Games People Play: A Press Photo of USC Hurdles Champion and Olympic Hopeful Ernie Payne, July 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The 2020 Olympic Games, delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now faced with mounting concern over the latest surge with the Delta variant, are set to begin this Friday and it will certainly be interesting to see how it all goes. Meanwhile, tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph from July 1929 of the University of Southern California’s Ernie Payne, a record-settling low hurdler and Olympic hopeful three years later when the games were held here in Los Angeles.

Payne was born in Los Angeles in October 1906 with his English-born father Arthur working as a carpenter and his mother Nettie raising several children (the first couple born in New York), including when the family moved to Ontario when Ernie was three. At Chaffey Union High School, Ernie was not only a track-and-field star, but was an excellent baseball player and a fine student, winning an oratorical contest for his disquisition of the religion of President Abraham Lincoln during his senior year.

The Payne family as enumerated at Ontario in the 1920 federal census.

Payne then attended Chaffey Junior College, where he continued his stellar academic and superior athletic work before transferring to the University of Southern California. With a widely renowned program under the leadership of Coach Dean Cromwell, the Trojan track-and-field squad was among the finest in the nation and Payne specialized in the low hurdles as soon as he transferred in.

Just prior to when this photograph was dated, the USC squad competed in two championship meets: the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) event in Philadelphia and the seventh National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition in Chicago. The team finished second in the former (which it won in 1925 and 1926) and fourth in the latter and Cromwell replied to the Los Angeles Times of 12 June when asked if he was satisfied with its showing, “Satisfied? Why, I’m so proud of those boys I can’t think of enough words to tell you about it.”

Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1928.

It was observed that, of the dozen athletes sent by USC, seven were sophomores, so there was much to look forward to during the next couple of years. The highlight was the performance of senior Jess Hill, who used his speed for the Trojans’ stellar football team, who captured the broad jump title in the City of Brotherly Love with an IC4A record of just a hair over 25 ft (Mike Powell’s thirty-year old record is 29 feet 4 1/4 inches). As for Payne, he captured second place at that meet with a time of 23.3 seconds in the 220-yard low hurdle race, while he wound up sixth in Chicago.

With school out and the summer season in view, Payne considered joining the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s squad for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet in Denver, early in July, but, apparently, decided not to go because he decided to find some employment during the break. What he did do, however, is compete for the Ontario Pirates in the Southland League of a local amateur baseball circuit and in which he was hurler instead of a hurdler.

Times, 12 June 1929.

Yet, Payne continued to build his standing within the Trojan team and in the track world generally, including a second-place showing behind teammate Bill Carls at the IC4A championships at Harvard University in spring 1930, which the Men of Troy won. In the NCAA championships at Chicago, the Trojans easily took first, as well, with sprinter Frank Wykoff setting a world record in the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds (Jamaica’s Asafa Powell holds the record now at 9.07 seconds.)

For his senior year of 1930-31, was named captain of the squad and he and his teammates duplicated their feat by capturing the IC4A crown for the second consecutive year at Philadelphia. In his low hurdle race, Captain Payne not only captured the crown, but did so in 23.6 seconds, tying the long-standing record set in 1898. A photo in the Times showed the bespectacled hurdler in action during his performance.

Times, 31 May 1931.

At the NCAA championships, again in the Windy City, the Trojans outdid themselves with a record showing of just over 77 points, more than 40 above the second-place Ohio State squad. Wykoff again took the 100-yard dash title with a time of 9.6 seconds. Notably, Payne did not place in his event, though Carls took second.

With his successful collegiate career, capped by those dominant team performances in the two championships, Payne graduated and immediately took a job coaching the track and field squad at Chaffey Junior College, starting in September 1931. Yet, he harbored hopes that he could make the American team for the summer games at Los Angeles the following year, although he was, by then, nearly 27, a somewhat advanced age for an elite track athlete. Still, he was allowed to compete in the IC4A for USC, which again captured the title, and was poised to win the 220-yard low hurdle race when he was edged by a nose and yielded the crown he’d won the prior year.

Boston Globe, 16 July 1932.

A newspaper article from 2012 when the Olympics were held in London stated that Payne was denied the opportunity to compete in the 1932 games because, as a paid college coach, he no longer qualified as an amateur athlete. Yet, at the men’s qualifying trials held at Stanford on 16 July, Payne competed in the 110-meter high hurdle contest and finished fourth in the first heat, with the top three going to the semifinal. There was a separate 220-yard low hurdle race because the trials were combined with the AAU championships and this race was only for that latter—Payne placed third in his signature event.

So, Payne did not get to represent his country and compete for a medal at the Los Angeles summer games, though George Saling, a University of Iowa star in the hurdles and who was killed in an auto crash just six months after the Olympics, took gold. Fellow American Percy Beard of the New York Athletic Club (and before that what became Auburn University in Alabama) took second, with another American Jack Keller of Ohio State given the bronze until a film review led judges to take the medal back and give it to Britain’s Don Finlay.

Payne in action while competing for USC in this press photo dated July 1929.

As for Payne, he continued his career with Chaffey Junior College and Chaffey Union High School, coaching baseball and football in addition to track and field and teaching biology and botany. He also was an advisor to the student council and yearbook before becoming a counselor. In 1950, he was appointed principal of the high school and remained in that position for seventeen years.

After announcing his retirement, he took on the role of assistant district superintendent and held that position for two years before retiring permanently in 1969. A former president of the state association of high school principals, a leader in accreditation, and vice-chair of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, he was also active in the Kiwanis Club, the YMCA, and the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario. He lived to be 94 years old and passed away in the summer of 2001.

San Bernardino County Sun, 19 November 1966.

So, we’ll see what becomes of this most unusual of summer Olympic Games and, when watching elite athletes competing in the hurdles competitions, maybe a thought will be given to Ernie Payne, a local star of the late Twenties, and his attempt to make the American squad nearly 90 years ago.

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