For love of the game

Long before March Madness, Latter-day Saints vied for the ‘All-Church’ title

From inside a glossy, black cardboard box, Kathryn Hadfield extracts a leather-bound scrapbook. She makes no effort to conceal her joy as she flips it open, her wrinkles of 88 years disappearing behind her broad smile. Why would she? Hardly anybody asks about the photos these days. Everybody’s long forgotten them. Heck, the men in them are all dead — including Jack, her husband of 67 and a half years who died in 2017. Kathryn grins even wider when she sees him. It’s as though — for a few seconds, at least — he’s alive again. But not here, seated around her sturdy kitchen table, beneath the “Families are forever” sign mounted beside the sliding glass door. No, it’s as though they’re both back in 1948, young and curious and uncertain about where they’ll go or who they’ll become.

Yes, let’s start with the snapshot of Jack dated 1948. That’s him in the front row, on the right, with the No. 7 jersey and sweat drenching the letter W in “4th Ward,” the team name stretched across his chest. Without realizing it, he’s just reached a milestone that will follow him for the rest of his life and beyond, right into his wife’s scrapbook some 74 years later.

Back then, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsored an annual basketball tournament featuring the best ward-based teams from across the country, and even from across the continent. It began in 1922, a full 17 years before the first NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, and the “All-Church” tournament soon grew to include annual volleyball and softball competitions, too. 

Action on the court as Highland defeated Downey 4th Ward, for the Junior Title in All-Church Basketball. | Gerald Silver / Deseret News archives

The number of young men competing, by church estimates, reached 10,000 by the mid-1930s. For comparison, today’s NCAA features almost 19,000 men’s basketball players. But at the Division I level — that is, the teams eligible for March Madness — there are only 5,510 by the most recent count, meaning that the young men competing for a spot in the All-Church tournament back then nearly doubled the amount seeking March Madness glory today. 

A team had to be the best in its stake, then the best in its region, then the best in its zone to reach the All-Church level. As both an outgrowth of the influential “muscular Christianity” movement and a phenomenon all its own, the tournament was emblematic of an era marked by robust community life; a time when youth sports weren’t pay-to-play and supposedly “amateur” college sports didn’t reek of corporate cash and swollen administrator pockets. It was recreation for recreation’s sake, before big business interests conquered the country’s athletic landscape. Though it was still plenty competitive, as when the “unseeded and unheralded” Brigham 4th Ward, as the Deseret News then called them, faced off against Edgehill, the tournament’s “team to beat,” in the ’48 All-Church finals.

Church President Ezra Taft Benson once remarked that the All-Church tournaments existed to develop men of proper character by cultivating virtues like teamwork and excellence. “May (the tournament) bring joy to our hearts, may it teach you valuable lessons,” he said during a long-ago address to participants, “(and) may it make you appreciate more fully the rich program of the church, the purpose of which is to build men and women of character and strengthen and deepen spirituality.”

Members used anecdotal evidence to bolster such claims, says historian Jessie Embry, whose 2009 BYU Studies Quarterly article “Spiritualized Recreation: LDS All-Church Athletic Tournaments, 1950-1971” offers a detailed history of the tournament’s origins and eventual demise. One bishop from Jacksonville, Florida, she observed, praised the tournament for encouraging missions. A player from Cincinnati called it a “spiritual experience ... a testimony- building experience.” And a coach from Blanding, Utah, touted its correlation with church service; four of his players became bishops, he bragged, and one a stake president. The tournament could also be a potent missionary tool, bringing new young men closer to Christ through a language — sports — that they already understood. 

Jack Hadfield made the 60-mile trip to Salt Lake City to the old Deseret Gym in 1948 with the upbeat string rhythm of Art Mooney’s “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover’’ humming from AM dials as the No. 1 song in America and the green air of a Utah spring wafting through the windows. Dated March 8, 1948, Jack Fairclough’s Deseret News dispatch told of the Brigham 4th’s “climb to the heights Saturday night to become the new, impressive ruler of the Men’s all-Church world with a thrilling 34 to 32 hairline decision.”

