International athletic competition of any real note or importance was virtually unknown in late 1894 when the New York Athletic Club issued a challenge to its powerful counterpart in London. But the idea caught on fast and the proposed track and field event came to be viewed by many as a matter of national pride and physical strength.
On both sides of the ocean the selection of team members was of greatest concern. John C. Gulick, secretary of the NYAC, received a friendly letter from Mr. S. K. Holman, secretary of the London Club, stating that the noted Scottish sprinter, C. A. Bradley, had recently joined his organization. "I wish to point out now," said Holman. "so as to forestall argument on the subject, that Mr. Bradley has recently joined, and has done so. I believe, expressly for this competition." No argument came from New York City; instead the NYAC began a thorough canvassing of the nation's track and field talent with membership invitations for the very best. With the international event now established as no casual affair, NYAC Team Captain Hugh Baxter gathered an impressive group of athletes together at the club's private grounds on Travers Island. Nothing was denied the team in the way of food, lodging and expert coaching.
The last pesky legal matter was cleared up on Aug. 15 when William B. Curtis, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, replied to a July 29 letter from NYAC President James Whitely. In essence, the document acknowledged that in this instance hard-line policy regarding club membership might weaken America's chances of winning the all-important match. A dispensation allowed the NYAC to pick any American athlete for membership, which was fortunate, in view of the fact that the enterprising New Yorkers had already selected a magnificent national team to meet the British on Sept. 21, 1895 in New York.
The British team consisted, as did the American, of a combination of club and college athletes. The winner of the annual Oxford-Cambridge track meet was to cross the water to take on Yale, and both school groups were then to become part of their national teams.
Leslie's Weekly pointed out that the match was in reality one with "all England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales versus all America."
Outing, Harper's Weekly, Leslie's Weekly and New York's newspapers filled their columns with talk of the meet, predicting record crowds, world record performances and a close match.
On Sept. 4 a thousand people welcomed the British ship Aurania upon its arrival in New York. After a reception and dinner at the Murray Hill Hotel, the British athletes, "a lithe, well-bronzed set of men," split up, the college men from Cambridge proceeding to New Haven as guests of Yale, and the club athletes remaining in New York as guests of the NYAC, with arrangements to practice at the Berkeley Oval.
For a full week both groups expressed complete satisfaction with their accommodations, track facilities and the management of their training regimen. Then a circumstance over which their hosts had no control began to trouble the visitors: a relentless 90° heat became bothersome. Several Britishers took to complaining of chronic fatigue, and, in addition, two athletes reported pulled muscles. None of this prevented British Manager Montague Shearman from predicting that his team was going to win all the flat races.
By midday on Saturday, Sept. 21 the temperature on New York City's Manhattan Field was a sizzling 98°. Over 10,000 broiling, partisan, patriotic but jovial spectators were on hand, with both sexes helping to jam the stadium. "The new woman," suggested the New York Herald, "is nothing if not athletic, and the thousands of girls talked as learnedly on the situation as their escorts." Among the many distinguished spectators were James Whitely, president of the NYAC, former president August Belmont, Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, correspondent Richard Harding Davis, artist Charles Dana Gibson, amateur sports leader James E. Sullivan and the city's police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. Out in the center of the green oval field a brass band was blowing holes through the fiery atmosphere.
It was two o'clock when the English athletes arrived, looking very brown and rugged as they strolled down the cinder path toward the clubhouse. They were dressed in splendid colors, one sporting a maroon sack coat, another a pair of lavender trousers, still another a pea-green smoking jacket. The few not in competition smoked pipes and distributed advice. There seemed no lack of confidence about them—they laughed and chatted and joked among themselves as though international contests were an everyday occurrence.
The half-mile run was the first event. Two contestants from each club had been selected, with only first-place winners to count in the scoring. "Get in position," cried starter A. A. Jordan. Charles H. Kilpatrick and Henry S. Lyons, the Americans, stood poised shoulder to shoulder with English champions Frederick S. Horan and Charles H. Lewin. "Set," shouted Jordan, and the crack of the pistol sent them on their way. Lyons and Lewin led briefly but yielded to Kilpatrick just beyond the quarter-mile post as the crowd of 10,000 yelled like madmen. The American's strength on the last straightaway was too much for the now oncoming Horan and Kilpatrick finished 20 feet ahead in 1:53⅖ a new world record by a full second.
There was a pause while the band played Oh, Mrs. O'Flaherty, What Do Yon Think of That? and then the sprinters came out for the 100-yard dash. The crowd lapsed into comparative silence. Bernard J. Wefers and a celebrated intercollegiate champion, John V. Crum, were the U.S. representatives, while Charles A. Bradley and H. G. Steavenson ran for Britain. All got off to a good start from the new crouching position. At the 50-yard mark Wefers was a step behind Crum, but he came on very strong and burst through the yarn in 9.8 seconds. He had tied the world record and set the tempo for the remainder of the afternoon. The British team was down two points.
