By Bob Phillips
4th March 2020
America’s top two milers pirouetting down the home straight. No wilder race
had ever been seen on the boards
More than 90 years of the Wanamaker Mile
For much of my youth in England indoor track athletics was a source of wonder and mystery. It was almost unknown until the early 1960s. A few meetings had been held in cavernous and bone-chilling aircraft hangars generously loaned out by the Royal Air Force for an afternoon, and at one of those makeshift venues the sprinters and hurdlers perforce disappeared through open double doors out into the raw winter air to complete their 60-yard events. When a first attempt was made to hold some races on a 128-yard track shoe-horned into a concert hall in Manchester in 1957, the inexperience of the officials regarding such exotic forms of competition was obvious for all to see. The mile was won in 3 minutes 37.4 seconds, and even when the huddle of bemused officials broke up and announced that the distance was 70 yards short such a time still seemed somewhat unlikely even for Derek Ibbotson, who had finished a close 2nd and would set a legitimate outdoor World record of 3:57.2 before the summer was out.
A few weeks after their chaotic debut the Manchester organisers got their measurements right – or so they assured everybody – and Ibbotson ran 4:07.0, which was only a fraction slower than what had been briefly noted in our local weekly track magazine as having been done by Ronnie Delany, the then reigning Olympic 1500 metres champion, in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden earlier that same winter. But who was this Wanamaker ? Who, or where, or what was Millrose ? I promptly made it my business to find out, but it took me rather longer to examine the subject in some depth.
Lewis Rodman Wanamaker was born into an immensely wealthy family in Philadelphia on 13 February 1863, and it was said that he was content to live in his father’s shadow. Admittedly, it was a very long shadow as John Wanamaker was the innovative sole owner of department stores in New York, Philadelphia and Paris and is now regarded as a pioneer of marketing. It is he who is credited with having originated the aphorism, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but the trouble is I don’t know which half”. One of those halves was evidently put to highly profitable use because when he died in 1922 he was worth $1,496 million in the financial terms of a century later.
His son, having graduated from Princeton University in 1889, joined the family business but soon went his own way as resident manager of the Paris store. Returning to the US after a decade, and having married the French-born Fernanda Antonia Henry, he introduced an extravagant artistic element to selling over the counter. This was to be most obviously expressed when he re-designed the original Philadelphia premises to incorporate a 12-storey marble-clad central court containing the World’s largest pipe-organ where concerts by internationally-famed artists for audiences of 15,000 were regularly held. The Wanamakers had three children – two daughters and a son – between 1887 and 1895, but Mrs Wanamaker sadly died in 1900 at the age of only 37. Rodman Wanamaker – as he preferred to be called – suffered from progressive kidney failure and he died in 1928, but his legacy is enshrined in two very different iconic sporting contests.
In 1916 he brought together many of the leading professional golfers in the USA – who were at the time held in no great social esteem – and formed the USPGA, whose annual Championship remains one of the game’s major tournaments. Rodman Wanamaker had apparently never played golf and his interest in the game was simply that he thought that by raising its profile his stores would sell more clubs ! The first winner, incidentally, was English – Jim Barnes, born in Lelant, in Cornwall – and he won again at the next USPGA Championship in 1919. No other Englishman has won in the century since.
It was also in 1916 that Rodman Wanamaker donated a trophy to the inaugural indoor Millrose Games, named after the estate in Pennsylvania owned by the Wanamaker family. There was nothing new about indoor track competition by then – the first such meet had been staged at the Empire City Skating Rink, in the Lennox Hill area of New York, on 11 November 1868, with an 880 yards, 1 mile walk, High jump, Shot putt and Standing three jumps as the schedule of events. The Amateur Athletic Union promoted a national indoor championships as early as 1888, and this became an official annual event from 1906 onwards.
No doubt the characteristically generous Wanamaker sponsorship brought the family’s department stores welcome publicity, but there was no obvious commercial motive – rather it reflected an already established benevolent company interest in track & field. The origins of the Millrose Athletic Association formed for employees dated from 1908, and the finest all-round track runner of the early 20th Century, Melvin Sheppard, was employed as Director. Sheppard won four Olympic gold medals – in the 800 metres, 1500 metres and medley relay in London in 1908 and in the 4 x 400 metres relay in Stockholm in 1912.
