By Bob Phillips
5th July 2017
Ralph and Rufe, America’s largely forgotten milers of the 1930s
A few years ago, while waiting in the quaint and tiny railroad station at Klamath Falls, in the south-east corner of Oregon, for the 8.17 a.m. daily “Coast Starlight” to Portland and Seattle, I fell into interesting conversation with a fellow-traveller who turned out to be the sports editor of the local newspaper. The train, which had started in Los Angeles, was 2¾ hours late in arriving, but I was in no hurry and was all too glad of the opportunity for discussion with my new-found acquaintance to while away the delay. He had known Ralph Hill, the Olympic 5000 metres silver-medallist of 1932 who had died in 1994 at the age of 85, having been brought up and then earned his living on his family’s nearby potato farm.
One of the many interesting facts I learned was that Hill apparently never resented his defeat in the Los Angeles Games by the Finn, Lauri Lehtinen, who was clearly guilty of obstruction in the closing 100 metres of the race and should have been disqualified. In fact, I was told, Hill was a modest and retiring man who believed that he would not have been able to cope with all the attention he would have received had he been proclaimed Olympic champion. The town library in Klamath Falls was eager to be helpful but had nothing to offer regarding Hill when I had inquired there a day or so before, and so it seems that by only coming 2nd he has been relegated to obscurity even in his own locale .Not only that but the most studious of track and field historians have instead tended to label distance-running of the 1930s as the preserve of the “Flying Finns”. .
So it is hardly surprising that it is all but forgotten that for almost his entire competitive career Hill was actually a miler, and it was not until April of 1932, with the Olympics just four months away, that he showed any signs of real potential at longer distances. Born on December 26 1908, he had gone to the University of Oregon in 1928, having played only baseball at Henley High School in Klamath Falls (where Dan O’Brien was also to be a student some half-a-century later), and he had opted for the university track team simply because his elder brother, Clarence, was already a member. Within a year Ralph Hill had run a 4:21.3 mile which was good enough for 17th ranking in the World and 11th in the USA.
Advised by the legendary coach, Bill Hayward, Hill had been running long distances for stamina and varied track sessions for sustained speed, and he may well have been training in a more rational manner than any of his contemporaries in the USA. The state of Oregon had no reputation for miling in those days and had only produced one top-six finisher in the event at the NCAA Championships which had begun in 1921 – Lee Hanson, of Oregon State University, 3rd in 1928. Then Hill was 4th the next year, one place behind Rufus Kiser, of the University of Washington, This formed part of what would be a fruitful rivalry between Hill and Kiser for a couple of seasons. .
On 17 May 1930, in a dual meet involving the University of Oregon and the University of Washington in Portland, Hill won the mile in 4:12.4, with Kiser 2nd in 4:13.0. The previous US national record had been set at 4:12.6 by Norman Taber in 1915. The current World record was 4:10.4 by Paavo Nurmi, dating from 1923. Taber had run in a carefully-organised handicap race; Nurmi in a staged record attempt, sharing the pace with his one other opponent, Edvin Wide, of Sweden. Hill and Kiser were merely competing for team points in a keenly-contested match between universities from neighbouring states and were also due to take part in a half-mile that afternoon. It was the first time in two years that Hill had beaten Kiser, and they were now the 4th and 6th fastest milers ever.
While carrying out research for a book which I wrote about the progress over the years to the first sub-four-minute mile, published in 2004, I had become well aware of how little had been written about this Portland mile race. Yet I was to be surprised even further when I was in Eugene for the annual international meet there and had gone to the main library to read up on what I thought would be saturation coverage for the major statel university’s star runner of some three-quarters of a century before. The newspaper, the “Eugene Daily Guard” (soon to become the “Register-Guard”), had sent neither a reporter nor a photographer to Portland for the meet. Merely a down-page headline in the sports section of the following Monday’s edition read “Oregon Runner Sets New Record” and the text beneath was brief and none too accurate:
“Chipping three and two fifths of a second from the World inter-collegiate record for the mile run, Ralph Hill, Oregon, established a new mark of 4 12 2/5 for the distance in the dual meet here against University of Washington Saturday. The Oregonians defeated Washington 69 1/8 to 61 2/3. Hill’s time bettered that of J.P. Jones, formerly of Cornell, who in 1913 did the mile in 4:15 4/5. Rufus Kiser, of Washington, national champion, was six yards behind Hill and collapsed at the line”. A “World inter-collegiate record” it probably was – had such a concept existed ! As you will also notice, there was no mention of the rather more significant matter of the improvement on the US record. Among the spectators that day, incidentally, was an aspiring 19-year-old middle-distance runner named Bill Bowerman, who would eventually coach 16 sub-four-minute milers.
