Blowing the Whistle on Mendy Rudolph
Posted Sep 7 2007 9:13AM
Alpharetta GA -- At long last, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will recognize one of the truly greats of the whistle-blowing profession - Marvin (Mendy) Rudolph.
Born in Philadelphia March 8, l926 (although some reports sometimes added another two years to his birth), he spent most of his later years as a resident of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his father, Harry, owned a bakery.
Our paths crossed often in our teen years and later on in life. Fortunately for me for it was Mendy who was to pave the way for me to enter the wonderful world of NBA basketball in mid-summer of l954.
I was working for his father, Harry, who was President of a community-owned minor league baseball team in Wilkes-Barre.
In the l940s and l950s, the baseball Barons were a farm club of the Cleveland Indians in the Class A Eastern League and a very successful one at that. They produced a lot of major league players like Mike Garcia, Hal Naragon, Harry (Suitcase) Simpson, Joe Tipton, Pat Seerey, Jose Santiago etc. And their farm director Mike McNally, who played with Babe Ruth on the New York Yankees, grew up in that city.
I was once a batboy for the baseball Barons in l941, getting a couple of bucks a game and, more often than not, used balls and bats. Our third baseman then was Phil Sehgi who later played for Cleveland and eventually became the Indians General Manager.
Our left-fielder was Bob Lemon (yes the Bob Lemon who later pitched in the major leagues and went on to manager the Yankees).
Eventually with the help of Mr. McNally and Seghi I got a job in the Indians farm system often flying the country helping to promote one of owner Bill Veeck's baseball extravangzas.
When I returned from the army in l949, I enrolled at Wilkes College (the former Bucknell Junior College, where I believe Mendy's sister, Edy, was also a member of the student body).
I wound up working for both the baseball Barons and the basketball Barons, who originally were a semi-pro unit until their owner-coach, Eddie White, joined a group of court aficionados from surrounding cities (Binghamton, N.Y. included) who wanted some structure to their endeavors.
Now Rudolph enters the picture.
Mendy must have been a precocious child since his gravitated to the hoop game at an early age. I never was certain he even played high school basketball but I did see him play in games against high school-age players and his exciting style of play would eventually carry over to his refereeing.
There was often a dash of brilliance to his game tempered with smarts.
His modus operandi was to play guard on offense and forward on defense thus cutting short the necessity to hurry on D.
Mendy was in his teens when he first picked up a ref's whistle and influenced undoubtedly by his father Harry, who was not only a highly-regarded hoops ref in the l930s and l940s but also spent his summer in minor league basketball as an umpire rising as far as Triple A.
Every baseball umpire I was to meet later suggested that Harry has the ability to make the bigs.
Mendy tooted the whistle in high school and college games and I assume later worked in the Eastern League (which eventually became the CBA with the senior Rudolph as the circuit's commish).
A number of NBA owners especially Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors recommended Mendy to the then league head, Maurice Podoloff, and in l953, he worked his first NBA game.
That started a 25-year-career that eventually would see Mendy work a total of 2,112 games which also included his working the NBA Finals for an unheard of 22 consecutive seasons.
Often a two-man crew would work every Finals game - a tribute to his ability to earn the respect of virtually everyone connected to the game.
Flamboyent - you betcha. Some often accused him of hogging the sportlight at times but everyone wanted him to work the key games because of his ability to take over and stabilize a game under the intense pressure of that area where coaches like Arnold (Red) Auerbach and Al Cervi and owners like Ben Kerner and owner-coach Les Harrison would attempt to run roughshot over officials - rookies and veterans.
They eventually would learn that Mendy's demeanor was such that they towed the line - or else.
Some will say that Rudolph created a new style of officiating - a take-charge scenario that took the sometimes ebullition and showboating efforts of both coaches and players to task.
Mendy knew every characteristic of virtually every player in the league - those who need cautionary handling and those who he know "was just blowing off steam".
Mendy was credited with writing the NBA officials Manual and Casebook and was instrumental in establishing seminars where younger officials could ply their trade.
Like most officials he had a day job first in national sales for WGN in Chicago and then for several stations in the New York City area.
In l975, he did television commentary with Brett Musburger, Billy Cunningham and Rod Hundley and eventually gravitated to TV commercials especially one for Miller Beer where he throws Boston Celtic star and future coach out of a bar for complaining about a call.
The TV spot, an advertising classic, was later named one of the top l00 television ads of all time.
My first NBA All-Star Game was in l954 in New York City as a guest of Mendy's who was just completing his rookie season in the NBA.
My seats were in the first row under a basket and I saw the Lakers' George Mikan make two free throws with no time left in the game to force an overtime.
Mikan was not noted as a great free shooter but standing alone at the free throw line (with no players anywhere near him) he quickly converted the pair.
I had met Mikan when the Lakers played in Wilkes-Barre the year before and I swear he laughed at me and winked as he quickly made his tosses.
It was only one of the many times I would be his guest at NBA games and in late July of that year he passed on his approval of my promotional ability to Ben Kerner, then owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, who was searching for someone to join his staff.
I reluctantly accepted his offer which was several hundred dollars per week short of what I was making as Mendy's father's assistant at the community-owned diamond team.
I had persuaded Abe Saperstein to bring a summer doubleheader to Wilkes-Barre featuring the NBA All-Stars vs. the Trotters and Bevo Francis (who had several 100-point games to his credit at little known Rio Grande, Ohio college) and his Boston Whirlwinds vs. the Washington Generals. The games were played at Artillery Park, the home of the baseball Barons and we ended up having to turn away thousands of fans.
Kerner who took me out to eat after the double-bill and attempted to sell me on joining his NBA team forgetting to explain that the team had been last for seven or eight straight years and that his front office staff would consist of only one person (me) if I excepted his offer.
That was 53 years ago and I still remember that night.
In an era of great officials Mendy stood out as one of the all-time greats who elevated the stature of the men who worked at all levels of officiating.
At his best he dominated the game, reconstructing the event as a picture portrait of how the game should be called.
Naismith himself would have been proud to have Mendy join the greats of the sports in the Hall.