Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - A Time of Wonder, Joy and Glory for Losers
As a grade school sand lot baseball player, I used to dream of playing in the World Series. By my junior year in college, however, my athletic dreams had turned to thoughts of running in the NCAA track and field championships. Even this seemed presumptuous. Although, in that Olympic year of 1952, I had won two conference championships, I was then strictly a minor league runner--about the equivalent of a Class B baseball player. Carleton College, where I attended school, was one of the big fish athletic powers of the small pond Midwest Conference. Its large size (about 850 students then) gave it a decided advantage over the real minnows like Coe, Monmouth, and Ripon.
But despite its apparent little league status, Carleton paid its NCAA dues along with Kansas, Villanova, and Southern California. And in those days, all a member school athlete needed for entry in the NCAA championships was to talk his track coach into scratching up the two-dollar entry fee. Thus in May of 1952 (a month before the big event was to be held at the University of California) I approached Wally Hass, my coach and the athletic director, with the request that I be allowed to hitchhike out and represent our school. "What event do you want to enter?" he asked.
"What choice do I have?" I replied. Since it was an Olympic year I had quite a choice. Back in the fifties, college runners rarely raced further than two miles, but the NCAA championships that spring contained a veritable horn-of-plenty for distance runners: the 10,000 meters, the 5,000 meters, and something called the 3,000 meter steeplechase. This last event, practically unknown in America back then, featured four hurdles and a two-and-a-half- foot deep water jump on each of its seven-plus laps. I had once unsuccessfully been a hurdler in high school. It sounded like fun.
"I think I'll try the steeplechase," I said, but then envisioned myself drowning in that water jump. "Just in case, why don't you enter me in the 800 and 5,000 meters too?"
Wally frowned. He may have thought me worth a two-dollar entry fee, but he didn't know about increasing the ante to six.
The Carleton team arrived in California three strong. After all, I hadn't been the only sand-lotter to dream of myself next to Joe DiMaggio in the World Series, With me came Bobby Johnson of Bismarck, North Dakota, who that year had tied for fourth in our conference 100 yard dash. Bruce Turner of Cedar Falls, Iowa, had been fifth in the broad jump. Bruce had the most impressive credentials of all: a 1940 Mercury coupe that had provided our transportation to the West Coast. We planned to compete in the NCAA championships in Berkeley, then drive south for the National AAU championships the following weekend in Long Beach. If we placed in either of these first two meets, we would qualify for the final Olympic trials to be held on the third weekend in the Los Angeles Coliseum. More likely we'd watch the trials from the stands.
But at Berkeley we could observe from the infield grass. Clutching our programs while sitting near the pole vault pit, we pointed, oohed, aahed, and chattered like old ladies at a Broadway matinee as our heroes paraded past warming up for their events in Friday's trials. The finals would be held on Saturday.
"Look, there's Jim Golliday," Bruce exclaimed, pointing at the man who was then the world 's fastest human. The Northwestern runner was already being touted as the Olympic 100 meter dash champion. We also easily spotted Parry O'Brien, Walt Davis, George Rhoden, Ollie Matson, Wes Santee, and others whose names have since been forgotten but who then were great heroes to us and other-track fans.
One such hero was F. Morgan Taylor, Jr., from Princeton University. His father had been an Olympic 400 meter hurdle champion and had competed on three Olympic teams. Now Buzz, as he was nicknamed, was trying to make the team as a broad jumper. As chance would have it, one of Buzz Taylor's Princeton roommates was a golf partner of mine from Chicago. I introduced myself and my friends. "We're broad jumpers too," said Bruce. It was like a batboy telling Stan Musial: "I play baseball too." Yet despite our lowly athletic talents, Buzz treated us like normal human beings. We looked up to him as some sort of god.
I went over and gazed down into the water jump for the steeplechase. It was the first time I had even seen one. Our school didn't even have hurdles that adjusted to the three-foot height of the normal steeplechase barriers. I had practiced over high school hurdles three inches higher. I rationalized this would make me tougher, sort of like wearing weighted boots. The water hadn't been put in the pit yet, and it looked deep and deadly. The three-foot solid barrier before the pit had greenery and bushes attached to it as though some fiendish grounds crew men were trying to disguise it from unwary athletes.
