SELECTED ARTICLES by Glenn Stout
adapted from Runner’s World, December 2007
Stephen At the Bat
from the New York Observer, May 27, 2002
THE CASE OF THE 1947 MVP BALLOT
originally published in ” The Sporting News, December 20, 1993, and updated in 1999
BOSTON‘S FIRST MARATHON
[see links to URLs of selected other stories in article listing in “About Glenn Stout”]
All content copyright Glenn Stout, 2008. All rights reserved.
by Glenn Stout
[appeared in slightly different form in Runners World, December 2007]
Twenty-five years after I first put on a pair of running shoes there are still days I do not know why I am running. Then I see something I would otherwise not have seen, think what I have not thought before, and have feelings I otherwise never would have felt. At these moments I am reminded that there are times running provides a kind of sanctuary.
I live in northern Vermont, on Alburg Tongue, a peninsula of land that juts into Lake Champlain from Quebec, connected to the lower forty-seven states - and the rest of the forty-eighth – only by bridges. Those of us who live here are both a part of and apart from this country, and somehow more mindful of being American.
In most winters I have usually managed to continue running, but last year temperatures near zero and gusting winds that wiped the lake and fields clear of snow and piled it in great, huge drifts along the roads drove me inside where a stationary bike and an old hydraulic stair machine provided sweat but little else. I saw nothing new, thought nothing new, felt nothing new.
I missed running. Then in February I traveled with my wife and ten-year old daughter to an eco-camp on Saint John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a steep, volcanic island, much of which is a national park. After spending the first day getting acclimated to the weather, the next morning I bounced out of bed and while my wife and daughter still slept. Within a few moments I was running up and up and up the narrow road that circles the island. I was nearly ready to stop when the road hit a crest, then flattened out, and then dropped down, not too steeply, toward the sea.
I ran down the road toward a trail I had seen when we first arrived that would take me past the ruins of a sugar plantation built by slaves, and then along the shore of a deserted bay. Running for the first time in more than two months, I tried not to think of the run back up, knowing that I would probably have to stop and walk.
Soon after I passed a small parking lot for tourists and started down the trail along the bay shore, I came around a bend and there, perhaps fifty feet ahead, were about a dozen people, primarily young men and women, a middle-aged couple, and a short, stocky but athletic older man with a shock of white hair and a brushy, white mustache.
I did not recognize them as residents of Saint John, most of whom are either are either West Indians or deeply tanned, washed out, expatriate mainland Americans. Neither did they appear to be tourists – no one had sunglasses or carried any kind of bag or purse.
They looked up as I approached, not startled, but not exactly welcoming either. Nevertheless I smiled, slowed a bit, and said loudly, and in my most cheerful voice, “Good morning!”
They did not respond, but almost cowered as I began to pass, as if afraid. Then one young man looked at me and spoke.
“Excuse me” he said, “Excuse me please.”
Even as my mind was processing his accent, which was neither American or the lilting Creole patois of most residents, but Spanish, I stopped and said “Yes?”.
He gestured with both hands to the ground. “Saint John?” he asked. “Virgin Islands?”
Before I even realized what an odd question that was to be asking, I answered, “Yes, this is Saint John,” Then the young man spoke again.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, the United States. This is Saint John, Virgin Islands, the United States.”
He began to nod as if hammering my words into the ground, testing their firmness, then added quickly, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
I thought that perhaps they were tourists, maybe from Puerto Rico, and that – what? – their boat had broken down and they had been forced to anchor, unsure of whether or not they were in Saint John or Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands, only a few kilometers away. Curious but not alarmed I continued my run, and after perhaps another mile, I turned around to return to my family. I had nearly forgotten the group entirely when I encountered them again resting alongside the path. The young man stepped forward and started asking more questions, most of which were just beyond his command of English.
Nevertheless, with the help of gestures and my junior high Spanish, I managed to grasp that they needed transportation into Cruz Bay, the island’s main city. With difficulty I gave them walking directions to the camp where I was staying, perhaps two miles way, where they could call for a taxi.
All the while, the rest of the group, save for the old man, continued to eye me suspiciously. The old man, however, stayed close, nodding, occasionally speaking to the young man, his knuckle pressed to his lips in contemplation.
Then he abruptly stepped directly in front of me. He was shorter than I, yet despite his age without any weakness or infirmity. He looked a bit like the actor Cesar Romero – a more working class, proletariat Cesar Romero – but with the same handsome confidence. This was a man sure of himself, clearly the leader of the group.
He thrust his chin forward, planted his hands on his hips, and then pointed to his chest.
“I am Cuban,” he pronounced, saying it as if he were staking a claim.
Now I understood the questions and the clothes and the fear. They were refugees. Or had been refugees, because according to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” Cuban immigration policy of the United States government that has been in effect since 1994, by making it to shore they had gained the right to remain in the United States. Had they been discovered even while wading ashore in ankle-deep surf, they would have been returned to Cuba and likely been imprisoned. The margin between here and there was both infinitesimal and huge, a single step and all the difference in the world.
I looked at the old man, and said the only word that came to my mind.
“Welcome!” Then, by instinct, I thrust out my hand.
“Ahh!” he roared in response, his white teeth showing as he smiled. “Ahh!” Then, beaming, he stuck out his hand and began to laugh as we shook hands, a great laugh that shook his body from his head to his feet, and then the young man began to laugh and so did the others. Then I laughed, too, thinking how strange it was to be running this morning, not away from anything or toward anything but just running, for no reason I knew, down a road built by slaves in a distant corner of my country and to find this group of people. Welcome.
We all stood for a moment just smiling at one another, no one knowing what to say next or how to say it. Then, slowly, I began to run again, heading back up as they walked behind toward a new and very different life.
Ahead of me, the road rose and curved up toward where my wife and daughter still slept. Now I had to run back up the same steep hill that a few minutes before had made me feel as if I were flying. I remembered that on my way down I had thought I would probably have to walk the steepest stretch back up. Suddenly, there it was and I was gasping. Head down, I looked to the ground, stopped running for a moment, took one, two, three short steps, and then looked up. Blue skies ahead, the sun at my back, I started running again, going uphill, hard. Heart pounding, I didn’t stop the rest of the way, not once.
I knew exactly why I was running.
Stephen at the Bat
from The New York Observer, May 27, 2002
There is something of a tradition in American sports writing whereby successful authors in other genres step back and admit that all they’ve ever really wanted to do is write about baseball.
The result is usually predictable and unsatisfying-often a treacly piece of nostalgia whose purpose seems to have been securing the author a field pass at spring training and a few player autographs. Expertise in one field is mistaken for knowledge in another as the author wallows in the reflected glow of being in the same place, at the same time, with his or her heroes. They are, to use baseball parlance, “green flies.”
The exceptions are few. Stephen Jay Gould, who died on Monday, May 20, in New York City, was one of them.
Mr. Gould had the good fortune to have been born in 1941, the season in which Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio, of Mr. Gould’s beloved Yankees, hit in 56 consecutive games. Indeed, Mr. Gould once traced his affection for the game to a day at Yankee Stadium where he witnessed both men ply their tradeBut despite the temptation, when Mr. Gould wrote about baseball he never succumbed to nostalgia-except to get our attention. Neither did he ever fancy himself a “sportswriter.” Apart from the occasional review in The New York Review of Books , much of his baseball writing appeared in serials like The American Statistician , The Journal of Sport Behavior , Phi Delta Kappan and his beloved Natural History . Not quite The Sporting News. The game was simply a tool Mr. Gould used deftly and with restraint. A tool that he loved, to be sure-this was a Yankee fan who held season tickets at Boston’s Fenway Park-but a tool nevertheless. Mr. Gould’s last “baseball” essay-”Baseball’s Reliquary,” in the March edition of Natural History -begins by dismissing the sticky notion that baseball “‘imitates life’ or stands as a symbol for larger truths and trends of human existence.” Baseball was not a metaphor to Mr. Gould, but a real event. He once explained that he wrote of baseball because “Few systems offer better data for a scientific problem that evokes as much interest, and sparks as much debate … of trends in history as expressed by measurable differences between past and present.” He used baseball to test larger ideas, knowing that baseball would bring the reader along as he explored a bigger topic. So an essay about Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak was also an excursion into statistical probability and the effect of that on the evolutionary history of a species. That’s quite a trick, one that he was able to accomplish over and over again, using Ted Williams’ .406 batting average, Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing woes, Bill Buckner’s infamous error and other baseball events to guide us through yet another test of that system. Had he stopped there, that would have been plenty to separate him from the “baseball imitates life” school of sports writing dilettantes. But Mr. Gould could always bring it. Just when he was out there by himself with the bases loaded, no one out and the reader’s attention starting to flag, just when it appeared there was no way for him to deliver us from the bewildering complexities of science, he always brought it back, elegantly retiring the side. Baseball was a tool for Mr. Gould the evolutionary biologist, geologist and paleontologist to teach us about science. So too, I think, was science a way for Mr. Gould the humanist writer to teach us about ourselves.
