When it came to sports, Tacoma native Tom Cross did it all. He played and he refereed. Cross directed sports programs for parks and recreation departments for both Tacoma and Pierce County, made them what they are today, and retired after 34 years of service to local residents. He taught a course in leisure studies at the University of Puget Sound that imparted his belief that sports are as important in American society as the arts, good literature, or a degree in business administration. And he enjoyed every minute of it. "I enjoyed my work," he told this interviewer shortly before he died in December of 2003. "I could hardly wait to get up in the morning."
Marv Harshman and Tom Cross were members of the 1947 Tacoma Mountaineers, Tacoma's only professional basketball team.
Beyond the work he did, he was an inspiration to others as he nudged them to pursue a sports career. Jan Wolcott, current director of Pierce County Parks and Recreation, was one of his proteges. He was working as a playground supervisor when Cross encouraged him to continue as a sports administrator. "Those of us who worked for him," Marc Blau explained, "found a way to stay involved in sports and recreation for years. There is no doubt," Blau continues, "of the overall influence he had on the lives of people involved in sports and recreation. His contribution has been more profound and comprehensive than any other person in the history of Tacoma."
Tom Cross was born in Tacoma on September 16, 1920. By the time he graduated from Stadium High School in 1938, he had become an accomplished basketball player, being named a second-team All-State performer his senior year. At the College of Puget Sound. he was the "spark" on a team that won the Northwest Conference Championship in 1939-1940, being named to the All-Northwest Conference 2nd team as well as the second leading scorer in the conference.
In 1942 a phone call came to the CPS P.E. Department from Rainier High School and the conversation that followed clearly had an impact on the remainder of Tom's life and his career. They wanted two officials for one of their games and they were offering three bucks each! Tom took the offer and 60 years later he was still associated with officiating. Considered the "Father of Officiating" in the state of Washington for his involvement in creating official’s organizations to serve high school sports. Tom refereed PAC-10 basketball (1948-64) and football (1948-73), worked Rose Bowl games in 1963 and 1973, continued as a PAC-10 observer, and also served as the first official timer for Seattle Seahawks football games.
Cross was introduced to the wonders of sports administration during World War II. "He thought he would be driving a truck," his obituary tells us. Instead the army "assigned him to supervise a recreation center on post." After the war, and before he was able to apply what he had learned during his military service, he had to complete his college degree at Puget Sound. He combined his studies with coaching the Logger basketball team, and playing on the Tacoma Mountaineers of the Pacific Coast Basketball Conference professional team. While this team barely survived a season, Cross never missed an opportunity to play as the years went by. When former players of the Cheney Studs formed the Stud Old Timers, Cross continued playing until he was 55, dazzling the crowd, as he had once before, with a majestic high-arching two-handed set shot which he had appropriately named the "heel-clicker". The game for these players at this age, Tom recalled, was "Trot Down and Walk Back."
When interviewed, I asked Tom Cross what he considered his most important contribution to sports in Pierce County. His answer centered on the programs that still exist from when he started as athletic director for the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma- beginning in 1947 - and the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department between 1958 and 1981. No matter the age, sex, or sport, Cross would find a niche to assure the most sport, for the most people, at the least cost.
If Tom had a true love, however, it came in the recreation ranks. He loved playing and organizing games and leagues for those who simply played for fun, no matter what the level of competition, no matter what the sport. He found ways for them to play. He formed teams and leagues. He helped provide facilities for them to play when there were none. He found sponsors for them. He encouraged local businessmen to donate funds to build or improve facilities and fields. He became Mr. Recreation!
Oh, how he lived up to that title. He was instrumental in the development of Peck Field, Tacoma's first multi-field softball facility. It had lights and 12 games a night were scheduled there. He was the driving force behind Heidelberg Park, providing a lighted diamond for Tacoma baseball teams. Along with boss, Tom Lantz, then Superintendent of Recreation for Tacoma, he opened Titlow and South End Swim Pools. Prior to that he succeeded in lighting Franklin Park for night softball games and preserved Tiger Park for night baseball when Tacoma’s pro team departed. Some sources maintain that he and Clay Huntington even mortgaged their homes for the latter, but neither would ever confess to that although later on they convinced Ben Cheney to bail them out and create the first Cheney Field. Certainly, the opening of Sprinker Recreation Center's ballfield complex in 1969 followed by the ice arena and indoor tennis and racquertball courts in 1976 was another one of his crowning achievements.
If there weren't enough teams to form a league in a given sport, Tom would call on his old friends and teammates to put one together. Naturally he played, loving every minute.
That's how slowpitch got its start in Tacoma. Tom's Stud Old Timers joined three other teams to organize the first league in Northwest history. Legendary names like John Heinrick, Marv Harshman, Marv Tommervik, Frank Gillihan and George Wise all came to play. The 14-inch ball prevailed for many years after its introduction in the late 40s.
Cross played fastpitch when he was younger. He was a slingshot-style pitcher for teams like Cammaranos, the Teamsters, and Stoplight Tavern. He was most effective from that 37-foot mound. He even played touch football, quarterbacking Pat's Place to numerous league titles by looking one way and passing another, an old basketball trick he learned on Tacoma playgrounds.
When he wasn't playing he was coaching. When he wasn't coaching he was promoting sports and recreation. Among his proudest accomplishments he lists the formation of age group baseball, starting at age 11. It kept baseball locally out of the pressures which Little League threatened to bring to Tacoma. Later, when daughter Chris asked him "how come you don't have teams for girls?" (she was a 3rd grader), the Lassie League was born.
Meantime, the Cross touch was evident in forming a Junior Olympics Track & Field program on Wednesday evenings at Lincoln Bowl. Hundreds participated, boys and girls. Ditto for Daffodil Festival activities, ranging from marble tournaments to badminton, handball and table tennis competition. Even horseshoes.
Is there anyone around who can match the enthusiasm and energy Tom Cross has brought to the world of fun and games? It's doubtful.
"In my lifetime," sports historian Doug McArthur told News Tribune reporter Don Ruiz when Cross died, "I can't remember anyone who had more impact on the youth of the community. When there weren't programs in recreation and sports, he created them. He fostered and encouraged us to participate in it, and he made sure there were facilities when there weren't any."
Tom Cross also viewed his accomplishments within a broader context of national history. During his interview he talked about the important role schools played in the early development of playgrounds and swimming pools. He also discussed how major wars can have an affect on the growth following the end of hostilities. He explained how the influx of families during and after World War II stretched parks and recreation programs to the limit leading to not just the creation of the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department but to additional parks programs within the county's many jurisdictions.
His legacy runs like a thread through this sports history, and is commemorated by means of the Tom Cross Ballfields at the Sprinker Recreation Center, an endowment fund in his name established by the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, and through numerous Halls of Fame inductions honoring his various sports' achievements. "I think he's probably as much of a legend as anybody in the Tacoma area," Marv Harshman told Don Ruiz. "He gave a lifetime to Taco...He was a great official...He was a first-class person." Doug McArthur agrees. "I've never known a man with so many friends. To be around him simply was a joy."