It Happened in Jersey: Track & Field
I GOT YOU, BABE
Track & Field historians can argue about when Mildred “Babe” Didrikson first achieved superstar status, but one thing is certain: After her performance at the AAU outdoor championships on July 25, 1931, she was a household name. On that day, the 19-year-old Texan—a member of the Employer’s Casualty “Golden Cyclones” team, finished atop the competition in three different events.
Didrikson won the running broad jump (aka long jump), broke the record in the 80m hurdles, and set a record in the baseball throw, hurling the horsehide 296 feet. No woman has ever eclipsed that mark. Didrikson’s time in the hurdles was so good that officials broke out the tape measure to double-check the distance. It turned out the course was 2’4” too long! The Golden Cyclones finished second overall in the meet with 19 points; Babe accounted for 15 of them.
Another newsmaking event occurred when Stella Walsh lost her grip on the discus and winged it into the crowd. She beaned a fan named James McBride, who had to be carried to a hospital. The park commissioner wanted to arrest her, but was talked into allowing Walsh to participate in the 220m finals, which she won. Ironically, Walsh was returning discuses during the competition when one of her tosses veered off course.
For most track fans, the connection between New Jersey and cross-country competition is tenuous at best. They’d be surprised to learn that the U.S. Cross-Country Championships were actually held in New Jersey seven times—and as recently as 1982. The Garden State also had a two-time champion, Willie Day, who won the race in 1889 and 1890 when it was held in the Bronx. The 1930 race, held in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park, was won by Bostonian Bill Zepp. The team title went to the powerhouse Millrose Athletic Association.
Zepp’s son, William Jr., was a star baseball pitcher in high school in Detroit and in college at the University of Michigan during the 1960s. He made it to the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins and, later, played for his hometown Tigers.
From 1936 to 1939, the championship course went through Branch Brook Park, in Newark. Donald Lash, America’s preeminent distance runner, was crowned AAU champ for the third year in a row. The Indiana University legend also led the Hoosiers to the team title in 1936. Lash won the cross-country crown again each year from 1937 to 1939, but the Millrose contingent won team honors those three years.
In 1942, the Cross-Country Championships returned to Newark, but this time to Weequahic Park. Frank Dixon of NYU took top honors, while the Shanahan Catholic Club out of Philadelphia was the top-finishing team.
The annual meet moved around the country quite a bit in the years after World War II. In 1982, the championships returned to New Jersey under the auspices of The Athletic Congress—precursor to USA Track & Field. The race was held on an unusual course with lots of sharp turns at the Meadowlands and included more than 500 runners.
The surprise winner was Pat Porter, running for Athletics West. Porter, who had been a member of Athletics West for just a couple of weeks, defeated NCAA champion Mark Scrutton by 17 seconds, helping his club win the team title. Lesley Welch of the University of Virginia won he women’s crown.
It turned out that Porter (left), who had barely cracked the Top 20 in the NCAA championships earlier in 1982, was just hitting his stride. He successfully defended the title he won in East Rutherford seven consecutive times, from 1983 to 1989. An avid flier, Porter and his teenage son were killed in 2012 when a plane he was piloting hit a fence at the Sedona Airport and plunged down the side of a mesa. He was 53.
Long Time Coming
In the 1950s, coming out as a gay teenager was not an option for Tom Ammiano, a distance runner on the Immaculate Conception High School track squad in Montclair. Nevertheless, his effeminate manner made him a target of violence and ridicule by his fellow athletes and some of the school’s coaches. As a junior in the spring of 1958, Tom’s victory in the mile during the season’s final meet gave the Lions a meet win and qualified him for a varsity letter. But rior to the ceremony, he was informed that the meet “didn’t count” and there would be no letter coming.
Tom quit the team as a senior and went on to graduate from Seton Hall. He then moved to San Francisco, where he became an educator and, many years later, president of the city’s board of education. His role model was mayor Harvey Milk and Tom himself ran for mayor twice, albeit unsuccessfully. Tom also helped create San Francisco’s universal healthcare plan. During a 2020 radio interview, he mentioned his missing varsity letter as a formative moment in his life, and left it that.
In 2021, the New York Times ran a story with the headline: He Won a Varsity Letter at 16. He Finally Got It When He was 79. In February, Tom received a note from Immaculate Conception saying his letter would be forthcoming. The interview had prompted a groundswell of support that included his still-living track coach, Ed Kirk, and the school’s president promised he would present the long-awaited letter in person in California.