The “Eugene Daily Guard” made some amends later that week for their cursory initial reporting. A regular sports columnist named Sid King had the presence of mind to contact Bill Hayward and glean some background information to Hill’s record-breaking feat. King began his article with an anecdote about Hill’s youth for which presumably Hayward had provided the details.
“Several years ago, on a large farm near Klamath Falls, a lad might be seen in the early hours of the morning trotting along the edge of an irrigation-ditch towards its head-gate. When he reached the gate, he turned the water into the ditch and then started at a fast pace down the ditch, running a little ahead of the on-coming stream of water in order to reach the other gate, about half-a-mile away, to close it before the water reached it. He liked to run. It was a real pleasure to him, and he got a ‘kick’ out of racing the stream of water down the irrigation-ditch each morning”.
This delightful rural tale of young Ralph Hill beginning his track training without even being aware of doing so has a definite ring of truth about it. After all, Eugene’s population in 1930 was less than 20,000 (18,901, to be absolutely precise), and most of them would surely have had some first-hand agricultural knowledge and wouldn’t have been fooled by any slick city scribe’s over-vivid imagination. Sid King, who headlined his articles “Highclimber looks ‘em over”, illustrated by a drawing of a linesman aloft a telegraph-pole, clearly had a feel for his readership – but maybe not too much of a grasp of the technicalities of middle-distance racing. He accepted without question Hayward’s assertion that “the secret of running the mile is to distribute your speed and strength evenly throughout the race”, and yet quoted (correctly) in the next paragraph the far from even intermediate times of 59, 2:04 and 3:10.
Maybe, though, that distribution of effort tied in with what Hayward was also quoted as saying: “Each quarter must be run off at exactly the proper speed allowed by the strength and endurance of the runner. It takes a lot of time and hard work to establish this pace”. In fact, there was nothing new in how Hill ran the race as Norman Taber had done a 58-second first lap in his 4:12.6 of 1915 and Nurmi a 60.3 opener on his way to his 4:10.4 eight years later.
As much a reason as any other for this habitual fast opening lap was that there were often very large numbers of runners in mile races of that era, and when, for example, Ralph Hill’s namesake, Albert Hill, had set a British record of 4:13.8 at the 1921 Amateur Athletic Association Championships, there had been 25 starters and the winner had dashed through a 59.6 first lap (instead of the 62.0 he had planned) to get away from the mob on his heels. Ralph Hill and Rufe Kiser had only two others to face them, and so their pace-judgment that day might seem a shade extravagant. Neither of them was ever to run faster than even 4:17 again.
Within a month of their record-breaking race they were already not in the same form, and at the NCAA Championships in Chicago the winner was Joe Sivak, of Butler University, in 4:19.3, but there were extenuating circumstances. The Associated Press agency correspondent at the meet, William Weekes, obviously had high hopes for Hill and Kiser beforehand but concluded that “possibilities for a World record performance were diminished by the necessity of running the race in four sections. The field was so large that it was decided to split it up”. .Kiser was placed 2nd overall and Hill only 6th, At the AAU championships Ray Conger won his third mile title ahead of Paul Rekers as Kiser finished 3rd. The next year Hill was 2nd in the NCAA mile to Ray Putnam, of Iowa State University, and had a season’s best of only 4:17.3. Kiser ran no better than 4:20.0 in 1931 and retired.
