First state track gathering was 100 years ago at Wehrle Park
A few moments before the start of West Virginia’s first state high school track meet, Charleston High School coach Rocco Gorman paused briefly to educate the fans.
A modest crowd had gathered at Charleston’s Wehrle Park, which was bounded by Quarrier, Virginia, Elizabeth and Greenbrier streets, on May 23, 1914, for a meet that Gorman and CHS principal W.C. McKee were unveiling as a state championship. It was open to any West Virginia high school that had a track team.
But first Gorman wanted the spectators to see and touch the new disk that CHS had recently purchased to be used in the discus competition, and he passed it among the curious spectators.
“What do you do with it?’’ one of them asked.
In those long-ago days of high school athletics, it was obvious Gorman’s education process still had a ways to go.
By organizing and directing the state’s inaugural high school meet 100 years ago, the first-year CHS coach was not just enlightening early sports fans on track and field’s fine points.
He was creating an essential element to the state’s 20th-century sports framework and, with no apparent hint of pretense, was setting himself apart as a scholastic coaching pioneer, a man who eventually would be called the Father of Track in West Virginia and would distinguish himself in all facets of athletics. Incidentally, he was demonstrating the innovative instincts, promotional skills and leadership that would serve him and the city for much of the century.
In addition to handling the athletic end of the meet, Gorman enlisted downtown merchants to pay for medals that would go to the individual winners and the cup that would go to the winning team. He then convinced the merchants to display the medals and cup in their storefront windows in hopes of stirring up interest in the meet.
He even arranged for local townspeople to house the out-of-town athletes overnight and transport them to the train depot for their ride home afterward.
The 26-year-old Gorman, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in Saginaw, Mich., graduated from the University of Michigan in 1910 with a degree in civil engineering and in September of 1913 began a job at Charleston High School, located on the site of today’s YWCA parking lot on Quarrier Street. He would be the school’s new science teacher and head coach in football, baseball and track. He would also work as assistant basketball coach.
It didn’t take him long to gain respect in his new job.
The Charleston High yearbook staff of 1914 dedicated the book to him, calling him a “good fellow and a friend of all of us’’ and writing that his “vigorous lessons in clean athletics have made him the boys’ idol.’’
He stayed in Charleston for a lifetime and, along the way, compiled remarkable numbers as CHS football coach — a record of 118-31-4 in 16 seasons and a perfect 1920 season in which the Mountain Lions did not allow a point, outscoring the opposition by 379-0. He took over as head basketball coach in 1915 and won state titles in 1915, 1919 and 1924.
Although he loved track and knew it would contribute to the conditioning of his other athletes, he had another, more noble, purpose in mind. In a Gazette interview a half century later, he said he also wanted to do something that might help keep students in school.
A hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for sports-minded youths to drop out after football or basketball season. The prospects of competing for a state track title, Gorman believed, might keep a few in school long enough to earn their diplomas.
At about 6 a.m. on the morning of the state’s first track meet, Gorman and most of his 38-man CHS track team arrived at Wehrle Park — also known as Exhibition Park — to begin marking off the running lanes, some of which cut across the infield of the baseball diamond that was included in the park.
The 100-yard dash lanes paralleled Virginia Street but because the track was just a one-sixth-of-a-mile loop, Gorman had to improvise for the 220, 440, 880 and relay. The CHS people also prepared the areas to be used for the high jump, broad jump, pole vault, discus, shot put and hammer throw.
To assist with the meet, Gorman recruited one of his old University of Michigan classmates, Jimmy Craig, to work as a judge. Craig had been a Walter Camp All-American football player and track star with the Wolverines and had set a world indoor hurdles record at Michigan in 1911.
The cup that would go to winning school and the individual medals had been on display at Scott Brothers and Ernst’s on Capitol Street. Among the other sponsors were S. Spencer Moore, Abney, the Diamond Shoe and Garment Co., Barnes and Co. and Kanawha Banking & Trust.
“Boy Athletes of State Run Today,’’ proclaimed a Gazette headline on the morning of the meet.
“The field has been placed in good condition,’’ said the Daily Mail on May 22, 1914, “and accommodations will be afforded everyone who goes to witness the first tournament of this kind that has ever been held in Charleston.’’
