Colorado sports great dies at 88
Art Unger, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame athlete who was profiled in Ripley’s “”Believe It or Not” in 1938 for pitching 66 straight scoreless innings in Denver’s fast-pitch league, died Saturday. He was 88.
Unger was a regular in Eagle and Eagle County, where is son, Art, lives and carries on the family’s athletic tradition.
The elder Unger was 6-feet-2 and built like a fortress when he was a student at Manual High School, where he collected 16 All-City and All-Conference letters in baseball, football and basketball.
“He earned nine letters from the University of Colorado,” said his son Art. “That’s unheard of today, or almost any other day.”
In 1935, when he was a freshman at the University of Colorado, Unger’s batting average was .435, an average he raised the next year to .538.
Ten years later, when Unger played in the Victory League – a wartime semi-pro league that featured many major-league players – he won the 1946 batting title with a .460 average.
Unger’s athletic prowess put him in some lofty company.
While playing basketball, baseball and football at the University of Colorado, Unger became friends with future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, who also was an athlete and died last year.
Unger’s baseball teammates included Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Larry Bollig. He was on the original Denver Nuggets basketball team that won two national Amateur Athletic Union titles.
“Dad was not one to talk about himself,” said his daughter, Arlene Polk. “Until I put his scrapbook together, I didn’t realize that he’d done so many things. When I started reading the articles, it blew my mind – this was my father?”
Amateur sports were huge in those days. Softball games, at least at the level Unger played it, drew 5,000 fans for regular games, and 12,000 people for All-Star games. Unger played in 25 straight fast-pitch All-Star games.
Unger played organized softball until 1958, and he played with his old teammates until he was 70. In 1996, he was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, and the Colorado Softball Hall of Fame in 1983.
“I was batboy for him for many years of softball games at City Park. He played baseball at the old Merchants Park ball park on South Broadway in Denver,” said Art Ugner. “He would play baseball at Merchants Park, then rush over for a softball game at City Park.”
For the last years of his life at home, Unger spent most of his time in the garden. He loved planting flowers and cherished his rose garden.
“There were three kids, and we were never forced to play sports,” said Art. “That was our decision.”
But they all decided, like their father, that there’s nothing quite like watching the flight of a well-struck ball.
“I’ll be 62 in April and I’m still playing softball in Eagle,” Art said.
Unlike some of today’s athletes, Art Unger said his father was far from a “loudmouth” about his triumphs and defeats.
“(My father) would never tell you about anything he did. There were very few war stories about wins and losses,” Art said. “If you lose, you don’t blame the umpire and don’t blame anything else. If you lost, your opponent played a better game that day.”
According to former Denver Post columnist Frank Harraway, some of Denver’s old-timers regarded Unger as probably the best semi-pro baseball player and softball player the city ever produced during World War II. Sports drastically were curtailed and softball at City Park regularly drew crowds up to 5,000 to watch “fire-baller” Art Unger blow batters away with ease and regularly blast home runs from the left side of the plate.
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Ida Unger of Englewood; a daughter, Arlene Polk of Englewood; two sons, Art Unger of Eagle and Frank Unger of Fairbanks, Alaska; a sister, Annetta Brainard of Littleton; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. today, at the Rose Arbor at 29th and Wadsworth in Denver, across from Crown Hill Cemetery.
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.