Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

A weird, popular sport in 19th century New York

July 25, 2016

Lots of today’s sports built their fan base in the late 19th century, like baseball, tennis, and cycling. But none of these had the city cheering nearly as hard as a forgotten competitive activity called pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismnpr

A form of race walking, pedestrianism “spawned America’s first celebrity athletes, the forerunners—forewalkers, actually—of LeBron James and Tiger Woods,” wrote Matthew Algeo in his book, Pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismbrooklyneagle1867“The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals . . . their images appeared on some of the first cigarette trading cards, which children collected as avidly as later generations would collect baseball cards.”

Pedestrianism boomed after the industrial revolution and the standardization of the workweek gave millions of middle class New Yorkers leisure time, something once available only to the rich.

The idea that the masses needed rest and relaxation, specifically in nature, had also gained popularity, particularly after the Civil War.

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Parks were built, the seashore became a place of enjoyment, and ordinary people flocked to watch competitive walking the way millions of Americans watch Sunday football today.

Pedestrianism was pretty rough. Long-distance events involved walking hundreds of miles between cities. Madison Square Garden hosted six-day races (competitors walked for 21 hours, then slept for three) that drew thousands of spectators, stated Kerry Segrave’s America on Foot.

PedestrianismNYT1874

One pedestrian star, Edward Payson Weston (above), would enter a roller rink and “attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours,” Algeo said via a 2014 interview with NPR. “And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.”

The sport’s heyday stretched through the 1870s and 1880s, then died down as the bicycle became safer and other sports stole away fans. But not before a pedestrianism revival was attempted.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“More than 20 years ago the craze for affairs of this sort was at its height, but the novelty of the thing soon wore off and the sport was relegated to the oblivion that its absurdity and uselessness so richly merited,” sneered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1902.

The rise in leisure time in New York after the Civil War spawned a sports craze in the metropolis, covered more extensively with terrific images in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: NPR; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1867; third photo: NPR; fourth image: New York Times, 1874]

Fencing team practice high over the Village

July 18, 2016

The New York University fencing team reveals a flair for the dramatic in this 1923 photo—especially the four guys on the edge of the roof beyond the railing.

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I’m not sure which building this is, but on the left is the Stanford White–designed Judson Church tower. In the foggy background is an apartment building on Washington Square West/Macdougal Street under construction.

[Photo: NYU archives]

Congrats to the 1889 Yale grads from New York

June 23, 2016

It’s graduation season, so meet the 11 native New Yorkers in Yale University’s class of 1889. They’re posing at a dinner thrown in their honor at fancy restaurant Delmonico’s.

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Born after the Civil War, these grads grew up in a fast-growing Gilded Age city. In four years, they’ll be facing the devastating economy of the Panic of 1893.

Apparently they were all jocks, as the dinner was “in commemoration of the victories won in recent years in rowing, base-ball, foot-ball and other athletic contests,” according to the caption.

A hidden Village memorial to a 1930s sports hero

May 26, 2016

HankgreenberghomeOn the slender stretch of Barrow Street just west of Sheridan Square is a typical old-school city tenement.

Blending in discreetly on the outside of 16 Barrow Street is a weathered plaque honoring an early occupant: baseball all-star Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (below in 1933).

The Hebrew Hammer, as one of his nicknames went, lived there for a year after his birth in 1911, after which his family moved to a tenement on Perry Street.

Greenberg never played for a New York team; he spent his long career through the 1930s and 1940s slugging it out for the Detroit Tigers.

Hankgreenberg1933He made a name for himself not just as an excellent ballplayer but as the first Jewish superstar (his parents were Romanian-born Orthodox Jews).

In his memoir, The Story of My Life, he recalls the Village back in the 1910s.

“Baseball didn’t exist in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The neighborhood kids played one-o-cat, or stickball, or some other game that could be played on a city street.

“There was no place to play baseball, and nobody thought about the game, or missed it. Kids down in the Village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities.”

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The Greenbergs decided the neighborhood was too rough and relocated to the Bronx. At Monroe High School, Hank began playing the game that earned him fame and fortune.

Madison Square Garden’s massive bowling alley

May 16, 2016

Over the years, the various Madison Square Gardens built in New York have hosted just about every sport: football, boxing, track, hockey, basketball, even swimming.

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But who knew the Garden has once been converted into an enormous floor-spanning bowling alley—with pin boys perched at the end of each lane and wooden desks set up where judges sat and did the scoring?

MSG1890It happened in 1909,  when the Stanford White–designed arena was located on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The National Bowling Association came to town to hold its championship, transforming the place into a “bowlers’ paradise” with 24 lanes spanning the entire amphitheater—and $50,000 in prize money.

[Photo: Madison Square Garden 1900, MCNY]

Evel Knievel jumps across Madison Square Garden

February 8, 2016

EvelknievelmsgAnyone who was a kid in the 1970s remembers Harley-riding daredevil Evel Knievel—and the avalanche of toys and action figures that hit TV and toy stores in the wake of his popularity.

His biggest stunts took place out West. But in July 1971, he brought his act to Madison Square Garden, which was hosting something called the Auto Thrill Show.

