Orlich vs. Snellenberger, 1961 C/C shootoff

Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum business sometimes takes me to Vandalia during the winter or early spring. One of my favorite things to do this time of year is to walk out in front of the grandstand and look down that endless line of trapfields. The gladiators who clashed here for 10 days in August have long since departed, here and everything is quiet and desolate—almost eerie. Standing on the field where, side effects historically, championship shootoffs are generally held, I can’t help but think of those who had their one and perhaps only claim to fame while shooting targets from this trap house.     In the old days, thousands watched as shooters went head-to-head for the Clay Target Championship or the Grand American Handicap, or a similarly prestigious event. The big galleries of spectators are gone. A fair crowd shows up now for night shootoffs but not the numbers that photos of old show. Crowds once circled this field to the point where safety was a factor. There was standing-room-only on the clubhouse roof. Every possible place to witness an important shootoff held an interested spectator.      I wonder if the spirit of a departed soul lingers near the place that he once achieved greatness. If this is so, the field directly in front of the grandstand at Vandalia has some legendary old shooters congregating there to discuss whatever spirits discuss. Here in 1931, the Rev. Garrison Roebuck of McClure, Ohio. while on vacation, broke 96 from 17 yards to tie for the Grand American Handicap title. On his third trap he broke 25 straight It was the first 25 and last 25 he ever broke. Prior to his 96, his highest score was 82. Shooting a Winchester Model 12 field gun, he faced two top shooters who had tied his 96. They toed the line on that legendary trap in front of the grandstand as thousands watched the tie-breaker After three shootoff rounds, the good reverend prevailed with 68x75 to 66x75. Afterwards he said some of his congregation never forgave him for playing the money.

     Two years later on this very field, Pennsylvania’s Walter Beaver beat a  17-year-old junior from Michigan in a shootoff for the Grand American Handicap. Each had broken 98x 100, but Beaver had done it from the then-maximum 25-yard line. The junior shot from 24 yards and missed one in the shootoff. That’s all Beaver needed to beat him. History will remember the loser more than the victor in this case. Young Ned Lilly went on to become one of the game’s all-time greats. It happened on the field in front of the grandstand.

     The 1961 men’s Champion of Champions event at the Grand started out simply enough on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 21. Few expected the event to finish before thunderstorms engulfed the trap-line, but no rain fell until long after dark. When the 35 entered had completed the 100-bird race, eight had broken all their targets. The heavy favorite to win the shootoff was Dan Orlich of Reno, Nev., a former member of the Green Bay Packers. Big Dan was in his prime back then, and few ever beat him in important shootoffs like this one.

    Merle Stockdale of Iowa, George Neary of California, Illinois’ Herb Bush, West Virginia’s Ira Eyler, 53-year-old Ohmer Webb of’ the District of Columbia, the great Ned Lilly of Michigan and a 25-year-old from Indiana named George Snellenberger all answered Tournament Director Ron Peters’ shootoff call.

     The crowds that assembled behind the two shootoff traps that summer afternoon were well familiar with the likes of Orlich, Bush, Lilly, rotund Eyler and the slight left-hander Webb, who had won the Grand American Preliminary Handicap in 1949 with 100 night. But onlookers, asked others, “Who was the guy from Indiana shooting the Winchester Model 12 and Homer Clark’s Alcan shells?”

     Snellenberger worked as a butcher in a family-owned slaughter house. He came to prominence a year earlier by breaking all 600 singles targets at the Grand and along the way defeated the great Wisconsin shooter Vic Reinders in a shootoff for class AA in the Introductory Singles Championship (now the Singles Class Championship). He had won the Indiana State Shoot with 200 straight and had defeated a tough competitor in Jack Hughes with another 200 in a shootoff. But Snellenberger was still not a nationally-recognized name in 1961. Not yet.

     After one 25-target shootoff, Stockdale had missed two and Neary a single target. Ned Lilly faltered in the second round, and a giant moan was heard from onlookers when the referee called ‘lost.” The third extra round settled nothing. Orlich, Webb, Eyler, Bush and Snellenberger all broke 25. Now all five were shooting on the legendary field in front of the grandstand, directly behind the field, watching every target sat a 24-year-old Remington pro rooting for Ira Eyler. He had been shooting all week in my squad and was popping green shells on the ground. I wanted him to win, but it wasn’t to be—both Eyler and Bush dropped targets in the fourth extra round.

Now it was down to Orlich, Webb and Snellenberger. Darkness ended the contest and Tournament Director Peters announced the shootoff would continue the next afternoon.

During the 100-round shootoff, George Snellenberger’s wife had received a phone call advising her that George’s mother had died suddenly that afternoon in Indiana. She had decided to keep the sad news from George until the outcome of the shootoff had been decided. But it hadn’t been decided and now she had to tell George.

He told me years later, “I said nothing to anyone. We just got in the car and drove the three or so hours hack home. Mother was not well but not expected to die. Dad had cancer at the time, and it was him we were most concerned about. I was simply devastated over the news of mother and never gave a second thought about forfeiting the Champion of Champions shootoff.” The next morning in Indiana, George received a phone call from Dan Orlich and Ohmer Webb. They had decided to postpone the shootoff until after the funeral when George could get back to Vandalia. His mother’s funeral will never be forgotten in Angola, Ind., either. She received floral pieces from trapshooters throughout America, from Remington. Winchester, Federal and other companies related to trapshooting. George recalled, “My family and the town were simply amazed at the tribute so many paid her.” On Friday. Aug. 25, 1961, Grand American Day, George Snellenberger returned to Vandalia. Orlich and Webb were waiting. After the Grand American shootoffs, the three walked to the line tocontinue what had been discontinued three days before. Webb dropped three targets in the first extra round and settled for the third-place trophy. It was not to be the last time Ohmer Webb shot off on the trap in front of the grandstand.      In 1980, at 72 years old, he won the Clay Target Championship with 200 and another 200 in shootoffs. He remains the oldest ever to win the most prestigious of Grand American championships. But Friday, Aug. 25, 1961 was not to be his day in the sun. Snellenberger and Orlich continued that afternoon until each had broken 300 straight. Time after time, Dan’s Model 31 Remington pump and George’s trusty Model 12 Winchester turned targets to little puffs of smoke. Time after time, they would return to the shell house for more, all to the acclaim of thousands of onlookers. Darkness again halted the proceedings, and the two agreed to meet the next day between the Doubles Championship and the Vandalia Handicap. The big crowds hovered again behind the trap in front of the grandstands on Saturday, the last day of the Grand, to watch the two go at it again. At this point they were 175 targets ahead of the current shootoff world record, but neither was concerned with this.      Each waited for fatigue to cause the other to make a mistake, to short lead a quarter angle, to shoot a straight away too quickly or to stop the gun on a sharp angle. After 75 more targets, no mistakes had been made. The two gladiators spoke at the shell house while buying their fourth box of shells that afternoon. They had run 475 shootoff targets. According to George, he and Dan agreed at that point to shoot one more round. If it wasn’t decided in the next 25 targets, it wasn’t going to be decided at all. They were just going to quit. The next 25 proved to be the same as the previous 20. They had each broken 500 straight shootoff targets and still there was no winner.      Former ATA President Herschel Cheek was refereeing that afternoon.

     Dan and George told him, “Herschel, we just aren’t going to do this anymore. He responded, “But you have to. We need a winner.”

George told me at this point, “Big Dan just looked down at Cheek and said, ‘Herschel, you don’t understand— we both quit.” And that’s how it ended. The official shoot off write up said “officials called a halt,” but that wasn’t exactly what happened. When Dan and George called a halt, the bewildered ATA officials had no recourse but to declare them co­champions. It was the first time in Grand American history an event ended in a tie. Shooting off under the lights the night of Aug. 16 were six shooters tied for the Vandalia Handicap Championship. One of them was 31-year-old Jacque “Jackie” Snellenberger, daughter of one George Snellenberger. As she broke target after target from the 27-yard line, I marveled at the way she resembled her famous father’s stance on the line. Feet touching each other, body straight as Charlie Chaplin, face far forward on the comb and that serious look of determination that her dad always wore. To my right sat her father George. Here on this very field, exactly 40 years ago, he battled with Dan Orlich for a title neither ever won. A little heavier now, he is also, like all of us who have shot for so long, a little deaf too. Forty years can change a man. The body can’t always do what the mind demands, but George can still post some pretty high numbers on the scoreboard, There is virtually nothing left that he or Dan Orlich didn’t win, and both have long been enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. Although he probably won’t admit it, George’s scores today aren’t as important to him as they used to be. There’s another champion in the family that keeps up his interest in the old game. A man should be so lucky. As I watched his daughter that night last August, I wondered how many present saw George and Dan go at it on this very field 40 years ago. And! came to the conclusion, probably only two— George and I. Jacque Snellenberger needed 25 to win that important shootoff, and she broke 25. When her purple Fiocchi shell broke her last target, the one she needed to win, I watched where it fell and picked it up. After all the congratulations were over I gave it to her as a small memento of a big win. We used to do that a lot in the old days.  
Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 December 2012 14:07