"July 26, 1922.... I can remember that night as if it was yesterday. The velodrome was on South Orange Avenue, right on the trolley line. My father bought box-seat tickets six weeks in advance for a buck-and-a-quarter each. That's when you could go to the movies for a nickel, you know. Every seat in the place was sold. They packed 16,000 people into the stands and another 4,000 in the infield. Everywhere you looked there were men in shirt sleeves and straw hats. And, let me tell you, a lot more people wanted to get in that night, but the fire marshal wouldn't let 'em sell any more tickets. Oh, it was somethin'...."
Jackie Simes II is recalling a warm July night in 1922 in Newark, N.J., a night more than six decades ago that made a lifelong impression on him, though he was then only eight. It was the night the incomparable Frank L. Kramer rode his last bicycle race.
Simes, now 71, was America's amateur road cycling champion in 1936. A year later his career ended when, as a rookie pro, he crashed through the guardrail of a San Francisco velodrome and suffered serious intestinal injuries.
Simes's voice has a raspy quality, the kind you'd expect a fight trainer to have. His accent has a strong tinge of the Bronx. His blue eyes, surrounded by deep creases, are crystal clear and they narrow as he reminisces. For a few minutes he's back at trackside, a youngster peering over the wooden barrier that separated him from his hero.
"I could've almost reached out and touched him," Simes continues, "he was so close to the rail. He wore a white silk jersey with an American flag sewn over his heart. And he rode a silver bike. Nobody else rode a silver bike like his. When it caught the stadium lights just right, it almost blinded you.
"His trainer held him up while he got his feet strapped into the pedals. He was a big, handsome man with a beautiful pair of legs and a powerful, well-proportioned body. When he was ready he sat up straight, one arm around his trainer. And he held his head up high, like he was lookin' past the crowd.
"Then the announcer strides up to the starting line and waits till the crowd quiets down. I'll never forget that big booming voice—he didn't use no PA or nothin'—and he bellows out, real slow, 'La-dies annnd Gen-tle-men.... Frank L. Kramer...will make...his last appearance...and he will attempt...to break the world's record!'
"Well, like one person that whole stadium rose to its feet, and when Kramer rode around the top of the track slowly, building up speed, the cheers followed him like a tidal wave. I had goose bumps on my arms.
"You know, at age 42 he broke his own record and tied the world record for one-sixth of a mile that night. After 27 years of racing! I don't care what anybody says, there's never been an athlete, before or since, that could hold a candle to Frank Kramer."
Perhaps Simes is right. It's possible that had Kramer's sport not faded from public attention in the U.S., his name would be as recognized today as those of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey or Ty Cobb. But the sport of bicycle racing on the dozens of steeply banked wooden velodromes that once dotted the Atlantic seaboard in places like Boston, Providence, Coney Island, Newark and Philadelphia just disappeared. Completely.
Why that happened is a matter of conjecture. The dwindling number of oldtimers who were involved with the game offer opinions based on incidents recalled from flickering memories. But all of them, and hundreds of articles in the most prominent big-city newspapers and magazines of the day, agree on one thing: There has never been a professional athlete who dominated a highly competitive sport so completely and for so long as Frank L. Kramer. The man they called Big Steve, possibly after a popular cartoon character of the day or maybe because of his rugged looks or because he reminded the fans of a stevedore.
For 16 consecutive years, from 1901 to 1916, Kramer was the U.S. professional champion. He came back twice more to take the title, in 1918 and in 1921, when he was 41 years old. He probably could have won the annual world championship a dozen times, but that isn't important. The one year he bothered was 1912, when the event was held on his home track in Newark. In those days, the U.S. dominated the sport, so if you could beat your fellow Americans, you could beat the world, a point Kramer proved repeatedly in four well-publicized trips to Europe during the course of his career. In 62 starts abroad he won 50 races, many of them against world and foreign national champions.
Not entirely coincidentally, Kramer's golden years coincided with the rise of "Colonel" John M. Chapman, the promoter who became the czar of bike racing. He controlled the talent. He managed the tracks. He determined the events that mattered. In 1911 he signed Kramer to a contract that reputedly bound him to Chapman's organization for 10 years. The deal guaranteed Kramer an annual five-figure income, for which he agreed to appear in a set number of Chapman's promotions each season. The contract also helped make Chapman the richest man in the sport.
