Long before professional basketball came to Utah in 1970, the state boasted an impressive record in other sports including its share of superstars: Jack Dempsey, world heavyweight boxing champion, 1919-26; Iver Lawson, international cycling champion, 1904; Alf Engen whose world ski-jumping records in the 1930s-40s prompted Sports Illustrated to remember him as “the Michael Jordan of his sport”; Ab Jenkins who set the world land-speed endurance record in 1940; and tennis player David Freed who won the U.S. Senior Singles tournament in 1954.
In team sports, the nearly forgotten Salt Lake Seagulls of 1946-47 competed against the best pro football teams in the West, while two baseball teams, the Salt Lake Deserets and their inner-city rival, the Red Stockings, played successfully in 1878-79 against the Cheyenne Reds, the Chicago White Stockings, the Denver Browns, the Nebraska Omahas, and the Rochester Hop Bitters.
Added to these, such pastimes as horse racing at the state fairgrounds, a winter ascent of Mt. Timpanogos in 1916, and angling at Fish Lake National Forest show the diversity and evolution of athletics in Utah. Like replaying the 1998 title game between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls, these assembled tales of perseverance, skill, exuberance, and heartbreak from long ago are equally thrilling.
Stanford J. Layton, former managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, is a visiting professor of history at Weber State University. He is the author of To No Privileged Class: The Rationalization of Homesteading and Rural Life in the Early Twentieth Century, a contributor to the Utah History Encyclopedia and Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah, and editor of the Favorite Readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly series.