It had taken over three years of ‘cussin’ and discussing by the Board Members of the Rodeo Cowboys Association to vote in favor of having a bonafide National Finals. As Jim Shoulders remembered it, Casey Tibbs was the first cowboy to talk about having a Finals for rodeo. Baseball had the World Series, why didn’t rodeo do the same?
The biggest criticism for having a National Finals Rodeo was that in RCA sanctioned rodeos “any dues paying member could enter any and all rodeos by paying his/her entry fee”. How could a National Finals Rodeo be held that limited those who could enter to the top fifteen money winners in each event? Some of the old-timer cowboys that had been members since the early days of organized rodeo were dead set against it. “It just went against the RCA rules,” they said. Although members in favor of a Finals event pointed out that at certain large rodeos such as Cheyenne and Houston, the top winners were the only ones to compete at the final performance. Still no vote was unanimous.
This was also the era in which the ‘powers that be’ in rodeo were hesitant to let television cover a rodeo. They were limiting television coverage to only two events per year. The thinking was if it could be seen on ‘the little black box’ the seats at a rodeo would not be filled, therefore the event would lose money. Needless to say, in time they realized this way of thinking probably hampered the sport from moving forward sooner.
In the RCA, after a July, 1958, board meeting in Cheyenne, a seven member National Finals Rodeo Commission was formed. One hundred and twenty-five cities were invited to provide a site and sponsorship of the event. After much investigation Dallas, Texas, and the Texas State Fair were awarded the very first National Finals to be held December 26th through 30th. CBS television got the rights to cover the 1959 event. Jim Shoulders, who held more World Champion titles than any cowboy ever, was asked to do numerous publicity venues. He went to Washington D. C. and presented to President Dwight D. Eisenhower the first ticket to the very first National Finals Rodeo.
Clayton, New Mexico, was the site for the Steer Roping, Team Roping and Barrel Racing Finals. The dates were: November 13 and 14th. Everett Shaw won the Steer Roping World Championship with $5,155. This was his fifth Steer Roping World Championship. Jim Snively won the Steer Roping Average with 170.4 seconds on six head of stock. Shoat Webster had the fastest time with a 15.8 second run in the 3rd round. The National Finals Purse for Steer Roping was $5,000. The Team Roping Finals was won by eighteen year old Jim Rodriguez, Jr., the youngest World Champion in the history of rodeo. He roped with his mentor, Gene Rambo, and won $6,184. Rodriguez and Rambo also won the Team Roping Average with 121.4 on six head. Jane Mayo won the Girls Rodeo Association World Championship in barrel racing and the average with a total of $5,814. Mayo went in to the Finals behind Mildred Farris, but in won two first places and one second, and tied for 3rd and 4th in the four round Finals. Mildred only split a fourth place in the first round. Clayton locals, Boots and Billy Harlan, sponsors of the event, were pleased with the first time happening. They requested a repeat for 1960 but requested an earlier date due to the subfreezing weather that set in during the Finals.
The National Finals arrived the day after Christmas at the Texas State Fair Grounds. Each event had ten rounds, in five days, and 54,000 fans attended the event, with $50,000 in prize money. The General Manager was John Von Cronkite. Announcers were Cy Taillon and Pete Logan. Secretary was Cecil Jones, and Timers were Flaxie Fletcher, Muggs McClanahan, and JoAnn Herrin. Chute bosses were Sonny Linger and Bill Kunkel. Livestock Superintendent was Buster Ivory. Bullfighters & Barrelman were D. J. Gaudin (The Kajun Kidd), Buck LeGrand and Gene Clark. PickUp Men were Elra Beutler, Bobby Christensen and Lefty Wilkins.
All Around Cowboy of the Year honors went to Jim Shoulders with $32,905. He and Jim Tescher were the only two cowboys that qualified for two events in the first National Finals. Shoulders competed in Bareback Riding and Bull Riding and Tescher in Steer Wrestling and Saddle Bronc Riding.
In the Bareback Riding event Jack Buschbom won the World Championship and the Average and pocketed $17,611 for the year. This was his second world championship. John Hawkins was runner-up and Shoulders was third.
