Greg Hansen: These Webfeet were birds of a different feather

2010-03-29T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: These Webfeet were birds of a different featherGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 29, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Once or twice a week I see this guy at the Randolph Golf Course who carries himself like a ballplayer and always wants to talk baseball.

So I asked him. Did you ever play?

"Oh, I used to play at Oregon," Al Cohen said.

"For the Ducks?"

"We weren't the Ducks. We were the Webfeet. It was before Nike came along and changed all of that."

I asked if he was any good.

"Hit .414 my senior year, something like that. I think it might've been the school record."

Right. And I used to play center field for the Yankees. I left it at that.

So on Saturday night at Kindall/Sancet Stadium, Oregon vs. Arizona, I walked into the ballpark and saw none other than Al Cohen standing next to the Oregon dugout, talking to a coach in an Oregon baseball uniform.

The Oregon man was holding a stack of green-and-yellow baseball caps and Al Cohen kept trying them on, one after another, until he found one that fit.

"It says Ducks across the back of the cap," he told the Oregon coach. "When I played we were called the Webfeet."

The young coach, Luke Emanuel, looked at Cohen as though he had just stepped off a spaceship.

"Webfeet?" he asked.

I went to the press box to retrieve an Oregon media guide. I would check just how far this Al Cohen-bats-.414-for-the-Webfeet story would go.

And there, on page 41, under "career batting leaders," it said: .414, Al Cohen, 1949.

I shook my head. Amazing.

By the time I got back to the Oregon dugout, two old ballplayers wearing new Oregon caps had begun to trace their long journey from the 1940s Oregon baseball program to this unlikely reunion at Kindall/Sancet Stadium.

Al Cohen, a shortstop, and Bob Santee, an outfielder, had not seen one another for 63 years. In the 1940s, Santee lived in the basement of McArthur Court, Oregon's historic basketball arena, getting by on the GI Bill. Cohen lived in a campus fraternity house, getting by on $50 a month from a baseball scholarship.

They were Webfeet. Now they are latter-day Ducks, a bond formed more than six decades ago and kept alive by what Santee calls "a boyhood love of baseball that stays with you."

Santee is 85 now, a retired lieutenant colonel, a Marine who fought in Korea and Vietnam. He grew up in Portland and still spends his summers there. Cohen, 82, has become more of a Tucsonan than an Oregonian. He came here for spring training in 1950, a Cleveland Indian farmhand, and basically never went home. After three years playing for the Class C Tucson Cowboys, Cohen began a long career in the insurance business.

Santee and Cohen sat together Saturday night talking baseball, the good old days, and about how quickly those eventful seasons flew by.

Their Oregon coach was Howard Hobson, the same Howard Hobson who coached Oregon to the 1939 NCAA basketball championship, the first one ever played. Hobson is known historically for coaching "The Tall Firs," but what isn't as well-known is that he doubled as Oregon's baseball coach.

"We lost to Washington in Seattle one day, 12-11," Santee remembered. "Howard took off a shoe and threw it through the window. Just like that. Glass everywhere. He didn't like to lose. It might've been 60 years ago, but the desire to win was the same as it is now."

Unlike the current Ducks, who flew to Tucson on a commercial airline and stayed at the upscale Doubletree Hotel, Cohen and Santee and their Webfeet teammates traveled by train.

They would take a seven-day journey to Washington State, Idaho and back to Seattle to play the Huskies. Six games in seven days.

"Couldn't imagine having more fun," Santee said. "All that baseball. Wearing an Oregon uniform. It was paradise."

"We won the Pac-8 northern division in 1946," Cohen recalled. "But they didn't even hold a playoff with (USC) the southern division champion. The season just ended. There was no College World Series in Omaha. It was different. Idaho was in the league. A lot of the guys had just gotten back from the war."

Santee's baseball career was truncated by World War II. He started at Oregon in 1943 and then enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to study engineering at USC and actually played football and baseball for the Trojans. When the war ended, he returned to Oregon.

"I was probably totally ineligible," he said with a laugh. "There were a lot of guys like that then. We just played ball and didn't worry about the politics like they do today."

After Santee left school, Cohen, the shortstop, hit .414 for the '49 Ducks. It remains the third-highest season batting average in school history.

You can look it up.

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