This article was written by Chris Rainey
As of 2013, there had been more than 18,000 members in the major league baseball fraternity. Many of those were outstanding overall athletes who excelled at more than one sport. Some, such as Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson, attained a mythic status for their athleticism. Others performed in the national limelight such as Dave DeBusschere, George Halas, and even Chuck Connors. Sadly, many had short-lived professional sports careers and are forgotten today. Bob Fitzke is an example of the latter group.
Fitzke was a three-sport high school and college star, playing baseball, basketball, and football. He was born Paul Frederick Herman Fietzke on July 30, 1900, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His parents, Amelia (Donke) and Carl, were German immigrants who married in 1881 and started their family before coming to the United States in 1885. Carl worked as a cigar-box maker to support his five girls and two boys. Bob was the baby of the family. It is unclear when the “e” was dropped from the surname. Bob’s draft registration for World War I clearly shows the “e,” but by the time he was playing college football in the 1920’s the headlines and text had eliminated it.
La Crosse was a very sports-minded community. During Bob’s youth the town fielded a minor league team from 1905 to 1913 and had numerous amateur and semipro squads. Bob’s older brother Carl was the first to try baseball and enjoyed a lengthy local amateur career. The La Crosse Tribune referred to him as “Cutz” in its coverage over the years. Bob developed a sturdy, athletic body—he was 5’11” or 6 feet and weighed between 180 and 195 pounds—and became a pitcher/outfielder, basketball center, and football wingback for La Crosse High School.
In 1920 Bob enrolled at the University of Wyoming and joined the Cowboy football squad where he earned two letters. Football in the early 1920s was a far cry from the game it is today. The Wing-T formation (alignment similar to today’s “shotgun,” but not a passing offense) was in vogue, dropkicks were still common, although kicking from a hold was rapidly becoming the norm. Field position was vital and the game still featured numerous punts designed to set an opponent back or to escape from deep in your own territory. Because a quick kick on second or third down was not unusual each team needed a skilled punter who was also a running back. This was the role that Bob played for the Cowboys.
In the spring of 1921 he pitched, played outfield and hit a club-leading .372 on a Wyoming team that played .500 ball.[fn]Wyoming (Cheyenne) State Tribune, June 11, 1921, 15.[/fn] This was the first full season at the school for baseball after a lengthy absence. The schedule was somewhat haphazard with six games played in the Rocky Mountain Conference and games with area semipros and the 15th Cavalry from Ft. Russell. Game reports are sketchy, Bob lost the season opener to Colorado College 7-4, but then defeated them 6-4 later.
That fall he returned to the gridiron and led the nation with six dropkick field goals, including a season-long 48-yarder. It was not uncommon for him to punt 10 to 12 times a game. His finest game was versus Denver University on October 29. He scored with three dropkicks and made two interceptions in the final minute to preserve a 9-9 tie.[fn]Denver Post, October 30, 1921, 10.[/fn] Postseason accolades for collegiate grid stars were much harder to evaluate because teams in the west seldom played teams in the east. Consequently, media members had little first-hand information about players outside their region. Newspaper and magazine All-America teams were mired in regionalism, giving only token representation to players from the opposite coast. In 1921 there were a total of 114 collegians named to a team by at least one media source. Bob, who was named All-Rocky Mountain Conference, was one of 10 players from the Rockies and points west who were named to a composite squad published by Outing Magazine.[fn]Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 25, 1921, 13.[/fn]
One of the other western members of the All-America contingent was a senior running back named Neil Irving from the University of Idaho. Wyoming had lost to Idaho in 1921, but Fitzke made an impression as a better punter and dropkicker than Irving. Bob transferred to Idaho for the winter term beginning in January 1922. He sat out the basketball and baseball seasons, but played the opening game of the football season versus Whitman College and won the game 3-0 with a dropkick. The following week he was ruled ineligible at Idaho because the Vandals were members of the Rocky Mountain Conference, like Wyoming, and a new transfer rule had been enacted.[fn]Idaho Statesman, October 15, 1922, p. 9. Besides Fitzke, the Vandals also lost their center who had played under an assumed name the previous year in Utah.[/fn] Fitzke was forced to sit out all intercollegiate sports for the remainder of 1922.