At the Garden, Evel revved his bike, sailed off a ramp, and cleared 10 cars. It wasn’t a record; only 10 cars could fit in the space he had in the arena (viewable here via YouTube).

The New Yorker covered the jump in the July 24 issue: “The ice-cream hawkers and the guards stand in the exits, watching. The audience moves to the edge of its seats,” reported The New Yorker.

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“Knievel’s Harley can be heard, and then suddenly he is tearing out of the wings—a flash of white suit and gleaming white helmet—and up the ramp, and he is free; he is in the air, standing over his motorcycle, flying in a graceful arc over the ten automobiles; and he lands smoothly, halfway down the far ramp, and is almost instantly out of sight again in the wings.

“The crowd roars, screams, cheers, applauds, and then Knievel rides back into the arena, one arm raised to receive the wild adulation of the crowd. The challenge has been met one more time.”

[Second photo: Dan Farrell/New York Daily News]

When Brooklyn teams played baseball on ice

December 28, 2015

The history of sports includes lots of nutty ideas. One of the strangest took off big in Brooklyn in the 1860s and 1870s: baseball on ice.

Baseballice

The game was huge in Brooklyn in the decades after the Civil War. Ice skating was trendy too. Why not combine the two into the ultimate winter activity, right?

Local papers covered the games enthusiastically. “Today a grand match at base-ball on ice will be played on the Capitoline Pond, Brooklyn, 2 pm., the contestants being the best players of the Mutual and Atlantic Clubs who are also good skaters,” wrote the New York Times in January 1871.

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[Capitoline Pond (photo below) was at the Capitoline Grounds, a baseball park on Fulton Avenue]

Problems cropped up though. First, regular skaters complained that the ballplayers messed up the ice. Then there was the freezing cold.

Captiolinegrounds

On January 5, 1879, the New York Times wrote about a game at the Prospect Park Lake, which attracted a “half-dozen shivering spectators.”

The game “was anything but interesting to the scorer and umpire, who became so thoroughly chilled by the fifth inning that they refused to act longer, and thus the game was brought to an untimely end.”

A 1930s daredevil dives off the Brooklyn Bridge

August 10, 2015

Since it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been catnip for stuntmen and attention-seekers.

The first jumper was swimming instructor Robert Oldum in 1885, and last year, two German guys climbed to the top of the bridge tower and stuck a white flag on the top.

Daredeviljacklatkowski1938

In the 1930s, a slender man in a one-piece bathing suit calling himself “Dare Devil Jack” does a quasi-jackknife off the bridge, up to seven times, reported the New York Daily News.

Lucky for us, on May 24, 1930, a news crew caught Jack Latkowski diving 155 feet into the East River on film.

From the moment he emerges from a car that’s pulled over to the side of the bridge to his careful climb down to a beam to his plunge into choppy waters, the “New Steve Brodie,” as he’s called, makes it look easy.

Notice how he crosses himself before his feet leave the bridge.

An iconic TV commercial from 1980s New York

July 13, 2015

Aside from the Crazy Eddie and Milford Plaza ads that ran constantly on 1970s and 1980s, is there any more iconic New York City commercial than Phil Rizzuto shilling for The Money Store?

“Can you imagine what you could do with $5,000, $10,000, $50,000?” the Yankee shortstop turned announcer bellowed in a series of ads for this national mortgage lender based in New Jersey—ads which seemed to run constantly whether it was baseball season or not.

PhilRizzutothemoneystoreThe commercials were terrible, but Rizzuto was a character, and every New York sports fan knew his face and his voice.

He left the Yankee announcer’s booth in 1996 and died in 2007 at 89.

Luckily YouTube has preserved Rizzuto’s Money Store ads in all their low-budget, 1980s glory.

The man who dove off the Flatiron Building

June 15, 2015

Henri LaMothe was a showman by trade. Born in Chicago, he first made a living dancing the Charleston.

Henrilemothe1974nydn

“Then came the Depression, when jobs weren’t so easy to find,” LaMothe said in 1977, “and I started diving into the water for a living.”

LaMothe came up with a signature diving stunt he ended up doing thousands of times around the country: from a height of 40 feet, he’d do his “flying squirrel” dive into a pool filled with four feet of water.

HenrilemothedivemcnyIn 1952, he decided to celebrate his birthday by climbing 40 feet up the Flatiron Building and diving into a 4-foot pool on the sidewalk.

He repeated the birthday stunt for 20 years, decreasing the water in the pool every year. By 1974, at age 70, he was down to about a foot of water, states The New York Times.

How did he not crack open his skull?

“When I’m on the platform I go through yoga, stretching and limbering exercises,” he told a newspaper. “Then I wipe out all thoughts and concentrate on the circle and sense my aim, which is what zen is.”

LaMothe discontinued his yearly Flatiron birthday dive after 1974 but continued diving around the country until his death in 1987.

If a man like LaMothe tried that stunt in today’s New York, his arrest would be all over social media before he had time to dry himself off on 23rd Street!

[Top: New York Daily News; Bottom: Museum of the City of New York]


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