Friday, 2 March 2018


Who remembers the term “Original Six” hockey? I do, I do!

For the benefit for those who don’t, from 1942-1967 only six teams were part of the “Big Show” in the National Hockey League; the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Who had the money during that time? Who had the power? Who pushed their will on the others? Who made the boardroom decisions? In other words, who really controlled the league? Answer--the Norris family. They had their iron fists wrapped around all four American teams, much to the dismay of the two Canadian franchises across the border.

One family! How on earth did that happen?

James E Norris Sr (US Public Domain)
Let’s see…enter James E Norris, Sr whom friends called “Big Jim.” Born to a well-to-do family in Montreal in 1879, Norris Sr inherited Norris Grain Inc from his father after the family moved the operation to Chicago, Illinois. President of Norris Grain at age 28 in 1908, Big Jim set out to corner the market on the grain business by buying up huge clusters of storage elevators throughout the United States. Within 25 years of taking over Norris Grain Inc, James E Norris was the largest cash grain buyer in the world and a force to be reckoned with, despite the Great Depression gripping the country following the 1929 Stock Market Crash.

Worth multi-millions and using his successful grain business as a foundation to force his way into pro sports, Norris bought the bankrupt Detroit Falcons and the team’s arena--the five-year-old, 15,000 seat Detroit Olympia--in 1932 for a mere $100,000. One of his new employees was son James D Norris, hired to learn the ropes of running a hockey team. Big Jim’s next move was to rename the team: He came up with the Detroit Red Wings in honor of the Montreal amateur hockey team he had once played for called the “Winged Wheelers.” Of course, the new Detroit logo (an auto wheel attached to a bird wing) was the perfect fit for the industrial metropolis, being that it was the Motor City.

With loads of Norris cash now available for coach-GM Jack Adams, the Red Wings were able to build a farm system and purchase high-caliber players, so much so that within five years of Norris buying the team, they won back-to-back NHL championships, the first American team to achieve such a accolade.

James D Norris (US Public Domain)
The deepening Great Depression didn’t seem to hurt the Norris pocketbook any because in the space of four years in the mid-1930s, Big Jim spread his control over the remaining American teams, either outright or through the backdoor. He became the largest shareholder of Madison Square Garden, the home of the New York Rangers. He acquired Chicago Stadium, the home of the Black Hawks, plus provided business loans to Boston Bruins owner Charles Adams to keep his team afloat, besides owning a share or two of the Bruins’ rink, Boston Garden. All three arenas--or portions thereof--were obtained at reduced prices, due to the economic times. By 1940, Norris’ personal wealth exceeded $200 million, when you include his real estate investing and sprawling cattle ranches throughout the country.

In 1944, when Chicago’s owner Frederic McLaughlin died, Norris saw to it that Black Hawks president Bill Tobin, along with a number of partners could purchase the team. Although Tobin appeared to be the head on paper, most knew he was a Norris puppet using Norris money because son James D Norris was one of Tobin’s syndicate, while still remaining Vice President of the Detroit Red Wings. Another partner-to-be was Arthur Wirtz who had been Big Jim’s business partner up to that time, going back to the original purchase of the Wings in 1932. As with James D, Wirtz remained a Wing executive at the same time he had his fingers on the Hawks. Talk about a conflict of interest. By now, due to Big Jim’s influence, the joke was that the NHL stood for the “Norris House League.”

For the next decade, Norris Sr ignored the Norris-Tobin-Wirtz ownership and the family investment in the Chicago Black Hawks. The Red Wings were the important club. Furthermore, the Wings got the better part of any trades between the two. For the next 14 years, Chicago (by now the laughingstock of the NHL) made the playoffs only twice.

Upon his death on December 4, 1952, after his teams had won five Stanley Cups, Norris’ interests remained within the family. James D Norris gave up his Vice President position with the Detroit Red Wings to concentrate solely on the Black Hawks, as did Wing executive Arthur Wirtz. For the next two decades, the Wirtz-Norris partnership ran the Black Hawks until James D died in 1966.

Bruce Norris (US Public Domain)
James D had already received several of the family's other businesses in the late 1940s, including a significant ownership position in Norris Grain Inc and the entire family shares in Madison Square Garden. In Detroit, younger half-brother Bruce and his sister Marguerite Norris inherited the Red Wings, where Marguerite was named President, making her the first female executive in NHL history. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1955, Bruce bought out his sister's shares--some people claim he actually stole them--in the midst of a family squabble to become the sole owner of the Red Wings. In her three years at the helm, Marguerite’s team finished first every year and won the Stanley Cup twice. She was also the first female to have her name engraved on the Cup. In 1957, James D and Bruce Norris, as well as other NHL owners of the time, were accused of taking part in union busting activities during the blockbuster attempt by Detroit’s star Ted Lindsay and a group of NHL players to establish an NHL Players Association in which every player had been signed on except for one--Toronto’s Ted Kennedy. In response to Lindsay’s “treacherous” activities and for the “good of the league,” the Norris boys arranged a deal between the two teams to send Lindsay and goaltender Glenn Hall--both First Team All-Stars--to the lowly Black Hawks for Hank Bassen, Johnny Wilson, Bob Preston, and Forbes Kennedy. In other words, diddly squat. Little did anyone know--or maybe they did--that this deal would mark the beginning of a significant improvement in the Chicago Black Hawks’ fortunes, while it brought the Detroit Red Wings glory days to a screeching halt.

Although heading to the Stanley Cup finals five times from 1956-1966, Detroit didn’t win another Stanley Cup once Bruce Norris took the Red Wings over; while brother Jim and partner Art Wirtz finally won a championship in 1961, thanks to the steady netminding of Glenn Hall and stellar play from young stars Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Pierre Pilote, three prime examples of a revamped Black Hawks farm system.

Marguerite Norris (US Public Domain)
Throughout the 1960s, the Hawks were no longer the league doormats. The Wings took over that department, until Little Caesars Pizza owner Mike Ilitch bought the team from Bruce Norris in 1982 for only $8 million. Bruce died four years later, much too early to see his father’s old team turned into the NHL’s most elite organization and a perennial contender under the leadership of the “Pizza King” from Michigan.

All three Norris men are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Although Marguerite isn’t, she probably should be. She had more common sense and a better business head than her “Old Boys Club” brothers, certainly better than Bruce, who literally destroyed the Red Wings. Between the years 1967-1983, the Wings made the playoffs just twice. It got so bad at one point in the 1970s that Detroit fans referred to their team as either the “Dead Wings” or the “Dead Things.”

One thing was for certain: Had Marguerite been president in 1957 she would not have given permission to trade All-Stars Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall. It was one of the worst deals the Wings had ever made in their history and the one that Bruce lived to regret.

Saturday, 3 February 2018


Spooklight as photographed in early 1900s (US Public Domain)

Tourists come from afar in the hope of catching even a mere glimpse of it on dark nightsSome of these same tourists received even more than they had originally bargained for. The subject matter is a mysterious phenomenon: a glow of round bright lights in the Tri-State area where the borders of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma intersect, near the old two-lane Route 66 which has since been replaced by the wider and faster Interstate 44 

It usually starts off being one light that breaks off into smaller ones. It bobs, it weaves, and it bounces from side to side only a few feet off the groundColors seem to vary: green, orange, red, yellow, and occasionally blue. Some residents have seen it dance along their property: outside their bedrooms, on their roofs and porches. As if it’s trying to peek inside. 

It’s known by many names: the Tri-State Spooklight, the Hornet Spooklight, the Hollis Light, and the Joplin Spooklight, depending on where you reside, whether it be, say, Hornet or Joplin, Missouri. However, the most common handle is just plain Spooklight. When sighted, the light or a series of lights appear for various lengths of time during fog or mist: anywhere from a few seconds to as long as a few minutes. And it’s been around since the mid-nineteenth century.  

Is it spooky? To some it is. To others it’s an interesting occurrence that they can’t stay away from and often go out looking for, sometimes in groups. One thing is for certain: Enough people have seen it to ascertain that it’s no hoax. It’s out there. It exists.  

No one knows for sure what Spooklight really is and how it came aboutThe first reported sighting that ended up in print occurred in 1881. One legend says it’s the ghosts of two Native American lovers who had eloped from their tribe, were subsequently hunted down, and then committed suicide instead of being caught by their eldersAnother, it’s the ghost of a miner whose children were stolen by Native Americans.  

One of the more prominent places to spot Spooklight is about five miles south of the Tri-State Junction inside Oklahoma near Quapaw, along roads E40 and E50 (also called Spooklight Road)facing west between 10 PM and the early morning hours. At times it seems to have a mind of its own. People have driven into the light, only to see it disappear, then reappear behind them; while others watch in horror as the light attaches itself to their vehicle for a few seconds before bouncing off and disappearing into a nearby field or clump of trees.  

