Games People Play with the Official Program of the Paavo Nurmi Invitational Track Meet, Los Angeles Coliseum, 25 April 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) was a track-and-field superstar who captured nine gold and three silver medals at the Olympic Games of 1920 at Antwerp, Belgium, 1924 at Paris, and the 1928 games here in Los Angeles and who held over two dozen world records, including a mile-run best of 4 minutes 10.4 seconds that lasted for eight years (the current record is 3 minutes 43,13 second by Morocco’s Hicham El Gherrouj in 1999, almost a quarter century ago).

His fame peaked at Paris, where, in an hour on a blisteringly hot July afternoon, he set Olympic records in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter runs, while two days later, another hot day, he repeated his 1920 win in the 10,000-meter cross country race and followed this up with a team win in an unofficial 3,000 meter race.

Pomona Bulletin, 18 April 1925.

With the level of stardom achieved in France, it was no surprise that Nurmi embarked on a lengthy and exhaustive tour of the United States, with his arrival at the end of 1924 followed by over fifty events including indoor ones on wooden tracks that required training through December before he took part in the first race in Madison Square Garden on 6 January 1925. There, he ran a mile and a 5,000-meter race in an hour and, in the first, bested Americans Joie Ray and Lloyd Hahn, and then outran his countryman Ville Ritola in the second—in both Nurmi set world records.

The tour, which lasted through 26 May, included the “Flying Finn” traveling 31,000 miles including side trips to Canada. He won all but three races, two of these losses were handicaps and the third was his final contest at Yankee Stadium where American Alan Helffrich, the top half-mile runner in the country, edged out Nurmi in an 880-yard spring.

While Nurmi was publicity-averse and did not give interviews, his prowess and performances during the tour brought him enormous attention and added to his legendary status. On 25 April 1925, he appeared at the Los Angeles Coliseum in what was billed as the Nurmi Invitational Meet, sanctioned by the Southern Pacific region of the American Athletic Union and organized by the Rainbow Division Veterans’ Association.

This organization emerged from the Rainbow Division, formed in 1917 after the United States entered the First World War and comprised of 1,000 soldiers each from National Guard regiments from 27 states. Known as the 42nd Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force, it was commanded by William Abram Mann and its chief-of-staff was Douglas MacArthur, who went to great renown in World War II.

Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1925.

The division took place in major campaigns in France, including those of the Aisne-Marne and the Meuse-Argonne and, as the German Army retreated, it followed and occupied large sections of Rhine River valley for four months until it was demobilized in May 1919. Soon after, the Rainbow Division Veterans were formed and the Southern California chapter was launched in September.

The program page devoted to the organization noted that “it is our aim to perpetuate the memory and deeds of our fallen comrades by carrying on in civilian life as we did in war” and added that, while “we expect to make some money,” which to be invested and interested used for its activities, “we are investing for the future, not alone in securities, but in the good will and respect of the community.”

The buildup to the meet included a good deal of media coverage and promotion, including the fact that the opening event comprised trial heats of half-mile relays for the Southern California High School Meet to be held on 2 May. The program noted that the previous weekend, a San Diego squad set a new world record of 1 minute 31.6 seconds besting the previous mark established by the Pasadena and Hollywood high schools. In all, some 350 male students participated in the heats that opened the program.

Another aspect that was highlighted was the seventh event, which consisted of 440-yard relays run by three squads of women coached by Aileen Allen (1888-1950) of the Pasadena Athletic Club. A native of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Allen was a champion swimmer and diver who competed in the 1920 Olympics, but was also a body double in silent films produced by the Mack Sennett Studios and served as a technical advisor, as well. Later, she coached women swimmers and divers at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, including the legendary Esther Williams.

Los Angeles Express, 20 April 1925. Frigerio, who was sent a telegram by Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini prior to the meet, pulled out because of an injury suffered in a race just before the Los Angeles competition.

The 12 April edition of the Los Angeles Times noted that the “Star Girl Runners” were under the guidance of Allen as well as Charley Paddock, the champion sprinter raised in the Crown City, and it reported that “a dozen Pasadena girls were developed into sprinters of great speed and ability.” The squad of sixteen young women began with “the relay team which created such a sensation at [a meet at] the Coliseum six weeks ago” and the paper observed with the prevailing bias of the era that “in their boyish bobs and black silk suits the girls . . . looked like real athletes” while it concluded that “even Nurmi ought to get a thrill out of the girls’ race, he who is reputed to never get excited over anything.”

