The Age of Athletes

The hardships of World War II brought students together to form some of the closest communities in school history. To this day, alumni from the 1940s gather to talk about old times, just as grads from other eras do, but their spirit and their affection for the school seems stronger, forged from the suffering and prayer that were part of that era.

The 1940s also proved to be a watershed decade for Wildcat sports. The decade that saw the start of the Bruce-Mahoney Trophy games also saw the inauguration of the John E. Brophy Award along with heated basketball match-ups with Kevin O’Shea ’43 leading the Wildcats to a celebrated city championship over Lowell and the varsity football team defeating Polytechnic on Thanksgiving Day 1945, 13–7 for the city championship, led by coach John Golden. His team appeared before a crowd of 30,000 at Kezar Stadium with Poly the favorite, having won the Northern California Championship the previous year. But an SI fullback, senior Gordon MacLachlan, helped SI win 13–7 with a 48-yard run to the end zone and another TD from Mike Ryan. The basketball team recaptured the AAA crown in 1947, led by coach Phil Woolpert and remarkable play by George Moscone ’47, Cap Lavin ’48 and All-City Laurie Rebholtz ’47. (Cap Lavin, recalls classmate John Savant, “was a gifted passer who could get the ball to a teammate under the basket leaving his opponents flatfooted.” Lavin went on to become a legendary coach and teacher in Marin and helped to start the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley.) SI’s outstanding “mermen,” who included Phil Guererro, Jerry Brucca and Jack McGrowan, helped SI’s swimming team finish first in AAA competition in 1946 through 1948.

“This was war time, and outside of the San Francisco Seals, there were no professional teams competing,” recalled Grealish, who was named to the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame in 1995. “The sports pages were pretty tough to fill. More often than not, you’d see banner headlines in the Chronicle reading ‘SI beats Balboa,’ followed by a blow-by-blow description of the game. This attention, and the fact that we beat Lowell in the final seconds in 1943, lent an artificial importance to high school sports. We had a tremendous amount of school spirit. It wasn’t uncommon to see 800 SI students walking down Stanyan Street to Kezar to watch a basketball game. We’d fill an entire side of Kezar with white shirts, and our games would draw capacity crowds of 6,600 fans. I don’t know how else to describe that spirit except as a big togetherness that we all felt. Maybe it was because the war was hanging over our heads. Perhaps, because of that spirit, we experienced a lot of success then.”

The success was also due to some talented coaches. Alex Schwartz, who served as head varsity football coach from 1942 to 1944, joined the athletic department in September 1940 after a successful career playing for USF. At one point, he coached football and basketball for SI — the sports he excelled in while at Mission High and USF. (Schwartz made the All-Pacific Coast football team in 1936 and 1937 and served as captain of the ’37 squad.)

While Schwartz was finishing his degree at USF, coaching frosh football there and working at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island (running the lost and found department), his close friend Fr. Ray Feeley, SJ, told him of job openings for football coaches in Los Angeles and Denver. “My wife said she wasn’t about to leave San Francisco,” said Schwartz. Then in 1940, Fr. Feeley called him again to tell him of another job. “This one you can’t turn down,” he told me. “It’s at SI.” The starting monthly pay: $80.

His first year, Schwartz served as the football team’s line coach under Red Vaccaro, and in his second year, he took over the JV team. In 1942, when Vaccaro became the athletic director, Schwartz took over the head coach’s job. He coached standout players, including Bob Muenter, Don Gordon, Val Molkenbuhr, Charley Helmer, Dan Coleman, Dick Cashman, Bill and Bob Corbett, Jim Canelo and Jack Burke, who was also a champion discus thrower. However, though his expertise was in football, Schwartz gained more fame for coaching basketball when his 1943 team turned in an undefeated season.

Schwartz’s basketball career began when one coach left to join the California Highway Patrol mid-season, and Schwartz stepped in, getting advice from Bob Kleckner at USF. “SI had not won a single game that season before I took over, and it didn’t win a game when I first started coaching.” Despite the regular season losses, Schwartz’s team went on to win the Catholic school tournament at St. Mary’s College that year.

In 1942, Schwartz’s team featured the skillful play of John LoSchiavo ’42 (later to become president of USF) and came in second in the league, losing to Poly. “When I came back to school, I saw the principal, Fr. King, who said, “’Tis well we lost. The boys were getting too excited.” I responded: “You mean to tell me that you want your debating teams to come in second?”

Schwartz coached without an on-campus gym. He reserved the gym at Everett Junior High on 17th and Church Streets for his basketball team, but with school letting out at 3:15 p.m., students would take an hour by bus to get to the gym, leaving them less than an hour for practice. To speed up their trip, Schwartz bought a 1936 Ford panel truck and put seats in the back to carry two teams and manager Harry “Dutch” Olivier ’44 (later to become a Jesuit) to the gym, cutting travel time to 15 minutes.

The opportunity arose in 1943 to buy a bus when Student Body President Val Molkenbuhr ’43 convinced his father and uncle to make a donation to the school. “It was a goodly amount, but not quite enough for a new bus,” said Schwartz. He later saw an ad for used Army buses and drove down to San Luis Obispo to inspect them. There he ran into a mechanic he knew from the city who told him to buy a certain bus, as it had a brand-new engine. “I figured with the sale of the truck and the donation, I could swing it,” said Schwartz. “I came back and told Fr. King. He had to think it over. A few days later, he told me that my request had been denied. ‘You’re spoiling the kids,’ he told me. ‘No Jesuit school has a bus, not even USF.’”

Schwartz’s reflection on that decision was simple. “Those were interesting years.”

Despite the lack of sophisticated transportation, the 1943 team went undefeated. “You have no idea how exciting that was,” said Schwartz, who was carried, along with O’Shea, on the shoulders of rooters to the dressing room. The starting five that year included Kevin O’Shea, Harvey Christensen, Jack Scharfen, Jim Beeson and Tom Flaherty.

O’Shea wasn’t the only great athlete to be influenced by Schwartz. Jack Grealish ’44, a four-sport student, used to play baseball and then have Schwartz drive him in his truck to a track meet, with Grealish changing uniforms in the cab.

Schwartz spotted another great athlete, Joe McNamee ’44, playing intramural basketball at SI. “I saw him playing hunch at noontime and asked him to come out for the team. He said he couldn’t because he had size 14 feet and couldn’t find sneakers big enough to fit him. I called a sporting goods store in the city, and they told me to try a store in Oakland, which did stock shoes that size. I drove there, bought the shoes and gave them to Joe. He joined the team and turned out to be a good player for SI and USF.” McNamee eventually played professionally for the Rochester Royals in the 1950–51 season.

Schwartz also had high praise for Rene Herrerias ’44, who in February 1944 against the Lincoln Mustangs, was the first lightweight player ever to score 27 points in a single game. “In those days, an entire team might score 25 points in one game.” Herrerias later went on to great fame coaching for SI (and later UC Berkeley), leading the Wildcats to four AAA championships (1951 and 1954–56) and two Tournament of Champions victories in 1954 and 1955.

In 2004, Schwartz was inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame for his talented coaching at SI, Mission and City College.