A glimpse of the days when sports stars shone closer to earth
INTRO BY PATRICK L. KENNEDY
I don’t mean to knock today’s pro athletes. Many of them came from humble origins and worked crazy hard every day for years to achieve their goals. And now they make ungodly amounts of money.
But a century ago, plenty of sports stars came from humble origins, worked crazy hard, etcetera, and made no money. Not at their sport, they didn’t. They were strictly amateurs. Plumbers, printers, or policemen by profession; serious, competitive runners, jumpers or hockey players by avocation. Their exploits were covered in the era’s sports pages alongside those of the Red Sox. (Baseball was the only team sport that paid then.) All the training these athletes did came during their precious spare time.
When my Harlem-slum-born great-grand-uncle William J. “Bricklayer Bill” Kennedy ran marathons, hard rules against receiving remuneration—sorry, no shoe sponsorships—were the least of a runner’s obstacles. (Heck, when he started, there weren’t even running shoes.) In a marathon in the early 20th century, just dozens of men raced along rocky, rutted roads, dodging horses, autos and bicycles, choking on clouds of dust.
In fall 1913, after winning marathons in St. Louis and Chicago, Bill Kennedy caught typhoid fever. When he emerged from the hospital three months later, desiccated and prematurely gray at age 30, his athletic club assumed he was out of contention permanently. So in spring 1915, they refused to pay his train fare from Chicago to Boston to compete in the nation’s premier marathon. In his unpublished memoir, Bill recalled his solution, along with other harrowing journeys to races. On that note, remember the following excerpt, reprinted here in its original unedited form, the next time you hear about today’s teams traveling by private jet.
Now in order to take part in one of these marathons, it is first necessary to reach the city in which the race is being held. But only a small percentage of these athletes belong to clubs financially able to pay their expenses to take part in these out-of-town runs. How then do they get there? In a field of over a hundred probably not more than a dozen have had their expenses paid by a big club, some company they work for, and in some cases by their friends taking up a collection to send them to the race, as I have had at times from the bricklayers on the building on which I was working. . . .
Of the American competitors in my day, the Canadians would come in a car riding six or more who shared the cost, many hitch hiked their way, and others arrived via freight trains or blind baggage. Being able to tell of my own means of reaching the start, I will relate a few incidents when I was not financially able to travel de-luxe. . .
In one of my early races I was loafing around St. Louis and decided to go to Chicago to run in an indoor race. The weather was mild in St. Louis, so I crossed the bridge to E. St. Louis and climbed into a box car. After sundown the wind shifted north and it was down to zero by the time we reached Decatur Ill, where I unloaded and slept in the lobby of the R.R.Y. The next evening with the thermometer at 10 below I rode a box car to Chicago, jogging back and forth to keep from freezing. At every stop the end brakeman walked up to my Pullman banging on the door he would shout “Are you awake Brickey?” “Yes Sir.” “Don’t go to sleep or you will never wake up.” Arriving in Chicago at 5 A.M. in a blizzard, I rode a Halstead St. car to the Bricklayers Hall, and slept alongside the furnace all day, down in the basement. Three days later I ran that indoor marathon at Riverside Rink finishing an hour behind the winner “Sid” Hatch. . . .
Many years later Frank Lalla and I hitched it to Boston by auto. We made it to Worcester but had to walk the last 40 miles to Boston. In the Bunker Hill Marathon the next day, Lalla finished fifth and I walked up Bunker Hill showing the whites of my eyes in 10th place. . . .
1933 for a marathon held at Wilmington Del., six of us from the Cygnet club of E. Port Chester traveled by car, going down the Jersey side. Learning at the ferry that the charge was by passenger, we put four of our boys under the rumble seat, paying for two passengers. For lodging at Wilmington, after trying the Y, the police station and fire dept., we finally slept in the park. We all took a beating in the race the next day, which was nearer 28 than 26 miles.
Hardship meant nothing to us old time marathoners, like good steel our bodies were highly tempered to take punishment, and until a distance runner has the stamina and will power to do so, he will never become a successful winner. . . .
Back in 1915, being out of work in Chicago, and having been running on the roads all winter with the idea of again trying the Boston Race. Being out of funds, I decided to beat my way by freight – hitch hiking not then in vogue. With thirty cents in my pocket, I climbed aboard a cattle car out of South Chicago one night. It was a cold night, so I climbed up and slid in to the feed box, closing the lid down on myself. It was warm enough in there as the cattle engender heat but you can’t sleep very well with them eating your bed from under you.
I held that train down for two nights and a day, pulling into Buffalo the second morning. The only food I had in that time was at Toledo, where we stopped to take water. Raising the lid of my berth, I saw the picture of a 16 oz. schooner of beer and under it “5 cents.” I was out of that box in a jiffy, across the tracks, and downed two of those beers, grabbed two handfuls of pretzels, and back into my Pullman. It gave the high ball.
I lay over for a day and slept in a 10-cent flop house at Buffalo, making Albany the afternoon of the fourth day. Before prohibition it was the custom with most breweries that an out-of-town visitor could sample their product. So, paying my respects, I was the recipient of four schooners of brew, my vitamins for the day. Leaving Albany I arrived by freight in Springfield, Mass., at 2 A.M. I met up with a policeman who, on questioning me, took me over to a livery stable, where the night man put me up in the loft to sleep. On being roused at 6 A.M. I learned that I was not the only guest that night. I was allowed to depart with a handshake, while my fellow guests, who were members of the local fraternity [hoboes], were forced to manicure the horses and stalls.
Now within sight of my goal, and knowing the Boston section of the Twentieth Century was due shortly, I decked it into Boston, arriving on the fifth day after four days and nights on the road. -Bill Kennedy
A writer in Boston, Patrick L. Kennedy is the co-author of Bricklayer Bill: The Untold Story of the Workingman’s Boston Marathon, released this fall by Bright Leaf, an imprint of UMass Press.
Join Patrick and the Kennedy clan on Sunday, Nov 12 at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, from 1:30 to 4:30pm, for a signing, reading, and live trad Irish music from members of Tin Can Hooley.