The group, however, who garnered the most attention, this, too, covered with the racist attitudes of the period, were a team of eight runners from New Mexico and Arizona who were students at the Sherman Indian [High] School of Riverside. The history of these institutions, in which Indigenous children were removed from the families and tribal homelands to be “Americanized,” is troubling in so many ways, and, while the participation of these young men was characterized in a positive way by their coach Bert A. Jamison, media representation was also often disturbing.

The 14 April edition of the Los Angeles Record quoted Jamison as saying,

The boys are training with but one thought, to assist the fastest and strongest of the team to finish ahead of the great Nurmi. Each appreciates, most fully, the honor of being sent against so famed an athlete as Nurmi. There is no trace of jealousy or selfishness among the boys. They even talk for hours, between training periods, of the prowess of certain members of the team, suggesting that this or that one will be able to accomplish that which the speaker cannot.

Newspaper accounts, however, often referred to the octet, with four each from Arizona and New Mexico, and of the Hopi, Mission and Navajo tribes, as “Injuns” or “Redskins” and suggested that they were looking for Nurmi’s “scalp” or that he, in return, was, while it was widely broadcast that the young men were said to have pronounced that the Coliseum had a “heap good track.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 25 April 1925.

Other events included the 120-yard high hurdles including four U.S.C. entrants, two from Pomona College, and on each from the University of Redlands and Stanford University. A 440-yard dash included a baker’s dozen of runners, nine being Trojans, one from Pomona and the other pair from the Stanford-Hollywood Athletic Club, with Morton “Devil May” Kaer well-known locally for his fifth place finish in the pentathlon at the 1924 Olympics, but who was also football star for the Men of Troy with his mark of three dozen career touchdowns tied only by O.J. Simpson in the late 1960s.

The 100-yard dash featured seven sprinters, three from USC, one each from Pomona, Redlands and the California Institute of Technology, and Keith Lloyd unattached. Lloyd was known as the fastest runner on the Pacific Coast other than Paddock and had been a Trojan. In the 220-yard low hurdles, there were some repeats from the shorter high-hurdles race and other events, among the seven competitors, of which four were Trojans, two Pomona Sagehens and one from Stanford. Leighton Dye of USC was the regional champion and record-holder in the high hurdles, while Robert Maxwell of Pomona held the record for the low hurdles.

A 440-yard relay pitted squads from Pomona and U.S.C. against an unattached team including Kaer and Lloyd and it was noted that a world record was set just the prior weekend by the University of Kansas with a time of 42 seconds (the current 4×100 record is by the incredible Jamaican team in the 2012 Olympics in London.)

A javelin contest was also held between Kaer, Pomona’s Charles Eaton, competitor in the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Olympics and who regional record was 188 feet, and world record holder Jonni Myyra of the San Francisco Athletic Club. Myrra, a native of Finland, topped 219 feet and had the distinction of winning the event at the 1920 Olympics even though his left arm (he threw with his right) was fractured in a freak accident while an American contestant was warming up. Czech athlete Jan Zelezny holds the current record at just over 304 feet.

Times, 25 April 1925.

There were seven participants in the high jump contest, with four Trojans competing against one athlete each from Pomona, Occidental College and the Hollywood Athletic Club, while there were a half-dozen entrants for the pole vault, including a pair of brothers, Harry and Ralph Smith, from San Diego High School, two 1924 Olympic veterans, Lee Barnes of U.S.C. and Glenn Graham from CalTech with Barnes, fresh from graduating from Hollywood High winning gold, while Graham took silver after a jump-off with Barnes.

In the shot put competition, there were five athletes involved, all from U.S.C. except Roland Clark who was from Pomona and Lemuel “Bud” Houser, who graduated from Oxnard High School, captured two golds at Paris in the shot put and discus and repeated in the discus throw in 1928, earning a place in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Not surprisingly, Houser also took part in the discuss event, which included four other men, two from U.S.C., Pomona’s Clark as well as Myyra. Norman Anderson was another 1924 Olympics alum and took fifth place in the shot put at Paris, while he was also noted as “one of the greatest tackles who ever played football on the Pacific Coast” and graduated from U.S.C. a couple of months after the meet.

Almost all of the attention, of course, was fixated on Nurmi, also known as the “Phantom Finn” and the “Rajah of Run” (a take on baseball slugger Babe Ruth’s moniker of “Sultan of Swat). The Record of 21 April observed that, as he traveled to the Angel City, he was “eschewing the luxuries of the limited trains in favor of one with a number of half hour station stops scheduled,” so that the champion could use the downtime to get some running in on roads near the depots. Because there was no dining car, meal orders were sent ahead by telegraph and served in the “Nurmi party drawing room” aboard his train.