In 1911 Chapman and his financial partner, Frank Minion, built a velodrome on South Orange Avenue in the Vailsburg section of Newark, then a pleasant suburb of wide-lawned homes and prosperous businesses. The track was a one-sixth-mile, steeply banked bowl constructed of pine slats curved over heavy wooden framing. There were bleachers and reserved seats for some 12,000 paying fans; the infield could accommodate 3,000 more. The new velodrome was less than a mile from where Big Steve had grown up.
Season after season, Chapman used to bring talent from around the world to race against Kramer at Newark and at the growing number of eastern tracks Chapman controlled.
Dozens of Australian, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, British, French, Italian and Canadian competitors, as well as hundreds of Americans, signed up for Chapman's races. But Kramer was always the biggest drawing card. As Joe Neville, nephew of one of Kramer's trainers, Jack Neville, put it, "As soon as these guys would get off the boat, Big Steve would knock 'em off. The fans loved seeing him battle to stay on top. Now, don't get me wrong, he was beaten by a lot of these guys, good riders. But he always came through when it counted. He was a real American hero."
Kramer's talents on a bike were best displayed in short-distance sprints. He was virtually unbeatable when matched against one or two other riders in half-mile to two-mile races.
Not surprisingly, the annual, season-long American professional championship that Kramer dominated for so many years included a lot of races of two miles or less. In spite of frequent accusations of favoritism, Chapman did all he could to ensure that the mix of title events emphasized Kramer's specialty.
"Sure, Chapman set up races to favor Big Steve," says Neville. "But that made it tough on Kramer. The riders were always looking for a chance to knock him off. The guy lived under a helluva lot of pressure."
The matches were not unlike the dicey Olympic sprint cycling competitions of today. Two, three or four riders would make up a half-mile final—three laps on a steeply banked velodrome. With feet tightly strapped to the pedals of their single-geared, brakeless sprint bikes, they could swoop down the 45-degree banks to catch an opponent off guard, run him into the infield or box him in at the rail. The final dash to the line was always a hair-raiser, with victory often measured in inches. Frequently riders would lock handlebars at 40 mph, resulting in broken collarbones and nasty splinters.
"In those days, every kid grew up watching the bike races," says 69-year-old Jack Brennan of Irvington, N.J. "Where we lived, you only went to the ball game when velodrome tickets were sold out. And when you went to see Kramer, it was like going to see God."
But Kramer was not carried away by such adulation; his personal habits were beyond reproach. "Regularity and knowing what my system could stand gave me the vitality to ride the way I did," Kramer said long after he retired. "I was always in bed at nine."
In the matter of sex, Kramer was said to exercise great restraint. "In those days," Simes says, "they believed that foolin' around made you weak—took the edge off your sprint. They'd put in your contract that you couldn't get married! Imagine that! Why, Jimmy Walthour signed a contract where he'd get paid 10 grand a year for 10 years so long as he didn't get married. So the next year he ups and ties the knot, at 17. Blew his contract.
"Now Jimmy, of course, he was awful headstrong. But Kramer, he lived by the book. He was the example. Didn't get married till he was 44, two years after he retired."
But above all, Kramer is remembered for bringing class to the bike game. Though he came from a modest family in rural Indiana, he wore the mantle of champion with the dignity of an aristocrat. He associated himself with people and products of quality. For most of his career he rode shiny nickel-plated Pierce-Arrow bicycles, custom-made for him each season at the famous bicycle and automaker's Buffalo plant. He had an affinity for sports cars and enjoyed playing golf.
Sent East from Evansville, Ind. by his mother and father in the 1890s for health reasons (New Jersey's clean air was supposed to be good for the respiratory problems he suffered from as a child), Kramer grew up with foster parents in East Orange, N.J. His bike-racing debut was hardly auspicious. In his first event, May 30, 1896 in Weequahic Park, Newark, Kramer finished dead last.
That was at the tail end of an era of transition from the high-wheeled "ordinaries" to "safeties," those revolutionary machines with wheels of equal size and pneumatic tires. Astride a safety, a sprint rider could approach the astonishing speed of 40 mph.
Despite early physical problems, attributed to unusually rapid growth, Kramer liked reaching that kind of speed. He quickly learned how to handle the safety and by 1898 had won his first national amateur title.
