Today marks the Autumnal Equinox here in the northern latitudes and the Premier Crossword by Frank A. Longo offers us an aptly titled puzzle "First-Class Athletes". As I worked my way across the top of the grid I was able to fill in most of the answers so by the time I came to the first theme clue I had enough of the letters in place to see the name Dale Earnhardt without even reading the clue and I thought, "well, I guess some race fans would call him a first-class athlete but it seems like a stretch to me". When I actually read the clue I discovered the theme was a little more nuanced than just naming famous athletes - it's naming famous athletes who were inducted into the Hall of Fame of their particular sport in its inaugural year. So "first-class" applies in two ways, which made me like the theme a whole lot more.
The first theme clue comes up at 23a and reads, "Inductee in the inaugural year of the...NASCAR Hall of Fame " and I didn't fully understand the significance of the "..." until later when I discovered that the subsequent theme clues omit the first part of the clue and provide only the part that follows the ellipsis (which I just learned is what the three dots are called). In the end we develop a list of esteemed athletes and discover some historical trivia about them and the hall of fame for their respective sport:
23a - DALEEARNHARDT (Inductee in the inaugural year of the...NASCAR Hall of Fame )
33a - RICHARDSEARS - (...International Tennis Hall of Fame )
43a - PEGGYFLEMING (...World Figure-Skating Hall of Fame )
57a - HONUSWAGNER (...National Baseball Hall of Fame )
66a - AMOSALONZOSTAGG (...Basketball Hall of Fame  and College Football Hall of Fame )
77a - GEORGEHALAS (...Pro Football Hall of Fame )
89a - ARNOLDPALMER (...World Golf Hall of Fame )
97a - BUSTERCRABBE (...International Swimming Hall of Fame )
112a-ROCKYMARCIANO (...International Boxing Hall of Fame )
Back to the puzzle. Actually I don't have much to say about the puzzle - it put up a little resistance around the central theme answer since the athlete was totally unknown to me and some of the crosswords took a while to show up. I wasn't certain what "Expiated" (56d) meant so ATONEDFOR needed a lot of help. Then "Tri- plus six" (64d) had me confused as I wasn't familiar with NONA- as a numerical prefix, but it gave me the opportunity to learn this from wiki: "Nona- is unique in that all other technical numerical prefixes used for systematic names, such as mono-, are derived from Greek, while nona- derives from Latin. Greek would be ennea-" It didn't help having "Singer Susan" ANTON (52d) and "1958 Leslie Caron film" GIGI in there although I eventually recognized both names, and I further complicated matters for myself by having my "Horn sounds" (57d) be tOotS instead of HONKS for too long. Eventually I was able to piece together AMOSALONZOSTAGG though and I was glad to learn about him. All of the other athletes' names were familiar enough to me to go into the grid with on a few crosses in place.
Odds and ends:
- "Like pre-1917 Russia" (13a) could have involved a Tzar, Czar or Csar, too, so I had to wait to determine that it would be TSARIST. I still had some doubt when I finished the puzzle because the "Fifer's drum" (13d) (TABOR) that provided the initial letter could as easily have been a cABOR for all I knew. So I learned yet another new word.
- "Joltin' Joe" DIMAGgio (55d) made a guest appearance - he's in the Baseball Hall of Fame too, but he's not a "first-class" athlete for purposes of the puzzle.
- I can think of a lot of definitions for STONER that I think are better than "One pelting" (37a).
- Ooh, there's another hall of famer - "Singer Elvis" PRESLEY (5D) and guess what - he was inducted in the inaugural year of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1983! How cool is that?!
- The LONESTAR STATE is so big it took to clues to get it into the grid (45a -With 99-Down, Texas).
- Here's something I just learned about ROSA (71d -Parks of civil rights): "1983, she was inducted into Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in civil rights." Again, how cool is that?
- OK, I just learned from google that ERLE (79a - Writer __ Stanley Gardner) is in the Bowhunters Hall of Fame. Really, you can read about it at their website: http://www.bowhuntershalloffame.com/members/gardnererlestanley/. Do you suppose Frank A. Longo knew that?
- I was going to complain about a couple of words in the grid but I am so AGOG (69d - Very eager) at all of the hall of fame references that Frank squeezed into the grid that I'm not going to bother. The puzzle just OOZEs (58d - Be seeping) too much cleverness to pick nits about it.
Speaking of Joltin' Joe: