Certainly you've heard of Jock Semple. One year ago, to be exact, you saw his picture in the sports pages. Hardly a newspaper in the nation failed to publish the wirephotos (below) that flashed out of Boston on April 19, Patriot's Day.
Here is this girl named Kathy Switzer from Syracuse University. Jogging along, she wears a trackman's sweat suit and the number 261. She has crashed the Boston Marathon, an event for men only, having obtained an entry number through chicanery. Miss Switzer's dark hair swirls as she looks apprehensively over her left shoulder. Behind her, clutching wildly at her back, is this stocky old guy in a sports jacket. His fringe of gray hair blows in the cold wind, and you can see him grinding his teeth as though he were a pint-size King Kong on a rampage. He seems to want to hurl Kathy Switzer off the course and clear into Boston Bay.
The old guy is Jock Semple, of course. "That fearsome picture!" he still exclaims. "That awful, fierce expression!"
Immediately to Semple's left in the picture is a runner named Tom Miller, Kathy Switzer's boy friend, and Miller piles into Semple with a shoulder block. "That guy's a hammer thrower, for cripes' sake!" Semple shouts, studying a dog-eared copy of the picture. Crash goes the hammer thrower's shoulder. Out of the race goes Semple. And on goes Kathy Switzer.
April 22, 1968
This Friday—another April 19—an army of 600 runners crowds into a sort of giant corral on a side street in Hopkinton, Mass. for the start of the 72nd annual Boston Athletic Association Marathon—a 26-mile 385-yard jog to Prudential Center in Boston. The handful of distance enthusiasts who administer the race, tending to a zillion details without pay, regard the Boston Marathon as the world's second biggest international sports event—second only to the Olympic Games. But lately the great event has been fighting for its dignity. Although the best marathoners from every continent still flock to Boston, the race has become something of a field day for jokers and oddballs. In among the serious runners, fast and not so fast, are the characters: college freshmen groaning along as a part of their fraternity hazing; fat men who look as though they might have trouble climbing a flight of steps; saloon braggarts trying to win a bet; and, of course, women, who trot along as unofficial entrants, denied numbers for their chests. All of these poseurs, few of whom come close to finishing the race, send a shudder up the spine of John Duncan Semple, the irascible, 64-year-old Scot who is Mr. Boston Marathon himself.
"I'm not o'poozed t' women's athletics," says Jock, whose burr remains almost as thick as it was the day in 1923 when he left Clydebank for America. Indeed, he has donated trophies to women's races. "But we're taught t' respect laws—t' respect rules. The amateur rules here say a woman can't run more th'n a mile and a half. I'm in favor of makin' their races longer, but they doon't belong with men. They doon't belong runnin' with Jim Ryun. You wouldn't like to see a woman runnin' with Jim Ryun, wouldya?"
Jock happens to be the unpaid coach and trainer of the Boston AAA, an organization that has not owned a building since the 1930s but lives on in the minds of the men who run under its banner. Nearly indispensable to the marathon, Semple processes close to 1,000 applications, responds to a flood of correspondence from around the globe and on race day herds the runners to order like a sweaty cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. Yet, because last year he lit out after Miss Switzer, he has emerged as the marathon's heavy.
Actually, as much as Jock appeared to want to paddle her behind, he was only trying to pull the number off her back. She had applied for entry as "K. Switzer," and in order to have the physical exam waived she had sent in a doctor's certificate attesting that K. Switzer was fit to run. A male friend claimed her number for her at the scene. Miss Switzer pleads that she was ignorant of the rule barring women but that, uhm, uh, well, she resorted to a conspiracy just in case. It was the deception that outraged Jock. Nevertheless, Columnist Bud Collins of The Boston Globe landed on him in print, reminding him that American women had been emancipated. Jock stuffed the Collins column into a drawer where he keeps memorabilia, but each time he reread it his teeth began to gnash. His capacity for rage builds relentlessly, like a volcano's. Eight months and countless expletives later he erupted, tearing the column to shreds.
Then there was the neat-looking, blue-eyed blonde whom Jock refers to as "the Gibb dame." Roberta Gibb doesn't bother with a number. She simply pops onto the course and begins to run and, admittedly, she runs very well. She came on last year in a Paisley blouse with mandarin collar, as if she were modeling at a Ritz-Carlton luncheon. One marathoner confessed that he trailed her for eight miles, unable to tear away from the sight of "those lovely, lovely legs."
