The Kiel Auditorium
1401 Clark Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63103
St. Louis Bilikens (NCAA)
St. Louis Hawks (NBA) 1955-1968
Originally published on Sunday, March 3, 1991.
HEYDAY ... OLD KIEL AUDITORIUM WAS A CORNERSTONE FOR WONDERFUL PERIOD IN ST. LOUIS SPORTS
By Dave Dorr Of the Post-Dispatch Staff
''There's a whistle on the play. A foul? Who's the foul on? Big Blue? No. On Big Blue? OK, OK. They're walking the right way.''
- Buddy Blattner
Voice of the St. Louis Hawks
Did they ever walk any way but the right way in the extraordinary era of the late 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s, when basketball was the centerpiece of Kiel Auditorium?
The Hawks were world champions and St. Louis University was one of the best college teams in the country. It was a majestic period in St. Louis sports history. Now, it is frozen in time, never to be the same.
Oh, those were heady days at Kiel, a landmark scheduled to be razed after the current basketball season and replace d by an $85 million sports arena. St. Louisans had a love affair with the Hawks, whom Blattner had personalized with nicknames. Bob Pettit was ''Big Blue.'' Slater Martin was ''The Tornado From Texas,'' Med Park ''The Bulldozer From Missouri.'' There was ''Sergeant York'' (Alex Hannum) and ''Broncho'' (Al Ferrari).
The players belonged to St. Louis and the Kiel regulars. Cliff Hagan spent his entire National Basketball Association career here. Pettit was a St. Louis Hawk, not somebody who came to the team after making four stops elsewhere. Ed Macauley was traded to the Hawks, but he was as St. Louis as the Cardinals or Browns. Easy Ed grew up here and was an All-American who had achieved prominence years before with the Billikens on that same floor in Kiel.
Blattner, who broadcast the first 800 Hawks games (''Bingo! It's good!''), said: ''They weren't guys making a million dollars a year. They were guys who played their hearts out as working-class people. Many of the fans who came to the games at Kiel made more money than the players. The players didn't drive Mercedes. Many drove old Chevrolets. Their salaries were shamefully low, but the fans knew that and they didn't resent the players as they do today.
''Boy, did St. Louis love a winner. They talked about the Hawks in the bars and barber shops. They'd talk with great pride about 'their Hawks.' ''
Blattner's audience on KMOX radio was vast. St. Louis fans quickly learned from him the names of the NBA players who were made cannon fodder at Kiel by ''their Hawks'': Tom Heinsohn, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, Jack Twyman, Johnny Kerr, Sweetwater Clifton.
Opposing teams hated to make the stop at Kiel. The players dressed upstairs in Kiel, then had to pick their way from the stage area through the hecklers and down to the floor. It was like a war zone. Players said they'd get pricked by hatpins. The fans showed neither mercy nor gave comfort to the enemy, especially when Wilt Chamberlain or the hated Celtics came to town.
''They gave them fits,'' Pettit said. ''They were as great a group of fans as I saw anywhere. Just sensational. They were loyal and a great help to us.''
Boston's Jim Loscutoff, a hard-edged sort, would swing at three or four of the taunters before reaching the bench.
''Basketball at Kiel was almost like pro wrestling is today,'' Blattner said. ''Fans hitting the gladiators on the head.''
They're walking the right way.
A Saturday night in the mid-1950s at a Hawks game in Kiel was a luxurious display of means. Women wore mink. Men wore suits. Tickets were $3.50 for seats on the floor and $1.50 for the second deck, or ''up with the geese'' as Hawks general manager Marty Blake called the cheap seats.
Blake was a sight. He smoked cigars as big as telephone poles and ran the front office out of the pocket inside his sportscoat.
Fur coats seemed starkly out of place in the aging, smoke-filled auditorium. But Kiel was home to the fans. It was hallowed and it had character and for basketball it was perfect.
''It dressed up real well,'' Blattner said.
They'd shoehorn 10,000 spectators into it. Kiel was close - what any home team would want for basketball - and everybody felt a part of the electric atmosphere that was generated once the fans began stomping and cheering. The building shook.
Blake wasn't above punching Boston fans who pestered him from their front-row seats. And the St. Louis fans - before the Hawks and their lineup of Lenny Wilkens, Joe Caldwell, Lou Hudson, Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beaty and Dick Snyder were exiled in 1968 to Atlanta - once littered the floor with eggs, tomatoes and Snickers bars, all aimed at the San Francisco Warriors' Rick Barry. Blake says ''people blamed me for instigating it.'' He probably did.
Blake and owner Ben Kerner, a clever promoter, brought in the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands for post-game entertainment. Hawks games were an extravagant show.
When the regular season ended and the NBA playoffs would start, people would stand in lines for blocks to get tickets to the games at Kiel.
Kiel opened April 14, 1934, as Municipal Auditorium. Soon after, basketball was introduced to the building.
Francis Johnson, 80, who was a member of the first U.S. gold medal Olympic basketball team in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, and John Flanigan, 77, who was St. Louis U. coach for two seasons in 1946 and 1947, played in the first games at Kiel as members of AAU teams. The building was renamed Kiel Auditorium in 1943 in honor of former civic leader and mayor, Henry W. Kiel.
