Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Black History Month: Jesse Owens at Osborne Stadium

Jesse Owens

Twice in the 1940s Winnipeg's Osborne Stadium hosted Jesse Owens, one of the world's greatest track athletes. 

Owens was already a well-known athlete around Cleveland by the time he enrolled at Ohio State University where he began breaking national and world track records. At the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships he broke five, and tied a sixth, world record in a period of just 45 minutes, (source). His crowning achievement was at the 1936 Olympic Games where he won four gold medals, (100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meter relay and long jump.) It was a display unmatched until Carl Lewis at 1984's (partially boycotted) Olympic Games. 

It was a different time for athletes, regardless of colour. To remain active in amateur sports, they could not be paid a salary or for appearances or promotions. When Owens retired shortly after the 1936 games there were no million dollar sneaker endorsements to fall back on. To support his family and fund his youth charity work, he relied on goodwill jobs with companies like Ford and speaking engagements and public appearances. Some biographies say he even did a stint as a gas jockey during lean times. 

Appearances with travelling Negro baseball teams in the 1940s was a way to pay the bills. He helped fill the stands as people wanted to say that they saw the Olympic great run in person, even if past his prime at the grand old age of 30 ! In retirement he was no slouch, though. Owens could run the 100 yards in the 10 to 10.2 second range, about a half second off the world record, still held eight world records.

August 21, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune (source)

His first visit to Winnipeg was from August 21 - 23, 1944. He appeared each evening during a four game series between the Pittsburgh Crawfords and  Chicago Bombers of the fledgling United States (Negro) Baseball League, (here are their 1945 lineups.) 

Each evening Owens hosted a series of races against the fastest players from the baseball teams. In one race he spotted them a large head start before passing them, in another he raced hurdles while the others ran on flat ground. Finally, he ran against a four man relay team. It was then followed by a ten minute address to the crowd.

Top: Palmer in first, Gibb third. Winnipeg Tribune (source)

Bottom: Headline, August 18, 1944, Winnipeg Free Press

The weekend prior to the Owens visit, the RCAF was hosting a track and field championship meet at Sargent Park. It bought together the best athletes serving in the Forces stationed in Manitoba, including thousands from around the world as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. 

The highlight of the meet was the 100-yard race which was opened up to the best runners in the province. It was a showdown between two athletes-turned-soldiers. One was Winnipeg's own provincial championship holder Sandy Gibb of the Canadian Army verses sprinter Ken Palmer of the Australian Air Force. The race was thrilling but it was Palmer who won, Gibb placed third.

Thanks, presumably, to a keen-eyed promoter, athletes who attended the meet were worked into Owens' program at the baseball game. On Monday August 21 he raced Sandy Gibb and his older brothers Andy and Tom, also runners, in handicapped race. Sandy was given a three yard lead while his brothers got six. Sandy won. The following night, Sandy Gibb and Ken Palmer were reunited in a 100 yard race with Owens. As expected, the Olympian won in a time of 10.2 seconds with Gibb coming in a close second.

Though descriptions of the the quality of the baseball included  "fair" and "grimy", it was Jesse Owens that the crowds came to see. A Free Press editorial of August 23, 1944 entitled Jesse Owens' Legs, summed it up: 

These legs have carried Mr. Owens down cinder paths at a faster clip than any other pair of legs has travelled in athletic history.... As we watched him Monday night trying to give a trio of local boys a head start and catch them in a hundred yards, our thoughts went back eight years to another setting.

July 12, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

The following summer Owens returned to Winnipeg. This time it was for a four-game series between the Detroit Giants and Philadelphia Hilldales of the same United States (Negro) Baseball League. Despite the promoter's attempt at billing it as two top teams, most reviews agreed that the quality of play was substandard. The USBL didn't last more than two seasons.

July 13, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune (source)

Owens' show was similar to that of his 1944 visit, with the exception was the marquee race. He DID race a local track star, but this one had four legs. Early Beck was a retired racehorse from Southwood Stables, (for the record, horse beat man 2 of 3 nights.)

Free Press sports columnist Maurice Smith, who interviewed Owens during his 1944 trip to Winnipeg, wrote that it was "with regret" that he learned that this trip would involve racing a horse. After meeting Owens a second time he wrote:  "Jesse is the type of chap that if you have been fortunate enough to meet and talk with him you immediately regard him as a friend. There is no side with him. He Is plain Jesse Owens. Not Jesse Owens, Olympic champion." (July 13, 1945, Winnipeg Free Press.)

Tribune sports writer Tony Allen summed up the majority sentiment in a July 13, 1945 column: "...it's always a treat to see Owens run, with or without suitable opposition.

Jesse Owens died in 1980 of lung cancer. In January 2013 Ohio State University opened a new exhibit to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Jesse Owens Olympic.org
Jesse Owens. A Lasting Legacy Ohio State University

Osborne Stadium Reconstructing Winnipeg (Video)

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