Big Ben Strikes Again: Spock in His Own Words

Ben Spock (right) and Al Lindley (left), a Yale crew mate and friend from Andover, pictured at Yale’s Gales Ferry boathouse in 1925.

18 June 2021

By Tim Koch

Since posting my recent piece on Dr Benjamin Spock, the paediatric science pioneer, best-selling author, political activist, 1972 Presidential candidate and 1924 Olympic rowing gold medalist, I have found some nice (if low-resolution) pictures of him and his Yale rowing contemporaries. Further, I have now, rather late, read his autobiography and thus have a firsthand account of Spock’s rowing career.

Spock On Spock: A Memoir Of Growing Up With The Century was published in 1989. The autobiography was co-authored by Dr Spock’s second wife, Mary Morgan, and it was due to her persistence that her initially reluctant husband wrote his memoirs at all. In the introduction, Morgan wrote:

I wanted to be sure that Ben had some say in how history would remember him, and that his courageous political life would not be overshadowed by his more benign paediatric career. This possibility first came to mind several years ago when I visited an elementary school in Arkansas on Martin Luther King Day. I was amazed – and shocked – to hear Dr King portrayed as just a kindly Sunday school teacher. His political life and activities, his outrage at racial injustice, his acts of civil disobedience were being quietly buried.

It is commonly stated that it was James Rockefeller that inspired Spock to try rowing with the line, “Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” However, Spock’s account says that it was Langhorn Gibson, Rockefeller’s predecessor as captain of the crew:

Two Andover classmates, Al Wilson and Al Lindley, both went out for crew in our freshman year at Yale. But for some reason, at that point it never occurred to me to do likewise. I went out again for high-jumping, which is not a glorious sport – and, in fact, can be sort of lonely…

One day, on my way back from the gym where I practiced (high-jumping) that winter, I paused to admire the varsity and junior varsity crews rowing on the machines under the coaching of the Corderry brothers…

The man sitting on the bench behind where I was standing turned, looked me up and down, and asked, “What sport do you go out for?” I was overwhelmed to realise that it was Langhorn Gibson, captain of the crew and son of the illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl”.  He was an imposing figure, with his large head resembling a bust of a Roman senator and his slightly arrogant manner. “High-jumping”, I answered, and I would have added “Sir” if that had been acceptable usage. He said with scorn, “Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?”. I didn’t feel insulted, I was elated – the captain had implied I was possible crew material! I’d known since reading “Stover at Yale” in boyhood that rowing was a noble and glorious sport. I hurried around to the crew office to sign up for spring practice…

Yale Junior Crew, 1923. W. N. Ryerson, Bow; B. B. Pelly, Captain, 2; T. F. D. Haines, 3; L. B. Lambert, 4; J. L. Miller, 5; W. I. Goodwin, 6; B. M. Spock, 7; K. A. Ives, Stroke, and R. N. Barnard, Coxswain.

Yale crews at that time were being trounced by all colleges except Harvard, but that didn’t discourage the flood of candidates. I was assigned to Freshmen M, the thirteenth freshmen crew. I got no coaching there – the freshmen coach was working with the first two or three crews. I knew nothing and I learned nothing…

That summer between freshman and sophomore years, an important change took place. The Yale Graduate Rowing Committee, tired of unsuccessful crews, hired Ed Leader, the assistant head coach from the University of Washington in Seattle, and he brought about a revolution in rowing that autumn. Until that time, most East Coast colleges used the English stroke, which ended up with an exaggerated layback. Then it was with great physical exertion that you hoisted yourself from an almost supine position to a sitting-up and then bending-forward position. Ed Leader and the other coaches in Washington and California were using a very different stroke in which there was practically no layback at all. But height was necessary in order to get length in the stroke – you had to be at least six feet tall.

As is true in all athletics, it was easier for beginners like me to learn Leader’s new stroke than for the experienced oarsmen to unlearn their English style. So all fall and winter there was a filtering down of experienced oarsmen – even from the varsity – who couldn’t adapt, and a filtering up of newcomers. I started the fall on Sophomore D, got some coaching, and applied myself with desperate determination, leapfrogging upward, and made the junior varsity by the time we got to the river in spring.

In its first year under Ed Leader, the varsity won all its races handily – this only one year after being beaten by everyone except Harvard. And even with Leader paying most of his attention to the varsity, the junior varsity beat Harvard. I was ecstatic…

Yale Varsity, 1924. Standing: Edward Leader (Coach), Howard Kingsbury, Benjamin Spock and William Robbins (Manager). Seated: Alfred Lindley, Alfred Wilson, James Rockefeller (Captain), Lester Miller, Frederich Sheffield, Leonard Carpenter. Front: Charles Stoddard, Cox.

Junior year was even more dizzying. In the fall, I made the varsity…And the Yale crew won the 1924 Olympic Trials in Philadelphia – by only a few feet but that was enough…

The trip to the Olympic Games in Paris was a succession of delights. The eight-day voyage in first class on the (RMS) Homeric… was luxurious in every way except that by (coach Ed Leader’s) rules we had to go to bed by ten, were held to a rigid training table diet, and practiced rowing on machines installed on the upper deck… (It) was exciting to row every morning and every afternoon and have other passengers come and watch us – debutantes were within a couple of feet of us…!

Stern four at practice on White Star Line ship, Homeric. Spock the “7” man in the eight is at “3”.

Spock retold the famous story of meeting film star and fellow passenger, Gloria Swanson, and remembered how coach Leader hated having to wear “a goddamned waiter suit” in the first-class dining room. On arrival in France, the damn Yankies considered the Olympic Village spartan and its meals meagre:

The rowing committee, which had two multimillionaires on it…, moved (us) to the handsome old city of Saint Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, where we lived next to a castle… and took our meals at a distinguished restaurant… When Madame, the proprietress, a husky woman with a black moustache, prepared us a surprise lobster dinner to celebrate the Fourth of July, Ed (feared) the threat of shellfish poisoning and cried, “Take them away!” 

There was another faux pas by the visitors. On a trip to a racetrack, the crew wore their summer white flannels and buckskin shoes, blue blazers and boater hats. The other fifty-thousand spectators wore black suits and Homburg hats or morning suits and top hats. “We felt like clowns” remembered the clothes-sensitive Spock.

Paris 1924 was the “Chariots of Fire” Olympics. Spock liked the 1981 movie but noted that the geographically separated rowers “were not in the same athletic circles” as the other competitors.

Spock records almost nothing about the actual training and racing in France save that, “We won by over three boat lengths, a disgraceful margin for a race of 2,000 meters”.

I enjoyed the fruits of my (Olympic) success. Yet I felt secret embarrassment at how grimly I’d worked for them, not for God, for country or for Yale at all, as the song goes, but for release from my self-image as a mother’s boy. The way it happened though, I was able to close the ledger of my undergraduate years quite cheerfully, thanks really to Ed Leader’s new stroke, and to turn my mind to medical school and the outside world.

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