Boxing, Babe and a bevy of basketball highlighted the early sporting days of the current Corn Palace
A continuing series on the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace in Mitchell
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
It’s no secret to any local fan that the Corn Palace has long been Mitchell’s sports hub.
But before athletes like Mike Miller built a career of South Dakota legend, the early days in the building’s 100-year history reveals a wide array of notable historic names, ranging from George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, to heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey making a visit in retirement and the multi-talented Babe Didrikson bringing a basketball team to town.
In 1950, the Minneapolis Lakers made a visit to Mitchell for an April 29 game. That date is significant because just six days prior, the Lakers had won Game 6 of the NBA Finals 110-95 over the Syracuse Nationals in Minneapolis.
In those days, barnstorming from town to town — not just playing out the season itself — helped to pay the bills for players. The Lakers coach John Kundla famously earned $6,000 a year as the team’s coach during its initial championship run.
The game was to be played at 8 p.m., preceded by a basketball clinic at 7:30 p.m. It was billed as the team’s first appearance in South Dakota as it toured the state, stopping in Brookings, Sioux Falls and Aberdeen and in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Lakers would be back two years later to play the first basketball game at the Huron Arena in 1952 against the Syracuse Nationals.
Bringing Mikan to the Corn Palace meant the arrival of one of professional basketball’s first superstars to South Dakota. In 1949-50, the first year of the new NBA, Mikan scored 27.4 points per game, and in 1950, Mikan had a career-best 28.4 points per game, plus 14.1 rebounds per game in the first season the NBA kept rebounding stats.
It was because of Mikan’s dominance that the 24-second shot clock would arrive a few years later — combating the stall tactics that had become popular to keep the ball out of Mikan and the Lakers’ hands — and the free-throw lane was widened from 6 feet to 12 feet to make it tougher for Mikan to camp out under the basket at 6-foot-10.
Of course, the Lakers were more than just Mikan. Vern Mikkelson was 6-foot-7 and would eventually go into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Jim Pollard was one of the era’s best forwards and Bud Grant played for the Lakers for two seasons before deciding to move to professional football with the Philadelphia Eagles, which would eventually lead to a successful coaching career with the Minnesota Vikings.
Bringing the Globetrotters to town
One of the other frequent basketball attractions at the Corn Palace, starting in the 1930s, was the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters visited Mitchell annually in the late 1930s and early 1940s, billed as “clowners.”
For example, in 1945, the Globetrotters faced Dakota Wesleyan’s team. The meeting was on Monday, Dec. 17, and as an advertisement noted, DWU was already three games into its season but stepped aside from its collegiate schedule to play an exhibition game against the Globetrotters, which was billed for its “speed-basket shooting and flashy play.” Tickets for adults were 60 cents apiece.
More than 2,000 people attended the game, which ended as a 35-22 Globetrotters win. The Daily Republic noted the significance of that low scoring total from the Globetrotters as being the lowest scoring output from the high-skilled professionals in three years.
The undercard games to these matchups would frequently have interesting pairings. In 1945, before DWU played the Globetrotters, Fulton High School’s team played the DWU Cubs, which was the university’s junior-varsity team.
The Globetrotters got to pick on someone else in 1937, when the University of Minnesota sent a barnstorming team to the Corn Palace for a March 27 game. The Golden Gophers’ team was a mix of basketball and football stars and was billed as a team that will “make the Globetrotters play ball!”
“The biggest exhibition of world-famous athletes ever seen in Mitchell,” print advertising bellowed.
In 1940, the House of David basketball team, a group of bearded basketball players from Michigan who were members of a communal religious society, brought their fancy basketball moves to the Corn Palace to face the Globetrotters.
Sports of all sorts
The Corn Palace also has an interesting boxing history, sponsoring Golden Gloves and regional bouts, and wrestling matches.
On Jan. 24, 1939, the former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey visited Mitchell to referee nine boxing matches that were billed to be the best ever to that point in South Dakota but mostly included punchers from communities around Mitchell. By that point, Dempsey had been retired from boxing for more than a decade but was among the preeminent boxers of the first half of the 20th century. Ringside seats were $1.10.
In 1933, Babe Didrikson brought an all-star basketball team to Mitchell on Tuesday, Dec. 19. Basketball was merely one of her great talents at the time and she was more well known for her track and field exploits. She was on the heels of setting four world records, including two gold medals on the track at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and competed in the diverse fields of hurdles, high jump and javelin.
On her all-star team, Didrikson played forward, which included a number of other top former men’s college players from the time, and Jackie Mitchell, who had gained acclaim for her feat of striking out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game.
Didrikson’s all-stars would face Dakota Wesleyan, and tickets for the game were 25 cents, for a game that was hyped as “the most sensational basketball event ever staged in Mitchell.”
All of this was before she ever picked up golf, which was the sport for which gaining the most notoriety. She qualified for a men’s tournament in 1938 and eventually dominated amateur and professional women’s golf, helping create the Ladies Professional Golf Association and winning three U.S. Women’s Opens.
The Corn Palace saw more women’s basketball on display when the famous All-American Red Heads came to Mitchell on April 5, 1938, to face Dakota Wesleyan. The team was created by C.M. “Ole” Olson, who had also started Olson’s Terrible Swedes, a traveling basketball team that would also come through Mitchell frequently. The Red Heads had gained popularity for beating men’s college and independent teams, became popular with fans, and playing under the rules of the men’s game.
A similar women’s team, the Ozark Mountain Hillbillies, known as the “craziest, goofiest attraction in basketball,” made a stop in Mitchell in March of 1939.
There were serious basketball events for DWU to participate in at the Corn Palace, as well. In 1938, the Tigers, Yankton College, Huron College and Augustana College gathered for a two-day, four-team tournament. All four were members of the South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference, playing for a chance to get to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.
“The four bitterest rivals in the College Conference,” it was billed in newspaper advertising, noting it would be the only college tournament in Mitchell for the year.
Advertising for the tournament called it South Dakota’s first college invitational basketball tournament. In reality, it was the conference’s first postseason tournament to decide the national qualifier, something that has grown to be standard in college basketball. A two-game ticket was 40 cents for adults.
Under coach Les Belding, DWU, which was fourth in the SDIC during the regular season, went on to win the tournament and represent the foursome at the NAIA tournament. It was in the midst of five-straight NAIA tournament appearances for the Tigers in the late 30s and early 40s.
This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.