In the story, the newspaper reported: “The track teams of 12 West Virginia cities arrived here yesterday afternoon to be ready for the state scholastic track meet which will be held at Exhibition Park.’’
Speaking at a golden anniversary dinner at the Sterling Restaurant on Capitol Street in 1964, Gorman recalled that, thanks to contributions of city businesses, the first meet cost Charleston High only $9.32 (about $225 today).
The meet, in which 13 teams and 65 athletes competed, consisted of 12 events — the 100, 220, 440, 880, mile, high jump, broad jump, pole vault, hammer throw, discus, shot put and relay. (Running events were measured in yards, not meters.)
Picking up the championship that day was Huntington, which edged Parkersburg by a third of a point 27 2/3 to 27 1/3. St. Marys was third with 20 points, Charleston followed with 15, Ravenswood had 12, Buckhannon 9 5/6, Sistersville 7 and Grafton 3. Also competing were Cairo, Flemington, Hinton, Sutton and Williamson.
The day’s high-point man was Homer Rowley of Ravenswood, who won the 440 in 61.2 seconds, placed second in the broad jump and third in both the 220 and shot put. The scoring system awarded five points for first place, three for second, two for third and one for fourth.
Charleston sophomore Lane Anderson, who died three years later in World War I, won the 100 in 10.2, and Charleston’s Joseph Robins, the school’s class president, won the shot put with a throw of 52-10 3/4.
Other winners were Dornick of Huntington, broad jump, 20-3 1/2; Brooks of Buckhannon, discus, 100-2 3/4; O’Toole of Parkersburg, 220, 25.0; Collins of Sistersville, hammer throw, 114-9; Underwood of St. Marys, 880, 2:15.4; Byers of Parkersburg, mile, 5:01.6; Hague of Huntington, high jump, 5-5; Freutal of Huntington, pole vault, 9-9; and CHS relay team, 4:00.
Not long after the state’s first track meet, Gorman saw the need for a bigger and better venue for Charleston High’s football and track teams.
He thus began fund-raising efforts, enlisting the help of wealthy businessmen at a time when the city’s population and economy were on the rise, and raised $65,000 (about $730,000 today).
With the money, they built a 5,000-seat structure a few blocks down Elizabeth Street from Wehrle Park. It opened in 1919 as Laidley Field in honor of George S. Laidley, superintendent of Kanawha County Schools. Gorman declined a suggestion that it be named for him.
Rat Thom, one of Charleston High’s football and basketball players at the time, said Gorman was well qualified to head the project.
“Rocco was an engineer by training, and the creation of a new sports stadium was right down his alley,’’ Thom said in the 1988 publication “Roar Lions Roar,’’ a history of Charleston High School.
Under Gorman’s direction, many of the CHS football players, including Thom, excavated the land in preparation for construction. In 1924, seeing the need for additional seating, Gorman helped design an expansion that increased Laidley’s capacity to 15,000.
Gorman’s contributions extended far beyond athletics. He worked as CHS principal from 1930 to ’33 and earned the nickname Mr. Charleston High. He immersed himself in all sorts of civic projects over the years, including fund-raising and planning for Coonskin Park, and was chairman of the building committee for construction of Watt Powell Park. He even organized a state marbles tournament in 1922.
He helped originate the Gazette Relays in 1934, directed the first North-South football game in 1936 and supervised the YMCA’s $200,000 improvement committee in 1954.
Like all coaches, he liked to reminisce about his former players and events of yesteryear, but he sometimes spoke of the Civil War and did so authoritatively. The Rocco Gorman Collection, consisting of Civil War books, pamphlets, news clippings and maps, is housed in the University of Charleston’s Special Collection Room.
He was a member of the Morris Harvey College board of trustees. The Gorman Physical Education Building is named for him.
He was one of five charter members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Hall of Fame in 1950, and Sports Illustrated in 1999 named him one of West Virginia’s 50 most influential sports figures of the 20th century, ranking him No. 32.
He certainly had Rat Thom’s respect. “He was the finest gentleman I ever knew,’’ he said.
Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.