Our meals have been enlivened this week as Gerald excitedly tells me what he has read in The Amazing Appleknockers: Illinois Cinderella Basketball Team of 1964. Despite a very busy week getting a replacement for a broken draw bar, which he was still out in his shop adapting today, he was snatching moments to read the book, and I was getting his updates. He was eager to finish the book and find out all the details about the Appleknockers’ story, which he did yesterday afternoon, but he was still talking about it at lunch today.
For a school with 147 students to become one of the Elite Eight out of 735 high schools in the state was pretty incredible. They traveled by train to the state tournament, and were pleasantly surprised to see people along the way holding up signs celebrating with them and cheering them to victory. They were rapidly the crowd’s favorite and the reporters’ dream team. The village of Cobden was almost deserted as residents traveled to support the team in Champaign at the University of Illinois.
Everyone up there was asking what an Appleknocker was. In our end of the state, we all knew where the term came from. If you grew up in Union County, your older brother or the neighbor boys probably picked peaches and apples in the fields around Cobden. The authors explained that by knocking apples off of over-loaded limbs, workers could bring about better quality apples. They repeated the story that the town mayor told to newspaper reporters that the school adopted the name in the 1940s after they made it to a sectional tournament even before they had a gymnasium. When Cobden won, one spectator supposedly said, “Whoever heard of a bunch of appleknockers winning such a thing?” That was the impetus for the school to officially and proudly adopt the Appleknockers as their mascot name.
Like most Illinoisans during March Madness 1964—especially those of us in the southern part of the state—we were sitting in front of the television watching the Appleknockers as they played in the state tournament. I don’t think we owned a television in 1964, so we probably came over to the hog farm to watch with Keith and Barbara in their living room. We watched with pride and held breath to see these kids from our end of the state keep winning. They advanced to the championship game but sadly were defeated 50-45 by the team from Pekin. For kids who thought they could win the whole thing, the deep disappointment made that second-place trophy totally unappreciated that final night. They listened to Coach Ruggles’ consolation talk and politely attended the party in their honor at their motel, but they had come to win, not be to be runners-up.
The train trip home was quiet and solemn as each player relived the loss and knew what should have happened differently. They had just lost the most important game of their lives. Coach Ruggles wanted to help them feel better but nothing he said or did changed the dark mood. As they approached Cobden, they saw cars outside the train windows and thought there must be a funeral in town. What they did not know was that cars from the region were backed up on Route 51 from the curve north towards Carbondale and down to Anna in the south. Some estimated four to five thousand had come to Cobden to celebrate their second-place win. American flags, a giant welcome home banner and bands from area high schools were playing. Cameras flashed as the boys stood amazed at seeing more people than they had ever seen in the village before.
Convertibles were waiting for them to crawl into for the parade. While spectators cheered, the parade with fire truck and crepe-paper decorated vehicles three times circled the loop—the two parallel main streets with railroad track between them that cause people to claim that Cobden has the widest main street in the world. They proceeded to the high school where people crammed the gym decorated with streamers and flowers, and there was a fifteen-foot cake made to look like a basketball court.
By the time the speeches, recognitions, and continuous ovations were almost over, the boys began to realize what they had done and were able to share the pride and joy being heaped on them. Finally, bushels of plastic apples were brought to the stage for the players to autograph and toss to the crowd who begged for them. Apples were flying everywhere, and I suspect most of those who caught them have them still someplace in their homes. People in our region have never forgotten this team and their amazing performance. Now thanks to the story in book form, those too young to been alive back then will have the opportunity to remember it also.
Co-authors Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman both grew up in Cobden hearing the wonderful stories about this Sweet Sixteen team when Sweet Sixteen meant something in this state. (Now teams are divided by size, so no team from a tiny school can ever again play the larger teams in a state tournament.) Teri spoke to Southern Illinois Writers Guild last Thursday. Someone asked Teri if writing about the games was difficult for her, but she explained that in her job at John A. Logan College, she had been writing up JALC’s sports stories for eleven years, so that was the easy part for her. Co-author Anne Ryman lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband Scott Cancelosi and daughter Maria and works for the newspaper there. They started the book in 2003 and collaborated by phone and Internet. I grabbed one of the last of their books from the first printing and Teri autographed it for Gerald. More books are likely printed by now and available on Amazon, but I knew Gerald would not want to wait when I told him bits and pieces from Teri’s talk. The book was definitely one of my most successful gifts to my husband.
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