Sea of Dreams: How William Wrigley Jr. brought the Wrigley Ocean Marathon to life
- In 1927, the Chicago financier sought to promote an island he had bought by staging a 20.2-mile marathon swim. Hopefuls flocked to California, desperate for fame and fortune, and their derring-do riveted the nation. In the end, though, almost everyone was left dissatisfied and disappointed.
This story appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Silence blanketed the Pacific. Darkness had long swallowed the sky. A heartlessly cold breeze whipped across the ocean surface. And George Young's swimsuit was floating in the water, drifting southwest with the current, never to be seen again.
Young had removed his trunks a few miles from shore while negotiating a snarl of kelp, leaving him clad in only a coating of grease (for insulation) flecked with graphite (as shark repellent). He swam on, his body in open revolt, propelled by force of repetition and the belief that when he reached land, his life would be transformed.
So it was as Young completed his last stroke at 3:08 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1927. When his feet touched the sand at Point Vicente, Calif., his first move was to dash to his convoy boat for a blanket to wrap around his body. Once swaddled and spared any embarrassment, Young reemerged. His black hair matted, his chiseled jaw prominent as ever, he raised his arms triumphantly with all the strength he had left, acknowledging a crowd of thousands.
Some were lounging on picnic blankets or propped up in beach chairs; more sat in cars on the promontory in Rancho Palos Verdes, honking their horns and flashing their headlights. It was a hell of a gathering, considering it was nearly four hours until dawn.
Only 17 years old, Young had just completed one of the great feats of endurance, a challenge that for months had captivated the American public. For a brief time George Young was as prominent in the nation as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange. Now, his body wracked by the cold, he had continued carving through the water, whipping his arms and kicking his legs, all those gears working in synchronicity. He was the first—and, it would turn out, the only—entrant among the 102 to complete the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, swimming the 20.2 miles from Catalina Island to the coast.
It had taken him nearly 16 hours. He reportedly lost some 20 pounds in the process. He'd avoided the sharks and the rays and fought the currents; he'd survived water that was just 54º. He received sustenance by drinking hot chocolate out of a rubber hose dangling from his convoy boat; the rules prevented competitors from having contact with others.
The swim marathon was very much ahead of its time, a prelude to both the reality TV and ultraendurance crazes in the next century. Yet the race was also very much of its time. A nation of dreamers and idealists and strivers had grown enamored of activities that spawned legends. With the national mood still buoyant—at least for two more years, until the Great Depression—the American public was held in thrall by Horatio Alger stories. And, Lord knows, George Young offered one of those.
As he emerged from the ocean, backlit by moonlight, Young, finally, had done it. He had won. He had pulled off an ending to a story so cinematic it risked being dismissed in nearby Hollywood for implausibility. He had fame. He had wealth—his $25,000 prize represented more than five times the median household income. And, he reckoned, he had earned salvation. He was going to save his mother's life and, by extension, his own. It was the reason he had entered the race in the first place.
Even before the starting gun discharged, the Wrigley Ocean Marathon had a winner. The event's creator and organizer—one of the country's wealthiest men—had already achieved his purpose.
In 1919 chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. was hosting a dinner party in Chicago when he mentioned he was looking for a seasonal residence to avoid the Midwest winters. A real estate agent soon showed him postcards from Catalina Island, a 76-square-mile undeveloped gem off the coast of Southern California. That day Wrigley bought most of the island for $3 million.
Within two years Wrigley and his wife, Ada, made their winter home a Mediterranean-style estate above the harbor. Wrigley built a casino and a sprawling luxury hotel to advance Catalina tourism and real estate, buying steamers to ferry passengers to and from the mainland. Eventually he would add a park for exotic birds and a world-class golf course.
But with business lagging in the off-seasons, Wrigley decided he needed a marketing tool to trumpet the year-round attractions. So in 1921 he insisted that the hapless baseball team he owned, the Cubs, hold their spring training on Catalina, even replicating the exact dimensions of his eponymous Chicago ballpark. Wrigley enjoyed watching his players through a telescope from the deck of his mansion, even if the club did little to spur tourism.
Wrigley was onto something, though. While no one called it sports marketing, entrepreneurs in the 1920s possessed the good sense to use sports as a way of promoting products—cigarettes, real estate and the newest model of automobile. Nothing if not an entrepreneur, Wrigley tried another tactic.
