Jaywalking

Jaywalking: Sheff’s Field

Just before Joe Sheff left Turners Falls in the fall of 1943 to head across the Atlantic and fight during World War II, he met with George Bush, the senior boy who would captain the high school’s varsity basketball team that winter. Sheff handed Bush a number of basketball books he used in his coaching, including scrap books full of newspaper clippings, and told Bush to hold on to them. He could give them back to Sheff when he returned from the war.

That was 70 years ago.

George Bush still has those books.

Mr. Bush, one half of the two Super Fans in the Powertown (along with his buddy Stash Koscinski), came up to me following the Indians’ historic Turkey Day victory over Greenfield this past Thursday. I shook hands with the man, congratulated him on the Indians’ third consecutive victory, and wished him a happy Thanksgiving. After a brief conversation, Bush told me he enjoyed last week’s column, but that he had some information for me regarding my paragraph about Sheff, in whose honor Sheffield School in Turners Falls is named.

Four days and countless amounts of turkey and stuffing later, I spoke with Bush. I went into the phone call thinking we would clear up a few things he wanted to share with me. But the man is a bottomless pit of knowledge. Prior to last Monday, if you’d asked me who Sheffield School was named after, I would have told you “some guy named Sheffield.” Turns out there is a very interesting story behind it all.

Joe Sheff grew up in Turners Falls and played on the same football team in the late 1920s with George Bush’s older brother Lou. Both Lou Bush and Sheff would move on to play at Massachusetts Agricultural College (which later became UMass), and Lou Bush would be named an All-American running back. He still holds the career record for touchdowns scored at UMass with 45. Sheff would return to Turners Falls following his graduation from Mass Aggie and became a biology and chemistry teacher at Turners Falls High School, which ironically sat on the grounds next to Sheffield School’s current location, but was rebuilt at its Turnpike Road location after the old high school burned down in 1967.

While teaching at Turners Falls, Sheff became the head coach of both the varsity basketball and track teams, as well as an assistant football coach. According to George Bush, Sheff married and adopted a child during this time.

George Bush said he had Sheff as a biology teacher during his freshman year of 1940-41, and played basketball for Sheff later in his schooling. Unfortunately, in 1943 with World War II raging, Sheff somehow found himself in the draft. According to Bush, math and science teachers were exempt from the draft during that time, but for reasons unknown, Sheff’s exemption was not granted. There is a rumor that the superintendent at Turners Falls during that time had a personal issue with Sheff, and thus would not sign the exemption. That’s the best explanation I’ve heard. If the rumor is true, it makes you wonder how the superintendent in question slept a year later, because Sheff wound up getting drafted and wound up in the 45th Division of the U.S. Army.

Bush still remembers the time prior to Sheff heading overseas. It was in the fall of ’43, right around the time of the Franklin County Fair. And here’s something interesting. Apparently, back in the day, students got a day off from school for Fair Day. Turners Falls and Greenfield High School would hold a track meet at the fair, and there would also be a cheerleading competition between Turners Falls, Greenfield and Arms Academy. Another example of the good ol’ days.

It was around this time that Sheff approached Bush, the senior captain on Turners’ basketball team, and asked Bush to hold on to his books. Maybe Sheff had a premonition of what was to happen. Who knows. Sheff would be stationed along with the 45th Division in Anzio, Italy, just south of Rome. As fate would have it, his former teammate at both Turners Falls and Mass Aggie, Lou Bush, was stationed in the same place. Bush was a captain in the 2nd Armored Division, and when he found out Sheff was in the same area, he invited Sheff to dinner. The two men ate dinner together one night in May, 1944. The next day, Bush went back to invite Sheff over for dinner again. Instead, Bush wound up talking to the mortician at the base, and he learned that Sheff had been killed in action that day at the age of 38. Sheff’s final supper was with Lou Bush. Makes you think it was probably a pretty good meeting, being in the company of a close friend. Coincidentally, the mortician at the base was Turners Falls’ own Roy McCarthy, whose father opened McCarthy Funeral Home in Turners back in 1895.

