This is the story of a foot race destined to go down in track history as the Blackstone Mile—the only race in the memory of even the oldest AAU official (and not even the elephant has a more enduring memory than an old AAU official) in which the lawyers involved outnumbered the runners 2-1.
It is also the story of a day in the life of one man, David Wesley Santee of Ashland, Kans., and a day in the lives of a lot of other men, some of them—like Santee—runners; others coaches and officials and journalists and members of the bar. There were also a lot of just plain fans involved, and although they knew little of what was going on behind the scenes that day, they can be thankful for small favors; at the end they were not nearly so confused as the insiders.
The day was Saturday, March 3, 1956 and the real name of the race, of course, was the Columbian Mile, for 30 years a feature of the Knights of Columbus meet in Madison Square Garden and the last major indoor mile of the New York season. In years past it had been won by men with such famous names as Glenn Cunningham and Gene Venzke and Leslie MacMitchell and—just a year ago—by the fastest miler ever developed in America, Wes Santee himself. For a while it looked as though the 1956 Columbian Mile might save an otherwise inglorious season during which a quiet-spoken Villanova student from Dublin, Ireland, Ron Delany, had dominated the indoor-mile events so completely that no one else had much fun at all.
On this particular Saturday night Delany was to have competition: as late as Friday his challengers included Santee; Jim Bailey, the Australian who won the NCAA outdoor mile for the University of Oregon last summer and was coming East for his first indoor start; Fred Dwyer, the little onetime Villanova distance star who won this event in 1953 and riotously dueled Santee throughout the 1955 meets but, up to now, had been sidelined by a leg injury; and George King of New York University, the IC4A two-mile champion who was perfectly capable of winning, even in such fast company. There was also a promising young runner named James Doulin of Manhattan, who certainly was not expected to win but could use the experience, and Ed Kirk, formerly of Georgetown but now in the Air Force. It was a truly exciting field and the fortunate few with tickets in their pockets were rubbing their hands with glee while others made a stampede to buy out the house.
March 12, 1956
TO START AT THE BEGINNING
Then, like a string of Chinese firecrackers, things began to pop all over and by late Saturday afternoon it began to look as though the Columbian Mile might not even get off the blocks. First, a New York court decided...but maybe that is not really the place to start—it all began much earlier.
Last spring Santee, freshly graduated from the University of Kansas and about to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, accepted (demanded is the proper word, some believe) excessive expense money for running in a series of California meets and the story, with facts and figures, broke in a West Coast newspaper. Forced to investigate, Santee's own governing AAU body, the Missouri Valley Registration Committee, charged improper observance of the amateur code and voted on October 30 to suspend him indefinitely. This triggered a series of chain reactions that lasted throughout the fall and winter. Before it was over, the Missouri Valley Board of Managers reversed the decision and cleared Wes; the National AAU appointed a special committee to investigate and report on the entire matter; Santee ran in one indoor meet and was then advised to withdraw from others until a final decision was made on his case; the AAU suspended Santee for life, and the New York law firm of Cole, Grimes, Friedman and Deitz materialized to protect the interests of the United States' No. 1—and perhaps only—Olympic 1,500-meter hope.
We will take this to court said Mr. Charles P. Grimes. Sheer bluff said the AAU. As an amateur runner, Wes Santee is dead. And besides, added AAU Secretary-Treasurer Dan Ferris, if you do get an injunction and the courts do say Santee can run, who's he going to run against? None of the other boys is going to endanger his amateur standing in an Olympic year by running against what amounts to a professional—or at least they had better not.
But Charles P. Grimes had just begun to fight and 12 days later, on the Friday before the Columbian Mile, those readers who opened their morning papers to the sports pages were greeted by some rather startling headlines: COURT STAYS BAN, SANTEE TO RUN IN K OF C MILE. The attorney had obtained a temporary injunction from Justice James B. McNally of the New York State Supreme Court permitting Santee to compete. Of course there was a later hearing scheduled for Friday, March 9, to settle this thing once and for all but that was next week and—in the meantime—there was the Columbian Mile.
Now Ferris and the AAU had lawyers too, also capable of swift action. The ink on the seal of the restraining order was hardly dry before the AAU asked a higher judiciary body to vacate the injunction. The hearing was set for Saturday morning at 10:30, so near the sound of the gun that would start the big race that advisers of Delany and Bailey and King and Dwyer and Doulin could hardly brush their teeth that morning for chewing on their fingernails. And down at the big Marine base in Quantico, Va., Santee boarded a plane for New York and his fingernails were a little worn, too.
Shortly after noon the door of an Appellate Division courtroom opened and out strode Grimes like Patrick Henry on his way to the Virginia convention. "Santee," and the golden words hung in the air like the ringing of a bell, "will run tonight." The court, it developed, had refused to vacate the injunction.
At that point the Columbian Mile was apparently all set. But at 5 o'clock a bulletin flashed over the wires: Bailey and Delany had withdrawn from the Columbian and would run a special match race instead. King, Dwyer, Doulin and Kirk were still ready to go.
At 6 o'clock the teletypes clattered again: King, Dwyer and Doulin had also withdrawn, to run in the Special. That left only Santee and Kirk for the Columbian. "My gosh," muttered a man watching the teletype, "they don't even have a quorum."
By 8 o'clock, Ed Shea, a former Northeastern runner now in the Army, had been shanghaied out of the two-mile run to make the Columbian a threesome. "Wherever they finish, we're going to award both Kirk and Shea a big medal apiece," an official said, "for courage above and beyond the call of duty."
Gathered in a Manhattan hotel, track coaches had been having afterthoughts. The AAU had promised to respect the injunction, but what if the International Olympics Committee (for which read Avery Brundage and a passel of foreigners) should take a contrary view—possibly knocking their boys out of a chance at the Olympics? But Avery Brundage, the stern conscience of amateur sport and president of the IOC, was out of his Chicago office, on the way in fact to Santa Barbara, Calif. by car and completely unreachable. So the coaches were on their own, the Columbian shrunk to a shadow, and the Great Mile Special of 1956 was invented.
Just in time, apparently. The teletypes finally located Brundage in Santa Barbara and bucked along his pronouncement: "If I were a runner, I would not be running tonight against Santee."
MEN IN THE DARK
Many of the runners themselves, even after they arrived at Madison Square Garden that night, scarcely knew what was happening. Santee, who had left his plane at LaGuardia in midmorning, was sagely advised by the young Marine Corps coach, Lieut. Tom Rosandich, to stay away from the hearings and let the lawyers handle the law—Wes could confine his worries to running, which was enough for one day. So the 23-year-old object of the entire uproar wandered around town, talked to friends and rested for the big event. When he showed up for the meet and discovered what had happened, Santee was "shocked—but not too surprised. I came to run and that's what I'm going to do."
King was typical of the others. Even while warming up he wasn't exactly sure what he would do. "It's up to the coach," he said. "I'd just as soon run in the two-mile and skip this whole mile mess altogether."
There was a crowd of 12,000 in the Garden and when Santee first jogged onto the track in his white warmup suit, bearing the red and gold Marine Corps emblem, there was little doubt whom they had come to see. He kept warm with an occasional trip up and down the boards and in between shook hands and signed autographs by the dozens. When the call came for the Columbian Mile and Santee was announced, the ovation of the ticket-holders was tremendous; when the rest of the field was announced—and the startled crowd was told about the special race—boos shook the arena.
The race itself was not much. Santee, starting on the outside, flashed around Kirk and Shea on the first turn of the 11-laps-to-a-mile banked track and lengthened his lead with every stride. When his blazing first quarter time was announced (59.2), a man high up in the stands shook his head gleefully and made a prediction: "He's going to show 'em. He's going to run his four-minute mile."
The man was a little optimistic. Although Santee continued to lengthen his lead steadily and although the crowd kept up a continuous cheer as he plodded round and round the boards, it soon became apparent that running from law court to law court was not the proper way of training for a record mile. Santee's other clockings were 2:02.1 at the half (some cheers) and 3:08.4 at the three-quarter (groans). When he crossed the finish line with Kirk and Shea some 100 yards back, the roars grew again. Even the time, a slow 4:13.8, was considered pretty good under the circumstances.
The Special would have been anticlimactic had it not been so much a part of the whole. The big crowd greeted the announcement of every runner's name with boos—even those of Dwyer, an old favorite, and little Georgie King, hometown pet of the metropolitan fans—and reserved a specially loud one for Delany. But the pleasant young Irishman, who has gained nothing but admirers in this country among those coming in close contact with him and who sometimes will admit the surprisingly ill-mannered reception he receives in the Garden does hurt a little, just went out and ran his race anyway. "I am interested in neither the clock nor records," he has said before. "I just run to win." That is what he did.
Bailey led the first half of the race with Doulin and King and Delany taking turns trailing close behind. Dwyer, out of condition after his long layoff, ran fifth and last all the way until he dropped out on the seventh lap. Doulin took over temporarily and, as the times were announced—66.9 for the quarter, 2:12.1 for the half, the three-quarter in 3:13.0—the crowd began to boo again. At this point Delany moved to the front and only once was he threatened—when Bailey, making a last effort, moved up to challenge just as the gun went off signalling the start of the last lap. But the Irish wraith took one startled look over his shoulder and then fled around the track as if the little people were after him, shoulders hunched, head bobbing, legs flashing in a last-lap sprint that took him to the tape 20 yards ahead of King, who got up in the last strides to take second from Bailey. The time: 4:11.8. There were cheers and boos.
After his race Santee said, "I'm disappointed in my showing. I'm really in better shape than it looked out there. And then, of course, there wasn't any competition. But I feel good and I plan to run in Milwaukee next week. Right now," he added, "I'm going to bed. It's been a tough day."
Said Delany in his soft Irish voice: "I didn't know where and when I was going to run until Coach Elliott told me. All I can say is that I am very happy that Santee is competing again."
Said Lieut. Rosandich, the slim marine who has grown in stature and gained friends—on both sides—during the entire harrowing affair with his quiet dignity and calm good humor: "I just don't know. I'm still confused. I guess it's up to the court hearing next Friday. As far as Wes is concerned, he can run a lot faster than he did tonight and—if he gets the chance—I think he's about ready to open up again."
But it had almost ceased to be important how fast Wes Santee—who once did the mile outdoors in 4:00.5 and once hoped to run 3:56—could spin. For to the crowd at the Garden and to millions of others, Wes Santee, right or wrong, had become a symbol. He was also a symbol to Dan Ferris of the AAU and Avery Brundage of the IOC. What amateur sport desperately needs to decide is exactly what Wes Santee is a symbol of. The question is rapidly becoming more important than one runner, one track meet or even the Olympics.