In the summer of 1926, Wrigley, like millions worldwide, had been mesmerized by Gertrude Ederle's attempt to become the first woman to swim across the English Channel. When Ederle, a native New Yorker, returned to the States she was given one of the largest parades New York City had thrown. For months newspapers covered her daily whereabouts. She gave swimming lessons to President Coolidge.
Wrigley wondered: What if he could replicate the English Channel swim—and reap similar international attention—by staging a race from Catalina to Point Vicente, which was almost the identical distance as the span between Dover and Calais? A grueling open-water swim would tap into the national zeitgeist, of a piece with the 1920s marathon dances, tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel and flagpole-sitting. Wrigley called the event the Catalina Channel Swim, a nod to the English Channel. And he offered Ederle $25,000 to compete with a chance to double her money by winning. In the end she declined. But that was O.K. with Wrigley. There were other prominent swimmers who did commit.
Norman (Big Moose) Ross was a 1920s Golden Boy. A World War I pilot who went on to Stanford, Ross was also an Olympic swimmer who had set 13 world records. Because of his athletic success, he had been invited to audition for the lead in the '18 silent film Tarzan of the Apes. The part went to Elmo Lincoln, but Ross did end up dating Gloria Swanson. ("When my mother heard what I was up to," he later recalled, "she came down to Hollywood, took me by the ear and carted me home.")
With the press following the melodrama of which swimmers would enter, Wrigley achieved his goal of placing Catalina in the public discourse. Fred Cady, a prominent Southern California swim coach known for his sober demeanor, wrote a series of prerace columns for the Los Angeles Times filled with hyperbole. The race, according to Cady, was "the greatest event of its kind ever attempted," filled with "the largest swimming field in aquatic history."
Virtually every article mentioned "balmy" or "majestic" or "idyllic" Catalina. The correspondent for the Chicago Tribune—who happened to double as the Cubs' beat writer—took the prize for brownnosing when he wrote that the island is "where Wrigley hires the sun to shine every day." And the mere fact that Catalina had the capacity to host a swimming event in mid-January created the impression of a tropical climate.
The public ate it up. A sports promoter today wouldn't be able to buy the kind of preevent hype conferred on the Catalina race, or, as the press breathlessly called it, "The World's Greatest Sporting Contest for One of the Greatest Prizes Ever Hung Up."
In the lead-up to the race, Wrigley, too, was swept up in the story of Young—THE HARD LUCK KID, as The New York Times called him.
For weeks newspapers ran dispatches of swimmers' preparations. There were abundant discussions of the rules ("No cork or rubber swimsuits!" read one Los Angeles Times headline) and tactics (from negotiating tides to seeking clever ways to obtain nourishment while in the water). The controversy over whether women entrants would be permitted to swim nude made the race a social story as well. Naturally, the field was handicapped and betting lines were set.
Wrigley may have been one of the great American business titans, but he was also the archetypal American bootstrapper. TIME characterized him as "the perfect example of the poor boy who made good." Born in 1861 in Philadelphia, he ran away to New York City at 11, selling newspapers and sleeping in doorways. When the weather took a chilly turn, he returned home. Intent on teaching his son a lesson, William Wrigley Sr. not only sent the kid to work in the family's soap business but also gave him a grueling job stirring pots of boiling soap with a wooden paddle. Within a few years he was selling soap from one of his father's wagons.
At 29, he headed off to Chicago—then the country's fastest-growing city—with $32 in his pocket. He began a company that sold baking powder door to door. Predating the field of behavioral economics, Wrigley intuitively grasped the concept of "anchoring." As a bonus for buying his baking powder, Wrigley gave customers umbrellas and cookbooks and spoons with their purchases. He then switched to free sticks of chewing gum.
Wrigley noticed something: Customers began asking whether they could buy the gum and not the baking powder. He saw an opportunity and began to research how he might manufacture his own line of gum. In his early 30s he launched the Wrigley Company. By 1910, Wrigley's annual gum sales were more than $4 million—$100 million in today's currency. Wrigley kept investing in advertisements and promotion, slathering billboards and streetcars with images that usually featured beautiful women. He is thought to have spent $20 million on advertising alone from '07 to '22. Ultimately something worked. By 1920 the company's revenue exceeded $30 million.
Wrigley's peerless marketing skills weren't limited to gum. In 1916 he joined a friend to purchase an interest in the Cubs for $50,000. Wrigley seized on an idea: Why not plant palm trees around the park as a way of drawing fans? When that failed, Bill Veeck Jr., son of the team president, thought to festoon the outfield walls with ivy at the erstwhile Cubs Park, which had been rechristened in Wrigley's honor in '26.
While Wrigley professed to be a neutral arbiter of the swim marathon, in the lead-up to the race, he, too, was swept up in the story of George Young—"The Hard Luck Kid," as The New York Times called him. Hearing about Young and his upbringing and his struggles, Wrigley reportedly told a friend, "I see some of myself in that kid."
Young was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and when he was a few months old, his father died suddenly. Soon after, George and his mother, Jennie, moved to Toronto. She worked a series of menial jobs and often brought her son with her to work.
In the summers Jennie took a job as a chambermaid at the Wawa Hotel in the Lake of Bays district north of Toronto, mostly so that her boy "could have lots of fresh air and sunshine," wrote the Los Angeles Times. She bought George fancy clothes so that he wouldn't feel out of place mingling with the children of the resort's wealthy clientele. George, though, preferred to spend time in the lake, canoeing and swimming.
In 1923, George was 14 and had completed eighth grade—the last year of his formal schooling. He and Jennie were at Wawa when a fire believed to have started in the inn's elevator shaft quickly spread, burning the hotel to the ground within 30 minutes. While most of the resort's guests were quickly alerted and rescued, the staff was conferred lower priority. Nine people—all women; many of them chambermaids—died.
The Wawa disaster was international news, and an investigation revealed that there had been no working alarms, no evacuation plans, and the water supply was cut off in the hotel kitchen, preventing the fire hydrants from working. The fire escapes were not fire escapes at all, but rather ropes that were provided to just some of the rooms on upper floors.
During the blaze George climbed up a water pipe to the third floor to save his mother. Jennie, meanwhile, tried urgently to find her son. From a third-floor ledge she leaped to the ground but missed the firefighters' net and injured her spine. It would be months before she would walk again.
Over the next few years George was on his way to becoming a swimming champion. Training at a YMCA, he won race after race under the tutelage of Johnny Walker, one of Canada's top coaches. As a 16-year-old, George already held four national records and was pegged as a 1928 Olympics medal winner.
Meanwhile, Jennie's health deteriorated. Because of her injuries, she could work only sporadically and was often in pain. The $25,000 prize—there was no second-place money—from the Wrigley Ocean Marathon was irresistible. It would be enough for him to support his mother, move her to California, buy her a home in the sun and still have enough to buy a Model T, which sold for around $260.
But there was a cost to his quest. By entering a race that offered a cash prize—whether he won or not—George would be forfeiting his amateur status, disqualifying him from competing in the Olympics.
When George explained his intentions to Jennie, she appears to have done little to dissuade him. Instead, she offered him her life savings of $135. According to an account in The New York Times, in handing over the money, she told her son, "Don't fail, whatever you start, finish."
Walker wrote to Wrigley in Chicago, explaining his protégé's reason for entering and asking if he might sponsor Young. Wrigley sent a handwritten reply, expressing admiration for Young but explaining that as the race's organizer, he was prevented from backing competitors. (Wrigley did, according to several reports, slip $60 into the envelope, to help Young get to California.)
Even with this cash infusion, Young still had no way to travel 2,500 miles to Catalina. While Europe was in the thrall of air travel, the U.S. had no commercial airlines. (This is one reason Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight on May 20-21, 1927, would be freighted with so much importance—it restored American pride in innovation.) So Young recruited a travel companion, 19-year-old Canadian high-diving champion Bill Hastings, who owned a motorcycle and sidecar. The two headed west, allotting enough time for Young to acclimate to California and to ocean swimming.
Crossing the border from Ontario into Michigan, Young and Hastings entered the most prosperous country in the world. The stock market was rising steadily. Credit was easy to come by. Banks were thriving. Enterprise was everywhere. If skeptical economists were calling it "an orgy of mad speculation," everyday citizens were less concerned. All they knew: They had more money to spend on new luxuries that kept rolling off assembly lines.
For the two Canadians, though, the country held few charms. Young's motorcycle repeatedly broke down, and they took odd jobs to pay for repairs until it finally died outside Little Rock. Young and Hastings administered last rites to both the bike and to George's dream of winning Catalina—until good fortune arrived in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Foster, honeymooners from Quincy, Mass., on their way west.
The couple spotted the two forlorn Canadians "sitting beside what they called the 'remains' of a motorcycle," Jimmy would recall. "We advised the young chaps to load their cycle in the tonneau and tour along with us, and they accepted." (Another account claimed that Young and Hastings had by then sold the carcass of the motorcycle to buy food.) The foursome encountered a tornado in Oklahoma and the rainstorm of the century in Arizona before finally reaching San Pedro, Calif., in late December.
Schoemmell advocated swimming nude: "With 10 POUNDS OF BEAR GREASE there's nothing to see anyway."
Young's dire circumstances were thrown into sharp relief by his surroundings. Los Angeles had become the fastest-growing city in America and, per capita, the wealthiest, thanks largely to the burgeoning motion picture industry, which employed more workers than Ford and General Motors combined. Apart from the thousands of actors and performers nursing dreams of fame, Hollywood also gave rise to a legion of agents, managers and operatives. On his first full day in L.A., Young trained at an indoor pool. There he met Frank (Doc) O'Byrne, a Toronto transplant living in Santa Monica.
A self-styled Hollywood promoter, O'Byrne recognized Young's talent—not to mention his desperation and naiveté. Marveling at their shared heritage, O'Byrne offered to let Young stay with his family. He would feed the kid, help him train and guide him throughout the race in a boat that he would charter. All he requested in return: 40% of Young's winnings for a period of a year.
Race day had a spectral quality to it. One of the abiding ironies of the Wrigley Ocean Marathon: An event designed to highlight the hospitable climate of Catalina played out under brutal conditions. On the morning of Jan. 15 a fog blanketed the harbor. Leaden clouds covered the sky, and a brisk wind whipped through the air. Worse, the water temperature was 8° colder than the English Channel had been during the summer swims.
The contestants gathered quietly and nervously, doubts elbowing into their psyches. A third of the 153 entrants thought better of competing, either failing to show up or withdrawing. The 102 who remained—88 men and 14 women—stood in various states of undress. Per a Los Angeles Times dispatch, the kaleidoscopic group included "reformed wrestler Tony Ajax," "fat little Jimmy from Compton" and "Zimmy the legless man." Myrtle Huddleston, a 30-year-old widow from Long Beach, Calif., had taken up swimming only two years earlier to lose weight. Now she was hoping that her new hobby might help pay for her son's education. For some this was harmless amusement, a 1920s version of a Tough Mudder race. For many, though, it represented an opportunity to change their lives.
Not unlike a marathon today, the dreamers and thrill seekers competed alongside elite athletes, like Big Moose Ross. According to a story in Readers' Digest, Ross trained for the Catalina race by swimming the 10 miles to work from his apartment in Chicago's Eastlake Terrace to his Navy Pier office. One summer day, alarmed lifeguards along Lake Michigan spotted him far from shore. They blew their whistles and gestured to him frantically. As Ross headed toward the beach, a crowd gathered. He emerged from the water, and with a straight face asked, "What town is this?"
"Why, Chicago," came the dumbfounded response.
"Chicago?" Ross said. "Hell, I thought it was Milwaukee." He jumped back into the water, turned north and resumed training.
Oddsmakers favored Ross in part because of his 6'2", 240-pound frame. In a story infelicitously headlined FAT SWIMMERS FAVORED, The New York Times asserted that "one loses three-quarters of a pound to one pound per mile during a swim. Therefore, those entering the race with a bit of fat on them have an advantage."
Lottie Schoemmell, 31, was among the most accomplished women in the field. She had swum around Manhattan in September 1926. In the months before Catalina, though, her considerable fame had less to do with swimming than with her demand that female entrants, like their male counterparts, be allowed to swim naked. This conformed with the New Feminism of the 1920s, which, tied to drinking and speakeasy culture, was focused on social, not political gains. "If [swimming nude] is O.K. for men, it should be O.K. for us, too," she told the press. "With 10 pounds of bear grease, sorry, but there's nothing to see anyway."
Race officials consented, but then the Los Angeles chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union decried the prospect of nudity as "an act of brazen vulgarity." The police in Long Beach warned, "Mrs. Schoemmell or any other unclothed swimmer landing on this part of the coast will be promptly arrested." One woman dropped out in protest, but the "scandal" made national headlines and couldn't have been better publicity for Wrigley.
Just before the start, the swimmers, gathered on Catalina's northeastern shore, coated themselves in all manner of substances. Goose grease. Axle grease. Bear grease. Olive oil. Presaging the ultraendurance community of today, the line between "experimental therapy" and quackery was smudged by chemists touting various concoctions. One was guaranteed to "heat up through chemical activity in contact with water." Another relied on something called "slow combustion."
