Photo courtesy of Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections
Professional sports became popular in the 1920s. There was no TV. Radio was just getting started. Sports fans who couldn’t get to the ballpark counted on sportswriters to make the news entertaining. Paul Gallico entered the ring with Jack Dempsey and wrote about what it was like to get knocked out by the heavyweight champ. Grantland Rice compared Notre Dame’s defensive backs to the Bible’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. (His famous words: “In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”) And then there was Westbrook Pegler, who followed the Bunion Derby and thought it too crazy to be taken seriously. He wrote about it in a sarcastic tone.
Professional baseball had existed for decades, but otherwise professional sports were brand new in the 1920s. This left room for wily promoters to produce sports extravaganzas–such as the Transcontinental Foot Race–and to manage rising star players–such as Red Grange. Charles Cassius “C. C.” Pyle had the necessary business sense and rmedia savvy to become one of the most celebrated player-agents and sports promoters of the 1920s. As fast as he rose to fame, though, his star quickly crashed after his foot race failed to bring in money.
Dancing non-stop for four days?
Well, it wasn’t quite “non-stop.”
Contestants were given fifteen minutes every hour to take food, drink, and bathroom breaks. Not enough time for sleep, though. Contestants took turns propping each other up while the other caught some z’s. Eventually, each pair except one would give in to the weariness.
How did he go to the bathroom?
How did he sleep?
The daughter of German immigrant parents, young Gertrude Ederle became an overnight American celebrity after becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. She swam it faster than the five men who had gone before her. Bad timing prevented Trudy from making much money on her fame, as many star athletes were doing in the 1920s.
The Lone Eagle sparked the biggest ballyhoo of the decade when he flew a plane solo from New York to Paris and became the first aviator to bridge America and Europe by air. Four million New Yorkers celebrated the accomplishment at his ticker tape parade up Broadway. Lindy accomplished his feat in May, 1927, one year ahead of the Transcontinental Foot Race. Did his feat serve as the inspiration for the Bunion Derby?
C. C. Pyle turned Red Grange into one of the first sports celebrities in the United States.
Americans still distrusted professional football, which was just a few years old, so at first Grange was heckled for “selling his soul” to Pyle. Eventually the fans came around, but by then Grange’s best days were behind him. Injuries took away his ability to cut sharply, but they left him free to help Pyle lead the Transcontinental Foot Race. As the Assistant Director General, Grange got a close-up view of the ups and downs of the race.
Americans weren’t the only ones turning professional athletes into national celebrities.
Suzanne Lenglen became the pride of France when she won the Wimbledon championship five times in a row in the early 1920s. So divine was her play, fans took to calling her “the Goddess.” Then sports promoter C. C. Pyle brought her to the United States to tour as a professional. Both Pyle and Lenglen earned a pile of money, but they never worked together again.
Before Red Grange had C. C. Pyle to make him a quarter million dollars in six months, Babe Ruth had Christy Walsh, the first modern sports player-agent. Walsh organized a vaudeville tour for Ruth, barnstorming tours in the off-season, commercial endorsements, paid appearances, and ghost-written newspaper articles. Over his career with Ruth, Walsh arranged baseball contracts for his client worth $1.5 million and non-baseball income worth $2 million. It wasn’t all Walsh: Ruth had abundant talent and an irresistible personality.
Sportswriters and the Great American Foot Race
The Bunion Derby
runners were cross country runners, and they were also cross-the-country runners.
The sportswriters couldn’t agree on what to call them, but they did
agree to have fun trying. Here is a list
of names they came up with:
Lindberghs of the trail,
C. C. Pyle couldn’t
resist naming the event after himself: C. C. Pyle’s First Annual International
Transcontinental Foot Race. That was a
mouthful, so the sportswriters shortened it to Bunion Derby–and a slew other
colorful names they thought up:
hop, skip, and jump handicap;
caravan of calluses;
Cash-and-Carry-van (C. C. Pyle’s nickname was Cash-and-Carry Pyle);
Pacific-to-Atlantic Chiropodists’ Steeplechase (chiropodists are foot doctors);
walk, trot, and single-foot derby from Hollywood to Hoboken (as Will Rogers put
the Great American Foot Race (as authors have dubbed it more recently)