Mr. Gould battled cancer for many years. Reading him now, it is perhaps easier than ever to see what he was up to. In his 1988 essay “The Streak of Streaks”-his examination of Joe DiMaggio’s remarkable 56 games-he shows us the difficulty of DiMaggio’s achievement, along the way touching upon Caruso, Middlemarch , The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, statistical probability, logic and evolution. He then brings it back, concluding: “DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.”
“The Case of the 1947 MVP Ballot,”
by Glenn Stout
originally published in ” The Sporting News, December 20, 1993, and updated in 1999
Everybody knows the story.
When Pedro Martinez lost the 1999 MVP award, because, in part, two writers left him off the ballot altogether, many recalled ta similar incident in 1947 involving Boston’s Ted Williams. In that season, triple crown winner Williams lost the Most Valuable Player award voted by the Base Ball Writers Association of America to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio by one vote, 202-201. Of the twenty-four writers who voted for the award, one left Williams off his ballot altogether, failing to give him even a tenth place vote. Melville Webb of The Boston Globe, a confirmed Williams’ hater, reportedly clashed with Ted early in the 1947 season then extracted his revenge in the MVP balloting.
It’s a great story.
But that’s all it is; a story. Because, in truth, Ted Williams didn’t lose the 1947 MVP award because Mel Webb refused to vote for him. Mel Webb didn’t even vote for the 1947 American League MVP. True, one writer did leave Williams off the ballot. But the guilty party wasn’t Webb or any other writer from Boston. The oversight didn’t cost Williams the election, anyway. The reason why Williams lost the 1947 MVP award may be a little more unsavory than the simple bias of a single writer. It is certainly more complicated.
In 1947, the defending champion Red Sox sputtered early and never got back on track, Red Sox pitchers Boo Ferris, Tex Hughson and Mickey Harris, who combined for 62 wins in 1946, all came up with arm trouble and won only 35 games in 1947. The Sox finished third, two games behind second place Detroit, fourteen games out.
The New York Yankees won the 1947 American League pennant. In the off-season between 1946 and 1947, center fielder Joe DiMaggio underwent surgery to remove a painful bone spur from his left heel. DiMaggio missed the first month of the season and the Yankees struggled to stay above .500. But Joe returned to the New York line-up on May 4, just in time to lead the Yankees against the Red Sox in a key early season meeting a week later. DiMaggio sparkled in the series while Williams slumped, drawing the wrath of the Boston fans, and the Yankees moved ahead of Boston. With DiMaggio back in the lineup, New York surged and couldn’t be stopped. Over a sixteen-game stretch in late May and June, DiMaggio hit .488 as the Yankees passed Detroit, then pulled away on the strength of a 19-game winning streak. DiMaggio, despite a late season injury, received full credit for the turnaround. He finished the season with a .315 batting average, 20 Home runs and 97 RBI.
Williams, meanwhile, hit .343 with 32 home runs, 114 RBI and an astounding 161 walks for the disappointing Red Sox. Although Williams’ numbers were a notch below his usual standard, and some griped that his huge number of walks hurt the team, he still won the AL triple crown.
The American League MVP race was wide open. Most observers felt the award would go to a member of the Yankees. First baseman George McQuinn enjoyed some support due to his surprising .304 average and 80 RBI while plugging a trouble spot in the Yankee defense. New York manager Bucky Harris openly campaigned for Yankee reliever Joe Page on the basis of his 14 wins and 17 saves. And DiMaggio was, well, DiMaggio.
Despite winning the triple crown, Williams was favored to win the award only in Boston. But Ted wanted the award badly. He had been disappointed with his second place finish to DiMaggio in 1941, as voters had been more impressed by DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak than Ted’s .406 batting average. And although Williams was named MVP in 1946, DiMaggio had already won the award twice. Williams believed he was the best hitter is baseball and felt he deserved the recognition the award offered, admitting, “I want this more than anything in the world.”
