1937 Melrose Shamrocks: The Championship Season

More Shamrock Tales

There were other interesting stories and facts about the Melrose team.  Not all of the stories of that team dealt with how they won each game.  Some of the best stories have nothing to do with what happened on the court.  Of course, some did.

City Slicker – Greasy Hair:  Many of the players on the Melrose basketball team wanted to fit in with the “big city” crowd of Des Moines.  In the fashion of the day, they slicked back their hair with Rose Hair Oil.  Rose Hair Oil was inexpensive (“about 15 cents per gallon,” according to Walt O’Connor), so they apparently used lots of it.  The oil also had a nice smell to it.

  While this was fine before the tournament started, it gave the team trouble in their first game against Geneseo.  During the game, the hair oil went from their hair to their hands to the ball.  As Walt O’Connor recalled, “We started perspiring and wiping our heads to get the hair out of our eyes, and the first thing you knew, the referee couldn’t hold the ball.”  After having trouble handling the ball in the first half, the players washed out their hair at half time.  Better ball handling in the second half helped them to win the game, 35 - 34.  After almost letting the first game of the tournament slip their grasp, Melrose stopped using the hair oil in the later games.

Home Court – The Opera House:  Unlike many of the large high schools, Melrose did not have its own gym.  Instead, the team had to use the town Opera House for most practices and games.  The term most big city newspapers used to describe the Opera House was a “cracker box.”

When basketball first started in Melrose in 1923, the School Board refused to consider the Opera House for the team because of the rent.  This meant that the boys did drills on the cement floor of an old garage.  Then, in 1925, the team took over the Opera House.

The Opera House had a basketball floor that was 40 to 45 feet long and 30 feet wide.  In contrast, the Drake Fieldhouse had a basketball floor that was 94 feet long and 50 feet wide.  More than three Melrose basketball floors could fit into the Drake Fieldhouse floor.  The short Melrose floor meant that the free throw circles overlapped the circle at center court.  As Walt O’Connor observed, on the small court, it was sometimes difficult to work up a sweat during practices.

Besides the unique size, the Opera House had many other unique features.  One of the baskets was mounted on the stage of the Opera House.  The other basket was connected to a projection booth.  A stove that provided the only heat for the building cut off a corner of the floor.  A guardrail protected the players from the hot stove and was considered out of bounds.  During practices, the guardrail served as a bench.

The Opera House had no bleachers.  Instead, two by twelve foot planks attached to wooden kegs provided limited seating.  Team benches were made the same way.  In addition, 15 to 20 school kids sat on the stage to watch games.  The Opera House had no running water.  It also had only one locker room that both teams shared.

After the 1937 championship, the town of Melrose built a new community center.  When it was finished in September of 1939, it became the new home court for the Shamrocks.  The Opera House was no longer needed, and was torn down for the lumber in October of 1940.

Although Melrose had a unique basketball facility, some of their opponents had their own interesting facilities.  Bussey, for instance, had a gym with a very low ceiling with pipes hanging down.  This arrangement made it hard to throw long shots or passes.  Hiteman played in an old, converted church that had a metal grate in the middle of the floor.  According to Walt O’Connor, players had to bounce the ball hard on the grate to get it back up to dribbling level.  Russell had a nice gym and let Melrose hold some practices on their floor before the State Tournament.

Traveling in a Black Mariah:  Melrose did not have a bus for the team to use when traveling to its away games.  However, they found another vehicle in town that could hold all the players – a “Black Mariah.”  A Black Mariah was a black Chevy panel van used to transport the dearly departed.  In other words, the team went to some of its away games in the back of the town hearse.  However, for the State Tournament, they traveled in two cars.

Shamrock Shorts:  The following are other miscellaneous, interesting facts about the 1937 Melrose team and its fans:.

In 1937, all basketball players shot free throws underhanded.


The uniform shorts were much shorter than those worn today and had belts that were sewn into the cloth.


The Shamrocks’ team colors were Old Gold and Royal Blue.


The Shamrocks beat ten class A schools during the 1937 season.


The Shamrocks also had a scrimmage during the year against the Chariton Junior College and Melrose won.


According to Walt O’Connor, after the Melrose championship victory, some Melrose fans thought that they should have seen at least one of the games.


John and Virginia Clark had recently moved to the Melrose area and did not have a radio aerial, so they had difficulty picking up the Melrose-Marshalltown game.  However, they solved their problem when Virginia attached the aerial connection to her wedding ring.  The reception was “clear as a bell.”


Walt O’Connor recalled that the team only had two basketballs.  “One was round.  The other looked like a football.  That was it.”


An old farmer from Melrose who had never seen a basketball game said, “I wonder who gets up there and gets that ball out of that basket.”  Later on, he went to his first game, and fell in love with the game of basketball.  He never missed a game after that.


In remembering the team’s first visit to the Drake Fieldhouse, O’Connor said that one of the players “coming out of the dressing room, took a shot, I guess I don’t know where he thought he was, he went running up to the free throw line, caught it, and shot it again.”  Walt continued, “The vastness and bigness mystified him.  He didn’t know where he was.”


Melrose foiled Rathbun two years in a row.  Johnny Morris was a star center for Rathbun.  In the 1937 game, Melrose rallied from six points down with 1:45 remaining, and Johnny Morris led Rathbun with 14 points.  In the 1938 game, Melrose advanced to the State Tournament and squelched Rathbun’s chance to go by winning a 22 – 20 barnburner.  Johnny Morris led Rathbun again with eight points.  Years later, Morris worked as a postal carrier in Walt O’Connor’s Des Moines neighborhood,

The championship year was a magical year filled with fascinating stories.  Some of these stories have probably been lost or forgotten.  If Hollywood wanted to make a movie like “Hoosiers” about the Melrose team, people would probably believe that it was fictional.  Yet, the story of the state championship won by the small school whose players had to dodge a hot stove at home and ride to away games in a hearse really did happen.  It is part of my history.


About The Author

Author's Inspiration