Fast Digs: Los Angeles Athletic Park

In the middle of the year 1891 the Los Angeles Athletic Club was putting the final touches on plans for a first rate athletic facility, one that would include a third of a mile bicycle track, a quarter-mile running track, with room in the infield for "baseball, cricket, football and lacrosse" competitions. Though the club's officers were pursuing several promising leads, the main impediment to progress was a suitable piece of land, one with easy access, and near multiple "car" [meaning rail] lines".

Progress came within just a few months, and by mid-October papers had been signed for a parcel of land at Alameda and Seventh. The newly formed (13 May) Los Angeles Wheelmen were perhaps jumping the gun a little by conferring with the LAAC about the possibility of a "joint athletic and bicycle meeting on Thanksgiving Day" - little more than a month away. Those plans appeared to be a little too optimistic when, on 23 November, the clubs were still looking forward to the day the Athletic Park, now "almost completed," would be open with a grandstand seating 1500 spectators and bleachers for "several thousand" more.

Yet... two days later representatives of the San Diego Wheelmen, including George T. Lemon, captain, J. E. Everett, E. A. Hornbeck, and A. W. Birdsall arrived in Los Angeles for a parade along downtown streets, dinner followed by a ride to the new park to watch a lacrosse match, and ending with the Los Angeles Wheelmen's Ball. Additional riders from Pasadena, Alhambra, Riverside, and Pomona were also expected to participate in the day long festivities.

In the middle of May 1892 the condition of the track was being widely lamented: "The directors of the Athletic club are rather slow in getting the track at the park in condition for the coming sports to be held on Decoration day [now known as Memorial Day]." At this point I don't know if races had been taking place at the track, and the LAAC was attempting to get it into some kind of championship condition, or if it had taken since November of the previous year to get it finished. Never-the-less, a great crowd of spectators were expected to gather at Athletic Park for the events organized by the LAAC on the 30th, and athletes had come from far and wide, at least as far as San Francisco, to compete in a wide range of bicycling, and track and field events. The seventh annual field day drew an estimated 1500 watchers. In the half-mile safety bicycle race D. L. Burke, who had taken "a header" a few days earlier while training, sliced three seconds off the southern California record with a time of 1 minute 20 3/5 seconds. In many instances the cyclists exceeded what was expected from them - the quarter mile track had sharp turns and lacked any banking, and thus was not expected to result in particularly fast races.

Two qualifying heats determined the final field for the one-mile safety bicycle race (3:15 class) with W. M. Jenkins, "a little wonder" and "a dead game rider," and S. G. Spier moving ahead to the finals from the first heat, and A. I. Stewart and T. Q. Hall moving through in the second heat. The final was described as a "sensational race" with Stewart moving out to an early lead. With Jenkins and Spier pursuing the "pace became hotter and hotter" with all bunched together on the third lap. At the finish less than two feet separated the three riders, with Jenkins crossing first and Spier second. Not the end of the story, however; the judges deliberated long and hard before awarding the win to Spier, with Stewart given 2nd, and determining that Jenkins should be disqualified for attempting to ride inside of Stewart when there was not room. Jenkins was forced off the course, but the interference was judged severe enough to have affected Stewart's chances.

The half-mile safety race was also run with two qualifying heats, with Burke winning the first ahead of Jenkins, Stewart and G. F. Muller, and Spier winning the second ahead of A. E. Hodgson, Hall and H. B. Cromwell. The referee, J. S. Thayer decided that only the winner of each heat would contest the final, and though "Spier made a gallant struggle... Burke was too much for him and won after a pretty contest" in a time of 1:24 4/5.

While D. L. Burke won the one-mile ordinary bicycle race rather easily, he was denied the victors medal by failing to meet the time limit of 2:55. The complaint was raised that the limit was unattainable - "there is not a rider in the west who could have ridden an ordinary on that track in 2:55... Those who were responsible for this bungle are apparently not posted on the difference in speed of a safety and an ordinary." The judges remained unswayed.

In the one-mile safety race (non-3:15 class) "crowding" and a collision between Stewart, Burke and Muller on the second lap, knocked Burke completely out of the race and ended Muller's chances. At the end Jenkins took a "gallant" win ahead of Stewart and Hodgson with a time of 2:53 4/5.

The track at Athletic Park saw regular use for training and racing. As the date for various races around the region approached riders could be found at the Park, spinning around the oval on any given evening of the week. Nor did it take much to get the attention of the newspapers; on 23 July 1892 the Los Angeles Herald noted that "yesterday afternoon at the Athletic club grounds D. L. Burke rode a mile on a safety bicycle in 2:45 without any pace makers." Simple as that.

A couple weeks later, the 6th of August, racing took place with D. L. Burke, D. C. McGarvin, T. Q. Hall, and Will Jenkins contesting a two-mile handicap. Burke started from scratch, with the other three given a 100 yard lead. Even with that it was not much of a race, with Burke catching the three within a mile, and going on to win "the race easily." Hall beat Jenkins for second "after a hot struggle." Will Allen, Stimson, McGarvin, and Jenkins later raced a quarter-mile, won by Allen with a twenty-yard gap. Burke came back to cap the day in a solo, flying start half-mile which he rode in one-minute sixteen and a quarter-seconds.

