Brooks was in high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he started a long career broadcasting UofI football and basketball games. World War II had taken all the available men, and broadcasters were desperate for anyone who had a voice. Brooks started with WSUI radio during the university’s summer break just before his senior year in high school. He recalls that he would get to the university on the “the interurban”-the Cedar Rapids & Iowa City.
“It was affectionately referred to as the ‘vomit comet’ because it wiggled quite a little bit,” Brooks says. The trip took 40 to 45 minutes, which is about the same time it takes today to drive between the two cities, he notes.
When a Hawkeye team traveled, they could leave either from Iowa City or Cedar Rapids. A trip from Iowa City to Columbus, Ohio, to play Ohio State usually started in Iowa City with the 9:15 a.m. departure of Rock Island’s Rocket to Chicago. The normal operation, according to Brooks, was to go to Chicago, stay overnight, then proceed on the Pennsylvania Railroad to Columbus on Friday for a Saturday game. After the game was over, they would leave about midnight to go back to Chicago, and change stations to return to Iowa City. Surprisingly, this was all on regular service! No equipment was chartered to handle the university’s football or basketball teams.
Brooks recalls the team walked as a squad when they got to Chicago, either between stations or to their hotel. The purpose of this was to keep their legs stretched after the travel. Usually, the walk was to the hotel.
Brooks also did games of the Iowa Seahawks football team. These were members of the pre-flight school the U.S. Navy had at University of Iowa during the war. Brooks recalls that “this was not pilot training; this was conditioning, hand-to-hand combat, how to survive in the jungle, get yourself into shape, that short of thing.”
The program attracted some superior athletes, but they, like everyone else, traveled by train. Brooks recalled a trip to Michigan, where he did a Seahawks game. “The captain of the Iowa pre-flight school and I sat on the floor of the men’s room on the whole trip. That was the only space available.”
While we often hear of rail travel problems during World War II, Brooks remembers that travel was difficult everywhere. “One night, the team checked into what was then the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. It’s now the Hilton across from Grant Park. It was so full of military and the Iowa football team and whoever else they had, that the only place I could sleep was in the bathtub!” Brooks also notes that many weren’t so lucky: “The train stations in those days were just jammed with people. They were sleeping on the floor; they were sleeping in the public rooms. It was just an absolute mob scene.”
After the war, while Brooks was attending UofI and broadcasting the games, things got better. The teams continued to take the trains, generally busing up to Cedar Rapids to catch the Chicago & North Western trains east, which ran later in the day than the Rock Island’s 9:15 a.m. Iowa City departure. In spite of it being easier to get sleeping-car space after the war, the team still stopped overnight when they went through Chicago.
In an indication of how much sports has changed in the last 50 years, Iowa teams never went west for regular games. For their first appearance in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day 1956, they flew out to Pasadena, Calif.
The transition to flying, however, was gradual. Brooks recalls flying on DC-3’s that, he says, had been in service in Burma during the war. These, however, were charters, not regular service flights.
Brooks can’t remember the last time the team took the train, although he thinks it was probably a trip to Minneapolis to play Minnesota. “What they did then was leave Cedar Rapids in the late evening and take the sleeper. It took all night to get there. I can remember their big switching point in those days was Manly, Iowa. You’d just maybe get to sleep and they’d start to rack up those cars, bump ’em and split ’em. You didn’t get any sleep to speak of.” (This was probably Rock Island’s Zephyr Rocket, a combined service with the Burlington between St. Louis and Minneapolis. The Rock Island ran the train between Burlington, Iowa, and the Twin Cities, and CB&Q handled it between Burlington and St. Louis. They would catch this train in Cedar Rapids because it did not operate through Iowa City; rather it crossed the Rock’s Chicago-Omaha main at West Liberty, 20 miles to the east. Boarding at Cedar Rapids gave the team more creature comforts than West Liberty.)
Despite a number of slow or uncomfortable trips, Brooks has fond memories of his train travels. “You made a lot of closer friendships and acquaintances because you were together with the players and the coaches and the other press for a longer period of time. You had some bridge games or other card games, and the club car probably got a good workout.”
A winter storm was responsible for one of Brooks’ final trips by train as a broadcaster. It was in the late 1960’s, after the team had switched to air travel. “We were in Chicago playing Northwestern, and after the basketball game Saturday night, we were scheduled to fly home on Sunday. Well, they had a foot and a half of snow in Chicago, and on North Michigan Avenue, you could walk right down the center of the street because nobody was moving. My wife was with me, and we went to the Union Pacific station and got a train.” (No doubt they went to Union Station to catch one of the UP “City” trains, which ran into Union over the Milwaukee Road after 1955, and stopped at Marion, Iowa, a Cedar Rapids suburb.)
Sums up Brooks, “It seems kind of romantic to think back on it . . . a romantic period of time we’ll never see again, I’m sure.”
Learn more about railroad history by signing up for the Classic Trains e-mail newsletter. It’s a free monthly e-mail devoted to the golden years of railroading.