One of the great pluses of the online age is our access to the archives of prominent newspapers and magazines. When it comes to sporting events, probably no weekly has provided a more entertaining view of the athletic scene for the last 55 years than Sports Illustrated. As would be expected for one of the premier running spots of the world, the SI Vault
contains a lot of golden nuggets about VCP and the sporting events held there.
Runners feel very possessive about VCP and tend to give only a passing glance to other sports that camp out there unless a band of ruggers impede their forward progress. However, the SI Vault’s first mention of the park appears in its 13th issue in 1954 in reference to the passing of golfer and former USGA president Findly Douglas (known as Great Scot) whose first 18 holes after moving to the US in 1897 was at the oldest US municipal golf course at VCP. The second article mentioning VCP, in 1959, was also golf related, a piece by NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses's warning about the impending doom of the urban and suburban links community unless steps were taken to protect courses from development pressures.
Throughout the end of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, there are few references to running at VCP other than listings of the Metropolitan Intercollegiate and the Heptagonal Games college cross-country events. In November 1960, an item in an SI Roundup provides the first real mention of XC in a summary of the IC4A college championship and the “hilly five mile trot” on the VCP course. Four years later another Roundup mentions Georgetown runner Joe Lynch’s shattering of the 5-mile course record in a time of 24:41.8. A little off the beaten trail, a Roundup in 1961 notes that actor Jim Nolan (aka James Greene) worked in a play, appeared in a movie, was seen on a TV show, and won a 5 mile race at VCP all on the same day.
In other articles, VCP is mentioned as a favored golfing destination in the past for Babe Ruth, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the site where legendary fights promoter Leo Flynn caught a fatal case of pneumonia while putting, and as the place where Rocky-like Irish American boxer Joey Archer spent time “running through the emptiness of Van Cortlandt Park” in preparation for his losing middleweight title fight with Emile Griffith in 1966. An April 1964 article about NYC sports venues for World’s Fair visitors notes VCP as a good place to watch a rugby match. VCP also makes an appearance in Jack Kerouac’s 1966 article “Vanity on the Gridiron” as he describes his dreams of football glory at Horace Mann and Columbia.
The mid '60s is when the SI Vault starts to churn out some classic articles about running with VCP included. A December 1965 Roundup notes that Ron Larrieu won the 10 mile US Nationals XC championship at VCP “on muddy hills.” In the Nov. 27, 1967 issue, SI struck gold with a total joy of a piece called “Thank Heaven for
…”, which told the story of a Kentucky girls AAU team called the Fairfield Striders which goes from running in Appalachian cow pastures to in short time traveling to NYC to win an 8-9-year-olds AAU title at VCP, beating the best teams that a city of 8 million can throw against the indefatigable dynamos from a farm town of 560. In a January 1968 piece, the great Irish runner and 1956 1500-meter Olympic gold medalist, Ron Delany, recounted his first race in America as a Villanova freshman in the early '50s when he was thrown into the fray in a race at VCP and got a taste of the sharp elbows that he would need to battle through in the fall. Finally, a 1969 Roundup item notes Jerry Lindgren’s capture of a 3rd NCAA title, which occurred at VCP.
The SI Vault in the '70s was scarce on VCP related articles but did include shorts about notable running feats there. A November 1971 Roundup cites Bob Wheeler of Duke for winning the IC4A college championship in a time of 24:27 on the VCP 5 mile course. A January 1975 Faces in the Crowd piece lauds 14-year-old Brooklynite named Baron Goff who set three age-related records from 1 to 2 miles at VCP. In July 1976 a Scorecard entry relates how the Metropolitan Opera was turned away by Yankees staff from a scheduled performance at the Stadium due to ugly weather predictions so instead headed northward with its caravan and stopped at VCP, where it decamped and gave a performance of Madama Butterfly.
The '80s and early '90s is when VCP and XC hit a peak in SI as there were a number of top articles based around the exploits of the great US XC champions Pat Porter and Lynn Jennings and their run of consecutive crowns. A December 1987 article, “Rolling a Six the Hard Way
,” describes Porter’s record-busting effort at VCP to win his 6th straight US national title while Jennings notched her second. Three years later in November 1990, an article called “She's the Queen of Hill and Dale
” chronicled Jennings’ long hard road to the first of her three consecutive World XC championships and noted her upcoming bid for a 5th US title at VCP. A month later an article called “A Sure Thing
” trumpeted Jenning’s win at VCP, the place that the Massachusetts native and Princeton star said “feels like home.” In the same article, the end of Porter’s 8-year reign as US XC champion is also discussed and includes his “I got buried on Cemetery” quote.
A hodge-podge of short items from the '80s and '90s features the many faces of VCP. A November 1988 Faces in the Crowd item notes NJ native Christi Constantin’s victory in the Eastern States Cross Country Championship at the Manhattan Invitational at VCP. A May 1989 short discusses a bit of graffiti on the VCP horse stables, “May the Horse Be with You.” In November 1998 a journalist recalls his first meeting with NY Jets coach Weeb Ewbank in 1963 while chasing a rugby ball into some VCP bushes and discovering a bunch of naked guys. Turned out to be Jets players whose regular Polo Fields base was unavailable and so instead were practicing at the park, which of course has no changing rooms. “Don’t mind us. Go on with your game,” said Ewbank in a statement that could well be the trademark slogan for VCP.
The most recent mention of VCP appears to be in 2002 when it is noted that bowmen got in some practice there before heading to Central Park for the US Archery championship finals. The SI Vault has also included a number of outstanding distance running articles that sadly did not include VCP. One of the best is “The First Four Minutes
,” from July 27, 1955, in which Roger Bannister recounts his journey from the bitter loss at the 1952 Olympic Games to his record setting mile run and followup classic duel with John Landy in the Empire Games’ mile in 1954. Another favorite is the December 1979 article, “It was Easy as Pie
,” which gives a fascinating account of the Bemis Forslund Pie Race, the oldest race in the country and at which Massachusetts locals and students and alumni of Mount Hermon Prep school such as Frank Shorter all receive pies for running the 4.5 mile course in under 40:00 the Monday before Thanksgiving. Not as good as carrot cakes maybe, but they’re on the right track.
It’s your own vault if you don’t refresh your memory about your favorite sporting events at the Sports Illustrated site.