Remembering An Olympic Voyage

BACK TRACKS

March 10, 1991|By Carleton Jones

The golden '20s are the most enduring literary cliche in the American canon, but for Robert Roy, retired dean emeritus of engineering at Johns Hopkins University, that decade was real life, not fiction.

Last year Mr. Roy put the finishing touches on a family memoir -- privately circulated among friends and colleagues -- that tinkles with F. Scott Fitzgerald nostalgia and comments on the ways of life when the gin was in the bathtub and the brokers were in the chips.

Included in the memoir is a story about Mr. Roy's heady athlete days. During his last undergraduate year at Hopkins -- 1928 -- Mr. Roy found himself drafted for the Olympics as a member of the varsity lacrosse team. The perennial national champs, the Mount Washington team, had been trounced, and so had formidable Maryland.

Soon the Hopkins team was off on its great adventure, the ninth Olympiad. Blowout banquets in Baltimore and Manhattan launched the team on an ocean trip to Amsterdam, where 33 nations would compete for honors. Deely K. Nice, nephew of a Maryland governor, was the lacrosse team's manager. Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, later to be a World War II hero, was chief of the American Olympic delegation.

If you looked closely at the shipboard crowd you'd also find swimmer Eleanor Holm and future Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, who then was heading for his second Olympic swimming contest. Also on board were Olympic swimmer Helen Meany and, according to Deely Nice, A. G. Spalding, the golf ball king and sporting-goods zillionaire.

The decks of the old liner, the President Roosevelt, bounced and banged with the running, thumping, jumping and high jinks of the U.S. Olympic team. Boxing rings, fencing courts, wrestling mats and a small pool saw constant action. Watching the fun were Yale Merrill, later a Bethlehem Steel exec, on board for the Baltimore News-Post, and Wilson Wingate, covering for The Sun.

"Two marathon runners would circle the track engaged in active conversation -- 30 minutes in each direction with nary a sign of need- ing breath. Rumor had it that Bill Agee, a marathoner from Baltimore, had won a dollar bet by drinking down a whole bottle of fiery Tabasco sauce," Mr. Roy reports.

The evening before the ship landed in the Netherlands, imitation money had been passed out to fund "gambling night" on the ocean liner. It was collected and thrown off the ship as it landed in the Dutch locks. "When these phony bills began to drift down they were taken as the real thing and several eager Dutchmen jumped into the canal to retrieve them. It didn't take long for those duped to become enraged," Mr. Roy writes.

The Hopkins team went into the Olympic playoffs in some confusion, says Mr. Roy, a second defense man for the team. The problem was that American lacrosse rules differed from those of England and Canada, their two opponents.

The Canadian battle ended in blood. During a face-off, a Canadian player who had been cut over his eye hit Hopkins team member Johnny Lang on the head. "Being handy with his fists, Johnny anticipated the next assault, straightened up, put his arm around his assailant's neck and began to punch him in the face. I don't recall whether both were expelled, but I do recall that General MacArthur raised hell with us," Mr. Roy remembers. The playoffs ended in a three-way tie, a standoff.

Fate would not be kind to some of the heroes and heroines of that long-ago voyage. Johnny Weissmuller, who won five gold medals and set 67 swimming records, would die virtually helpless in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1984, a victim of a series of strokes. Heavyweight wrestler Tex Edwards of Navy would go down with the USS Reuben James, the first American warship to be lost to a German submarine in World War II. Deely Nice would die at 46 in 1956, a few days after his election to a 15-year term on the Supreme Bench of Baltimore city. *

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