Central Catholic champs

Team played on during Klan-influenced segregation

Basketball season in Indiana is filled with tales retold and others that have faded with time. As noted on the dust cover of “Play On: Celebrating 100 Years of High School Sports in Indiana,” by Bill Beck, Indiana without high school sports would be an unthinkable place – some would say more so before class basketball became the rule. Looking back, however, there were other issues.

Somewhat forgotten is the debilitating influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which came to prominence in the 1920s. It targeted Roman Catholics, followed by Jews, foreign-born immigrants and African-Americans, Beck says in “Play On,” and succeeded in eliminating these groups from the Indiana High School Athletic Association.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the association barred Catholic, private and segregated African-American schools from participating in IHSAA tournaments. However, Beck says, “schools were under no probation against playing IHSAA schools during the regular season.” That meant not playing in the celebrated annual state basketball tournament.

Catholic schools organized their own National Catholic Basketball league and state tournament. Bob Heiny was a student at Fort Wayne’s Central Catholic High School and explained that his school joined that league, which presented its own playoff at the state level as well as a national tournament. The schools that turned in a winning season or won their state competition were invited to play for the National Catholic Basketball Championship title.

By the end of the 1939 regular season, the Central Catholic (CC) basketball team lost only four of its 21 games. CC’s 1939 Echo yearbook reported the season’s results and how Coach John Levicki led his squad during the regular season, competing against IHSAA and private schools. Among its 17 wins were teams such as Elmhurst, Anderson, North Side and Concordia. The CC winning record qualified the team to compete in the State Catholic Tournament, which they won – beating Catholic
schools from Anderson, Decatur and Indianapolis. It earned them the right to compete in the nationals.

In 1939, the CC hardwood squad included Jim Boedeker, George Bitler, Gene Maxwell, Ed Gorman, Bob Heiny, Ed Stanczak, Ed Dehner, Ed Klotz, John Falvy and Nick Leto. The CC Irish swept Central Catholic of Wheeling, W.Va., 41-24, and Southeast Catholic of Philadelphia 46-37. Moving on to the quarter finals they beat St. Basil’s of Pittsburgh 45-26. Now playing in Chicago, they rolled over St. George of Evanston, Ill., 47-31. Hundreds of Fort Wayne fans traveled to the Loyola University gym and witnessed the final game, which came down to the wire with Fort Wayne Central Catholic overcoming Chicago Leo Catholic High School with a final score of 44-37.

Perhaps the changes brought to American culture by World War II had something to do with the IHSAA Athletic Council’s decision to no longer bar any group from playing in its tournament. The rule that excluded groups the KKK perceived as a threat was overturned Dec. 20, 1941, after 20 years.

One other event took place before the ban was lifted: The 1939 CC squad lost at least five of its players, who were replaced in the 1940 season with the roster that included Ed Stancazk, Ed Klotz, Ed Dehner, Bob Heiny, Nick Leto, Harold Morthorst, John Kartholl, Dick Krouse, Bob Walker and Bert Keenen. After Fort Wayne CC took both the 1939 State and National Tournament titles, they did it again in 1940.

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