Memories of the Michigan Rugby Club - 1959
-Baji A Palkhiwala
1959 Michigan Rugby Team
It was a truly fortuitous event – the chance discovery this year, of the existence of the University of Michigan Rugby Team, which provided the incredible opportunity to speak with Mike Burrows, our 1959 Rugby Captain, after a mere 52 years. Subsequently, I have avidly devoured UM Rugby literature, among these, Mike’s piece of April 15, 1999 and Burt Sugar’s typically humorous and irreverent Commemoration Letter of October 2009, written for the 50th anniversary of the UMRFC. All this has aroused a desire to reacquaint myself if possible, with old teammates and contribute some of my 1959 recollections to the company lore. Mike Burrows suggested that I put some of these in print – so here goes.
It was a rather circuitous route by which I arrived at this juncture of discovery. A while ago my son had undertaken a family endeavor to unearth a front page picture in the now defunct Detroit Times (Cira October 1959) in which yours truly, as a half-naked Indian fakir (holy man) clad only in loin cloth, turban and improvised Elvis Presley side burns – and billed as “Swami Bundal Baaz” – sat at a round table, reading the palm of our guest of honor, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, at the UM International Week celebration in October 1959, with Dean Harlan Hatcher and a crowd of students looking on. Per tradition each country was given a room at the Michigan Union to display their national culture and wares. The “India Pavilion” decided to add some spice to their presentation and I was set up as a palm reader, merely as a prop – a stunt that went unexpectedly and frighteningly viral. By the end of that day I had to “read” the palms of over 100 students, mostly girls. To this day I wonder if the readers of the Detroit Times ever realized that “Swami Bundal Baaz” is Indian for “Swami bull sh***er”. Kindly also forgive this palm-reading digression – which is an episode unto itself – it is only recounted here to explain how during this unrelated research, I came across the existence of a full-fledged UMRFC.
Concurrent with these happenings we learnt of the sad passing of Burt Sugar in Chappaqua, New York, a town barely 20 minutes drive from my family home in New Rochelle, NY. Although I had known Bert only for 2 years and had not seen him since I left Ann Arbor in 1960, the fond memories survive to this day. Many were the stories recounted to my family, each time Bert propped up in our living room, in TV interviews and commentary during major boxing and other sporting events, always with his signature fedora and cigar. All this while I thought that he was floating around somewhere in the mid-west and hoping that perhaps someday our paths would cross. To my dying day I will regret that I was unaware for all these years, that Bert and his family were but a mere stone’s throw away – a life’s opportunity lost.
In September 1956, I arrived in Ann Arbor as a graduate student, fresh out of Bombay University. Life revolved around the International Center with its main attraction, a black and white TV and of course the Michigan Union coffee shop. In 1958 I undertook, along with a small group of British, Australian, Indian and Pakistani students, to form a Cricket Club at Michigan. Since I worked out with a few friends from the UM Football team as well as the Wrestling team, I got to know some of the UM Athletic Department assistants. The folks at the UM Athletic Department were eager to help with a Cricket Team without a clue about the game. After several hilarious sessions, I was allocated a budget for $500 and the restricted use of a small, unkempt field for Cricket practice and games (I cannot remember the name of the field).
Cricket equipment was purchased from Detroit and our sessions began. However, what resulted thereafter was a nightmare of disorganization, indiscipline and the absence of any cooperation with the chores. After about a dozen practice sessions and 3 comical in-house cricket matches (players showing up at any time, in street clothes and shoes, and leaving the game when they pleased) I called it a day. Fini the Cricket Club. Enter Bert Sugar.
In early 1959, still smarting from the Cricket fiasco, I saw what I thought was an audacious notice, at the International Center calling for people to form “The Michigan Rugby and Cricket Club” – someone called Bert Sugar. Prepared to be combative, I met him at the Michigan Union coffee shop. Instead, Bert listened to my woes and let me cry into my milk-shake about my cricket failure, then said he needed all the help he could get to form the UM Rugby team. Forget Cricket, he said bluntly. Did I know about Rugby and could I assist with getting players. Then came the bomb shell. He said that all he knew about Rugby was that the Rugby ball was bigger and rounder than an American football and added with feigned distress, that forward passes were not allowed. We just hit it off - how could one not like this guy.