The existing Most Valuable Player Award, represented by the Kenesaw Mountain Landis award plaque named after baseball’s first commissioner, was created in a 1930 meeting of the Base Ball Writers Association of America, who voted to appoint two committees to elect the MVP in each league. The Sporting News selected its own MVP from 1930 thru 1938 before joining with the BBWAA and awarding the “Sporting News Trophy” to the winner of the BBWAA ballot. The Landis trophy was created in 1944 to honor then ailing former commissioner, who died shortly thereafter. The Sporting News went back to making its own selection in 1944 and 1945, before agreeing to a request by baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler to withdraw “from the field to cooperate in making the Landis Awards, provided by the major leagues, the official designations of the year.” As part of the agreement, TSN received the right to be the first to announce the winner of the award each year.
In 1947, twenty-four members of the BBWAA, including three representatives of each team in each major league city, had the right to vote for the award. Selected by BBWAA president Tommy Holmes of the Brooklyn Eagle, with help from the chairman of the local chapter, each writer was instructed to vote for ten players, ranked according to place. A first place vote was worth 14 points, while a second place vote was worth 9 points and value diminished with each place so that a tenth place vote was worth only a single point.
The results of the 1947 AL MVP vote was announced in TSN on November 28. TSN published a breakdown of the entire vote, but unlike other years, did not release a list of the voters.
In the closest ballot ever, Joe DiMaggio, with eight first place votes, edged Ted Williams 202-201. Williams collected only three first place votes. The Indians’ Lou Boudreau finished third with 168 points, Joe Page finished fourth with 167 points, and Detroit’s George Kell was fifth with 77 points.
The results were front page news in Boston. The Boston baseball writers, despite their legendary battles with Williams, either publicly supported Williams or kept silent. Most, like Joe Cashman of the Boston Daily Record and Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald, blamed Williams’ defeat on the Yankees’ first place finish. Both men wrote that they personally felt Williams deserved the award. Cashman, toward whom Williams later express expressed affection, went so far as to write “I have a hunch that if you [Williams] had a vote you would have cast it for Big DiMag… he furnished a spark without which the Yankees couldn’t have won the pennant.” But others were less accepting of the result. John Drohan of the Boston American wrote “There hasn’t been so much indignation since George III put a tax on tea that resulted in the Boston tea party.” Williams made no public comment.
Only Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe bothered to examine the vote. Kaese noted that one writer didn’t vote for Williams at all, and that three writers overlooked DiMaggio. In a column on November 28, Kaese suggested that Williams’ three first place votes “were probably from the Boston representatives.” He reiterated his claim in a front page follow-up story two days later, and took the entire balloting process to task. Kaese questioned several recent voting irregularities. In 1946, Stan Musial was selected National League MVP in a landslide with 22 votes first place votes, one third, and one inexplicable ninth place tally.
Furor over the award soon died. But in 1948, Kaese published a story about the MVP awards voting procedure in Sport Life magazine entitled “Baseball’s Biggest Joke.” He blasted the BBWAA for sloppy voting procedures, identified the voters in the upcoming 1948 election, and stated that the writer who left Williams off the ballot in 1947 was “a Mid-Western writer who couldn’t even see Ted ranked with the top ten!” Later that year, Kaese went even farther. In an insert to the Red Sox program entitled “Red Sox Notes,” Kaese identified the three Boston voters in 1947 as Joe Cashman, Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald, and Jack Malaney of the Boston Post, the same three Boston writers TSN identified as voters in both 1946 and 1948. All three were among Williams’ most vociferous supporters in the Boston press. The culprit, according to Kaese, was still that mysterious “Mid-Western” writer. The much-maligned Mel Webb, a colleague of Kaese’s at the Globe, wasn’t ebven mentioned.
Unfortunately, the BBWAA does not retain records of the voters in 1947 to back Kaese’s claim. But Kaese, winner of the Hall of Fame’s Spink award in 1976, was widely considered the most accurate and just baseball writer in Boston. While he, too, battled with Williams, Kaese backed up his criticism with facts. Kaese’s archives, now on deposit at the Boston Public Library, reveal several occasions where he apologized to Williams for errors of fact or kept unsavory stories out of print. In 1993 Jack Lang, then executive secretary of the BBWAA and a contemporary of Kaese, concurred with his conclusions. Lang said “I’m sure he knew what he was talking about… If Kaese identified the writers, if he states those were the three men who voted, Harold was probably 100% correct.”
Kaese simply reported. He surely knew who voted in 1947. It is difficult to imagine that Kaese had any motive to protect Webb, who had not been publicly identified by anyone as the recalcitrant voter. In fact, no one had written a word intimating that any Boston writer was the voter in question. Kaese had no reason to create a cover-up because there was nothing as yet to cover.
