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The Great Race

April 21, 1923


As the report of the starter’s gun lost itself in the patter of the competitors’ spikes and the cheers of the 7,000 or so spectators on hand to watch the inaugural Kansas Relays, Dr. John Outland saw a dream he had fostered for more than 20 years come to fruition.

Outland had had his first connection with KU when he arrived on Mt. Oread in the fall of 1895. Although Outland had never played football, W.H. Piatt, captain of the Jayhawkers, saw him on campus and invited him to try out for the team. Less than a week later, he was a starter.

After two years in Lawrence, however, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied medicine and further distinguished himself on the gridiron, becoming the first person to be named a Walter Camp All-American at two different positions, as tackle in 1898 and as a back in 1899. While he was studying in Philadelphia, he became enamored with the Penn Relays (which were still in their infancy) and hatched the idea of launching a similar “athletic carnival” in Lawrence.

Although he returned to Kansas in 1901 to serve as KU’s football coach (albeit for one less-than-memorable year) and began practicing medicine in Kansas City not too much later, he was prevented from implementing such a track and field invitational on Mt. Oread because KU lacked adequate facilities to host such an event. However, after McCook field was demolished and plans were initiated to construct Memorial Stadium, Outland shared his dream with KU’s Director of Athletics, Phog Allen.

Allen became enamored of the idea and, therefore, was careful to ensure that Memorial Stadium’s track facilities would rank with the finest in the nation. Consequently, as the stadium’s facilities neared completion in the spring of 1922, the University’s athletic board announced that Memorial Stadium would, in fact, initiate the nation’s fourth major outdoor track carnival the following year. And it was hardly surprising that Phog Allen heralded Outland as “the father of the KU Relays.”

Of course, there was more to establishing a major athletic event than building nice facilities and sending out invitations. And so in early 1923, head track coach Karl Schlademan, “assisted by student managers from several classes,” set about organizing the details of the event. The relay events would be held in five classes – University, College, Open High School, Kansas High School, and Military Academy.

In addition to the relay races, there would be “special open events” (i.e. individual rather than relay events) but these were to be held in a single class. On Friday April 20, a day prior to and in conjunction with the first annual Kansas Relays, Memorial Stadium would host the annual state high school track meet. The mile and half-mile relays of the high school meet would be run off at the Relays the following day.

By February the Graduate Magazine could report that an impressive number of institutions from each relay class had accepted invitations to send team members to compete in what looked to be a very promising inaugural games. As efficiency was a mark of a well-run event, the lanes in which each team would run each race were drawn beforehand so that there would be “no time wasted when the athletes [were] called for a race.” Kansas, as fate would have it, “drew lucky in the drawings for lanes” as the “Jayhawkers got the pole in the quarter mile and half mile relay[s].”

While Schlademan and his student assistants worked out the details of the event, the University employed various means to ensure that a large number of spectators would turn out to witness the inaugural competition. The athletic department, for example, offered a loving cup to the male and female campus organizations that recorded “the highest sale of Kansas Relay tickets.”

Despite a report in the University Daily Kansan that indicated sales were slow, the department’s promotional gimmick proved reasonably successful. Indeed, by the Tuesday before the event, more than 2,000 tickets had been sold through campus organizations. Newspapers advertised that more tickets had been distributed to various places on and around campus (including the Round Corner Drug Store, ticket booths in front of Green Hall and in front of the chemistry building, the athletic office in Robinson Gymnasium, and at Memorial Stadium), which were to be sold later that week and throughout the morning of the Relays.

The trophies to be awarded to the victors (who would also earn for themselves a gold watch) were put on display at Ober’s clothing store in the hope of raising interest in the event. But that gesture was almost unnecessary as Lawrence’s 15,062 residents (a figure which included KU students and which marked a population gain of 1,083 over the previous year) were plenty excited about the Relays. In fact, on the day before Outland’s dream was realized, the Lawrence Journal-World announced that a “number of the down town stores are closing tomorrow afternoon” and that the “majority of them are letting practically their entire force go to the stadium.”

In the week or so leading up to the Relays, regional newspapers detailed the sorts of things that people might witness at the event. They announced, for instance, a full list of relay officials and volunteers – a list headed by Outland, who would serve as honorary referee, and which included a number of notable figures in the sporting community including: John L. Griffith, who had founded the Drake Relays in 1910 and was serving as commissioner of the Big Ten; James Naismith, a long-time member of KU’s faculty and the inventor of basketball; Adolph Rupp, then only a member of KU’s basketball squad but later the winningest basketball coach in collegiate history; Paul Endacott, Rupp’s All-American teammate whom the Helms Foundation would later honor as the 1923 National Player of the Year; Everett Bradley, a recent KU graduate and silver medallist in the pentathlon at the 1920 Olympic games in Antwerp; and Walter Eckersall, the sports editor for the Chicago Tribune (whose editorial duties unfortunately necessitated that he back out at the last minute).

Predictably, the papers discussed the various relay teams that would be competing, paying special attention to the University of Pennsylvania’s nationally renowned medley relay team and the mile and two-mile relay squads of a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, high school that held the interscholastic record for both events. The Kansas City Star went to great lengths to handicap the nine individual events and to celebrate the quality of athletes competing in them.

The low hurdles, for example, were particularly intriguing as they pitted the AAU junior record holder against the reigning national collegiate champion. Other events in which notable track stars were to compete included: the pole vault in which the heavy favorite was the indoor world record holder; the javelin which could boast the American record holder; and the high jump in which KU sophomore Tom Poor (who had yet to lose a collegiate competition and who would place fourth in the event at the Olympics held in Paris the following year) would compete.

On Friday morning, the day before the big event, a steady rain began to fall of the sort familiar to those who have spent much time in eastern Kansas during the spring. It was still falling in the evening, and “the indications were from the advanced weather forecast that the first University of Kansas Relays would be held in the mud.” As University officials considered the fact that they might in fact collect the $5,000 worth of rain insurance they had taken out 10 days prior, athletes from more than 50 Kansas high schools took to Memorial Stadium’s track for the state meet.

A “driving rain throughout the afternoon” made the track somewhat slower by softening the cinders, but it was not sufficient to cancel or postpone the meet. The best individual performance of the state contest easily belonged to “Shaw, a colored sprinter for Winfield” who took first place in the 50, 100, and 220-yard dashes of the Class A division (those schools with a total enrollment larger than 200). His team went on to take home a share of the state title that year by garnering a total of 16 points. Since each of Shaw’s first-place finishes earned five points for his team, he very nearly won the state’s team title single-handedly.

After the state meet ended, the high school athletes spent Friday night at “fraternity houses and with the different families and students over the town” as “guests of the University of Kansas athletic association.” Although recruiting was illegal at the time, the University encouraged faculty members and students alike to “become acquainted with the high school boys, many of whom will be in attendance here next year or the year after.” While the high school track athletes relaxed with KU students and Lawrence locals, the bulk of the teams competing in the Relays arrived at their Kansas City hotels. (Although some teams, such as the Texas Longhorns, did stay nearer the University, hotel rooms were apparently easier to book in the Midwest metropolis than in Lawrence.)

That night, the men from the University of Pennsylvania squad dined with Outland and other Penn graduates at an alumni gathering for the Ivy League university in Kansas City’s Muehlbach Hotel. Back in Lawrence, track stars from the University of Texas reclined in their rooms at the Eldridge. And sometime in the night, the weather defied the forecasters’ predictions and the rain stopped.

The morning brought with it chilly air, cloudy skies and gusty winds (as common on the central plains as spring rain). Since most of the more than 500 college and university athletes entered in the inaugural KU Relays had not stayed in Lawrence, they spent their mornings making their way to Mt. Oread. For those competitors that had stayed closer to the University, the morning could be more spent in more pleasant (albeit undoubtedly nervous) pursuits.

By the early afternoon, athletes representing 23 universities, 19 colleges, four military schools and the high schools had gathered in Memorial Stadium. The morning’s stiff wind had dried the track somewhat and by the time the races got underway (“promptly at 1 o’clock”) the roughly 7,000 spectators sitting in the east bleachers were warmed, despite the cool air, by sun as the cloud cover dissipated. (And devoted track fans they were, considering that many of them had made their way to Mt. Oread in spite of “the fact that the roads leading to Lawrence were wet” and many of them unpaved.) Nonetheless, the “coolish tang to the air,” aggravated by the windy conditions, and a still damp track did not provide conditions particularly favorable for record-shattering performances by the very capable competitors.

KU’s quarter-mile relay team came closest to establishing a new world mark in winning the event in 43 seconds – a mere “one-fifth of a second slower than the world’s record.” The hero for KU in the race (as well as in the half-mile relay, which Kansas also won) was a sophomore by the name of Raymond Fisher. Running anchor in both races, Fisher took the baton in second place, well behind the Nebraska team leading both events to that point, and managed to cross the line in first. Although the Kansas City Star asserted that he provided “the real thrills of the day,” Fisher was not the only hero for KU.

Tom Poor, who had been favored in the high jump, lived up to his billing in taking home the loving cup and watch presented to the victor of each event. Although not a clear favorite like his teammate, Merwin Graham managed to claim the broad jump title with a leap of 22 feet 1 inch. Carey Rogers, the captain of the 1923 KU squad, cleared a respectable 12 feet 6 inches in the pole vault to finish second behind Earl McKown of Kansas State Normal (now Emporia State) – a perfectly acceptable finish considering that McKown held the world’s indoor vaulting mark. Emerson Norton, KU’s all-around track star, placed third in the pole vault behind Rogers and earned more points for his school by claiming fourth in the broad jump.

For their part, the University’s mile and four-mile relay teams surprised the field by finishing in the top three despite the fact that neither relay squad was considered among the favorites. Indeed, taken together, the performances of KU’s athletes was sufficient to make their team “the big feature of its own affair” and to secure the inaugural Kansas Relays’ title.

There were, of course, notable performances by athletes who did not call Mt. Oread home. Pushed hard by one of Penn’s star runners, for example, the anchorman for the University of Texas’ medley relay squad held on to his school’s lead and allowed the Longhorns to upset the heavily favored Quaker team.

In a similarly shocking race, a relatively unknown hurdler from Kansas State defeated both the AAU junior record holder and the reigning collegiate champion to garner first place in the 220-yard low hurdles. In the college class, Butler College arrived as a last minute entry (and as a virtually unknown entity) but returned to Indianapolis having doubled the point total of its nearest competitor.

The relay squads from Cedar Rapids High School made the most of their trek from Iowa and more than lived up to their billing as the interscholastic world record holders, handily winning both the mile and two-mile relays (and posting times nearly as fast as those posted by the winners of the college class).

When the inaugural Kansas Relays ended shortly before 5:30 that evening, there was naught but praise for the meet from the mouths of competitors and coaches. “The Relays had had “a wonderful start,” asserted Z.G. Clevinger, Missouri’s Athletic Director. “Considering that it was windy,” added Illinois’ coach Harry Gill, apparently unaccustomed to springtime on the Great Plains and qualifying his praise for the meet, “the first annual Kansas relays I consider successful.” Even the director of the Pennsylvania track committee, upon whose Penn Relays KU had modeled the event, acknowledged that it had been “a very good meet, and a fine start for future events.” The May issue of the Graduate Magazine boasted that “the first annual Kansas Relays” had proven to be an “unqualified success.”

Nevertheless, Phog Allen, who had a gift for sports promotion, invited celebrity officials and implemented various marketing schemes to increase the attendance and prestige of the event in subsequent years. Legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, for example, served as an honorary official in 1925 and ex-Kansas gridiron coach turned Michigan football legend, Fielding H. Yost refereed the following year. Allen did his best to turn Kansas’s “traditional” image to the event’s advantage, hosting, for instance, a “rodeo and feast of barbecued buffalo” in the 1930s. Of course, the opportunities to witness world-class athletes compete against each other in what for much of the 20th century was a reasonably popular spectator sport served as an impetus to draw in fans.

Thus every year until America’s involvement in World War II made the hosting of the Kansas Relays impossible, Memorial Stadium saw records broken by some of the nation’s finest athletes in front of crowds often in excess of 10,000. After a three-year hiatus beginning in 1943, the annual invitational returned to Mt. Oread – although it did so with a whimper rather than a shout. (In both 1946 and 1947, every Relays record remained standing at the close of the events. In the latter year, a rain-drenched pole vault competition saw six competitors finish in a first-place tie with a height more than a foot lower than that cleared in the inaugural games.)

Despite the fact that in the ensuing years the competitors in the Relays basically amounted to a who’s who of American track and field, by 1962 the University Daily Kansan could announce that recent installations of the “KU Relays [had] been held with some financial problems.” The student paper added that it was possible that the annual track event “would be dropped from the KU athletic program.” The University, of course, decided to continue the invitational. Good thing, too; a few years later, the popularity of KU track star great Jim Ryun generated an upsurge in attendance at the Relays.

However, although the University did not drop the Relays, the rise in popularity of other sports had diminished the drawing power of track and field by the late-20th century. Consequently, the Kansas Relays struggled at times to attract a large number of spectators despite the extraordinary quality of the athletes who continued to compete in the event. (Since its inception, the Relays have hosted numerous Olympians including such familiar names as Glenn Cunningham, Al Oerter, Jim Ryun, Bruce Jenner and Maurice Greene.)

In 1998 and 1999 renovations to Memorial Stadium forced the cancellation of the annual event, but the Relays returned in 2000 and have continued since. Even as rumors persist about its future, the event that began as Outland’s dream remains one of the premier track and field events in the nation.

Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The Graduate Magazine: February 1923; May 1923; Official Program of the Kansas Relays: 21 April 1923; 19 April 1924; 18 April 1931; University Daily Kansan: 12 April 1925; 13 April 1923; 17 April 1923; 18 April 1923; 19 April 1923; 20 April 1923; 23 April 1923; 24 March 1936; 21 April 1950; 16 April 1951; 20 April 1962; 19 April 1963; The Jayhawker Yearbook (1975); Kansas City Star: 18 April 1923; 19 April 1923; 20 April 1923; 21 April 1923; 23 April 1923; Lawrence Daily Journal-World: 20 April 1923; 21 April 1923; 23 April 1923; Track File, University of Kansas Archives, Spencer Research Library, Lawrence, Kansas – these rather large boxes contain news clippings, Relays programs, press releases, etc. all of which are filed in folders by year.]