"Who's she kiddin'?" Jock bellows, unswayed by Miss Gibb's charms. "She runs in leotards and all that. Why doon't she run in women's events? She never does. This Gibb dame doon't run in anythin'!"
Jock himself ran in the Boston Marathon for years, but after the 1949 race, at age 46, he decided that his responsibilities as a marathon official precluded proper training. This is not to say he took to a hammock. At 8:30 a.m. Boston Garden is a cold, drafty cavern where workmen sweep the hockey ice and clean up around the seats, oblivious to a solitary, sweat-suited figure, Jock, who pads along a concrete aisle 17 rows up from the ice, circling the arena again and again until he has run his daily mile and a half. Only then does he repair to his place of business, which lies at the end of a dingy second-floor corridor in an office-building annex to the Garden.
There, the door opens onto an office crammed with a couple of old wooden desks, a few filing cabinets and hundreds of musty trophies—bell-shaped, kettle-shaped, lamppost-shaped trophies; mugs, statuettes, loving cups. The morning sun pours through two huge windows that are partially covered by yellow blinds patched with masking tape, and when the MBTA elevated screeches past the windows the glass rattles perilously and the visitor's head throbs. The office leads to another room, one that is shaped like a mail slot and is not much larger. Three rubdown tables, a diathermy machine, a whirlpool and two heat lamps somehow have been jammed into this recess, to say nothing of a steam cabinet and shower stall located on a tiny balcony overhead. Jock Semple's business card says he is a registered physical therapist and, as almost every professional athlete and sporting type in Boston knows, he is one of the nation's few remaining great masseurs, an expert practitioner of the dying art of hand manipulation. In the morning he wedges his lunch—a meatloaf sandwich and a thermos of coffee—behind a radiator to keep it warm, and then the Salon de Slobs, as Jock's one-man clinic has been called, is open for business.
"A lot of characters—old fighters and old runners—go there," says Clif Keane, the caustic sportswriter of The Boston Globe. "Jock throws them into a big pot of steam and cooks them. I don't think he goes too heavy for those newfangled machines. Every once in a while, when I wasn't feeling well, I'd go in and let him give me a punch in the back, but the day he grilled a cheese sandwich on the radiator, that was enough for me."
Administering a rubdown, Jock frequently can be found stabbing and grinding vertebrae with one hand while holding a telephone receiver in the other, for he is besieged the year round by marathon pretenders phoning to inquire about the procedure for entering the big race. "One thing you just might do," Jock shouts into the phone, "is try runnin' 26 miles t' see if you can.... Oh, y'know y'can, do ya? Well, then, tell me, what kind of time you plannin' to do the marathon in...? Two-ten! Did you say two-ten?" Jock's face goes red. Dave McKenzie smashed the course record last year by doing two hours, 15 minutes and 45 seconds. "Well, forget the whole thing, 'cause yer not worthy o' the event, and we doon't want t' hear anymore o' yer crap!" Jock slams down the receiver, nearly breaking it in two.
"These screwballs! These weirdies!" he cries at the ceiling. "These MIT boys! These Tufts characters! These Harvard guys! They write me askin' should they put on spiked shoes for the marathon!" Actually, besides the genuine contenders, the field includes a sizable pool of masochistic exercise fiends—business executives, physicians, Ph. D.s and a gaunt magazine editor or two. Happy to accommodate those who train seriously, Jock waves a letter from an Oregon surgeon, a man in his 60s, who reports that in training he has taken two 26-mile runs at altitudes up to 7,000 feet. "He's one o' the few who sends me a stamped, self-addressed envelope for an entry blank," Jock notes. But the smart alecks and fatsos quickly return him to a boil. "Potbellies?" he rages. "You should see 'em. Some of 'em take six hours t' run the course. I once walked it in four and a half!"
Up the corridor from the Salon de Slobs, a door opens into the tidy offices of the Boston Celtics. Seated as usual behind a cigar, General Manager Red Auerbach takes a dim view of the commotion raging down the hall. He is for throwing the whole lot of the marathon people—Semple, the weirdies, the serious road runners, every last one of them—into the loony bin. "What's this race prove?" Auerbach growls. "So you prove you can run a long time, so what? If you're running to keep in shape, run two miles maybe. O.K. But this! Twenty-six miles! You gotta be a nut."