In all probability, the reason that Hill did not race further than the mile before 1932 was that he did not want to risk displacing his brother in the university team. So it was not until 1932 that he made the successful switch to longer distances at the suggestion of his coach, who clearly must have had the Olympics in mind. The USA’s prospects for the 5000 metres at the Games were not encouraging – in truth, they were non-existent. The AAU had not held a two miles or three miles at their Champîonships since 1905, while the NCAA two miles in 1931 had been won at 9:23.0, and the national record for that distance had stood at 9:17.8 since 1912, comparing most unfavourably with Paavo Nurmi’s 1931 World record of 8:59.6. The one US distance-runner of genuine international class, Joe McCluskey, would surely opt for the steeplechase.
So Hill’s 9:23.4 two miles in Los Angeles on 16 April held out much promise. Representing the San Francisco Olympic Club, he then won the US Olympic trials 5000 metres on 16 July by 130 yards from Paul Rekers in 14:55.7. Even so, that time would not at all have bothered the Finns as Lauri Lehtinen had set a World record of 14:16.9 the month before. Lehtinen comfortably followed Hill home in the first of the Olympic heats on 2 August (14:59.6 to 15:05.5), and it can readily be imagined that no one would have then thought of Hill as a gold-medal challenger. For the final which came three days later there were three Americans (the others being Rekers and Daniel Dean), three Swedes, two from Finland (only two entered), and one each from Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and New Zealand . The outcome of the race is well enough known, but it is still worth recording the impressions of one of the experienced press-box eye-witnesses, Arthur J. Daley, of the “New York Times”:
“The victory of Lehtinen, clocked in the Olympic record time of 14:30.0, was clouded by an episode that so marred the finish of the race as to force the judges to suspend their verdict on the winner for an hour and produced the first boos to be heard in the Olympic track and field games. Trailing the chief Finnish hope by a stride as they rounded the turn into the homestretch, after killing off Virtanen and the remainder of the strong field, Hill made his startling bid for victory. With pandemonium reigning in the stands, the American started his sprint and sought to pass Lehtinen on the outside.
“Lehtinen then moved over toward the outside, seeming to block his rival’s progress, and as Hill swerved in his course and sought to pass Lehtinen near the pole the Finnish runner moved back into his original position. The crowd booed as Lehtinen led the now fading Hill across the finishing line by a margin so slight that the American was also clocked in the winner’s Olympic record time – a figure which wiped out Paavo Nurmi’s mark of 14:31.2. After more than an hour’s deliberation among the judges, it was broadcast that Lehtinen had been voted the victor, and again the crowd voiced its displeasure”. Lehtinen’s time was electrically recorded as 14:29.91, and so it is likely that Hill was also under 14:30. His US record would stand until Fred Wilt ran 14:26.8 in 1950.
Calm among the Olympic onlookers was only apparently restored when Hill joined Lehtinen in a lap of honour, and there’s an interesting sequel to the whole affair. The young Bill Bowerman had been encouraged by Bill Hayward to attend the Games as a spectator, and when Kenny Moore, the Olympic marathon runner and “Sports Illustrated” contributor, came to write a biography of Bowerman in 2007 he attached great significance to the occasion. He said of Bowerman that “before him theory was made flesh, the Games creating greater brotherhood among the combatants than the maddened horde. Moreover, he we being steeped in possibility. There was absolutely no reason that a flesh-and-blood friend, a potato farmer to be, could not run with the finest ever. He talked for hours with Hayward and the gracious Hill about racing tactics and the nature of sportsmanship”. Thus it seems that the seeds were sown for the nurturing of a pantheon of future milers which would include such eminences as Burleson, Grelle and Prefontaine.
Hill ran just one more race – winning the three miles for the USA against the British Empire in San Francisco on 14 August – and then retired to his Oregon potato fields. In 1984, at the age of 75, he was interviewed as a guest of honour when the Olympics returned to Los Angeles, and he mused generously, “I don’t think Lauri deliberately wanted to hinder me. As we were going down the homestretch he looked round to see where I was; I know from experience that a tired runner often happens to lose his sense of direction. Lehtinen was so exhausted that he was steering a blind course and baulked in front of me. Yet I think he had enough left to win, anyway. I did not like a protest because I was sure of that”.