"You run this event?" asked an official standing nearby. He used the same tone of voice that a policeman might use asking a kid had he stolen this apple.
"That's right," I acknowledged.
"Oh, I run the mile in the 4:20's," I said, half ducking his question. Actually my best time was 4:29.9 at that point, which was rounding things off a bit. However, four-minute miles weren't in vogue back in 1952 and this seemed to satisfy him.
Maize and Blue
"The first broad jump contestant will be Robert Johnson of Carleton College," crackled the stadium loudspeaker. The field events would begin before the running events. The eyes of the few early arrivals swung to focus on a bright yellow uniform at the end of the broad jump runway. Actually our school colors were maize and blue, but the maize always came out looking yellow. Bob Johnson once had won the North Dakota high school low hurdles championship, no mean accomplishment in those days, but being short he had to take eight instead of seven steps between hurdles. He was one of Carleton's highest ranking pre-med students, but the program forgot to mention that. He leaned forward and tugged nervously at the glasses taped to the side of his head before beginning his run. Dirt flew from his spikes as he picked up speed. (This was back in the days before all-weather tracks, remember.) Then his stride faltered as he realized he had miscalculated his steps. Bobby's takeoff leg hit a good foot from the board and he only half-stepped, half-leaped into the pit. "Measure it," said an official.
A few minutes later the loudspeaker blared: "Johnson's first jump was 11 feet, 4 inches." It was an auspicious start to our track tour.
A little later I added to the athletic reputation of Carleton College in a heat of the 800 meters. I really didn't consider myself a half miler, but having come all the way out to the Coast I wanted to get my money's worth by running in every event in which I was entered. Showing absolutely no fear, I sprinted right into last place at the start and held my position to the finish. Ted Wheeler of Iowa won in 1:53.8. "1 caught you in 1:58," shouted a familiar voice from the stands. It was Frank McBride, a 4:14 miler from South Dakota State, not eligible for the NCAA because of being in his fourth year of competition. I knew he was wrong. I had run a 55-second first quarter, but had faded badly. Judging from my distance behind as I staggered across the line I knew I must have run 2:08. He simply had misread his 10-second sweep stopwatch. Not wishing to disillusion him, I didn't correct the error.
Bobby Johnson was painlessly eliminated in the 100 meter heats in which Jim Golliday had the fastest time of 10.4 seconds. Then we settled down to watch the only final race of the day: the 10,000 meter run. It was the only distance event I hadn't entered. I sadly noted that only seven runners started the race and one of those dropped out after a mile and a half. The sixth place medal went to a runner from the University of Michigan who practically walked across the line in a time even I could have matched. "I guess I'm in the wrong event," I sadly noted.
"I guess we're in the wrong meet," corrected Bobby Johnson.
I was the only one of our triumvirate to make the finals on Saturday, and then only because they didn't run trials in the steeplechase. Bob and Bruce had tied for 17th in the broad jump with identical leaps of 20 feet, 6 5/8 inches. They hadn't finished last, however. That honor went to an athlete from Fresno State, who at least hadn't come from halfway across the nation to do it. Buzz Taylor narrowly lost to George Brown of U.C.L.A., but then Brown hadn't been beaten in two years. It looked as though Buzz might make the Olympic team and we inwardly rejoiced at having met him. In the 100 meters Jim Golliday burst out of the starting blocks as though hit by a lightning bolt. In fifth place, far behind Golliday's winning 10.4, was a then little known runner named Lindy Remigino, who almost had been eliminated in the heats.
The starter called us to the line for the 3,000 meter steeplechase. I tried to appear casual, not realizing at the time that half the other runners had never run the race before either. At the first water jump I encountered a steeplechase tradition. All of the photographers and curiosity seekers crowded around the water jump, presumably in hopes that someone would trip on the barrier and drown, Laughter rippled through the crowd as we splashed through the water on the first lap. "Hey, did you bring your water wings?" some jokester yelled. I vowed that even if I finished far arrears I would at least maintain my dignity over the water jump. I did and finished in ninth place. I missed qualifying for the Olympic trials by only four seconds. This at least was a small victory. The winner was Bob McMullen of San Jose State. I read later in the papers that he had constructed his own water barrier to practice for the event. Maybe if I had done the same, I rationalized, I could at least have made the trials. An hour later, I ran in the 5,000 meters and finished last. My name was ranked in front of the defending NCAA champion Don McEwan, who hadn't finished.
Normally you would figure that few people would have paid much notice to our little three-man track team. Logic at that time told me that the fans in the stands cared only for the winner (which in the 5,000 was Wes Santee) rather than for the stragglers. Such, I learned, is not so. Everyone loves a winner, but everyone also loves a loser-provided he is a real loser. A decade later the New York Mets would prove this rule in spades. The final finisher in a long distance race receives considerable attention. Because he finishes far behind, looking alone and quite helpless, it is easy to identify with him. The fan in the stands can believe himself superior (as I had while watching the last 10,000 finisher). That's the way it was with the Mets. Most New York fans figured they could play baseball at least as well as Marvelous Marv Thronesberry. Thus they cheer the classy loser vigorously, not realizing that perhaps he had no business in the race in the first place.
Many fans and athletes who were at Berkeley in 1952 probably still remember the three boys from Carleton who weren't in every event, but only seemed to be. Many years later I competed on club teams with Golliday and Wheeler, and got to know both of them quite well. Ted still remembered us. "Every time I looked up," he said, "there was one of you cats in the yellow shirts finishing last."
That week, while the Buzz Taylors and Bob McMullens laid awake nights wondering if that itch on their left calf (actually a mosquito bite) was the start of a muscle pull, we took off for Yosemite National Park. The weather was hot and the radiator of Bruce's Mercury was no match for the steep roads leading into the park. The engine knocked, wheezed, coughed, and as the radiator erupted, we chugged to a halt halfway up a hill. "That's the way I felt in the 5,000 meters," I said.
At Santa Barbara a few days later we encountered cool ocean breezes and John Hass, a local attorney and brother of our coach. John, like Wally, had been an athletic hero at the University of Minnesota several dozen years before. He ran the 100 yard dash in 9.6 seconds back when that time was nearly world class. "I suppose you fellows would like to work out," he said knowledgeably.
"All right," we answered. Actually we had planned to go swimming, but we were in luck. The track was near the beach. When we finally arrived at the track, we found it already inhabited by two other people with the unlikely sounding names of Nick Carter and Otey Scruggs. Nick Carter, far from being a detective, worked as a track coach. Otey Scruggs was a Harvard graduate student with Olympic aspirations in the decathlon.
"What's your best time for 100 meters?" queried Coach Carter when he discovered Bobby Johnson's sprinter status. When Bobby gave a time over eleven seconds, I thought we might get kicked off the track, but Carter seemed overjoyed. As it turned out, Scruggs wasn't brilliant in any one decathlon event, but he was passably good in all ten. "If you were any faster, Otey couldn't stay with you," admitted Carter.
The next day Carter planned to have Otey Scruggs run through the first five decathlon events. Several high schoolers appeared as officials. Four dashmen-Bobby, Bruce, Otey, and myself-lined up at the start of the 100 meter dash. At the end of the straightaway Nick Carter stood, stopwatch in hand, looking quite pleased and waving for the starter to fire the gun. At its report I dug out of my blocks pumping my shoulders and driving with my knees, my picture of how a successful sprinter should look. I finished as far behind Bobby Johnson as he had finished behind Jim Golliday the weekend before, but Bobby managed to hold off Otey, recording a wind-assisted time of 11.1 seconds. It was the only victory of our tour.
This didn't seem to discourage the local journalists, however, who had been alerted to our presence by John Hass. A reporter from the Santa Barbara News-Press stopped by to see us one day during our brief stay in town. He looked as though he would have been more comfortable covering the Los Angeles Dodgers, if the Los Angeles Dodgers back at that time hadn't been the Brooklyn Dodgers. "What have you been doing since you arrived in town?" he asked.
"Well, we went and visited the Old Mission," Bobby said.
"Then we toured the local lemon factory," Bruce added.
"How are your chances for making the Olympic team?" asked the reporter.
Suddenly we ran out of smart answers.
"The headlines today and tomorrow," the reporter later wrote, "will go to such stars as Wes Santee, George Rhoden, Andy Stanfield, et al., but there will be at least three athletes running for the pure love of the sport. Which is what the whole thing is supposed to be about anyway."
Handicapping the Field
The National AAU meet was being held that year near Los Angeles on a track belonging to Long Beach City College. Driving down from Santa Barbara on Friday morning, we checked in at a motel near the track (and also near the beach). I was entered that night in the 10,000 meters. As is often the case at national championships, one of the local sportswriters handicapped the event as though it were a horse race.
According to his prognosis sheet, Curt Stone had "eyed this night for four years." Horace Ashenfelter was " ready to stretch out from 5,000." Browning Ross was a "router who could surprise." My name didn't rate mention otherwise the comment might have been: "Even Eddie Arcaro couldn't bring him home in front."
One of the disadvantages of being a contestant is, if you are interested in your own performance, you never get to see other races. I was resting in the dressing room during the semifinal heats in the 100 meter dash. I heard the starter's gun, then the roar of the crowd building to a crescendo before dying. A few minutes later a group of coaches, officials, and reporters burst into the dressing room. One of the coaches supported a muscled black athlete, his face contorted in agony. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"Golliday pulled a muscle," answered an official. So went the fortunes of one gold medal hopeful. Golliday, of course, already had qualified for the Olympic trials the following weekend-if he could run in them. That evening Lindy Remigino of Manhattan failed even to qualify for the AAU finals.
Unlike at Berkeley, where barely a half dozen starters appeared, some 40 or 50 runners stood milling around the starting line for the AAU 10,000. Of course, it was the qualifying event for the Olympic team. The top three finishers would go to the Olympic Games later that summer in Helsinki, Finland. But even so, the longer races always seem more popular with out-of-college athletes. Presumably once a man receives his B.A. degree, he is intelligent enough to realize that if he can't run faster than his opponent, maybe he can at least run farther than him.
"Only 15 runners will be permitted to finish," the starter informed us. "As soon as you are lapped you must drop out until 15 are left on the track. Those who survive may continue after being- lapped."
I didn't like the way he emphasized the word "survive'' I also decided that under those ground rules there was no sense in pacing myself. I would run as hard as I could to try to hold onto that last finishing position.
Everyone else apparently entertained the same idea. The gun sounded and a jumble of runners collided in the mad dash for 15th place. I found myself locked somewhere near the middle of the pack, but after a few turns the runners began to stretch out in a long, thin line of colored shirts.
"Get moving," Bruce hollered at me. "You're in 24th place!"
At two miles I heard one of the officials counting: "Ten-oh-three ... ten-oh-four ... ten-oh-five. ..." I was running within seconds of my best-ever time for that distance. In 19th place now, I was still fighting for survival. Others, however, apparently had used equal imprudence in pacing themselves. One by one the runners in front of me began to stagger and clutch their sides. I slipped into 15th place somewhere after the third mile. Within half a lap the trio of Curt Stone, Fred Wilt, and Horace Ashenfelter swept past me on their way to Helsinki.
Having now earned my right to finish, I began to greedily eye 14th place, then occupied by a stocky runner wearing the royal blue shirt of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. I plotted my move carefully. Following him closely for several laps, I waited until we came into the straightaway during the fourth mile, then unleashed a blazing kick, hoping to suck from him the will to go on. The crowd cheered. I clutched my narrow lead around the turn only to see him come past me in the back stretch.
Again the crowd responded with a roar. Once more I passed him on the home stretch. And he passed me on the back stretch. Each move on our part was accompanied by applause from the spectators. "Go get him Higdon!" shouted someone on my home stretch side as I moved ahead for the third time.
Two factions soon developed among the spectators: the crowd on one side of the field cheered for me, while the other side rooted for him. At least, so it seemed. If an alert vender had come prepared, he could have sold at least two dozen pennants with my name on them. For more than a mile we operated like yo-yos, sprinting the straightaways and jogging the turns, until finally in front of my partisan group I failed to respond to the challenge. As I slowly lost ground my crowd gave an audible sigh of disappointment and returned to the struggle for first place-or went out for hot dogs. Curt Stone crossed the finish line in first to a wave of applause. I crossed last to an equally enthusiastic hand. The crowd only cheers the winners and the losers. I wondered if I would ever be good enough some day to slip into the relative anonymity of the middle ground.
