Jan. 29, 2013
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Tom Yewcic came to Michigan State believing the Spartan athletic department was on the verge of something special.
Still the only player to win a Rose Bowl and also be named the College World Series Most Valuable Player - in the same year no less - Yewcic's vision certainly was prophetic.
"The funny part about it is that you never know what's ahead and what's going to happen when you make that decision," Yewcic said. "I always felt we were going to be successful no matter what. I never had a negative thought about anything. I was always very confident...and it showed up."
One of the most decorated Spartans in school history, Yewcic was the starting quarterback in 1952 and 1953, leading the Spartans to an undefeated national championship in '52 and the program's first-ever Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl victory during the '53 season. In the spring of 1954, the first-team All-American catcher helped the baseball team win its first Big Ten title and advance to the College World Series.
On Sunday, Feb. 3, at the annual First Pitch Dinner, Yewcic will become the 12th Spartan to be named the Michigan State Baseball Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.
"It's nice to be recognized," said Yewcic, who is also a member of the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame. "It's really remarkable in the years that I was there that it all came together. We won the national championship in football, we won the Rose Bowl, and then we go to the College World Series. It was exciting. I was very pleased with how everything went."
"When we got to Michigan State in 2008, we felt it was important to embrace our past and the tradition of Michigan State baseball," said Spartan head baseball coach Jake Boss. "The 1954 team went further than any other in the 129-year history of Spartan Baseball, finishing third in the College World Series, and Tom was the leader on that ball club. It's our honor to bring him back into the fold of the MSU baseball family and we are excited to welcome him back to East Lansing."
Yewcic, whose father was a steel mill worker, was raised in a house with nine other siblings in Conemaugh, Pa., a little less than two hours east of Pittsburgh. Four of his brothers played high school football, and three played college sports. A heralded high school prospect himself, Yewcic was offered a football scholarship by nearly every school in the country.
"I have six brothers, and four of them wanted me to go to different places," Yewcic said. "It was just getting crazy. And Michigan State wasn't one of them. One brother wanted me to go to Syracuse, one wanted me to go to Notre Dame."
The difference between the other schools and Michigan State came down to Duffy Daugherty, the legendary Spartan football Hall of Fame coach who at the time was an assistant under Clarence "Biggie" Munn.
"I liked Duffy," said Yewcic, uttering a simple phrase that has been repeated thousands of times about MSU's all-time winningest coach. "And he's a Pennsylvania guy, so that helped.
"But when he came in and I talked with him, I said, `I'm going to get away from here, as far as I can get, and I'm going to Michigan State.' I wanted to get away from home. As it was, I made a good decision, and everything panned out for me." It was also understood that Yewcic would be playing both football and baseball when he arrived on campus.
"Wherever I was going to go, I was going to play both baseball and football," Yewcic said. "I let Biggie and Duffy know I was going to play both, and they didn't have a problem with it. Biggie never said a word to me (about playing baseball). Duffy was in control of that, and he made a promise that I could play baseball."
Yewcic enrolled at Michigan State in the fall of 1950 but didn't see action as a freshman. He made a splash in the third game of the 1951 season, however, as the sophomore tailback's name would forever by synonymous with the "Transcontinental Pass."
With the top-ranked Spartans trailing No. 7 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in the fourth quarter, 20-17, and facing a fourth-and-9 from their own 28 with less than three minutes left, Munn called a stunner of a play.
It was one of those "you had to see it to believe it" moments.
Here's the description from The Saginaw News: "The payoff play was a buck-lateral series special in which fullback Evan Slonac faked a line plunge, gave the ball to (quarterback) Al Dorow, who then lateraled to Yewcic. Yewcic faked an end run and then passed across the field to Dorow, who had crept along the sidelines. Dorow caught the ball on the Buckeye 15, shook off two tacklers and crossed into the end zone."
Michigan State held on for the 24-20 comeback win en route to an undefeated 9-0 season.
After the game, a reporter asked Yewcic if he was nervous.
"That was no time to be nervous, was it?" replied Yewcic. "We needed that one."
To this day, Yewcic still loves to relive that famous play.
