Cunningham Calls It A Career
April 20, 1940
In January 1940, Glenn Cunningham announced over the radio that the 1940 track season would be his last. He had “continued in competition [for the] past two years,” he asserted, “with the hope of trying for [his] third successive Olympic team” However, the onset of World War II had “made the holding of the games impossible,” and the man long known as the “Kansas Flyer” had decided to hang up his cleats.
The thirty-year old Elkhart, Kansas native and KU graduate had insinuated that he might retire for a number of years prior to his January proclamation, so no one knew how seriously to take it. As the 1940 season wore on, however, it became apparent that the man who had been the world’s greatest middle-distance runner for the past decade had, in fact, finally resolved to end his athletic career.
A headline in the March 19, 1940 edition of the Kansas City Journal bluntly declared “Cunningham Is Sincere About Quitting.” The accompanying article suggested the Kansas Relays of that year would likely represent his final competition. The cinder track of KU’s Memorial Stadium, which had seen Cunningham burst into the national limelight eight years earlier, would thus host his finale.
Cunningham, whom the press would later dub the “Iron Horse of Kansas” and the “Elkhart Express,” arrived on Mt. Oread in 1930 as the greatest scholastic miler in history. During his senior year in high school, he had set a new state record for the mile of 4:28.3 at the state meet in Manhattan. In July 1930, at the National Interscholastic Meet in Chicago, he had set a new national record for high school runners by posting a time of 4:24.7. Since NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from competing in intercollegiate competitions, Cunningham would have to wait until his sophomore year to begin what would amount to one of the greatest careers of any KU track star.
Although the Big Six Conference named him the outstanding runner of the 1931 cross-country season, he would not truly distinguish himself until his first outdoor track season the following spring. Competing in the half-mile, mile, and two-mile races, KU’s star sophomore rolled through the 1932-conference schedule undefeated. At the end of the season, he became the first runner in conference history to win both the half-mile and mile runs in the Big Six Championships before becoming the University’s first NCAA track champion by winning the mile run at the National Intercollegiate Meet. That summer he qualified for the 1932 Olympic team and at the Los Angeles games finished fourth in 1,500-meter run.
By the start his junior year, Cunningham had grown into a minor international celebrity. The Amateur Athlete published an article about him in March 1933 in which former Jayhawk track coach Brutus Hamilton praised the KU runner as “the strongest miler ever to step on a track.” The Kansas junior, Hamilton prognosticated, would go on to “establish some records before his running days [were] over that [would] stand for some time to come.” When Cunningham traveled to Europe to compete in international track meets after successfully defending his NCAA title in June 1933, Europeans flocked to watch him race.
When he returned to Lawrence for his final year as a Jayhawk, expectations for Cunningham transcended his capture of additional championships. Students on Mt. Oread and track fans around the world fully expected Cunningham to establish a world record in the mile run. In February 1934, on the boards of Madison Square Garden’s track, the “Kansas Flyer” obliged these wishes when he set a new indoor record of 3:52.3 for the 1,500-meter run. The following month at the Columbian Mile in the same arena Cunningham impressed the cynical New York press when he ran an indoor mile of 4:08.4, toppling the indoor world record. Anticipation mounted that he would shatter the outdoor mile record as well.
With the weight of enormous expectations on his back, Cunningham managed to compile victory after victory during the spring season, but the record for the outdoor mile remained elusive. In April he disappointed the throngs of fans who had turned out at the Kansas Relays “with the hope that [he] would smash the world record on his home cinders.” Nonetheless, both he and his fans remained confident that he would soon set a new mark. As the outdoor season wound to a close, he again won the Big Six titles in the mile and half-mile runs and then headed to the Princeton Relays, an invitational that was to serve as a warm-up for the 1934 NCAA championships.
A KU graduate with one last chance to defend his NCAA title, Cunningham found himself in Princeton, New Jersey running against two of his biggest rivals, Princeton’s Bill Bonthron and the University of Pennsylvania’s Gene Venske. On June 16, 1934, on the same cinder track which had seen Jack Lovelock set a world record the previous year, Cunningham defeated Princeton’s star miler by forty yards and established a new world record of 4:06.7. When the race had finished, Cunningham could lay claim to seven of the 13 fastest miles ever managed by a human. (Ironically, however, he lost the NCAA title to Bonthron the following week.)
In the fall of 1934, following a “running honeymoon to the Orient “ in which he and his bride “were acclaimed by multitudes” much like the ones in Europe that had hailed Cunningham the summer before, the “Iron Horse of Kansas” returned the United States. He entered graduate school at the University of Iowa to pursue a Masters degree in physical education. Predictably, he continued to compete in Amateur Athletic Union meets. At the Knights of Columbus games in March 1935, the “Kansas Flyer” broke the world record for the 1,000-yard run. He capped the season at the AAU championships where he crushed his own indoor record for the 1,500-meter run by almost two seconds. Daniel J. Ferris, National Secretary for the AAU, reflected back over the season and could only marvel at Cunningham’s achievements. Ultimately, the leading officer of the single most important athletics organization of the day concluded that the former Jayhawk “defie[d] all track tradition.”
