Lewis: New book digs deep in Louisiana sports history

Like so many great ideas, this one was hatched by two guys on a road trip.

The destination in this case was Natchitoches, home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The guys were longtime colleague and friend Marty Mulé and yours truly.

The notion that day in 2007: With the dream of a building to house the Hall of Fame, plus an accompanying museum, finally about to become a reality, why not write a book celebrating not only those who had been inducted but all of the state’s rich sports history? Especially if you don’t have to do the heavy lifting — namely researching and writing it.

Well, great ideas take time.

Although ground was broken in January 2008, the building didn’t open until this June. And although work on the book began shortly after the groundbreaking, it wasn’t until last month that “Game Changers: The Rousing Legacy of Louisiana Sports,” published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, hit bookstores.

“I never imagined that it would take this long,” said Mulé, who has authored seven books and is a contributor to The Advocate. “But in the last year, I was afraid something would happen, like the Saints winning another Super Bowl or LSU winning another national championship, and it would be too late to get it in the book. Well, neither’s happened yet, so I don’t think we missed much.”

Indeed. “Game Changers” checks in at a hefty 130,000 words. Certainly there was no problem finding material.

Much of it will be familiar: the return of the Saints to the Superdome after Katrina and the Super Bowl championship that came three years later; LSU’s two BCS championships (complete with a picture of Nick Saban celebrating the first one, but don’t let that dissuade you from buying the book, Tiger fans); Billy Cannon’s run; the sagas of Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and the Lady Techsters.

But then there are stories you probably don’t know:

  • Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Lyons of Vinton, who won the American League ERA title in 1942 at age 41.
  • The Baskin girls basketball team, whose 218 straight wins have been eclipsed only by the Harlem Globetrotters.
  • Gilbert Gray, who joined the Southern Yacht Club primarily to meet girls and wound up winning sailing gold in the 1932 Olympics.
  • Centenary’s unbeaten 1932 football team, which whipped LSU, Texas, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, among others.

“That was the fun part,” Mulé said. “I felt like I was making flesh and blood out of people that in many cases I knew little or nothing about.”

Another fun part was making the book as diverse as possible. While football dominates, 11 sports are represented.

The book originally was to be called “The 101” and rank the top events. That proved too daunting.

Even more daunting was finding the right publisher. As accomplished a writer as Mulé is, a sports book is of little value without pictures — lots of good ones.

That’s where James Wilson of UL-Lafayette Press came in. He saw the project as more than a budget publication that so many sports books wind up being. He saw it as a coffee-table work that’s as enjoyable to look at as to read.

Just check out the end papers: Cannon carrying the ball against Baylor with his blockers having practically the entire defense on the ground, and the 1912 Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute women’s basketball team.

“You look at those girls’ faces and wonder who they were and what became of them,” Mulé said. “It’s fascinating.”

Also of note is the coin toss before the 1951 Sugar Bowl between Oklahoma and Kentucky. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more striking image.

“The pictures are what I am particularly proud of,” Mulé said “The publisher went above and beyond in that department.”

If Mulé has any regrets about “Game Changers,” it’s that he had to leave out a couple of people he felt deserved mention: Huey Long and blind golfer Pat Browne Jr.

So will there be “Game Changers II?”

“Could be,” Mulé said. “But somebody else is going to have to write it.”

Besides, there have to be more great ideas out there.

Wanna go for a ride, Marty?