Ed Grisamore

Long live – and love – the Macon Whoopees

For those of you who were living in Macon 46 years ago, and mark anniversaries by memorable meteorological events, this weekend carries a historic footnote.

Make that a foot-and-a-half-note.

That’s nearly how much snow was dumped on the city on Feb. 9-10, 1973.

A record 16.5 inches fell from the sky during a freak-of-nature snowstorm. Macon’s average yearly snowfall is 0.4 inches, so this was more than 40 times that.

In the Deep South, where the possibility of snowflakes in the forecast closes schools and clears the grocery shelves, this was a shutdown of epic proportions. It was the whitest — and possibly the quietest — 48 hours in city history. Macon was covered in a soft blanket. The world was silent and still.

Eight months later, on Oct. 12, 1973, another kind of Ice Age took over the city. It was opening night for the Macon Whoopees hockey team.

The Whoopees were a paradox … the shortest-lived and most endearing sports team to call Macon home. In a way, they came and went without every really arriving. And we love them still.

The team folded nine days before the 1973-74 Southern Hockey League season ended, cutting short the city’s four-month romance with hockey. Because of the unique name — one of the most celebrated in American sports folklore — the legend lives almost a half-century later.

On Valentine’s Day, it is customary to receive flowers, cards, candy and kisses. At some point during the day on Thursday, Bill Buckley and I will exchange text messages.

Happy Anniversary. Nothing more needs to be said.

Forty-five years ago this week, on Feb. 14, 1974, Macon had its own version of what would be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Agents from the Internal Revenue Service swarmed the Macon Coliseum and seized everything from aspirin to hockey pucks.

It somehow was appropriate that it was the traditional day for love. After all, the team’s nickname came from a popular song, “Makin’ Whoopee,’’ by Doris Day, who was known as “America’s Sweetheart.’’ And whoopee is a euphemism for … well, er … love.

The team had been living on borrowed time since December. The credit cards were maxed out. The players and staff had not been paid. Although everyone wanted it to succeed, it would be a couple of decades later before the community would warm to the idea of this frozen import from the North. Since then, we’ve had an incarnation of the Whoopees in the mid-1990s, followed by the Trax and now the Mayhem.

Bill was there for the first verse. In the summer of 1973, he was a recent college graduate and living at home with his parents in Greensboro, North Carolina. He borrowed $20 from his sister for gas money, loaded up his blue Volkswagen and drove to Macon, where he became assistant general manager of this new hockey team. By the end of the season, there weren’t enough players left to suit up, so he had strap on a pair of skates and head out onto the ice, his first game since playing junior hockey.

In the months leading up to the 25-year anniversary of the team, Bill and I co-authored the book, “Once Upon a Whoopee.’’ It was an amazing adventure. We traveled to North Bay, Ontario, to interview some of the former players. The book sold in all 50 states and Canada. We always thought it would have made a great movie.

When I was a sports writer at The Telegraph, we would get phone calls from people all over the country wanting to know about the clever nickname. The Whoopees gained an intriguing reputation as the “Slippery Rock of Hockey.’’ They were written about in Sports Illustrated magazine and mentioned by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.’’ President Richard Nixon even had a Whoopees T-shirt at the White House.

At the airport in Orlando, Florida, I once picked up a copy of a newspaper. There was a full-page ad for Reebok shoes with famous sports quotes from celebrity athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Muhammad Ali.

What grabbed my attention was a quote from an alleged Macon Whoopees player called James Nasal. I knew the name was made up, but I was curious to follow the paper trail. After several phone calls, I was referred to an advertising agency in Boston.

The guy who designed the ad was thrilled when I identified myself. He said his father had been a hockey announcer on the East Coast, and he had grown up hearing stories about the Macon Whoopees. He never saw them in person, but he said it was his second-favorite sports nickname of all time.

His favorite was a former Houston Astros minor-league baseball team in Osceola County, Florida, once known as the Kissimee Astros. Of course, it depends on how you pronounce it. Some folks say “Kuh-sim-ee.’’ But if you say “Kiss-uh-mee,’’ you will understand why they had to change the name.

My favorite after-life story has three parts. In 1999, the resurrected Whoopees retired the jersey of the original coach, the late KeKe Mortson. KeKe was the first professional hockey player to wear No. 99, a number later made famous by the great Wayne Gretzky.

After the game, Bill and I had a book signing in the lobby of the Coliseum. A group of former players, who came down from North Bay, signed autographs for the fans. They also signed throw-back jerseys (known as sweaters in hockey) for a silent auction. They handed us a Sharpie and asked Bill and I to sign them, too.

Among the highest bidders were the owners of the old Jocks & Jills on Sheraton Drive. They had it framed and hung it on the wall between the restrooms. A friend of my oldest son noticed it and said, “I didn’t know your dad played for the Macon Whoopees.’’ We got a real kick out of that.

When the sports bar closed, my middle son drove over there and asked if they would sell him the framed jersey.

They did. It now hangs on a wall in my grandson’s bedroom.

Long live — and love — the Whoopees.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.

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