Long distance running in the Twenties

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Diane McManus
Adjunct faculty, English, Community College of Philadelphia


Charles B. Kastner The 1929 Bunion Derby: Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace Across America 304 sidor, inb. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2014 (Sports and Entertainment) ISBN 978-0-8156-1036-6

Charles B. Kastner
The 1929 Bunion Derby: Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace Across America
304 sidor, inb.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2014 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-1036-6

At present, running as a sport and as recreation has become a multi-million dollar industry, with magazines, websites, national organizations (USA Track and Field and the Road Runners Club of America, to name two prominent examples) devoted to the sport. Running stores not only sell shoes for a variety of distances from track to ultra-marathons but also sponsor races and local clubs. Clothes come in space-age tech fabrics designed for weather ranging from frigid to torrid. Runners can avail themselves of such services as massage, sports medicine, and nutrition consultations. The number of one-hundred mile races has grown, and one of the best known, Western States, has both qualification standards and a lottery; it sells out every year.

But this embarrassment of riches was not available in 1929.  In March of that year, seventy-seven runners, some nearly penniless, set out from New York City on a footrace to Los Angeles. Charles Kastner ably chronicles the shifting fortunes of these runners in his book, The 1929 Bunion Derby: Johnny Salo and The Great Footrace Across America.

On June 16, seventy-eight days after leaving New York, nineteen finished.

Known as the Bunion Derby, this race was in its second year, its finances on shaky grounds due to numerous fiscal bungles by its “director general,” Charley Pyle, who promised the runners $60,000 in prize money (with $25,000 for first place), even as hope for fulfilling this promise crumbled with each passing day. Pyle entertained possibly rash hopes of recouping the money to pay the runners by means of a Vaudeville show, the Cross Country Follies, a group accompanying the band of runners and performing in the towns that served as checkpoints along the way. Unfortunately, instead, he amassed more debts than profits, and eventually was unable to pay out the full amount of the prize money.

Meanwhile, the runners, in their quest for this money—and to some extent for personal glory­—faced cold rain and thunderstorms, muddy roads, heat, blisters, and stomach cramps, as they covered distances decided not by the runners’ needs, but by Pyle’s dictates, as he sought towns where his Follies would likely be welcome and where officials were willing to contribute funds to host the show.

On the road to Dallas, Texas, for example, this involved traveling close to eighty miles in scorching heat. Even the supposedly triumphant finish in Los Angeles, with two runners in close contention for the victory, was tainted by what could have been a communication failure—or cheating. By this account, one might be tempted to write off the whole venture as a failure—except that beyond the lure of cash that never materialized, the single-minded dedication of the participants whose passion for the chase may have motivated them in deeper ways than money, as much as they hoped to win.

Kastner’s assessment sums up the quixotic nature of the Bunion Derby: “Like the Titanic, the Bunion Derby was sailing on to oblivion. Pyle had to have known what the end result would be, but he was still caught up in his own rhetoric. The master salesman was lying to himself and to his men. His bunioneers were chasing a mirage, the proverbial pot of gold that lay at the end of the transcontinental rainbow in Los Angeles” (72).

Certainly, there were inklings that Pyle was increasingly unable to make good on his promises. A trail of bounced checks resulted in the repossession of support vehicles. Cast members and their hotel bills went unpaid. The tent purchased for holding Follies performances became unusable. The theatres lacked enough space to seat the number of people needed for the performances to net a profit, even on the infrequent occasions when they did fill to capacity.

When hotels did admit him, he was often given the least desirable rooms or even consigned to basements or boiler rooms.

The participants themselves had invested significant amounts of money, some relying on the support of their hometowns for donations to defray costs of trainers, support cars, clothes, shoes, and the critically needed food and drink for each day’s prodigious effort. On muddy roads, which might be accessible to today’s SUVs, runners at that time had no access to trainers or food until they reached the day’s destination. Two runners had support cars break down in hot conditions when the lack of support could leave them not only in danger of dropping out of the race, but of dying.

In both cases, Johnny Salo, eventual winner of the race, sacrificed his chance at gaining more ground on his competitors and instead paced them and shared his support car, food, and drinks. Indeed, this act of unselfishness is among the bright spots that Kastner recounts, as he reveals not only the hardships but the heroism involved in this journey.

For Eddie Gardner, an African American runner and, until he suffered a race-ending injury in Oklahoma, a contender for a top prize, racism added to the challenge. As he entered Missouri, he faced jeers and death threats. Often denied hotel accommodations, he had come prepared with camping supplies. When hotels did admit him, he was often given the least desirable rooms or even consigned to basements or boiler rooms. Still, Kastner writes, “He was quiet, tough, and extremely brave, using his faith as a shield against the bigotry and hate he had faced in the first race [the 1928 Bunion Derby] when the derby crossed the segregated states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri” (44).

While injuries and illness forced many of the runners to withdraw from the race, some battled hard to keep going, despite the increasing odds against them. Injured in Indiana, Gardner recovered enough to persist, entering Missouri in the lead, defying the death threats against him. However, the effort resulted in a setback, and by the time he reached Oklahoma, he was reduced to a limp. Still, he refused to drop out until excruciating pain and a doctor’s advice overcame his will to continue.

