The No-Nonsense, Fist-Fightin’, 27-Time-National Champion Who Raced His Ass Off

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THE NO-NONSENSE, FIST FIGHTIN’, 27-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPION WHO RACED HIS ASS OFF
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 004, December 2018

Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett

In February 1935, an Associated Press story about two distance runners was making the rounds in newspapers throughout the United States. Taking up only a few inches of column space, editors at papers from the Boston Globe, the Indianapolis Star, and the Salt Lake Tribune, among others, found a spot for the article in their sports sections.

This was back when stories about track and field were common in the paper, and the indoor season was in full-swing. Still, the subject of the story seemed odd: There usually wasn’t much hubbub about the second- and fourth-place finishers from a race two weeks earlier—which was exactly where Joe McCluskey and Paul Mundy placed, respectively, in the two-mile at the Millrose Games in early February.

But on February 20 and 21, paper boys around the country stood on street corners shouting, “Extra! Extra!” shelling papers that housed a story about two skinny runners.

Not exactly a selling point. Even if it should have been.

If a reader was fortunate enough to take a moment to read the entire article, they would likely have two questions: “How in the hell is this not front-page news?” and “Has anyone bought the movie rights yet?”

For good reason.

The headline that accompanied the piece in The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana proved why McCluskey and Mundy were in the spotlight:

A.A.U. SUSPENDS TWO TRACK STARS FOR USING FISTS

The sensational headline seemed like it was written for the silver screen—and the subhead lived up to the billing, too: McCluskey and Mundy Mixed Fighting With Running on Millrose Card.

The more one read, the more outlandish it all seemed.

“Because he failed to notify the Amateur Athletic Union of a change of address,” the story began, “Joe McCluskey, former Fordham track star and a member of the 1932 Olympic Team, faced today the possibility of being ineligible to defend his 3,000-meter steeplechase title in the national indoor track and field meet at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.”

As it turned out, McCluskey and Mundy had reportedly gotten into a fist-fight in the dressing room after the Millrose Games on February 3. They had been ordered to appear before an A.A.U. committee, but neither showed—McCluskey, he claimed, because he never got the summons—and both were suspended.

“The two athletes were turned in by an official for ‘conduct unbecoming a gentleman,’” the article continued.

And it was just getting started.

“McCluskey,” it went on in the fifth paragraph, “was said to have taken a poke at Mundy during the running of the two-mile race, claiming that the latter consistently stepped on his heels.”

Talk about burying the lede.

That’s right. McCluskey supposedly turned around—mid-race, mind you—to punch Mundy. And McCluskey didn’t even deny it. “Mundy had been hitting my heels,” he told the reporter, “following close behind me in a number of races. I warned him against it before the Millrose meet, but he kept it up and I guess I just got sore.” He did, however, deny there was a fight in the locker room.

Somehow, it wasn’t even the strangest detail in the article. “Mundy,” the story reported, “who is nearsighted although he wears heavy glasses, was said by friends to have misjudged the distance that separated him from the former Fordham runner although he planned to dog McCluskey’s footsteps.”

Seriously?

To recap: Two runners denied getting in a fight in the dressing room after the Millrose Games, but had no problem admitting to throwing fists during a race. Then, they were suspended. Not for fighting, but for missing a hearing because they might not have ever received the summons.

Crazy, right?

Not for Joe McCluskey.

Nope, for the 1930s most prolific distance runner, it was just another week.

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The list of nicknames adorned to McCluskey is almost as long his list of accomplishments. Sports reporters and fans referred to him as—and take a breath before reading these all at once—Fighting Joe, Irish Joe, Shufflin’ Joe, Durable Joe, Rambling Joe, Fordham Joe, Fordham Flash, Iron Man McCluskey, Might McCluskey, Old Man River, and America’s King of the Steeplechase.

That’s what happens when you win twenty-seven U.S. national championships over a nearly twenty-year career—writers need to find new ways to describe your greatness. And when it came to McCluskey, there was plenty to write about.

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Born Joseph Paul McCluskey in South Manchester, Connecticut on June 2, 1911, he was brash and ready to run. One cold winter day at the Manchester High School track in the 1924, a 13-year-old McCluskey was watching his older brother, who was on the high school’s team, jog around the oval. The younger McCluskey sat huddled in the cold just outside the track, his eyes watching his brother’s every move, when Charles Wigren, the track coach, approached him. “Pretty good runner, isn’t he?” Wigren said as he motioned towards McCluskey’s brother.

The younger McCluskey agreed, but he had a message for the coach. “I’m better,” he said. “I’ll beat him when I’m in high school next year.”

Wigren didn’t know who this scrawny kid was, but he was amused, and asked how he was going to beat him.

“He’s my brother,” McCluskey told him. “And I’ve already licked him when we were practicin’.”

He had one more message for the coach: “I’m gonna be a champ.”

And he was—even if running wasn’t natural talent for McCluskey. He wasn’t particularly fast-footed. He took short steps and his knees stayed low. His stride was more akin to a shuffle than a run, but he was determined and believed in himself.

“I don’t think I had as much ability as some others,” he told the New York Times long after his competitive career was done, “but I put more into it. When you can’t stand at the end of a race, you know you’ve given everything. I ran a lot of races when I couldn’t stand at the end.”

That was true from the onset.

After a storied high school career in Manchester, McCluskey went to the Bronx and Fordham University. He was a star almost immediately, receiving top billing at meets as a freshman. Before the Headquarters Detachment track meet in Hartford on March 10, 1930, the Hartford Courant wrote, “The two mile run goes down as a feature because it is headed by Joe McCluskey, Manchester High School graduate who, in his first year at Fordham, is the most talked of distance runner in the Metropolitan district.” Then, he lived up to the billing, with a dazzling final last mile—he ran 9:47, closing the final mile in 4 minutes, 41 seconds. The crowd loved McCluskey. As the Hartford Courant reported the next day, McCluskey, “caught the fancy of the fans, and the applause that greeted him on the track grew in volume with each lap and a thunderous ovation greeted him at the finish line.”

He was loved for his grit. In fact, he wasn’t known as “Fighting Joe” because of the spat with Mundy in 1935, but because of the fight he showed in the last lap of each and every race he ran.

By 1932, he had established himself as a national-class runner, and at the Penn Relays in April, he used his fight to cement himself as a favorite to make the Olympic team in the steeplechase. Like today, the relay carnival at Franklin Field in Philadelphia was one of the country’s biggest track meets. McCluskey, donning a white singlet with a large Fordham “F” and a red sash, and found himself in second place in the steeple wiht one lap remaining. Indiana harrier J.C. Watson had broken away from McCluskey, and heading into the final turn, was nearly twenty yards ahead. McCluskey, however, was a showman. And the crowd of ten-thousand was in for a treat.

Just before the final water barrier, McCluskey reached into his bag of tricks and once again pulled out his signature kick. Inch by inch, step by step, he reeled Watson in. If it had been seventy years later, Jamaican crowds would have “Woo”-ed wildly as McCluskey closed the gap, and they would have erupted into mania if Watson faltered over the final water barrier–which is exactly what happened.

With McCluskey charging like a freight train, Watson mismanaged the water barrier. While his opponent was taking a swim, McCluskey was powering out of the pool, pulling away to a raucous applause.

He would won by 50 yards. And he set the American Record with a time of 9 minutes, 28.6 seconds. It was only seven seconds shy of the World Record. The 20-year-old kid from Manchester wasn’t only one of the best in the country, he was one of the best in the world.

But no one loved McCluskey more than his hometown. And on July 16, 1932, McCluskey gave Manchester its best news yet.

Neighborhood streets were quiet that night. If you owned a radio, you were in your living room. If not, you were at the electronics store or a store like Metter’s Smoke Shope, State Soda Shoppe, and Cleary’s Lunch, which already had posters of McCluskey hanging from the walls. Everyone in town was waiting for the news to trickle in. They had to know if their boy was going to be an Olympian.

Mr. and Mrs. McCluskey sat in their home at 40 Foster Street, eager to learn the fate of their son, who was across the country in Palo Alto racing for a spot on the 1932 Olympic Team. Sure, he was the American Record holder in the steeplechase, but this was the Olympics.

At 8 p.m., they stopped the picture playing in the local theater. There was an announcement to make: Joe McCluskey, native son of Manchester, had won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Trials.

The town exploded with glee. Cheers erupted on the streets and from homes. The McCluskeys accepted congratulations from neighbors and Mr. McCluskey’s coworkers. Members of the Knights of Columbus immediately started sending wires and telegrams out to Palo Alto to let Joe know how proud the town was of him.

The Manchester boy was going to be an Olympian.

The whole world was going to see how much of a fighter Joe McCluskey was. They were also going to see what a good sport he was.

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“Five!” Joe McCluskey yelled at race officials as he passed the start line for the second time in the steeplechase final at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Four!” he shouted when he went by again.

Just as they do in races today, there was always a sign right near the finish line that read how many laps a runner had to go. In the 1932 steeplechase final, the man responsible for that sign was, according to Olympic officials, a substitute. He had never acted as official lap counter, and, as it turned out, he somehow missed the first lap.

So, when the runners zipped by the finish line for the second time, they saw a “6” instead of a “5.” McCluskey did his best to make the mistake be known, but no one was listening. For McCluskey, that was just how his Olympics were going.

Two weeks before the Games were set to begin, McCluskey came down with tonsillitis. Two days later, as was reported in newspapers, it turned to Grippe (what the flu used to be known as). Many figured McCluskey would challenge Finland’s Volmari Iso-Hollo—his father had even made the trip out to Los Angeles thanks to the fundraising efforts of the people of Manchester—but now McCluskey wasn’t even training. Two days before the race even, the normally-confident McCluskey told reporters that Iso-Hollo was likely to win.

On top of that, he knew the lap counter was wrong. But what could he do but run as he always did?

Iso-Hollo, as McCluskey’s predicted, was the class of the field. The Finn ran away with the title. McCluskey, meanwhile, was in a battle for the silver medal with Great Britain’s Tom Evenson. And when they passed the 3,000-meter mark of the race, McCluskey was in second. The problem was, the lap counter never corrected his mistake. Iso-Hollo was on his way to becoming the first and only winner of the 3,450-meter steeplechase in Olympic history.

Maybe it was the extra 450 meters. Maybe it was the bout with the flu before the games. Whatever it was, McCluskey couldn’t conjure up his signature kick over the final lap. Evenson was able to pass by and hold on to silver by a few yards as McCluskey won bronze, becoming the second every American medalist in the event. Almost immediately, McCluskey told officials they had made a mistake. Almost as quickly, the officials, realizing that Iso-Hollo’s winning time of 10 minutes, 33.4 seconds was insanely slow, agreed with McCluskey.

In fact, they even offered the racers a chance to re-run the event. The runners, however, decided against it, letting the results stand.

“McCluskey’s sportsmanship, under the circumstances,” the A.P. reported, “in accepting third place when he might well have been the runner-up, was accorded a big ovation.”

He was once again a fan favorite. At 21, McCluskey was wise beyond his years. He couldn’t ask them to rerun the race, as he told the race officials, “A race has only one finish line.”

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McCluskey crossed a lot of finish lines. After the 1932 Olympics was when he started earning his long list of nicknames. He won a Thanksgiving race in his hometown that fall. Then a few national titles indoors the following year and a few more outdoors, too. He took on all challengers, no matter the distance or the surface—winning on cross-country courses, the roads, and on the track. After he graduated from Fordham, he started running for the New York Athletic Club, taking on all challengers throughout the country and the world.

In the 1930s, handicapped races were popular—both in horse racing and the human variety. So, McCluskey would often be playing catch-up. In fact, when he raced two days after the punching incident with Paul Mundy, McCluskey overcame handicaps that ranged all the way up to 150 yards to win the two-mile at the Seton Hall Games in Newark.

While he would race any distance, the steeplechase was his favorite. “Why it’s the most practical running event of the entire lot,” he told San Francisco Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan, in an article, which was oddly titled: “Joe McCluskey – He’s Irish but he can Ramble”.

“How often,” McCluskey continued, “I ask you, is a man in the normal pursuit of life required to run 100 yards, 220, 440 and 880 on a nice, smooth cinder track? But no one knows when he might be walking through a pasture and suddenly be set upon by a mad bull. In such an emergency, it is essential that one not only be prepared to run, but to scramble over fences and leap over ditches, as well. The steeplechase is ideal training for that. No mad bull will ever catch me.”

He was funny and well-liked in the running community, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Upon returning from the 1936 Olympics—the same Olympics Jesse Owens dominated in Berlin—McCluskey was proud of his teammates, but not of the team’s officials and managers.  “The 1936 team was one of the most conscientious and best mannered in history,” said McCluskey, who finished a disappointing tenth in the steeplechase. “I do not want to go on record as having said the U.S.A. Olympic team was well managed. For in my opinion, outside of the fine work done by Dan Ferris and Fred Rubien, the team was poorly managed.”

He was proud of the team, and of Owens. “We came through with 12 victories out of 23 events,” he said, “thanks largely to Jesse Owens.”

He spoke out for his teammates and fellow runners, and he also acted. In 1939, McCluskey offered pacing duties to runners trying to break American and World Records, even carrying a stopwatch during a rabbit job when Archie San Romani attempted to break the world record in the mile—which was 4 minutes, 6.4 seconds at that point.

While his self-confidence could teach the runners of today something, his training wasn’t exactly cutting edge. As reported by the A.P. in February 1938, McCluskey’s policy when it came to training was to do it for fun.

“If you try to make too much of a grind out of the game, it takes all the kick out of it,” McCluskey said. “I do my training the first three days in the week—run three miles or so every evening, play a little handball, punch the bag—and then I forget about running until it’s time for the race.”

He called competitors who were trying to fit, in his opinion, too many races onto an indoor schedule, “running fools.”

A running fool, whether he knew it or not, was exactly what McCluskey was. For he could never quite find a way to stop.

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“Of all the names he was given,” Joe McCluskey Jr. tells me, “Shufflin’ Joe was the one that sticks with me.”

He says his dad had a very different kind of running style, and a shuffle is the best way to describe it even though it got the job done. And Joe Jr. knew how to judge running form—he was around track meets all the time. The McCluskey’s used to cram into the family station on the weekends and drive off to track meets so Joe Sr. could coach his N.Y.A.C. track team.

Track was always the focus. Joe Jr. remembers driving from their home in Rego Park, Queens, up to Buffalo for a meet. Joe Sr. decided the family should see Niagara Falls. So, they took a slight detour to stop by the park.

“We drove through the Catskills and up to Niagara,” Joe Jr. says looking back on it. “Then it was just five minutes there and off to the stadium and the track.” He laughs. His dad was a track nut.

The oldest of eight kids, Joe Jr. remembers his dad telling them about track—he laughs when thinking about his dad reminiscing about the Millrose Games fight and suspension—but he mostly remembers laying with his dad in a hammock in the backyard when he was a kid and looking up at the stars.

He’s often reminded of his dad, whether it’s because a reporter is calling to talk to him or because he’s watching a video his niece Laura run a meet at the armory, like he did a few year ago. “She has the exact same running style as him,” Joe Jr. says and chuckles. “And she was fast, too.”

He is also reminded of his dad every time he goes back to Manchester, where Joe McCluskey is still a hometown favorite.

In fact, in May 2017, it was “Joe McCluskey Day” in Manchester as the high school put up a memorial stone in his honor near the newly installed steeplechase pits. At the 2017 Manchester Road Race, the race announcer made a wonderful commemorative speech about McCluskey that brought Joe Jr. to tears.

On top of all of that, McCluskey will soon have a seven-foot statue in Manchester. The town is placing three life-sized sculputres of prominent citizens all around Manchester. McCluskey’s will be placed along the road race’s route, hopefully in May or June of 2019.

“How many people can say their father has a statue?” Joe Jr. says.

And how many can say their father got in a fight in the middle of a race? Or won a bronze medal in the 3,450-meter steeplechase? Or won 27 national titles?

Fighting Joe, Irish Joe, Shufflin’ Joe, Durable Joe, Rambling Joe, Fordham Joe, Fordham Flash, Iron Man McCluskey, Might McCluskey, Old Man River, and America’s King of the Steeplechase—or whatever you want to call him—had plenty of reasons to be remembered.  

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