Becoming re-eligible in January 1923, Bob served as the back-up center helping the basketball team to a 14-3 record. He played outfield and pitched for the Idaho Vandals baseball team in the spring. Statistics are not available, but Bob must have had an impressive season because the Weiser city club approached him to play for them during the summer. Weiser was the team that gave Walter Johnson his start in 1907. Fitzke took his exams early so he could free up time for baseball. In previous summers Bob had returned to LaCrosse and worked as a lifeguard. The La Crosse Tribune on June 24, 1923 reported that Weiser offered him $300 for the summer, better pay than watching swimmers. After a successful and financially rewarding summer in Idaho, Bob returned home in August and joined the Nelson Clothiers team with his brother. He played a few games before returning to Moscow, Idaho, for football training.
Bob told the La Crosse Tribune that Idaho would have a strong football team in 1923. His prediction looked wise after the first two shutout victories. In mid-October they traveled to Washington State and recorded a 14-0 win. In that game, Bob averaged 42 yards on 11 punts, scored a touchdown and kicked two extra points. The following week Oregon came to town. Fitzke was injured and had to be carried from the field, but the Vandals hung on for a 0-0 tie. Bob returned to action and the shutout streak continued with wins over Gonzaga and Oregon State, setting up a pivotal game with Stanford. The game against Stanford featured Fitzke and another Wisconsin product, future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers. Bob had played against Nevers in high school (Nevers played for Central High School in Superior, Wisconsin) and Ernie recalled years later that no one had ever hit him so hard in a game as Fitzke did in high school.[fn]Seattle Daily Times, August 19, 1934, 31.[/fn]
Nevers and Fitzke waged a punting and ball-carrying battle. Stanford emerged with a 17-7 win, the only Idaho score coming on Bob’s pass reception late in the game. The following week the Vandals journeyed to California again to meet Southern California. They lost 9-0 to finish the year 5-2-1. In late November, sportswriters from 13 western newspapers met and selected an All-Coast squad. Bob was named as a second team halfback behind the unanimous first team choice, Nichols of California.[fn]Berkeley Daily Gazette, December 1, 1923,11[/fn] This led to an honorable mention spot on Walter Camp’s All-American roster. In fact, nine running backs from that 1923 college football season—including Nevers, Red Grange, and Elmer Layden—are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. It is no wonder that Fitzke’s accomplishments were overshadowed and lost over the years.
During the winter Bob played on the Vandals basketball team as a center and forward. He garnered some recognition as an honorable mention on regional teams selected by the media. In the spring he took to the diamond again. Once again he batted third or cleanup and played outfield or pitched. One of his finer efforts on the mound was a three-hit shutout of Oregon on May 21. That summer Bob joined a semipro team in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was signed by the Cleveland Indians in late July and made his only appearance with them on September 1, 1924.
The 1924 Indians had dropped out of the pennant race early in the season and manager Tris Speaker took the opportunity to audition players from around the country, especially pitchers and outfielders. Bob’s lone appearance was in the first game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Browns. Speaker sent rookie Luther Roy to the hill for his third major league start. Bob came into the game in the fourth and was replaced in the eighth by Bub Kuhn, another rookie making his only major league appearance. Fitzke surrendered runs in the fifth and sixth. He watched a called third strike in his only plate appearance in the 11-7 defeat. Many players have had less auspicious debuts, but for whatever reason, Bob received no more playing time. He was signed and invited to spring training in Lakeland, Florida, in 1925.
Bob loved to play sports and in his prime he jumped at any opportunity to compete. During the winter of 1924-25, he joined the Denver Bears, a professional basketball squad that toured the country. As both a center and forward his specialty was a set shot from the outside. He returned home in March and then set out to Florida to join the Indians in Lakeland. He was one of six or seven youngsters vying for a spot on the pitching staff. He garnered some attention because he was the only pitcher in any spring camp wearing eyeglasses. Bob was a hard-nosed competitor, but he was too inexperienced on the mound to impress Speaker and earn a roster spot. Instead, Cleveland optioned him to Decatur Commodores in the Class B Three-Eye League where he joined 35 other aspiring players.
