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Kings of the Court: Carlton's improbable run 60 years ago

Reunion will spark talk of magical 1959 basketball season


July 26, 2019

When the Carlton basketball team came home from Hibbing in March of 1959, players decided to get a bite to eat at a diner in Cloquet. They were in a celebratory mood, after all. Against all odds, the Bulldogs had gone to the regionals and won it, earning them a spot in what then was the most-coveted high school sports achievement in Minnesota - a spot in the state basketball tournament.

But the road to that triumph included tiny Carlton knocking Cloquet out of the districts a week earlier. The Lumberjacks had been in the state tournament the year before and there were high hopes for a return. The upset caught attention across the state. In Minneapolis, a 39-year-old sportswriter for the Tribune, Sid Hartman, led his column with the news.

Having the Bulldogs invading a Cloquet restaurant didn't sit well with the Lumberjacks faithful.

Doug Anderson, a senior on the team, recalled this week that soon the local cop showed up at the diner and told the team to skedaddle. There was a mob forming blocks away.

Teammate Ron Martini confirmed the story, adding that "we got run out of town all the time."

It's difficult to overstate the rivalrous intensity between schools in Carlton County and the region in the 1950s and 1960s. It was the era of one-class basketball, and all the teams played each other for the right to go to State and represent the north.

"You wouldn't believe it," Anderson said of the rivalries.

He spoke from his Carlton County home in Blackhoof Township, across County Road 105 from the farm he grew up on. This weekend will afford another opportunity to reminisce about the Bulldogs' improbable run that led to the state title game at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The Class of 1959 is having a reunion marking 60 years since graduation. Martini, who lives in the Twin Cities area, and Anderson both plan to attend.

Many of their teammates have died. There are only so many more chances to recall that glorious March run.

It wasn't until 1955 that a Carlton County team broke through to State. Esko won the consolation title. Cloquet reached the tournament in 1958 and fizzled. Then came Carlton and two more appearances by Cloquet in 1962 and 1963. By 1971, the Minnesota State High School League created a two-class tournament and a bit of the magic was gone.

That 1963 tournament, with Cloquet representing Carlton County's last shot in one-class play, was marked by the Lumberjacks' one-point loss in the championship game to Marshall. It remains what is often considered the greatest tournament game ever played.

Players from the county went to the state tournament and maybe rooted, mildly, for a rival team. Martini recalls being inspired by the Esko feats in 1955. But in order to make their own run four years later, Bulldogs players would have to do it without their longtime coach.

Carlton players had been coached since seventh grade by John Vinje, and "he recognized that we had something," Martini said. He left Carlton in 1958 for a coaching job at his college alma mater, Bemidji State.

Anderson chokes up more than 60 years later when thinking about his mentor. "He gave us the fundamentals," he said. "He taught us those things."

There was an adjustment when 25-year-old Dick Nielsen replaced Vinje. The new coach ran a set offense. It was slower than players were used to, Anderson said, more deliberate. "Vinje liked the big-man-to-the-little-man pass and just go," Anderson said.

Nielsen was a tough personality, Martini said.

"He was a no-nonsense type. I remember that first practice. We never touched the ball. He ran our asses off and said if we didn't like it we could leave."

So there was some adjusting to do. The Bulldogs did not win the Polar League that year, thanks to two early losses. The season before they had gone undefeated in league play. By December of 1958, the team began to click, Anderson said. They lost a close game to Cloquet but never looked back. They wouldn't lose again until the state championship game.

"We bought into the new coach's system," Anderson said.

The Bulldogs won the league tournament and then got through Hermantown, Cotton and Cloquet to win the District 26 title and reach the Region 7 tournament. Anderson had a great regions run, going 10-10 at the line in a win against Chisholm and then hitting the winning free throw in a 62-61 win over International Falls. The Bulldogs were Region 7 champs and headed to Minneapolis.

It wasn't a burly Range team, or one of the behemoths from Duluth. Tiny Carlton was in the state tournament.

Anderson and Martini were starters along with Fred North, John Pierson and Dennis Bjork. They tended to be equal in their contributions; sometimes all five would score in double figures. Anderson said the only other Bulldog who played was Wayne Larson, and "he saved a lot of games for us." The other six Bulldogs were Grant Klosner, Ron Soderberg, Pete Pierson, Jim Haubner, Roger Jones and Roger Skelton.

When a small school reached the pinnacle of the basketball season back then, it was usually tapped as a Cinderella. But while Carlton got a lot of Twin Cities media press - and much more back home in the county and Duluth papers - there were other first-time teams who cut into the Carlton mystique. One of those was Wayzata, a team from what was then still a rural area around Lake Minnetonka west of Minneapolis.

Carlton opened the tournament with a win over Bemidji, then North St. Paul. Wayzata was the only team that stood in its way to an improbable title. Both Martini and Anderson said they had the better team. But Carlton played only six players and the style of play back then was the full-court press. Coach Nielsen and his players knew the wind had gone out of their sails against the Trojans, losing 55-41.

