Daniel James Brown’s remarkable book, “The Boys in the Boat,” recounts the most compelling victory by any team in Washington state sports history.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
This is going to sound like blasphemy, especially after the Seahawks strutted off with an ESPY award last week for Best Team in America for 2013. But the most compelling victory by a team in state history was not Seattle’s 43-8 clobbering of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, or the SuperSonics’ triumph over the Washington Bullets in 1979 for the city’s only NBA Championship.
Thrilling as were those wins (more than a million people combined to salute the teams in massive civic parades 35 years apart), they pale in comparison to the triumph by the University of Washington’s eight-oared crew 78 years ago, on Aug. 14, 1936, at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Before you demand that men with butterfly nets hunt us down, read “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown (Viking).
This book – no, this sporting treasure – perched atop The New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks and The Los Angeles Times bestseller list for many more. “The Boys in the Boat” is not only the best book ever written about any Washington-based athletic team, it’s a story so riveting and inspiring that it ought to be a movie. In fact, a screenplay, according to danieljamesbrown.com, is in the works for what one reviewer described as “Chariots of Fire with oars.”
“The Boys in the Boat” is better than “Chariots of Fire.” It even trumps a similar period piece and a personal favorite, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.” Don’t wait for the movie. Just as the film adaptation of “Seabiscuit” couldn’t do justice to Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable 2001 New York Times bestseller, no movie will adequately transfer Brown’s wonderful epic to the screen. It is simply too rife with history, personality, pathos and heart tugs.
“The Boys in the Boat” is the saga of nine young men, most of them dirt-poor sons of loggers, shipyard workers, fishermen and farmers, who emerge from the abyss of the Great Depression and embark upon an unlikely journey that crescendos with a six-minute goose-bump ride to a gold medal. Although gold is snatched brilliantly from under the disapproving nose of Adolph Hitler, the back-story is the true joy. Brown has turned it into a wrist-spraining page turner worthy of a suspense thriller.
Brown succeeds on so many levels. The heart of the narrative lies with Joe Rantz, a 6-foot-3 strapper from Sequim who comes to occupy the No. 7 seat in the gold-medal boat. Rantz’s trek to earn that position involves enough personal pain to strike down a regatta’s worth of oarsmen.
Rantz enrolled at the University of Washington in 1934 to escape crushing poverty and the rejection of a family that largely abandoned him when he was 10. Rantz figured his only chance of making it through school, his one chance to avoid a lifetime of economic hardship and social irrelevance, depended entirely on securing a seat in the 1934 freshman boat.
Rantz knew nothing about rowing; virtually none of the boys who rowed into history did. But under the guidance of freshman coach Tom Bolles and, later, varsity coach Al Ulbrickson, the boys painstakingly began to grasp the myriad complexities, physical, technical and psychological, of the sport. Brown offers a strong case that no athletic endeavor is tougher.
“There were a thousand and one small things that had to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar shell, carrying three-quarters of a ton of human flesh and bone, through the water with any semblance of speed and grace . . . When you row, all the major muscles in your arms, legs and back — particularly the quadriceps, triceps, biceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, abdominals, hamstrings and gluteal muscles — do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind.
“At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands and even feet continually fine-tune your effort, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel on an even keel . . . Your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost every other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a 2,000-meter race — the Olympic standard — takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.”
As Brown takes us through the boys’ hellish training sessions on Lake Washington and the battles each faced with the dire economics of the Depression, we become personally acquainted with what Syracuse head coach Jim Ten Eyck, a winner of 10 national championships, would one day call “the greatest eight I ever saw and I never expect to see another like it.”
In addition to Rantz (7), the eight were Roger Morris (bow), Charles Day (2), Gordon Adam (3), Johnny White (4), Jim “Stub” McMillin (5), George “Shorty” Hunt (6), Don Hume (8) and Bobby Moch (coxswain). Together, they formed a bond that created an historic Olympic moment — Grantland Rice wrote that it (and not Jesse Owens) was the “high spot” of the Games — and a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
The hardscrabble Rantz traveled the toughest road. To survive after his family tossed him away, he foraged the woods for berries and mushrooms and fished the Dungeness for steelhead and salmon. Rantz toiled at backbreaking jobs – he dug tunnels and ditches, uprooted stumps, asphalted roads, mopped floors – and even spent one summer as part of the construction gang that built Grand Coulee Dam, all to pay for his UW education.