Lou Bush did not escort Sheff’s body back to Turners Falls, as I had been previously told. Sheff is buried in a national cemetery on Long Island, but he was forever memorialized in Turners Falls on Sept. 11, 1948. With Lou Bush on hand to give the speech, the football field at Turners Falls High School was named Sheff Field, and a monument was erected next to the field. That field was located where Gamelin and Campbell Fields currently reside today. When the old high school burned down in 1967, the new high school was built on Turnpike Road and a grammar school was built at the site of the old school. The school merged the words “Sheff Field” to become Sheffield School, and the monument was moved to the front of the building. The large grass field next to the school is actually where the old high school stood.

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I got a few other interesting stories out of George Bush as we spoke. During the winter of 1943-44, while Sheff was fighting in Italy, Ed Prondecki took over as Turners’ varsity basketball coach. Ed, the original owner of the French King Restaurant now owned by his son, Frank, was a former offensive lineman who played football at Colgate University in 1932. That season, Colgate was undefeated at 9-0 and did not allow a point all season. That’s right, the Red Raiders registered nine shutouts. One of only three teams in college football history ever to do that. Colgate was expected to play in the Rose Bowl that year, but did not get an invitation, the invite going to Pittsburgh instead (Pitt wound up losing to USC, 35-0). The snub prompted the Red Raiders to adopt the motto “Undefeated, untied, unscored upon, and uninvited.”

Anyhow, with a foundation laid by Sheff, Prondecki guided the 1943-44 basketball team to a 16-3 record and that season’s Indians are considered to be one of the best-ever teams from Turners Falls. There were no divisions back then, so all teams in Western Mass. were lumped together. Holyoke, which defeated Turners Falls that season, was ranked No. 1, while Springfield Technical High School was No. 2. Turners Falls finished No. 3. Holyoke won the Western Mass. Tournament (which included teams from central Mass.) and would go on to play in the New England Tournament. Turners Falls was invited to the Small Schools Basketball Tournament, which had been played at Curry Hicks Cage on the campus of UMass, but the tournament had to be moved to Amherst College that season because Curry Hicks was being used during wartime. Turners Falls would win each of its games in the tournament by 13 points or more and easily won the title.

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As for Sheff’s books, George Bush still has them and said he referenced them when he played, and later when he began coaching. Bush first coached the UMass freshmen team while he attended the college as a graduate student for two years from 1950-1952. He came back to coach at Turners Falls as a middle school coach, and then coached two years of varsity basketball. He said politics led to him being relieved of his duties as varsity basketball coach, but he later served as junior varsity coach at Turners Falls for 20 years, many spent under longtime coach Paul Cournoyer. Bush also coached varsity tennis for 20 years.

One of the books that Bush has is a scrapbook with newspaper clippings from his junior year at Turners Falls, the 1942-43 season. The scrapbook includes clips from The Recorder, as well as clips from the four Springfield newspapers from that time. In a time when print journalism is dying, it’s something to hear that Springfield once had The Republican and The Union News newspapers in the morning, and then had the Daily News and Evening Union later in the day.

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One final story from Bush was about his brother Lou Bush coaching the Army team during the Spaghetti Bowl football game that was played on Jan. 1, 1945 in Florence, Italy. Bush coached the 5th Army team that took on a team of players from the 12th Air Force, and Bush’s roster included Charlie Gloski, a lineman who played at Turners Falls. According to an article from Jan. 2, 1945, 25,000 people watched the game, which served as a morale-booster for the troops, and the 5th Army Mudders defeated the 12th Air Force Bridgebusters, 20-0.

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Got the attendance figures from the Turners Falls-Greenfield Turkey Day game. There were 672 tickets sold on game day at the door, 334 pre-sale tickets sold in Turners Falls, and 124 pre-sale tickets sold in Greenfield for a total of 1,130 tickets sold.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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