Webb, a charter member of the BBWAA since its founding in 1908, was considered a curmudgeon and roundly disliked by almost everyone. Both Jack Lang and Dave O’Hara, a Boston AP sportswriter from 1942 thru 1992, recall that Webb’s principal duty appeared to be checking the credentials of young writers in the press box at Fenway Park. At age 71 in 1947, Webb’s membership in the BBWAA in 1947 was essentially a courtesy. Work under his byline virtually never appeared in the Globe anymore and he hadn’t covered baseball on a daily basis for years. It seems extremely unlikely that the geriatric Webb would have been selected to vote for the MVP in 1947.
How did the story get started that identified Webb as the recalcitrant elector? It first appeared in Williams’ own biography, written with John Underwood, entitled “My Turn At Bat,” published in 1969. According to Williams, “Then it came out that one Boston writer didn’t even put me in the top ten on his ballot. A tenth place vote would have given me two points and the Most Valuable Player Award… the writer’s name was Mel Webb.” Williams goes on to recall a tiff with Webb early in 1947 and claim that Webb retaliated in the MVP vote.
While “My Turn At Bat” is one of the most entertaining autobiographies of a baseball player, and gives a fine sense of Williams personality, it is also occasionally inaccurate. In one example, Williams recalls that the Red Sox lost the famous 1948 play-off against Cleveland 5-1. The actual score was 8-3. In the passage cited above, Williams incorrectly notes that a tenth place vote was worth two points, when in fact it was worth only one. The story started with Ted, or at least with his book.
Williams genuinely believes the story, and has refused to comment on this story. Apparently, another writer apparently told Williams Webb was responsible for his loss, and Ted never questioned the source. Today, it seems likely that Ted was either hoodwinked by another writer eager to curry Williams’ favor, or simply mistaken.
Since the publication of My Turn At Bat, the story has been repeated in virtually ever subsequent biography or profile of Williams, embellished by journalists much kinder to Williams than those of his own era, taken at face value and without question, as fact. Some contemporaries of Webb, like Clif Keane, sportswriter for the Globe from 1929 thru 1976, still cling to the story. But even Keane admits he didn’t witness the tiff between Williams and Webb, but “someone told me about it.” No one challenged Kaese’s explanation at the time. The identification of Webb is revisionist history at its’ worst.
Why then, did Williams lose the election by one point, and who was to blame? As Kaese suggested, a Midwestern writer may have been at fault. Williams’ had many enemies among the sporting press, and he had particular trouble in Detroit and Cleveland. A voter may also have left him off the ballot by mistake. But to focus on the single missing vote at the expense of the 23 known votes is to miss the point. Had Williams received one additional first place vote, worth 14 points, he would have won the award easily. If any of the other twenty voters placed Williams one or two places higher, Williams would have tied DiMaggio or won the award outright. The phantom 24th vote was less significant than at least 20 others. The same point is just as valid in regard to Martinez.
Two years later, in 1949, Ted Williams was named American League MVP for the second time. He beat Phil Rizzuto of the pennant winning Yankees, 272 votes to 175, and collected 13 first place votes to Rizzuto’s five. Sportswriters were surprised at the size of Williams victory. Rizzuto had been a slight favorite going into the election due to Williams’ poor performance in a critical two-game series against the Yankees at the end of the season.
A few days after the vote, Ken Smith, executive secretary of the BBWAA, announced a change in BBWAA policy made at the request of National League president Ford Frick. In the future, instead of releasing the results of the voting to newspapers a week in advance of the public announcement, the selection of the MVP would be kept secret until the time of the announcement. Frick, a former sportswriter, had heard rumors of widespread betting on the AL prize.
The Sporting News broke the story a few days later in a front page story by Dan Daniel. A number of unidentified newspapermen, armed with the advanced knowledge of Williams’ surprising victory, had placed bets on the MVP balloting at favorable odds. Some bookies found out about the scam and were refusing to pay up. In New York alone, Daniel estimated that as much as $500,000 was involved, with one bookie supposedly out $40,000. While other writers scoffed at the figures, Daniel was moved to write, “Skulduggery in connection with the most valuable player business is not precisely new. However, the efforts to get at the inside dope in the Ted Williams selection were without precedent in their extent. The writer knows of a publisher who was offered a Cadillac car if he would reveal the American League winner some days in advance.” While Daniel failed to cite any further examples of such “skulduggery,” he did note that “In 1947 Joe DiMaggio nosed out Ted Williams by only one point, and there was no known betting.” It is odd that Daniel felt it necessary to absolve an election that no one, as yet, had called into question.
