Cycling, Pro Wrestling & Cricket
In 2005, the World Cycling Championships were held in Los Angeles, returning to the United State for the first time after nearly more than a century. The previous American stop for the premier annual event of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) was the Newark Velodrome on South Orange Avenue, which was owned by promoter Johnny Chapman. The 1/6-mile track was five years old when the top athletes in the sport descended upon the city in late August 1912. The stands seated 12,500, but crowds of 20,000 jammed into the arena to watch the best of the best tear around the high-banked turns. The championship consisted of nine professional races and six races for amateurs. The American Championship was held in Newark in early September.
Several cycling powers, including France, Germany and Australia, sent competitors to the championships—which were held seven weeks after the Olympics in Stockholm. As expected, it was the US team that took the gold medal. The individual winner of the men’s professional sprint title was 31-year-old Frank Kramer (left), who had captured the national championship every year since 1901. A week later he won another American title. Kramer made Newark his home track and was a consistent winner there until his final ride in 1922. After retiring, Kramer lived in New Jersey and passed away in South Orange in 1958.
The Newark Velodrome held pro and amateur races throughout the ‘teens and ‘20s. Its grass infield was used for other sports event over the years. In 1930, the Newark Tornadoes of the NFL hosted two home games there (they were shutout in both). The Velodrome closed and was demolished shortly after those football games.
Old-Timers events are a staple of competitive sports, baseball in particular. But Wrestling? Oh, yeah. On a Monday night at the Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, WWF staged a Legends Battle Royal, bringing together a group of luminaries whose names were more familiar to fans from the 1950 and 60s than the 70s and 80s: Bobo Brazil, Dominic DeNucci, Pat O’Connor, Chief Jay Strongbow and Killer Kowalski.
The Legends event was not heavily advertised, so only a few thousand fans where there to witness it. But for 11 minutes, 15 semi- and fully-retired pro wrestling stars were whittled down to two men: O’Connor, age 63, and the oldest man in the ring, 71-year-old Lou Thesz (right). They had teamed up to eliminate Nick Bockwinkel, setting up the one-on-one showdown.
Thesz, a six-time world heavyweight champ who invented several standard moves, including the Powerbomb, won the match with a thunderous backdrop. O’Connor and Thesz embraced after the three-count.
Three years later, Thesz became the first pro wrestler to compete in seven different decades. He lost to one of his many protégés, Masahiro Chono, in Japan on December 26, 1990.
One wrestler conspicuous by his absence in the Legends Battle Royal was Angelo Poffo. WWF did not invite the 62-year-old tag-team legend. The result of this “snub” was a long feud between the federation’s owner, Vince McMahon and Poffo’s son, Macho Man Randy Savage.
Cricket's Big Day
Cricket’s big moment in antebellum America came in 1859 in New Jersey, when an English team of All-Stars played a three-day match in Hoboken (right) starting October 3rd. It was part of a five-match tour of Canada and the U.S. and marked the first time an all-star team had traveled outside of England.
During the 1840s, a decade before “baseball mania” gripped much of America, the most popular adult team sport was the British import, cricket. The epicenter of American cricket was Philadelphia. The city’s most prominent club was the Union Club, founded in 1843. It was the first to construct a level, manicured playing surface (which is required for effective bowling). That cricket field was located in the city of Camden, New Jersey.
In 1844, following the formation of the New York Cricket Club, John Cox Stevens cleaved off part of his land holdings in Hoboken to create the Elysian Fields, which would become the club’s home base. Soon the space became popular with ball clubs from the city. In 1845, a group of skilled craftsmen formed the Newark Cricket Club. Most of the top cricketers in the 1840s were British transplants.
During the 1850s, interest in cricket waned as young men continued playing the childhood game of baseball into adulthood. Almost any open space could be turned into a baseball diamond, while space for cricket grounds was at a premium. That being said, by the 1850s there was a robust population of American-born cricket players to hold a pair of exhibition matches in 1854 between two native all-star teams—the first in Newark, the second in New York.
In 1857, proponents of cricket recognized the need of a national association to promote the game. They held annual conventions in New York. Though inspired by the great English clubs, they understood that the game had to be Americanized in some ways to broaden its appeal to young men and sporting fans. Had the Civil War not begun in 1861, their efforts may have proved fruitful.
The crowning achievement of this dedicated group was the 1859 match in Hoboken. The English pros (left) were led by George Parr, recognized as the world’s top batsman. Their 11 all-stars faced a team of 22 players picked by the St. George club in Staten Island and demolished them. However, thousands of spectators ferried over from New York each day, paying $5 for a three-day pass—a week’s salary for most workers.
The American team was led by Sam Wright and his son, Harry (right). Harry Wright was hired as a cricket pro in Cincinnati after the Civil War and, in 1869, fielded baseball’s first all-professional squad, the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings.
By that time, baseball had eclipsed cricket as America’s go-to team sport. A second All-England 11 tour might have given cricket a fighting chance, but the tour was cancelled after the start of the Civil War.