By Bob Phillips
10th January 2019
The Quick-silver Master of the Photo-finish
The Career of a Double Relay World-record-breaker
PHOTOGRAPH: The invitation 880 yards at the British Games in London, 9 August 1952. Reggie Pearman wins on the wet and clinging White City cinders from Jack Hutchins (Canada), Tom White (GB) and John Barnes (USA), with Derek Johnson and Albert Webster (both GB) barely visible in 5th and 6th places. Pearman and Barnes had also shared in a WR 4 x 880 yards on the same track five days before and Webster had been a member of the GB team which had set the previous 4 x 880 record a year earlier.
Reggie Pearman was among the finest exponents of the 400 metres/800 metres “double”, but unfortunately for him his career precisely coincided with two of the greatest ever at that particular combination of events. Malvin Whitfield was Olympic champion at 800 metres in 1948 and 1952, with Arthur Wint 2ndon each occasion, and Wint won the 1948 400 metres with Whitfield 3rd. Added to which, both had 4 x 400 metres relay gold. Pearman never won an Olympic medal of any kind, nor even came close, but he did have one achievement to his credit which neither Whitfield nor Wint ever managed – the fastest stage in the process of contributing to World records at both 4 x 440 yards and 4 x 880 yards.
This happened within five days at London’s White City Stadium after the 1952 Olympics, where Pearman – by his own frank admission – had performed below expectations. He was 7thin the 800 metres final in Helsinki and was to reflect ruefully later in life, “I ran a lousy race. Those guys didn’t sit around and wait for me. They had their own races and raced them”. For the greater part of the rest of his long competitive lifetime, which lasted in all from 1941 to 1957, Pearman very much ran his own races and won a lot of them. He was so adept at coming through in the last few yards, especially in relay races on behalf of New York University, that he was nicknamed “Photo-finish Pearman”.
At the British Empire-v-USA match at the White City on 4 August 1952, Pearman put the Americans in a winning position on the second stage of the 4 x 880 relay with a time of 1:50.3, opening up a lead of some 30 yards against the luckless Oxford University graduate, Edward Robinson, who was an inexplicable choice for the Empire even in an emergency, having run no faster than 1:57.0 so far that year. Then at the British Games, again at the White City, on 9 August, the USA gained revenge for their defeat by the Jamaicans in the Olympic 4 x 400 relay by setting another World record at 4 x 440 as Pearman’s third stage in 46.3 lost very little ground to the pursuing Olympic champion, George Rhoden. Pearman also won a cagey 880 yards that afternoon after a slow first lap of 56.4. At 6ft 2in (1.88m) tall, he was the ideal build for the shoulder-to-shoulder hurly-burly of two-lap racing in those days before the idea was conceived of starting in lanes.
Yet Pearman’s lengthy career has more implications to it than mere times and rankings. His parents had emigrated to the USA from Ethiopia, and so Pearman was running at a time when Ethiopia was still an unknown quality so far as athletics was concerned, and the first athletes from that country to compete at Olympic level would do so without any exceptional achievements in 1956. Two marathon runners finished 29thand 32ndof 33 finishers, and their 1500 meres runner was 11thand last in his heat, though keen-eyed enthusiasts would have noted that he ran a respectable time of 3:51.0. Twelve years later he would do rather better at the Olympic Games – 11 places better, in fact, for Mamo Wolde in winning the marathon.
If Pearman’s part in the advance of Ethiopian athletics was obviously peripheral his impact nearer home seems to have been much more significant. When he was interviewed by “Ebony” magazine on the eve of the 1968 Olympics and declared himself in favour of a boycott of the Games by black US athletes because of continuing racial discrimination, he nevertheless recognised that some progress had been made, remarking wryly of the opportunities for Afro-Americans, “When I was a youngster I couldn’t do much else but run on a track. Now a guy can run for Mayor and win”. A social historian, Allen B. Ballard, was to write in his history of the migration of black Americans from South Carolina to Philadelphia, published in 1984, that “to see Reggie Pearman, of New York University, adjust his horn-rimmed glasses and take off, quick-silver coloured brown, to win the anchor lap of the mile relay in the 1940s was a unifying force for the Black people of Philadelphia”. There were six of those wins at the prestigious annual Penn Relays, where over the years Pearman was joined in the NYU team by twins of Italian parentage, Hugo and Richard Maiocco, who were also to have their share of international success. In 1950 the NYU quartet claimed a World record of 3:22.7 for the sprint medley (880 x 220 x 220 x 440).
After retiring from track competition in 1957 Pearman taught social studies and health care in a New York high school and was then recruited by his good friend, Charley Jenkins, who had won the 1956 Olympic 400 metres, into the US Peace Corps, for which Pearman worked in Venezuela. Achieving his doctorate in educational administration at the University of Massachusetts, he then joined the US Office of Education, rose to high rank, and lectured doctorial and graduate students at Cornell and California State Universities. His was truly a life of inspiration to others, though his personal circumstances were rather more turbulent as he was divorced twice.
Reginald James Pearman had been born in Manhattan on 23 May 1924 and was a relatively late starter on the track, running his first race in high school around his 17thbirthday in 1941 but going on to win the city scholastic cross-country title the year after. He served in the army in the Philippines during World War II and then joined the New York Pioneer Club, which was one of the few racially-integrated sports organisations in existence in the USA, and for which the legendary co-founder, Joe Yancey, was the chief coach from 1936 to 1991.
In his very first year in the World rankings, in 1947, Pearman put himself right in line for Olympic selection by beating Mal Whitfield, 1:50.9 to 1:51.0, for the AAU 800 metres title, and Pearman also ran 440 yards in 47.9 and 880 yards in 1:51.5, 14thfastest in the World for the year and fifth fastest in the USA. At the Penn Relays he laid the foundations of his “photo-finish” reputation by twice coming from behind to edge out Herb McKenley, who set a ratified World record that year of 46.2 for 440 yards. The total margin between NYU and McKenley’s Illinois University in those two races was 0.2sec.
“Run again? I hope you can walk normally”
Pearman maintained that form into Olympic year, finishing 2ndto Herb Barten in the AAU 800, but he then suffered grave misfortune in the final at the Olympic Trials. “I was spiked in the Achilles tendon and couldn’t finish”, he later recalled. “I asked the doctor if I could run when it got better and he said he hoped I could walk normally. In other words, he said running was over for me”. Defying medical opinion with a vengeance, Pearman ran a brilliant 47.1 for 440 yards at the 1949 NCAA (national collegiate) championships, losing by a mere yard or less to Charley Moore, who would be Olympic 400 metres hurdles champion three years later, Only 10 men in the World broke 47.0 for 400 metres or 47.3 at 440 yards that year, headed by Herb McKenley, Mal Whitfield and George Rhoden, with Moore and Pearman ranking 7thand 8th. McKenley was the current holder of the World records from 1948 with a metric 45.9 and a superior 46.0 for yards.
Half-miling had been largely put on hold by Pearman, and that was understandable as his appearances in NCAA finals were uniformly inauspicious: 6thin 1947, outside the first six in 1948, a non-finisher in 1949 and 8thin 1950. He concentrated instead on his university relay duties, and had the support in 1949 of two other quick quarter-milers as Hugo Maiocco ran 47.6 and Jim Gilhooley 47.8. The only national team faster in the World that year at 4 x 400 or 4 x 440 was the full USA quartet, including Maiccco and Whitfield, in their match against Scandinavia in Oslo.
The 1950 season was again largely taken up for Pearman with relay commitments, as Hugo Maiocco’s brother, Richard, familiarly known as “Dick”, came into the NYU team, and Charley Moore very narrowly won a 440 in New York on 27 May ahead of Hugo Maiocco, both 47.3, with Pearman 4thin 47.7 and Dick Maiocco 5thin 48.0 – all ranking in the top 30 in the World. Even so, NYU was beaten for once in the Penn Relays 4 x 440, but only just – Morgan State College winning 3:13.6 to 3:13.8, with George Rhoden on anchor against Pearman. Four months later, on tour in Sweden, Rhoden was to set a World record of 45.8 for 400 metres.
Pearman graduated from university in 1950, and the next year the Maiocco brothers were the NYU stars. Hugo Maiocco went to the Pan-American Games in Buenos Aires early in 1951 and came away with a full set of medals: 3rdto fellow-Americans Mal Whitfield and Bill Brown at 800 metres, 2ndto Whitfield at 400 (with McKenley 3rd), and in the winning relay team. Dick Maiocco was 3rdto Rhoden and Moore in the NCAA 400 final and to Rhoden and McKenley at the AAU. Oddly, in the latter race there was only one other American, Jim Lingel, as the line-up was completed by a third Jamaican, Sam LaBeach, together with Morris Curotta (Australia) and Cirilo McSween (Panama). Pearman had only a 47.9 for 400 metres to his name and there were 23 other Americans faster. So Olympic prospects did not look too bright.
