This is the seventh in a series of Saturday stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.
By Mary Jo Monnin
News Sports Reporter
This year’s inductees in the Pride category for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame weren’t just athletes, they were visionaries.
General Bass took a sport dominated by affluent whites and introduced it to kids growing up in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt. Ed Don George formed the Upstate Athletic Club, which oversaw wrestling in 92 different communities. Herb Mols is credited with using his connections to create the beginning of what would become the Empire State Games. Frank Pytlak defied the odds to play major league baseball and Walter Plekan overcame physical challenges to become a handball champion.
This group will be enshrined posthumously on Oct. 30 as part of the Class of 2013. Here’s a look at the careers of these five accomplished men.
General Bass: At an age when most athletes’ competitive days are behind them, Bass was just getting started. Bass was 30 years old when tennis became his passion. Local pros taught him to play and he proved a quick study, winning several local and regional tournaments. After his playing days he began introducing the sport to inner-city children, many of whom didn’t know what a racket looked like. He tried to tell the youngsters about Arthur Ashe and they kept asking what basketball team he played on.
Bass excelled in baseball and basketball while a student at Hutchinson Central High School. A gifted baseball player, he barnstormed with the Buffalo Negro Giants. He played against Jackie Robinson once in an exhibition game in Toronto. But it was tennis that would hook this Bass.
He ended up teaching the finer points of the game for 50 years. He founded the East Side Tennis Club in the mid-1960s and for years gave free tennis clinics every summer at Martin Luther King Park. In 1983, he took over the Canisius College women’s tennis team. He retired in 1996 with a record of 129-62.
Bass packed a lot into his 82 years. He served in the Army during World War II , which led to some interesting exchanges among the ranking officers with his given first name of General. In 1952 he became one of the first African American men to graduate from Canisius College. He earned a master’s from Buffalo State College in 1962.
In his professional life he doubled as a special education teacher in the city and was a Buffalo police officer for 19 years. He also found time to run the Buffalo Police Athletic League. He retired from teaching in 1985 and died in 2002.
Frank Pytlak: Thought to be too small to reach baseball’s major leagues, the 5-foot-7, 138-pound Pytlak proved otherwise. His talents behind the plate for Fosdick-Masten Park High School in the late 1920s caught the attention of a Buffalo Bisons scout. Pytlak spent parts of three seasons with the Bisons before joining the Cleveland Indians in 1933. He also was the catcher when a young fireballer named Bob Feller struck out a major league record 18 batters on the last day of the 1938 season. As part of a promotional stunt in 1938, he received national attention after catching a baseball that was dropped 706 feet from the Terminal Tower, the tallest building in Cleveland at the time.
He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1941, enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the 1942 season, and returned to baseball three years later. He retired in 1946, having batted over .300 in four different years.
Pytlak in 1948 became the baseball coach at Bishop Neumann High School. A proponent of physical fitness, he often would outrun his young players. He loved one-liners, grilling children with his shirt off and listening to Indians broadcasts on a transistor radio he carried in his pocket. He died in 1977 at age 68.
Ed Don George: He was taking a simple physical fitness test while enrolled at the University of Michigan when the instructor called him over and said the wrestling coach was looking for fellows for the team. Naturally gifted with strength and speed, he went on to an undefeated season as freshman and a career was born.
George was born as Edward Nicholas George in North Java. He left the farm when he was 14 and moved to Buffalo to attend Canisius High School. George transferred from Michigan to St. Bonaventure during his sophomore year, but later returned to the Wolverine State. He realized a dream when he competed in freestyle wrestling in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, placing fourth in his class. He’s in both Michigan’s and Bona’s halls of fame.
After returning from the Olympics, he took on the name “Ed Don George” and turned to professional wrestling in 1929. He became one of the top box office draws of the 1930s. His 13-year career was highlighted by three world heavyweight titles. When he retired from wrestling in 1941, he had earned more than $500,000 and won 1,320 matches. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, leaving in 1945 with the rank of commander. After wrestling he became involved in promotion and later took a job with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio.
He died in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in 1985 at age 80. He is buried in the village of North Java.
Herb Mols: Dubbed the “Nerve Center of Amateur Sports” by The News in 1979, Mols wore many hats. Like Pytlak, Mols attended Fosdick-Masten Park High School, where his love of sports, forestry and the environment took root. He went onto Cornell University and was a three-sport athlete. He served in the Navy During World War II, earning two Bronze Stars. After the war he took a teaching position at the Park School, became the head of the science department and founded the athletic program. He coached football, basketball, baseball and track at the school.
After years of volunteerism for the Town of Amherst Recreation, the Connie Mack Little League and the Buffalo Golden Gloves programs, he branched out nationally.
He was elected to the AAU committees of track and field and basketball. Mols was manager of the 1972 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team that lost the gold-medal game to the Soviet Union in Munich in a famous controversy involving the resetting of the clock. Mols and the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee filed a protest over the game, but the Soviet win was upheld by FIBA’s jury of appeal.
He co-founded the Empire State Games and was the Western Region Director from 1975-1986. It was at the 1986 Games Mols suffered an untimely death at age 71.
Walter Plekan: Playing in pain for most of his career, this Buffalo native went on to become a national handball singles champion. Plekan overcame fallen arches and heel spurs caused by jumping out of a second-floor window as a child.
Long tournaments took their toll. Plekan once said that the Ace bandages he wore made him look like Frankenstein.
The self-taught Plekan was a fierce competitor who came armed with a devastating hooking serve, great anticipation and an ability to outwit his opponents. The East Side native began his career on the Wende playground in 1933. In 1938 he won the national Amateur Athletic Union Junior title in Washington and by 1951 had become national singles champion. Locally he won 19 city singles titles and 15 city doubles titles.
In 1951 he was named Athlete of the Year by the Buffalo Athletic Club.
Throughout the 1960s he was ranked among the top four handball players in the nation. In 1991 he was inducted into the Handball Hall of Fame. Plekan, a graduate of Lafayette High School, was a machinist for Trinity Tolls in North Tonawanda from 1964-1984. He died in 1994 at age 77.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s 23rd induction dinner will be held Oct. 30 at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. Cost is $85 per person or $750 for table of 10. Visit buffalosportshallfame.com/awards-dinner-tickets.