“Before an assembly of 5,000 people, a colorful and eventful assemblage, too, athletic history for Gloucester was recorded on Saturday afternoon when was staged the track and field championships of the New England Association of the Amateur Athletic Union.
“And it served a four-fold purpose, the deciding of New England champions for 1923, the selection of a team for the National Championships at Chicago on Friday, Saturday and Monday coming, the opening feature of the Gloucester’s 300th anniversary celebration, and the new athletic field on Centennial Avenue.
“Yet in spite of the handicaps of the elements, rain, wind, thunder, lightning, and lots of it, it was a tremendous success.”
So reported the Gloucester Daily Times on Monday, Aug. 27, 1923.
As Gloucester celebrates the long-awaited rebirth of the high school’s track and field at Newell Stadium, it’s a good time to take a look back at the dramatic day this storied place of sport first came to be.
Prohibition reigned, Calvin Coolidge was our new President, Babe Ruth was hitting .401 for the Yankees, and the City of Gloucester marked its 300th anniversary.
On Saturday, Aug. 25, 1923 — kicking off a week long city-wide celebration — the Centennial Avenue Track (named Newell Stadium many years later) made its debut. With a backdrop of heavy skies, rain and lightning, our home field hosted the New England Association Amateur Athletic Union Championships.
That inaugural event featured perhaps the most elite group of track and field athletes ever to gather here. More than 150 of New England’s best competed in 22 events, and the stakes were high. Competition was not just for east coast supremacy, but a shot at the National Championships in Chicago a week later. Winners there would move on to the Paris Olympics of 1924.
James Henigan was here on that stormy opening day. The former American Cross Country Champion was called “the most famous distance runner in the world” by a Boston sports columnist. He easily bested a field of twenty in the five mile race in spite of occasional “ankle deep mud.”
Lloyd Hahn, the American record holder for the indoor mile, easily dominated the mile run with a 4:31 on the rain-soaked track. Hahn went on to become a two-time Olympian, represent the United States not only in Paris in 1924, but in the Amsterdam Olympics (1928) as well, competing in both the 800 meter and 1500 meter runs. Though he never won a medal, Hahn reigned as American champion at both these distances for years.
And for one participant, Gloucester’s opening event would provide a springboard toward the greatest prize in all of sport. Only twenty years old, but already christened “The Giant of Salem” by sportswriters, came New Hampshire’s Fred Tootell.
A huge man for his day, at nearly 6-foot-5, he came to Gloucester to demonstrate his specialty — the 16 pound hammer throw. He beat his closest competitor by nearly 40 feet and dominated the nationals in Chicago as well. Tootell did not disappoint in Paris, winning a gold medal and beating the silver medalist by over 10 feet.
Also, note a fascinating piece of local sports trivia: Tootell’s pre-Olympic throws in Gloucester did not take place at the Centennial Avenue facility, but a few blocks north at “the Oval” sports grounds. Large crowds and heavy weather forced the relocation.
Perhaps the most remarkable athlete to make his way through that first Centennial Avenue track meet was Harvard long-jumper, Edward Gourdin. In 1921, Gourdin jumped 25 feet, 3 inches, setting a world record that still stood as he entered competition in Gloucester. According to a reporter for the New York Telegram, the breaking of the 25-foot barrier was “considered impossible” prior to Gourdin.
Here, he won the rainy meet with a jump of 21 feet 7 inches, and prevailed again in Chicago. But in the Paris Olympics he was not at his best, earning silver, not gold. Oddly, in an exhibition meet the day after his Olympic effort, he would jump 25 feet, 8 inches — a foot further than the winning Olympic jump.
If ever there was one, Gourdin stood as a true scholar-athlete, and would go on to break barriers far beyond track and field. He studied law, and was admitted to both the Massachusetts and federal bars within a few years of his visit to the Gloucester track. But in an era when doors remained closed to non-white Americans, he remained a postal clerk for many years.
Gourdin persisted, and would eventually be recognized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him a United States attorney.
An editorial in the Boston Herald referred to the appointment this way: “The day may come when the fact that a new state appointment of a Negro will cease to be a matter of note. Unfortunately that is not yet.”
Michael Ronan is a longtime chronicler is city elections and other local history.