During the formation stage I met Mike Burrows, our Captain whose task was to train the rabble. I remember Mitch Oprea and also knew Warren (first name or last?) especially because he ran like a wild man all over the field, including right across the field. I would give my right arm to say hello to Dave Dingman who must have been my 1959 teammate – though regretfully I can’t place him - or recall too many others. The trainers had their hands full. I told Burt about the cricket store in Detroit which probably also sold Rugby gear. He later drove to Detroit and returned with rugby balls and a slew of rugby rule books for distribution to our motley crew.
There were 3 or 4 players from the Michigan Football Team who joined our Rugby group. This was a cultural clash waiting to happen. The football players practiced hard and were a welcome addition, but true to form, invariably tried to gain yardage and would prefer to go down with the ball or loose it rather than pass it – a Rugby sin. Flicking the ball sideways and backwards, before they were tackled, was foreign to them. It took a while to get on the same half page, but the right and left-wings suffered considerable frustration and bruises, as by the time the ball finally arrived, the defenders were just waiting to kill instantly – and they did. On the lighter side, one of the UM football players – a perennial joker -went around telling all the girls that his nickname was Zob and that they should guess why! The rest can best be recounted personally, when we meet!
We were perhaps barely halfway there, when we played our first official game against the University of Toronto – and won!
Bert was above all, the master magician, and an unstoppable (if unconventional) force and the glue that kept us all together. We had no uniforms and he produced jerseys from a delicatessen – as only he could do. He drove to Detroit (I think he had a Mustang) to get more balls etc. He held together a very diverse crowd of individuals, both as to nationality and personality, all suffering from various levels of knowledge of the game of Rugby. At one of our meetings, with the traditional jugs of beer at the P-Bell (remember the P-Bell where, as legend goes, two Michiganders wrote the Michigan Marching Song), he slurred through the Rugby version of it i.e. Hail to the conquering Rugby heroes . (It is a shame that the history laden P-Bell does not exist anymore). He cajoled the UM athletic department and got what he wanted from them in the form of a practice field and more. How he chose the University of Toronto for our first official game and induced them to visit Ann Arbor is again a mystery. Then again he did the impossible when, on short notice , and with a team lacking in pedigree, he negotiated arrangements for our team to play three matches against California colleges including UCLA at Los Angeles and San Diago State in late March, early April 1959, without considering how the team was to get there and back – just vintage Burt.
But the story does not end there. Somehow he arranged a charter flight on a small plane to take the team to California. It is a well known secret that he subsidized the airfares of those who could not pay their full share. However there were those like me who, with limited allowances from their overseas governments, or for other reasons, could not afford the trip at all. Burt was distraught that our full team would not travel to California.
As a cheaper alternative, I informed Burt about something called the Drive Away Car Scheme in Detroit, which I had used to get to my summer job in California. Auto manufacturers, in order to reduce shipping costs, would let a person drive a brand new car to a destination of one’s choice (with the odometer disconnected). They only needed to know the number of people travelling and the destination. They then provided an appropriate sized vehicle of their choice, allowed 15 days to deliver it to a dealership and about $60 for gas expenses (1959 average cost – 22 cents/gallon). He immediately instructed me to arrange for the car, and designated four team mates to go with me. One of them was Warren, the other (can’t recall his name) was graduating from Law School that year and was using the trip to also conduct job interviews in California. I can’t remember the others.
The week before we were to depart, I fell and badly sprained my ankle which ballooned and I was put on crutches. I informed Burt that it was pointless for me to make the trip, but true to character, he would not let me down. He said I must go with the team since a commentator for the games was badly needed. Vintage Bert poppycock, but arguing was futile so I agreed to go. As it turned out, we played in small stadiums and I was the enthusiastic Michigan commentator for all 3 games, accompanied by fellow commentators from the opposing teams, loudspeaker and all, no censorships and loads of fun.
