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The Casual Fan's Guide to the College World Series

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For the next two weeks, the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball returns to the grand stage. The 62nd College World Series begins Saturday at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, with eight teams—the survivors of what began as a 64-team tournament—divided into two brackets vying for a national championship. A double-elimination format will decide the two bracket winners, who will play a best-of-three championship series beginning June 23. To make sure you're sufficiently prepared, here are answers to eight questions about the CWS.

When was the first College World Series?

California defeated Yale in the first College World Series, which was played at Hyames Field in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1947. The CWS returned to Kalamazoo in 1948, moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1949, and has been played in Omaha since 1950. Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964 to honor mayor Johnny Rosenblatt's role in bringing baseball to the city, where more than 6 million fans have walked through the turnstiles at the CWS since 1950. While there was some speculation that the CWS might be on the move again in the near future, those concerns were put to rest earlier this week when the local organizing committee for the event signed a contract to keep the World Series in Omaha through 2035.

cws3.jpgWhat's that big dome beyond the right field bleachers of Rosenblatt Stadium?
That's the Desert Dome, an 84,000-square-foot geodesic dome that includes 1,760 glazed panels and would likely make Buckminster Fuller blush. The $31.5 million structure, which opened in 2002 as part of the Henry Doorly Zoo, features plant and animal life from three deserts: the Namib of Africa, the Red Center of Australia, and the Sonoran of the United States. A 55-foot mountain divides the three deserts in the dome, which is 13 stories tall, and two 20,000-gallon underground tanks collect rainwater. As for the chances of a player hitting a "dome run" during the CWS, well, it would take about a 600-foot blast.

Who are some of the greatest players to play in the CWS?
bonds-sundevils.jpgAmong the list of Most Outstanding Player recipients are such notables as Dave Winfield, Bob Horner, Terry Francona, Calvin Schiraldi and Pat Burrell. Several other players delivered memorable performances in Omaha. In 1965, Ohio State pitcher Steve Arlin compiled 20 strikeouts in a 15-inning shutout win over Washington State in an elimination game. Texas pitcher Roger Clemens anchored one of the most formidable starting rotations in CWS history in 1982, while Barry Bonds made two trips to the CWS with Arizona State and tied a tournament record with eight consecutive hits in 1984. Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura stretched his hitting streak to 57 games "“ one more than Joe Dimaggio's MLB record—in the first game of the 1987 CWS. And with his team trailing Miami 8-7 with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 1996 championship game, Warren Morris hit the most memorable home run in CWS history—his only home run of the season.

What about players who later made names for themselves outside of baseball?
george-bush-yale.jpgPerhaps you've heard that George H.W. Bush played in the first College World Series as first baseman for Yale. As team captain, he led Yale back to Kalamazoo in 1948, only to watch from the on-deck circle as Southern California clinched its first title with a game-ending triple play. Perhaps you didn't know that John Peterman—the catalog entrepreneur who operates the J. Peterman Company and who was the inspiration for the Seinfeld character Jacopo Peterman—also played in the College World Series. The real J. Peterman, who is not to be confused with the actor John O'Hurley (above), hit .450 for the 1962 Holy Cross team that won the CWS title and later played three seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system.


Why do so many players stand outside of the dugout?
Watch any CWS game and you're unlikely to see many players sitting in the Rosenblatt Stadium dugouts. Instead, teams generally stand as close to the field as they are allowed, providing the ideal location to see and be seen. There's generally as much action on the top step of each dugout as there is on the field, with players engaging in team-specific dugout rituals (see the video below) and chatter. One of the most common rituals involves "deuces," the term used to describe the situation when there are two balls, two strikes, and two outs in an inning. It's also common for players to don rally caps when trailing late in a game, and teams aren't above bringing good luck charms to Omaha. LSU, for instance, kept a miniature toilet coin bank in its dugout in 1997 and 1998. The idea was that a player who had a bad at-bat or made an error in the field could flush away the memory when he returned to the dugout.

What was Gorilla Ball?
Gorilla Ball was the term used by LSU manager Skip Bertman and popularized by the CWS media to describe the power-hitting approach that led the Tigers to four championships in the 1990s. Gorilla Ball reached its peak in the 1998 championship game (the best-of-three championship series wasn't added until 2003) when Southern California staved off Arizona State in a 21-14 slugfest. The game lasted four hours and included nine home runs by eight players, 39 hits, and 10 pitchers. Jim Wright of the NCAA had the unenviable task of compiling a list of all of the records that were set that day. "It'll be at least an hour, and I may not have all of them then," he told the media after the game. Aluminum bats were introduced to college baseball in 1974 and by the height of Gorilla Ball bat technology was making a mockery of the minimal restrictions placed on bat size and weight, as well as the game. New bat restrictions followed for the 1999 season and offensive production has since declined to less absurd levels.

Speaking of gorillas, does the CWS have a mascot?
Not anymore. John Routh served as "Maniac"—an "orange anteater/pig with a big snout, a big belly and big baseball shoes," as he described it—for 11 years before he was fired in 1992. That ended a magical, maniacal run for Routh, who maniac.jpgdebuted at the CWS in 1981 as "Cocky," South Carolina's student mascot. After graduating from South Carolina, Routh accepted a job as the University of Miami's mascot, "Maniac." He was so popular in Omaha that NCAA director of men's championships Jerry Miles decided to make him the CWS's official mascot. Routh's routine was reminiscent of the San Diego Chicken's. In 1988, he danced the hokey-pokey with all six umpires before the eighth inning of the nationally televised championship game. Fearful that such antics would compromise the integrity of the game, the NCAA Baseball Committee warned Routh that he could no longer include umpires as part of his routine. Four years and one contract dispute later, at "the very strong suggestion" of the same committee Routh was fired. He wasn't out of a high-profile gig for long, however, as he became the original "Billy the Marlin" for the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993.

What school has won the most titles?
Southern California has won a record 12 titles in 21 appearances. All but one of the Trojans' titles—including five straight from 1970-74—came under the leadership of legendary manager Rod Dedeaux. Texas has made a CWS record 32 appearances and boasts six titles, while Arizona State and LSU have won five titles apiece. Florida State, which opens this year's CWS on Saturday with a game against Stanford, hopes to shed its dubious distinction as the team that has made the most trips to Omaha (18 not counting this season) without winning it all.

Scott Allen is an occasional contributor to mental_floss, covering such topics as The Bud Bowl, the original American Gladiators and lavish dog spas across America.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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