In 1899, when Kramer won his second U.S. amateur championship, there were some 100 velodromes scattered across the country and a class of wealthy professionals who matched wheels in spectacular sprint races on a circuit that included most major American cities, as well as Montreal, Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen.
Joe Neville recalls stories his uncle used to tell about the rivalries that sometimes developed between Kramer and men like Alf Goullet, the Australian who finished second to Kramer in the American Championships some 15 times. "Goullie was a tough, gutsy little rider," says Neville, "and he could beat Kramer probably more than anyone else."
According to one newspaper's account, on a night late in his career, Kramer had finally had enough: "Old Champ Kramer can stand for riders teaming against him, but when it is upheld by the race officials, it is a little more than the venerable citizen of East Orange can stand and still exert perfect control over his well-known dignity. Last night it appeared as though everybody was against Kramer, and the old boy resented it in an astonishing manner. Dignity or no dignity, Kramer stepped up to Goullet and parked a right smart left hook on Alf's jaw, and other blows followed...[Finally] the belligerents were separated."
Goullet, now 93, plays down such incidents. "Oh sure, we all sometimes got in mix-ups of some kind or another," he says. "Of course, the press would always blow it up. But they liked Frank Kramer. He got most of the good press, and he deserved it."
The best-known rider at the turn of the century was little Major Taylor, one of the first black athletes to break the color barrier in professional sports—nearly 50 years before Jackie Robinson. It was the Major who, flashing a big roll of bills he had just won at a Philadelphia race in 1899, influenced Kramer to turn professional. Judging from the fierce rivalry that quickly developed between the two, Taylor's bankroll had goaded Kramer, who subsequently never missed the opportunity to compete against the "colored champion."
If Kramer's wholesome image was tarnished in any way, it was by his reputed prejudice against the Major—which, however, given the times, may have made him more, rather than less, popular with the fans.
Kramer was defeated by Taylor only once in the U.S. professional championship—in 1900, the first year Big Steve rode as a pro. According to one newspaper account, "Major Taylor was then at the zenith of his power, and it was the colored star, with his French sprint and cunning tactics, who took the mantle, not the East Orange speed merchant."
But Kramer would hold the title for the next 16 years. His durability was attributed not only to his Spartan life-style, but also to his meticulous study of the sport. He employed a trainer to help condition him and to administer daily massages. He made a study of sprint-racing tactics. And he went into the factories to learn every detail of bicycle construction and mechanics.
"I would say," observes Neville, "that Kramer was an intelligent, single-minded individual. He didn't enjoy defeat. He made himself a star. He set very high standards for himself, so high that my uncle said he was starting to crack a little toward the end—his nerves, you know.
"But Big Steve always had a grandeur, a star quality about him, that gave the sport some class. He lived for the bike the way Caruso lived to sing. The same kind of people that went to the opera came to see Frank. In my opinion, when Kramer quit the bike game, it folded up."
And in truth, in the eight years after Kramer's farewell, Chapman was never able to find another star of his stature. Kramer remained in Chapman's organization as a chief judge. After his retirement, his presence at the major velodromes contributed to the continued success of those facilities until they abruptly went out of business in the early 1930s.
The 30,000-seat New York Velodrome at 225th and Broadway in the Bronx burned to the ground on Aug. 4, 1930. At the end of that season the lease ran out on the Newark Velodrome. With Chapman more interested in his Georgia plantation and the Depression worsening, there was little incentive to rebuild, and the sport went into a nose dive from which it couldn't recover.
Kramer died in 1966 at 86, the retired police chief of East Orange, N.J. He had never been inducted into a hall of fame. He had never served as the commissioner of a multimillion-dollar sports league. But he did hold the unique distinction of having dominated one of America's most popular professional sports for 27 years. And he was one of the first Americans to live the life of a totally dedicated professional athlete.
Perhaps that's why the The New York Times of July 31, 1922 proclaimed Kramer's record as "one of amazing endurance and stamina, not to mention success...one of the most marvelous in athletic history."
And perhaps that's why the tears flowed freely on Kramer's farewell night at the Newark Velodrome and why the band repeatedly struck up Auld Lang Syne and The Star-Spangled Banner after Kramer climbed off his bike for good.
"I'm only sorry," said the graying champion in a typically brief statement, "that I'm not 15 years younger so that I might continue to entertain you. However, I have no alternative and must bow to Father Time."