The 1920s were known as “The Roaring Twenties,” a decade of great economic prosperity during Prohibition that followed World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic and ended abruptly with the Wall Street crash of 1929.
It was also known as the Golden Age of Sports, with record crowds coming out to watch such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Knute Rockne, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden and an athlete named Helen Wills, who is often called the greatest women’s tennis player of alltime but was attending classes at Cal during this period.
In our second installment of our series on the best Cal athlete of each academic year, we present a representative for each school year of the 1920s.
1919-20: PESKY SPROTT (track & field, football). Albert “Pesky” Sprott was the Pacific Coast Conference 800-meter champ in 1920, and finished sixth in that event in the 1920 Olympic. He was also a star halfback and punter on the 1919 Cal football team that went 6-2-1. Sprott also was a standout on the 1920 Cal team that went undefeated. Also: Cort Majors (football, basketball, track), Stan Barnes (football).
1920-21: BRICK MULLER (football, track & field). Harold “Brick” Muller won the silver medal in the high jump in the 1920 Olympics before his sophomore year at Cal, and was a star on the Cal track and field squad. But his best sport was football, and he is often considered the best Cal football player ever. He was the MVP of the 1921 Rose Bowl (following the 1920 season) when he wowed sports writers from across the country with a 53-yard touchdown pass in a 28-0 upset of Ohio State to complete an undefeated season. Also: Dan McMillan (football, rowing).
1921-22: JACK MERCHANT (track & field). Merchant led Cal to the 1922 NCAA track and field championship by winning both the hammer throw and shot put events. He competed in every track and field event except the high jump. Merchant placed 11 in the long jump in 1920 Olympics, and ninth in the hammer throw in the 1924 Olympics.
1922-23: TAYLOR DOUTHIT (baseball, basketball). Douthit lettered in basketball, but he was a star in baseball. He was a starting outfielder for three years and hit over .400 as a senior in 1923. He signed a pro contract and joined the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1923 season. “Ten days after removing my cap and gown, I was wearing a Cardinals uniform,” he told the St. Louis Star and Times. That 1923 season was the first of his 11 major league seasons, and he finished among the top 15 in MVP voting twice. Also: Bill Neufeld (track and field), Charlie Erb (football), Jesse “Duke” Morrison (football).
1923-24: BABE HORRELL (football). Edwin “Babe” Horrell was an All-American center in 1923 and 1924, and he made his biggest impact in the first game ever played at Memorial Stadium, which was completed in time to host the Big Game against Stanford on November 23, 1923. Horrell scored the first touchdown at Memorial Stadium by blocking a punt by Stanford’s Ernie Nevers, then falling on the ball in the end zone. Horrell later tackled a Stanford back in the end zone for a safety, and he ended up accounting for eight points in Cal’s 9-0 victory. Horrell was part of three Cal teams that compiled a record of 26-0-3.
1924-25: HELEN WILLS (tennis). Cal did not have women’s sports at the time, but in the summer of 1924, following her freshman year at Cal, Wills reached the finals at Wimbledon, won gold medals in both singles and doubles at the 1924 Olympics and won the U.S. nationals (a precursor to the U.S. Open). Often considered the best women’s tennis player in history, Wills eventually won Wimbledon eight times, the U.S. title seven times, and the French Championships (later the French Open) four times. She graduated Phi Betta Kappa from Cal with a degree in fine arts, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine twice.
1925-26: BUD CHANDLER (tennis). Edward “Bud” Chandler won the NCAA singles tennis title for the second straight year in 1926, and he also won the NCAA doubles title in 1926 while helping Cal win its first and only NCAA team title that year. He was ranked No. 5 in the United States in 1926. Chandler was inducted into the USTA Northern California Hall of Fame in 1974 and the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986.
1926-27: GEORGE DIXON (basketball, rugby). Dixon helped the United State win a rugby gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics, but he was even better in basketball. He was named to the 10-man, first-team All-America squad in both 1926 and 1927, and the Bears did not lose a single game in that two-season span, going 27-0. (No Cal opponent scored more than 29 points in that 27-game run, and UCLA was held to 8 points in 1926.) Dixon is one of just five Cal players to be a consensus first-team All-American in basketball and the only one to be named twice. Also: Glenn Berry (gymnastics, wrestling), Herman Brix (track & field).
1927-28: CAL MEN’S CREW (rowing). The Cal eight-man crew went undefeated in 1928, then upset Yale in the Olympic Trials and captured a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, beating Great Britain by more than two seconds. The team was coached by Ky Ebright and included Don Blessing (coxswain), Peter Donlon (stroke), Hubert Caldwell, James Workman, William Dally, William Thompson, Francis Frederick, John Brinck, and Marvin Stalder. The triumph was sparked by a memorable contribution from Blessing, the coxswain. Wythe Williams, correspondent for the New York Times, described Blessing’s work as “one of the great performances of demonical howling ever heard on a terrestrial planet.”
1928-29: VERN CORBIN (basketball). This was the toughest choice of the decade with Irv Phillips being an All-American on the Bears’ 1928 football team that went to the Rose Bowl. But Corbin was named to the six-man first-team All-America basketball team in 1928, when Cal won the Pacific Coast Conference title and Corbin won his second straight conference scoring title. Also: Bill Burgett (baseball), Helen Jacobs (tennis).
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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