The mile was next. Britain's best miler, F. E. Bacon, had failed to make the trip, so William E. Lutyens was alone in facing George Orton and Thomas Conneff, the magnificent Irish-American distance runner. After three uneventful laps, Conneff left Lutyens staggering and won in the excellent time of 4:18[1/5]. Then came the 220, with Wefers and Crum facing Alfred Downer and Gilbert Jordan. After another good start, it was Wefers who gradually forged to the front while Downer pulled up lame. A group of 3,000 strained to see from the heights of Deadhead Hill outside the enclosure, while inside there was a delirium of excitement as Wefers went over the line five yards ahead and ran smack into a big policeman. His winning time of 21[3/5] seconds was another world record, and the team score stood at four points for the U.S. and 0 for Great Britain.
While these races were going on at the track, one of the top field performances of the 19th century was unfolding at the high-jump pit. A. B. Johnston of the London team had failed three times at 5'10" and his teammate, Reggie Williams, had missed at 6'. This left two New Yorkers to fight for the honors: S.A.W. Baltazzi and the peerless Michael F. Sweeney, owner of the world record at 6'5‚⅛", a height some eight inches higher than his own. Baltazzi proved unable to clear 6'. Sweeney, a powerfully built Irish-American, stepped off 10 paces from the bar, made a mark and walked back another 15 feet. His approach would be head-on, at a 90-degree angle to the handkerchief-draped crossbar. The crowd groaned and groaned again as Sweeney narrowly missed his first jump and his second. On the last attempt, he approached with quick short strides, followed by what poetic newsmen were later to describe variously as "a little mincing jump, like a lady in a minuet," and "a dance step that would have captivated a French master." Whatever it was, Sweeney used it with great effect. Accelerating, crouching and lengthening his last three strides, he catapulted off the ground, rose for the bar, cleared cleanly, half on his side, half on his back and landed in the crude pit. The officials from both countries, losing all sense of dignity, did a dance. Three mighty cheers burst from the grandstand and were echoed all around the field. Even the two beaten Londoners rose and clapped their hands and cheered with the rest. The band played Hail to the Chief. A careful measurement gave Sweeney another precious fraction, and his official clearance was recorded as 6'5‚Öù".
The Americans continued to swamp the British. In the 16-pound hammer throw, the massive James S. Mitchell easily defeated his teammate, Harry P. Cross, and the little, square-built Englishman, George S. Robertson. Mitchell won the event with a toss of 137'5½". The 16-pound shotput was more of the same as George R. Gray, NYAC, won with 43'5" and left his English opponent away back in third place with 34'7". All the while the band kept up a steady blare of patriotic airs that must have seemed dirges to the visiting athletes. In the broad jump the English were again inadequately represented, and the Boston stylist, Elwood B. Bloss, won with 22'6". In the 120-yard high hurdles, Stephen Chase surprised the two English hurdlers, Godfrey Shaw and William J. Oakley, with a time of 15[2/5] seconds. This world record, however, was disallowed as Chase had knocked over the second barrier. The English team captain, Shaw, was a yard back.
The closest and most exciting race of the day was the 440-yard dash. Britons Gil Jordan and W. Fitzherbert were pitted against Americans Thomas E. Burke and George M. Sands. On the back-stretch Sands was leading by 20 feet when, according to the New York Herald, "suddenly Jordan, the Englishman, shot by Burke at a sprinting gait, and set sail for Sands, whom he passed as though the New Yorker was standing still. Before Burke knew where he was the Londoner was 15 feet ahead and only 75 yards from the finish." The crowd roared as Burke dug down and went after the big redhead with the eight-foot stride and "the spring of an ostrich." Five yards from the finish both were on even terms. A supreme effort, and the American went ahead by a margin too close to measure. Tumult raged. The exhausted Englishmen walked gloomily off the field. Their comrades on the clubhouse balcony sat with their heads buried in their hands.
The last event, the three-mile run, could be nothing but anticlimax and it turned out to be a funeral procession. Conneff and Kilpatrick of New York had as rivals Horan and E. J. Wilkins. Kilpatrick dropped out after five laps. Conneff moved up, passed Horan and ran on the heels of the game Wilkins until the last lap. Then the American made his move and sailed home an easy winner in 15:36[2/5].
In the end, the Americans had won all 11 events and either broken or tied four world records. The English were obviously overconfident, undertrained and incredulous at American performances. The shocked visitors competed like men and lost like gentlemen, with the possible exception of the tight-lipped leader of the English team, Montague Shearman. Shearman grumbled the hope that the rigid American system of training a small group of specialized gladiators would never infect his own nation's larger, voluntary, self-trained and joyous approach to athletics. His sarcasm was biting as he pointed out that "the machinery of the New York Athletic Club, with its free training stables—I mean tables—was ready to train anybody with ability."
He failed to take note of the substantially important fact that for three months prior to the fall contest the entire American team had practiced correctly and hard—and twice a day. The result was a remarkable American performance in the first important international meet.
The following year, 1896, the first modern Olympics were held in Athens and the track and field events were again dominated by the United States—with a team distinctly inferior to the NYAC team of 1895. Only Thomas Burke of the former group competed, winning both the 100 and 400 meters. E. H. Clark of the Boston Athletic Association took both the broad and high jumps at Athens with a distance and height that would not have come close to winning earlier in New York.
That America should have triumphed again with an almost entirely different team bespeaks an even greater national depth of track ability than was realized at the time. It wasn't many years before much of the world was using the training methods that Britain's Montague Shearman had found so deplorable in 1895.