When the honor roll of Baltimore's champions is called, you hear names like Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Well, here's one hero you may have missed: G. Howell Parr, who performed the longest documented human roll in history, in May 1914.
This historic sporting event took place because of a comment Parr had made to friends three months earlier at Baltimore's exclusive Maryland Club. When one gentleman excused himself, saying he had to catch a train, Parr remarked, "Why, I could roll to Union Station in that much time." Thus the gauntlet was thrown down.
Parr, scion of a wealthy Baltimore family with interests in grain and pedigree livestock, was 34 and feeling pretty peppy. Also, he was known to enjoy a sporting wager. The year before he had boasted to friends that no woman could defeat him at tennis. His challenge was taken up by Suzanne White, a 19-year-old Baltimore clubwoman who was at that time the Maryland state champion. Parr lost 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 in a match that drew a lot of public interest.
Now Parr's friends thought they could catch him in another idle boast. They scoffed at him and before the evening was done the bets were down. Parr accepted a challenge to roll from the steps of the Elkridge Kennels clubhouse to University Parkway as a test of endurance, not of speed. The three-mile course went along Charles Street, one of the finer boulevards south of the Mason-Dixon line.
It was agreed that Parr could take as much time as he needed, as long as he completed his roll by June 1. Once he started, however, he could not stand up until he crossed the finish line.
Parr displayed the reserve expected of professional clubmen when he told a journalist, "Print the announcement that Mr. Parr will roll for his own personal gratification, but he will not give the newspapers the time of his starting. If someone discovers him rolling and gives out the news, then it will not be his fault."
Parr was particularly concerned that his mother, Mrs. Harry A. Parr Sr., not know when he planned to attempt his roll. He feared she would rush out to the course to dissuade him. Rumors circulated that hundreds of dollars were being wagered on the event and that Parr had bet at least $750 himself. Before long, Baltimore newspaper readers knew that a lot more than patrician honor was riding on Parr's roll.
Pressure was building. In March, Parr went to Philadelphia to think the matter over. Professor J.C. Doyle of the Doyle Athletic Club told reporters he doubted any man could make a three-mile roll unless he had the proper training. When Parr returned, he publicly recommitted himself to undertaking the roll and began workouts with his brother Ral.
Training at the Baltimore Athletic Club, Parr increased his rolling distance almost every day. Sometimes he would roll an extra 300 or 400 yards at the Elkridge Kennels. As James Roche, the Elkridge club's golf pro, later recalled, Parr was better prepared than his friends realized. He would pick times when there weren't too many people around, which was a good thing.
Early on, Ral Parr had decided that his brother should abandon the traditional style of rolling. "We figured it out that if I lay down and rolled with my face close to the ground I would get my lungs full of dust and germs and things," Parr said.
Ral designed an unorthodox roll that enabled his brother to keep his head at least two feet above the ground, relatively safe from impurities. Parr would begin in a sitting position, flop over sideways until his weight rested on his hands and knees, and then flop back to a sitting position. Roche called this method "a good, ground-covering roll."
In practice sessions, Parr would execute four rolls, rest for a few moments, and then repeat the pattern. Soon he had mastered the technique and was able to gain four feet going uphill and five feet on a downgrade with each roll. A date was set.
Despite Parr's desire to discourage undue publicity, news of the roll's date leaked out. On the evening of Monday, May 18, about 100 reporters, friends and other spectators gathered at the Elkridge Kennels to witness Parr's historic attempt.
He arrived wearing ankle-high golf shoes, ribbed woolen socks, khaki knickerbockers, a heavy woolen sweater and a plaid golf cap. He had attached football pads to his elbows and pillows to his knees. After wrapping his hands in linen bandages, he pulled on a pair of work gloves.
Parr started to roll at eight sharp. The first part of the course, along the club's gravel driveway, was the most perilous. As one reporter noted,
Parr was a big man, "weighing something like 175 pounds." Despite his padding, he cut his left knee during the first hour.