Auerbach is no stranger to the race, simply because until a few years ago the finish line was at the Hotel Lenox, where he resides during basketball season. For want of anything better to do, he would stand at a window or go down to the front door and watch the finishers stagger in. As a professional who has spent a lifetime making a dollar from sports, the sight appalled him.
"I used to stand there saying, 'What the hell is this?' " The trophies and medals that went to the first 35 finishers struck Auerbach as a pitiful day's pay. "And all those other bastards ran for nothing. They ran 26 miles for a cup of beef stew, a cupcake and a glass of milk! It didn't make sense.
"I followed them into the hotel once," Auerbach goes on. "I was curious to have a look, figuring they'd have a special chef behind a great big pile of steaming stew. Well, they were pouring it out of cans. It was canned beef stew! It was goddamned canned beef stew. I couldn't believe it."
Since the finish line was moved in 1965, the road runners have been fed homemade stew in the employees' cafeteria of Prudential Tower. Moreover, Boston AA Meet Director Will Cloney points out in rebuttal to Auerbach that even when the stew was canned it was Dinty Moore's. Snaps Cloney, "Bart Starr says the Green Bay Packers train on Dinty Moore's." O.K., but Auerbach still would like to know why it is that after the marathon winner has practically killed himself running for more than two hours Jock Semple must hit him with a blanket at the finish line, then scoop him up like a sack of oats and drag him into the building for his physical checkup. "The guy runs 26 miles, and here he is, grabbed," Auerbach says. "Semple feels this is his function."
Suddenly Auerbach's voice mellows as he strives to find a good word for the marathon. "I would say that it's the last of the amateur sports—I mean the real amateur sports, where a guy don't even get expenses—and you gotta like a guy like Semple who's associated so wholeheartedly with something where a guy don't get a dime. I've seen runners come over here from Japan three, four days before the race and pay for a hotel room, then run the meet, then get their beef stew and then turn right around and go home. Unbelievable! Now a lot of people laughed at that situation where Jock went after that girl last year, but I didn't. The Boston Marathon is a big part of that man's life. He didn't want a mockery made of something he believes so strongly in."
As foolish as it may seem to those of us whose conception of exertion is a trip out the back door with the evening garbage, the most exhilarating times of Jock Semple's life have been those spent charging across a meadow, plowing through thickets and splashing across a stream, or else, as in the marathon, pounding down a concrete highway. At the age of 14, when he worked nine hours a day at the Singer Sewing Machine plant in Clydebank, he ran his first race in a factory track meet. Two thousand Scotsmen cheered while Jock, clad in a bathing suit, raced to victory in the 100-yard dash. "Big Semple!" they cried. At 14 he had almost attained his full growth, 5'8", so in a land of diminutive people he came to be known as Big Semple of Clydebank.
"I was terrible with the asthma," Jock says. Five-mile cross-country races, he discovered, were tonic for his ailment. "They were a social outin', too. We used to start from the public baths 'n' run through plowed fields, over ditches 'n' dikes, through streams that were swollen up t' yer knees. Oh, it was grand bein' out there in the fresh air every Sa'urday, and sometimes the more prosperous harrier clubs had a clubhouse and they'd have a cup o' tea and a couple o' cakes waitin' when y' came in."
At a suggestion from his father, Jock departed the hard times of Scotland when he was 19 and spent seven years in Philadelphia working as a carpenter in the shipyards and in the construction industry. But it was in Boston—on April 19, 1930—that he experienced a moment of ecstasy that he would not have thought possible. James Semple, an older brother, had settled in Lynn, Mass., and now Jock's mother was visiting in Lynn. So he hitchhiked there to see her, and while he was at it he entered the Boston Marathon.
About halfway through the race Jock found himself galloping along the highway in Wellesley and, to his great astonishment, he held a position near the head of the pack. He was matching strides with the stars—six-time winner Clarence DeMar, known as Mr. DeMar-athon; John C. Miles, the dauntless Nova Scotian: Willie Kryonen and Karl Koski, the flashing Finns. Jock was running ninth, and now, in Wellesley, he was passing the great Hinky Henigan to take eighth place. From the roadside the college girls applauded him, and a lump rose to his throat. Never had he known a moment like this.
His mother was at the finish line to see him come in seventh. "So that was it," says Jock. "I knew I had t' stay in Boston. I got a job as a locker-room boy for $11 a week." In two decades of trying he never again finished as high as seventh, but he always felt it a privilege to run with the dedicated. There were no Kathy Switzers or Gibb dames to sully the day.
The upshot of all Jock's running was that in World War II a Navy corpsman tried to reject him because of flat feet. "What the hell're y' talkin' about?" Jock roared. "These feet cover 3,500 miles a year!" The Navy immediately reversed its decision. And a good thing, too, because, with the GI Bill, Jock was able to get a diploma in 1947 from the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy and become a noisy institution at the Boston Garden. Besides treating flabby businessmen ("Thank the Lord, a cash customer!" Jock cries when one walks through the door), he served for 18 years as trainer for visiting teams in the National Basketball Association. Though he sat on the visitors' bench, he would root silently for the Celtics, pausing from time to time to chase children off the floor or shout at a critical fan, "Keep quiet!" On one occasion, after a referee had ejected Red Auerbach from a Boston-Syracuse game, Jock could not contain himself. He flew down the court to where Supervisor of Referees Jocko Collins sat and demanded that Paul Seymour, the Syracuse coach, whose team Jock was serving, also be thrown out.
"Collins was furious," says Clif Keane, and at half time, in the corridor outside the Syracuse dressing room, he retaliated. "Collins had hold of Semple," says Keane, "and the two refs, Sid Borgia and Billy Smith, were trying to get their turn. They were at him like three Saint Bernards on a meal. I had to do a Big Daddy Lipscomb and peel them off."
Another night, when the Rochester Royals had blown a close game to the Celtics, Owner-Coach Les Harrison stormed into the Royals' dressing room, ordered everyone but players out and slammed the door with all his might. "At that very instant," Keane remembers, "here comes Jock Semple, singing Roamin' in the Gloamin', or some fool thing, and carrying a tray of cups filled with orange juice." The orange juice went flying, and the tray crashed into Jock's face, slashing open his forehead. "He was all cut up," says Keane, "but he was shouting murderous threats at Harrison. The windup was that the Royals almost had to fight a guy who was half bleeding to death."
Over the years the word spread through Boston that any man who had not been to the Salon de Slobs for "the works" (which consists of hotbox, whirlpool and a rubdown, after which Jock seizes one's head in both hands and makes the neck pop like a cracker being broken) had not experienced the world's best hangover cure. Furthermore, collegiate and professional athletes began sneaking off to Jock whenever their own trainers could not cure their sore muscles or when they wanted to keep ailments a secret from their coaches lest they be benched. Gene Conley, who used to pitch big-league baseball from April through September and then report to the Boston Celtics for basketball, says he managed the transition only because of Jock's tyranny.
"I'd have only a week to 10 days to get in shape for all the running and jumping you do in basketball," Conley says. "Jock would run me four or five miles, setting the pace himself. Then he'd give my legs a whirlpool treatment, and after that he'd rub me down and let me sleep for a few hours. And then he'd have me up for another four or five miles of running. I'd be three weeks behind the others in training, but in a week or so Jock would have me in pretty good shape."
Jock's miniclinic provides him and his wife Betty (a lass who came from Alva in Clackmannanshire) with no more than a meager living, and it would be even slimmer were it not that he works seven days a week and occasionally resorts to his Scotsman's instincts. "I once sent three players to him," says Red Auerbach. "He sent me a bill, but then he had second thoughts and sent me a laundry bill for three sheets that the players had dirtied. I said, 'Hell, why didn't you put in a bill for the heat and water while you were at it?' " On the other hand, hundreds of injured high school athletes have passed through Jock's skillful hands without charge, and he loses cash customers every time he chauffeurs his Boston AA team to a meet. The late Walter Brown, who was president of Boston Garden, long ago imparted to Jock a tenet that guides him: "We can't be pros every minute of our lives."