The great KU miler grew into something of a media darling whom people admired as much for his character as for his accomplishments. A particularly good sportsman who never denigrated the performances of others, his humility endeared him to sports columnists. One sportswriter of the time observed that what he and his peers had “first liked about Cunningham was that he was a great runner who didn’t go around telling everyone that he was.” The fact that the former Jayhawk “never made a practice,” the columnist continued, “of criticizing his opponents” stood him in even higher stead. His good sportsmanship (coupled with his otherwise wholesome image – he claimed never to have smoked or consumed either coffee or alcohol) made him very popular with fans as well as journalists. (In an era in which smoking was tolerated even in athletic arenas, fans would dutifully extinguish their cigarettes and forebear to light new ones out of respect for Cunningham while he raced. In 1948, long after he had retired from running, his celebrity and well-known antipathy towards alcohol made him an excellent figurehead for the “Temperance Tornado,” a movement that opposed the repeal of prohibition in Kansas.)
While Cunningham’s moral character made him appealing, his story of overcoming childhood adversity touched a particular nerve throughout the United States. It had many of the elements of a Horatio Alger novel, a standard American favorite most any time, but especially resonant during the Great Depression-era 1930s. By 1933, many Americans were already familiar with the account of a near fatal accident that had befallen the NCAA mile champion in his youth. Indeed it was, perhaps, Cunningham’s oft-repeated (though frequently exaggerated) story that most endeared him to his countrymen. Due to various embellishments, iterations of the story showed some discrepancies, but in essence went roughly as follows:
As a child, Cunningham would run with his older brother, Floyd, to their one-room schoolhouse in western Kansas. There, Floyd would fulfill his responsibility to get the fire in the kerosene stove started. When the future star was eight years old, a delivery truck inadvertently left gasoline rather than kerosene at the building. Unaware of this, Floyd poured the liquid into the stove to ignite it. When he did, the stove exploded into flames that killed the elder brother and left the younger Cunningham in critical condition for six weeks. So severely burned were the future Jayhawk’s legs that the doctors had considered amputating them and doubted that he would ever be able to walk normally. With a dogged determination, Glenn forced himself to walk again and in time discovered that he found it less painful to run than to walk. When he was 12, a victory in a foot race against some schoolmates encouraged him to pursue competitive running. As an adult, the Jayhawk great would claim that he had run “in some big races – including the Olympics – but [that] no race [had proven] more important than that race [he] ran at 12.” The story would invariably end by celebrating the glory and fame that attended his athletic achievement as a testament to the power of good, old-fashioned American stick-to-itiveness.
However much the account of Cunningham’s childhood accident may have contributed to his popularity, it could not sustain it without continued success in races. When a slow start to the 1936 season enabled some of his biggest rivals (most especially Penn’s Venske) to defeat the former Jayhawk in a number of competitions, criticism of the great miler began to rise. The sports editor for the Kansas City Star, for instance, asserted, “Glenn Cunningham has slipped beyond the zenith of his running career.” Although the editor claimed that he would “like to see Cunningham win [that year’s] Olympic 1,500-meter run,” he doubted that it was possible. The New York Sun maintained that the “Iron Horse of Kansas” had looked “haggard and drawn” of late. Indeed, the Sun continued, the Kansan had “looked like a beached mackerel” after a loss to Venske in the Baxter Mile. By late February 1936, sports columnists had nearly universally tabbed the Penn runner as Cunningham’s heir apparent for the position of the nation’s premier miler. The Kansan, of course, was loath to relinquish his crown prematurely, but characteristically wanted his actions rather than words to speak in his defense.
As the 1936 Olympics approached, the “Kansas Flyer” regained his old form and defied his detractors who thought that the time had come for him to transition from athlete to coach. His resurgence began in March of that year when he made good on a promise “to beat Venske [at Madison Square Garden’s annual Columbian Mile] if they [had] to carry [him] out of [the building] on a stretcher.” It continued at the Berlin games where Adolf Hitler showed up just in time to watch Cunningham compete in the 1,500-meter run. The “Iron Horse of Kansas” ran the race four-tenths of a second faster than the previous world mark. However, he finished six-tenths of a second behind Lovelock, the Englishman whose mile record Cunningham had beaten two years earlier, and so took home a silver medal rather than the gold one for which he had hoped. (Lovelock, who beat Cunningham both times they raced, was the only runner against whom the Kansan did not own a head-to head advantage for his career.) By the fall of 1936, his success had refuted the reports of his demise and he had emerged from the biggest slump of his career.
