By JOHN KEREZY, eyeoncleveland.com founder
Jesse Owens’ back was in agony, and the Ohio State star was in the hospital for X-rays 88 years ago, the Wednesday before the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships. He’d become injured in prank-type horseplay at his Columbus boarding house earlier in the month, and both he and Coach Larry Snyder believed Owens might not be able to compete – and certainly not at his best – in the May 24-25 conference championships at the University of Michigan.
In previous meets that spring, Owens had placed first in multiple events. He was almost unbeatable in the 100-yard dash and the long (then called the broad) jump. But Snyder was pinning his hopes for a team conference championship on Owens, believing he could make the finals in four different events. So, Snyder entered him in the 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles as well.
Like many student athletes at the time, Owens had a challenging life. The average U.S. salary was $471 a year, but more than 20 percent of the nation’s workers couldn’t find jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. Tuition and fees at Ohio State for Owens were $243 a year, or $81 for each of the three academic quarters. Owens’ father had been unemployed for many years, so the “Buckeye Bullet” (one nickname for Jesse) worked as an elevator operator at the Statehouse and pumped gas during summers at a Sohio gas station on Cedar Avenue, not far from the family’s rented home on East 100th Street in Cleveland. There were no athletic scholarships at the time.
Life in 1935
The stock market lost well more than half its value at the onset of the Great Depression. Bank failures wiped out many people’s life savings. Without jobs or money to fall back upon, home delinquencies skyrocketed. Newly-poor families erected cardboard shacks and lived together in small enclaves called Hoovervilles in and near cities across the country. Students dropped out of school for any type of work they could find.
Movies provided a temporary reprieve from day-to-day struggles. Clark Gable starred in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through “Top Hat,” and Alfred Hitchcock began building his reputation as the master of suspense with the film “39 Steps,” all released in 1935. A movie ticket costs only a quarter, and those who could afford cars would find gasoline for 19 cents a gallon.
Radio was still in its early years, and television was a decade in the future. In early May 1935, the University of Michigan’s athletic department approved spending $500 to construct a press box at Ferry Field for the Big Ten Track and Field championships. Although no one would broadcast the event live, officials knew the championships would attract significant media coverage. Reporters and photographers needed a place to write stories and file reports on location with the Associated Press and United Press International, or their local papers.
It was also a time when professional journalism was in the ascendancy, and great sportswriters such as Grantland Rice, Red Smith and Shirley Povich captivated readers all over the U.S. with their stories. In Cleveland, Jack Clowser, writing for the Cleveland News, had already been chronicling Owens’ rise to stardom for many years. Clowser convinced his editors to let him go to Ann Arbor and cover the Big Ten Track and Field Championships. The only Cleveland-based reporter at the meet, he would end up with multiple exclusive stories.
And like movies, sports helped Americans escape from the woes of the Great Depression. The legendary Babe Ruth was at the end of his playing career, with the Boston Braves after being released by the New York Yankees. James J. Braddock (“Cinderella Man”) would win the world heavyweight boxing title over Max Baer. But for Black Americans, boxing title contender Joe Louis was their hero. Anytime Louis fought in 1935, activity in Black neighborhoods came to a standstill as people would crowd into barbershops, churches, or any place where someone owned a radio, to hear live blow-by-blow accounts of a Joe Louis fight.
Racism dodged his life
With his family, a nine-year-old Owens came to Cleveland in 1922 as part of an early wave of the Great Migration. Life was far superior for them than in Alabama. Owens’ father was a poor sharecropper farmer. His grandfather was a slave. Blacks in Alabama then were victims of blatant racism and discrimination. In Cleveland at Fairmount Junior High, Jesse came under the tutelage of Charles Riley, the coach who taught Owens the fundamentals about running. “Train for four years from next Friday,” was one of Riley’s favorite sayings to keep encouraging Owens to improve.
From Fairmount, Owens matriculated to East Technical High School. There he exceled in track and field even as Cleveland and the nation descended into the Great Depression. Owens’ older siblings dropped out of school to help earn money for the family, but Owens’ mother Emma insisted that Jesse stay in school and continue running. He led East Tech to a state championship in 1933, and to a national title at the National Interscholastic Championships in Chicago that summer. He also met the love of his life, Ruth, in Cleveland, and they would be married just two months after the Big Ten Championships.
Owens also came to national attention due to Cleveland journalists such as Clowser. The young track star was a national sensation when he continued his track career at the Ohio State University in the fall of 1933. But it wasn’t a popular choice. Columbus was a segregated city, and blacks were prohibited from living on the OSU campus. Leading African-American newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, published editorials suggesting that Owens should matriculate to a more diverse and inclusive college which treated blacks better. But Ohio State was close to his family and his love Ruth.
White football players operated the public elevators at the Statehouse. Owens’ job was manning the freight elevator at the back of the building during the second shift. Owens and other Blacks on the track team continually faced many different facets of racism, battling that as well as their on-the-track opposition. Fortunately, there was no discrimination at Ohio State University Hospitals, and Owens’ x-rays revealed no damage. So, he and 27 other Buckeye competitors left Columbus for Michigan on May 23.
Bigotry shadowed the OSU team when traveling. Hotels prohibited Blacks from registering, so Owens and his teammates sometimes roomed overnight at the YMCA nearest to the competition. Even on the drive to Ann Arbor from Columbus, a restaurant in Findlay refused to seat Owens, Mel Walker, and other Black athletes. Snyder purchased egg sandwiches and coffee for them to eat in the cars while the whites went inside for a late breakfast.
Fortunately for Owens, Walker and the other Blacks, the Huron Hotel in Ypsilanti near Ann Arbor admitted them. This meant the team could also eat together. Additionally, the accommodations allowed Walker and Ohio State trainer Tucker Smith to help with Owens’ back. Both Walker and Smith administered rubdowns to him for the preliminary heats on Friday and the finals on Saturday.
Unparalleled world record performances
In the preliminaries at Michigan on Friday, May 24, Owens advanced to the finals in all four events. But back pain kept shooting through him. Snyder wanted to pull his star out of the competition. Owens pleaded to stay. The two agreed to take the finals one event at a time on Saturday.
As the Buckeyes arrived at Ferry Field, Owens was in so much agony that he had to be helped out of the vehicle and up the stairs to the Ferry Field dressing room. Trainer Smith massaged him with alcohol, rubbed him down, and applied red pepper to his back. But the pain was unabated. Owens even needed help to put on his red track singlet with the word OHIO emblazoned on it.
Two things happened when Owens joined his teammates in the warm-up area. Morning clouds and cold had dissipated, and the sunshine and warmer temperatures had a positive effect on his disposition. And the 10,000 or so fans who were in attendance applauded and cheered at the sight of Owens. His fluid running style and always-positive demeanor made him a fan favorite no matter where the Buckeyes competed.
Snyder spoke with Owens again about dropping from the finals. Owens pleaded with his coach to let him try the first event, the 100-yard dash, and then go from there. Snyder demurred at the onset, but finally relented. Normally Owens would engage in 15 minutes of stretching and a few light laps around the track prior to his first event. But not today. He would simply run the race and see how his back responded.
Track announcer Ted Canty called the 100-yard dash finalists to the starting blocks. Owens and the others dug holes into the cinder track for their spikes to get a good start. It was 3:15 p.m. Uncharacteristically, Owens got off to a good jump at starter W.J. Monliaw’s gun and accelerated swiftly down the track. His time was new world record of 9.3 seconds on a majority of the timers’ stopwatches, but others had him at 9.4, which only tied Frank Wykoff’s world standard. Meet referee Charles Rawson insisted that the times be rounded up to 9.4 seconds in deference to Wykoff.