The most notable active athlete at Wanamaker’s was Abel Kiviat, who set the inaugural outdoor World record for 1500 metres of 3:55 4/5 in 1912, and he worked as a sports-goods salesman in the New York store from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Yet his long working hours were no hindrance to his advance as an athlete because he apparently trained only once a week, though he raced frequently and the AAU indoor 1000 yards titles for 1911, 1913 and 1914 were among his many successes
Still, there remains an unsolved mystery about those early Millrose Games.
For the past 95 years the race named after Rodman Wanamaker which forms the centre-piece of the Millrose Games meeting has been known as the “Wanamaker Mile”, but from 1916 to 1925 the distance contested was actually 1½ miles. Why ? Such an event had not been recognised by the universal ruling body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, when it ratified its first World records in 1914. The authoritative “Spalding’s Athletic Almanac” of 1915 included among its definitive “American Amateur Records”, for both outdoors and indoors, such events as 60 yards, 300 yards, 600 yards, 1000 yards and ¾-of-a-mile but not 1½ miles. The fastest times at 1½ miles set by Tommy Conneff, of the USA, in 1895 and Alfred Shrubb, of Great Britain, in 1902 would continue to be regarded as no more than “noteworthy performances”.
Even so, those Millrose 1½-mile races are not without their historical interest. The first winner, John Overton, who was a Yale graduate, sadly had little time to reflect on his success because he was killed in action in France in 1918 while serving with the US Marine Corps. Seven of the series of these races, from 1917 to 1920 and again in 1922-23-24, were won by the remarkably versatile Joie Ray who was to achieve the unique feat of running in an Olympic 1500 metres final (8th in 1920) and then finishing in the top six in an Olympic marathon (5th in 1928).
Ray’s almost total domination of those early Millrose years was only surprisingly interrupted in 1921 when he was beaten by Harold Cutbill, a divinity student who came to be known familiarly as “The Flying Parson”, and Ray’s reign finally ended with honour in 1925 when he lost to Paavo Nurmi, “The Flying Finn”, acknowledged indisputably as the greatest athlete of that generation. Ray was also a boxer and competed in snowshoe races, roller-derby events and marathon-dance contests, while mainly earning his living as a cab-driver and a steel-worker. Such an action-filled life obviously suited him – he lived to the age of 84.
Ray had been credited with World indoor records in his wins of 1922 and 1923, but Nurmi’s time of 6:39:4 was almost two seconds faster and he set another record for the ¾-mile in what was the Millrose’s only ever two-day meeting. Nurmi probably scarcely remarked on this double success because he had started a five-month tour of the USA in January in which he would lose only twice in 55 races, other than in handicaps where his opponents were given over-generous starts. Nurmi would be credited with 15 World records at standard distances from one to three miles and 1500 to 5000 metres. Oddly, there was no mile race at the AAU Indoor Championships until 1932, which would give the Wanamaker Trophy enhanced prestige in its formative years..
One of the few blemishes in Nurmi’s career was that when he returned to New York and contested the Wanamaker Mile in 1929 he was beaten by Ray Conger to the intense excitement of the packed Madison Squarer Garden crowd, and the band serenaded the unexpected home winner with “The Star Spangled Banner”. However, this was not quite the significant success that the jubilant onlookers understandably believed it to be. Nurmi was still Olympic champion at 10,000 metres and had held the outdoor World mile record at 4:10.4 since 1923, and he had held a share of the indoor record of 4:12.0 with Joie Ray since 1925, but he had not run a 1500 metres or mile of real note since 1926. He was, in all probability, no longer interested in the events, believing that Otto Peltzer’s 1500 metres outdoor World record of 3:51.0, also set in 1926, was beyond his waning powers.
