This article was originally published Aug. 12, 2016.
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One of the most widely-attended baseball games in history didn’t include major league players, proper lighting or an audience that understood the game. It wasn’t played on U.S. soil, and the outcome didn’t crown a champion. In fact, it didn’t even really have opponents.
What it did have was a widely-recognized Nebraskan coaching both squads, two Huskers on the field and Adolf Hitler in attendance.
On Aug. 12, 1936, Les Mann, a Lincoln native, coached a U.S. demonstration team featuring mostly college players at the Berlin Olympics. Japan, which was scheduled to be the U.S. team's opponent, backed out of the contest, leaving Mann in a bit of a pickle.
Mann, along with the United States Amateur Baseball Association, had previously worked to demonstrate the sport at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but had his request denied. Now, with a chance to finally showcase the game, he would show the sport to the world with a split-squad game. The American teams were dubbed the World Champions and the U.S. Olympics teams, with the Champions eventually coming out on top 6-5 in walk-off fashion.
Two Huskers were in action that day, too. Paul Amen, who went on to have a minor league career, played at first base. But Dow Wilson, a Husker shortstop, may have had the most interesting experience of any U.S. player.
The 19-year-old played cards with Jesse Owens, who went on to become an Olympic icon during those games, and reportedly made small talk with one notable audience member at the game: Hitler. Wilson didn't realize who he was talking to at the time, and later described the German leader as "a very bad man," according to author Josh Chetwynd.
An estimated crowd of between 90,000 and 125,000 spectators were in attendance, but many couldn’t see — or understand — anything that was happening in the game.
“Three announcers, a German, a Frenchman and an Englishman, were brought before the microphone to explain the game,” United Press Staff Correspondent Henry M’Lemore wrote in an article published in The World-Herald on Aug. 13, 1936.
The German had nearly no knowledge of the rules, the Frenchman stated that it was only necessary to watch the "thrower tossing the sphere against the baton of the striker," and the Englishman compared baseball to a combination of lacrosse and cricket.
Even the fans that comprehended the rules had difficulty enjoying the game. It was played on a makeshift field that lacked a pitching mound and had lighting too dim to make out the ball. "I think they had one 20-watt bulb in centerfield," Gordon Mallatrat said in Pete Cava's Baseball in the Olympics.
Despite the game's issues, baseball had made a big enough impression to have a world tournament in the works for the 1940 Tokyo Games, but politics trumped athletics and it was canceled due to World War II.
Those who could appreciate the 1936 demonstration game were in for a treat. The action began immediately, with Hubert Shaw hitting an inside-the-park homer in the top of the first for the U.S. Olympics team, though the thrills of baseball were lost on much of the audience at hand.
There was a silence in the crowd immediately after the bases were rounded, and it remained that way until an announcement in German informed the audience that the feat was worthy of recognition.
The game concluded when Les McNeece blasted a walk-off homer for the World Champions squad.
Temple pitcher Bill Sayles started for the winning squad, but may have had his most memorable moment off the field:
“(Sayles) had been selected to explain the game to one of the narrators of an Olympic documentary film,” according to Cava. “Thompson told Phil Elderkin of the Christian Science Monitor that the narrator turned out to be ‘a charming woman,’ with whom he spent an entire afternoon.”
The woman was Eva Braun, the longtime companion and future wife of Hitler.
Of course, none of this would have happened without Mann, who was one of the greatest competitors in Nebraska athletics history.
“Les did everything well. He was tops at football, basketball, track and baseball. He would have been equally great in other sports,” said Mann’s close friend, Scott Dye, in a newspaper account following Mann’s 1962 death in a car accident.
Mann eventually decided on baseball. His first professional game came as a member of the Boston Braves, where he was an outfielder on a World Series team. Over 16 seasons with five teams, Mann finished with a .282 batting average, 44 home runs and 503 RBIs.
In 2015, he was ranked No. 67 on The World-Herald's ranking of the state's top 100 athletes of all time.