When the honor roll of Baltimore's champions is called, you hear names like Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Well, here's one hero you may have missed: G. Howell Parr, who performed the longest documented human roll in history, in May 1914.
This historic sporting event took place because of a comment Parr had made to friends three months earlier at Baltimore's exclusive Maryland Club. When one gentleman excused himself, saying he had to catch a train, Parr remarked, "Why, I could roll to Union Station in that much time." Thus the gauntlet was thrown down.
Parr, scion of a wealthy Baltimore family with interests in grain and pedigree livestock, was 34 and feeling pretty peppy. Also, he was known to enjoy a sporting wager. The year before he had boasted to friends that no woman could defeat him at tennis. His challenge was taken up by Suzanne White, a 19-year-old Baltimore clubwoman who was at that time the Maryland state champion. Parr lost 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 in a match that drew a lot of public interest.
Now Parr's friends thought they could catch him in another idle boast. They scoffed at him and before the evening was done the bets were down. Parr accepted a challenge to roll from the steps of the Elkridge Kennels clubhouse to University Parkway as a test of endurance, not of speed. The three-mile course went along Charles Street, one of the finer boulevards south of the Mason-Dixon line.
It was agreed that Parr could take as much time as he needed, as long as he completed his roll by June 1. Once he started, however, he could not stand up until he crossed the finish line.
Parr displayed the reserve expected of professional clubmen when he told a journalist, "Print the announcement that Mr. Parr will roll for his own personal gratification, but he will not give the newspapers the time of his starting. If someone discovers him rolling and gives out the news, then it will not be his fault."
Parr was particularly concerned that his mother, Mrs. Harry A. Parr Sr., not know when he planned to attempt his roll. He feared she would rush out to the course to dissuade him. Rumors circulated that hundreds of dollars were being wagered on the event and that Parr had bet at least $750 himself. Before long, Baltimore newspaper readers knew that a lot more than patrician honor was riding on Parr's roll.
Pressure was building. In March, Parr went to Philadelphia to think the matter over. Professor J.C. Doyle of the Doyle Athletic Club told reporters he doubted any man could make a three-mile roll unless he had the proper training. When Parr returned, he publicly recommitted himself to undertaking the roll and began workouts with his brother Ral.
Training at the Baltimore Athletic Club, Parr increased his rolling distance almost every day. Sometimes he would roll an extra 300 or 400 yards at the Elkridge Kennels. As James Roche, the Elkridge club's golf pro, later recalled, Parr was better prepared than his friends realized. He would pick times when there weren't too many people around, which was a good thing.
Early on, Ral Parr had decided that his brother should abandon the traditional style of rolling. "We figured it out that if I lay down and rolled with my face close to the ground I would get my lungs full of dust and germs and things," Parr said.