Though long forgotten now, except maybe for fond remembrance at the Des Moines Sports Hall of Fame in his home state of Iowa, Ray Conger was no slouch – the best US miler of his age, winning six AAU titles, shared equally between the outdoor mile and the indoor 1000 yards. He was again successful in the Wanamaker Mile for the next two years, and though he himself was forever modest about the matter he was known for much of the rest of his life as “The Man Who Beat Nurmi”. He became a physical education professor at Pennsylvania State University and reached the age of 89, dying in 1994.
A much more celebrated American miler, Glenn Cunningham, won the Wanamaker Mile six times between 1933 and 1939, losing out only in 1936 in a desperately close finish to Joe Mangan and Gene Venzke, but then maybe Cunningham’s long-term planning was better thought out. He got the silver medal in the Olympic 1500 metres later that year behind New Zealander Jack Lovelock’s World record, whereas Venzke was 9th in that race and Mangan did not even qualify for the team. The next multiple winner at Millrose would be Don Gehrmann (1949-50-51-52), who coincidentally placed 10th in an Olympic 1500 metres exactly as Ray Conger had done 20 years before.
The World War II years in between the Cunningham and Gehrmann eras had produced six different Wanamaker Mile winners, among whom were several who might otherwise have got much closer to breaking that legendary four-minute barrier than they ever had the chance to do – Chuck Fenske, Walter Mehl, Leslie MacMitchell, Gil Dodds. Of this quartet, there is no better example of missed opportunities than Dodds, who had also won six AAU titles to emulate Ray Conger, but in Dodds’s case these were exclusively for the mile, outdoors in 1942, 1943 and 1948 and indoors in 1941, 1944 and 1947. He won the Wanamaker Mile in 1944, 1947 and 1948 (with a World record 4:05.3), but then, unfortunately, he injured an achilles tendon and contracted mumps and was confined to a hospital bed as the 1948 US Olympic trials took place. He had graduated from a seminary in 1945, and like the Millrose winner of 1921, Harold Cutbill, was labelled by the press as “The Flying Parson”.
The first Olympic 1500 metres champion to win the Wanamaker Mile was Josy Barthel, of Luxemburg, who had surprised everyone (actually, the proper word to use is “shocked”) by winning in Helsinki in 1952 by inches from the equally unexpected Bob McMillen, of the USA. But this Millrose success of Barthel’s in 1954 was more or less his final fling at international level, though his career lingered on until he came a disconsolate last but one in his 1500 metres heat at the 1956 Olympics. Rather, it was the melodramatic Wanamaker Mile of 1955 which made a life-long impression on Howard Schmerz, who had seen every Millrose Games since 1933 and had become the meet’s Assistant Director in 1950 and would then be Director from 1975 to 2003.
At the age of 81 in 2007 he was invited to recall his 10 “Most Memorable Millrose Moments”, and his top three were John Thomas’s first seven-foot high jump in 1959, Cornelius Warmerdam’s first 15-foot pole vault in 1943 and – perhaps surprisingly, considering all the fine American milers he had seen at Millrose – the World-record victory by Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen in the 1955 Wanamaker Mile. Mr Schmerz wrote as follows:
“It is my ‘Most Memorable Millrose’ running event not because of the record but because it was a World record that very few of the 16,000 spectators witnessed One week previous Wes Santee, America’s top miler, had defeated Gunnar Nielsen by 40 yards in the Boston AA Games, creating a World indoor record of 4:03.8. His time smashed the record 4:05.3 set by Gil Dodds in the 1948 Wanamaker Mile. In the 1955 Wanamaker a fast early pace indicated that Santee’s week-old record might fall.
“With a half-lap to go Santee led, trailed by Fred Dwyer and Nielsen. Suddenly Nielsen charged past Dwyer and Santee and set sail for home. At the end of the back stretch, as the tiring Santee veered out in an attempt to hold off Nielsen; Dwyer, trying to catch Nielsen, attempted to pass Santee on the inside. As Dwyer came abreast Wes moved in, forcing Fred off the track and into the infield. Dwyer, unable to regain the track, ran the last turn on the infield and at the head of the stretch came back on the track ahead of Santee. In frustration, Santee grabbed Dwyer’s shoulder and Dwyer wrapped his arms around Santee’s waist. To the amazement of the crowd, the two pirouetted down the home stretch.
