Aggie History With Walter Hines :: Aggie Basketball Great -- Pecos Finley

bleedCrimson.net is pleased to announce the debut of a new regular feature called Aggie History With Walter Hines. Walter is the son of Jerry Hines, former football and basketball head coach and athletic director at New Mexico A&M (now NMSU) from 1929-40, and 1946-47. Walter's mother, Nona led the women's sports program at New Mexico A&M from 1933-40. We're very excited to be able to have Walter share his unique perspective and knowledge of Aggie history with bleedCrimson.net and our readers.

Pecos Uvalde Finley -- a cowboy hero in a Louis L'Amour novel? Not quite, but close. Pecos Finley was a hero alright, and he was straight off the eastern New Mexico cowboy country. Finley's brief shining life reflects both the glory and the tragedy of many young NM A&M athletes and students before and during WW II.

There are precious few still around who remember Finley as a star Aggie basketball player in the mid-and late-'30s. Mention Pecos and the old eyes sparkle, then squint, and close. They see him on the Williams Gym floor racing down court leading the potent fast break on a team that won three Border Conference Championships and a trip to the NIT in Madison Square Garden in 1939. They see the fluid, Cousy-like one handers, and the running, the constant running. They remember a handsome young man, his cowboy charm, humility and sportsmanship. Slowly, as the old eyes open, they are sad. Now they remember Bataan and Finley and his New Mexico compadres, and their cruel fate at the hands of the Japanese in WW II.

Founded as a land grant college in 1888, New Mexico Agricultural College (later NM College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and New Mexico State) was conceived as an educational beacon for the children of the "industrious classes." The "industrious classes" comprised the working families of America very much like Finley’s in New Mexico. For young male students like Finley, it meant two years of mandatory military training in the ROTC program. Most stayed on for four years because it provided camaraderie, a few extra dollars, plus shoes and uniforms which were often worn all week. ROTC was part of a bargain with Uncle Sam. They got help with their educations in return for military service. As Finley and his classmates would soon learn, Uncle Sam would be repaid in spades.

Born on July 10, 1916 in Bluit, New Mexico, a small farming village twenty miles southeast of Portales, young Pecos suffered the unfortunate death of his father at an early age. Raised by his mother, Ada, he was a handsome, hard working boy who grew into a strapping 6-footer by his sophomore year at Floyd High School. As a junior, Pecos was already the best basketball player in the state. As a senior he was class president and captain of the state champion Broncos. Coached by Roy Lofton, and joined by Carl and Morris "Pucker" Wood, Finley and the Floyd Broncos were the talk of New Mexico basketball.

In a column headlined, Floyd Has Class, the Albuquerque Journal of March 11, 1935 praised the victorious Broncos.

Maintaining the best traditions of a long line of small, back-country high schools, the Floyd Broncos Saturday night romped on the Clovis Wildcats 35-25 to win the championship of the fifteenth annual New Mexico State High School tournament. The Broncos, who came to the tournament from a high school of less than 75 students and a town of under 500 population, flashed one of the best teams seen here in recent years, and they truly carried on the tradition of victory started in 1923 and 1924 by Hagerman, and maintained since by the Forrest Pirates and last year by the Virden Eagles.... Pecos Finley, big and brawny Floyd forward, started out on a scoring spree that netted him 15 points for individual scoring honors, and Clovis fell gradually behind.

Finley and Pucker Wood were recruited by Aggie Coach Jerry Hines in fall 1935. In 1936, they formed the nucleus of a fine freshman team coached by Vaughn Corley. Finley and the other "fish" spent the year beating up on teams from New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, and scrimmaging against a varsity team led by Aggie greats, Hooky and Lauro Apodaca. In 1937 Finley and Wood teamed with the Apodacas, Kiko Martinez, and Howard Ball on a squad that finished with a record of 22-5 and the Border Conference Championship. It was the first conference crown ever won by the Aggies. And it was only the beginning.

In 1938, Finley, Wood, and Martinez were joined by center Joe Jackson of Cimarron and Mel Ritchey of Hale Center, Texas. In 1938 and 1939, this team went 42 and 7, won two more Border Conference crowns and appeared in two post season tournaments -- the 1938 NAIB tournament in Kansas City and the prestigious NIT in New York in March 1939. They were one of the first teams in the western U.S. to use the fast break offense, and it was devastating. Mel Ritchey recalled a game in California against Loyola Marymount. By the third quarter, the Loyola coach gave up trying to win and sat quietly taking notes. Colorful Texas Tech coach Merl Huffman was another victim of the Aggie break. During a game at Williams Gym in Las Cruces in 1939, fans noticed Huffman's agonized facial expressions, then an involuntary pulling of his hair. Suddenly, Huffman leaped to his feet, viscously attacking and breaking a wooden chair, ala Bobby Knight.

Finley led the conference in scoring in both 1938 and 1939, with Kiko Martinez and Joe Jackson close behind. Invited to the 1939 NIT Tournament the Aggies played the role of rogue cowboys during their stay in Manhattan. They wore crimson silk shirts, 'A'letter jackets, ten gallon hats, cowboy boots, and neckerchiefs. The New Yorkers were charmed.

At a pre-game visit to the Garden, a tour guide told famous NY Times sports writer John Kieran that the three guys over there in cowboy hats -- Kiko Martinez, Joe Jackson, and Pecos Finley -- had scored more points than the whole Long Island University team, the tournament favorite.

"And this fellow is Kiko Martinez. He played on the Mexican Olympic basketball team in Berlin."

Kiko. That was a funny name for a Mexican.