Illustrated Daily News, 26 April 1925.

Notably, the paper reported that “Nurmi will meet with a royal reception when he arrives in Los Angeles, and if it is possible to coax the retiring fellow from the seclusion which has characterized his stay in America,” a variety of options awaited him including movie studio visits and a Chamber of Commerce banquet, these being de rigeur for dignitaries and the famous. It was also stated that the Sherman runners planned to meet him at San Bernardino and “present him with a huge bouquet of flowers and a box of prize fruit.”

When Nurmi announced the sole event in which he would participate, it was a three-mile run against the eight Sherman entrants and he demurred from taking on Hahn in the eighth event of the meet, the one-mile race. The program observed that the Nebraska native, who attended Boston Tech and who finished sixth in the 1500-meter race at the 1924 Olympics and in the same place in the 800-meter contest in 1928, “has been Paavo Nurmi’s most worthy competitor in the one-mile run on the Eastern indoor tracks this winter” during the Finnish legend’s tour, besting Ray, who was “considered America’s premier middle distance runner.”

A little more than a week prior to the meet, Hahn and James Connolly, who competed for the United States in the Olympics of 1920 and 1924, being one of the members of the team that took bronze in the 3,000-meter relay, issued a public challenge to Nurmi. The two telegraphed Rainbow Division Veterans local president Chad Calhoun, who managed the meet, that Nurmi’s refusal to run against them “is final and conclusive proof that he is side-stepping us” and it was “only fair and sportsmanlike for him to declare himself the world’s greatest runner from two miles up and to forget about the one-mile claim.” Connolly and Hahn notified that Calhoun that they planned to shatter the world record in the mile and implored him “please make every effort to induce Nurmi to run.”

Hahn ended up winning the contest at the Coliseum, though it was reported by Matt Weinstock of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News in its meet coverage that “it was lack of competition that kept him from giving the best that is in him” as “he easily led the best that local colleges could offer,” but still finished at 4 minutes 16.9 seconds, six-and-a-half seconds slower than Nurmi’s world record. In the discus, Houser set a new record at 156 feet 3 1/4 inches (the current record is 243 feet, 1/2 inch by German athlete Jürgen Schult in 1986—this is the longest-standing track and field record).

Times, 26 April 1925.

Leighton Dye of U.S.C. captured the crown in the 120-yard high hurdles with a new Pacific Coast record of 14.7 seconds, while Myyra easily outdistanced the locals in the javelin, clearing over 212 feet for a new American record. Because it was unattached, the 440-relay team that bested the squads from U.S.C. and Pomona College, though it shaved 1/10 of a second of the Kansas record from the prior week, did not get official recognition for its achievement. For the women’s quarter mile relay, one of the Pasadena quartet, comprised of Nellie Doerschlag, Elizabeth Nelson, Ethel Nichols and Alice Ryder, shattered its own record, finishing in 52.7 second.

The Illustrated Daily News pegged the crowd at 43,000, while the Times tagged 2,000 more to the attendance; in any case, it was said to be the largest attendance of any of the 55 events in which Nurmi competed on his five-month tour. The latter paper’s Braven Dyer claimed that the Coliseum event was “the greatest track-and-field meet ever staged in America” and he added that

Running with that clock-like [he actually carried a stopwatch with him during races to regulate his pace], monotonous but nevertheless beautiful stride which seems to belie the man’s eccentricities, Nurmi vanquished a valiant band of eight Indians from the Sherman school over the dreary eight-mile route. His time for the distance was 14m. 15 9-10s.—not a new world’s record but a mark that takes its place as the best that has ever been registered on American soil.

At least Dyer refrained from describing Nurmi’s victory as a “scalping,” which is how the Pomona Bulletin described his finishing almost a lap (46 seconds) ahead of Sherman’s Thomas Humphrey, a Hopi from near the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The journalist added that “inasmuch as it was the first real competition of the Indians, they look good as distance men.”

Nurmi, who received a loving cup trophy from Mayor George Cryer, who was running for reelection (the program contained campaign ads for that office and others for the upcoming election) left the following day for San Francisco to continue his tour. Leland C. Lewis, writing for the Bulletin stated that “without question, the appearance of Nurmi is the most outstanding event that has ever transpired in the history of Southern California athletics” and concluded that “it will also be an incentive toward the 1932 Olympic games,” at which it was forecast that some young local runner would supplant the great champion, though Nurmi was prohibited from competing because he was determined to have become a professional.

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