Setting Up: New York XC's Big First Steps
With the 1950 meet, cross-country became the first public high school sport to have a statewide championship established that would become an unbroken string of annual events to the present day. More than 40 years before the NYS football teams would initiate a championship system in 1993 that pulled together the teams above New York City, runners from 7 section conferences gathered in Schenectady to kick off the era of the NYSPHSAA State Championship meets that would eventually lead to today's 33 or so state finals in boys and girls sports.
But the 1950 meet was not really the first state championship or big intersectional XC meet in New York. It was simply the year that the state's sports officials regained their senses and brought back a hugely popular event that decades before had captivated many public schools around the New York City to Albany to Syracuse to Buffalo corridor. By 1950 some schools had been participating in running championships of some type for more than a half century, and at least a few families could claim four generations of men who had blazed the trails ever since the running bug had bitten America hard in the 1870s.
How Americans came to accept the idea that running up broiling hills in summer's waning days and sliding down muddy or frozen slopes as winter neared was a fine way to spend a morning or afternoon is open to debate. But the beginning of this longtime obsession lay in the period right after the American Civil War when the country was trying to forget the battlefield traumas of the previous years and many turned to meat, drink and merriment to salve the wounds. Some social critics believed American manhood was lurching into a time of corpulence, indulgence and indolence. Alarmed by a growing tendency of well-to-do young men to spend their time at clubs where they ate, drank and smoked themselves into abysmal states of health, alarmed newspaper editorialists called for men to take up physical activities that were beginning to be in vogue with their British cousins.
|Hares-and-Hounds runners depicted here in the 1870s had contests where a couple of leaders called the "hares" took a head start and led a chase from a pursuing pack of "hounds" through parks and countryside.|
Intrigued by word of a mentally and physically stimulating new sport called hares-and-hounds that was becoming popular among British lads, a group of young men living in Westchester County and the Bronx decided to form their own "harriers" club, spending their Sundays running for miles around Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and other countryside spots. The lead "hares" took a head start and left a trail of colored scraps of paper behind them as trail markers for the much larger group of pursuing "hounds." The final goal of the paper chase after an often wintry trek around frozen ponds and up rugged hill trails was of course the club house, where the harriers would eat and drink themselves into a state of bliss like the rest of the well-to-young men of America. But at least they were getting their exercise.
With many young men likely lured to a sport that gave them a break from their elders while allowing them to stomp through muddy pools and hurdle fences, dozens of running clubs were quickly organized in New York City and other metropolises. The hares-and-hounds jaunts quickly evolved into timed races between a dozen or so individual runners, which was the beginning of cross country as we know it. The races though were usually "handicaps" that gave less fast runners a head start so that throngs of roaring spectators could view a close finish and lay down their bets.
In November 1883, the first "Cross country championship of America" was started for the top the runners of the New York City running clubs and was held in northern Manhattan and the Bronx. The course ran approximately 4 miles down hills and through swamps and over various wooden barriers and across foot-bridges over the Harlem River and around Fordham Heights. Spectators followed the action from horse-and-carriage or a boat-like vehicle that the reporter was in and which he described as being "a little faster than a crippled mud turtle." The early leader got stuck in a fence and was passed by a pack of pursuers, and the winner was Thomas Delaney of the Williamsburg Athletic Club. All in all, the description of the first cross country championship sounds pretty similar to the New York state championships that were to come many decades later
|The early running boom soon led to cross country competitions, including the first US championship in November 1883 shown here, which started in the northern Inwood section of Manhattan and looped around into the Bronx.|
Running competitions continued to be a major weekend sporting activity in NYC and other cities, usually still held on Sundays and often involving a local sponsoring tavern or saloon that used the contests as an entertainment vehicle for selling refreshments to hundreds of spectators who came out to watch the start and finish and bet on the outcome. Young ladies in their Sunday best also turned out in droves to cheer on their favorites, decked out in their own dashingly chic racing attire.
By the turn of the century, top runners could make a decent living by winning the silver cup trophies presented by the pub sponsor to the winners. Naturally, some religious institutions took a very dim view of running events held on the holy Sabbath, and there were cases of runners being hauled off to jail by police as they approached finish lines after churches decided to take action against the flouters of the time's Sunday religious laws. These strong-arm tactics, however, were never directed at professional baseball teams or the horse tracks that also operated on Sundays and had much better connections than the runners.