"It was the first pass I ever threw in college," remembered Yewcic. "I was a tailback in a single wing offense. They called my number at the end to throw that pass, and fortunately everything turned out good."
Postgame, Munn was quoted as saying that it was not only Yewcic's first pass in a college game, but "in fact, it was the first play he had ever run on offense this year." Munn also claimed that it was "one of the greatest games of all time. Maybe the greatest."
Outside of the "Transcontinental Pass", Yewcic played sparingly on offense that season, but did serve as the team's punter.
Everything changed the next year.
MSU had an opening at quarterback following the graduation of Dorow, and the coaching staff looked to Yewcic.
The Spartans finished No. 2 in the Associated Press Poll in 1951 and entered the 1952 season holding the top spot. Michigan State was loaded with talent and ready to make a run at the national championship.
But the first game of the season was in the Big House against archrival Michigan. Just a little bit of pressure for Yewcic for his first start.
"I had 20 days of training as a quarterback - I never touched the ball in my life before as a quarterback," said Yewcic.
He was ready for the moment. Almost.
The Wolverines blitzed the Spartans for an early 13-0 lead in the first quarter, and Yewcic's debut at quarterback was turning into a nightmare.
"We get into the huddle on the next kickoff," Yewcic recalled, after Michigan scored for the second time, "and everyone's hollering and I say `hey listen, keep quiet, I'll take care of it, I'll call the plays.' Don McAuliffe, who was a captain, says `that's right, he's the guy, and if you have something to say, say it to me.' Next play we run off, and McAuliffe runs 70 yards for a touchdown."
It was the beginning of 27 unanswered points for Michigan State as the Spartans rallied to win, 27-13. Yewcic was "super" - a term used by Munn - in his first start, completing 7-of-14 passes for 171 yards.
Lyall Smith of the Detroit Free Press wrote that the "big preseason question mark on the Spartans potential greatness this year was Yewcic. He can hardly be called a question mark now."
From there, Yewcic was the clear choice at quarterback. He led the Spartans to another perfect 9-0 record and the national championship, earning first-team All-America honors from NBC-TV after throwing for a then-school record 941 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Although he played baseball in summer leagues back home in Johnstown, Pa., Yewcic's first year on varsity at Michigan State was in 1953. Yewcic was the catcher on a team that went 11-17 overall and finished seventh in the Big Ten with a 6-7 mark.
It hardly seemed a precursor for the magical spring that awaited in 1954.
A CHOICE AND A TRIP TO PASADENA
Yewcic's All-America football season didn't dissuade Major League Baseball clubs away from the promising catching prospect with power, and he was offered a contract by one team for $50,000 following his junior year. But Yewcic didn't bite.
"That never entered into it for me," he said on the possibility of missing his senior year. "I was going to finish my career there in both of them (football and baseball)."
His last year at Michigan State couldn't have gone any better.
Yewcic threw for 489 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior in 1953 as the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten Championship and earned the program's first-ever berth in the Rose Bowl. In the "Granddaddy of Them All", Yewcic helped Michigan State to a 28-20 victory over UCLA.
Yewcic finished his Spartan football career with 18 touchdown passes and 1,480 passing yards, and MSU compiled a 27-1 record during his three years on the team.
ALL THE WAY TO OMAHA
But Yewcic is not being honored on Sunday afternoon for his accomplishments on the gridiron, impressive as they are. It's in main part for his historic season on the diamond in 1954.
Heading into his senior year, Yewcic was confident the Spartans would field a competitive team.
"We seemed to be getting better every year," he said. "That year we finally came together."
Did it ever.
In just their fourth year in the Big Ten, the Spartans won the conference championship with an 11-2 record, clinching the title with a thrilling extra-inning, walk-off win over Ohio State in the second game of a doubleheader on May 22. With the Spartans down 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh, MSU scored twice to send the game into extras, then plated the game-winning run on a Bob Powell single in the eighth that brought home Dan Brown.
Michigan State entered the District IV playoffs winning 12 of its last 13 games and hosted Ohio in a best-of-three series at Old College Field. After splitting the first two games on May 31, the Spartans clinched a berth to Omaha in a rain-shortened 5-3 game that only last four and a half innings.