MVP voting rules were changed. Major league baseball suspected the BBWAA sent out and received completed ballots before the season was over, and before Williams’ dismal performance in against New York in the last two games. The BBWAA promised that in the future no ballots would be distributed before the end of the season. The Sporting News relinquished its exclusive right to first announce the winner, and the BBWAA stopped distributing the results in advance of their official announcement. Furthermore, beginning in 1949 the BBWAA decided that the identity of the voters would remain confidential. Individuals could reveal themselves if they chose, but the BBWAA would keep their identity confidential.
The gambling scandal raises questions over the results of the MVP vote in several previous seasons. A newspaperman armed with advance knowledge of the result could have made a killing. In theory anyway, a voter could have further skewed the odds by voting with his wallet instead of according to a ballplayers performance. A conspiracy by one or more writers could change the outcome of the election. A writer could, for example, leave triple crown winner Ted Williams off the ballot and vote for Joe DiMaggio.
No direct evidence exists that confirms the theory, but MVP balloting from 1946 through 1949 appears suspicious. In 1946, Stan Musial was named on all 24 ballots and received 22 first place votes, yet one voter ranked him ninth. In 1947, the Braves’ Bob Elliot was a shocking winner in the National League. While he did benefit from an organized public relations campaign by the Braves, Elliot led the league in no offensive categories and like the Red Sox, the Braves finished third. 1949 NL MVP Jackie Robinson was also left off the ballot by a writer, although Robinson may have been the victim of prejudice. But the voting pattern in the 1947 American League MVP race is the most curious of all.
Apart from the omission of Williams on one ballot, DiMaggio was left off three ballots and received one vote each for 8th, 9th and 10th place. In any unbiased election, both DiMaggio and Williams had to be considered as one of the ten most valuable players in the league, if not the top five.
The Yankees’ Yogi Berra finished fifteenth in the balloting with only 18 points. He received only two votes, each for second place. Berra was a rookie and appeared in only 85 games for New York, batting 293 times and hitting .280. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could sincerely have believed he was the second most valuable player in the league.
Athletics’ shortstop Eddie Joost finished 11th with only three votes. Yet Joost received two first place votes, only one fewer than Williams. While Joost was a fine player, in 1947 he hit .206 and led the league in strikeouts.
No one has ever pursued these questions. It was against the baseball writers’ own interest to investigate their own, and major league baseball ignored the matter. The scandal was forgotten. Most of the principals of the story are long dead. Mel Webb passed away in 1961, Harold Kaese in 1975.
Fifty-two years later, what really happened is still a mystery. Perhaps Joe DiMaggio won an MVP election that he shouldn’t have in 1947, and Ted Williams won one he didn’t deserve in 1949. In the end, maybe the question cancels itself out. Precisely what happened in the MVP balloting of 1947 remains a secret. But the smell it left behind can still be detected some 46 years later. The much maligned Mel Webb, the old curmudgeon, probably had nothing to do with it.
Don’t feel too bad, Pedro.
BOSTON‘S FIRST MARATHON
When Pheidippides ran from the battle of Marathon to bring word of victory to Athens in 490 B.C., completing the world’s first running “marathon,” he had no idea what he was starting. No wonder, because upon his arrival in Athens, Pheidippides keeled over and died. It took nearly 2400 years before anyone else decided to try to run a similar distance. The result of that effort did not end quite so tragically. It became the Boston Marathon, the world’s premier running event.
On April 15, 1996, hundreds of thousands of spectators and an estimated 38,000 runners will converge on Boston to celebrate the 100th running of the Boston Marathon. In the century-long history of the race, approximately two hundred thousand men and women have run, jogged, and plodded their way into the city to make the Boston Marathon the most famous run in the athletic world.
But somebody had to be first. One hundred years ago, on April 19, 1897, Boston staged its very first marathon. That inaugural race was nearly as memorable as Pheidippides’ initial jaunt.
While the marathon initially was revived for the first modern Olympics held in Athens, Greece in 1896, it wasn’t until the Boston Athletic Association decided to run a similar race to celebrate the local Patriot’s Day holiday that the race captured the imagination of the public. On that cool April morning, seventeen plucky entrants signed on to make the 25-plus mile journey from Ashland, Massachusetts to Boston. Each hoped for a better fate than their Athenian predecessor.