Rufus W. Kiser had been born in 1907 at Wenatchee, in Washington, and was a teenage prodigy on the track at the local high school while Ralph Hill was still happily devoting himself to baseball. Kiser won the US inter-scholastic mile in 1925 and both the mile and the half-mile in 1926, setting a national high-school record of 1:56.8 for the latter event. He graduated in 1926 and went to the University of Washington, winning the NCAA mile in 1928 in a championship-record-equalling 4:17.6. At the US Olympic Trials that year he was 7th at 1500 metres, and the Americans were right out of it in that event at the Games in Amsterdam, as only Ray Conger reached the final, and he was 10th.
Rufe Kiser’s career was over well before the 1932 Olympics took place, but he did get the chance to represent his country in the match against the British Empire in Chicago in August 1930 which had followed the inaugural British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, and he had then gone on one of the earliest AAU overseas tours, to New Zealand at the end of that year..
The USA beat the Empire by nine events to five but lost decisively in the 4 x 1 mile relay. After Jerry Cornes (England) and Jack Walters (Canada) had led off against Ray Conger and Paul Rekers, the Empire went ahead on the third stage as William Whyte (Australia) got the better of Kiser, and then on the anchor Reg Thomas, England’s Welsh-born Empire mile champion, ran right away from Gene Venzke with a time of 4:16.0, winning by 75 yards and missing the World record of 17:21.4 by only one second.
Having placed 3rd to Conger and Rekers in the AAU mile, Kiser set off by sea from San Francisco on Christmas Eve of 1930 for the visit to New Zealand, together with sprinter Gorge Simpson and shot-putter Harlow Rothert. This was the third of such enterprising expeditions to the same country that had begun in 1926 when there had been a spectacular series of mile races between the US champion, Lloyd Hahn, and the local hero, Randolph Rose. In all, Kifer and his colleagues were away for more than three months, returning on 1 April of the following year.
On arrival in New Zealand they had been greeted effusively by the local press. “No more interesting athletics team has ever been assembled than the trio of Americans who are to open a New Zealand tour”, enthused one reporter, and when Kiser ventured out on an introductory training-run round the Domain park in Auckland a watching journalist said of him that “he ran with a free springing stride that gave indication of stored-up powers”. Unfortunately, such powers were never properly demonstrated by Kiser during his series of races, though the “New Zealand Press” newspaper remained supportive, saying that he was “distinctly impressive in style” even though he dropped out after a mile of his opening 1½-mile race in Wellington on 19 January.
Still apparently suffering from the effects of the ocean voyage, during which he had blistered his feet while training on deck, Kiser ran 52.6 for 440 yards and 4:31.0 for the mile in Napier six days later, and he was well beaten out of the major placings in the national championships mile in Wellington – as was Randolph Rose – when Gordon Bayne won, with a useful 20-year-old named Jack Lovelock in 3rd place on the eve of his departure to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. In one of his last appearances during the non-stop parade around the country Kiser at last found some miling form and was very narrowly beaten by Gordon Bayne at Christchurch on 8 March as both ran 4:20.0.
That NZ tour of 1930-31 served a broader purpose than just competition – and there was plenty of the latter as Simpson was running as many as eight races a week and Kiser three or four, conceding up to 220 yards to the opposition in handicap events.. Together with the versatile Rothert, they conducted frequent training-sessions for local athletes, and the “Wellington Evening Post” reported that they “proved very capable instructors, and their explicit remarks and demonstrations were followed with the keenest interest”. Kiser had some basic advice for his audience, recommending that no 15-year-old or 16-year-old should “tackle the mile seriously” and telling his attentive listeners to “get the legs out in front, being careful, of course, not to over-stride, and run on the balls of the foot, not flat-footed”.
Now graduated from university, Kiser brought his competitive career to an end, married, and became a lecturer at Centralia College, in Washington state, specialising in forestry, botany and zoology and establishing a nationwide reputation. He had joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 10 and continued to serve the movement for 75 years. Still continuing his research into local plant life in his final year, his death came at the age of 88 in 1995 just a year after that of Ralph Hill,
Bill Bowerman died in 1999, also at the age of 88. Five months previously Hicham El Gerrouj had reduced the World record for the mile to 3:43.13. Bowerman surely could not possibly have imagined such a time when he became head track coach at the University of Oregon in 1948, and even the first sub-four-minute mile was still six years away.