While it might be expected that training would take place year-around, racing at Athletic Park was not limited to the summer months. A ten-mile handicap between Joe Patrick, Tom Hannon, Jay Hunter, and Gratz Brown was to take place before a delegation of society people on 21 January 1893, with Patrick at scratch, and Brown with the greatest lead at 12 1/2 minutes. There is no indication as to the winner. 

Tragedy befell the man who was arguably the most successful Los Angeles racer at the time, D. L. Burke, on 16 April 1893. While riding an exhibition, his front wheel slipped while turning by the grandstand, throwing him to the track. Suffering undetermined internal injuries, it was feared that Burke would be forced to retire from the game.

The biggest race in the, thus-far, short history of Athletic Park, took place on the 30th of May 1893. The occasion was the annual Field Day of the Los Angeles Athletic Club with bicycle races to include a one-mile safety bike race, a handicapped three-mile safety bike race, a one-mile open, and a 2:50-Class one-mile safety race. The list of entrants was a who's who of Los Angeles area racers from the early 1890s: J. W. Cowan, G. E. McCrea, B. M. Clark, and T. M. Gibson in the one-mile safety, W. S. Ruby, Charles Cowan, B. M. Clark, G. E. McCrea, Lewis W. Fox, W. A. Burke, Macy  Thomson, J. W. Cowan, and W. M. Jenkins in the three-mile, Ruby, Fox, Phil Kitchen, Burke, M. Dozier, Jenkins, and Fred Holbrook in the mile open, and Ruby, Clark, J. M. Gibson, Charles and J. W. Cowan, Joseph Wilson, E. Gatensbury, Burke, Dozier, T. Q. Hall, and Jenkins in the 2:50 Class safety race.

The grandstand for the Field Day events "was a galaxy of the prettiest young ladies of Los Angeles," with the bleachers also at full capacity. The surprise race of the day was the, so-called, one-mile "maiden race" for newcomers to the sport. Storming around the track in a time of 2:37, J. W. Cowan of the Angel City Wheelmen, set a new worlds record for the event, shaving by the smallest of margins (1/5 second) off the previous record. In that race Gibson was thrown from his bike at the start, but the remaining riders fought hard throughout the race and it was only in the homestretch of the final lap that Cowan was able to surge past McCrea, with Brown finishing third. While Kitchen was a deserving victor in the one-mile open, the incident of Burke jumping the track on the final turn, and Fox racing as "devoid of judgement as a lump of dough" and not making it out of his qualifying heat, put a damper on an otherwise fine win. Burke dished out some redemption in the 2:50 class race winning both his qualifying heat as well as the finale. One interesting side-note, the track was described as being in the best condition it had ever been and high praise was awarded to John Kilroy, the parks' groundskeeper. 

The races of 30 May may very well have been surpassed in importance by two days of races held at the end of September 1893 (with a fourth day given over to a special team competition between the Los Angeles Wheelmen, the Eastside Club, and the Riverside Wheelmen, held at the Los Angeles Agricultural Park). Those races marked the inaugural competition of the newly formed Southern California division of the League of American Wheelmen. Not only was the event an occasion to showcase the southern California cycling talent, and promote the racing facilities, but just as importantly, do those things before a national audience. So Cal racers had for years toiled in the shadow of their Nor Cal rivals, and even further behind racers from the eastern states. This was a chance to shine and show off.

A day before the races were set to commence Kilroy had ordered the track closed in order to roll and wet its surface; two feet in height was added to the embankment at the grandstand, and the home stretch was widened by three feet. If the cream of the southern California crop were to compete, they would do so on the first track available.

Sixteen races took place on the first day of the event which included finals and qualifying heats for finals to take place the next day. Reporters at the race, used to taking up spots directly at trackside, were instead told by race master, H. C. F. Smith, they had to confine themselves to a reserved section of the grandstand for fear they would interfere with the proceedings. Taking this as a slight, one that would affect there ability to offer complete coverage of the race, the reporters instead chose to leave. Thus, and unless other sources can be found, we must make due with only results and times.

In the one mile maiden race, J. J. Long gathered up his first win, ahead of B. G. Gillette. J. W. Cowan beat out A. H. Ballentine in the first heat of the half-mile division championship, while C. M. Smith finished first in the second heat, ahead of W. A. Burke. H. E. McCrea finished ahead of F. W. Fox in the first heat of the half-mile open, with C. M. Smith winning the second heat ahead of W. A. Burke, and Phil Kitchen taking the third heat ahead of F. W. Holbrook. Next on the schedule came the final of the half-mile division championship, won by Cowan over Smith. In the one-mile (2:40 class) first heat, W. S. Ruby took the win over T. Q. Hall. The second heat was C. Castleman over J. P. Percival, and in the third heat Carson Shoemaker beat out Holbrook. In the one-mile handicap, T. Q. Hall with fifty yards won over Kitchen at thirty yards, with a time of 2:27 1/4. The one-mile (2:40 class) final came up next, with Percival taking the win over Shoemaker in a time of 2:36. Burke took a first heat win over J. W. Cowan in the first heat of the one-mile open, with H. B. Cromwell winning over W. M. Jenkins in the second heat, and Fox beating out McCrea in the third heat. The fastest time amongst the three heat winners was Fox, in 2:32. Finishing out the first day of racing was Burke winning the three-mile division championship ahead of Shoemaker in a time of 8:22 2/5. The Riverside Wheelmen, resplendent in their orange and black, affirmed the high regard with which they are held, by winning fully half of the sixteen races held on the first day.