“Nielsen, well out in front and virtually unnoticed, broke the tape with a World record 4:03.6. Dwyer came out of his clinch with Santee to finish 2nd but was disqualified for running on the infield. No wilder race has ever been seen at the Garden”.
One of the other Millrose Games races that Howard Schmerz particularly savoured – in fact, No.4 among his top 10 memories – was Mary Decker’s astonishing World record for 1500 metres in 1980, leading by 40 yards after only two laps and finishing in 4:00.8, which was 2.2 seconds better than the previous fastest by Natalia Marasescu, of Rumania. Howard Schmerz wrote, “As she hit the finish tape an 80-yard winner, Mary Decker became the all-time darling of the Millrose Games. She eventually won four more Millrose races at the mile, with her last victory in 1997 – 23 years after first Millrose triumph”. In 1974, aged 15, she had won the 1000 yards.
Rodman Wanamaker would have been astounded by Decker’s precocity and by the introduction in 1976 of a women’s mile to the Millrose Games. In 1916, when the first of those Games had been held, the idea of women running a thousand yards, let alone a mile, was unthinkable. A few enterprising colleges, led by Vassar, at Poughkeepsie, had begun track & field competition for women in the 1890s, and by 1916 three universities – Nebraska, Northwester, Syracuse – were holding meetings, but 220 yards was the very furthest distance contemplated, even by Dr Harry Eaton Stewart, a high school physical education director in Washington, Connecticut, who in January and February of 1916 wrote two very detailed and influential articles for the “American Physical Education Review” advocating a range of events suitable for women. He was to become C6.85hairman of the National Women’s Track & Field Committee when it was formed in 1918 and he set about collating the first list of American women’s records – but not for any event further than the 220.
Rather in the manner of the men’s Wanamaker Mile, this women’s mile was not a mile at all at the Millrose Games from 1976 to 1981 but 1500 metres, and it has reverted to that latter distance on three occasions since. Yet throughout almost 40 years Decker’s 1500 metres record has stood direct comparison with the progression of the Games mile record – 4:21.47 by Decker in 1984, 4:21.45 by Doina Melinte, of Rumania in 1988, and now 4:16.85 – also a North American record – by Elle Purrier, of the USA, in 2020. Even though Mary Decker’s career ended in controversy after disputed drug-testing results and prolonged legal hearings, she remains a key figure in Millrose miling.
Howard Schmerz’s father, Fred, had been involved from the first Millrose Games when he was a delivery boy for the Wanamaker’s New York department store, and he worked his way up to becoming head of the company’s legal department. In 1934 he was given the added responsibility of being Director of the Millrose Games and he continued to do that until retiring in 1975 to make way for his son. He had joked with the media on occasions in previous years that he would step down when he saw his first sub-four-minute Wanamaker Mile, and there had been some close calls – Tom O’Hara with 4:00.6 in 1964 and Marty Liquori with 4:00.8 in 1969 and another 4:00.6 in 1971 – but sub-four eventually came about in 1974 when unheralded Tony Waldrop ran 3:59.7. A month later Fred Schmerz broke his hip and never returned to the Millrose Games, dying two years later at the age of 87.
Two other Wanamaker Miles rated among Howard Schmerz’s most vivid memories. In 1987 Eamonn Coghlan won for the seventh time and in 2005 Bernard Lagat ran 3:52.87 to beat Coghlan’s meeting record from 24 years before. Howard Schmerz recalled of Coghlan’s emotion-charged farewell appearance: “Eamonn defeated Marcus O’Sullivan, who had thwarted Eamonn’s victory bid in the 1986 Wanamaker by overcoming his Irish compatriot in the last half-lap. When O’Sullivan completed his running career a few years later, he had won five Wanamaker Miles. Appropriately, I would rank Coghlan, Cunningham and O’Sullivan, in that order, as the greatest milers in Millrose and Madison Square Garden history”. The Madison Square Garden venue has been committed to history now that the Millrose Games have moved to its present venue in the city, The Armory.