A typical Pearman finish earns an Olympic place
Pearman’s form was put to rights early in 1952 when he was 2ndto Don Gehrmann in the AAU indoor 1000 yards, and this was by no means a new venture. Pearman had also been 2ndin that event to another indoor specialist, Phil Thigpen, back in 1948 and would continue to compete on the boards throughout the rest of his active career, winning the AAU 600 yards in 1954 and finishing 2ndto Charley Jenkins in 1957. Outdoors in 1952 Pearman confirmed his Olympic candidature by winning a slow AAU 800 metres final on 21 June, with the future Games 1500 metres silver-medalist, Bob McMillen, 3rd. Then at the all-important Final Trials a week later Pearman produced one of his grand-stand finishes, moving from 5thto 3rdin the last 100 metres to clinch his Olympic place behind Whitfield and John Barnes. Gehrmann was shunted out of the reckoning in 4thplace and a future 880 yards World record-holder, Lonnie Spurrier, was 5th. By now the Maiocco brothers had lost their glitter of the previous year – Hugo was last in his 400 meres heat and Dick didn’t finish his.
In Helsinki Whitfield won his second Olympic title at 800 metres ahead of Arthur Wint, with the bronze going unexpectedly to a German, Heinz Ulzheimer. The USA team was beaten by the Jamaicans in the 4 x 400, and one of the most respected of US track writers, Elliott Denman (himself an Olympian, in the 50 kilometres walk in 1956), was to write: “Pearman was so incredible a relay runner that many thought the USA made a strategic error in not putting him in”. It’s a fair point because Charley Moore had lost a lead of a dozen yards or so to Herb McKenley on the third stage – but then McKenley was timed in 44.6, and no one else would run faster than that in an Olympic final until Henry Carr’s winning 44.5 anchor for the USA in 1964.
The post-Olympic relay records by the Americans at the White City were no carefully planned efforts, but simply yet more races in the midst of a hectic dash round the tracks of Europe. In Cologne on 6 August – two days after the match against the British Empire – Pearman took advantage of the 500-metre circuit to run his fastest ever 400 metres of 46.7 behind J.W. Mashburn’s 46.5, while on the same day in Gothenburg Whitfield set the year’s leading 800 metres of 1:48.0, and in Vienna the other member of the record-breaking 4 x 440 quartet, Gene Cole, sped to a 46.8 clocking for 400 metres.. Pearman was equal 8thin the World rankings for 400 metres at the year’s end, but his best 800 metres of 1:50.6 was a more modest 21stand still stubbornly short of his personal best dating from five years before.
Back in Europe with an AAU team the following year, Pearman had a very creditable double on successive days in Malmö, 1:49.7 (his all-time best) and 47.1. Whitfield, of course, remained the maestro of this particular métier in 1953 – his times of 45.9 and 1:47.9 both leading the World rankings – and the only other one who remotely approached such versatility during the year were a future 800 metres World record-breaker, Roger Moens, of Belgium, with 47.7 ad 1:48.8. .
Modest 400-metre times followed for Pearman in 1954 and 1955, but then, approaching his 32ndbirthday, he made a serious bid for further Olympic honours. He ran 1:11.0 for 600 yards during the 1956 indoor season, to rank 4thin a star-studded list behind Charley Jenkins (1:09.9), Louis Jones and Tom Courtney, and was 3rdto Courtney and Jenkins in the AAU outdoor 400 metres final, equaling his best time of 46.7, but he was 7thin the Trials final, and so not even selected for the relay squad. As usual, he wasn’t the only illustrious victim of the USA’s “sudden death” elimination process; Two of the others to miss the team were defending Olympic champions – Mal Whitfield, 6that 800 metres, and Harrison Dillard, 7thin the 110 metres hurdles.
A national title at last, but someone got the lane measurements wrong !
