Gold medalist burned up local track

Posted April 10, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

“Can Johnny Hayes Beat Them Both?” That question was posed to sports fans in a large ad in the Bangor Daily News a century ago this week. The big race was April 15, 1909. This was back in the days when male Bangoreans loved a race — human or horse — almost as much as they loved a good prizefight.

The marathon craze infected the Queen City after Johnny Hayes became the first American to win the event at the Olympics the year before in London. Now Hayes was coming to Bangor to take on two other well-known runners in what seems today like an odd display of talent. Hayes was going to compete against a two-man relay team running 15 miles around the Bangor Auditorium. Veteran runner Pat Dineen would start the race, and John H. Neary, who also happened to be the basketball coach at the University of Maine that year, would finish it. Could Johnny Hayes beat them both?

The press was ecstatic. “This is the first time that a real Marathon crack has been seen in Maine since the great craze for this sort of sport was started by the big Olympic games in London last summer,” wrote one sports reporter in the Bangor Daily News the day before the event.

Johnny Hayes’ win at the Olympics had been surrounded by controversy. Dorando Pietri crossed the finish line first, but he had been assisted by spectators after taking a wrong turn and collapsing several times in the home stretch. In later competitions, the Italian beat Hayes.

But the son of Irish immigrants was a scrappy performer. At 5 foot 3½ inches and weighing just 124 pounds, “the fleet little boy from Manhattan” as the BDN called him, had placed near the top at the Boston Marathon and won or done well in other famous running events of the day. On April 3 he had won $1,500 for coming in third in a race in New York City (in which Dorando Pietri placed second).

At age 39 and only an inch taller than Hayes, Pat Dineen was referred to in the newspapers as “the grand old man of the six-day track.” He had been declared “champion of the world” in 1902 in Philadelphia when he ran 519 miles over six days and nights, finishing 10 miles ahead of his nearest competitor, having slept for only six hours and lost 15 pounds, said the BDN. A native of Ireland, Dineen called South Boston home.

Neary of South Natick, Mass., was also “no novice,” declared one of the many newspaper headlines boosting the Bangor race. One of Neary’s greatest claims to fame was that he had run even with Tom Longboat for 19 miles in the Boston Marathon, the year the great Indian runner set a course record. The 6-foot-2-inch Neary at 23 was as youthful as Hayes.

Hayes arrived in Bangor to fanfare. “Johnny Hayes is in town. The real Johnny Hayes, who got away with them all in the Marathon at the Olympics games in London, and since that time has been figuring in some of the biggest running events that the United States ever saw,” declared the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 14. “He is short in stature and is built close to the ground and has a chest that tells the secret of his success. Never having puffed at the fragrant weed or used any liquor of an intoxicating nature, he has a breathing apparatus and a heart that has meant a whole lot to him in the last year.”

Johnny was polite and modest. He had been out of condition, having entered vaudeville for a time after his Olympic victory, but he said he hoped he was on the road back to physical perfection.

The race was expected to attract a big crowd. Matthew J. Cowhig, the local promoter, had set aside special seats in the balcony for women and lined up the Bangor Band to play patriotic pieces. The cost of a seat ranged from 50 cents to $1.50. This was back when you could sit in a movie theater all day for a nickel.

The Bangor Auditorium of the period was a huge, drafty wooden building with magnificent acoustics at the corner of Main and Buck streets. The most famous opera singers in the world appeared there each fall in the Maine Festival. During the rest of the year it was available for political rallies, roller-skating and anything that required lots of space. Sixteen laps made a mile, said the BDN.

On the night of the race, the sportswriter for the BDN got to reminiscing: “To men whose sporting memory runs back 25 years, the scene in the Auditorium during the last half of Thursday night’s race recalled old days in the Norombega [Hall], when the rugged little Jerry Hourihan of East Boston, the graceful Dan Herty of Revere … and others famed on the sawdust track used to struggle for the good money hung up by James H. Gillespie — when the band played Garryowen, the crowds yelled and cheered and the general excitement woke the echoes for blocks around.”

But times had changed. The reporter’s nostalgic recollections came first in the story, because the turn out for the race was a disappointment. The weather — “ugly and raw and the streets muddy” — kept away the “thousands” who were expected. “The excitement of 25 years ago may be revived, but it can’t be done in a minute,” said the old reporter.

Even with such a handicap, Dineen and Neary were no match for the speedy little Olympic victor. Hayes had started out “with the confidence and ease of a boy running the block to hear the band play.” The “Gotham wonder” beat Dineen by six laps and stayed just ahead of Neary in the seesaw battle that followed. “Bedlam reigned in the big hall,” the reporter wrote. “Cheers for Neary and shouts of ‘Hold him, Johnny — go it, Hayes!”

Despite the poor turnout, marathon fever was still in the air. Promoter Cowhig promised a real 26-mile marathon around the track at Maplewood Park, known as Bass Park today, around Memorial Day, and Johnny Hayes said he would be there, said the BDN on April 17 — that is, if Cowhig could find 500 people to buy that number of $1 tickets.

Meanwhile, A.S. Field, manager of the Eastern Maine Fair, said he was going to feature long-distance runs this year for the first time — 10 miles for amateurs and 15 for pros, and the winners would get loving cups made of silver or gold. At the end of five years, the men who had won the most would get gold, silver or bronze medals. Of course, there would be an entry fee of $1 “in order to keep out everyone but the real thing.” This also might show how long Bangor’s latest marathon craze was going to last.

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Living