After gathering in Boston, the contestants travelled by train to Ashland for the noon race. Upon their arrival, the B.A.A. held a hearty luncheon for the runners at a local inn, contemporary notions concerning the pre-race diet not yet in evidence. While most of the competitors chatted amiably with one another, six runners from New York sat together and plotted pre-race strategy. Three entrants apparently had second thoughts and failed to show up. A Harvard University student, Dick Grant, weaseled his way in, introduced himself to marathon officials and talked his way into the race as a last minute entrant.
At noon, the fifteen runners strolled to the starting line in front of Metcalf’s Mill. Only one of the men, 22-year old lithographer John McDermott of New York’s Pastime Athletic Club, had ever run such a distance before. The previous October, he had won a similar race staged along the New York-Connecticut border. Several other entrants were experienced cross-country men, but most were running novices. Reporters commented that some of the men didn’t look like they could run twenty-five feet, much less twenty-five miles.
Several hundred curious spectators gathered in front of the old mill to watch the start. Race manager John Graham of the B.A.A. pinned a number on the back of each man’s shirt and handed out typewritten directions to Boston. To prevent anyone from wandering off course, 28 members of the bicycle corps of the Massachusetts Militia were prepared to escort the runners along their way and provide much needed refreshment.
At precisely 12:19 p.m., Olympic 100 and 400 meter champion Thomas Burke marked a line in the dust of the road with his foot and solemnly called out each entrant’s number. As the runner’s edged close to the starting line and jostled each other for position, Burke shouted for the race to begin. The first Boston Marathon was underway.
All fifteen runners immediately broke into an ill-advised sprint. Three men were later reported to be red-faced and wheezing before the pack had travelled one-hundred yards. But after a few moments the pace slowed. At the end of the first mile, all 15 runners still ran together in a tight bunch.
As the athletes settled into a more realistic pace, the field began to stretch out. Along the road to Framingham, about five miles from the start, a pack of four runners broke away. In first place was Harvard’s Dick Grant, a crimson ribbon stretched across his chest. On his shoulder, matching him step-by-step was Hamilton Gray of New York. McDermott and another New Yorker, John Kiernan, followed close behind.
Apart from their own fatigue, the runner’s first obstacle was the dust kicked up by their bicycle escorts. The lead pack had trouble breathing, a situation similar to one sometimes faced by runners in today’s race, who have complained about the exhaust spewed out by police motorcycle escorts and the contingent of press trucks that now pace the race. Fortunately for Grant and the others, a stiff wind at their back helped dissipate the dust and push the runners toward Boston.
Thirty-six minutes into the race, the lead pack dashed through the first check-point in Framingham. Seeing the runners and cyclists zoom past, some holiday spectators decided to celebrate the day by joining the group on the trip to Boston. Close by the runner’s heels a long line of horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and even the odd, sputtering motorcycle joined in the impromptu parade. Meanwhile, three entrants decided that running to Framingham was marathon enough, and dropped out.
Battling one another for the lead, Grant and Gray left Framingham and entered the town of Natick. In the city center crowds pressed so close the men were forced to run in single file. But outside of town the throng cleared out and once again Gray and Grant ran side-by-side.
Halfway to Boston, they remained tied for the lead as they approached Wellesley, urged on, as today’s runners are, by a retinue of Wellesley College coeds. But encouragement alone, even from the wildly enthusiastic college women, could not fuel Grant for the entire race. Due to his spur-of-the-moment entry, he failed to line up a bicycle escort to supply him with refreshment like the other runners. While the competition sipped water, sucked lemons, and wiped sweat from their faces with wet towels, Grant began to show signs of fatigue. Still, he managed to stay even with Gray.
As the two men pressed through the Wellesley Hills, Gray took note of Grant’s struggle and magnanimously offered him his own canteen. Replenished by Gray’s touch of sportsmanship, Grant gamely hung on.
As the two shared provisions, John McDermott, in third place, took advantage of both and surged into the lead. Disheartened, the virtuous Gray began to fade.
For the next mile Grant fought to stay with McDermott as growing crowds urged the underdog on. But as the two men charged down a hill just before the village of Newton Lower Falls, Grant’s water deficit caught up with him and he began to stumble. He weakly raised his hand and waved at a passing water wagon that sprayed town streets to keep down dust. The carriage stopped, Grant slumped beside it and the driver gave him an unscheduled shower. He stood up, ran a few steps more, then stopped again. Dehydration and blisters forced him from the race.