Back again for a final fling in 1957, Pearman at last won an AAU title at the age of 33, but it couldn’t have been as gratifying for him as it should have been. He crossed the line 1stin the 440 in 46.4, but it turned out that officials had blundered. The lane measurements were wrong and Pearman had run only 432 yards, whereas Charley Jenkins, finishing 3rdin 46.7, had covered 436 yards and so would assuredly have won at the proper distance. Didn’t anybody – competitors or officials – notice that something was wrong when the runners lined up? The same happened in the 220 yards final despite the fact that the track at Dayton, Ohio, was a regulation 440 yards in circumference, and Cordner Nelson, the respected co-editor of “Track & Field News”, described the officiating as reaching “an unparalleled level of lousiness”.
On yet another breakneck AAU tour round Europe, Pearman showed indifferent form at first, and at the London-v-New York match on 19-20 July, at which Derek Ibbotson ran a World record 3:57.2 mile, Pearman was 3rdin the 440 to Charley Jenkins and London’s Peter Higgins and was described in the British publication, “Athletics Weekly”, as “looking none too impressive”. The same night Pearman was a distant 6thin an invitation 880 in which locals Mike Rawson and Mike Farrell both ran 1:49.2, but the next evening Pearman sent Jenkins off on the anchor stage of the 4 x 440 relay for a narrow win, 3:12.0 to 3:12.4, and then finished on a high note in early August with a 46.8 for 400 metres at the famed Eskilstuna stadium. It was thus he completed a competitive career which had been exceptionally long in that era of amateur athletics.
He was one of only eight men who had ever to that date completed the double of running faster than 47sec for 400 metres and 1min 50sec for 800 metres; the others being Rudolf Harbig, Mal Whitfield, Arthur Wint, Lonnie Spurrier, Tom Courtney (all of them World record-holders and/or Olympic champions) and two other lesser known Americans, Lang Stanley, who was 4thin the 1956 Olympic Trials 800 metres, and Willie Atterberry, who oddly never competed in the Trials at all. It’s not the sort of accomplishment which would ever get Pearman’s name mentioned in any histories of the sport, even as a footnote, but it would surely gladden the heart of all those who appreciate the more esoteric facts of track & field life ! Pearman had no wish to race again after 1957 but retained a keen interest in the sport, attending the Olympics of 1976, 1984, 1992 and 2004 as a spectator. He died in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the age of 88 on 11 June 2012.
The first eight men ever to break both 47.0 for 400 metres and 1:50.0 for 800 metres
The completion of the 400 metres/800 metres performance “doubles” by the eight athletes concerned are listed in chronological order according to when they were completed and represent for each event the first occasions on which the athletes first beat 47.0 or 1:50.0 (* 440 yards time less 0.3, 880 yards time less 0.7).
Rudolf Harbig (Germany) – 46.8 Dortmund 07:08:38, 1:49.4 Berlin 09/07/39
Malvin Whitfield (USA) – 46.6 Evanston, Ill. 10/07/48, 1:49.2 Wembley (OG) 02/08/48
Arthur Wint (Jamaica) – 46.3 Wembley (OG sf) 05/08/48, 1:49.5 Wembley (OG) 02/08/48
Reggie Pearman (USA) – 46.8* Los Angeles 18/06/49, 1:49.7 Malmö 03/08/53
Lang Stanley (USA) – 46.7* Sanger, Cal. 09/06/56, 1:48.3* 03/06/55
Lonnie Spurrier (USA) – 46.9* Waco, Tex.04/06/55, 1:49.1* Los Angeles 19/02/55
Tom Courtney (USA) – 46.5* West Point, NY 26/05/56, 1:49.8* New York 29/05/54
Willie Atterberry (USA) – 46.9* Riverside, Cal. 04/05/56, 1:49.7 Compton, Cal. 01/06/56
Career best performances: 400 metres – Courtney 45.8 1956, Whitfield 45.9 1953, Harbig 46.0 1939, Wint 46.2 1948, Atterberry 46.6* 1958, Pearman 46.7 1952, Stanley 46.7* 1956, Spurrier 46.9* 1955. 800 metres – Courtney 1:45.8 1957, Harbig 1:46.6 1939, Spurrier 1:46.8* 1955, Stanley 1:47.6 1955, Whitfield 1:47.9 1953, Wint 1:48.9* 1951, Atterberry 1:49.3* 1958, Pearman 1:49.7 1953.