Another runner, Jesse Dalzell, a hotel bellboy with meager funds, began the race without a trainer, although he eventually found one, gained confidence and headway, arriving in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, a hero, lauded and given, along with his family, free accommodations at the hotel where he had worked. The celebration was short-lived, however, when he fell while dodging a car that had swerved toward him, and his trainer, doubtful that Dalzell could continue, quit. Dalzell, however, promised to “’keep on if I have to crawl’” (88). Supplied with another car and trainer, he pushed on, but muddy footing on the road to Pecos, Texas, aggravated his injury and he too was forced to drop out.

These were just two of the runners who, despite heroic efforts, could not reach the finish line.

Those who did, though, experienced mixed blessings. They finished to the cheers of ten thousand fans in a baseball stadium. Charley Pyle, seeking to capitalize on the excitement brewing around the inaugural running of the Los Angeles Marathon, secured Wrigley Park, the stadium of the Los Angeles Angels (then a minor league team), for the final 26.2 miles, comprising 131 laps around the perimeter. Wild cheers greeted the runners, and the finish—a duel between Johnny Salo, a police officer from Passaic, New Jersey (the “flying cop from Passaic,” as Kastner dubs him throughout the book) and Pete Gavuzzi, a British runner. These two racers had run neck and neck, trading the lead almost daily during the last few days of the race.

Salo received a congratulatory telegram from his boss. Pyle offered his ranch to the runner. However, what Pyle failed to offer was the full amount of the prize money to any of the runners. While Salo and Gavuzzi received a fraction of their share, some of the prize winners received nothing.

Yet, Kastner does not write off the race as an utter failure. He writes of Pyle, “He brought the race back to its working-class, multiracial roots after a thirty-year hiatus. He had shown the country that long-distance running was no longer the bastion of university and amateur athletic club athletes. He had opened distance running to anyone with a dream, a sport where a workingman with some talent and guts could earn enough prize money to make a better life for his family” (169).

When races offered separate prize money tiers to women or publicize the race as being open to women, there was no shortage of female competition.

One misunderstanding or possibly deliberate misleading did cast a shadow. Some accounts of the last day, Kastner reports, were that the runners were told that the four-mile run to the stadium where the marathon would be held would not count against them, and that the day’s race would only begin when all the runners were assembled in the stadium. The four-mile run would only establish the runners’ positions at the start of the marathon. However, Salo, who reached the stadium first, was told to continue running, and when the others arrived, they found the race in progress despite what they had apparently been told earlier. Kastner points out, though, that the evidence from other sources does not support this account. No mention was made in the news media of such a misunderstanding. Nor did the runners flanking Gavuzzi during the initial four miles mention it. Even so, the cloud of uncertainty remains and, as Kastner notes, neither Pyle nor Salo lived to give their accounts of the events.

Overall, Kastner tells an absorbing story of the ups and downs accompanying Pyle, the runners, the Follies, and the support crew. Anyone who thinks that distance running was until only relatively recently a young person’s sport will be surprised to learn that a 64-year-old runner, Charley Hart, was one of those lined up in New York for the start. (Kastner, though, lists Hart as 64 on page 6 and 63 on page 14.) Although Hart had to withdraw, another veteran runner, Herbert Hedeman of Australia, 55 at the time, finished in eighth place.

Kastner also debunks the stereotype of African American runners as chiefly sprinters. After dropping out of the Bunion Derby, Gardner regularly competed in a 50 mile walk around Lake Washington, winning it in 1938. Besides Gardner, Kastner cites Frank Hart, who set a six-day race record, covering 565 miles, as well as William Pegram who finished second in the same race. He observes that three African American runners (including Gardner) finished the 1928 Bunion Derby, despite the same racist environment that Gardner faced in 1929. Not mentioned is an icon of African American distance running, Ted Corbitt, perhaps because his career milestones were achieved in the 1940s and beyond, significantly representing the United States in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952. Still, the examples Kastner cites are telling.

Nor was distance running exclusively a male enterprise. Although women did not compete in the Bunion Derby, Kastner offers examples of women competing in the late nineteenth century, often in six-day races, including one held in New York in 1879, the Grand Ladies International Tournament for the Championship of the World, with the winner, Amy Howard, covering 393 miles. Although city officials then banned “further six-day racing by women because the officials believed that such activity was not a respectable pursuit for a lady,” the race was moved to San Francisco, where once again Howard won, breaking her previous record with a new best of 409 miles. When races offered separate prize money tiers to women or publicized the race as being open to women, there was no shortage of female competition. However, these opportunities dwindled, picking up again, Kastner says, in the 1980s. (Yet Kastner doesn’t mention that there was at least enough interest in the marathon for Roberta Gibb to run Boston unofficially in 1966, with Katherine Switzer following suit as an official entrant in 1967, using only her initials on the entry form.)

The book’s appendices offer useful information about the statistics, showing the daunting distances and paces the runners maintained both overall and by individual stages.

Kastner, in sum, offers an eye opening perspective on the history of distance running and of the courage and determination of this band of runners making their way across the United States.

Copyright ©  Diane McManus 2014

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