Rantz’s life is a book by itself, but Brown has woven in others that could also become books – even movies. The history of the Washington rowing program and its arch rivalry with the University of California, at least through the 1936 Olympic Games, is one. Al Ulbrickson is another.
A graduate of Franklin High who rowed from his home on Mercer Island every day to attend school, Ulbrickson began his varsity career at Washington as a stroke under Rusty Callow, two head coaches removed from Hiram Conibear, long ordained as the “Father of Washington rowing.” Ulbrickson stroked UW’s 1926 eight-oared shell to victory at the IRA regatta — the national championship of collegiate rowing — at Poughkeepsie, NY., and in 1928 succeeded Callow as head coach.
Rarely lumped in the same company with UW’s greatest coaches, Ulbrickson might have been the best of the lot, coming off as he does as sort of a Don James with a megaphone instead of a practice tower, and a taciturn personality to match. Shells under Ulbrickson’s command won a combined 28 varsity, junior varsity and freshman national titles, four times “sweeping the river” at the IRA regatta. His rowers also won two Olympic golds and a bronze and defeated Cal 20 times in head-to-head races.
Brown makes extensive use of Ulbrickson’s log book, as well many as other sources, to show how Ulbrickson selected his oarsmen, how he prepared them through exhaustive drills in all conditions, how he strategized and how he manipulated the press by raising or lowering expectations for his crews — in sum, how Ulbrickson became and remained so successful for so long.
Brown dwells at length on Ulbrickson’s rivalry with Ky Ebright, head coach at California. A Broadway High (Capitol Hill) graduate, Ebright served as one of Callow’s coxswains and wanted to succeed Callow after the red head departed to coach the University of Pennsylvania.
Instead, UW hired Ulbrickson, seemingly sending Ebright into a career-long vendetta against his alma mater. In a crack bit of research, Brown uncovered an exchange of letters between Ebright and master boat builder George Pocock, who had sold Cal some of his racing shells.
Without a shred of evidence, Ebright convinced himself that the boats Pocock shipped to Cal were inferior to those he crafted for Washington. Ebright threatened Pocock that he would take his business elsewhere but never did, acutely aware of Pocock’s singular genius.
Ebright also nurtured a jealous streak over the fact that Pocock’s presence around the UW rowing program provided the Huskies with a competitive edge no other crew program in America had. That much was true, but Pocock had also been responsible for Ebright’s hiring by California.
As the Depression raged, Cal found itself for financial reasons on the verge of abandoning its rowing program. That especially worried Pocock, who reasoned that if the Cal program went under, Washington would lose its No. 1 rival, thereby placing the UW program in jeopardy. But after Cal hired Ebright, his eights responded with gold medals at the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games (Ebright won again in 1948), setting up the pitched battles Ebright’s eight had with Ulbrickson’s to determine the U.S. representative in Berlin.
As Brown points out, intercollegiate rowing was a far more popular spectator sport in the mid-1930s than now. All of the major newspapers covered the premier races with the same interest they accord to college and professional football today. And the most important of the races received prominent treatment in the newsreels, the short documentaries regularly released in public viewing places.
It was not uncommon for thousands upon thousands of fans to turn out for the Washington-Cal showdowns on Lake Washington or the Oakland Estuary, as did more than 100,000 in Seattle April 18, 1935 for the Pacific Coast Regatta. Brown described what the multitudes witnessed:
“As they (UW) flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation. With every perfectly executed stroke, the expanse between them and the now exhausted Cal boys widened.
“In airplanes circling overhead, press photographers struggled to keep both boats in the frame of a single shot. Hundreds of boat whistles shrieked. The locomotive on the observation train wailed. Students on the Chippewa screamed. And a long, sustained roar went from tens of thousands standing along Sheridan Beach as the Husky Clipper crossed the line three lengths ahead of the California Clipper.”
Pocock created both “clippers” in the loft above the old airplane hangar that served then as the Washington shell house. During his residency, no man did his job — no man since ever did his job — as well as George Yeoman Pocock did his.
Pocock is as much a star of “The Boys in the Boat” as the boys. Born in Eton, England, where he learned to race and design shells at the hand of his father, Pocock is the inspirational and practical genius at the root of Washington’s century-long rowing success.
Conibear hired Pocock, who migrated from Eton to Vancouver, B.C., not long after Conibear became rowing coach in 1907. A former Chicago White Sox trainer, Conibear understood little about the sport. But he grasped that Pocock built the best racing shells in the world and possessed unsurpassed technical expertise when it came to the physics of the sport.
Conibear is credited with developing the revolutionary style of stroke that made Washington crews successful and famous, but it was Pocock who taught that stroke to Conibear, and it was Pocock who instructed Callow and Ulbrickson after Conibear fell out of a plum tree and broke his neck.
An incredible man, George Pocock. He came to know and cherish Northwest wood, what it was capable of, what he could do with it, and he passionately built his racing shells not only for Washington but, ultimately, for most of the rowing programs in America and some around the world.
At the 1936 IRA nationals at Poughkeepsie and the Olympic trials at Princeton University, a majority of boats in the races were Pocock’s. In 1948, 15 of the 16 international boats in the Olympic Games in London had been built by Pocock in his lakeside loft on the UW campus.
“Generations of American oarsmen and coaches continued to buy and row in Pocock shells and also to seek him out and learn from him whenever and wherever he talked rowing,” Brown wrote. “Through it all, Pocock’s overriding passion remained the simple pleasure of shaping cedar, crafting his exquisite and delicate shells. One of his greatest personal triumphs came on the day when an order arrived in his shop for a western red cedar shell to be delivered to Oxford University for use in the upcoming Boat Race against Cambridge.”
No mere boat builder, it was Pocock, not Ulbrickson, who helped Joe Rantz conquer the personal demons that stalked him since childhood, significant because Rantz, in the No. 7 seat, was the last boy selected for the boat and the final missing piece that elevated the 1936 Washington eight-oared crew to a still-exalted place in American rowing.
It almost didn’t happen. After the Huskies won at Poughkeepsie and Princeton to earn the right to race in Berlin, the U.S. Olympic Committee informed a stunned Ulbrickson that Washington needed to come up with $5,000 to pay its way to Berlin. The committee had no money to offer, as Ulbrickson thought it did, and figured — correctly — that the Huskies had no money, either.
Henry Penn Burke, chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee and a University of Pennsylvania graduate, offered to send his Quakers to Berlin in place of the Huskies, but an outraged Ulbrickson, who had exhausted all available funds to finance his team’s trips to Poughkeepsie and Princeton, simply wouldn’t have it. Neither would Royal Brougham nor George Varnell, sports editors and columnists at The Seattle Post Intelligencer and Seattle Times, respectively.
They whipped up a fund-raising frenzy. American Legion posts and Chambers of Commerce throughout Washington chipped in. Ordinary fans offered precious nickels and dimes. Sponsors came aboard. Within three days, Ulbrickson had the $5,000. As Gordon Adam, who rowed in the No. 3 seat, recalled in an interview many years later, “People in the city felt that they were stockholders in the operation.”
When the Huskies arrived in Berlin, they were confronted with the greatest stagecraft in Olympic history. Brown documents how Hitler and his minions organized the Games with the express purpose of hiding the brutality of the Nazi regime while creating an alternative reality intended to showcase the superiority of Germany and its athletes. American track and field star Jesse Owens helped sabotage the effort by winning four gold medals and, although less hyped then and through the years, the Huskies more than did their part – despite obvious chicanery by rowing officials.
Based on qualifying times, Washington should have drawn a favored lane – one, two or three – but the German Olympic Committee broke all precedent and slotted the Huskies in lane No. 6, the part of the course least protected from wind and waves. It effectively meant that Washington would start the gold-medal race two lengths behind.
