August 7, 2012
America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism. Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats—among them a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, and mud slinging—for the amusement of Caucasian spectators. Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.
A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted “oddities.” Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites. Another American, Fred Lorz, did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, and earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a “special five-mile race” sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Among the leading oddities were ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban national and former mailman named Félix Carbajal, who raised money to come to the States by demonstrating his running prowess throughout Cuba, once trekking the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he lost all his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. At five feet tall, he presented a slight but striking figure at the starting line, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret and a pair of street shoes. One fellow Olympian took pity, found a pair of scissors and cut Carbajal’s trousers at the knee.
On August 30, at precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents. In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Hicks, one of the early American favorites, came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant, and at the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge the runner’s condition.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”
Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. “Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.”
He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without the aid of anything but his legs.
Books: Susan Brownell, The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008; David E. Martin, The Olympic Marathon. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. George R. Matthews, America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005; Pamela Cooper, The American Marathon. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998; Daniel M. Rosen, Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports From the Nineteenth Century to Today. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2008; Charles J. P. Lucas, The Olympic Games, 1904. St. Louis, Mo: Woodward & Tieran Printing Co., 1905.
Articles: “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2004; “Marathon Captivated Crowd at 1904 Olympics.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 2003; “New York Athlete Wins Marathon Race.” New York Times, April 20, 1905; “1904 Set Record for the Unusual.” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1984; “The 1904 Marathon Was Pure Torture.” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 3, 2008; “Marathon Madness,” New Scientist 183 (August 7-13, 2004); “St. Louis Games Were Extremely Primitive By Today’s Standards.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2004; “One Man’s Poison In a Brazen and Forgotten Incident of Doping.” Boston Globe, February 22, 2009.
January 25, 2012
On the damp and chilly morning of Wednesday, February 2, 1949, Ben Hogan got up before the sun and hit the El Capitan Motel coffee shop in Van Horn, Texas. He and his wife, Valerie, had driven more than 500 miles east from Phoenix the day before, and while the road made his wife queasy, he craved a quick breakfast, and they still had to go 500 miles east to Forth Worth. Ben ate, went back to their room and packed the Cadillac with their luggage and his golf clubs.
Ben Hogan had reached the pinnacle of his career. For the first time, the diminutive golfer had captured two major tournaments in the same year—the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Two weeks earlier, his face had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, above the quotation that would define him: “If you can’t outplay them, outwork them.”
Hogan had been working for as long as he could remember. In 1922, when he was 9, his father, a blacksmith named Chester, pointed a gun at his chest and committed suicide. Hogan biographer James Dodson says some reports place Ben in the room of their home in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time. The loss of the family breadwinner meant the Hogan children had to contribute financially. Ben sold newspapers at the train station, then became a caddy at a nearby country club. He was 11. When he wasn’t carrying bags, he spent countless hours on the practice range. Digging hundreds of balls out of the dirt, day after day, he worked to the point where, legend had it, his hands would bleed. He sought to hit a perfectly controlled ball, and to achieve a repeatable swing that would hold up under pressure. Perhaps it allowed him to feel a measure of control over the chaos around him. Whatever, he could be found on the range long after his fellow caddies, and ultimately his fellow competitors, had left the golf course.
In 1949, even the best professional golfers drove thousands of miles each year to tournaments across the country, lugging not just their clothes and clubs, but their families. By February 1949, Hogan had driven more than 3,000 miles since the start of the golf season, and he’d won two of his first four tournaments. He was leading the tour on the money list in what promised to be another remarkable year–but he told Time, “It’s the traveling. I want to die an old man, not a young one.”
Ben and Valerie Hogan pulled out of the parking lot at the El Capitan in sunshine, heading east along two-lane Highway 80. They hadn’t gone ten miles when they ran into a dense fog and a slick, icy film on the road. Hogan cut his speed to 25 miles per hour; then he saw “four lights winking at me.” A Greyhound bus was trying to pass a truck, filling Hogan’s lane. He looked to veer off the road but saw a culvert on his right. “I knew we were going to get hit,” he said.
The Greyhound plowed head-on into Hogan’s Cadillac. At the last second, the golfer hurled himself across his wife. “That was the first break I got in all this trouble,” Hogan later said. The steering wheel and part of his car’s engine was “hammered thru the cushion on my side of the seat.” If he had stayed where he was, he was convinced, he’d have been crushed.
Hogan blacked out upon impact; Valerie was dazed but remained conscious. Both of them were pinned against the dashboard. She managed to lower the passenger-side window and began screaming for help as Ben slipped in and out of consciousness. He moaned and told her to “Get out!” He was afraid the car was going to catch fire.
Valerie freed herself and raised Ben to a sitting position. Another driver came along, and together they pulled the golfer from the Cadillac. It took ninety minutes for an ambulance to arrive. As Hogan was lifted in, he asked his wife if his golf clubs were accounted for. They were.
Word had quickly spread that Ben Hogan had been killed. Some of his fellow golfers, playing in a pro-am tournament in Arizona, walked off the course mid-round upon hearing the false news. Later that day, Hogan’s friends were informed that he was alive but in critical condition, and some of them made it to the Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso. Valerie seemed to be fine, despite the bruises on her face and various cuts, but they saw Ben strapped to the bed, covered in gauze.His face was cut and bruised, and his left eye was practically swollen shut. Doctors had diagnosed Hogan with a fractured left collarbone, a double fraction of his pelvis, a broken ankle and a chipped rib.
