A Night to Remember
It was a cool and somewhat still night at the 22nd Annual Los Angeles Coliseum Relays on Friday, May 18th, 1962. The temperature was only 60 degrees and falling, an unusually chilly spring evening for southern California.
The crowd of over 40,000, with 700 competing athletes on the Coliseum floor, created an electricity, energy and expectation that something special was going to happen. Maybe it was the cool air, the Friday night lights, and the mixed lineup of well-known and unknown competitors.
The Men’s Discus was scheduled to be the first field event. The wind was erratic, only 5 to 10mph at times. Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote, ”There were light gusts of fitful wind during the discus competition, but not enough to help.” An evening dew had settled on the throwing ring, adding to a very bleak outlook for achieving record distances.
No one had ever officially thrown a discus past 200 feet in competition. So, the mark was out there, and track and field aficionados did look at it as a minor holy grail, but not to the extent of the 4-minute mile and Roger Bannister’s shattering of that mark by 6/10ths of a second in 1954; a world record that stood for 46 days.
In the April 14th, 1958, edition of SI’s “Faces in the Crowd,” “burly” Al Oerter was featured as throwing a world record 202’- 6” at the Arkansas Relays in Fayetteville, where he bettered the world mark by 8-feet, set by Fortune Gordien in 1953. Soon after, the throw was disallowed because the terrain slanted downhill. Al had out-thrown the level portion of the discus sector.
After his second gold medal in Rome, it was reported that Oerter had lost interest in competition. This was to be a repeated refrain after each of his Olympic victories. Al had a full-time job with Grumman Corp back on Long Island, a growing family, and had to train in virtual isolation, forgoing many of the West Coast meets.
SI reported: Oerter said, "Jay Silvester aroused me again when he threw the discus 210 feet last year." Silvester's throw was not allowed as a record for that same downward sloping deficiency in the discus range.
Al may also have felt challenged again by Silvester’s two world records set within 9 days of each other in August, 1961. Jay’s second, being the existing record, of 199’- 2½”, was just 9½” inches short of the magical 200.
Make no mistake, Al Oerter was an engineer by education, training and DNA. He had already precisely calculated and created the blueprint for his 1,460 days between the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Coliseum Relays would be day 617 of his 4-year program. The plan was in motion.
Just three weeks earlier, Al had already arrived on the west coast to compete with Silvester at the Mt. SAC Relays. The 6-foot-4 inch, 250-pound Oerter, who was 25, had weighed 15 pounds less at the Rome Olympics. He said he was aiming to become a triple Olympic winner in Tokyo in 1964.
Silvester threw 195’-7” at Mt. SAC, which was good enough to win nearly anytime, anywhere; but not that day. Oerter launched the third best throw ever of 198’- 6”, behind Silvester’s 1961 world record heaves. Yet, he was disappointed not to surpass the elusive 200 line.
That night at the Coliseum Relays, discus royalty of all ages was well-represented among the 8 finalists. There was Silvester from Utah State, as mentioned, the world record holder, who had finished 4th in the 1960 U.S. Trials after being overtaken by Dick Cochran in the 5th round for the third spot.
Rink Babka was there, having held the world mark set just prior to the 1960 Olympic Games. During the Rome finals, Oerter was having a difficult time when teammate Rink, who was leading the competition, mentioned a correction to Al in his form. Oerter employed the advice and went on to win his second gold medal, with Babka taking silver. Other notable competitors in LA included veteran Parry O’Brien, 3-time Olympic medalist in the shot put, and the NCAA champ from Stanford, Dave Weil.
Al Oerter entered the competition wearing his New York Athletic Club whites with winged-foot logo. The Men’s Discus was set to begin, and the Coliseum crew had marked the 200-foot distance with its own chalk line. During the warm-ups, it became apparent that the cold dew at ground level was making for a slippery surface. All of the throwers were complaining about it.
The crowd was buzzing when, in the first round, Oerter barely avoided slipping, yet flung his discus 186’- 9”, giving a warning of what was about to happen. His second throw exploded out 198’-7½”, a personal best, and just shy of Silvester's word record.
Oerter’s throws were getting eight feet past the next closest competitors as the crowd was really starting to get amped up (and warmed up in the evening chill). Jack Hayes, a 16-year-old runner for Mt. Miguel High School in Spring Valley, CA, had driven three hours to witness the relays, and never anticipated such excitement in the discus event. Al Oerter’s display of power was something to behold, as young Jack kept one eye on the 200-foot line and the other on the thrower in the circle.
On his third attempt, Al nearly went down again on the moist footing. His throw was short of his second one, so not measured, but most agreed it was about 189 feet.
Finally, on his fourth effort, Oerter stepped confidently into the ring, tossing the discus from one hand to the other, in a perfect, rhythmic display. There seemed to be a sudden quiet in the Coliseum. And there was. The rapt crowd was hushed. And then, he spun, released, and bellowed, with the sound and fury of a cannon blast. The 4.4 lb. implement rocketed skyward, planed out and history was made.
The discus carved the grass out just past the chalk line and Al Oerter became the first to surpass 200 feet. It was measured at 200’- 5½.” The throw was witnessed by three former record holders: Sylvester, who instantly gained that status, Babka and Fortune Gordien, who was the official that evening.
Babka's 193’-9” edged Silvester for second by 5 inches, but few in the crowd noticed.
And what was Al Oerter’s reaction? “I slipped on all six of my throws. I guess I was just lucky” (NY Times). Meanwhile,Track & Field News reported more accurately: “His 1956 Olympic win was a bigger thrill, 'but this is more satisfying because it was so long in coming.'”
Jack Hayes remembered, “I was at the LA Coliseum that night that Al Oerter set a new world record and became the very first to toss that discus beyond the 200-foot mark. Some 59 years later, I still recall the major excitement watching that throw land past that chalk line at 200 feet.
“I have witnessed a good number of world records, but this was my first and it is still ever so clear in my memory bank as if it took place yesterday! And that comes from this old-time middle-distance dude who coached the sprints, hurdles and relays for 37 years. Yet, I think Al was one of the all-time great athletes regardless of what sport you consider.”
There were other notable performances that incredible night in track and field history as thirty records of various kinds were broken. USC’s Dallas Long hefted the shotput to a 65’-10½” world record, a half inch more than Bill Nieder’s mark. Nieder was Oerter’s former Kansas teammate and the gold medal winner in Rome. He too was there as an official. When Long broke the record, Oerter told Tex Maule, “I guess there isn’t any limit; they keep coming bigger and stronger all the time.”
Several minutes after the two field-events marks were set, world record holder Peter Snell of New Zealand found another gear in the stretch to increase his lead over Dyrol Burleson (U.S.) and establish a new American record of 3:56.1 in the mile run. Burleson, who clocked 3:57.9 for second, had to hurry back to Eugene, Oregon to run a race for his Oregon Ducks college team the next day.
A relatively unknown Robert Hayes out of Florida A&M had a spectacular night. He ran a 10.2 meet-record 100 meters, and then anchored the 440-yard and 880-yard relays to first place finishes. Two years later, at the 1964 Olympics, Bob Hayes would become the world’s fastest human with a world record-tying 10.0, 100-meter gold medal, and later win a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys.
It seemed that Al Oerter and Dallas Long stole most of the headlines from the media covering the Coliseum Relays that night. For all of the outstanding relay moments, Tex Maule would conclude, “Considering the conditions, the best single performance of the night was likely Al Oerter’s world record for the discus.”
What Maule did not know was that Oerter’s feat may have been aided by a University of Colorado athlete who ran the 400-meter hurdles that evening. Yet, his contribution came the night before.
On the day before the relays, Colorado track and field coach Frank Potts got a call from the relays organizers inviting Potts’ best multi-event talent to run in the 400-meter hurdles.
