How Destiny Found Al Oerter and Brought Him Home
When writing a story that focuses on a brief moment in time with a revelation representing an outcome influenced by much larger forces of the space-time continuum, the question becomes, where to begin? Some of what is to follow you may or may not have heard before, and will be expanded upon in future efforts.
The Irish Whales was a nickname given to a group of Irish-American athletes who dominated weight-throwing events at the Olympic Games from 1896 to 1924, and continued competing into the 1930’s. They were members of the Irish American Athletic Club and the New York Athletic Club and all served in the New York City Police Department. These were working class athletes known for their athletic prowess, physical size, voracious appetites and popularity among a generation of sports fans.
One of the more well-known Whales was Patrick “Babe” McDonald, who stood 6’5” and 300 pounds, won two gold medals and a silver in the 1912 and 1920 Summer Olympics, and was the U.S. Olympic team flag bearer in ’20 and ‘24. For most of his police career, he was in command of the post at 43rd Street and Broadway and directed all of the traffic through Times Square.
Al Oerter was born to the former Mary Strup and Alfred Oerter in 1936. His mother’s family was Czech and originally Strupova, having come through Ellis Island, and Mary worked in marketing and distribution for Paramount Pictures before the birth of her son. Al’s mother was gentle and protective and he took after her in a very strong sense. He was truly his mother’s son because they thought and acted so much alike. Al’s father was second generation German-American, and with his brothers ran their own construction concerns. He was a very dominant type and the Oerter’s were independent and industrious. Al’s grandfather started and ran a large plumbing business in New York City and his father and uncles worked there from a very young age.
Al’s early years were spent in Astoria, Queens, and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t spend playing baseball or stickball in the street, trying to dodge cars under the elevator on Ditmars Avenue. There he developed strong reflexes and speed while avoiding smashing himself on one of the stanchions holding up the subway. At age seven, the Oerter’s moved several miles east to “the country” in New Hyde Park in Nassau County. Even though there was now plenty of grass to play on, Al and his friends were city transplants, so they still played stickball on the macadam.
He was good at everything, athletically, and as a student. At age 12, Al played baseball on his father’s bar league team and was scouted by a few of the major league clubs. He patrolled centerfield, and sometimes when making a catch with no one on base, he would throw the ball in over the top of the backstop just to show everyone that he had a good arm.
During Al’s freshman year at Sewanhaka High School, he went out for football and this tall, string bean of a kid was put at center. The quarterback got hurt, so Al took over as he was the only one who knew all the plays. He had a well-known cannon of an arm and became a double threat with his speed, size and athletic ability. In the spring, he went back to playing sandlot ball with his friends, even though his ability was sought after by the varsity baseball coach.
Oerter started his eagerly anticipated sophomore year playing varsity football. A few games into the season, Al’s mother fell ill. Something was very wrong with her and Al lost his appetite for the gridiron and quit the football team. Mary Oerter was diagnosed with cancer and spent months at Columbia Hospital, had surgery, and then came home bed-ridden and needing round-the-clock care.
Al felt anger towards his mother’s terminal illness and turned inward, defensively. He did not want to have to rely on anyone for anything, anymore. Al lost all feeling for team sports and gravitated to solo efforts. In the spring, he went out for the track team. First, he tried out as a sprinter, but he was growing too fast. Next, he worked on being a miler. The baseball coach was livid that Oerter was not on the ball field and the football coach was still roiling about the kid who “quit” the season before. Al’s salvation was in the hands of the renown track coach, Jim Fraley, who was neither abusive nor abrasive and had a great sense of Al’s psychology. A bear of a man, Fraley was part father-figure, part taskmaster, and was there to help Al through the toughest and most transformational time of his life.
During a track practice, Al was running with a group of milers when an errant discus skipped onto the track, nearly clipping Oerter’s ankles. Across the infield, one of the two throwers called for the disc to be returned. With Fraley watching, Al picked up the disc and scaled it back over the heads of the throwers and well past them. Fraley remarked,” Why don’t you go over there and play with those guys for a while?”
Al walked over to the discus ring, picked up a disc and stepped inside the pock-marked dirt mess of a throwing circle. He would later say,” Here I am inside that ring and, God’s honest truth, it was like coming home.” He made the first throw in a life of about 500,000 throws. From the beginning, he found the challenge of trying to throw further and further very interesting. There was just something about working very hard in virtual isolation with a bunch of big guys, also working to the max, and trying to throw harder and harder and harder. He absolutely enjoyed it. There was nothing more definitive than that tape measure.
It could have been that evening or that week or a month later, but soon after, during dinner at home, Al told his father that he was giving the discus a try instead of running the mile. Most of his father’s time was now being spent on tending to his mother, whose cancer was advancing. The person who Al thought was a dominant, rough, single minded, bullheaded man, had demonstrated that he was now the most caring person his son had ever seen.
Later, Al was in his room doing homework when his father asked him if it was okay to come in. Al nodded, sure, and his father sat on the bed. “So, the discus, eh? Weight throwers, right?” asked his father. “I have a story for you,” he smiled. “I guess I was eleven or twelve working for your grandfather on a big construction project in Manhattan. It was near Times Square. I was a skinny, scrawny kid. It was after the Great War, I think. Anyway, they sent me across Broadway with a wheelbarrow to bring back a load of bricks. So, I get the bricks and it was heavy..I mean, really heavy. I could barely control it, let alone lift it.”
“So here I am and I’ve got to get across Times Square. Now, back then, there were no traffic lights. It was a madhouse. A confluence of cars, trolleys, people in every direction. You took your life in your hands. Then, this huge cop in blue..I mean the biggest man I had ever seen..his moustache was bigger than me...he steps out into the middle of all this chaos and stops traffic in every direction. No one is about to lurch forward, honk horns and go against this guy. He waved at me and here I go, me, across Times Square, with my load of bricks. It felt like forever. And do you know who the cop was? Pat McDonald, the Olympic Champion weight thrower! One of the Irish Whales! Everybody knew who he was. He was a god. And to think he did all that just so this kid could cross the street with that thing of bricks.”
It was the first time Al Oerter had ever heard any mention of the Olympic Games by anyone in his family.
Most people spend a good part of their lives searching for their destiny. In one brief moment, Al Oerter experienced the confluence of events across time and space and that allowed destiny to find him. It was good to be home.
Pat "Babe" McDonald at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm
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