- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

Sparky Anderson after being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: "I might be the only person from South Dakota ever elected. That's a weird thing."
Ain't that the truth. When you think of South Dakota, you don't usually think of sports. You usually think: Are they one hour behind us or two hours behind us? Or maybe you think of Mount Rushmore and Eva Marie Saint hanging on for dear life. Did you know that South Dakota is the second-largest producer of sunflower seed in the United States? That's about as close as it gets to big-time sports the sunflower seeds in ballplayers' mouths.
Yup, you don't get much farther off the beaten path, athletically, than South Dakota. In fact, in my 24 years of accumulating frequent-flyer miles, I've never set foot in the state. I've visited Idaho a time or two Moscow, specifically but not South Dakota. Nothing important ever seems to happen there except for the time, a few years ago, they held the International Yo-Yo Championships in Rapid City.
South Dakota is a place a person goes to to get lost. For instance, have you ever wondered what became of Victor Page, the former Georgetown gunner? Well, he's still gunning away for the Sioux Falls (S.D.) SkyForce of the CBA. Sioux Falls has a minor league football team, too, the Dakota Lawdogs, but for the most part it's an NCAA Division II state. Go, you University of South Dakota Coyotes.
Still, I said to myself, Sparky Anderson (born in the cozy community of Bridgewater) can't be the only noteworthy South Dakota sports figure, can he? What about Roger Maris? He was from South Dakota, wasn't he?
Nope, North Dakota.
Phil Jackson, then. Isn't he from up there?
Nope. North Dakota again.
Pete Retzlaff?
Went to South Dakota State, born in North Dakota.
Wait, I've got one Jim Langer, the Hall of Fame center for the '70s Dolphins.
Another South Dakota State Jackrabbit who hailed from Minnesota.
OK, final guess: Lyle Alzado.
Lyle Alzado?
Yeah, didn't he go to some place like Yankton (S.D.) College?
He did, indeed. But he was from Long Island, for goodness sakes Cedarhurst.
See what I mean? South Dakota isn't exactly the Cradle of Jocks. I talked to a sportswriter at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader yesterday and told him I was doing a story on notable South Dakota athletes, and he said, "That oughta take about two paragraphs."
At least they've got a sense of humor about it.
"Every year up here they honor a [local] Sports Celebrity of the Year," Mick Garry said, "and it just makes the whole state look stupid because usually nobody's ever heard of him. Sparky's won it about three times. I think he left [South Dakota] when he was 9."
I also learned from Garry that Bob Barker is from South Dakota he's the guy who scored the TKO over Happy Gilmore as are '64 Olympic champion Billy Mills, former Baltimore Colt John Dutton, the Los Angeles Clippers' Eric Piatkowski and University of Florida basketball star Mike Miller. But other than that, Mick was at a loss.
"If you can get your hands on that Sports Illustrated issue that listed the 50 greatest athletes from each state," he said, "that'll help you more than I could."
So I did. SI, you'll be pleased to know, ranked South Dakota's sports figures a lofty 43rd among the 50 states. (The not-so-magnificent seven rated lower: Rhode Island, Montana, Vermont, Wyoming, Maine, Alaska and Delaware.) Mills is No. 1 on South Dakota's list, golfing great Marlene Hagge is No. 4, second baseman Dick Green of the '70s Oakland A's is No. 11 and it peters out from there. The list would be even thinner if the magazine hadn't included people like Frank Leahy, who grew up in Winner, S.D., but was actually an O'Neill, Neb., baby.
I'm stricter, though. I'm only interested in natives of the Coyote State. And some frenzied page-flipping has turned up two other South Dakotans of note Norm Van Brocklin, the pro football Hall of Famer (born in Eagle Butte), and Joe Foss, the first commissioner of the American Football League (born in Sioux Falls). How could Sports Illustrated overlook them?
Everybody knows about the Dutchman, right? One of the fiercest competitors who ever lived. If he wasn't challenging 49ers ruffian Visco Grgich to a fight, he was firing a football off the helmet of a daydreaming teammate in practice or helping start the NFL Players Association. After he quarterbacked the Eagles to the '60 title, he simply walked away and became the first coach of the Vikings. You gotta love that.
He also uttered one of the greatest postgame quotes in football history after the Vikes lost in the last minute to the Colts. "We should've won," he said, "but [Johnny] Unitas is a guy who knows what it was to eat potato soup seven days a week as a kid. That's what beat us."
I'm still waiting for a quote like that.
As for Foss, he wasn't as famous a commissioner as Pete Rozelle, but he had a unique style. An ace fighter pilot in World War II (and the former governor of South Dakota), he used to fly himself around the country to promote the nascent AFL. "Whenever I could," he later wrote, "I used a military airplane… . I had to make the flight plan myself and check the plane over myself, all of which takes a great deal of time."
Muckraker Drew Pearson accused him of bilking the taxpayers, but Foss held his ground. "I was meeting my qualifications as an active member of the armed services that defend this country," he said in his autobiography. "One way or another, I had to spend that amount of time [more than 132 hours a year] in the air in those planes."
So South Dakota doesn't have a lot to brag about in sports, but it does have Sparky Anderson, Norm Van Brocklin and Joe Foss. As athletic Mount Rushmores go, it's not a bad threesome.

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