The coach immediately dialed his recently graduated Buffalo. “Bill,” he urgently instructed, “Get your butt down to LA; you’ve been invited to the relays in the 400-intermediate. Talk to Travelers Aid, they’ll have your airline tickets and hotel set up.”
Bill was excited, but nervous at the same time. In the 400m hurdles, he would be going against guys like Eddie Southern, Olympic silver medalist in 1956, and Rex Cawley of USC, who was one of the best up-and-comers in the U.S.
At Colorado, Bill excelled in multiple events. He was a 2-time All-American in the Pentathlon, won the Big Eight long jump title, and ran the 400m hurdles, among other events. Looking ahead, Bill thought he would be well-suited to the decathlon. This was quite a change from his days as a highly touted basketball recruit.
In the late afternoon, Bill flew to LA from Denver. As directed, he headed over to the Sheraton-West Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, adjacent to Lafayette Park, in the Westlake district of Los Angeles. Waiting to check in, Bill noticed other athletes coming and going, and realized this was the primary hotel for the relays.
“Checking in?” the clerk at the front desk asked. “Yes, Bill Toomey, I have a reservation,” Bill said. The man behind the desk kept rummaging through papers and then said, “Oh there you are, Mr. Toomey. We’re just about all filled up.”
Bill took his key and headed to his room, and found it strange that his destination was just steps away from the front lobby. As he unlocked the door, and fumbled for the lights, he discovered that this was not your typical guest room. It was a very large utility/conference room, the kind that held group business meetings. In the middle, were two rollaway beds. No mints on the pillows.
Much later, after grabbing a lite dinner snack, Bill returned to the hotel. While passing the front desk, he couldn’t help but notice a mountain of a man, his back towards him, in a discussion with the desk clerk. Bill stopped and checked his watch. It was late.
“I’m sorry,” the clerk repeated, “We’re totally sold out. I wish there was something I could do.” “Me too,” said the giant, as he turned and faced Bill Toomey.
Bill was stunned as he recognized the man. “It was Al Oerter,” he would later say. Bill was awed by his presence. Not only had he closely followed Al through two gold medal Olympics, but Colorado and Kansas were both in the Big Eight Conference back then, and Al was a Jayhawk legend.
Bill introduced himself to Al and pulled him aside. “Al, I just want you to know that I have this room that’s got plenty of space, an extra bed, and you are welcome to share it.” Al took Bill up on his offer and truly thanked him for his generosity.
Al Oerter’s record would last 27 days, when the USSR’s Vladimir Trusenyev broke through 202 feet in Leningrad in June. Like a tennis match, Oerter served notice and recaptured the world record with a throw of 204’-10½", also 27 days after the Russian’s mark, on July 1, 1962, in Chicago.
Al enjoyed the Mt. SAC Relays, and in April, 1963, would surpass his former record with a 205’- 5” toss. Almost exactly a year later, again at Mt. SAC’s Hilmer Lodge Stadium, he would throw his fourth world record of 206’- 6”.
Two months before the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia would surprise everyone with a huge, record throw, well-beyond 211 feet, and establish himself as the Olympic favorite. Al Oerter was progressing towards Tokyo per his 4-year plan, but had no inkling of the impossible physical and mental barriers he was about to face.
On that Los Angeles night before Al shattered the 200-foot mark, Bill Toomey remembered, ”Al Oerter was so appreciative of that rollaway bed. He was just a great guy; a man of both strength and humility. And then the next day he goes out and sets a new world record in the discus.”
Knowing what he knows now, the 1968 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist proclaimed, “Al Oerter is in the pantheon of Olympic achievement. He is the Olympics!”
Sometimes we look at our heroes, our champions, with such reverence and awe, that we forget they still have to go through the regular, everyday stuff all of us do. In a sport like discus, so much has to happen correctly; in synchronization; in the blink of an eye, to be successful; including getting a good night’s sleep.
In May of 1962, on one of those two nights to remember, a future champion was there for the current one.
© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved