I’ve written before about the match in Hoboken between the England Cricket Team and the United States in 1859, during England’s celebrated tour of North America with five matches in Canada and the US. England played three matches in the US against sides made of cricketers largely from New York, Newark and Philadelphia. In terms of cricket play, most of the matches were embarrassing for the American sides, despite the English team allowing the North American teams to play with a significant handicap (The American teams played with 22 players vs the standard 11). In Hoboken, the England 11 won by a full innings, which might be the equivalent of scoring enough points in one half of basketball to guarantee victory. But from October 10-12, the England 11 did encounter some tough resistance in Philadelphia. Though England ultimately prevailed by a safe margin, it was the closest of the 5 matches.
Cricketer and Philadelphia businessman Charles Barclay
Philadelphia was then acknowledged by many sports commentators as the center of American cricket, with several of the strongest cricket clubs in the nation including the Germantown Cricket Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club, both of which still exist. Up to the Civil War, cricket was more popular in the US than baseball. The match in Philadelphia was played over two days (October 11th had no play due to local elections) at the Camac’s Woods Grounds. Though the US team was largely the same as had played in New York, a number of Philadelphians played in this match, including Civil War officer Charles Collis, Walter S Newhall, author Jones Wister, and businessman Charles Barclay. Also on the squad was Sam Wright and his English-born son from New York, Harry Wright, who would later have a Philadelphia connection. He would switch to baseball and manage several teams. He was the manager of the Philadelphia Quakers, later the Phillies, from 1884-1893, and is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
In the first innings, the Americans scored a respectable 94 runs to the English 126. Controversy struck when English batsman Robert Carpenter bit a ball that was caught by Jones Wister for an apparent wicket, similar to an out in baseball. However, the American umpire Henry Sharpe called the ball wide (like a ball in baseball) negating the wicket. Carpenter went on to score 22 runs. It was the equivalent in baseball to calling a ball instead of a 3rd strike which could have ended a big inning. Wister claimed the incident cost the Americans the match. Ultimately, England held the Americans to a score of 60 runs in the 2nd innings and went on to win by 7 wickets, a comfortable victory. English journalist Fred Lillywhite praised the American performance, noting “they showed excellent points in the way of fielding, and were justly applauded by their opponents.”
5: Dick Brown wins the first America’s Cup in 1851.
In 1851 the ship America of the New York Yacht Club arrived in Britain on what appeared to be a hopeless task–to defeat the greatest ships in the world. The New York Yacht Club was only seven years old at that point, challenging the Royal Yacht Squadron which was over 30 years old. Great Britain was the undisputed master of the seas. Newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who was travelling in Europe at the time, advised the Americans to not challenge the British, for they would surely get embarrassed.
The America’s captain was Richard ‘Dick’ Brown. He was one of the famed Sandy Hook Pilots, who since the 1600s have guided ships into New York Harbor. He was recommended by the America designer George Steers and America syndicate member George Schuyler as “careful, reliable, faithful, one of the best men in his position I ever saw”. Brown selected a younger pilot Nelson Comstock as his first mate–unfortunately little is known about him.
The race in 1851 was around the Isle of Wight, where the Royal Yacht Squadron was based. It would be familiar waters to the British sailors, but it is unlikely Brown had ever sailed around it earlier. 17 yachts entered against Brown’s America. Though less familiar with the course, he successfully navigated through the Nab rocks on the east of the Isle, a difficult maneuver the others didn’t attempt.
Dick Brown and the America
The America finished first with such an advantage that when Queen Victoria asked who finished second, she supposedly was told, “There is no second, Your Majesty.” Queen Victoria and Prince Albert personally boarded the America to congratulate Brown; when Albert boarded, Brown insisted the royal wipe his feat.
The result caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, many ship designers and sailors studied the race and the ship carefully to understand how to improve their vessels. In the US, newspapers hailed the victory as proof of superiority over their former colonial master–the New York Herald declared, “We have beaten them on land and at sea.” The New York Yacht Club was presented an ornate silver ewer, later named the “America’s Cup” after the first winning ship.
4. Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
The English Channel has long been a challenge that has attracted hardy athletes from around the world. It’s sort of a Mount Everest for swimmers. First crossed by Matthew Webb in 1875, it was next crossed in 1911 and by 1925 only five people has crossed successfully, and no women had even attempted to do so. The record time so far was 16 hours and 33 minutes by Argentinian swimmer Enrique Tirabocchi.
Gertrude Ederle, born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, first attempted to swim the English Channel in 1925 at age 19. She was an Olympic champion swimmer and had made many high profile swims in the US, including swimming from Manhattan to Sandy Hook. She first attempted to swim the English Channel in 1925 but her trainer, former channel swimmer Jabez Wolffe, pulled her out part-way through. Ederle claimed she had been fine and could have continued. She switched trainers, and on August 6, 1926 she attempted again. This time she swam all the way across in 14 hours and 39 minutes, not only becoming the first woman to swim the channel, but beating the record by nearly two hours, the record for both men and women. She later said, “People said women couldn’t swim the Channel, but I proved they could.”
Ederle’s swim was a huge sensation. She received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, lined with two million onlookers. She met President Calvin Coolidge, and starred in a movie about her feat entitled Swim Girl, Swim. She became a celebrity of the Roaring 20s.
Her record stood for only a few weeks; it was beaten on August 30th by German swimmer Ernst VierKotter, though her woman’s record was beaten only in 1950 by American Florence Chadwick. Up to WWII, only four people had swum the channel faster than Ederle. Also, Ederle’s swim had been in very rough sea conditions. Most faster swims by men or women took place in calmer weather. In retrospect, it was one of the greatest ever athletic feats of endurance and determination.
3. Babe Ruth smashes the home run record in 1920
Babe Ruth made many accomplishments which could be considered for this list, and to some extent this entry is a stand-in for all of them. He set a new single-season home run record three straight years from 1919-21. He set a record in 1927 of 60 whose significance still endures. He hit four home runs in a single world series game twice in his career (two other players have done this once: Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols).
Babe Ruth in 1920
However, his record of 54 home runs hit in the 1920 season, his first season as a New York Yankee, was what really changed the game. The previous season with the Red Sox, Ruth had set the record with 29, breaking a record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884. However, Ruth’s mark the following year made Ruth the first player to hit 30 home runs in a season, the first to hit 40, and the first to hit 50. Throughout the 20s, he was only player to hit 50 home runs (he did so himself 4 times during that decade). His mark of 54 would not be surpassed by another player until Hack Wilson hit 56 for the Cubs in 1930; Jimmy Foxx was the next American Leaguer to do so in 1932
Ironically, Ruth’s landmark season started slowly. He injured himself in April and did little in the first month for his new club. Then on May 1st he hit a home run completely out of the Polo Grounds (then the Yankees home ground). He broke the record on July 19th, with over two months left in the season. By the end of the season his tally of 54 redefined the limits of a power hitter, and ended the so-called ‘dead ball era.’
The next season Ruth hit 59 home runs, and also led the Yankees to their first World Series. In 1927 he hit 60 which remained the record until 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61, aided by a season that was eight games longer than in Ruth’s era. Since then, three more players have hit more than 60–all of whom have either admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs or are suspected of it.
2. Bob Beamon’s record long jump in 1968
Beamon’s first jump in 1968
When Bob Beamon stepped onto the runway for his first long jump in the 1968 Olympics, he was already the favorite to win the event. The Queens native and former Jamaica High School (located in Queens NY) track star had already won over twenty events that year. It was seen as possible that he would set a new record, especially at Mexico City’s high altitude. However, what he accomplished was beyond what anyone could imagine.
His first jump saw him soar past the limit of the measuring equipment. Officials took over 15 minutes to determine the length of Beamon’s jump. As he waited for officials to bring out a manual tape, Beamon himself supposed he might have broken the record by a couple of inches. However, his teammate Ralph Boston came up to him and said, ‘the jump was well over.”
Finally, the length of 8 meters 90 centimeters was announced; however Beamon did not understand metric measurements. He was finally told his record was 29 feet and 2 1/2 inches, nearly two feet beyond the previous record. Beamon experienced such an emotional reaction to the news that his legs gave way and he suffered a catalepsy seizure. He competitors came to him and helped him to his feet. British 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies said to Beamon, “You have destroyed this event!”
Beamon’s record would last for 23 years, though many observers felt it might never be broken. Four-time long jump Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis came close to the record numerous times but never broke it. However, at the 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, American Mike Powell jumped 8 meters and 95 cm, two inches past Beamon’s record. Beamon’s 1968 jump still remains the second longest jump in history, however. Though no longer the record, Beamon’s jump is frequently cited by sports experts around the world as one the greatest athletic feats ever.
1. Jackie Robinson destroys baseball’s color barrier
I cannot possibly do justice to Jackie Robinson’s achievement in 1947, the year he broke Major League baseball’s color barrier; nor will I attempt to. The impact of his achievement would be felt in American society at large, not just in baseball. It was one of the early milestones of the Civil Rights Movement.
Statue of Jackie Robinson and teammate Pee Wee Reese on Coney Island, portrayed together in 1947
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson with the intention of making him the first of many African-American signings. It was well known to any unbiased observer that there were many players in the Negro Leagues capable of competing in the majors. But as the first to break the color barrier, he was under unprecedented pressure as an athlete. He was constantly subject to racial abuse from fans, opponents, and his own teammates. He endured physical abuse on the field. When travelling hotels often denied him accommodation. Any player could have buckled in this situation.
Robinson not only endured, he shined. He led the National League in stolen bases; he was in the top ten in several hitting categories, including 2nd in runs scored. He deservedly won the Major League Rookie of the Year award. In 1949 he won the National League MVP award.
Like Ruth before him, Robinson led the way during a profound change of the league and the game. In July of the same year, three more Negro League stars were signed by teams in the American League. More followed. When Robinson retired in 1956, almost 7% of Major League players were African-American. By 1959, it was 17%, and in 1975 it was 27%.
The following list is not meant to be a list in order or a list of 11 through 16.
- Y.A. Tittle’s passing records in 1962-63 for the New York Giants
- Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941
- Carol Heiss’s 5 straight figure skating world championships from 1956-1960
- Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played
- Joe Namath ‘guarantees’ a Super Bowl victory and wins in Super Bowl III
- Roger Maris’s record 61 home runs in 1961
John Cox Stevens
On this day on September 24th, 1785, John Cox Stevens was born at the Stevens family estate in Hoboken NJ at Castle Point, the site of today’s Stevens Institute of Technology. Stevens was a livelong sportsman. He was a founding member of the New York Yacht Club and later nicknamed “the Commodore”. He led the ‘America’ syndicate which built the yacht that won the first ever America’s Cup for the NYYC in 1851. He also served as president of the Jockey Club and was responsible for the Great North-South Match of 1823, won by the Long Island-born thoroughbred American Eclipse.
Stevens also played an important role in the growth of early baseball. In the 1840s, a number of New York City’s early baseball clubs began to search outside of Manhattan for places suitable to practice. The city was increasingly difficult for playing baseball. So, several clubs including the pioneering New York Knickerbockers began to regularly cross the Hudson River by ferry to Hoboken to play at the Elysian Fields. Stevens ran the ferries and profited immensely. The Stevens family also owned the Elysian Fields and profited from the teams playing there.
New York City has provided many of America’s greatest athletes and teams and seen them produce many of the country’s greatest sports moments. From the beginnings of boxing and baseball on the streets of New York in the early 19th century to more recent feats of Derek Jeter and Tina Thomson, the Big Apple has seen its stars reach heights higher than Washington did in Manhattan.