"We were just tired," Nielsen told the press after the game.

"We should have won the dang thing," Anderson said this week.

Had Carlton won it, they would have been the smallest school to do so. The next year, tiny Edgerton, still larger than Carlton, won the title and entered into Minnesota basketball lore. Nielsen left Carlton after just one season and went to Granite Falls, which had made it to the 1959 tourney and returned the next year.

Carlton's run was virtually forgotten as the decades rolled by. And the fever pitch of the one-class tournament also faded with two classes, now four, competing for titles based on school size.

Anderson and Martini said that while the state tournament experience was the thrill of their short lifetimes then, there remains one accomplishment beyond finishing second in the state that year. Both said maybe it shouldn't be printed in fear of upsetting some old-time rivals.

"Beating Cloquet," Martini said. That was enough for him, he said.

It comes up at the reunions and in daily conversations between old men who played basketball in Carlton County in that golden era. The rivalry remains, albeit with more good-natured ribbing than in the past.

Statewide obscurity for Carlton after finishing as runners-up is fine with Anderson.

"Cloquet knows who we are," he said.

*** Back in time ***

Here is a bit of a time capsule from march of 1959, when Carlton went to the premier event in Minnesota sports at the time, the Minnesota State Basketball Tournament.

Carlton High School in 1959 was about the size it is today. There were 26 seniors, two didn't graduate, and the school sat in a town with about 700 residents, just 150 or so fewer than today.

How small was Carlton compared to the usual schools that made it to the State Basketball Tournament in the 1950s? The school ran out of money for bus transportation. Bulldogs player Doug Anderson said the team had to hustle cars for trips to Hibbing in the regional and to Minneapolis for the state tournament. One coach had a DeSoto sedan that could fit five, the other had a station wagon that could fit the rest of the team. The cheerleaders and band were on their own.

It was estimated that 70 carloads of fans went to Hibbing on two nights to watch the Bulldogs win the region. It made many wonder how they would get into Williams Arena the next week for the big dance since the high school league only allowed tickets based on school size. Carlton got 100 tickets for adults and 50 for students. The 1959 tournament broke all current attendance records, with nearly 19,000 cramming into the University of Minnesota landmark for each game. The games were televised.

Some Carlton alums who lived in the Twin Cities area joined the school's tiny band at Williams Arena to bolster their volume in the 18,000-seat venue.

Apparently you could smoke in the Hibbing gym, as one of the more rabid Carlton fans, Mogan McClay, attested to in talking to a reporter after the thrilling 62-61 win over International Falls in the Region 7 final. "I had a cigar in one hand and heart pills in the other," he said.

Mansel Martin was also a big fan. He ran the Carlton Vidette newspaper at the time and decided to print a special edition on the Sunday after the tournament to honor the team. It was the only special edition of the paper since its founding in 1887.

Mayor Don Reed declared the opening day of the state tournament, Thursday, March 19, 1959, an official holiday in Carlton, encouraging all businesses to close and for everyone to cheer on the Bulldogs. The first game that day against Bemidji included a chess match early on. Bemidji liked to go on the floor for warmups after its opponents in order swarm around the team on its entrance, all in an effort to intimidate. "We knew what the gimmick was," said the Bulldog's Anderson. Carlton refused to hit the floor before Bemidji and soon officials had to force both teams on at the same time. Carlton won that face-off and the game.

Renowned Duluth News Tribune photographer Charles Curtis closely followed the team all week, said player Ron Martini. "We called him Click-Click, because that's what we heard all the time." Writers from the Minneapolis Tribune, Jim Klobuchar and Sid Hartman, did pieces on the team, mostly commenting on Carlton's small-town status.

The Bulldogs had 12 players but only six saw action in most of the games that year. Seven were seniors. The Carlton school district boundary proved to be a hurdle for students playing sports. Not everyone had ready access to transportation. Anderson was in the southern part of the district and struggled to get rides home from practices. Others, like Ron Martini, lived in the Sawyer area. Both areas were about 12 miles from Carlton.

The Carlton team celebrates winning the district tournament over Cloquet.

Caravans home from big games were a big deal back then. There had been some consternation in Cloquet about caravans for rival Carlton passing through. Bulldogs players say despite all the things they saw and did in Minneapolis, nothing beat the ride home on Sunday. They were met by cars and signs all along the Highway 61 route. Those who went home Saturday night after the loss met in Moose Lake to add to the now police-led parade home to the high school and a jammed gym for one last rally.

The trophy the team took home that year no longer exists. In November of 1997, vandals stole the trophy from the high school case it sat in. Pieces were later found scattered on a highway. Perhaps that act rousted the spirit of 1959 as the Carlton boys basketball team that season made it to the state tournament. The 1998 Bulldogs also finished second. The team returned in 1999. In 2005, a replica 1959 trophy was made with the help of Wayzata High School, which still had its larger championship hardware.

~ Mike Creger / Pine Knot News


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