This article was originally published Aug. 12, 2016.
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.
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1979: Nebraska made its first NCAA tournament after racking up a then-program record for wins during the regular season. The Huskers were sent to the Northeast Regional, hosted by the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. NU dropped its first game 5-0 to St. John's but rebounded with a nine-run victory over Navy later that day. The Huskers' season ended with a 15-0 rout by Connecticut.
1980: Nebraska returned to the NCAA tournament after winning more than 45 games during the regular season for the second straight year. The Huskers went to the Midwest Regional in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and defeated BYU 12-0 in their first game. NU beat the Cougars again the next day — after losing to Michigan the night prior — but its season ended after a 12-3 loss to the Wolverines.
Note: The above picture was taken during the Big Eight tournament.
1985: Nebraska was sent to Northern California for the Western 1 Regional in Palo Alto. The Huskers kicked off the NCAA tournament with a 4-2 victory over Pepperdine, but they lost two straight by one run after that — 9-8 to Stanford and 7-6 to Pepperdine — to see their season end.
1999: Nebraska ended a 14-year NCAA tournament drought after winning the Big 12 tournament. The Huskers went to Columbus, Ohio, where they ran into a pesky Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs defeated NU twice — sandwiched around a Nebraska victory over Bowling Green — to eliminate the Huskers from postseason play.
2000: After winning a second straight Big 12 tournament title, the Huskers also advanced to the super regional round for the first time in program history. The Huskers defeated Butler, Minnesota and Wichita State to win the Minneapolis Regional and set up a date with Stanford in Palo Alto. The Huskers won the first game but lost the next two to the eventual national runners-up.
2001: Nebraska swept the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles and was rewarded with a chance to host an NCAA tournament game for the first time. NU went undefeated through the regional and super regional rounds to make its first College World Series. But the Huskers suffered one-run losses to Cal State Fullerton and Tulane to go two-and-out in Omaha.
2002: The road to Omaha again went through Lincoln for the Huskers, as they swept the Lincoln Regional then defeated Richmond in three games to reach the College World Series. That would also end in heartbreak for NU, though, as the Huskers lost to Clemson in walk-off fashion in their first game, then lost to South Carolina by two to leave Rosenblatt without a victory.
2003: The Huskers made their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament but didn't make it past the regional. NU opened the Lincoln Regional with a win over Eastern Michigan but ended up in the loser's bracket after falling to Southwest Missouri State. The Huskers eliminated EMU the next day then beat SMSU to force a winner-take-all game, but the Bears won that and ended NU's season.
2005: One of the best teams in program history went undefeated in the NCAA tournament on its way to the College World Series. The Huskers also picked up their first CWS victory that year by defeating Arizona State, 5-3, in the opener. But NU would drop its next two games, including a rematch with the Sun Devils that NU lost in 11 innings.
2006: Nebraska followed up its 2006 College World Series appearance with a disappointing run in the NCAA tournament. The Huskers hosted a regional but went two-and-out with losses to Manhattan and San Francisco, scoring only one run in each game.
2007: After a regular season in which Nebraska finished just above .500, the Huskers were the No. 3 seed in the Tempe Regional. The Huskers went into the loser's bracket after dropping their opening game to UC Riverside. NU did rebound with two consecutive wins, including one in a rematch with UC Riverside, but its season ended with a 19-7 loss to host Arizona State.
2008: Nebraska got to host a regional for the third time in four years, but that's where the Huskers' season ended. NU opened the NCAA tournament with a 13-10 victory over Eastern Illinois but lost its next two — 3-2 to UC Irvine and 8-0 to Oral Roberts.
2014: Back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years, the Huskers were sent to the Stillwater Regional as a No. 2 seed. Nebraska fell into the loser's bracket with a loss to Cal State Fullerton but defeated Binghamton the next day to avoid elimination. NU would again run into Fullerton and was eliminated with a one-run loss.
2016: It was a disappointing postseason in Darin Erstad's second NCAA tournament appearance as the Husker head coach. After going two-and-out in the Big Ten tournament, NU was sent to the Clemson Regional as the No. 3 seed. The Huskers were shut out in the first game — a 6-0 loss to Oklahoma State — and then lost to No. 4 seed Western Carolina the next day to be eliminated.
2017: Nebraska's Luis Alvarado drove in the only run in its 5-1 loss to Yale at the Corvallis Regional on June 2, 2017. The Huskers, who won the Big Ten regular-season title, would go on to fall to Holy Cross in the loser's bracket, 7-4.