Beyond the range of grease and ointments, the rules were straightforward. Each swimmer was allowed to wear a swimsuit and goggles but no other clothing. All were assigned their own convoy boat, which included an impartial observer, an oarsman, and a coach or helper. The observer was there to make sure there was no cheating; the trainer could provide food or drink without making contact. When competitors wanted to quit, the convoy boat was to send up a red flare.
As testament to the national interest, Coolidge ordered the Coast Guard to be on hand. Newspapers and wire services chartered speedboats. Multiple craft from the Red Cross, manned with medical personnel, were available in case of emergency. Wrigley chartered boats as "floating bleachers" for the affluent residents from Catalina and the California mainland while he watched from the comfort of his yacht, the S.S. Avalon, surrounded by friends, guests and an army of caterers. A popular comedian, Harry Langdon, was aboard the yacht as well, giving a broadcast of the race that would be transmitted internationally and over speakers set up on the beach.
Wrigley was perched above the water in something resembling a floating modern-day sports luxury suite; drinks and hors d'oeuvres in hand; friends by his side. To him, it was all harmless fun. It was decidedly less frivolous to the men and women who staked a great deal on entering and who were about to expose themselves to enough physical danger that the Red Cross's de facto hospital on water trolled the harbor. At 11:24 a.m., Cady, the coach and columnist, fired the starting gun. And they were off.
The water started out as clear and smooth as a mountain lake, but several hundred yards from shore, it turned choppy, the southern currents impeding swimmers on their northeast trajectory.
The first hours resembled the Fourth of July, with flares illuminating the sky. Swimmer after swimmer dropped out, some after less than a mile, some unable to hoist themselves out of the water. Ross got off to a fast start but then made a tactical error, swimming north in hopes of taking advantage of the current. He strayed so far off course that by the time the offshore tides came, he was exhausted and hopelessly far behind.
The leader was Young. Having perfected his technique in the cold lakes of Ontario, he adapted to the water temperature. By sunset he was more than a mile in front of the next competitor. While most swimmers tried a variety of strokes, Young used only the crawl, gliding across the water with no wasted movement.
By 9 p.m., Young was able to glimpse the coast and all those cars in Rancho Palos Verdes with their high beams. Most of the other swimmers had simply quit, their dreams extinguished by exhaustion. A few had to be rescued and spirited off to the Red Cross boat. Only 12 remained.
Young ran into a brutal current and made little progress. His legs felt detached from his body. O'Byrne sat in the boat and exhorted the kid with each stroke. He later told reporters that he was considering pulling Young out of the ocean. Just then word came from another boat that a telegram had arrived from Young's mother, who had been listening on the radio in Toronto. This (suspiciously too cinematic) account comes from newspaper reports archived at the International Swimming Hall of Fame:
"I know you will win, George," she wired.
One columnist quipped, "George Young will be able to say with great truth: 'THE FIRST $25,000 was the hardest.'"
"Wire her, 'You bet I will—for you,'" George shouted back. And with renewed energy he pushed forward.
For the next three hours he battled the tide and kelp fields off Point Vicente. But the fight against the entangling seaweed was taking its toll. Just when it appeared that all was lost and Young started losing ground again, another tug pulled alongside with another telegram.
"Stay with it, son—you will make it," the telegram read.
Electrified, Young shouted, "I've got to make it, fellas."
And so he did.
Before the race aquatics experts estimated that open-water swimmers would take 32 strokes per minute, or 1,920 per hour. Extrapolating, Young required 30,000 strokes during his swim. And that doesn't account for the currents and outflowing tides that impeded him.
Bill Hastings had been sitting in Young's convoy boat for the entire race, offering encouragement. When Young was 200 yards from shore, Hastings impetuously jumped into the Pacific, fully clothed, to swim the final stretch with his friend. "I was just plain excited, I guess," Hastings told reporters. "I felt all the time that he would win. But when he did, I just couldn't restrain myself."
At 3:08 a.m., Young completed his final stroke. The time: 15 hours, 45 minutes. It was three hours longer than he had predicted, through currents far worse than he'd anticipated. But he'd done it. "Hurray," Wrigley is said to have yelled from his yacht. "My 60-dollar boy has won!"
At that point the remaining competitors dropped out, including Ross. Schoemmell didn't come close to finishing, complaining that swimming in the ocean was nothing like swimming in the Hudson River. Wrigley gamely paid $2,500 to each of the last two remaining female competitors, even though they didn't finish.