The running craze began to explode as universities hosted big competitions in both cross country and track and field, with New York City city colleges such as Columbia, NYU, and Manhattan and upstate schools like Union, RPI, and Cornell becoming running powerhouses in some years. As the colleges looked to pull in a steady flow of fleet young guys to stock their track and cross country teams, more and more high schools began to field teams in the 1910s for students wanting to use their athletic talents as an entree to college. The scholastic teams and runners needed events to highlight their talents, and soon a network of local championships and college-sponsored running events were created for the emerging new hordes of runners.
Cities and their newspapers also became lead players in promoting the sport for young people too. In June 1920, the Syracuse Journal Cross Country Run was pitched to guys under the age of 20 in a headline banner across the top of the newspaper's sports page. Heralding a 3-mile run with no application fee, the announcement stated, "Here is your chance, boys, to show the kind of stuff you are made of. Did you ever do any running? What real boy is there who has not? Running is one of the most healthful and invigorating of sports and the Syracuse Journal, always a firm believer in the right kind of games and sports which produce red-blooded men, has inaugurated a cross country run." During the next half century, newspapers would be vital in the effort to keep pumping up the interest for the sport of the red-blooded harriers.
|This group of runners from Buffalo public schools included members from Hutchinson High School, which might be considered to be the first New York team to count itself the national champion after winning the University of Pennsylvania interscholastic meet in 1923.|
By the late 1910s, large invitational meets and county championship meets had been held around the state for a few years. The boom in scholastic sports had led the NY public schools in the early 1920s to mirror the college regional section setup, and they formed around 14 sectional athletic conferences to represent regions of the state. There were also US scholastic regional sections, and NY's football powerhouses in the 1920s such as Mt. Vernon and Manlius Academy would travel to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. to represent the East section for US schools. For cross country, the big competition for schools in the eastern US for many years was held by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and since the participants were the best high school teams in the country, the Penn meet was considered a de-facto national championship. Hutchinson High School of Buffalo won the final meet in 1923, and it may well have been the first New York school to consider itself a national champion in cross country.
|Women increasingly participated in a wide variety of sporting activities in the early 20th century, and some even involved running events such as this "field day" race held at Vassar College in the 1910s in the latest style track uniforms.|
Sports and championships were being stretched out in all directions for boys. To a lesser extent, girls were competing in a few picked sports like swimming, basketball, and field hockey, and even some shorter running activities on special occasions. But concerns were arising among school officials about how everything was going to be kept in line. In 1923 the NY public schools decided that further controls were needed for sports, and the NYSPHSAA was formed to provide a central management role.
The original role of the NYSPHSAA was not just to manage the many different sports such as basketball, swimming, tennis, baseball, skiing and hockey that the state's youth were flooding into. In certain sports such as cross country it took a promotional advocacy role. The reason for this was simple: America was falling badly behind in the arms race (or legs race) in long distance running compared to nations like Finland, Sweden, and Great Britain in Olympic and world championship competitions. A country that had once been a dominant running power was lagging far behind, even if it could lodge at least a partial claim to the Finnish Olympic gold medal superstar Ville Ritola who spent his running career training at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City. At a time when distance runners like Paavo Nurmi had an international following akin to Hollywood stars, America wanted its long distance heroes.
As to why American distance stars were in hiding, everyone could point to one big reason. That new-fangled automobile menace had eliminated many of the opportunities for exercise and was, as the first NYSPHSAA president Daniel Chase said, causing the "rapid deterioration" of America's youth as elite performers and leading to a "dearth of endurance runners." Something needed to be done.
To help meet the challenge, starting in 1924, intersectional championships for cross-country sponsored by the NYSPHSAA became an annual event. In the first year, two larger regional qualifiers were held at Alfred University for the south central NY teams and RPI for eastern NY schools, and smaller meets at Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were held to accommodate schools around other urban centers. In early November of 1924, the state championship took place at Cornell. In other years there were other host sites, including Syracuse University in 1925, and Hamilton College and Union College of Schenectady.
|The Schenectady High School teams coached by Bill Eddy, Sr., (middle, back row) started dominating both cross country and track and field from 1924 onward at both the state and national levels. Pictured are the 1928 national champion XC runners.|
For the 1924 States, individual runners and teams from close to twenty different public and prep schools qualified for the first cross country state championship at Cornell University in Ithaca on November 8. The 1923 national champ Hutchinson High finished 2nd, and was followed by fellow Buffalo school Master Park, then Ithaca, Yonkers, Elmira, Cortland, Pulaski, Mexico Academy, Rochester East, Binghamton, and Oswego. The winner by a narrow 47-52 score on the 3.1 mile course was a newly emergent Schenectady school that would dominate high school running over the next seven years and then continue the onslaught after splitting in two in 1931. The Dorpians, as they were called in local newspapers would rule at a level that no boys' team of later years would come near to.