“It (the lane assignments) handicapped the most talented and fastest boats, and gave every advantage to the slower boats,” Brown wrote. “It gave the protected lanes to the host country (Germany) and her closest allies (Italy and Switzerland), the worst lanes to her prospective (war) enemies (Great Britain, United States). It was deeply suspicious . . . “
Ultimately, of course, it didn’t matter, and Brown takes us through Aug. 14 with such skill that it’s almost as if we had a press credential and unfettered access to the day’s events.
“In Seattle it was early morning. For days, department stores, electrical appliance stores, the Sherman Clay piano store, even the jewelry store Weisfield & Goldberg, had been doing a land-office business selling new Philco 61F Olympic Special radio cabinets. Despite the $49.95 price tag, Seattleites had been snatching them up. Each came with a shortwave tuner and a special ‘high-efficiency’ aerial kit to ensure clear reception of both the standard radio broadcast on NBC and shortwave broadcasts in a variety of languages direct from Berlin. . . .
“All over America millions of people — people who had hardly heard of Seattle before the Poughkeepsie Regatta, people who had to go to work later that Friday morning, if they were lucky enough to have a job, people who had to tend to the farm chores, if they were still lucky enough to still have a farm — were starting to fiddle with the dials on their radios. The Jesse Owens story had already galvanized much of the nation, driving home what exactly was at stake in these Olympic Games. Now America waited to see if the rough-and-tumble western boys from Washington State would write another chapter in the story.”
Brown describes the gold medal race in such a way that you feel like you’ve got an oar in your hand and are pulling in perfect sync, and for all your life, right along with Joe Rantz as coxswain Bobby Moch, making full use of his “three pounds of brain,” barks orders, stroke Don Hume nearly passes out from walking pneumonia, and Hitler, Hermann Goring at his side, watches from a reviewing stand.
The gold-medal race occupies several riveting pages, after which Brown re-created the scene back home as people celebrated Washington’s six-tenths of a second victory over the fast-closing Italian boat.
“All over Seattle — in cozy restaurants downtown, in smoky neighborhood bars in Wallingford, in clattering coffee shops out in Ballard, in grocery store lines from Everett to Tacoma — people just couldn’t stop talking about it. For the next few weeks, crowds packed into movie theaters to witness for themselves, on newsreels, what their boys had done in Berlin.”
The obvious question — how did Daniel James Brown recreate this stunning slice of history? — is answered in part in the research notes printed in the back of the book and also published (a more extensive version) on his website.
He interviewed “the boys” still alive at the time he began the project, including Rantz, by then dying of congestive heart failure. Fortunately, several of the boys had kept personal journals. Brown consulted those, interviewed family members, poured through scrapbooks, consulted texts, documents, magazines and newspapers, watched newsreels, and made use of photographs. If his “endnotes” could be converted into confetti, there would be enough to bury all the Twelves who attended the Seahawks’ Super Bowl parade.
During her time as coxswain for the University of Washington women’s eight (1999-02), Mary Whipple, later to lead the USA to Olympic golds in Beijing (2008) and London (2012), often gazed into the rafters of the Conibear Shell House at Pocock’s Husky Clipper, where it hangs today.
“For years I’ve stared and wondered about the old wooden boat resting on the top rack of the UW boathouse,” Whipple wrote. “I knew the names of the boys that rowed it but never really knew who they were. After reading the book, I felt like I got to relive their journey and witness what it was truly like earning a seat in that Pocock shell. The passion and determination showed by Joe and the rest of the boys in the boat is what every rower aspires to. I will never look at that wooden boat the same again.”
Brown has recreated and preserved for generations one of the most inspiring sports stories in American history. Take nothing away from the 2013 Seahawks, 1979 Sonics or any future champion. But the 1936 gold medal won by “The Boys in the Boat” will always shine brightest.
Daniel James Brown has two appearances in the Seattle area this month — at the Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch (5614 22nd Ave. NW), July 26 at 2 p.m., and at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE in Lake Forest Park), July 28 at 7 p.m.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or firstname.lastname@example.org