If an historian researching the 1930s read only the sports pages he could easily conclude there was no such thing as a Depression. Never had so many sports entrepreneurs attempted new ventures as they did in this decade. On a typical summer day in 1937 a sports fan could spend the afternoon at Delaware Park with the thoroughbreds and that night enjoy outdoor boxing or auto racing in Elsmere or perhaps drive down to Dover for some minor league baseball.
Hard times did not inhibit hard play. Rock Manor Golf Club issued a record 35,247 golf permits in 1931, at the height of the Depression. And in the 1930s, like the first tiny mammals that scurried under the feet of the dinosaurs, softball began appearing in Delaware. The game was tailor-made for the Depression. At the time only the catcher and first baseman used gloves so with a bat, ball and two gloves you had a game.
In 1933 only 14 teams entered the first state softball tournament but by 1936 there were 15 leagues and 2000 softballers, including Milford and Dover. In 1937 the All-Wilmington baseball league, which had been a fixture in Delaware for a quarter-century, stopped play. By the end of the decade baseball was nearly extinct as an adult recreation. There was not even a decent baseball diamond left in Wilmington. One observer concluded, “People aren’t satisfied just to watch sports in this day and age, they want to take part. Golf and softball (the fast-pitch variety) are drawing tremendously in this respect.”
And if you couldn’t afford to go to a game or play a game you could always listen to a game on the wireless. The University of Delaware began radio broadcasting its football games in 1936, the first regular Delaware sports programming.
The Depression’s most direct effect on Delaware athletics was on the sporting laws. Boxing was legalized in 1931 after an 18-year battle and in 1935 ballplaying on Sundays was OKed in Wilmington. Both measures helped provide jobs and stimulate the economy to a small degree.
But the biggest boon to the state coffers was the passing of legislation to allow betting on horse racing. It was no secret why Delawareans were now allowed to go to the track and drop $2 on their favorite nag. Prominently reported along with the race results was how much money was sent to the Delaware treasury. And it wasn’t just Delawareans who were encouraged to bet. The state placed signs all along Delaware’s borders to instruct visitors of the way to Delaware Park.
The opening of William du Pont’s magnificent Delaware Park in 1937 was a watershed in Delaware sports history. The racing plant in Stanton cost a million dollars; $50,000 was spent on shrubbery alone. It was big league sports in little Delaware. And it blazed a trail for other sports. Within three years there would also be professional baseball, football and basketball in Delaware.
First State Sports Hero of the Decade: Jimmy Caras
Like another fellow who would one day become famous, Jimmy Caras was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania but grew up in Wilmington. After his Greek immigrant father moved to Delaware to run a pool hall Jimmy earned money as a teenage hustler. His prowess earned him an exhibition match in 1926 against Ralph Greenleaf who the New York Times would remember as doing for pocket billiards “what Babe Ruth did for baseball, Dempsey did for fighting, Tilden did for tennis.”
Greenleaf himself had honed his game in Wilmington after his father had moved from Monmouth, Illinois to manage the Royal Billiard Parlor at 8th & Market in 1915. By the time he won his first world pocket billiards title in 1919 at the age of 20 - the youngest champion ever - Greenleaf was already acclaimed as the “greatest white ball player in the history of his game” for his knack at positioning the cue ball. Greenleaf would hold the world title for nine years in the 1920s. In a decade of dominant sports champions none was more impregnable in his game than Greenleaf. Greenleaf dismissed young Caras as too inexperienced for his exhibition.
Still, when no one else of compatible skill showed up to challenge the champion Caras was called into the 100-ball match. Up first in front of a crowd of over 300, Caras ran off a string of 87 balls before missing. Greenleaf took the table and appeared to be a winner when he pocketed his first 97 balls. But a miss on the 98th ball proved fatal as Caras dropped his final 13 balls to stun the world champion.
Caras was hailed as the “Boy Wonder of the World” and later remembered that Greenleaf’s wife, a vaudeville actress named Princess Nai Tai Tai admonished the stunned stickman, “What? A world champion? And you let a high school kid beat you?”
Six years later the two men would meet again - this time in the national championships. At the nationals ten men would gather, playing each competitor once in a game to 125; the player with the best nine-match record winning the title. In 1932, Caras, playing in his first nationals, was matching Greenleaf win for win. When it came down to the two men with Wilmington ties, Greenleaf, now living in New York City, captured his 12th title.
Caras would again be runner-up in 1933 before breaking through for the championship in 1935, winning 7 of 9 matches with Greenleaf and defending title holder Andrew Ponzi absent. In 1937 Greenleaf, Ponzi and Caras were part of an historic four-way tie for top honors and after a second round-robin elimination only the three ex-champions were left to shoot-out for the title, a celestial triumvirate from which Greenleaf would emerge the winner.
The 1938 championship again played out into a three-way tie. This time Caras downed Ponzi and newcomer Willie Mosconi to bring his second title back to Delaware and his Tenth Street Billiard Parlor. In the ensuing years Caras would carry the name of Wilmington, Delaware across the country in over 1500 exhibitions.
