On March 4, 1928, 199 men lined up in Los Angeles, California, to participate in a 3,400-mile transcontinental footrace to New York City. The Bunion Derby, as the press dubbed the event, was the brainchild of sports promoter Charles C. Pyle. He promised a $25,000 grand prize and claimed the competition would immortalize US Route 66, a 2,400-mile road, mostly unpaved, that subjected the runners to mountains, deserts, mud, and sandstorms, from Los Angeles to Chicago.
The runners represented all walks of American life, from immigrants to millionaires, with a peppering of star international athletes, included by Pyle for publicity purposes. For 84 days, the men participated in this part-footrace, part-Hollywood production, which incorporated a road show featuring football legend Red Grange, food concessions, vaudeville acts, sideshows, a portable radio station, and the world's largest coffeepot, sponsored by Maxwell House, serving 90 gallons of coffee a day.
Drawn by hopes for a better future and dreams of fame, fortune, and glory, the bunioneers embarked on an exhaustive and grueling journey that would challenge their physical and psychological endurance to the fullest, while Pyle struggled to keep his cross-country road show afloat.
The book is published by University of New Mexico Press.
Bunion Derby is a wonderful look back through time at a slice of America, with a new Route 66 and the unique energy of the 1920's. Individual aspirations and striving play out along a foot race course that takes the individyal runners through a natural landscape of mountains and deserts and a social landscape of racism and class divides.
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The Bunion Derby, the life and times, American history alive.
Byline: The Book Reviewer
Title of Book: The Bunion Derby
Author: Charles B. Kastner
Narrator: Andrew L. Barnes
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Date of Publication: 2015
Time: 6 hours and 36 minutes
“99 bottles of beer on the wall,
99 bottles of beer,
and if one of those bottles should happen to fall,
98 bottles of beer on the wall . . . “
- Drinking Song
The Bunion Derby, a timepiece of American history, tells the story of a footrace from San Francisco to New York City along Route 66 in 1928. But this was no ordinary footrace, advertising the newly built across-America roadway, the event would take 84 days, covering 3,400 miles “through extreme and varied terrain” including deserts, windstorms, mountains, rain and mud on a road that was largely hardbake and only paved in rare spots, for a grand prize of $25,000 ($3 - $4 million in todays monies). The event was an extravaganza, bigger than any Hollywood Production with a travelling carnival, convoy of cars and busses with 2 huge 24,000 lbs. busses for journalists and the organizers, a cast of sports stars, the promotion of products (the Maxwell House coffee company created the world's largest coffee pot serving 90 gallons of coffee a day, and paid $5,000 for the promotion), and a huge tent city was put up and taken down every day. A chronology of athletes, time and place, a retelling of each day includes a description of countryside and towns, who was ailing, who won that day and how many men were still in the race. The race began with 199 athletes, every day some of the racers would drop out, one got a note from his wife to get home, most had ailments (blisters, infections, shin splints) and fatigue. Each runner was clocked everyday, so the winner was based on the one who completed the entire race in the less time.
As “The Bunion Derby” rolled into town, the townsfolk dropped monies on Charles C. Pyle’s spectacular carnival event. Mr. Pyle, the organizer of what was officially known as “First Annual Transcontinental Footrace”, a businessman, running theater companies, hired famous football player, Red Grange with the Chicago Bears as his assistant. Free food and board was advertised for the racers and often cars were parked 3 and 4 abreast along the route with crowds of onlookers. Attracting runners and hopefuls from all over North America, Europe and the world, a handful were famous or semi-famous, Eddie Gardener “the Sheik of Seattle” (a Black American runner), Sammy Robinson “Smiling Sammy” (a Black professional boxer), Harland Johnson (a Black movie actor, boxer), Lucien Frost (an actor looking for publicity to revive his career), Patrick DeBar (boxer), Mike Kelly (boxer), Johnny Salo (runner born in Finland), Willy Schurer (professional runner from Finland), Peter Gavuzzi (runner from England), Harry Gunn (the millionaire’s son) and the “shadow runners”, the poor, farmers and a few American Indians and Blacks. The lucky few had assistants, people in a car or motor bike with food and drink, change of sneakers and clothing, linement and grease for sunburn. The entire country, if not the world, was entranced as local newspapers and radio interviewed contenders and locals, discussing strategy and picking their favourites, "who would win a runner or a walker?" "would anyone even finish such a grueling long distance race?"