After the Olympics, Cunningham returned to the US where he enrolled in a doctoral program at New York University. He continued dominating the middle-distance events at AAU meets for the next three years. Although the demands posed by his working toward a PhD and the arrival of his first child in 1937 diminished his training time, his performances, almost miraculously, did not ebb apace. A southern sportswriter marveled at Cunningham’s victory over world-class competition at a Memphis invitational given the fact that at 11:00 a.m. on the morning of the race, the “Kansas Flyer” had sat down to take an examination at NYU and thus had not even arrived in Tennessee until nearly 6:30 that evening. Yet two hours later, his feet had “carried him to victory in the mile – a victory won on an empty stomach and one sockless foot.” The Memphis sportswriter was not alone in wondering how Cunningham could continue to tower above the nation’s other milers. If his good sportsmanship and the story of his childhood had made him an appealing international celebrity, his longevity as an athlete transformed him into an icon.
Nonetheless, Cunningham toyed with the idea of retirement. In September 1937, he hinted that the demands of fatherhood and the academy might force him to give up competitive running. By January 1938, however, the consummate competitor had refused to allow himself to quit while he was still “the man to beat.” That month, Cunningham told the press he would hang up his cleats only when he could no longer “keep up with the rest of the boys.” Of course, he could still more than just “keep up” with his competition. When less than world-class athletes were at events in which he was participating, he would often spot them leads of up to 600 yards and win anyway. In a one-week stretch that spanned late February and early March 1938, the KU alumnus ran two of the best races of his life. Both came on Dartmouth College’s indoor track. The first, a 3:48.4 1,500-meter run would stand as the world record for 17 years. The second, a 4:04.4 mile, lopped more than four seconds off his own indoor record and more than a second from the outdoor record (which was no longer his as England’s Syd Woodersen had beaten it in 1937). However, because Cunningham had used four quarter-milers to set the pace for him, the International Amateur Athletic Federation refused to accept his time as an official record. If the international governing body of the sport would not acknowledge his accomplishment, his peers certainly did and the 4:04.4 mile augmented his reputation as the world’s premier miler.
Although the AAU selected him for the seventh consecutive year to its All-America team following the 1939 track season, Cunningham had continued to run primarily in the hope of getting one last shot at an Olympic gold medal. However, after World War II broke out in Europe, the possibility of a 1940 Olympics dissipated entirely, and so Cunningham finally announced his impending retirement. After concluding his indoor career with a race in Portland, Oregon, the “Iron Horse of Kansas” returned to his alma mater to race in his last competitive meet, the Kansas Relays. A special invitational mile (of the sort that Cunningham had won the year before) pitted the former Jayhawk against the Rideout twins from North Texas State University and Wichita’s Archie San Romani of Emporia State. The former of his opponents were quickly emerging as America’s next great middle-distance runners while San Romani had finished fourth in the 1936 Olympic 1,500-meter run and had beaten Cunningham at the Kansas Relays in 1938.
The 30-year old Cunningham finished last in the race, despite the urging of a partisan crowd, as the Rideout twins took first and second and established a new record for the Relays. Although he did not win his last race, the great KU runner ended a career that had been the envy of the milers of his era. His career had included 13 Big Six Conference Championships, two NCAA titles in the mile, the 1933 Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, nine AAU Championships, multiple world records, and an Olympic silver medal. (If he was not the most dominant track star of the 1930s – Jesse Owens would probably claim that distinction – he ranked as one of them.) He was undoubtedly the best middle-distance runner of the 1930s and was almost certainly the most popular track athlete of his time. It is hardly surprising then that when in 1974 the Athletics Congress (which later changed its name to USA Track and Field) established its Hall of Fame in Charleston, West Virginia, it inducted Cunningham in its inaugural class. In 1978, a decade before his death, Madison Square Garden recognized him as the most outstanding track athlete to perform in the building over the course of its first 100 years – an extraordinary honor considering the caliber of those athletes who could conceivably lay claim to such an award.
His alma mater continues to honor him in a number of ways. The KU track team, for example, presents an annual Glenn Cunningham Award to the track athlete who best exemplifies the triumph of an individual over personal adversity. And at Rim Rock Farm, the KU cross country team’s home course, the “Kansas Flyer’s” metal silhouette stands watch over the starting line. Fittingly, the finish line bears his name as well. Even at a university that has produced some of the finest middle-distance runners in US athletic history – Wes Santee, Jim Ryun, and Billy Mills to name just a few – Cunningham’s name and accomplishments stand out. That, perhaps, is distinction enough.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas