New-York Historical Society's Bill Shannon Dictionary of New York Sports

Category Archives: Track and field

Ray Barbuti

(Track and field and college football. Born, Brooklyn, NY, June 12, 1905; died, Pittsfield, MA, July 8, 1988.)  A football star, Olympian, armed services veteran, and long-time college football referee, Raymond James Barbuti first gained attention playing fullback at Lawrence High School on Long Island. He scored eight touchdowns in a game to set New York State high school record that stood for the rest of his life.  At Syracuse, Barbuti was captain of both the football and track and field teams.  In 1928, he won the AAU title in the 400-meter dash, with a time of 51.8 seconds.  The same year, at the Amsterdam Olympic Games, he won two gold medals:  in the 400-meter dash and the 4×400-meter relay.  He covered the 400 in 47.8 seconds, and the relay team finished in a world-record 3:14.2. Barbuti was also a member of the 4×400 team that set another world record (3:13.4) in London a week after the Olympics.  Barbuti served in United States Army Air Forces during World War II and was awarded an Air Medal and a Bronze Star before retiring from the Army with the rank of major.  He later became the director of the Civil Defense Commission for New York State and director of the New York State Office of Disaster Preparedness.  Barbuti worked as a referee at more than 500 college football games. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1967.  – By Qian Wang

Mal Whitfield

Mal Whitfield (Track and field.  Born, Bay City, TX, Oct. 11, 1924.)  Malvin G. Whitfield was one of the great half milers of his (or any other) time as a five-time Olympic medalist for the U.S., winning the gold in the 800 meters in both London (1948) and Helsinki (1952). He was also on the 1948 4×400 meter gold medal relay team, and took a bronze in London and a silver on the relay in Helsinki.  In indoor competition at Madison Square Garden, Whitfield was no less spectacular.  In the Casey 600 at the Knights of Columbus meet, he won in 1950, 1953 and 1954, setting a world indoor record in 1953. He won the Buermeyer 500 at the New York Athletic Club Games from 1953 through 1955 and swept the Mel Sheppard 600 at the Millrose Games during the same years.  He scored an unusual “double” at the 1956 Millrose, winning both the 600 and 880. Whitfield was such a dominant runner that from June 1948 through December 1954, he was 66-3 in the 880-yard and 800-meter competition around the world.  Few of the world’s best could even challenge let alone beat him.  Characteristically, Whitfield ran against the field rather than against the clock.  His best time in the half-mile was 1:48.6. In the 800 meters, his top clocking was 1:47.9, well off what was then the world record for the distance set by Germany’s Rudolf Harbig (1939) of 1:46.6. Yet, regardless of the quality of the field, the running surface or the weather conditions, Whitfield remained virtually unbeatable though he rarely tried to set records.

Bob Richards

Bob Richards (Track and field.  Born, Champaign, IL, Feb. 2, 1926.)  The first athlete to appear on the front of a Wheaties cereal box (in 1958), Rev. Robert Richards achieved several unique distinctions in his athletic career.  He is the only pole vaulter ever to win the event twice in the Olympic Games, 1948 and 1952.  However, one of his distinctions was delayed a year through the absence of a ladder.  In 1950, Richards decided to try to become only the second vaulter to surpass 15 feet indoors.  The pole at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden was set at 15 feet and Richards cleared it.  However, when a ladder was brought in somewhat later for an official measurement, it was discovered the crossbar was only 14 feet 11 ½ inches above Garden floor.  In 1951, Richards made sure by clearing 15′ 1.”  From 1948-58, he won the Millrose Games pole vault event 11 straight years, an unprecedented feat.  (In 1951 he tied with Bob Gutkowski at 15’6” to give him a share of the win once and outright titles 10 other times.)  Richards won 26 national championships during his career. Following his retirement, Richards became one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the country.