After setting his bones, doctors expected him to go home in a few weeks. A “complete recovery” was possible, they said, within two months—mostly due to “Ben’s fighting heart.” But before Hogan could leave, his lungs gave doctors cause for concern; he had severe chest pains. Blood clots had formed in his legs after two weeks in bed, and by the end of February, doctors discovered that one clot had traveled to his lung. They gave him several blood transfusions, then performed abdominal surgery to tie off the inferior vena cava—the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. Hogan would spend another pain-filled month in the hospital, unable to leave his bed. A wiry 137 pounds at the time of the accident, he dropped nearly 20 pounds during his stay. A return to the golf course was no longer seen as certain.
It was March 29, 1949, before Hogan made it home to Fort Worth. He passed the summer trying to regain his strength. He was too weak to swing a club, and even short walks wore him out. The procedure on his vena cava caused chronic pain, swelling and fatigue—conditions that would plague him for the rest of his life. But he was determined to work as hard on his recovery as he was his golf swing.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” he told reporters, “and in my mind, I don’t think that I’ll ever get back the playing edge I had last year. You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. My nervous system has been shot by this, and I don’t see how I can readjust it to competitive golf. But you can bet I’ll be back there swinging.”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” Valerie said. “Ben will be himself again, bones, nerves and all.”
Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff and a young golfer named Arnold Palmer battled for headlines in the summer of 1949, while Hogan shuffled around his house. He was named non-playing captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team and traveled to England for the matches, where he delighted fans by putting on the practice green. It was the most he could do, seven months after the accident. Reporters described him as “crippled.” But returning to the States, Hogan began to regain some strength. Then he began to practice.
By June of 1950, 16 months after the accident, Bantam Ben was back on the course, this time trying to reclaim his place as golf’s greatest competitor in American golf’s biggest tournament—the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. He had played several tournaments leading up to the Open, but on the third and final day of grueling competition, he began to wilt under 36 holes of golf in the heat, and his lead began to evaporate on the final few holes.
With everything on the line, Hogan needed to hit an impossibly long shot from the fairway to make par on 18th and final hole. A packed gallery formed a silent gauntlet around him as he practically staggered to his ball, according to eyewitnesses. Judging the yardage, Hogan reached for his one iron—the most difficult club in his bag to hit. The old joke goes that if you’re ever in a lightning storm, the safest thing to do is to hold up your one iron, for even God can’t hit a one iron.
Hogan steadied himself over the ball, slowly began his backswing, unleashed his power and sent the ball flying. The crowd around him gasped at the sound of his shot and the sight of the ball heading toward the flag. Hogan went on to par the hole and force a three-way playoff. After getting a good night’s sleep, he easily won the U.S. Open the following day, the only player of the three to shoot a round under par.
The tournament represented Hogan’s rebirth: He would go on to dominate golf like never before, winning in 1953 the unprecedented “Hogan Slam” of three straight major tournaments. (He did not play in the fourth major—the PGA Championship—because he did not want to walk more than 18 holes a day.) The car crash, and Hogan’s near death, many of his friends later said, made him a more outgoing and compassionate man. But despite everything he accomplished on the course after his accident, Hogan was convinced he had come as close to perfection in the months before the crash. His post-crash golf swing, recorded on film, is still used as an example of near-perfect ball striking and mechanics. Only Hogan himself disagreed. “I was better in 1948 and ’49 than I’ve ever been,” he said, years later.
Articles: “Golfer Ben Hogan Injured in Car Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1949. ”Hogan, Wife Tell of Texas Auto Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 30, 1949. “Hogan Faces Stern Fight in Hospital,” Hartford Courant, March 4, 1949. ”Golfer Hogan Winning His Hardest Match of All,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 29, 1949. ”Remarkable Hogan Wins ’50 U.S. Open,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN Classic, November 19, 2003. “Hogan’s Return: Back From Tragedy to Win the 1950 U.S. Open,” by Damon Hack, Golf.com, October 20, 2008, “Hogan Majored in Courage,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN’s Sports Century, “What could Have Been,” by Jaime Diaz, Golf Digest, June, 2009. ”Ben Hogan’s Wife Remembers Husband as Exhibit Opens in USGA Museum,” Associated Press, June 9, 1999,
Books: James Dodson, Ben Hogan: An American Life, Doubleday, 2004. Curt Sampson, Hogan, Rutledge Press, 1996.
December 23, 2011
Peace on the Western Front, Goodwill in No Man’s Land — The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
Even at the distance of a century, no war seems more terrible than World War I. In the four years between 1914 and 1918, it killed or wounded more than 25 million people–peculiarly horribly, and (in popular opinion, at least) for less apparent purpose than did any other war before or since. Yet there were still odd moments of joy and hope in the trenches of Flanders and France, and one of the most remarkable came during the first Christmas of the war, a few brief hours during which men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games and comradeship.
Their truce–the famous Christmas Truce–was unofficial and illicit. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols—the German “Silent Night” being met with a British chorus of “The First Noel“—and scouts met, cautiously, in no man’s land, the shell-blasted waste between the trenches. The war diary of the Scots Guards records that a certain Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.” (More…)