1940-41:  Douglas, Wilson Make Coaching Debuts

Two young coaches destined to become legendary in San Diego basketball lore arrived as varsity mentors at the city’s two prep powerhouses.

Rickey Wilson, a former San Diego High player, succeeded Lawrence Carr at Hoover and Merrill Douglas, a transplanted Montanan, took over for Bill Schutte at San Diego High.

The schools  continued to be San Diego’s prime representatives, the Hilltoppers going 15-3 under Douglas and Hoover 10-4 under Wilson, but teams in the Metropolitan and Southern Prep Leagues commanded their shares of attention, although headlines were reserved for the war clouds that loomed in the West and the “The Battle of Britain”, being fought between the British and Germans in the skies above London.


San Diego and Hoover would join a 17-team super conference beginning in 1941-42 as the CIF attempted to separate large schools from small schools.  San Diego, Hoover, and Long Beach Poly, were the only members of the Coast League.

Down to three teams since Santa Ana bailed after the 1935-36 school year and Alhambra after 1938-39, the Coast basketball season was shortened.  The Hilltoppers and Hoover seasons ended this year in late January.  The Metropolitan and Southern Prep were active through the end of February.

New Cardinals mentor Rickey Wilson (right) meets Hoover athletic director John Perry.

CIF commissioner Seth Van Patten often had to hustle to fill playoff brackets.  Some leagues, notably the Metro, at the geographical bottom of the Federation, just didn’t want to be bothered.  Records in the CIF archives showed only a four-team field this year.

Poly won the Coast, taking three out of four from San Diego and Hoover, but the Jackrabbits were beaten in the CIF finals by Glendale Hoover, 23-20.

A spirited, six-game Metropolitan League race ended with Coronado, Escondido, and Grossmont, each 5-1, tying for first place.  Ramona ran the table with a 12-0 record to win its fifth consecutive Southern Prep championship.

Coronado Islanders were Metropolitan League co-champions with Escondido and Grossmont. Front row (from left) James Mealy, Bob Wright, Sevy Molino, Scott Daubin, Dexter Lanois. Back row (from left) Herman Riedlinger, Bob Melton, Jacob Gayle, Willard Matott, Bill Johns, Fritz Sanderman, Bob Thompson.


It took the San Diego news corps awhile to get it right with Ermer Robinson, the San Diego High star and future Harlem Globetrotter.  He was known as “Irma” Robinson for the first month of this, his junior season.

Martin Payne, the sports editor of The Russ, San Diego High’s weekly newspaper, covered several games for The San Diego Union and was the first to ensure that Robinson was correctly identified, when Payne covered the Hilltoppers’ 25-19 league victory over Long Beach Poly.


–Known as the County Interscholastic Tournament, an eight-team event took place with games at San Diego High, Hoover, Municipal Gym, and San Diego State. Grossmont defeated Point Loma, 30-12, for the championship.

–San Diego and Hoover at the same time were in the Huntington Beach Tournament, which also included Coronado. The Islanders opened with a 46-7 victory over Laguna Beach as Bud Ingle scored 20 points.  They were eliminated the next day by Ontario Chaffey, 22-17.

San Diego defeated Hoover, 24-15, for the Huntington Beach title after advancing with wins of 28-20 over defending champ Chaffey and 29-23 over Long Beach Wilson.  Hoover was in the finals after defeating Whittier, 36-26, and Santa Barbara, 20-19.

Junior Ray Boone would finish stellar basketball-baseball career at Hoover, become outstanding major league player and father and grandfather of future major leaguers.

San Diego was forced to give up the Huntington Beach trophy when Bob (Lefty) Felthaus was declared ineligible by the CIF a few days later for having signed a professional baseball contract in 1939, days before his 17th birthday.

Brooklyn Dodgers scout Tom Downey, under heavy criticism from local prep officials, said that he signed Felthaus after the player stopped attending school, his having dropped out of Hoover.  Felthaus became a student again at San Diego and had turned out for basketball.

–“Irma” Robinson scored 10 points as San Diego, playing for the first time without Felthaus, opened the post-Christmas Chino Tournament with a 42-9 win over San Juan Capistrano.  The Hilltoppers buried Huntington Beach, 38-13, but lost to Burbank, 30-20, in the semifinals.  Poly won its second straight title, 34-24, over Burbank.

–St. Augustine lost to St. Mary’s of Phoenix, 36-27 in the Los Angeles Catholic League tournament.  Hoover defeated Grossmont, 11-7, and Point Loma topped Hoover, 26-8, in finals of the San Diego High invitational for Class C and D teams, respectively.


Army-Navy’s 34-33 victory clinched a best, two-of-three series against the Oceanside chapter of the Knights of Pythias.  The cadets were not as fortunate against the so-named Vista Outlaws, who prevailed, 21-15.


Ramona’s 59-17 victory over Fallbrook represented the single-game scoring high for the season. The Bulldogs also defeated Julian, 53-26.

Julian’s Bud Farmer had the top individual performance with 24 in a 38-31 victory over Army-Navy and added 22 in a 30-24 win over San Dieguito. Julian’s 51-6 rout of Fallbrook, with Farmer scoring one point, represented the third, 50-plus game in the county.


Hilltoppers coach Merrill Douglas saw Maley as one of the keys to the following season.

San Diego’s season was over but Coach Merrill Douglas enticed Chino to come south a couple weeks a couple weeks later.  Douglas employed only players who would return for the 1941-42 season, opening with a starting lineup of Ermer Robinson, Jim Warner, Ron Maley, Denzil Walden, and Gerald Patrick.

The underclassmen delivered a 32-15 victory but Douglas would never see them play together again.  He would respond to a call from Uncle Sam before the next season and not return until the 1946-47 campaign.


Hoover’s Willie Steele set a record of 24 feet, ¾ inch, in the broad jump at the Southern Section track finals in Glendale in May, a few months after Steele served as student manager of the varsity basketball squad.  Steele was awarded a letter by coach Rickey Wilson, as was B squad manager Monroe (Bookie) Clark.

Steele, who played class B basketball the season before, went on to win the national collegiate broad jump championship at San Diego State and was the 1948 Olympic gold medalist in the event, with an all-time best of 26 feet, 6 ½ inches.


St. Augustine principal the Very Rev. W.B. Kirk announced that the Saints had found a home and would join the Southern Prep League in the next school year, after free-lancing and scuffling as an independent since the school opened in 1922.  The agreement was for one year, depending on the circuit’s ability to develop a schedule for eight teams.

Ramona, Julian, Fallbrook, Brown Military, Army-Navy, San Dieguito, and Vista were the other SPL members.  St. Augustine’s games would not count in the standings and the Saints eventually joined the Southland Catholic League of the Los Angeles area in 1945.


“The Russ” outgoing editor Graham Ostrander (left) makes traditional hand off of keys to student newspaper office at San Diego High.  Accepting is spring semester editor Martin Payne. Event took place during dinner at Hotel San Diego.

The U.S. census for 1940 reported San Diego County’s population at 289,348, including 203,737 in the city.   Other “township” totals: Borrego, 90; El Cajon, 20,160; Encinitas, 4,473; Escondido, 9,487; Fallbrook, 2,308; Jacumba, 1,214; National City, 32,213; Oceanside, 8,191;  Ramona, 3,384, and Vista, 4,091.

San Diego State, which would win the 1941 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship, drew a record 19,256 persons to 17 home games in the 1,800-capacity Men’s Gym.  The largest turnout was 1,713 for Santa Barbara State, although the record was 1,907 for a 1939 game against the Broadway Clowns.


The San Diego High gym was packed to the rafters with an estimated 1,900 persons when Hoover upended the Hilltoppers, 32-17…seven days later San Diego won at Hoover, 32-17…Coronado’s Metro League co-championship was achieved despite Coach Hal Niedermeyer’s suspension of Bud Ingle, the Metro’s leading scorer in 1939-40; Bill Hakes, and Al Galpin, early in the season…the three-team Coast’s all-league squad featured San Diego’s Bob (Lefty) Felthaus, Bob Carson, and Jack Maupin…Felthaus’ selection apparently was made on his reputation; he didn’t participate in league play…Hoover’s Rupert Crosthwaite, later well-known in San Diego circles for his ownership of a local sporting goods store, made second team….

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6 Responses to 1940-41:  Douglas, Wilson Make Coaching Debuts

  1. Roger Conlee says:

    The Homer Peabody mentioned here on the 1935-36 San Diego High basketball team became a highly prominent local citizen. He was a physician and executive director of the Rees-Stealy Medical Center. A tennis aficionado, he spearheaded creation of the Barnes Family Tennis Center, and the annual Homer Peabody Junior Tennis Tournament is played in his honor. He was named Mr. San Diego by the S.D. Rotary Club in 1997.

    • Rick says:

      Great story, Rog. There were other prominent people in that team photo. I wonder if “Cleator” was related to the City Council guy in ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The player next to Mallory in the team photo also was a doctor, I think. His son Mike (Zeke) Shea, he of Saints’ fans echortation, “Get up Zeke, get up!”, played in the 1962-63 season when the Saints met Crawford and Larry Blum for the championship.

      • Roger Conlee says:

        I wondered about that Cleator kid too. Maybe the Councilman’s son, grandson, nephew?

      • Rick says:

        Maybe his brother or cousin. Bob Cleator, when he was on Council in ‘seventies and early ‘eighties, probably waa 50ish, which would have put him in teenage years during this rra.

  2. John Harper says:

    Rick – I find it odd that Willie Steele played B basketball and was the varsity manager, but didn’t play varsity. He was one of Hoover’s greatest athletes ever as his records show. At San Diego State, he played basketball and earned a letter. Though he never played football, he had a trial with the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams must’ve admired his speed and athleticism. I remember the sad story about Willie after the Olympic Gold Medal and graduating from State, he was found washing dishes in a downtown cafe. A newsman with the SD Union brought the story to light. I can still vision that news photo of him washing dishes ! He applied and was hired with the City Recreation Dept. He was assigned to Central School as their after school playground coach. I was in junior high at the time and me and my pals would go to Central after school because Coach Steele was there. I don’t think he stayed long, as he moved to Oakland for a better opportunity in recreation.

    • Rick says:

      That’s a terrific story, John, and thanks for sharing. I think Willie attended Central as a grammar school student. I was curious myself about Steele’s being the basketball manager, but there is a team photo with all the varsity players in uniform, with Willie in the photo in street clothes. The B team manager, Monroe (Bookie) Clark was a physically challenged guy who went to USC and for years gave back to Hoover from his position as a popular and successful businessman in San Diego.

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