The exhibition season started on April 16 with Bob allowing two runs in three innings versus the local semipro Illinois Traction System team. On April 22 he was loaned to the same semi-pro squad to face the Bloomington Bloomers and gave up two homers and five runs. On April 24 he was back with the Commies and sprained an ankle running out a grounder. His option was transferred to Williamsport in the NYPL (New York Pennsylvania League) where he became part of a furious pennant race between the York Roses and his Grays. The Grays crept into the lead on September 6 when Bob won the first game of a Labor Day doubleheader.
The clubs traded places in the standings until September 11 when Bob tossed a rain-shortened shutout against Shamokin on the last day to tie at 77-55. The league owners decided upon a 5-game playoff with proceeds going to the players (each player pocketed $200). York won the first, the Grays the second and in the third game the Roses’ Del Bissonette gathered 5 RBIs off Fitzke in the last two innings of a 10-4 win. York clinched the title with a 5-3 win the next day. For the season (including playoffs), Bob had a 14-10 record with 2 shutouts. At the plate he hit .256 with a homer.
Fitzke went from the mound to the gridiron when he joined the Frankford Yellow Jackets, members of the fledgling National Football League. Frankford was in the northeast section of Philadelphia and was coached by future Football Hall of Famer Guy Chamberlin. The Jackets’ schedule was grueling; they played 20 games, including weekend doubleheaders. (Sunday football was banned in their area, so they played home on Saturday and away on Sunday.) Bob was a halfback/wingback on offense and a linebacker or defensive back on defense. He started 13 games. The Yellow Jackets opened the season with a 9-1 record before falling to Red Grange and the Chicago Bears 19-0 on November 8.
The following week they shut out the Pottsville Maroons 20-0, with Bob scoring on a nifty 10-yard scamper. Five losses followed this game as the Jackets fell out of contention. When the season ended on December 20, Bob went to Idaho to renew old acquaintances before traveling on to the West Coast to appear in a barnstorming game against Red Grange. Bob took the field in San Francisco on January 24 with an All-Star squad against Grange and the Chicago Bears. Fitzke scored on a three-yard run to help in the Stars 14-9 victory. Years later Bob complained to a Seattle sportswriter that Grange was paid $20,000 for his appearance and only played part of the game. “I played the whole game … yet they paid me only $300.”[fn]Seattle Daily Times, August 19, 1934, 31.[/fn]
Fitzke returned to the Denver Bears for the rest of the winter. In the spring, he joined the Scranton Miners ballclub in the Class B New York-Penn League for their pennant-winning season. He was the winning pitcher in the home opener and went on to have his finest season. Sporting a 16-8 record, Bob was second on the squad in wins and third in ERA at 2.74. The Miners ran into injury problems at catcher in August and brought in youngster Jack Silver to catch. Silver saw his first action on August 26 catching Fitzke in a 7-inning doubleheader game versus Shamokin. In the seventh inning, Silver made a wild throw on a tap in front of home plate. This was the only blemish on a would-be perfect game for Fitzke.
Scranton took on the champion of the Class B New England League, Manchester, in a best-of-seven postseason series. Fitzke won the opener as Scranton swept Manchester. He then pitched in an exhibition series versus Eastern League champ Providence and won 8-5.
Afterward Bob returned to Boise, Idaho where he married Margaret Corrine Chapman on October 14. The couple stayed out west for awhile and Bob barnstormed with Brick Muller’s Football All-Stars. The highlight was a January 9 matchup with Ernie Never’s Duluth Eskimos. Bob scored twice in the 19-0 win at San Francisco. The couple returned to Scranton where Bob played the first of four seasons with the All-Stars basketball team.