Compiling a indisputable list of the greatest athletic feats by New Yorkers is an impossible task of course. Sports is full of fan divisions and tribal loyalties. And different generations have their favorite stars. In making this list, I am endeavoring to look at the whole scope New York sports history, from the early 19th century to today, choosing from wide range of sports. Some of my choices may seem rather obscure now, but they were or are very significant in their time and perhaps later.
New York has always been a city of world class stars, and I am particularly mindful of achievements of global significance. I have included a few baseball moments in my list as well as others from US team sports, but I put greater stock in New Yorkers whose achievements are recognized around the world.
Finally, how do I define a ‘New Yorker”? Just as in other fields, New York has attracted great athletes from outside the city, so whether they are born here or not is not a satisfactory definition. I generally include for consideration any athlete who spent significant childhood in the city, who developed their career in the five boroughs, or who played for one of New York’s professional or college sports teams (in this case the achievement must be for that team).
This is a list of greatest individual achievements. Many are by players in a team sport, but the focus is on the individual. Some are career achievements over a period of time; some are feats of incredible brilliance in one day.
And so, on with the list…
10. Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon in 1957
When I set out to make this list, I wanted to focus on the athletic significance, not the social significance. However in some cases it’s hard to ignore as a factor in how we rate sports moments. How significant was Althea Gibson’s victory at Wimbldon? I think she said it best herself: “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
Gibson receiving the Venus Rosewater Dish from Queen Elizabeth
Gibson had already broken barriers by becoming the first African-American to play at the US Nationals (now the US Open) at Forest Hills Queens in 1950. That year she lost in the second round. She won her first major in Paris in 1956. In her career she would win five major singles titles and seven doubles. She ended her career prematurely as tennis at that time was primarily an amateur sport and she couldn’t afford to compete without pay. It would be 17 years until another person of color would win a major.
She entered Wimbledon in 1957 after a string of victories around the world. But Wimbledon was tennis’s Mt Everest. She reached the final and faced her doubles partner Darlene Hard, winning in two sets. At home in New York, she was honored with a ticker-tape parade.
Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina but her family moved to Harlem when she was age three. She played for the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, winning numerous titles in the area in paddle tennis and lawn tennis.
9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scores a record 38,387 career points
Abdul-Jabbar in Harlem in 1963
Born in Harlem and later raised in Inwood, Lew Alcindor Jr., later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had many accomplishments that could be considered for this list. He won three straight NCAA titles, three NBA titles, and three NBA MVP awards; he also led his high school team Power Academy on a 71-game winning streak. However, the important record he has all by himself is his NBA career tally of 38,387 points. He set the record on April 5th, 1984, scoring a trademark skyhook over Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz allowing him to surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s previous record of 31,419 points. He continued to play for the LA Lakers until 1989, adding points to his record. 29 years after his retirement, the record still stands. It’s possible that Lebron James will catch Abdul-Jabbar (James has the advantage of having gone straight from high school to the NBA). James has over 7000 points to go and he’s just under 34 years old. So far Jabbar’s record has withstood assaults by Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neill, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant
8. Al Oerter wins four straight Olympic gold medals
Al Oerter in 1960
Only three Olympic athletes have one four straight gold medals in one individual event: Carl Lewis in the long lump, Michael Phelps in the 200 meter individual medley, and the Astoria-born Al Oerter in the discus throw. Oerter won the discuss first in Melbourne in 1956 and repeated the feat three straight times.
Oerter’s feat is even more miraculous considering how he overcame many injuries that could have derailed his entire career. He was nearly killed in a car accident in 1957, but he managed to recover and win the discus in Rome in 1960. In 1964 in Tokyo, he was hampered by injuries just before the games and had to compete in significant pain. He won despite not being able to take his final throw. Finally, in Mexico, in 1968, he was considered perhaps too old to win, especially against fellow American Jay Sylvester. But Oerter managed to unleash an Olympic record throw of 212.5 feet, 64.8 meters and won a surprise 4th gold medal.
7. Sugar Ray Robinson goes on a 91-match unbeaten streak.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, Sugar Ray Robinson’s career is glittered with many impressive achievements. He’s regarded by many as the best boxer ever. He was the long time holder of both the World Welterweight and Middleweight titles. He had an 85-0 Amateur record. His victory in the sixth fight with rival Jake LaMotta, LaMotta’s only ever knockout, was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull. He was born Walter Smith Jr. in Ailey, Georgia and moved to Harlem with his family at the age of 12. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School but dropped out to focus on boxing.
Sugar Ray Robinson in 1947
Robinson’s professional career starting amazingly enough with a 40-0 record. But he was defeated for the first time by LaMotta in 1943 in Detroit. Robinson would win a rematch with LaMotta less than a month later. Over the next eight years, he fought in 91 matches without a loss, winning 88 times, with two draws and a no-contest, and along the way he moved up from welterweight to middleweight and fought the most famous boxers of his day. It is the third longest unbeaten streak in boxing history. In 1951 he had a record of 128 wins, 1 loss and two draws–a phenomenal record. The streak ended in London’s Earls Court Arena against a fighter named Randolph Turpin. Robinson would win an immediate rematch back in New York’s Polo Grounds. He would continue to fight for 13 more years (with a brief 3-year retirement from 1952-55 and amassed 173 wins, 19 losses and 6 draws.
6. Christy Mathewson pitches a record three shutouts in the 1905 World Series
Mathewson in the 1905 World Series
No pitcher has ever dominated a Major League post-season series like Christy Mathewson did in the 1905 “World’s Championship” as the World Series was first called. In a span of 6 days, Mathewson pitched three shutouts, leading New York to a 4-1 series win. The three shutouts in one series remains a post-season record.
In 1905 the World Series was still a novelty. The first was held in 1903. The American League was then only three years old and considered an upstart league by the National League, which was much older. However, the 1903 AL champions Boston challenged the NL pennant winner Pittsburgh to a post season championship, and Boston won in an upset. Next year, the New York Giants won the National League, and Boston won again. The Giants refused to face Boston, claiming they were inferior. There was no series. In 1905, New York won the NL again, with pitching ace Christy Mathewson having an incredible year–31 wins, a 1.28 ERA, and 206 strikeouts. The Giants agreed to face the American League champion, the Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland Athletics).
Mathewson started Game 1 in Columbia Park in Philadelphia and shut the Athletics out on four hits. Philadelphia won the next game to even the series. Three days after first start, Mathewson took the mound again in Game 3, again shutting out Philadelphia on four hits. New York won Game 4 as well In Game 5 at the Polo Grounds, only two days after his previous start, Mathewson won his third complete game shutout, allowing five hits this time. In total he pitched 27 innings, allowed 13 hits, struck out 18 batters and allowed only one walk.
To be continued….
On the evening of December 3rd, 1859, a steamboat arrived from Philadelphia. On board was Theodore Tilton, a Brooklyn abolitionist and friend and colleague of Henry Ward Beecher. The ship carried the body of abolitionist John Brown, executed by hanging the previous day in Charles Town Virginia for his armed raid at Harper’s Ferry. The body was taken to an undertaker at 163 Bowery, McGraw and Taylor. A Quaker named Jacob Hopper dressed the body, along with Charley Carpenter, a sexton at St. Marks Church in the Bowery. The next day, word got out of the presence of John Brown’s body, and many onlookers came to get a glimpse of this figure. Brown was then shipped up the Hudson River to North Elba, New York, where he was buried.
Brown was considered a hero by many abolitionists and freed slaves, and praised in eulogies by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was also vilified by many, especially in the South. His raid and execution contributed to the tensions that led to the American Civil War less than two years later.