The following day I ran the 3,000 meter steeplechase again. Warming up near the water jump before the start of the event, I encountered another entrant who was wearing a bathing suit instead of normal track shorts. "They should restrict the entries," I snorted to a third runner.
Road to Helsinki
Bob McMullen won the AAU race as he had the NCAA. "A triumph for hard work and dedication," trumpeted the papers. Tired from my previous night's exertions, I failed to approach my NCAA time. Thus imagine my surprise the next morning when I picked up a copy of the Sunday Los Angeles Examiner. The sports section featured a full page of AAU meet pictures under the title: "Road to Helsinki." There, surrounded by Wes Santee, Walt Davis, and hop-step-jumper Walter Ashbaugh, was Hal Higdon of Carleton College striding purposefully out of the water jump, looking as though the Russians had better beware. The runner behind me had fallen on his nose in the water, and the photographic buzzards who hover around water jumps had gotten what they wanted.
"That's the secret of getting your picture in the paper," I said.
"What's that?" asked Bruce.
"Make sure the runner behind you trips."
It was our last race of the season, since none of us had managed to qualify for the Olympic trials the following weekend. "Let's go out and really bust loose from training," I announced. That night we visited Knott's Berry Farm and the three of us devoured an entire boysenberry pie single-handed.
The following weekend, three small pond athletes paid their way into the Los Angeles Coliseum along with several thousand other track fans. "Gee," Bruce said, "at least you can see the races better from up here." We sat mesmerized for two days while the American Olympic team was picked in a series of races that brought both heartbreak and joy. In the semifinals of the 100 meters, Jim Golliday pulled up lame in his first stride out of the blocks. He didn't quit, though. Instead he limped and staggered the full 100 meters to the finish line. It took more courage than it had taken me to finish 10,000 meters, but it was one of the most pathetic sights in track I've ever witnessed. Later another injury kept Jim off the 1956 Olympic team, too. With luck he could have earned three or four Olympic gold medals. Eventually he would suffer several nervous breakdowns. Lindy Remigino, hopelessly outclassed the previous two weekends, spriest even himself by qualifying for the team in second place. Then he surprised everyone even more in Helsinki by winning the Olympic 100 meters championships.
In the steeplechase, the Ashenfelter brothers, Bill and Horace, led all the way, trailed closely by Bob McMullen. They sprinted away from the San Jose runner on the last straightaway. McMullen lost third and his trip to Helsinki to Browning Ross. Otey Scruggs, a week later, placed fifth in the decathlon trials won by Bob Mathias. Wes Santee made the Olympic team at 5,000 meters, but his best event was the mile. Before the next Olympics, the AAU declared him a professional for accepting money under the table.
In the broad jump, Buzz Taylor soared far in the air on an early jump to land solidly in second place. Then on the sixth and final round, two others outjumped him. He was fourth by two inches. We weren't the only also-rans. "Now what, Buzz?" we overheard someone ask him.
"I guess I'll go out and get drunk," he replied.
Then the last event ended: all of the athletes, some in street clothes, some still in sweats, paraded into the center of the huge arena. Behind them flapped a row of flags representing the countries they would compete against in Helsinki. Somebody recited something appropriate into the public address system, then dozens of pigeons exploded into the air, gathered in formation, circled once, twice, and finally came to roost at the scoreboard end of the stadium where the Olympic torch that had once lit the 1932 Games was now aflame.
That was decades ago, and the NCAA now runs a college meet for small pond athletes. In order to compete in the National AAU championships, an athlete must qualify by having attained standards which would have set records back in 1952. The small pond athlete has been legislated out of existence, at least as far as the big meets are concerned. But I still look back warmly on the time when losers were welcome.
Members of the 1951 Carleton College track team: Bob Johnson is seated in the second
row, far left. Bruce Turner is seated in the front row, far right. Author Hal Higdon is beside him.