At 11:35 p.m., having traveled exactly four-fifths of a mile, Parr rolled into a little tent equipped with medical supplies. Society physician R. Tunstall Taylor examined the athlete: pulse rate, 72. After rubbing Parr's knees and arms with alcohol, Taylor pronounced him fit to continue, and Parr resumed rolling at 12:20 a.m.
An hour later at least 30 spectators were still around. A member of the opposition camp—those who had wagered that Parr would fail—followed in a Thomas Flyer touring car to make sure the rules were observed. Friends, walking ahead with lanterns, removed stones from the course, and one, D. Harry Mordecai, carried a mattress for Parr to rest on periodically.
By 3 a.m. Parr had rolled a little more than halfway. He was beginning to weaken and was resting after every third, rather than fourth, roll. But at 4:15 a.m. he seemed to regain enthusiasm as he rolled past the gates of Attica, the home of Robert Garrett, an investment banker and an heir to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad fortune. One of Parr's friends called out "Good!" after every roll.
"The rolling might be good, but the resting part is much better. At least it seems so to me," Parr said. "Some of you fellows are hardhearted wretches. You haven't got a bit of sympathy for a man when he's down."
Through the rest of the night, Parr was cheered on by fellow clubmen. Occasionally he took sips of water, but he didn't swallow them, nor did he eat.
May 19 dawned sunny and warm. At 8 a.m. a black laborer driving a wagon on Charles Street was startled to see Parr rolling along.
"If I did that, they'd give me seven months for disorderly conduct," he told a reporter.
The roller's wife, considered one of the "best-gowned women in Baltimore," and several of her friends, including Parr's sister-in-law, Mrs. Harry Parr Jr., appeared at 9 a.m. to provide additional encouragement. Mrs. Harry Parr carried a silver loving cup she planned to present at the finish. As the morning became warmer, Ral Parr raised a parasol over his brother's head.
Presently, Parr began to encounter motorists. Most gave him a friendly "Good Morning," but Michael Jenkins, president of the Safe Deposit and Trust Company, was not as neighborly.
"Good morning, Mr. Jenkins," said Ral Parr. "This seems rather a foolish thing, but it is interesting as a test of endurance and strength." According to The Sun, Jenkins made a "grave comment" to the trainer before driving on. The next hour was uneventful, although several motorists, fearing that Parr was the victim of an accident, stopped to inquire if they might help.
At 11 a.m. came the moment Parr had most feared: the arrival of his mother. She did indeed try to dissuade him, though only 100 yards remained to be rolled. Parr continued, telling her he felt "first-rate."
At 11:20 a.m., before approximately 100 spectators, Parr completed his last roll, crossing University Parkway. Mother Parr called, "Get him a chair!"
Slowly, Parr stood up, refusing all offers of assistance. Including rest breaks, the journey had taken 15 hours and 10 minutes. The Sun estimated Parr had executed almost 4,000 rolls. After thanking his attendants, he went home to take a bath, then went to the Pimlico races to collect his bets.
News of Parr's exploit spread rapidly, and not long afterward a West Coast man challenged Parr to roll for the world title. He declined. Meanwhile The Pittsburgh Gazette commented, "It would have required much more hardihood and courage for this Baltimorean to have bet he would let his whiskers grow until [Mexico's president, Victoriano] Huerta resigns, and it would have been about as significant."
The Sun, on the other hand, defended Parr's accomplishment as a demonstration of manly virtues: "Critics should remember that even an undertaking like this, which in itself is absurd and useless, is redeemed by the spirit in which it is done.... Mr. Parr's performance adds not only to the harmless gayety [sic] of the public, without forming a menace to its morals like the tango, but it suggests that members of all classes of society in this American nation are ready to endure hardship and to encounter risk of bodily injury rather than weaken in a test of manhood and courage." Moral approbation was not Parr's only reward. His journey had won him almost 26¢ per roll.
Afterward, Parr rested on his laurels, and the record that he made lying down still stands today.