In the 1945-46 season, Flanigan scheduled Notre Dame to play at Kiel. Macauley was a freshman.
''When we came out on the floor, we're looking around and saying, 'What are all these people doing here?' '' Macauley recalled. ''It wasn't us. It was the Notre Dame mystique.''
The next season, St. Louis U. beat Henry Iba's Oklahoma State Aggies 31-29 on Danny Miller's layup at Kiel in the first college basketball game t o be televised in St. Louis. Iba's team won the NCAA title the previous season.
''People said, 'Well, this can't be. How can St. Louis U. beat last year's NCAA champions?' '' Macauley said. ''It did a lot for our ballclub. All of a sudden, in a short period of time, we went from 'What are you doing playing in front of 10,000 fans?' and in awe, to every game a sellout or near-sellout and we won them all.''
Holy Cross, the 1946-47 NCAA champion, played the Bills at Kiel on New Year's Day in 1948 and lost 61-46. D.C. Wilcutt, a Billiken senior then, guarded Bob Cousy. Eddie Hickey had replaced Flanigan as coach.
Wilcutt will never forget Kiel. ''Tremendous crowds . . . people sitting on the steps,'' he said. ''I did not realize we had such an advantage there. Those were great times, great memories.''
In the 1960s, it was Bradley and beer. And the Trumpeteers leading the St. Louis U. team onto the floor. Bradley and the Bills had a heated rivalry. Braves fans paraded Kiel with banners designed to stir up the Billiken crowd. Beer was sold at Kiel. More than once, jeering Bradley fans got doused.
The Bills met Illinois at Kiel in December 1964, one night after the Illini had upset by 110-83 a UCLA team that would go on to win the NCAA title. Before the game, Bills coach John Bennington read to his team a story from a Champaign, Ill., newspaper that described Kiel as ''smoke-filled and beer-fumed'' and decried the fact that the game was taking place there. Showing no respect for the lovable joint, Illinois paid a price in a 79-64 defeat.
Kiel is where most of the area's best high school players appeared through the years in state tournaments, or more recently in special events such as the ''Shootout'' that is held each December. The most memorable high school game at Kiel ended in a tie and isn't remembered for basketball. No. 1 Vashon played No. 2 Sumner before a crowd of 8,000 at Kiel in 1971, but when a fan riot broke out with 2 seconds remaining and the score 65-65, the game was called.
LaSalle's Tom Gola played at Kiel, as well as Ohio State's Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and St. Louis U.'s Harry Rogers and Anthony Bonner.
On Feb. 21, 1977, a sophomore from Indiana State named Larry Bird, who was virtually unknown outside the state of Indiana, made his only appearance at Kiel. Yet, no collegian who ever played at Kiel was any better than the brilliant Oscar Robertson.
''Kiel?'' Robertson said. ''It was a tough place to play in, I must tell you. The band would bang those drums. You could never hear anything.''
Realizing it was futile to try to talk when his Cincinnati teammates were shooting at the end of the floor where the drums were, the Big O communicated with hand signals.
''You could only read lips so much,'' he said.
Reading Kerner's lips was exactly what St. Louis fans attempted to do. Uncle Bunky's histrionics from his seat at the center of Murderers Row - the front row at Kiel - were part of the Saturday night show. Lost in the game, Kerner nervously shredded programs, stood and wildly waved his arms, shouting, knocking over chairs or managing to spill sodas of those sitting near him.
He once was fined $500 for hurling a chair at a referee, long before Bobby Knight made the sport fashionable.
''I was throwing chairs when Knight was a Boy Scout,'' said Kerner, airily.
Kerner arrived at Kiel during the 1957 NBA playoffs to see a cluster of players and Celtics coach Red Auerbach measuring one of the baskets. Kerner suspected the wily Auerbach was attempting to hoodwink him.
''What the hell you trying to pull?'' Kerner asked.
Replied Auerbach: ''The basket is too low.''
Said Kerner: ''I told him he was a 'no-good so-and-so.' He hits me, cuts my lip and breaks a tooth and I'm bleeding all over. Here I am, in a nice suit, tie and shirt. It was part of his act. He was going to use every trick in his book.''
They're walking the right way.
On April 12, 1958, a Saturday night, the Hawks defeated Boston 110-109 at Kiel to win the world championship. Pettit scored 50 points, hitting 19 of the Hawks' final 21. St. Louis let Boston's Bill Sharman score on an unmolested layup to make it 110-109, then inbounded the ball. Macauley wound up with it near mid-court. He dribbled until the buzzer sounded and then heaved the ball to the rafters.
Kerner, overcome by excitement, fainted. Blattner recalls seeing women sobbing with joy.
Tuesday night's championship game in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament could be the last basketball game at Kiel. The ghosts that reside now in the nooks and crannies will be lost in the mist when Kiel comes down, but they'll never disappear in the hearts of those who were there to witness what was a glorious era.
Game nights at Kiel, Kerner said, ''were tremendously exciting. The noise. The crowd. It was like walking into a dream.''