The second day of the big meet was a leisurely one, with riders taking an excursion to Mt. Lowe. With a day of relative rest, the racing resumed on the third day with finals in the half-mile and mile races, the one mile (2:30 class) with both qualifying heats and finals, qualifying and finals of the one-mile division championships, the two-mile, and the five-mile handicap races. 

The one-mile (2:30 class) race came first on the second day, with J. Phil Percival winning the first heat ahead of Fay Stephenson, C. Castleman, J. W. Cowan, H. B. Cromwell, and A. H. Ballentine. The second heat was won by Phil Kitchen, with P. L. Abel second, ahead of Joe McLaughlin, and W. G. Houston. W. K. Cowan, W. A. Burke, S. G.  Spier, and T. Q. Hall raced a third heat, which was won by Burke with Hall second. The final field was set with Percival, Kitchen, Burke, Hall, Castleman, Abel and Cowan. Officials placed a time limit of two-minutes forty-seconds on the final; since the race finished outside the limit (by eight seconds) it was forced to be run a second time. In the first race Hall finished about a foot in front of Cowan, with Castleman third. Neither Castleman, nor Kitchen turned out for the re-race. Once underway Hall jumped out to lead the first lap. Burke took over the lead for the next two laps, and won ahead of Cowan who sprinted in the last turn to beat Percival. 

L. W. Fox picked up his first win of the day in the half-mile open, which he won with a lead of several yards; McCrea, riding behind Fox, took the final turn too wide causing him to, not only lose Fox's wheel, but also allowed Kitchen to shoot past for second.

Two qualifying heats were run ahead of the one-mile division championship; in those Gatensbury won the first ahead of Ruby, Houston and Stephenson. The second was won by Castleman ahead of Ballentine, the only other racer in the heat. In the backstretch of the final lap Ballentine shot past both Gatensbury and Castleman. Gatensbury caught him in the turn, but neither could withstand an inside surge by Castleman who won ahead of Gatensbury. A 2:40 limit was placed on the race which was run in 2:51, forcing a second attempt later in the day. In that race, neither Castleman, nor Gatensbury were willing to help set the pace, leaving it all up to Ballentine until the backstretch on the final lap, when they easily sprinted around him. The time was again outside the limit (2:45), but the officials, considered all the work done by Ballentine, called it a day.

The big event of the day, contested by Fox, McCrea, Jenkins, Cromwell, Houston, J. W. Conway, and Burke, was the one-mile open. This race proved to be an example of fine teamwork by the Riverside Wheelmen whose L. W. Fox led out in turns by Herb McCrea and J. W. Cowan, set a new Pacific Coast paced record with a time of 2-minutes, 25 2/5-seconds; Fox rode most of the final lap and a half solo, while pursued by Jenkins, to win the race with a twenty-five yard gap. Burke finished third, and McCrea fourth.

Next up was the two-mile handicap, won by S. G. Spier in front of C. Cowan and Phil Kitchen. Spier started the race with a fifty yard handicap lead over Kitchen, and twenty-five behind Cowan. Also in the race were P. L. Abel, T. Q. Hall, Houston, McLaughlin, Ruby, and A. Jay. In the five-mile handicap Carson Shoemaker and H. E. McCrea  raced from scratch, with W. K. Cowan and T. Q. Hall 200 yards ahead, H. B. Cromwell and H. A. Ballentine at 300 yards, Jay, McAleer, Stephenson and J. L. Standefer at 440 yards. Shoemaker set a new record time for the event, yet with his handicap finished fourth; McAleer finished first, Hall second, and Ballentine third. With two records set and three wins under their caps, the Riverside Wheelmen proved themselves to be the strongest team at the inaugural division championship.

The next big cycling event to take place at Athletic Park was the Fall Field Day, scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, and including a novice safety bicycle one-mile race, a one-mile (2:30 class) race, a one-mile lap race, a Chinese one-mile race, two-mile handicap, and a one-mile open. More on that in the near future.

On non-cycling note of interest regarding Athletic Park - in 1893, during what was one of baseball's earliest (the earliest?) night games, the Los Angeles Angels defeated the Stockton River Pirates by a score of 5-2 at Athletic Park. The park did not have an especially long run; by the late 1890s, other parks gained in prominence, surpassing Athletic Park in importance to Los Angeles sport in general, and cycling in particular. Never-the-less the historical significance of the park remains a rich one.

Like other Fast Digs posts, this one will be updated from time to time as new information is uncovered.