Jack Hadfield, of the Brigham 4th Ward, holds a trophy he earned playing in the All-Church Basketball Tournament on the cover of the Latter-day Saint Church News in 1948. | LDS Church News

From there, the pictures do the rest. The one mentioned earlier, with Jack Hadfield in the bottom right, shows a tired team that had just clinched the contest, with a teammate’s hands on Jack’s shoulders. The one beside the Deseret News story shows Jack Hadfield and eight teammates standing in a line, arms slung over each other, matching snap-button jackets crumpled and crinkled and sweaty, with their coach holding up the toddler-sized trophy. And then there’s one from a little while later, on the cover of the Church News. It features Jack shaking hands with his fellow team captains and holding his personal trophy. “The Story Behind the Winners,” the headline reads. “M Men basketball is much more than just play in the world’s biggest league,” follows the subhead. “It helps build true Latter-day Saint manhood.” Kathryn, taking in the buffet of pictures, grins once more. 

She was there, two years later, in 1950. She and Jack had just gotten engaged. “That was an exciting night,” she remembers, once more letting the joy of the past spread across her face. She yelled so intensely that a fellow spectator — one of a then-record 4,000 — asked a friend of hers to tell her to tone it down. “That’s her fiancé,” the friend replied. “She can yell at him if she wants.”

Jack won the title again that year, and again in ’53. The Brigham 4th Ward was the Duke of its day. “They were kind of celebrities,” says Ben Hadfield, Jack and Kathryn’s son. “They had won the All-Church three times. That’s quite an accomplishment.” 

“They were happy years,” Kathryn adds, recalling both the excitement of “back then” and the quiet of now. 

“Were” is the key. The All-Church tournament is long gone, done in by forces of globalization. It always had some drawbacks — at least if the goal was a spiritually enriching experience. Like the elite high school football programs of today, for example, some wards recruited players to move within their boundaries. Embry cites one case where a man was offered a full-time job if he’d simply move from Utah to California to play for a team there. Some teams were accused of brokering the services of college players, who were not eligible. And some players didn’t attend the required church meetings that kept them eligible.

But the main reason for the end of the All-Church tournament was macro rather than micro: The church was simply becoming too big, shifting from an American institution focused in Salt Lake City to an international faith with followers across the world. The logistics of planning a tournament for an international church were just too much, which is all right with Ben Hadfield, who reached the All-Church tournament in all three sports during his senior year of high school in 1970 — one year before it ended in 1971.

“I think we’ve grown past it,” he says. “It’s like the trophy case in the foyer.” 

The trophy case to which he refers goes back to his dad, Jack. After the 4th Ward won its three basketball titles, it displayed its hardware in a trophy case at the meetinghouse entrance. “It sounds funny now,” Ben says, “but back then, it was just part of the culture.”

John Bennion, left, BYU 50th Ward, and Carl LeSeur, BYU 95th Ward, fight for a rebound during a college final in the All-Church Basketball Playoffs | Deseret News archives

When that part of the culture fell out of fashion, the ward gave Jack one of the three championship trophies, which he proudly displayed in his home until shortly before his death (he donated it to the church archives, where it rests today). That trophy also followed Ben, who even though he didn’t win it himself got recognized by apostle Elder Marvin J. Ashton in a terminal at New York’s JFK airport while returning from his mission in 1973. Ashton told the young Ben that he remembered playing against his father in the All-Church tournaments of yore. “What do you mean played against him?” Jack asked Ben when he got home. “I’m not that old.”

It was perhaps the most obvious example of how winning the tournament, like winning March Madness, could stick to a person — or even to a family. “That kind of became a little bit of their identity,” Ben says. “Everybody around town remembered that.” 

Kathryn remembers it well, too. “We sure laughed through the years,” she says. “We had some fun times.”

Nowadays, though, she admits the memories have faded from the town’s consciousness. The trophy case is gone; the team is gone; she and two other widows remain, each clinging to their scrapbook mementos. She places hers — including the photo of the chiseled, jerseyed, young Jack — back into the brown leather book, back into the glossy black box and sets it aside, unsure of when she’ll next open the delight within. 

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.