"Oh, I'm not a Mexican," said Kiko with a grin. "I live in New Mexico."

Well he had played for Mexico in the Olympic Games. He had to qualify as a citizen or resident of Mexico to do that. This stumped Kiko for a moment and then he laughed and said:

"I live right on the border, I can jump either way in a hurry. I jumped the other way just for the fun of going to Berlin."

But what about the name, Kiko?

"Oh, it should be Quico," said Kiko, spelling it out in Spanish style. "Just a nickname. My right name is Francisco."

A photograph was being passed around showing the players practicing in their cowboy costumes.

"Looka hyah!" said one big fellow, pointing accusingly at the caption. "That's wrong. That ain't my name."

The accusing finger rested on the name "Joseph Jackson" and he certainly resembled the man in the picture.

"Yes suh! That's me in the picture. But my name ain't Joseph, it's Joe."

The caption also included the name "Pecos Finley." Kieran asked if that name wasn't just a bit of local color.

"No, suh!" said Finley. "That's my name, all right."

It was an odd first name to find in any member of the Finley family. How come?

"I dunno," said Pecos. "I didn't have much to say at the time they fixed it onto me."

The Aggies played well in the NIT, and Finley was a sensation in Madison Square Garden in the opening game against the unbeaten Long Island Blackbirds of legendary Coach Claire Bee. They rocked the Garden crowd by jumping off to a large lead in the first half. Late in the fourth quarter the game was tied 42-42. At that point, the Blackbird depth, the smoky Garden air, and the fouling out of Finley and Jackson did the Aggies in. They lost in the last minutes to the eventual tournament champions, 52-45. Their performance demanded an encore several nights later, when the Aggies beat Roanoke in a consolation game before 18,000 fans.

Finley was described as "the best all-around player to appear at the Garden this year" by sportswriter Arthur Daley. A New York fan sent a letter to Las Cruces saying that no boy in New York wanted to shoot with two hands again after seeing Finley's exciting, running one handers.

Back on campus, Finley continued his duties as Senior Class President and ROTC cadet leader. As classmate Michael Taylor recalled in an unpublished memoir entitled Aggies, Oh Aggies, "Pecos was selected as Most Popular Boy in only one year, 1939; but in fact was our most popular through all his Aggie years." He was pursued, but never captured by any of the campus coeds. Pucker Wood remembers himself and Finley in the same predicament as many others -- country guys who were always broke. They worked odd jobs for meager spending money. There simply was no time or money to court girls in the style to which they were entitled.

Graduating in May 1939, Pecos finished ROTC summer camp and returned to his first love, basketball. With ex-Aggie teammate Bob Sims, he spent a year in the "House of David" organization on a barnstorming semipro basketball team. Back in Las Cruces in the fall of 1940, Finley leased and operated the Texaco station on Main in Mesilla Park. His predecessor at the Texaco station was ex-classmate Marion Palmer, a trombonist in the Aggie band, whom Finley was to meet again later in the Philippines during the Battle of Bataan.

As war clouds loomed, Finley saw many friends, and classmates enlist in the 200th Coast Artillery of the NM National Guard. Others would be called to duty in the Philippines for special assignments by virtue of their previous ROTC training. These included fellow Aggie athletes Ray McCorkle, Jesse Mechem, Charlie Sparks, Hal Jeffus, Francis Gallagher, Louis Long, and dozens of other Aggies. The 200th, with more than 1500 New Mexicans, was federalized and made active in January 1941. After training at Fort Bliss in El Paso they were sent to the Philippines to bolster General Macarthur’s Philippine Army, arriving by ship in September 1941.

About the time the 200th was activated, Finley, who already had an ROTC commission, volunteered for duty with the Army. In February 1941, he was assigned as 2nd Lt. to Fort Lee, Virginia with the 12th Quartermaster Training Regiment. As evidenced by a memorial plaque and athletic field named after Finley at Fort Lee, he was an outstanding soldier.

Completing training in July 1941, Finley was promoted to 1st Lt., and volunteered for assignment with the Philippine Scouts, the best division in the fledgling Philippine Army, headquartered at Fort McKinley near Manila. After a brief homecoming in eastern New Mexico, Finley left for San Francisco by car with long-time friend Pucker Wood doing most of the driving. To save time, he took the 5-day San Francisco-to-Manila flight on the amphibious, four-motored "China Clipper" operated by Pan American Airways. Wood, who would later see duty as an Army Lieutenant in the liberation of the Philippines, waved farewell to his friend in September 1941.

It was the last time either would see one another. Pecos Finley died at the Japanese concentration camp at Camp O’Donnell in June 1942 after surviving a harrowing defensive struggle and the Bataan Death March. He was 25 years old.

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More details on Pecos Finley and Aggie athletes during WW II can be found in Hines’ book, Aggies of the Pacific War – New Mexico A&M and the War with Japan, available at the NMSU Bookstore, Coas Books, and other outlets in the Las Cruces area.

Walter Hines has a BS and MS in Civil Engineering from NMSU ('66,'67) and is a Senior Project Manager with the consulting firm, CH2M HILL in Albuquerque, NM. Born in Las Cruces, he is the son of Jerry Hines, former Aggie athlete, head football/basketball coach and athletic director at New Mexico A&M, now known as NMSU, from 1929-40, and 1946-47. Hines' mother, Nona led the women's sports program at New Mexico A&M from 1933-40. Walter won the 1999 James F. Cole Award for service and the 2000 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from NMSU in 2000. He is also the author of the book Aggies of the Pacific War: NM A&M College and the War with Japan.