden for the National Championship. From 1944-1946 Muhlenberg made 3 appearances progressing as far as the semifinals in 1946 with a win against the Syracuse Orange.
After receiving a letter detailing Himmelbergers gratitude for Fister’s constant support, wrote in response, “Your letter was very kind and those words of praise I’ll modestly admit struck a warm spot. In this busy life everybody leads, I think too many of us are prone to forget to slap a fellow on the back every now and then. Most of us will work without the pat but perhaps with a pat we work just a little bit harder.”