Bill Eddy, coach of the Schenectady HS and later the Nott Terrace cross country and track teams, not only copped a string of national titles from the 1920s into the 1940s that would total 17 in all, but he also graduated a number of athletes who would spread his running fundamentals as coaches at other high schools and colleges in the region. An innovative coach who would develop many of the training methods that would become standard at schools around the state, he also became the wizard of cross country meet organization and the scoring systems used to bring order out of XC chaos. For 20 straight years, Eddy's teams would be undefeated in dual meets. In track, Eddy's teams were the highest scoring squad in the state for every year except one from 1921 to his retirement in 1947. To cite Eddy as the most important person ever in NY cross country and track and field would be a very fair statement.
From the mid 1920s on, Eddy's teams made trips down to "Gotham" to compete in big races at Van Cortlandt Park against the NY City region schools such as Curtis, Newtown, and New Rochelle. Winning the huge (but not 40-races huge) Manhattan College race that began in 1925 became an annual achievement in late October for Schenectady as it captured the first 6 titles. In 1925 Eddy's Schenectady team upset three time reigning champ Mercersburg Academy PA at the renowned Columbia University meet held in early November at VCP, and for ten straight years Eddy's Schenectady and Nott Terrace teams won the event and "retired" the highly prized Kirby trophy championship in 1927, 1930, and 1933 after winning it for a third consecutive year. None of the top NYC teams could beat Eddy's teams on their home turf extending into the early 1940s. And in the 1920s, the legions of Dorpian runners from Schenectady HS always won the early state XC championships. There was no school in the state or nation that could compete at Schenectady's level in the late season even when its top runners took tumbles in the VCP back hills, which seemed to happen with some regularity.
|Ray Logudice and Reuben Harrison were among the top runners who led the Schenectady High School team at right to its second straight win in 1928 at the national championship meet held in Newark, New Jersey.|
The demise of the Penn cross country championships led to new meets hosting the late season cross country heroics. One was the La Salle Military Academy meet on the south shore of Long Island in mid November that served as the tuneup for final event that pulled together the top XC powers in the nation. The new national stage was set up in in Newark, NJ and hosted by Seton Hall University.
The first of the new championships was held a few days before Thanksgiving in 1927, and Schenectady won the inaugural event to start a tradition of Turkey Day national championships for Eddy's teams. Bob Barringer of Manlius Academy was the individual champ. A Schenectady crowd numbered at 2300 turned out to greet the Dorpian conquerors in 1927 with a parade led by a police escort and marching band for a celebration that reportedly caused "a general uproar." Pretty heady stuff.
With many newspapers providing passionate coverage of the local scholastic teams and an almost endless supply of new sports such as lacrosse for New York schools to dive into, the state sports scene looked ready to explode. The New York City schools formed their own governing organizations including the PSAL for the public schools, the CHSAA for the Catholic schools, and the AIS for independent prep schools. By the late 1920s, the CHSAA and PSAL followed the NYSPHSAA lead and started their own intersectional championships. In the statewide NYSPHSAA, besides cross country, sports such as baseball, hockey, swimming, and tennis held State championships, and though opportunities in interscholastic sports for girls were more limited, even they had a state championship tourney in basketball set up along with regional championships in other sports such as field hockey.
Interscholastic cross country fever continued to grow, though the teams competing for national titles in big meets at Villanova University and Newark, New Jersey, were largely all from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. They were all chasing that Schenectady team that continued to pile up the state and national championships as the 1920s drew to a close. The paths for XC popularity seemed endless, and 80 years before a girls team from Fayetteville-Manlius HS in NY was dominating national competition, the boys team from Schenectady was doing the same. However, as the saying goes, enjoy the great feeling while it lasts. The bubble for much of NY interscholastic sports was about to burst in a depressing way.