Bob’s 1927 contract had been sold to the Newark Bears and he opened the season with the Bears, but was sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut in the Eastern League on April 12. Fitzke was a fierce competitor with a reputation for throwing inside to hitters. On April 20 in a game at Hartford, Bob threw inside to outfielder Joe Morrissey, shattering Morrissey’s jaw. Fortunately, Joe recovered and later played for the Cincinnati Reds. Bob appeared in eight games with a 3-2 record, before he was released in late May to the Scranton Miners. He saw action in at least six games with the Miners both as a pitcher and a pinch hitter before a football neck injury made pitching too painful. He turned his attention to coaching and teaching.
In 1928 he was hired as a high school football coach at Hoquiam High, in Hoquiam, Washington. He moved out to the Pacific coast in the spring and played in the semipro Timber League for Hoquiam with former major leaguers Vean Gregg and Ham Hyatt. That fall he faced some obstacles in his first coaching stint when a dozen players were ruled ineligible, but a crushing defeat of rival Aberdeen made the season a success. He did not return in 1929 because a new law required that teachers with out-of-state credentials had to take a lengthy exam. Bob claimed he did not have time to study. Instead he went east and played for Binghamton in the NYPL, posting a 5-5 record. After the season he was hired at Scranton Central High School, coaching his three sports. He also returned to the classroom at St. Joseph’s University, where he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Bob enjoyed great success at Scranton, highlighted by the undefeated state football title squad in 1935. In eight years his teams won five football titles, three basketball, and one baseball, in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.[fn]La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, April 15, 1937,12.[/fn] Bob had been dubbed “The Bull of the Campus” in his college days and, despite the neck pain, his highly competitive spirit and love of baseball made it difficult to leave the game.
In the summer of 1931 he saw brief action with the Scranton club. Over the next three summers, the family (his son Robert was born in 1927) went west and Bob played in the Pacific Coast League. Initially, the Fitzkes went west in the summer of 1932 to visit family and see the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Bob asked the Los Angeles Angels if he could train with them and made enough of an impression to get signed. He played five weeks before returning to Pennsylvania.[fn]Richard Beverage, The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League: A History, 1903-1957. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011, 59.[/fn] In 1933 he played for Portland and in 1934 with Seattle. Long summer trips ended after the birth of Corinne Paula on December 15, 1935.
Holding a master’s degree and a resume featuring three professional sports plus a successful coaching career, Bob turned his sights on a job in the college ranks. He left Scranton in 1937 for Dubuque (Iowa) University. The Seattle Daily Times reported that he signed a three-year deal in 1937. He coached football, basketball, and track for Dubuque, and was also appointed as an associate professor of physical education. He left Dubuque in July of 1939. His football teams had made progress ( 3-4-1 in 1937 and 5-1-2 in 1938), but his basketball squads struggled.
He enrolled in Palmer College of Chiropractic and set his sights on a new career path eventually obtaining a license to practice. Despite having his chiropractor’s license, he took a coaching job at Carbon College in Price, Utah, in 1941. Carbon was a junior college and Bob coached football and basketball.[fn]Vicki Noyes at Utah State University-Eastern supplied information from the 1941-42 Carbon College yearbook featuring Fitzke. [/fn] He also succumbed to his passion for competition and returned to summer ball. In 1941 he pitched 12 games for Twin Falls in the Pioneer League. In 1942 he was at Portland (PCL) and 1943 he finished his career with a 0-8 record for Sacramento (PCL).
At age 43 he finally put aside his need to coach and compete to become a full-time chiropractor in Sacramento, California. He died there on June 30, 1950, from Hodgkin’s disease. He was buried in Boise, Idaho, where Corrine returned to live with her family.
In addition to the sources mentioned below, the following were used:
Newspapers: Riverdale( Illinois) Pointer; Canton Repository; Oakland (California) Tribune; Billings (Montana) Gazette; San Diego Union; Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner; Riverside (California) Daily Press; Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram; Decatur (Illinois) Review; Williamsport Sun; The Sporting News; Scranton Times
Online sources: ancestry.com; baseball-reference; pro-football reference; cfbdatawarehouse.com;www.jhowell.net/cf/scores; Football Historian.com; SABR Encyclopedia; GoVandals.com; MiLB.com; govandals.net
Beverage, Richard. The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League: A History, 1903-1957.( Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011).
Johnson, Lloyd and Wolff, Miles, ed. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993).
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