The record-setting performances of Coghlan and of Lagat, who went on to win eight Wanamaker Miles by 2010, appear in the list below, and it’s worth noting that the next most successful American to Lagat in almost half-a-century is Matthew Centrowitz, who has won three times (in 2012, 2015, 2016) and has time on his side for more.
There are also some rather notable Wanamaker Mile winners of the past who did not set a record – Ronnie Delany (four times, 1956-59), Kip Keino (1966), Steve Scott (1982 and 1984) and Noureddine Morceli (1991 and 1993). Among those who came close to winning, beaten by 0.8 seconds by Eamonn Coghlan, in 1981, is Ray Flynn, one of that elite group of milers who have beaten 3 minutes 50 seconds, indoors or out. As director of the Millrose Games since 2013, he’s still naturally taking a close interest in the Wanamaker Mile getting on for 40 years later.
Although it was the 29th running of the men’s race before a non-American won (Josy Barthel in 1954), 14 countries have now shared successes – Algeria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Kenya, Luxemburg, Poland, Spain, Tanzania and, of course, the USA. The women’s mile (or 1500 metres) has had non-US winners from Algeria, Canada, Germany, Great Britain Holland and Rumania, and the first reigning Olympic champion to win was Paula Ivan, of Rumania, in 1989. .
Of course, there have been some eminent male milers who were never able, for a multitude of good reasons, to include the Wanamaker Mile in their schedules: Elliott, Snell, Ryun, Walker, Coe, Ovett and Cram, El Guerrouj. Yet even they would have found Coghlan or Lagat or Yomif Kejelcha, who so narrowly missed the World record in 2018, doughty opponents … and as for Howard Schmerz’s No.2 miler, Glenn Cunningham, who knows what he might have done had he lived 70 years or more later?
The men’s Wanamaker Mile, progressive records.
From 4:17 to 3:48 in 93 years!
1926 – 4:17.2 James Connolly (USA)
1927 – 4:15.6 Lloyd Hahn (USA)
1931 – 4:13.6 Ray Conger (USA)
1932 – 4:11.2 Gene Venzke (USA)
1934 – 4:11.2 Glenn Cunningham (USA)
1935 – 4:11.0 Cunningham
1936 – 4:11.0 Joe Mangan (USA)
1938 – 4:11.0 Cunningham
1940 – 4:07.4 Charles (‘Chuck”) Fenske (USA)
1948 – 4:05.3 Gil Dodds (USA)
1955 – 4:03.6 Gunnar Nielsen (Denmark)
1963 – 4:01.3 Tom O’Hara (USA)
1964 – 4:00.6 O’Hara
1971– 4:00.6 Marty Liquori (USA)
1974 – 3:59.7 Tony Waldrop (USA)
1975 – 3:59.3 Filbert Bayi (Tanzania)
1976 – 3:57.6 Paul Cummings (USA)
1979 – 3:55.0 Eamonn Coghlan (Ireland)
1981 – 3:53.0 Coghlan
2005 – 3:52.87 Bernard Lagat (USA)
2013 – 3:51.21 Lopez Lomong (USA)
2016 – 3:50.13 Matthew Centrowitz (USA)
2019 – 3:48.46 Yomif Kejelcha (Ethiopia)
The women’s Wanamaker Mile, progressive records
1982 – 4;21.47 Mary Decker (USA)
1988 – 4:21.45 Doina Melinte (Rumania)
2017 – 4:19.89 Sifn Hassan (Holland)
2020 – 4:16.85 Elle Purrier (USA)
Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Ian Brooks, announcer at the Millrose Games, for providing historical information about the Games and the Wanamaker Mile..
Footnote: Mel Sheppard’s achievement in winning Olympic gold medals at 1500 metres and the 4 x 400 metres relay is very unlikely to ever be matched, but he is not the only athlete to have been a medalist in both events. Phil Edwards, born in British Guiana (now Guyana), won five medals for Canada between 1928 and 1936, including bronze at 1500 metres in 1932 and at 4 x 400 metres in 1928 and 1932. A curiosity is that Mamo Wolde, of Ethiopia, competed in the heats of the 1500 metres and 4 x 400 metres at the 1956 Olympics, finishing last in both, and won the Olympic marathon in 1968.