The fastest man on Earth
By the early 1940s, Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games, was making money on barnstorming tours with Negro league baseball teams; twice those tours brought him to Winnipeg
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/07/2017 (2013 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
From an Aug. 23, 1944 Winnipeg Free Press editorial entitled Jesse Owens’ Legs:
These legs have carried Mr. Owens down cinder paths at a faster clip than any other pair of legs has travelled in athletic history… As we watched him Monday night trying to give a trio of local boys a head start and catch them in a hundred yards, our thoughts went back eight years to another setting.
This week, 4,000 athletes will begin competing at the 2017 Canada Summer Games and spectators will crowd venues to catch performances by future Olympians. More than 70 years ago, Winnipeggers also came out in droves to see an athletic performance, but by just one man: American Olympian Jesse Owens.
Owens began to make a name for himself in the world of track and field as a high school student in Cleveland after capturing a number of national records in his age category. He then moved on to Ohio State University where his star continued to rise.
At the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships, Owens, who nearly pulled out of the event due to a leg injury, tied the world record in the 100-yard dash, then broke the world record in the long jump, the 220-yard dash and the 220-yard low hurdles. Astonishingly, he did this all in a period of about 45 minutes. (He was also credited with the fastest times in the 200-metre dash and 200-metre low hurdles, though those races were not on offer at the meet. He ended the afternoon credited with world records in five events.)
International fame came the following year thanks to his performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. There, he won four gold medals and set new world records in the 200-metre dash, the long jump, and 4×100-metre relay. For good measure, he tied the world record for the 100-metre dash. It was a track and field medal performance not repeated until Carl Lewis did so at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Today, an athlete of Owens’ calibre could easily translate his success into numerous lucrative endorsement deals and hefty speaker’s fees. His was, however, a very different time.
Olympic athletes had to be true amateurs, which meant they could not receive fees of any kind for sports-related activities. For this reason, months after the 1936 Games Owens retired as an amateur athlete, at age 24, to earn money for himself and his young family.
When looking for work, Owens found even international fame could not trump racism in the Untied States. This was something he discovered immediately following the Games when he did not get a congratulatory call or invitation to the White House from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After a ticker-tape parade in New York City, Owens had to take the service elevator, reserved for “coloreds”, to get to the room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where a luncheon in his honour was being held.
Owens signed some contracts for personal appearances and to perform in the entertainment industry, though none of them panned out in the long term. The money he earned as signing bonuses was plowed into business investments which quickly went sour and, by 1939, Owens was bankrupt and scrambling to make ends meet.
To support his family and fund his youth charity work, Owens relied on goodwill jobs with companies such as the Ford Motor Company, where he had the title “Director of Negro Personnel”, and small public appearance fees. Some biographies say he even did a stint as a gas jockey during his leanest times.
One way in which Owens could earn decent money in the late 1930s and 1940s was through performances at Negro league baseball games. Promoters knew he could pack the stands and they would give Owens a cut of the gate.
The formula for Owens’ appearances varied little over the years. Teams would roll into a town for a three game series. After the games, Owens would address the crowd and then race against the fastest players on the teams, sometimes local racers and from time to time, racehorses.
Owens’ first visit to Winnipeg was Aug. 21-23, 1944, as part of a best-of-three series between the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Chicago Brown Bombers of the fledgling United States Baseball League (USL), one of a handful of short-lived Negro leagues that struggled to operate during the Second World War. Owens was a part owner of the Crawfords.
Though retired, Owens was only 30 years old, athletic and still had eight world records to his name. His visit generated a great deal of interest in the local sports media.
Herb Manning and Maurice Smith, sports columnists for the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Free Press respectively, interviewed him. He also did a 15-minute on-air interview with CBC correspondent Bill Good that was broadcast across the prairies. Smith noted: “…we were more impressed with the man himself than the eight world records which he holds.”
That first night, 3,000 to 4,000 fans packed Osborne Stadium. One reporter noted it was the best ball played at the stadium so far that summer. It was, though, Jesse Owens who most people came to see.
When the game was over, Owens gave a “short but impressive address” to the crowd. The papers didn’t go into detail about the content, but he likely spoke of the importance of sports and education, especially in the lives of underprivileged youth. It was a common theme in his public speeches.
Then came the racing.
The men chosen to challenge Owens after the first game were the Gibbs boys. Sandy, still a teenager, was a private in the army and the province’s reigning 100-yard record holder. It was just one of many titles he would hold until 1947 when his track career was ended by injury. His brothers, Andy and Tom, joined him on the field.
Owens gave Sandy a three-yard head start and the other men got six. Sandy impressed Owens by winning the race.
The entertainment finished with a hurdles demonstration by Owens and a base-running contest against four members of the Crawfords.
The next afternoon was much the same thing, though this time the runners were Sandy Gibbs and Ken Palmer of the Australian Air Force, winner of the 100-yard dash at a Royal Canadian Air Force sponsored track meet a week earlier at Sargent Park. This time, there was no handicap given to either man and Owens won with Gibbs coming in second.
There was not a lot of attention paid to Owens’ visit outside the sports sections. The only mention of personal activities while in the city was catching some of the action at the Manitoba amateur golf open one morning at the Southwood Golf Club.
Also notably absent was any recognition by the City of Winnipeg. Politicians usually did not miss a chance to fete a VIP with a luncheon or public signing of the guest book at city hall. A search of the daily papers and the City of Winnipeg archives indicates the visit passed without any official notice.
The following summer, Owens returned to Winnipeg. This time, it was a USL three-game series between the Philadelphia Hilldales and Detroit City Motor Giants from July 12 to 15.
Despite good attendance, between 3,000 and 4,000 people for each game, the quality of baseball was noticeably poorer than the previous year. It was likely the Negro baseball leagues were facing the same problem all sports leagues were facing: as the war dragged on, the ability to field a roster of competent players was becoming more difficult.
As for Owens, his program remained much the same with a speech to the crowd followed by a hurdles demonstration and base-running contests with the players.
The local racing talent this time around was a retired racehorse called Early Beck of the Southwood Stables. This event wasn’t unique to Winnipeg. Owens raced horses numerous times, including the teams’ two previous stops on this tour.
It was a controversial demonstration for some sports writers. The Free Press’s Smith wrote: “…such vaudeville should have no part in the great record of a great champion.” Owens didn’t see it as degrading, but more of a necessary evil to cash-in on the relatively easy money of the Negro league appearances.
For the record, Owens beat Early Beck the first night but the horse caught on as to what he was meant to do and won the races in the next two games.
In subsequent years, Owens’ business acumen did not improve. There were many failures and a hefty fine from the Internal Revenue Service. His stock as a public speaker, however, rose dramatically. He frequently travelled the continent on speaking engagements and was on the boards of directors of a number of charities.
In 1966, Owens returned to Winnipeg once more, this time no racing was involved. He was here to speak at the Playhouse Theatre as part of promoter Arthur Gee’s celebrity speaker series.
An hour-long film of his career highlights and footage from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo was shown. Owens then shared his thoughts on the world of sports and looked back on his career. When asked what it was like watching the last of his Olympic records fall, he said: “It’s tough to be a has-been”.
During that visit, the City of Winnipeg officially recognized him. Jesse Owens was made honorary citizen number 1,191 on April 7, 1966.
Recognition from his own country came in 1976 when Jesse Owens received the United States’ highest honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from president Gerald Ford. Owens died of lung cancer four years later at the age of 66.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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