The year was 1949. Dan Ponder was wrapping up his two-year term as mayor of El Paso. A 19-year-old Don Haskins was a sophomore basketball player for Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M. The El Paso Texans were a Minor League Class C baseball team led by 43-year-old former Major League pitcher Syd Cohen, and the Bowie Bears made local history by winning the state high school baseball title. The Texas Western football team went 8-2 in the Border Conference under head coach Jack Curtis, while the basketball team went 15-12 under head coach Ross Moore.
And, finally, a young 22-year-old sportswriter named Ray Sanchez was given his first newspaper job with the El Paso Herald-Post. He made $45 a week, more than enough money to cover his $40 monthly mortgage.
Seventy years later, Sanchez is going strong and writing a weekly column for El Paso Inc. He has also written seven books, including “The Bear Facts,” the only biography of former UTEP and Naismith Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins.
Among his other books are “Basketball’s Biggest Upset,” the story of the 1966 Texas Western National Championship team. “The Gods of Racing,” “El Paso’s Greatest Sports Heroes,” “Baseball: From Browns to Diablos,” “The Miners: The History of Sports at University of Texas at El Paso” and “The Good, the Bad and the Funny of El Paso Sports History” are the five other titles that Sanchez has either authored or co-authored.
He helped start the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame in 1955 and was later inducted in the Media category in 1978.
Sanchez is one of the greatest sports authorities this city has ever known. If every honor he has received over the years were included here, there would be no space left for his interview.
Recently, I spoke with Sanchez, who reflected on his seven decades of covering sports in El Paso. He discussed World War II, covering Willie Mays, the golden decade of El Paso sports and his favorite sports moments.
Q: How did your career in journalism get started?
I started working at the Prospector. In those days, Bob Ingram was the only sports editor at the El Paso Herald-Post. World War II changed everything. We went from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest. The Herald-Post started expanding, and the editor decided to give Ingram an assistant.
They called Texas Western, and I had been in the war. The only reason I went to college was the GI Bill. I had written an article on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and my Texas Western professor went bananas over it. He recommended me to the Herald-Post.
I went to the Post for an interview and they assigned me the freshman Texas Western team as a test. The coach at that time was Ross Moore, and I covered the game and wrote the story. Darn if they didn’t hire me in September of 1949.
Q: What were El Paso sports like back then?
Of course, there were only four district high schools and Cathedral High School. Now we have over 30 schools! Covering high schools then wasn’t that big a burden. I worked part-time until February 1950 when I dropped out of school, which I regretted for 40 years until I finally got my degree.
It used to bug me that I would interview college athletes who were on their way to graduating, and I didn’t have my degree. I was the first Hispanic journalist in El Paso. Thank God I had a college education and I grew up speaking English, but I did get a lot of letters, especially if I criticized a white person.
Ingram and Ed Pooley (the Herald-Post editor) backed me, and I’m forever thankful to them.
Q: In 1949, you were recently married and received your first job in sports media. What was it like?
I was making $45 a week when I started at the El Paso Herald-Post. Of course, it seemed like a fortune in those days. I was also getting $91 a month from the GI Bill. Our food budget was only $7 a week. We could buy bread for a dollar, and gasoline was 10 cents a gallon (laughs). It was a good time.
Q: Early in your career, you had a chance to cover a young Willie Mays at Dudley Field in an exhibition game. You even have a picture of the two of you posing in the dugout.
Oh, he was great! He always had a smile on his face, and he was a great guy to interview. I saw him make one of his famous catches, and I still remember it since he has his back to the ball. My God. It was a big thrill meeting Willie, and Leo Forte took the picture of us. He was a big baseball fan.
I got to see the New York Yankees in 1951, and that was a big thrill. Mickey Mantle hit a home run, and Joe DiMaggio was so graceful. I also saw the St. Louis Cardinals play here.
Q: You have been married 71 years to your wife, Helen. How did you meet?
That is a great story. I was walking down the street and this other girl had a crush on me. I was already in the service; it was 1945 and I had just been inducted. She called me over, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her because she was so pretty. We dated, and she waited for me for three years while I was with the Army in the war.
When I came back, the first thing I did was go up to her (laughs) and she greeted me at the door with a lemon meringue pie she had baked herself. Can you believe it? I said, that’s the wife for me.
Q: How does it feel to be one of the longest active sports columnists in the country?
You know, I’ve averaged a column a week for the past 60-something years. I’ve never stopped writing. Sometimes I would write two or three a week when I was at the Herald-Post, and then I became sports editor in 1981.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to cover the Dallas Cowboys?
We had a crazy editor from Tennessee that took over the Herald-Post, and son of a gun, he assigned me to cover the Dallas Cowboys at home and away. He found out that my column was very popular in the city.