After World War II Caras moved to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania where he would win more titles in the late 1940s, the product of Wilmington billiard halls still dominating the pocket billiard world. He spent much of his time traveling the world as an ambassador for Brunswick, a leadign maker of pool cues.
In 1967, at the age of 57, he got a hankering to see if he could still compete at the highest level of the game and beat a field of 47 of the world’s best players in St. Louis and capture another championship, this time called the U.S. Open.
In 1976 Caras was voted as a charter member of the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. The next year the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame came calling. Billiards Digest would come to rank Jimmy Caras as the 10th best player of the 20th century.
Caras was still showing up at his local billiards hall in his 90s in Jacksonville, Florida each day to shoot a few racks. Yet he never tired of telling stories from his days in Wilmington when he would come into the pool hall after school and his father would have set up $100 matches for him. His favorite tale was about the time he glanced in the cash register and saw only $35. When he asked his father what would happen if he lost his father just told him he wouldn’t lose. “Talk about pressure,” Caras liked to say.
Delaware Falls Hard for Tom Thumb Golf
Garnet Carter was a traveling salesman with a promoter’s soul. He left the road in 1928 to settle on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee to build a resort and golf course. He also added a small miniature golf course on the property he called Tom Thumb Golf.
Carter’s Tom Thumb Golf was so popular that the grass greens wilted under the foot traffic. A new product made of ground cotton hulls called GrassIt was the ideal remedy. He added a patent for a miniature golf course design with hollow logs as hazards to the grass carpet patent and sold “Tom Thumb Golf” kits for $2,000, including shipping. America was about to be swept up in miniature golf mania.
By 1930 there were an estimated 25,000 miniature golf courses across the United States, set up in office buildings and vacant lots and college campuses. Miniature golf made its appearance in Delaware in 1930 when John Metz opened a course at 32nd and Broom Streets in Wilmington. In quick order there was the Rodney Square Miniature Golf Course at 12th and Market, the Robyn Hude Course at 10th and West streets and The Premier on 3106 Market Street. In Newark a Tom Thumb course was laid out on the University Green.
The Delaware state championships, with both the men’s and women’s winner going to the national Open in Chatannoga, were organized with qualifying targets set - 52 for the men and 62 for the ladies. Hundreds of Wilmingtonians, including the mayor, tried their luck at this new putting game. The eventual men’s champion was David Killinger, a 28-year old wire operator for the telephone company, who shot a 123, three under par for three tours of The Premier course.
Mrs. Louis Haywood survived the woman’s final, 150-154, when her opponent suffered through an 11 on the 27th hole - no mandatory 6 here. At the nationals Killinger finished five rounds of play at 264, 40 over par and 41 behind the winner. Mrs. Haywood shot a 302 to stumble home 25 strokes back of the leader.
The miniature golf mania spawned what was said to be the largest indoor layout in the United States in the former basketball court and skating rink at 11th and Madison streets. The Auditorium Country Club encompassed 9000 square feet. Spacious felt fairways stretched four feet across with plenty of sporty obstacles including traps, rough and water hazards. The highlight of the loop was a 50-foot putt across a long wooden bridge. The ceilings were painted an azure blue to enhance the illusion of real golf. A mini-clubhouse on the stage overlooked the course.
But like roller skating before it the putting craze in Delaware subsided almost before it began. Tom Thumb Golf was but a brief diversion from the dreary days of the Great Depression.
In 1930 the Delaware Whippet Club ran dogs at the Elsmere track on the old State Fairgrounds. Most Delawareans had no idea what a whippet was and the venture met with considerable curiosity. The track featured a 200-yard straightaway with six lanes and was considered one of the swiftest in the country. High speed photography was used to call the break-neck finishes.
The 7-race cards went off under floodlights at 9:00 p.m. Included in the races were popular steeplechase events for the lightning quick canines. Most of the finishes were cavalry charges in just under 12 seconds but the novelty of the whippets wore off without betting allowed. Crowds for the Wednesday and Thursday races began over 1000, with more than half women, but dwindled to fatal levels before the summer was through.
In 1937 the fates deprived Delawareans of seeing two of the top sports performers of the decade at the peak of their game.
Triple Crown winner War Admiral was nominated for the $10,000 Kent Handicap on the first racing card of the new Delaware Park but the son of the fabled Man O’ War hurt his leg in winning the Belmont Stakes and was scratched.
In the fall, the new Wilmington Clippers were poised to make their professional football debut against the NFL Washington Redskins. The Redskins came to town with their prized rookie making his professional debut - Sammy Baugh, football’s first ever pure passing star. Fresh from a storybook career at TCU Baugh’s big league bow was eagerly anticipated by sports fans across the country.
But rain washed out the Clippers-Redskins game on a Monday night and didn’t let up in time for the game to be played the next night. The Redskins and Baugh left town to embark on their NFL schedule, never to return.