All-American Makes Switch to Baseball: Tebow? No, Boudreau
Vince Guerrieri | On 31, Aug 2016
So Tim Tebow’s decided to give baseball a shot.
Tebow, who won a national title at the University of Florida but has had a limited career in the NFL, wouldn’t be the first Heisman Trophy winner to go pro in a sport other than (or addition to) football. Elyria’s own Vic Janowicz played briefly for the Pirates, Charlie Ward played in the NBA, and Bo Jackson memorably tried to play in the NFL and Major League Baseball at the same time.
The Indians’ Twitter account joked about Tebow being signed by the Indians (they made a similar statement when Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from the NBA), but the Tribe was one of 20 teams that scouted Tebow at a private workout Tuesday. I have to believe it’s unlikely that the Indians will take a flyer on him, but it’s worth noting that a Tribe Hall of Famer had a brief pro career in a sport other than baseball.
In high school, Lou Boudreau was known as a basketball player. In fact, his alma mater of Thornton Township High School didn’t even have a baseball team, but he was to the manner born. His father and namesake was a renowned semi-pro baseball player.
Boudreau entered the University of Illinois in 1936, where he was captain of the baseball and basketball teams. The Illini won the Big Ten title in basketball in 1937, and Boudreau was an all-American the following year. But he’d attracted the notice of pro scouts for his hometown Cubs and legendary Indians scout Cy Slapnicka.
The pro sports landscape was vastly different in the 1930s than it is today. The NFL had been charted in 1920, and pro football was still regarded as secondary to the college game. The NHL was a fringe league, and there was no NBA as it’s now known. In every league except Major League Baseball, teams came and went as casualties of the Depression or plain old fan indifference.
In the winter of 1938, Boudreau signed a contract – to play professional basketball in the National Basketball League. Like the early NFL, it was made up of teams in industrial cities along the Great Lakes, and in 1949, the remnants of the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America, formed three years earlier, to become the NBA.
Boudreau played for the Hammond Ciesar All-Americans, averaging a little more than 8 points a game for a team that went 4-24. His teammates included a Purdue graduate who played professional basketball on the side while teaching and coaching at a local high school. After World War II, he entered the college coaching ranks, and John Wooden went on to bigger and better things.
Eventually, so did Boudreau. He coached the All-Americans briefly the following season, after playing 53 games with the Indians, but left pro basketball behind based on the counsel of his father, who said he had more of a future playing pro baseball than pro basketball.
In 1940, he was the everyday shortstop for the Indians, and two years later, after manager Roger Peckinpaugh was promoted to general manager, Boudreau became the team’s player-manager (basketball had taken a toll on his ankles, as arthritis there kept him from going into the service in World War II). His crowning achievement as manager was 1948, when the Indians beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff to take the American League pennant, and then won the World Series in six games against the Boston Braves. It remains the Indians’ last World Series win (oddly enough, both Indians World Series wins came guided by player-managers: Boudreau and Tris Speaker in 1920).
The 1948 season was Boudreau’s high-water mark in baseball. Two years later, he was gone from Cleveland. He played briefly in Boston and managed the Red Sox, and had a brief stint managing the Athletics, but after he was fired as the Athletics’ manager, he moved into the broadcast booth in Chicago – permanently, he thought.
He had one last adventure managing, though. In 1960, he was calling Cubs games for WGN. Charlie Grimm was the manager, and on May 4, Grimm decided he’d had enough of managing. So he and Boudreau switched for the rest of the season. Grimm went to the broadcast booth and Boudreau went to the dugout. The following year, the Cubs adopted their infamous college of coaches, and Boudreau went back to broadcasting.
He never really totally left basketball behind, though. While he was playing for the Indians, he served as a freshman basketball coach at Illinois, and in the 1960s, not only was he a broadcaster for the Cubs, he called Bulls games for the team’s first two years in the NBA. He even did postgame interviews for the Blackhawks.
Boudreau was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970. He died in 2001.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project