An excellent third person narrative, the writing is pared in, and eloquent, telling the truth about the conditions of the foot race through both the white and the Black press. Narrated in the deep voice of Andrew L. Barnes in a Southern States accent, the audiobook captivates and if you close your eyes, you can be transported back in history. The year was 1928, the golden years of America at their zenith, just before the stock market crash of 1929. Cars had just been invented and 1 in 5 people owned one causing the mass production of roadways. Radio, another new invention, captured the public’s imagination as people in rural and the new citystate America, would gather around and listen to their favourite songs and radio shows.
The runners with monies, a trainer or a crew that followed them along the route seemed to fare better than the lone runners. There was a medical team and people with food that aided the runners and a long list of afflictions, blisters, throat infections, cramps, toothache . . . and the chef quit near the beginning of the run so Charlie Pyle had to give the men $1.50 per day food ration. Long distance runners consume huge amounts of food and some were not able to get the nutrition they needed. Those that could afford to staid in local hotels, the rest staid in a huge tent with cots, but it became evident early on that the organizers had forgotten they would need laundry done and this made for very uncomfortable conditions with dirty sheets and cots. The carnival people were not paid very well and were accused of stealing and the “coochi” girls were sometimes of questionable character. Usually, "the bunion derby" was welcomed with open arms, however, the mayor of Albuqerque had heard the stories and would not allow Charlie Pyle’s carnival inside city limits. In Texas the crowds were abominable to the Black athletes, threatening them, the international athletes were embarrassed and would not segregate the Black runners. Mr. Pyle was beset by financial problems and litigation, making people wonder if the winners would even be paid. By Day 74, there were 55 men and 10 days to go to reach New York, New York, with the frontrunners Johnny Salo, Andy Payne, Philip Granville, Mike Joyce, Eddie Gardener amongst others, all vying for position, 10 of the remaining 55 runners, took honours. Andy Payne, a little known part Cherokee Indian farmer from Oklahoma won the $25,000 first prize and used his winnings to pay off the mortgage on his family’s farm. The final ceremony takes place at Madison Square Gardens, with only about 400 onlookers, (most of the huge crowds had seen the racers for free outside the arena and would not pay the door tab), the winners are awarded pink cheques. After the ceremony the remaining runners looked up Charlie Pyle for the return of their $100 entrance fee, as promised, to get back home.
The stories surrounding the people of “The Bunion Derby” and the camaraderie and rivalry of the men, their families and the communities they ran through goes down in American history. History within history, all the players, their lives and times. The Bunion Derby by Charles B. Kastner, Narrated by Andrew L. Barnes.
Genre: AudioBooks, History, Black Issues, NonFiction, Sports
I read about this book before the audio version was available, and was very pleased that Audible responded to my request to publish an audio version (Thank you!!).
Since I've completed 26 marathons and four 50k's (who's counting!), I expected to love this story.
There's no doubt that what these men did is beyond incredible. Even with my marathon experience, I wouldn't have made it past the first day.
But, the character development is almost completely missing. One would think that the listener would "get to know" at least a few of the characters, some likeable, some not. But I didn't develop feelings for any of the participants or the organizers. They were all just "blah" (ok, amazing but blah).
The narration was also incredibly drab. The reader is talented, but there was absolutely no emotion that came through.
If I couldn't wait for this story to end, I can't imagine that non-runners would even make it halfway.
Invest your time elsewhere, e.g., Born to Run.