One For The Hall
For Howard Schmertz, the 106th edition of the classic Millrose Games, set for The Armory Track Center on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, will be a double joy and a double homecoming.
For one thing, Millrose director Ray Flynn is already busily lining up super world-class fields for the Wanamaker Mile and everything else on the Millrose slate. And Schmertz, the Millrose Games director emeritus, after serving as meet director since 1974, is happy to lend Flynn two major helping hands and a full supply of the expertise he accumulated in all his years running The Big Apple's biggest indoor track show.
But the 2013 Millrose will be a lot more to Schmertz.
Located just one floor beneath The Armory's competition deck is the National Track & Field Hall of Fame — and now that Schmertz is an official member of The Hall, he'll be entitled to take a break in the action with a smile of satisfaction, knowing that the job he did so long and so superbly has been officially recognized by his peers in the sport.
And that's why the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, a feature of the Jesse Owens Awards Banquet — the biggest event at Saturday's concluding session of USA Track and Field's Annual Meeting at the Daytona Hilton — was such an emotion-filled gathering.
"What a wonderful night this is," said Schmertz, peering out at the ballroom full of track and field athletes, coaches, officials and activists in all categories. He was added to The Hall in the "contributors" category, an honor he shared with his late father, Fred Schmertz (who passed away in 1976).
Relays are always a Millrose feature, and a big one took place in 1974.
That's when Howard Schmertz officially took the baton as meet director from dad Fred — sometimes these were so closely linked they were called "The Schmertz Brothers." Fred Schmertz had served the Millrose Games — the meet created by the department store giant John Wanamaker Co. — since in one capacity or other since 1908, and would be the Millrose meet director from 1933-74.
Howard Schmertz took the baton and has been running with it, with distinction, ever since, as meet director 1974-2003 and now in his emeritus role.
Year after year after year, the Millrose Games, first under Fred's direction and then under Howard's — invariably attracted the world's top talent to Madison Square Garden (then located at 49th Street and 8th Avenue; later at the "new" Garden, 33rd and 8th ) before the move to the Armory in 2012.
Name a track great, name some more — Paavo Nurmi, Cornelius Warmerdam, Glenn Cunningham, John Woodruff, Mal Whitfield, Rev. Bob Richards, Harrison Dillard, John Thomas, Gil Dodds, Carl Lewis, Mary Decker, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Joetta Clark Diggs, Gail Devers, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan, Bernard Lagat and a whole additional array – they've all written brilliant chapters in Millrose history.
Their highlight-reel performances were annual and numerous, and Howard Schmertz was hard-pressed to rank his favorites of them all.
But he did work up his short list:
• John Thomas' 1959 high jump victory, the first time an athlete had ever cleared 7 feet indoors.
• Mary Decker's runaway, world-record mile victory in 1973, certifying that women had at last gained full status as crowd-pleasers and ticket-sellers.
• Carl Lewis' 28-10 1/4 long jump in 1984 — still the world indoor record.
• And the more recent Wanamaker Mile exploits of Coghlan, O'Sullivan and Lagat, relegating the 1930s deeds of Glenn Cunningham & Co. to the old news category.
All these deeds — by so many deeds-makers — invariably sold out the Garden to its 18,000-seat capacity and made it the capstone to whole NYC winter sports schedule.
Originally, the Millrose Games was held on Saturday nights. Later, a few editions were held on Thursdays, before the move to Fridays, until the return to a Saturday date in 2012 at the Armory.
Whether it was that Friday scheduling — New Yorkers anxious to return home after a busy work week, or simply a diminishing supply of track celebrities — Coghlan, perhaps, was the last capable of putting fans in the seats — or too much focus on other sports and too little on track, the flagship sport of the Olympic Games — or whatever it was, Millrose attendance began slipping in the meet's final years at the Garden.
At first, Schmertz, like many other track devotees, had his doubts about the Millrose move to The Armory.
But the success of the 2012 meet — which packed The Armory with nearly 5,000 fans, and produced an array of stellar performances — swayed away all the doubters.
Through it all, Judy Schmertz has been at the dutiful side of husband Howard. In a sense, she was married to the Millrose Games as much as to her hubby.
It may have been slow-go at first, but she soon began to share his Millrose passion — and it has never relented since.
In total admiration of Howard Schmertz's Millrose performance, too, is Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, annually the nation's biggest meet.
"Howard, to me, is an icon," said Johnson. "He's put together a fantastic and memorable meet for so many years. And doing it at the Garden was never easy."
Johnson, of course, does it every year outdoors at Penn's Franklin Field, a pre-existing site. But Schmertz's Millrose productions invariably involved a quick Garden changeover from a hockey game or basketball game the night before.
"There was very little time to fix something that might have gone wrong," said Johnson.
With an 11-laps-to-the-mile banked track that had to be assembled in about half a day, and field event facilities, and timing mechanisms, etc., etc., there were an infinite number of problem possibilities.
In Johnson's view, "He assembled great fields every year, he drew big crowds, Howard did it all."
Howard Schmertz has also done some arithmetic. And his figures show that 153 previous inductees to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame had been participants at previous Millrose Games.
Now, Howard Schmertz and his late father become No. 154 and No. 155.
In addition to Schmertz, four brilliant American track and field performers were added to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame:
• Charles Austin — who won the 1996 Atlanta Olympic high jump gold medal in incredibly dramatic fashion, took six consecutive U.S. outdoor HJ crowns, was twice a world champion, and continues to hold the American record of 7 feet, 10 1/2 inches.
• Kim Batten — the former world record-holder (at 52.61) and arguably the greatest women's 400-meter hurdler in track history.
And these two posthumous honorees:
• Patrick "Babe" McDonald — the hulking "Irish Whale" multi-event thrower who competed in three Olympic Games (with timeout for World War I between them), collected two Olympic golds and one silver, and enjoyed an extraordinarily long career that kept him in the sport at the highest level until his mid-50s.
• Arthur Duffey — surely the fastest man of the years just after the turn of the previous century, who'd been the first man to clock 9.6 for the 100-yard dash, who'd been an intercollegiate champion for Georgetown, who'd have been the top choice to win both the 100 and 200 at the St. Louis Olympics 1904 — until suffering banishment from the sport in an era of strictest amateurism on grounds many still dispute to this day.