"It's hard to put into words," said Yewcic on how he felt about reaching the College World Series. "That's the epitome of college baseball. Having a chance to compete in the College World Series was our goal from day one. We had a lot of good players, but make no bones about it, it didn't come easy."
The Spartans made it look easy, however, in their first CWS game, crushing Massachusetts, 16-5. Yewcic made quite an impression, blasting a grand slam and driving in another run in the blowout win. The Spartans then defeated Arizona, 2-1, in the second game of the eight-team, double-elimination tournament.
Following a 5-4 loss to Rollins College, Michigan State bounced right back in the rematch with a 10-inning, 3-2 victory to take on Missouri in an elimination game. In a 3-3 game in the top of the ninth, Yewcic found himself in the middle of a controversial play that ultimately cost the Spartans a chance at a national championship.
With a runner on first and no outs, Tiger left fielder Lee Wynn had two strikes on him when he swung and apparently foul tipped a ball to the backstop. Since Yewcic thought it was fouled off, he made no attempt at retrieving the ball and asked the umpire for a new one. But there was one problem - no umpire signaled a foul ball.
According to the Omaha Herald, the runner on first - Bud Cox - took off for second, and Wynn, with the vocal urging of his coach, dashed for first. Cox ultimately reached third after Wynn beat Yewcic's throw to first. Although Wynn should have been out regardless since first base was already occupied, the play stood as a passed ball and Missouri found itself with runners on first and third and no outs.
"It was a foul tip, I can guarantee you that," said Yewcic. "I didn't miss many balls."
"The batter swung at a high pitch right at eye-level and foul-tipped it," recalled Earl Morrall, the longtime NFL quarterback who was an infielder on the 1954 team, when he was asked about the incident last year in the week leading up to him being awarded the Spartan Baseball Distinguished Alumnus of the Year. "Yewcic was holding his hand back there for a new ball, but the umpire said it went off the edge of his glove, not the bat. The batter even stood there for a few minutes when it finally dawned on him that it was being called a passed ball.
"Yewcic had to go get the ball from the backstop and the guy made it to first..they went on to beat us (4-3)."
Missouri not only won the game with a single in the ninth, it claimed the national title the next day as well, defeating Rollins College in the final, 4-1.
It was a frustrating end to an excellent season, but the Spartans finished in third place at the College World Series with a 3-2 mark and closed the year with a 25-10-1 record, a school record for victories, and Yewcic was named the CWS Most Valuable Player for his outstanding performance in MSU's five games.
Yewcic also became the first player in program history to be named a first-team All-American by the American Baseball Coaches Association, as hit .305 with three homers, five doubles and 12 RBIs.
"At the time I went to Michigan State, the whole athletic department was just starting to go on the upswing," said Yewcic. "I just happened to be there at the beginning of it, and we happened to be very successful in football and baseball."
Yewcic's confidence in Michigan State upon his arrival definitely paid off in a big way.
By the team he left, the football program had won the national championship in 1952, the Big Ten Championship in 1953 and the Rose Bowl that same season. In baseball, the Spartans were also Big Ten Champions and reached the pinnacle of the sport, the College World Series in Omaha.
Following his Spartan career, Yewcic's journey eventually landed him both in the Major Leagues and professional football. Although he was selected in the 27th round of the 1954 National Football League Draft by Pittsburgh, he elected to play baseball, and reached the majors with the Detroit Tigers in 1957 before turning over to football in the early 60s. Yewcic was a member of the Boston Patriots in the American Football League from 1961-66 and was named to the Patriots All-1960s AFL Team as a punter.
"We had great camaraderie with all the players - good people," Yewcic said on why the 1954 College World Series and Big Ten Championship team was so special, as he rattled of the names of several teammates, including Chuck Gorman, Bob Williams, Jack Risch, Dan Brown and Dick Idzkowski. "We were a very close knit team. Coach (John) Kobs knew when to interfere, and he knew when to stay out, and he did a great job of doing that. We had a good time together...I think that was as important as anything to me."
By Ben Phlegar, Michigan State Athletic Communications