It mattered little to the crowd, who knew they’d seen a world record performance. Some came out of the stands to congratulate Owens, including 1932 Olympic gold medal winner Eddie Tolan. But there wasn’t much time for celebration. The Buckeye star moved to the long jump pit on the opposite side of Ferry Stadium’s track moments later. Other finalists had already been competing in the event, but Ohio State had “passed” or deferred when Owens’ named had been called. Snyder and Owens conferred once again. The two decided the Owens would make only one jump in the event, even though the rules allowed him up to three attempts. Both wanted to preserve Owens’ back.
Japan’s Chuhei Nambu held the world long jump record of 26 feet, 2½ inches. Feeling confident yet knowing he’d make just one attempt, Owens asked Smith to put a handkerchief on the ground at that distance next to the sand pit as a marker. Canty, sensing what was happening, questioned Smith about the placement of the hankie. Upon acknowledgement, Canty went to the microphone and drew the crowd’s attention to Owens’ impending try at breaking another world record.
He also called for silence, a cry which went up in vain at first. As Owens gingerly did a few stretches near the sand pit area, a crowd of athletes, those fans already on the field, and others from the stands scrambled for a viewing spot. They wanted to be eyewitnesses to possible track history.
Slowly Owens made his way to the end of the runway. Canty again instructed the crowd to stand clear of the long-jump pit, and repeated a plea for silence. Those around the pit finally ceased milling around and talking, and all eyes fixated on Owens has he rocked back and forth in a half-crouch. It was all about speed. The more one could accelerate, the greater the flying distance once airborne. He raced faster and faster down the grass runway, hit the takeoff board, and jackknifed high through the air.
Owens knew he’d surpassed Nambu’s mark as he landed, as did the crowd. Judges measured the distance, then conferred with each other. They passed the result to Rawson and then to Canty, who announced that Owens had leaped 26 feet, 8¼ inches, a world record that would stand for 25 years.
The crowd reacted with applause, but again there wasn’t time for much a celebration. Snyder patted his star on the back and spoke briefly with him. Both knew there was no holding back Owens at this point. The Buckeye Bullet moved back to the track for the finals of the 220-yard dash, scheduled for just 10 minutes after his long-jump leap
Starter Monilaw’s pistol went off at precisely 3:34 p.m. Owens quickly and seemingly effortlessly spirited into the lead, and finished first with a new world record of 20.3 seconds, three-tenths of a second better than the previous world mark and also better than the existing 200-meter dash record. The second and third place finishers joined Owens on the medal platform for a victory ceremony at 3:45 p.m.
While there was no radio network broadcasting results that day, wire services were sending bulletins and updates to member Teletype machines all over the nation. About 190 miles southeast of Ann Arbor, track and field athletes, coaches, and fans from high schools across Ohio were at the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s 1935 state championships at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The field announcer there interrupted his meet duties to inform the crowd of Owens’ accomplishments. As he intoned “new world record” over and over again, the crowd went delirious. These were some of the same track and field competitors and followers who’d seen Owens win 95 of his 99 meet events in his high school career at East Tech, and they too celebrated in his success.
Back in Ann Abor, Owens went to his final event of the day, the 220-yard low hurdles. It was a new competition for him, something he’d only done a couple of times before. The gun sounded at 3:58 p.m., and Owens set a new world record of 22.6 seconds for his fourth triumph of the meet. In a period of 43 minutes, Owens had obliterated the books by setting three world records and tying a fourth.
Fellow athletes and those in the stands knew they had just witnessed the rarest of feats, a track grand slam. After Owens’ fourth to the top of the victory platform, Canty grabbed Owens by the hand and led him to the field microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, for the fourth time this afternoon, from the same man, a world record performance,” he announced. Canty then paused a few seconds for effect.
“With a view to next year’s Olympic Games, it no longer seems enough for us to present ‘Owens of Ohio State University,’ but let us say, ‘Owens of the United States!’” A great cheer erupted from the stands.
Owens told reporters after the meet that by the time of his last event, the back pain had subsided. And with a victory in the mile relay, the final one in the meet, Michigan edged out Ohio State for first place and the Big Ten championship title. But the big story coming out of the day was four first, four world records for the Buckeye star.
Associated Press Sports Editor William Weekes and Clowser both wrote stories about Owens’ feats for the AP wire service, which carried it via Teletype to member papers across the U.S. and around the world. Weekes’ story focused on the entire Big Ten meet, and it appeared in a thousand papers around the globe on May 26. Clowser’s filing, which also ran on AP, was focused solely on Owens’ accomplishments.
“The name of the 21-year-old Owens is being read this morning by untold thousands in London, Stockholm, Berlin, Geneva, Tokyo, and other world capitals,” Clowser wrote. “Chuhei Nambu, Japan’s outstanding athlete, is probably reading that his world broad-jump record has been broken by a youth from Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A., And in Berlin members of the crack German Olympic squad, reputed to be close to Reichsfuhrer Adolf Hitler, are scanning the information the United States has found a sensational record-breaker who will make a profound difference in the 1936 Olympics.”
Babe Ruth hit three home runs the very same day, but Owens’ world records and first-place accomplishments ranked higher on the front page of sports sections all over the U.S. that Sunday. The feat also elevated Owens from sensation to a superstar known around the world. Even Nazi Germany began heralding Owens as one of the top athletes to watch when the 11th Olympiad came to Berlin in 1936.
Owens’ performances resonated across the country. He was the most-watched and most reported upon athlete in the nation in June 1935 when the Buckeye track team went to California to compete. He would be in the media’s spotlight for the rest of his life.
There’s no love lost between the Wolverines and Buckeyes, but Michigan’s athletics department knows that the greatest sports performance ever turned in at Ann Arbor came from Owens. It even put up a granite marker and plaque at Ferry Field to honor Owens’ four world record performances (see photos above, all from the University of Michigan’s Athletics Archives).
No one ever since 1935 has duplicated four firsts and four world records at a track meet. Owens himself later finished first in the same four events at both the 1935 and 1936 NCAA Track and Field Championships. He placed first in three events at the U.S. Olympic trials in June 1936, and soon after he was on his way to Berlin to represent Team U.S.A. in Nazi Germany.
Ironically, just as Owens and all the other finalists at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships were waking up on that same May morning in 1935, German Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels was also celebrating a triumph. Production lines in Germany had begun manufacturing the first of 100,000 Volksempfangers, or the “people’s set” home radios. Central to Goebbels plans to employ radio as an important propaganda tool was the need to simply get more receivers into the hands of German households.
The stage was being set for Jesse Owens to prove just how wrong and futile Adolph Hitler’s claims of Aryan Supremacy were at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Visit the Jesse Owens Museum
If one wants to learn much more about Jesse Owens, visit the Jesse Owens Museum and Memorial Park located in Owens’ home town of Danville, Ala. There are displays, videos, photos, and artifacts from the 1936 Summer Olympics and Owens life there. Here’s a link to details:
Click here to download and read the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships program:
Read the New York Times account of Owens’ victories here:
Read the Columbus Dispatch story of May 23, 1935, about Owens and the Ohio State Track team here:
Watch Jesse Owens
Click here to see a Movietone Reel of Owens’ performances at the 1936 Olympic Trials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScERTXCDXYg
Click here to watch video of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHGM8GyzXn0
The author wishes to thank Greg Kinney of the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, Terry Metter of the Cleveland Public Library, Elizabeth Piwkowski of the Cleveland State Library, and Meagan Fowler of Cuyahoga Community College for research assistance, and Jim Amidon of Wabash College for proofing/editing. Readers are welcome to follow eyeoncleveland.com for more stories about Owens, or to connect directly with the author at email@example.com
Photos are from cnn.com, tcm.com, the Library of Congress, the University of Michigan, and the Cleveland Public Library
SOME SOURCES USED FOR THIS ARTICLE
“A Feat to Cherish” https://michigantoday.umich.edu/2016/02/19/a-feat-to-cherish/
“Jesse Owens: An American Life” by William J. Baker (1986, University of Illinois Press)
“Heroes Without a Country” by Donald McRae (2002, Harper Collins Publishers)
“Triumph” by Jeremy Schaap (2008, Houghton Mifflin Company)