The Steer Wrestling World Championship went to Harry Charters who didn’t join the RCA until the fall of 1958 becoming the first cowboy to win a world championship his first year in professional rodeo, taking home $18,636. Willard Combs won the average with a time of 111.6 on ten head. Charters had the best time with a 4.4 second run in the 6th round. Don Fedderson was second and second in the average, too.
The Saddle Bronc Riding World Champion was Casey Tibbs. This title was the last world title he won, with $17,485 for the year. Jim Tescher won the Average with a score of 1806 on ten head. High score was 187 points by Lyle Smith. Winston Bruce was runner-up and Les Johnson was 2nd in the Average.
The Calf Roping World Championship went to Jim Bob Altizer who had the win in his pocket before the National Finals got started. He finished the year with $6,000 more than his closest competitor, Dale Smith. Altizer finished the year with $24,728 in calf roping, but in the All Around, he was runner-up to Shoulders with $25,263. Olin Young won the calf roping average with 191.3 on ten head and runner-up in the Average was Sonny Davis. Fastest time went to Lee Cockrell with an 11.3 seconds run in the 10th round.
Prior to the National Finals the Bull Riding event was going back and forth between Jim Shoulders and Bob Wegner. Shoulders won the Boston and New York rodeos but Wegner went to the Cow Palace and won the bull riding there putting him $42 ahead of Shoulders at the opening of the Finals. Two go-rounds a day kept everyone on their toes. In the first round Shoulders split a third and fourth place with Wayne Lewis. In the 2nd go-round that evening Wegner won first with a score of 184 points, and Shoulders split second and third with Joe Green. In the 3rd go Shoulders suffered an accident that could have ended it right there, he tore the palm of his riding hand and could hardly hold a rope. He found a surgical glove, cut the fingers off, and put it inside his riding glove, then poured ethyl chloride on to the flesh-torn hand, which ‘freezes’ the pain for a brief time. (Now please don’t try this, readers, as I’ve been told the pain is excruciating when the ‘freeze’ wears off, and besides it’s illegal in rodeo today). The 4th go-round, that same evening, saw Wegner buck off and Shoulders win a second. In the 5th go-round Shoulders bucked off and Wegner split fourth with Bob Sheppard. The 6th round found Wegner bucking off again, and Shoulders won first. In the 7th round Wegner won fourth place. The 8th go-round saw Wegner win second, but Shoulders was right behind him winning third place. In the 9th round Wegner won first and Shoulders did not place. Going in to the 10th round every one was guessing – Wegner or Shoulders? Shoulders won second and Wegner bucked off. It was Shoulders last World Title in Bull Riding and he also won the Average, being the only bull rider to ride nine head. He won with $1,307 more than Wegner. $17,021 was Shoulders final amount in the bull riding event for the year.
There were twenty-six stock contractors that brought 255 head of stock to the Finals in 1959. Eighty five saddle broncs, eighty-five bareback broncs, and eighty-five bulls. In the 2008 National Finals there are fifty-four stock contractors that are bringing 305 head of stock to Vegas. At the first Finals Beutler Brothers brought twenty-seven head; second in numbers was Harry Knight with twenty-one; Andy Jauregui brought seventeen head and Harley Tucker had sixteen head. The rules have not changed in number of contestants. The top fifteen in each event continue to be eligible for the National Finals.
A precedent was set in the first National Finals Rodeo in 1959 and the rodeo season is not decided until the end of the tenth round every December. The thrill of putting the very best athletes in each event, and the very best broncs and bulls to challenge them, has never disappointed the fans. The outstanding horses that carry their riders in the timed events are amazing to watch. It is evident in the timed events the rider and his horse are a team and one could not perform without the other. The curtain is about to go up on the 50th National Finals. Who will become the next World Champion in each event and the All Around? Will there be an upset? Will there be injuries? Will there be surprises? Will there be disappointments? Of course, is the answer to all those queries. The outcome is never determined until the last contestant has had ten rounds. I can hardly wait! See you there………………………..