Joie Ray

Joie Ray (Track.  Born, Kankakee, IL, Apr. 13, 1894; died, Benton Harbor, MI, May 13, 1978.)  Although he was eventually overtaken by the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi (q.v.), Joseph Ray was the dominant miler in the world for nearly a decade.  Ray won the A.A.U. indoor 1000-yard title three straight years (1918-20) at Madison Square Garden and was also the A.A.U. mile champion outdoors eight times (1915, 1917-23).  He tied the world record in the mile in 1925 (4:12.0) and dominated the Wanamaker Cup event at the Millrose Games.  In those years, the event was run at 1½ miles and Ray won it seven times (1917-20, 1922-24), setting world indoor records for the distance in 1917, 1922, and 1924 (6:41.8).  The Chicago cab driver met his match on Jan. 6, 1925, in the Finnish-American A.C. Games at the Garden when Nurmi beat Ray head-to-head and cut a full second off his indoor mile record.  Nurmi beat Ray again three weeks later in the Millrose at two distances.  The night Ray ran his 4:12 at the New York Knights of Columbus meet at the Garden, Nurmi didn’t finish, pulling out due to a reported upset stomach.  Yet, during his long reign, Ray helped popularize indoor track events.

Hannes Kolehmainen

Hannes Kolehmainen (Track. Born, Kuipio, Finland, Dec. 9, 1899; died, Helsinki, Finland, Jan. 11, 1966.) Having won three gold medals in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Hannes Kolehmainen became one of the first famed foreign athletes to venture to New York for the indoor track season. Kolehmainen swept all before him in a time when literally dozens of meets were held every winter in New York. On one day (Feb. 12, 1913), he won the three-mile in world record indoor time (14:18.2) in Brooklyn in the afternoon, and the five-mile in the New York A.C. Games that night in the second Garden on Madison Square. Under the aegis of the Irish-American A.C., Kolehmainen ran in New York for several years, both indoors and out, before returning to Finland and winning another gold for his country at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

Abel Kiviat

Abel Kiviat (Track and field.  Born, New York, NY, June 23, 1892; died, Lakehurst, NJ, Aug. 24, 1991.)  At age 17, in 1909, a young runner from the Lower East Side of Manhattan joined the Irish-American A.C. track team.  A year later, Abel Kiviat became captain of the team, then among the more prominent of the local amateur clubs.  In 1911, Kiviat won the 600 and 1,000-yard runs in the A.A.U. indoor championships in successive days.  He broke the world record at 1,500 meters three times in 13 days in 1912 and won the silver medal for the U.S. in that event at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.  Kiviat was the A.A.U. outdoor mile champion in 1911, 1912, and 1914, and the cross-country winner in 1913.  He held U.S. indoor records for 600 yards, 800 meters, 1,000 yards, and the mile.  In 1913, Kiviat won the 600 and 1,000-yard runs in the A.A.U. indoor championship, a feat never accomplished again in a one-day meet.  For decades, he served as a press steward for indoor meets at the Garden.

Gustavus Kirby

Gustavus Kirby (Track and fencing.  Born, Philadelphia, PA, Jan. 22, 1874; died, Bedford Hills, NY, Mar. 28, 1956.)  In 1896, Gustavus Town Kirby was an I.F.A. fencing champion, but it was as an administrator in track and field that he made his greatest contributions.  Kirby ran track at Columbia (1893-95) before attending law school there.  As a senior (1895), he helped organize the first committee to send a U.S. team to the revived Olympics in Athens, Greece, the following year.  Kirby was to serve on every U.S. Olympic Committee through 1956.  He was president of the U.S.O.C. in 1920 and its chairman in 1924.  Kirby served as an official at literally hundreds of track meets, indoors and out, in the New York area for over 60 years and was chairman of the advisory committee for the I.C.4A. for 32 years (1896-1928).

Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson (Track and field.  Born, Philadelphia, PA, July 24, 1914; died, Harrisburg, PA, Dec. 17, 1992.)  A high school track star from Plymouth (Penna.), Benjamin Johnson was perhaps the best U.S. sprinter of the 1930s who never ran for his country in the Olympics.  As a 17-year-old prep runner, he missed by one spot a berth on the 1932 team and when he seemed a cinch for the 1936 squad, he pulled a muscle in the A.A.U. nationals.  Johnson beat the great Jesse Owens twice in their four head-to-head meetings but Owens became the national hero with his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad.  Johnson actually created a major stir two years later when he was clocked at a world record (indoor) 6.0 in the Millrose 60-yard dash at Madison Square Garden.  Meet officials, believing the three watches were wrong, credited him instead with his semifinal time of 6.1, which itself matched the world record.  During his career at Columbia, Johnson won the U.S. indoor 60-yard sprint in 1935 and 1937, the I.C.4A. 100-yard and 220-yard outdoors and 60-yard indoors in 1937 and the N.C.A.A. outdoor 100 crown that year.  After captaining the Lions’ I.C.4A. champions as a senior in 1938, Johnson coached at Bordentown (N.J.) Military Institute for two years and ran for the New York Curb Exchange A.A.  He stopped seriously competing after the outbreak of World War II in Europe (which led to the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games).  After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Johnson joined the Army and rose to the rank of colonel before retiring in 1968.  He then worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare until 1980.

Lon Myers

Lon Myers (Track and field. Born, Richmond, VA, Feb. 16, 1858; died, New York, NY, Feb. 15, 1899.) Perhaps at no time in track and field history has a single athlete dominated the sport the way Lawrence E. Myers did from 1879-85, during which time he set world and American records at virtually every distance from 100 yards to one mile. Myers began his track career in 1879 as a member of the Manhattan Athletic Club, then a major rival of the New York A.C. That year, he won the 220, the 440 and the half-mile at the National Association amateur championships. In 1880, the Manhattan A.C. began a string of three straight national team championships, with Myers as the major factor. In that year, he was voted “Best Athlete” at the national championship meet after winning the 100, 220, 440, and half-mile. Even more remarkable, Myers in 1882 became the first non-Briton to win a major event on English soil when he won the 440 in 48.6 seconds at Birmingham July 16. England was then the world’s leading track and field power and a hotbed of the sport. In 1883, Myers defeated English champion W.G. George in a half-mile match race at the Polo Grounds and set an American record in the mile at 4:27.4. He set a world record in the 880 during another English tour in 1884, clocking 1:55.4 at Birmingham on July 7. Upon his retirement in 1885, Myers was honored by a special “night” at Madison Square Garden and given $1,800 by an adoring public.

Paavo Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi (Track.  Born, Turku, Finland, June 13, 1897; died, Helsinki, Finland, Oct. 2, 1973.)  Paavo Nurmi had already won six Olympic gold medals and one silver running for Finland when he first appeared in New York in 1925.  Nurmi immediately dominated the mile events in the major indoor meets at the Garden, beating reigning U.S. king Joie Ray (Jan. 6, 1925) in the mile and 90 minutes later broke Ray’s record by 10 seconds in the 5,000-meter run.  At the Millrose Games three weeks later, Nurmi bested Ray twice (at ¾-mile and again at 1½ miles).  Then at the New York A.C. Games, he won again in the two-mile run (8:58 2/5), becoming the first man ever to break nine minutes in the event.  He then bowed out of the Knights of Columbus, the year’s final major meet, with a distressed stomach blamed on a beef pot pie.  Nurmi won another gold for Finland at the 1928 Olympics and then returned to the U.S. for a tour in the 1929 indoor season.  In the Millrose, the first major event of the year (Feb. 9), Nurmi was upset by Ray Conger, a former N.C.A.A. mile champ from Iowa State, by eight yards in the Wanamaker Mile.  It was hailed for many years after as the “greatest upset in track.”

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The Bill Shannon Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports is an open database of sports biographies maintained by Jordan Sprechman and Marty Appel. We welcome public and scholarly contributions and suggestions.

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