Tri-State Spook Light booklet,
printed 1955 (US Public Domain)
Iconic New York Yankees baseball player Mickey Mantle was born and raised in the area of Oklahoma where Spooklight has been sighted for decades. In his teens in the late-1940s, he and his friends would often go out at night in search of it. One boyhood friend in particular, Bill Mosely, related in The Last Hero, The Life of Mickey Mantle by David Falkner: “It was a pretty long ways out there, sometimes we’d go out there and wait for the light to come and sometimes we’d miss it. But yeah, a light really would come up…and boy it could scare the devil out of you. We’d start yellin’ and everything and maybe somebody’d get out of the car and throw rocks at it or take a shotgun.”  

Those of a technical mind seem to think that the light is atmospheric gases or glowing materials rising from decaying country vegetation and colliding with static electricity. During World War II, a group of US Army Corps of Engineers conducted their own study of the mystery with the latest scientific equipment. After careful observation, they arrived at one conclusion: “a mysterious light of unknown origin.”  

Kansas City Star newspaper quoted: “In the Star office we have received reports of these spook lights for many years. Scientists have visited the area, seeking explanations on the spot, but they failed to locate the source.” Even the syndicated Ripley’s Believe It or Not! organization looked into the matter, and they, too, were left baffled. 

The September 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics contained an article on Spooklight, written by Robert Gannon, who had gone to the area for verificationHe started out south of Joplin, Missouri, heading west. In Senica, Missouri, a florist named Clark Fryatt offered to accompany Gannon in search of the light. After driving over the state line into Oklahoma along Spooklight Road, which stretches three and a half miles long, they saw a jittery, golden glow in the distance, resembling a lantern. It played a cat-and-mouse game by appearing, then disappearing at different intervals lasting a few seconds to as long as 10 minutes, with the longest being four minutes and 20 seconds, according to Gannon’s stopwatch.  

A short time later, Gannon arranged for a University of Arkansas instructor to assist him in uncovering the mystery. The two determined that Spooklight was actually reflections of headlightsafter the writer flashed his vehicle headlights several times on Route 66 which were then supposedly seen miles away along Spooklight Road at the same timeGiven this news, locals didn’t buy Gannon’s conclusions, especially Clark Fryatt 

One of the best examples to support how the majority of locals felt was found in an article inside the Tri-State Spook Light Booklet, printed in 1955, distributed and sold in area for 25 cents. It’s a story told to an area reporter by Bill Mizer, a resident of Hornet, Missouri: 

“I’ve been around here since 1886, and I’ve heard all the stories…and the first time it was seen was in 1903. At that time there was a widow lady living near State Line Road. She lived alone, and when she first reported seeing the light, she thought someone was trying to run her off her property. The reports persisted, and a bunch of boys decided to investigate. 

“One night about six or seven of us went to the widow’s house…We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened. The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head. 

“There was a draw on her property, and a little branch ran through. Lots of cattails grew there, and as everyone knows when the vegetation dies down, and conditions are right, phosphorous gas comes from the decaying vegetation. You can rub some of the fuzz from the cattails on your hands and your hands will glow in the dark. So we thought we knew the answer. But as we took up our vigil on this particular night, we were not so sure.  

“After we had waited for a time, we saw this light moving up the draw. It floated like a will-o’-the-wisp, up the draw, and disappeared. Then presently it reappeared, and got to within a hundred feet of us, floated around, and when the wind got up a bit, it disappeared.  And as I said before, I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head. 

“Well, the next night…we went back, and waited. And the light reappeared just as it had done the previous night. Each time the wind would get up a bit, the light would float away. One of the fellows, who thought he was a bit smarter than the rest of us, said the marsh gases were causing this bit of a ghostly apparition, but we were never sure. I tell you, when you’re sitting out there in the dark, and this ball of light floats around for a while, and disappears, you begin to wonder. 

“After a month or so…we had almost forgotten about our experience; but early in 1905 reports had started coming in again about the light. I have talked to hundreds of people about the strange light which has existed here since long before the coming of the automobile. Since the passing of time and the many thousands of tourists coming here, it looks like the old light is here to stay.” 

Bill Mizer, long gone now, was right. Spooklight, by whatever name you wish calling it, is still around. It’s still a tourist attraction, and people are still mystified by it.