(Valley Gazette Editor’s Note: The following comment on the good old days is by Ray Major, an old-timer from Ashland, who retired a few years back as the Ashland Evening Herald mechanical superintendent after more than a half century as a printer)
I greatly enjoy reading Bill Witt’s “Witticisms” and “The Way It Was in Sports.” His recent article about the great “Hinkey” Haines brought back fond memories of the great Coal Region athletes I knew and watched perform in the days preceding and following World War I.
I was at the famous “Battle in the Clouds” at Weston Field when the fog was so thick that when a ball was punted or passed it just disappeared until it came back to earth. When play moved to the other end of the field only the fans near that goal had any idea of what was happening. And that field with its outcropping rocks was a danger to life and limb that modern players need not contend with. I shall never forget that game as our Model “T” Ford got stuck in the mud on Glover’s Hill and we never would have gotten to the game if it were not for kind residents who gave us a push.
If I remember right, the referee of the game was the famous Tiny Maxwell after whom the Maxwell Cup is named, then sports editor of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, a newspaper on which I once worked as a linotype operator.
Tiny gave the region’s games the kind of coverage now only accorded to the Eagles and great college teams like Penn State, Pennsylvania University, Temple and Villanova. He was high in praise of the play of such Shenandoah stars as Andy Kutsko, Frank Racis, Haines and other members of Joe Sepauly’s great Yellow Jackets of the early 1920s.
Maxwell wrote glowing accounts of battles between Shenandoah, Gilberton, Pottsville and the “Big Green” of Coaldale whose stars were “Blue” Bonner and John “Honeyboy” Evans at Center. Evans’ younger brother Bill played at end. Both boys were known as “Honeyboy” and were oftem mistakenly identified by writers and others. They both fought as boxers and gained excellent reputations as boxers. One sportswriter once said that if John had not worked in the mines he might have become the world’s middleweight champion.
I do not have the records, but they can be found in Evening Herald files. I remember attending a game between Shenandoah and Coaldale at Mahanoy City in which “Honeyboy” intercepted a Shenandoah pass and took it in for a TD and a Coaldale win. Maxwell once reported that if John Evans had played in college he would have been regarded as one of the greatest in the game.
My acquaintance with “Honeyboy” began in the spring of 1918 when I was a drill sergeant at a field artillery replacement depot at Camp Jackson, S.C. Among the other sergeants in Battery D of the Sixth Regiment were Dr. Anthony Murray of Girardville, and Antone (Tony) Loeper of Ashland. One of the corporals was John “Honeyboy” Evans of Coaldale.
As non-com in charge of athletics for Battery D, I soon became aware that this Evans was no ordinary athlete. He fought in most of the weekly bouts at the camp for the entertainment of troops and was never defeated, winning most with knockouts. He became well known in camp. Even though he wass rough and tough in his action he became popular with his comrades.
During the summer, Johnny Sanborn, a fighter with considerable reputation from Cleveland, Ohio, was assigned to Battery D, and was the same weight as “Honeyboy” and undefeated. Some wanted a match between the two sluggers, but Captain Gehring would not permit it because he feared it might cause a split between friends of the two men.
Evans amazed officials by running the 100-yard dash in 10 flat in a camp track meet.
When football season arrived, “Honeyboy” was named fullback for his regiment and “Blue” Bonner, his teammate on the Big Green at Coaldale, became FB for the Eleventh Regiment squad. Most of the camp players had college experience under their belts and some had distinguished records.
The season had not long been underway until the two newspapers of Columbia, S.C., were reporting on the devastating play of the two Coal Region boys on teams which were sweeping everything before them.
“Honeyboy” Evans was a tremendous competitor and without fear. Both he and Bonner were the kind of athletes who gave everything they had in competition. On Sundays following a game, Evans would be so stiff and sore from the battering he had taken, that four of us would work on his arms and legs to get him in condition for regiment formation.
As the season drew to a close, the two teams with the Coal Region fullbacks faced each other in a matchup for the camp title. I think every soldier not on duty that Saturday afternoon attended the game, as were many citizens of Columbia together with a score of sportswriters.
It was a great battle and the “coal crackers” lived up to their advance billing and they did most of the ball carrying. At one point, “Honeyboy” was almost ejected for questioning an official’s call. In the waning minutes, “Honeyboy” carried the ball through the massive Eleventh Regiment line for a TD that gave his team the championship.
After the war, John Evans returned to the Coaldale “Big Green” lineup and also boxed for several years, despite the fact Army doctors discovered he had an enlarged heart.
Once when he was accused of playing “dirty,” he denied it and said “I only play ‘hard,’” which was the manner in which football was played in the coal fields in those days. I recall that a player once complained that somebody was “slugging” in line play, referee Maxwell commented, “You’re a pretty big fellow yourself.”
I lost track of “Honeyboy” after the early 1920s and the last I heard of him he was a patient in the Valley Forge VA Hospital.
No wonder Hinkey Haines and other college players who were members of the Coal Region semi-pro teams respected home-grown football players.