Once clad in a swimsuit, Young retreated to the California Yacht Club, where he was greeted like a Masters champ heading into Butler Cabin. After the last handshake and backslap, Young was taken to Seaside Hospital for observation. Notwithstanding some soreness in his shoulders, he was in remarkably good condition.
Immediately—and inevitably—Young was nicknamed the Catalina Kid. Radio hosts had him as a guest. Vaudeville and road show bookers offered him contracts on the spot. He accepted an appearance fee of $5,000 for five nights at the Hollywood Theater. "What do I have to do?" Young asked the theater owner. The response: "Smile and look famous."
Above all, the burgeoning movie industry was interested in Young—and vice versa. During an age when aquatics and the mystique of the water held great appeal, swimmers were in high demand. Olympic champions Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller were celebrities. The sport's newest star, only 17, was a natural. Young toured studios and sat for a screen test. He was deemed "promising."
Young's future was so pregnant with possibility that New York Times columnist John Kiernan quipped, "When George Young rolls up a comfortable fortune, he will be able to say with great truth: 'The first $25,000 was the hardest.'"
Sadly Kiernan was both right and wrong. The first $25,000 was, unquestionably, the hardest. That can be said with certainty, as there would be no other fortune—neither for Young nor for the Wrigley Ocean Marathon.
Young had barely dried off when Hastings began requesting a chunk of the winnings, some of which he got after winning a contract dispute. (Within a month they were barely on speaking terms.) The Fosters, the honeymooning couple who'd transported Young from Arkansas to California, also asked for—but didn't receive—a cut. The feat, they reasoned, would never have happened without their kindness.
Young and O'Byrne, his manager and backer, became embroiled in a bitter contract dispute. Jennie Young tried to have the 60–40 contract "repudiated" on the grounds that her son had been "tricked" into the relationship. By then O'Byrne had already taken his 40% slice, a $10,000 share.
Ill-equipped to handle this sudden and intense burst of stardom (what teenager would be?), Young never capitalized on his fame. At O'Byrne's behest, Young turned down movie contracts, holding out for more money. Soon the promotional opportunities in California dried up. Jennie Young never moved to the warmth of the West Coast.
The Depression marked the denouement of Young's glory. If not to the extent of Wrigley (whose fortune scarcely dipped), some Catalina swimmers were well-positioned to deal with the economic downturn. Ross, for instance, had returned to Chicago—Stanford degree in hand—and was on his way to becoming a popular newscaster, by all evidence unburdened by the stock market crash. Young was not so lucky.
For all the attention generated at the time, both the competition and its unlikely champion were, improbably, lost to the folds of history, done in by everything from fickle public tastes, to Lindbergh's iconic flight that May, to the success of the 1927 Yankees later that summer, to the Great Depression that would arrive two years later, extinguishing all that exuberance and reversing, if not altogether wiping out, so many people's life savings.
Races did continue for a few more years but with much less fanfare. The competitors may have devoted untold hours to training; they may have viewed winning the race as a life-changing opportunity. But to Wrigley it was equal parts business strategy and whimsy. When the race achieved its commercial aim and lost a bit of novelty, he simply pivoted, turning his attention—and his marketing efforts—to the baseball team on Chicago's North Side, which had gone two decades without winning the World Series.
In early 1927, anyway, few would ever have imagined that the Wrigley Ocean Marathon swim would fail to take its place among the Kentucky Derby or the World Series as a seminal American annual sporting event. And even fewer would have guessed that Young would soon be forgotten.
What little wealth he had remaining was wiped out. The studios that had expressed interest in making a film based on his life were suddenly on the verge of collapse. Mostly on account of his heroics in Catalina, Young was inducted into the Canadian Swimming Hall of Fame. But his bio notes, with bracing candor: "His mother, aunt, and even Mr. Wrigley—the donor of the marathon's cash prize—became involved in George's financial affairs. It is unclear exactly what role they played in the Canadian star's downfall, but suffice it to say that Young never saw that movie contract and emerged from the whole affair owing more than he made." When he passed away from a heart attack in 1972, he was living in considerably more modest circumstances. He was 63, working as a park ranger at Niagara Falls.
William Wrigley's baseball team would not win the World Series in his lifetime, but he embodied the American success story—enterprising and self-made—and he saw opportunity around every corner. George Young represented a different archetype of their time. Fueled by dire circumstances and the unshakable sense of possibility that defined the country in the 1920s, Young had headed west to find success and fame, acting as though there were no alternatives. Like William Wrigley, he found them. Unlike Wrigley, he lost them both.