Even though I was sports editor, he wanted me to cover the Cowboys and I did that for seven years. I was the only journalist who covered the Cowboys from this distance (600 miles).
Q: What was legendary Cowboys head coach Tom Landry like?
He was a gentleman to the core. He was always the same whether the Cowboys won or lost.
I remember one incident where there was a tackle who was penalized for holding four times in a row. I asked him about it afterward and why that happened. He answered that the opponent was stronger than him and that ended the conversation.(laughs).
Q: Which member of the Cowboys were you closest to?
Tony Dorsett. Oh man, I saw him run 99 yards for a touchdown. All of them were really easy to interview.
You have to remember that in those days, the Cowboys were the team in the NFL, and everybody loved them. The circulation in the Herald-Post blossomed like crazy when I started covering the Cowboys.
Q: What was the best era for you covering sports?
I call the 1960s the golden decade of sports. Can you imagine, it all started with an El Paso professional softball team going to Rhode Island and winning two world championships in a row.
Wayne Vandenberg put the UTEP track team on the map. He began recruiting athletes from Africa, and we’ve been getting great athletes forever. (laughs) He nearly broke the UTEP budget because he was calling so much.
Then in 1966, the Miners won the national title in basketball, and can you believe that the football team beats the University of Mississippi and TCU in a pair of Sun Bowls. They were both close games.
I’ll never forget what Bobby Dobbs did. In the last quarter and the Miners leading by one point with a few seconds left, he ordered Billy Stevens to take a knee in the end zone and kick it out. That was such a rare move, and the Miners held and won the game.
Q: Which Texas Western basketball team was more talented, the 1963-64 squad with Jim “Bad News” Barnes or the 1965-66 National Championship team?
Well, it’s hard to tell. David Lattin replaced Jim Barnes, but it’s really difficult to say which team was more talented. The only reason in 1964 that the Miners didn’t win the national title was because one of the referees (in the Midwest regional semifinal against Kansas State) was so prejudiced.
Don Haskins told me that he called ticky-tack fouls on Barnes and eventually fouled him out of the game. We’ll never know what could have happened had he not fouled out.
Q: What has been the highlight of your career?
I guess the highlight of my career was covering seven Super Bowls and the Dallas Cowboys. I mean, I went everywhere with them, sometimes flying in their own plane. I got to meet all of the coaches, and the circulation of the Post really boomed during that time.
The movie “Glory Road” comes second, and here’s how that happened. When I wrote the biography of Don Haskins, “The Bear Facts,” it sold like crazy in El Paso. It wasn’t because of my writing but because Haskins was so popular. I used to split the royalty checks with Haskins for $3,000 a month, for a while anyway.
Haskins then sold the rights to his biography for 10 years to Warner Brothers. Meanwhile, I was getting calls from movie studios to make a movie because in 1990, I wrote the book “Basketball’s Biggest Upset.”
As soon as the 10 years ended, I got a call from Disney and I went to Don Haskins. He told me, “I don’t want to fool around with the movie studios anymore,” so I begged and pleaded with him. A screenwriter from Disney came into El Paso on my behalf to interview Haskins over breakfast. The rest is history.
That’s why Haskins said that I was totally responsible for the movie being made. I was signed as a consultant, and I had a little bit part in the movie.
Q: What are your thoughts on the state of El Paso sports?
I’m so glad that I’m still writing sports in El Paso Inc. because I have so much to cover. I can’t cover it all with only one column a week, but I really try.
I’m so happy that we have a soccer team. A lot of countries have won the World Cup, but the United States has never won it. Maybe we can develop players and help.
Q: You have written seven sports books in your career. Do you plan to write any more?
Well no. You know, I’m 92 years old now. I don’t plan anymore.
I once wrote a column about how people in horse racing talk. It was so popular that it turned into a book. This man wanted my book “The Gods of Racing” put in his casket when he died. (laughs) You know, that’s the greatest compliment that I ever received.
Q: How important has your family been to you all these years?
I could not have asked for a better family. My wife, Helen, has backed me all the way. My daughter, Anita, came all the way from Las Vegas to take care of my wife and me. One of my three sons, Daniel, pays for my golf. Another son, David, is a computer genius. One day I called David and he was on Bill Gates’ yacht fixing his computer. He’s traveled all over the country. My third son, Victor, is a millionaire and a businessman. You know, I’m very blessed.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
The most important thing I want people to know is that I’ve written at least one column a week for 60-something years. I’d like to also be remembered as a writer who brought a bit of joy to El Paso sports. Over the years, I’ve received a multitude of thanks from readers.
That means so much to me.