One of the strangest bands of athletes ever assembled toed the mark in Los Angeles on March 4, 1928, and at the bark of the starter's pistol began jogging for Madison Square Garden, N.Y., 3,422 miles away. The 275 contestants, attired in a quaint assortment of track suits, ranged in age from 16 to 63. There were marathon runners, physical culture faddists and assorted screwballs in the field, all vying for the $48,500 in cash prizes offered by Charles C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, promoter of the transcontinental pant.
Pyle was the P.T. Barnum of sports promotion and looked the part. A sharp dresser, he sported a cane and usually wore a derby and spats. He first came into prominence by persuading Red Grange to turn pro. As Red's manager, Pyle made a fortune, later increased it by promoting a tennis tour starring Suzanne Lenglen and Vincent Richards. Then came his grandiose idea of staging a transcontinental marathon. "It will be the greatest free show ever offered the American public," Pyle enthused. "The runners will go through hundreds of towns, each of which will be assessed for advertising. Thousands will flock to these towns to see the runners. We'll sell them programs and tickets to our traveling side show."
The sideshow included a five-legged pig, a fire-eater, a wrestling bear, a tattoo artist and the mummified cadaver of an Oklahoma outlaw. Pyle led the motor caravan in a $25,000 bus equipped with a portable radio station so that the public could be informed each night where the runners were and how they ranked. Red Grange rode with Pyle. The man scoring the best elapsed time between coasts was to get the $25,000 first-prize money; the rest of the purse would be split among the next nine finishers.
The Bunion Derby struggled on, across California's Mojave Desert, through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and north to Illinois, by which time the field had dwindled to 70. Few people showed interest in the drab and weary hoofers. The sideshow was a flop; the programs didn't sell. One town, however, showed unexpected interest: at Conway, Mo., Pyle's bus was egged by the citizens for the promoter's refusal to make the town a control point. Faced with mounting expenses and meager gate receipts, Pyle could not meet the ferry fee at one river crossing and the troupe had to make a 20-mile detour. He nourished his runners with a couple of sandwiches a day and distributed 35-cent meal tickets. The exhausted band plodded on through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
On May 26 the 55 survivors stumbled into Madison Square Garden, where some 4,000 persons, mostly in on passes, applauded Winner Andrew Payne, a 19-year-old Oklahoma Indian. It had taken him 84 days to cover the distance in the running time of 573 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds—about a 16-hour lead over second-place John Salo of Passaic, N.J.
The prize money was held up for a week, but it was finally handed out by Tex Rickard, fronting for Pyle. So ended one of sport's greatest financial flops—an estimated loss of $150,000 to Promoter Pyle.