For Jock, money is only a means by which to live, but the Boston Marathon is his life. "To me, it's sacred," he says. "I know what it is t' train for it 'n' suffer. I can't stand for them weirdies to make a joke out of it." On Marathon Day, Jock arises at 6 a.m. and drives to Prudential Center, carrying a trunkload of checkpoint signs in his car. He distributes the signs to aides heading out to post them, and soon he starts herding the army of marathon runners into buses for the trip to the starting pen in Hopkinton. Tramping through the buses, he seizes stowaways—spectators hitching a ride to the starting line—and bellows, "Out, y' bum! Out! Out! Out!" Following the runners to Hopkinton, he crashes into the pen, screaming at the milling sheep, as he calls them. He herds the top 25 runners to the front, ahead of "the morning glories who want to flash out and get in the newsreel." And he pauses at the sight of a flabby Harvard boy and snarls, "Y' couldn't get across the street wi'out help."
Serenaded by such niceties, the noonday sun—or noonday rain—descends on Hopkinton. At 12 o'clock the gun sounds. Jock hops into the press bus, where Will Cloney greets him with a lecture. "Now take it easy, Jock. Be quiet. Don't get excited." The lecture makes an impression for perhaps three or four miles, by which time Jock has had his fill of jokers running in straw hats and assorted costumes. With a shriek, he clambers down from the bus and bounds after them. "He hurls not only his body at them," Cloney says, "but also a rather choice array of epithets, which fortunately are made indistinguishable by his burr."
Jock's method of attack is apt to vary, as on the day a few years ago when he trotted alongside a contestant who wore an Uncle Sam suit, complete with high hat, and carried an ad for storm windows on his back. Jock, lugging a tray in one hand, matched him stride for stride, dashing his face with cups of water.
Alas, Jock's sorties have not always been successful. One rainy day, as the 1957 marathon proceeded through Framingham—the 6.5-mile mark—Jock made a flying tackle at a runner wearing webbed snorkeler's shoes and a grotesque mask. He missed and splashed face down in a gutter. To make matters worse, meet officials were barely able to dissuade the Framingham police from arresting him for attempted assault on the runner.
"The thing that made me so damned mad," Jock explains, "was that the guy was runnin' with the good runners."
In the 1961 marathon one of Jock's own Boston AA runners, Johnny Kelley, was dueling neck and neck for the lead with Englishman Fred Norris and a Finnish detective named Eino Oksanen, when a black mongrel that had been nipping at Kelley's heels ruined his chances by tripping him. Enraged, Jock flew at the dog and lashed out with a swift kick. He missed. The dog went off happily, while Jock repaired to the press bus and begged reporters not to mention the incident lest they bring the SPCA down on his head. "So John Gillooly put in his column," Jock sighs, "that 'Jock Semple was asked what kind of dog it was that he tried to kick, and Jock said it was a son of a bitch.' "
All right, put down Jock Semple as a trifle infra dig, if you will, but be aware that without the likes of him road races up and down the Eastern Seaboard would be in trouble. For it is not only his own marathon that he nurses. Whether it be the New England 25-Kilometer Championship or the Yonkers Marathon or a five-mile race through a Maine village, Jock is there, shouting, grinding his teeth, arguing with traffic cops, chasing off small boys on bicycles and all the while seeing to it that the race gets run. Bob McVeigh, controller of a Boston department store and a member of the Boston AA team, puts his finger on the problem that bedevils these races. "A lot of the officials are well-meaning, but they may be directing their first race," McVeigh says. "Jock is the guy who gets things straightened out." At the Yonkers Marathon, for example, he darts ahead of the runners in his car, blasting away on his horn, demanding a clear road. Stop the world, he seems to cry, there's a race coming through! "If a President's funeral were coming from the opposite direction," says another of his runners, John Linscott, "Jock would make it back off."
This year Jock expected some 300 weirdies to show up for the race, but at least K. Switzer was staying home. She is engaged to Tom Miller, the hammer thrower who blasted Jock off the course last year, and Miller, who aspires to make the U.S. Olympic team, does not care to anger the AAU. He therefore asked his fiancée to please stay away from Boston. Roberta Gibb, meanwhile, is living in California and at last word was not headed East. Jock himself, still smarting from last year's notoriety, vowed to stay put in the press bus this time. His friends hoped that he meant it. "Why he hasn't been killed in the marathon," says Edward J. (Eddie) Powers, president of the Boston Garden, "I just don't know."
But Powers, an all-out admirer of Semple, enjoys speaking at length to define him. He concludes, "Jock is the True Amateur. You've got to have a guy like him."