We travelled to Detroit to collect the car and were assigned a big black hearse – side glass and all. How could we ever return to Ann Arbor and tell the team that we would be travelling to California in a hearse. But time was short and we had no choice. After a couple of days of relentless ribbing, much jocularity, and becoming the resident butt of all jokes, we, the chosen few, began our drive to California.
The hearse was equipped with a floor siren, with a notice indicating a fine of $20 (enormous sum) for improper use. We took turns driving, swapping at each tank fill. Very quickly we began to enjoy this spacious vehicle where two people could take turns to sleep fully stretched out in the rear. We travelled west on Route 66 via Chicago and then through the deep south, across Death Valley, Painted Desert and even enjoyed an early morning pee atop the Hoover Dam – then past Las Vegas and into Los Angeles. We only stopped at a motel for one night out of three, for a much needed shower and rest – after all that’s all we needed since we carried our own comfortable “bedroom” with us.
One night, Warren was driving on a stretch of a winding, single-lane mountain road. It was around 2 a.m. with only one car ahead of us travelling at a painfully slow speed. After a few miles Warren lost it and hit the siren. The car ahead, thinking we were the police, pulled over and we passed him. At that moment two of us sleeping in the back, awakened by the sound of the siren, sat bolt upright with the white sheet still covering us, staring in confusion into the head lights of the car now following us. Imagine the scene – two supposed corpses in a hearse, suddenly coming to life. The driver of the other car turned on his brights and in obvious rage, followed us down the curving mountain road for almost an hour, barely one car length behind. The two of us in the back just laid down again. At the bottom of the mountain we emerged on to a 2-lane highway, much concerned about a possible confrontation with the upset driver, but to our great relief the car exited the highway shortly thereafter. We threatened to the cut off Warren’s legs, if he stepped on the siren again.
One of Bert’s quirks was that he just could not pronounce or spell my name correctly. (He even misspelt it in his October 2009 essay for the UMRFC’s 50th anniversary). One day he announced that he was just going to call me Baji Pack-a-Wallop because it was much easier. Ever since, and throughout our California trip, he gleefully introduced me on the loudspeaker as Baji Pack-a-Wallop. You just had to laugh with him. Another quirk was that he loved “Tonto and the Lone Ranger” jokes which he used frequently to poke fun at us. (Amazingly, he even makes a Tonto/Lone Ranger joke in his October 2009 article for the UMRFC 50th Anniversary).
With all this fun and madness, and a few incidents on the field, we had a wonderful time and our California hosts were most gracious. However, even with hard and dedicated playing, we failed to win any of the three matches, returning to Ann Arbor in early April 1959. Although practice etc continued upon our return, it was the end of the 1959 season for me, a memorable first Rugby Club season for all of us and a somewhat whacky start of the UMRFC.
However, in retrospect, it was a pointed victory of sorts for the Rugby Club, inasmuch as an untested team with nascent skills at best, playing 3 games in quick succession, emerged as cohesive a unit, as 8 to 10 hours of competitive play could miraculously produce. (I am told on good authority that the UMRFC has made considerable progress since those pioneer times!)
To my long-lost 1959 team mates, I hope that sharing a few of these recollections will bring you as much pride and joy as I have had in writing them. Hopefully some of us will meet again and be reacquainted.
To the Michigan Rugby Club, please be aware that this was the embryonic background from which you have emerged and built to your present strength, thanks largely to the foresight and perseverance of one great individual – Bert Sugar. When we old Fifty-Niners come your way, you can buy us a beer.
And to Burt Sugar, our founder and a uniquely wonderful person, to whose memory this letter is dedicated, affection forever.
With all good wishes for the UMFRCs continued success,
Baji A Palkhiwala
1959 Michigan Rugby Team