Now McDermott ran alone. Entering Auburndale he led John Kiernan, in second place, by more than a mile. Gray faded to third, but was soon passed by an unimposing man named Edward Rhell. An utter surprise and running neophyte, Rhell calmly plodded on, never rushing, never looking back, apparently impervious to the physical demands of the race.
In complete control of the race, McDermott had only to conquer his growing fatigue to claim victory. Kiernan slipped even farther back, playing hare to Rhell’s determined tortoise. For the remainder of the race, Kiernan intermittently stopped running and walked until Rhell came into view, only to start running again and pull away.
McDermott appeared to be in fine shape as he crested what a later observer dubbed “Heartbreak Hill,” but even then the long slope extracted its toll. As McDermott headed downhill, his calves knotted and cramped. Finally, he slowed to a walk. Far behind, Kiernan and Rhell pulled closer.
After walking for several minutes, McDermott resumed running. But after a few hundred yards the cramps returned and he stopped again. His cycle escorts rushed to his side and began frantically rubbing his calves. Again McDermott tried to run, only to stop once more.
This time one of the escorts handed McDermott a flask of brandy. He tilted his head back and took a healthy belt as the escorts pounded their fists into his cramps. The cramps disappeared and McDermott raced toward the Chestnut Hill Reservoir refreshed.
Only a few miles from the finish, over two hours since he left Ashland, McDermott turned down Beacon Street and raced through Brookline. Hundreds cheered him at Coolidge Corner, and for the remainder of the race the sidewalks were filled with crowds urging him onward.
McDermott entered the City of Boston at Kenmore Square. As he turned down Commonwealth Avenue riding an invigorating wave of emotion, several bike escorts sprinted ahead. When they reached the finish line at the Irvington Oval athletic track, just outside Copley Square and only a hundred yards or so from where today’s race ends, three thousand anxious spectators roared as they learned of the runner’s impending arrival.
Yet one final obstacle remained in McDermott’s path. With victory less than a mile away, he raced down Commonwealth Avenue into Boston’s Back Bay. But at Massachusetts Avenue, in contrast to the festive holiday crowd, a formal funeral procession solemnly crept by, blocking his way.
Undaunted, McDermott hardly broke stride as pushed through the crowd and into the street, ducking and dashing between carriages. The cortege abruptly came to a halt as he ran past, much to the consternation of two drivers whose brand new electric automobiles stalled and refused to re-start.
McDermott turned right at Exeter Street. As he approached Huntington Avenue he came within view of the crowd at the Oval. At the sight of one lone runner surrounded by every manner of wheeled vehicle, they began to roar.
As McDermott raced into the Oval and began the single lap around the track that marked the end of the race, dozens of spectators left their seats and surged around him, slapping his back and offering congratulations. Now he broke into a sprint, a weary smile on his faced, and circled the track in only forty seconds.
As he crossed the finish line in front of the stands, he fell into the arms of the adoring mob, who lifted him to their shoulders. It was 3:14 in the afternoon, two hours, 55 minutes and 10 seconds since he took his first step toward Boston from Ashland. The time bettered the recent Olympic mark by ten seconds and set an unofficial world record.
A few minutes later John Kiernan, then Rhell, and over the next hour, seven other finishers slowly made their way into the Oval. As each man arrived, more and more members of the crowd slowly dispersed, buzzing over McDermott’s heroic achievement. For his efforts, he received a B.A.A. shield mounted on oak valued at $35, and his own unique place in marathon history.
Best of all, unlike Pheidippides’ tragic run, it did not take another 2347 years for the Boston Marathon to be run again. Today in Boston, 38,000 men and women will follow the path first blazed by John McDermott.
TIME AND ORDER OF FINISH
APRIL 19, 1897
1. John J. McDermott 2:55:10
2. John J. Kiernan 3:02:02
3. Edward Rhell 3:06:02
4. Hamilton Gray 3:11:37
5. H.D. Eggleston 3:17:50
6. J. Mason 3:31:00
7. W. Ryan 3:41:25
8. Larry Brignolia 4:06:12
9. Harry Leonard 4:08:00
10. A.T. Howe 4:10:00
Competed, but did not finish:
Dick Grant, W.A. Mitchell, E.F. Peete, H.L. Morrill, J.E. Enright