Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

May 14, 2003:
The late, great Palmer Stadium

In its heyday, 18,000 would throng to track invitational

The late Palmer Stadium was remembered chiefly for football, for the national champion teams to which it was home, for the throngs of raccoon-coat clad spectators that filled its stands. But it had another reputation for glory too: that of a fast track, one of the fastest in the world. In the early 1930s, in fact, when the four-minute-mile was still being pursued like a hare by a pack of greyhounds, Palmer Stadium was the site of eight of 13 outdoor miles of 4:09 or faster.

Two of those races were run in July of 1933, when Oxford's Jack Lovelock and Princeton's legendary Bill Bonthron '34 both broke the then world record of 4:09.2, Lovelock slightly ahead of his American rival.

The excitement generated by that race led to the creation of the Princeton "Invitation Meet" the following year. According to an article by Bob Wohlforth '47 in the May 26, 1961 issue of PAW, proposing a revival of the competition, Asa Bushnell '21 founded the Invitation Meet to raise funds for an Oxford-Cambridge/Princeton-Cornell track meet and to provide a stage for the great mile races of the day. Run on the Saturday afternoon of Reunions, the first meet in 1934 drew 18,000 fans to watch Bonthron, Glenn Cunningham of Kansas, and Gene Venzke from Penn pound it out, with Cunningham setting another world record at 4:06.7. A second world record was set in the half-mile that year.

That fast start for the meet guaranteed its success. Lovelock returned the following year, and though Wohlforth does not say whether any new records were set, the meet did pull in more than $18,000 in pure profits — a number so impressive that the organizers were charged with commercialism and dropped the admission price from $1.10 to .15 in 1936. The "free" event served as an Eastern regional trial for the 1936 Olympics, and despite rain, attracted huge crowds to see the milers, two-milers, and high-jumpers.

The fervor over the four-minute-mile mark and the presence of Olympic athletes and qualifiers propelled the success of the meet through 1940. But that year, with the threat of war and a weaker field, the Invitation lost nearly $2,000. World War II sealed its fate, and the meet faded away.

By 1961 Bushnell was commissioner of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association, and along with Stan Medina '37, a one-time participant, tried to revive interest in the meet at Princeton. "There is scarcely a week that passes without people asking me why the Princeton Invitation meet isn't held anymore. I'd like a plausible answer for those people," Bushnell told Wohlforth, who himself had attended many of the meets as a boy growing up in Princeton. But athletic director Ken Fairman '34 and President Goheen poured cool water on their hopes. Explained Fairman: "We would have to look outside the United States for a miler or two and we would have to import a Russian to make the high jump appealing enough to gain press support, which would be vital. ...A resumption of the Invitation Meet doesn't get by financial scrutiny, in my book."

Like the cheering crowds of football fans, the image of the world's great runners tearing around Palmer Stadium's track would remain a memory.


Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu