Like the city itself, the railroad station at Fond du Lac, Wis. stands as a reminder of a time gone by. It sits on the edge of town, apart from the center of life, red bricks dirty and cracked, used now only by people who go to places like Appleton and Oshkosh and Neenah-Menasha. There are only two trains a day. The taxis operate without meters. A ham sandwich and glass of beer still cost 50¢.
Today, Fond du Lac lives largely on memories—even the annual county fair has lost its glamour. Its last excitement came in 1952, when the town raised thousands of dollars to support a faltering representative in the Class D Wisconsin Baseball League. Before that, there was the great fire of 1908, when three city blocks were badly damaged. And then, maybe most exciting of all, there were the Christmas holidays of 1899, when a unique assortment of local boys, calling themselves Company E, beat the Yale basketball team three games in a row and claimed for themselves and for their proud city the mythical title of world champions.
Fond du Lac was nothing more than a lumber town then—18,000 people over 800 miles away from the fineries of New Haven and the sophistication of Yale. The players themselves were all homegrown, brought together by membership in the state guard unit, yet each with his own manner of existing in the small community. Augie Buch, a guard, worked at various times as a bicycle salesman, as a bookkeeper and as a representative of the Ex-Cel Candy Company. Roy Rogers, a forward, served as assistant to an undertaker. And Al Brunkhorst, the other forward, was a bartender.
Yale's team, by contrast, was full of smugness, academic degrees and a star player who seemed the prototype for Frank Merriwell. The Eli captain, Al Sharpe, was not only a top basketball player but an All-America halfback and a member of the Yale crew.
In that winter of 1899, Sharpe and his teammates were widely recognized as world champions and were scheduling games throughout the country on what was advertised as "the longest trip ever taken by a United States college team." They agreed to meet Fond du Lac only after efforts to schedule games with the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin had fallen through.
By game time, excitement ran high in the Wisconsin city. Local storekeepers decorated their storefronts with signs welcoming the visitors, and the streets were hung with flags of Yale blue and white. The night of the first game, many of the 1,500 who crowded into the old armory and onetime soap factory arrived so early they carried homemade box lunches to help them survive the wait. As the Yale players filed into their locker room, the bashful belles of this suddenly sports-minded community giggled and argued among themselves over which of the Easterners was the most handsome.
Up to that time the only real trouble the cocky champions had faced was getting to Fond du Lac. They had left Pittsburgh early Friday evening after a notable victory, planning to be in Fond du Lac by midday Sunday. But, before it could get them even to Chicago, the B&O was delayed by two train wrecks on the tracks ahead of the Yale train, and it took a special favor from H. F. Whitcomb, president of the Wisconsin Central Railway, to deliver them to Fond du Lac for the opening game. Whitcomb arranged for a special three-car train—Engine No. 85, his private car and a passenger coach—to carry the team from Chicago. By the time the players straggled in, it was just 15 minutes before the scheduled starting time.
When, at last, Yale took the floor, the local crowd was shocked. Dressed in royal blue and white, the Easterners made their hosts look like ragamuffins. And dress wasn't all they had to offer; their easy skill brought one observer to write, "Yale made the local players shiver in anticipation of a defeat. Baskets were thrown with the greatest of ease and in a style of tossing that the Fond du Lac players had never practiced." The only hope Company E held was drawn from a victory it had won three days earlier over Stevens Point. Then, as now, the visitors had warmed up in a flashy, impressive manner, only to be beaten badly in the game.
Yale, however, seemed headed for no such letdown. They were champions and they had done everything possible to foresee—and forestall—any extragame situations that might endanger their title. They examined the floor, which was often covered with wax for the dances that followed every Company E home game. It had been scrubbed clean. They even carried their own drinking water, assuring, they presumed, the health of their athletes.
None of this helped. After scoring on an opening free throw by Sharpe, Yale went for more than 16 minutes without a basket, while Company E ran off to a 9-1 lead. Company E's Rogers, Wisconsin's answer to Frank Merriwell (and Sharpe), scored seven free throws during this stretch and ended the game with a total of 17 points, as Fond du Lac beat the champions 27-18.
The victory was characterized more by muscle than finesse. It was eye-for-eye, brush-me-back-I'll-brush-you-back. Yale lost its starting guard, Charles Lockwood, when he fell and broke his left shoulder after a battle under the basket. Returning the compliment, but hardly as successfully, Yale managed to commit 21 personal fouls, most of them for "holding" and "holding and tackling." It was in many ways like a mild game of touch football. The basketball floor became a wrestling ring as well. "Yale players were given an opportunity to do just as much playing as they had been used to back East," a local paper reported. "The Fond du Lac boys are just as apt at that kind of playing as they are when proceeding according to the strictest interpretations of the rules."
Yale alibied quietly, claiming fatigue from the long trip and promising a better showing in the next round. In the days following they got little, if any, rest. Whitcomb took the whole team by train to Milwaukee, where its members spent the day as his guests. In Fond du Lac itself they were treated as celebrities, with people standing and staring at them wherever they went.
The day of the second game raised more excitement than the first. Yale had no excuses now, and everyone was anxious to see whether the Easterners were really champions, or just pretenders. By late afternoon people were lining up outside the Armory, again many of them carrying bags of food. They were to see a Yale team with a new and very simple strategy—a little less touch football, a little more basketball.
The system worked nicely as far as penalties were concerned. Yale cut its fouls down to nine. But it was somehow unable to score many baskets and, for the second time in a row, the so-called champions were humiliated by Company E, 27-6. The third game the next night was academic. Again the Soldier Boys won, 21-13, and a local paper, crowing loudly, reported, "The stem-winders have now gone back to their studies."
Fond du Lac was suddenly bathed in glory. Augie Buch and Roy Rogers were reportedly sought by Yale, but preferred to stay with Company E. The team itself was in demand, and before the end of the year it took an eight-game tour through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. Its season record rose to 35 wins and only four losses. For a winter the once obscure Wisconsin town was the Home of Champions.
But, like the days of the crowded railroad station, that time is now gone. There was another title for Fond du Lac in 1913, but never again has there been a time like those holidays of 1899, when a tattered band from a small lumber town beat the smugness out of Yale and became basketball champions of the world.