A Century of Sport In East Hampton

The first Golden Era was in the 1930s
East Hampton’s 1933-34 girls basketball team, coached by Florence Boehm, was a dominant one. Some of its players were Eleanor Dickinson (front row, third from left), Iantha Edwards (front row, third from right); Connie Greene, Elizabeth Stelzer, Marian Hand, Mary Flannery, Vivien Skinner, and Margaret Buckridge (all second row); Anna Hedges (third row, second from left); Joyce Appleyard and Shirley Smith (third row, at the right); Dorothea Loper (top row, at left); Theresa Collins (top row, center), and Frances Pospisil (top row, second from right).

Jim Brooks, who kicked the extra points for East Hampton High’s championship football team in 1965, and Ken Collum tackled Bonac’s 92-year athletic history in a slide talk before fellow East Hampton Historical Society members at Clinton Academy Friday night, beginning with Pop Cheney’s checkered gridiron debut and ending with a screening — to everyone’s delight — of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”

Dave Cheney, the former football coach and physics teacher’s son, said afterward that “in the first game East Hampton ever played, against a much-bigger Southampton team, whose players were used to tossing 100-pound potato sacks up onto trucks, my father, figuring that we’d be stronger on defense than offense, which he hadn’t had time to work on, told them that when they got the ball they should punt it away.”

“Well, we kicked off to begin the game, Southampton fumbled on its 10-yard line, and when my father looked up he saw we were in punt formation! The ball sailed into the trees near where the L.V.I.S. is now.”

“It wasn’t until 1925 that East Hampton won its first game,” said Brooks, “defeating Sag Harbor 38-0. They lost twice to Southampton that year, one score being 89-0. Not surprisingly, that was Pop’s final year of coaching. He stayed on, though, to teach science until about 1960.”

“A legendary Long Island coach, Frank (Sprig) Gardner, would arrive in East Hampton at the start of the 1930 season,” Brooks continued. “During his short tenure, before he left to build a wrestling dynasty at Mepham, East Hampton came into its own in football and baseball. The 1933 and ’34 football teams had wins over our archrival, Southampton, and several of the athletic leaders of that time, Walter (Bullet) Sheades, John Gilmartin, and Mark (Junie) Ryan, are now in East Hampton High School’s Hall of Fame.”

Gardner, who lived on Flaggy Hole Road, and whose Mepham teams, Brooks said, twice rode 100-plus win streaks, is, according to Dave Cheney, “the only high school coach in wrestling’s national Hall of Fame, and two of his wrestlers when they were still in high school won National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.”

Brooks said Gardner “was once featured on the cover of Life magazine. . . . His lifetime wrestling record was 232 wins and 5 defeats.”

“The early and mid-1930s seem to have been the first Golden Era of East Hampton athletics,” Brooks said. “East Hampton had a dominant girls basketball team then, coached by Florence Boehm, a team for which Eleanor Dickinson, Iantha Edwards, and Fran Pospisil played. That team won the Suffolk County championships in 1935, and there was a girls soccer team too that Florence Boehm coached also, presumably at the interscholastic level, though little information could be gathered about this.”

“Coach Francis Kiernan, who is 104, arrived here in 1945,” the speaker continued. “He coached football, basketball, and baseball, assisted by Sam Meddaugh, who would go on to be the high school’s principal for many years. Coach Kiernan’s first championship team was in baseball — it’s the first banner you see in the high school’s gymnasium.”

“He started to build his teams around some freshmen who’d caught his eye — Richard Flach, Harry O’Rourke, and LeRoy DeBoard — and ran intramural programs during lunch hours that attracted such seventh and eighth graders as Frank Dragotta, Fritz Schenck, Joe Green, Dave Cheney, Jim Clark, and the Yardley brothers, Bob and Fred. That early work paid off when, in 1952, he coached the only undefeated, untied football team East Hampton ever had — the first team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

Kiernan, who, according to Brooks, said Joe Green was the best athlete he’d ever coached, hired Carl Johanson, a recent Ithaca College graduate, to oversee the boys basketball team, which won the league title in 1953. “And I never won anything after that,” Johanson was to say later.

“Some standout athletes in the mid-50s included Jim Nicholson, Curt Becker, John Gray, Dicky O’Connor, John Cavagnaro, Ed Ammon, Billy Miller, Bob Fithian, Frank Tillinghast, and Hugh King. That was also the bonfire era. Firewood would be dropped off the week before the Southampton football game, often behind Frank B. Smith’s, and on the eve of battle with Southampton there would be a pep rally with the fire roaring and the community cheering the boys on.”

“The basketball games then were played in what’s now the middle school, in a ‘pit,’ as it was sometimes described. It was much like a sunken garden, and way undersized, but to a youngster like myself it seemed huge. The new regulation-size gym in what was the old high school was first used in 1963.”

Brooks, who played for him, remembered Gary Golden, the late football and wrestling coach, as “old school . . . you were never to walk, never to take off your helmet, never to drink water during practice, and never to question his directions. However, whatever you thought of his methods, all he did was win! During his stay here, from 1961 to 1968, before he went to join Bob Blackman’s football staff at Dartmouth, and, later, at Illinois, East Hampton won two football championships — his ’65 team was undefeated and once-tied — and shared the title in ‘67. From ’63 to ’65 his football teams went 18-2-2.”

The speaker added that “in the 1965-66 year, East Hampton held championships in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, and golf,” presumably unique in Bonac sports history.

“Ed Petrie, the winningest public high school boys basketball coach in New York State, was hired away from Sag Harbor, where he had already achieved great success, in 1968. He continued to enjoy great success here, winning state, Long Island, county, and league championships. Who can forget his great teams, and especially the heroic play of Howard and Kenny Wood, who led their teams to state championships.”

Title IX, passed by Congress in 1972, enabled women’s sports “finally to be on an equal footing with men’s sports,” and here its implementation, said Brooks, was overseen by, among others, Joseph F.X. Dunn, then an East Hampton High School history teacher, Pat Story, the school nurse, the then-Athletic Director Richard Cooney, Ann Hammond, and Ellen Cooper, an East Hampton Hall of Fame coach whose state-finalist 1989 field hockey team has also been enshrined.

Arguably, the girls teams here have fared better in interscholastic sports over the past generation than have their male counterparts. Sandy Fleischman, Margaret Dunn, Ellamae Gurney, Kim Hren, Lara DeSanti, Mylan Le, Anne­marie Cangiolosi, Nicole Ficeto, Melanie Anderson, and Erika Vargas were among the gifted female athletes (all of them East Hampton Hall of Famers) Brooks mentioned.

It was owing to Jim Nicoletti, “the legendary baseball coach of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s” — Ross Gload, formerly of the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies, being his best-known player — that our Hall of Fame had been begun, said Brooks, who added that he was umpiring a Little League game when a towering drive by Gload ripped the top off a fir tree in deep right field at Maidstone Park.

“Everyone agreed it was a home run, including Emmett Bennett, who had said before the game that anything touching that tree ought to be a ground rule double. In waving me off, he said he hadn’t said anything about taking the top of the tree off.”

In closing, Brooks urged his audience to nominate individuals or teams they thought worthy of the Hall of Fame committee’s consideration. They could do it online, he said. “You might, for instance, be wondering why Joe Green isn’t in, or Jane Doe. There are many deserving athletes, both past and present.”