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A person coming into Madison Square Garden for his first look at the Millrose Games might easily conclude he had stumbled on an athletic riot.
The scene at opening night of the Garden's winter track season hasn't changed much in the 41 years the Millrose has been on its program. The floor, a cramped-up area not much larger than the deck space of a World War II LST, which it resembles when fully populated, annually is a confusion of athletes, officials and equipment.
Along the side in a specially constructed stand, a band tunes up. Occasionally shrill whistles cut the smoke-clogged air. In the center hurdlers and high jumpers kick their legs high to stretch their muscles and pole vaulters skim down runways for trial runs through the deep piles of wood shavings that later on will serve to cushion their falls. Circling the entire scene is a slim, board track that gives every appearance of having been stuffed into the arena like a coffee ring in an undersized cake box. Skinny-legged school boys, a small army of swift-looking college boys and a handful of confident world champions have been jogging around the track off and on for over an hour warming up for races that might not come off until late in the evening.
In the midst of all this are the officials, the ubiquitous gentlemen who bustle about in dinner jackets, aimlessly, if genially, getting into the way of the performers and generally adding to the total effect of bedlam. The impression is misleading though. Almost unnoticed, the floor suddenly becomes clear, the first boys are up and the Millrose Games are on.
Now in its 48th year, the Millrose is one of the biggest indoor track meets in the country and easily one of the most popular. Consistently high standards of performance and two outstanding races—the Wanamaker Mile and the Mel Sheppard 600—have brought to it a success that is all the more remarkable because it was achieved in a field that is notably fickle where anything but the best is concerned. This year, as in many years in the past, the Games will be a sellout. A crowd of 15,000 will watch approximately 400 athletes compete in 28 events.
The person most responsible for the smoothness of this complex operation is a gentleman by the name of Fred Schmertz, who, admittedly, is the most unlikely prospect to run a track meet that he ever came across. In the last hectic minutes before the lead-off race—most often a mile relay involving New York City high school kids—Schmertz can be seen wandering wearily through the tumult, talking quietly with fellow committee members whom he credits with being the real reason for the Games' success, and looking neither like an impresario nor an athlete.
THE WRONG MAN
Schmertz was never an athlete and there are no athletes in his family. He is a decorous 66-year-old lawyer, eagle beaked, blue eyed and balding and 160 pounds. He lives in the Bronx. He is married. A son, Howard, is a lawyer; a daughter, Justine, is a Phi Beta Kappa. For years he has been attorney for New York's John Wanamaker stores. All fairly normal, except for one thing: few men know more about human foot racing and its allied exertions than Schmertz does, and none can approach his perennial enthusiasm or his competence as a promoter of the sport.
This is said in all due deference to Schmertz's confreres who will manage the four other New York meets to follow. Schmertz and the Millrose have been carrying on a public love affair for the past 32 years and in the opinion of many, the two are the best. Recently he was ordered by his doctor to slow down. He did—for about a week. Lately his son has been helping him.
Schmertz drifted into the job by accident. In 1908 he and other John Wanamaker employees formed the Wahna Athletic Association for pleasure and exercise. Eventually it became the Millrose AA, taking its name from Rodman Wanamaker's summer home, and games were held just about anyplace the space could be found. In 1914 the games timidly ventured into the old Madison Square Garden, a mile or so southeast of the present location, and became an immediate success. With older men dropping out and his own interest growing with the years, Schmertz became a committee member in 1923 and finally director in 1933.