We cross paths with many unforgettable characters in our lives. Marty Blake was one of them for this writer, back in the days when we were writing and promoting sports. Marty died the other day in his adopted state of Georgia.
There are undoubtedly still a few old Washington Jaycee members who remember Marty when he came here for intersquad games played by the St. Louis Hawks in their early years in that city. We booked the Hawks through Marty, who rose from team publicist to general manager. The games were fund-raisers for the Jaycees, who received 40 percent of the gate. The rest went to the Hawks.
Marty was straight out of books and movies as a big city guy from the east, fast-talker, cigar-smoking, witty joker and a man with a big heart. He didn’t always make the best first impression. But if you got to know him, he was a good guy, true friend and generous with the little he had when he came to St. Louis. He could move easily in small towns or big cities. Single, he couldn’t afford to buy a car in those days. A bit overweight, he wasn’t the best-dressed guy in town.
When owner Ben Kerner brought the Hawks to St. Louis from Milwaukee in the mid-1950s, both he and Marty had some loose change and that’s about all. Years later, Kerner grew weary of the way the NBA was changing and sold the Hawks to a group that moved the team to Atlanta. We heard him say the game had too many player agents and lawyers for him, and the fun of owning a team was gone. Kerner became a millionaire with the sale of the team and Marty moved on with the Hawks as general manager.
No one here knew much about the Hawks when they came to St. Louis in 1955. The team had some name players, fresh out of college, but many hadn’t heard of them either. We booked the first intersquad game at the city auditorium, maybe 100 or so people showed up. It was a big disappointment. The dressing room and showers were so bad that after the game the players went to Borgia High School to shower and dress. There was no team bus. The players were given $5 for travel money from St. Louis and they pooled
rides. Things changed rapidly for the Hawks. St. Louisans embraced them.
We booked a couple of other intersquad games after that first year. Even though the first game here was a big disappointment, Kerner and Marty agreed to come back. Same deal, a 40-60 split of the gate. The games were moved to Borgia and the gym was filled. One side of the gym rooted for one squad and the other side for the other team. We remember Norm Stewart, who was trying out with the Hawks after playing basketball and baseball at MU, played in one of the games.
The Jaycees made some money on the games and so did the Hawks, who wanted exposure. No big bucks, to be sure. The Hawks still were tight-fisted even after being in St. Louis for a couple years. It was agreed that there would be beer and sandwiches for the players in the locker room after the game. What wasn’t agreed to was who would pay for the refreshments. There was a friendly discussion with Kerner and finally the Jaycees agreed to pay the $15 or $18 bill. High finance, but that’s the way it was in the 1950s.
Sportswriter Vahe Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured some of the memories of Marty in a story in Tuesday’s edition. Marty left the Hawks some years after the move to Atlanta and became a super scout for the NBA, then director of scouting. He knew basketball talent. He was 86 years old when he died. He is considered an NBA pioneer. He lived through the lean years.
Marty was a promoter. He worked tirelessly to fill Kiel Auditorium or the old Arena, wherever the Hawks played.
Marty was one of the guys you never forget. Fond memories . . . press tickets in the front row under one of the baskets . . . the great games with Boston . . . the loud sellout crowds at Kiel . . . Marty walking around the floor with his clipboard . . . great Hawks such as Bob Pettit, who scored 50 points in the 110-109 victory over Boston in Game 6 that clinched the NBA title for St. Louis.