Author: John Bonner, 1915-2004
“Basketball Mania” came to Vienna in 1925 and lasted until 1930. It was brought about largely by the efforts of one very talented man, Joseph H. Jenkins, who was superintendent of the city schools and coach of the boys’ basketball team. To grasp the picture of the “Wonder Five” one would have to come to know a great deal about “Professor Jenkins,” yet he is hard to describe in mere words.
Mr. Jenkins was an ordained Baptist minister and a man of the highest morals and ethics. He was a graduate of Mercer University and a great lover of athletics. He had played football at Mercer in the early days of that sport and was a very powerful man physically. Stories of his great strength were legendary. He was a great baseball player, usually playing catcher. He was a strong hitter and in great demand to play on local teams.
One of the most remarkable things about Mr. Jenkins was that he had “charisma.” Wherever he was he attracted attention. When he walked about the school campus, a crowd of children of all ages followed him just to see what he would do and hear what he would say. He was a strict disciplinarian, but he had a great sense of humor and the children loved him, even those who were chastised with his ever-present wide, heavy belt. Mr. Jenkins seemed to have an especial liking for big, good-natured, mischievous, country boys and he developed many good athletes out of these.
It is not surprising that Supt. Jenkins was able in 1925 to arouse enough interest among Vienna citizens to build a gymnasium, really only an indoor basketball court, the only one of its kind over a large area. The older and larger boys of the school helped in its building. This was the beginning of basketball fever in Vienna.
The gym was finished in time for Vienna High School to host the Third District basketball tournament in 1925. VHS entered a good team in the tourney but did not win it. The final game was between Montezuma and Fort Valley, with Montezuma the winner by only one point. The game was so exciting that a large part of Vienna was “hooked” on basketball.
The next year “Coach” Jenkins put together a team that was soon to become the famous “Wonder Five.” It was made up of forward, James “Peggy” Campbell, guards Thomas Witcher and “Gus” Walters. The other forward was Bascom Walters, brother of Gus, and only 5’9” tall. The only tall member of the team was the center, Theo “Ted” Raines, at about 6’3”. Raines had the jumping ability of a kangaroo and few centers ever were able to get a tip-off over him. In those days the ball was returned to center jump after each score. Also, each tie ball called for a jump. Raines gave Vienna a great advantage with his great jumping and tipping ability and Coach Jenkins built his team around it. The team used many ingenious plays devised by Coach Jenkins and Raines gave the signal for each play with his hands and his fingers.
This team attracted attention very quickly and began to win every tournament. The “Wonder Five” won the Third District Championship in 1927, 1928, and 1929. The team took the Peach State Championship several times and the Cotton States Championship played in Alabama several times. Athletic clubs over a wide area sought games with the team and Vienna seldom lost. The fans became so accustomed to winning that when the team lost, the whole town went into mourning. Vienna once defeated a high school team 126-6. Sports writers wrote many columns about the team and a Macon Telegraph writer gave it the name, “The Wonder Five.”
High schools were not classified according to size as they are now. Vienna High, with a student body of perhaps 450, played Lanier of Macon, Tech High of Atlanta, Athens High, Savannah High, and many others with a high school enrollment of many hundreds. These teams often came to Vienna to play and the whole town attended, cowbells, horns, whistles, and all. Very often Vienna defeated these giant schools. When the team played out of town, fans jammed the movie theatre because as soon as the game was over someone phoned the theatre and the film was stopped while someone gave the score and details of the game.
There was a large case full of trophies of all descriptions in the hall of Vienna High School and the walls were full of banners from the championships the team had won. All these were destroyed when fire swept the school during Christmas holidays in 1934.
Perhaps the most exciting thing the team experienced was being invited to the National High School Championship in Chicago. The team went in both 1928 and 1929. The Vienna boys won wide acclaim for their play both years and won many games but were not able to bring home the championship, losing in the semi-finals each time.
In one of those years the team lost by one point to Cicero High School of Chicago – 27-26. The Vienna boys had never played against a team that practiced “freezing the ball” before and had not learned to cope with this style of play. There was no shot clock in those days and the Vienna offense was frustrated. Vienna played for third place the next night and again lost due to disappointment and weariness. The team was awarded a large bronze trophy for fourth place. It was not highly prized but, looking back, to have the fourth best high school basketball team in the entire U.S. is not bad for a little school of four hundred students in a town of less than twenty-five hundred total population.
In 1925 “Peggy Campbell” was chosen on the All-American team. He graduated that year and was replaced at forward by Wendell Horne. In 1929 both Theo Raines and Wendell Horne were chosen All-American. Campbell went on to play basketball at Mercer. Raines went on to play at Georgia Tech and Horne to Duke University, where he later became president of the student body at that great institution. The Walters brothers went to the University of Georgia. To have three All American players in two years surely is a most outstanding accomplishment for any team.
When Witcher graduated, he was replaced by John R. Bearden and Raines was replaced by Harold “Bunker” Hill. The team continued to win most of the tournaments around until 1930, when almost all of the players graduated. In his final year at Vienna, Coach had a good team of rather small boys but they failed to win the state championship, losing to Savannah High in the finals. Mr. Jenkins left Vienna the next year to become president of GMC at Milledgeville. The era of The Wonder Five and “basketball mania” was over, but it was great while it lasted.
Supplemental Information: This account by Mr. John Bonner was originally hand-written around 1940 per columnist-author Billy Powell. After publication of this column I learned that Mr. Powell had written a well-researched story that was published in The News Observer on June 30, 2005. He has included information about this notable team in a book he authored, “Pride of the Panthers,” and has provided substantial information and photographs to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. He also made me aware of an article by Carmen Lindsey that appeared in the May 30, 2007, issue of The Cordele Dispatch. I think there’s enough information for a good movie! NJ