Walter Knox’s Remarkable Life as a Professional in an Amateur World
Walter Knox was a remarkable Orillia athlete 100 years ago, an era when Orillia was known as “the Town of Champions”. In a sports world that demanded athletes remain pure amateurs, competing solely for the love of the sport, he chose another route. Why not be able to make a little money on one’s physical talents? That attitude took Walter into the seedy world of matched racing and the violent world of gamblers associated with it.
David Town has written the first detailed biography of a pre-WWI sports hustler. These professional athletes were secretive and evasive, always using aliases and false back-stories. No one was ever allowed to discover, let alone write about, their true identities. Walter Knox jotted down his experiences half a century later, and those reminiscences became the roadmap for David Town’s biography. All the stories in the book are corroborated by contemporary reporting.
Knox lived a brazen and adventurous life. Hustler and con man, Olympic coach three times, wealthy gold miner, developer of sport in Ontario schools and much, much more. In 1914, at age 36, he won the World All-Around Athletic Championship.
In 1906, Walter Knox was in Corry, Pennsylvania, preparing for a high stakes matched race with a much heralded black runner named Henry Batson.
Walter’s training had hardly started when he was informed a spy was scrutinizing his every move at practice. A local saloonkeeper, whose bar was the hub of the Corry sports scene, had sent a man down to hide under the bleachers to watch Walter’s training sessions, stopwatch in hand, and listen in on the conversations afterward. Walter’s spies found anything that was said at the track was spread around the bar.
Here was an opportunity.
I’ll tell you what to do Walter,” Weston devised, “Give him a sprained ankle to report back to his boss!”
They rehearsed a little after dark, then at the track next morning, after making sure the spy was in his hideout, Walter went into his act. His handlers argued with him against making a speed trial, claiming his training was not far enough advanced. Walter played bull headed and insisted on the timed sprint. Out came the watches, both above and below the stands, and Walter took to his marks. Exploding down the track, he suddenly bowled over as if shot, apparently wracked with pain. Weston and the handlers actually carried Walter off the track to the stands, right above the spy.
"What in the world happened, Walter?” Weston asked.
Walter groaned. “I must have hit a soft spot or a hole.”
Better get him to a doctor as fast as we can,” one of the handlers said.
“Better protect yourselves,” whimpered Walter, “I’ll never be able to get back my speed now. Get some bets down on Batson as a hedge.”
They whisked him off to the hotel, scolding Walter for being so blatant.
When the saloonkeeper himself put down a $300 bet on Batson that afternoon, Walter’s camp knew they had swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. Walter lay low, but when he was seen out of his room he used a cane. His training was now done on a back country road well after dark (where he could have sprained an ankle for real stumbling around in the dark).
Soon after the “accident”, a surprise visitor to his room put Walter on the defensive. It was the Chief of Police. After a little small talk, he came to the point. He had $300 saved as a down payment on a house and was willing to risk it on this race. How bad was Walter’s injury?
Suspecting another spy, Walter put him off, saying he was going to test his sore ankle in a couple of days and would let him know then. The fellow seemed sincere but Walter wasn’t one to be caught unawares.
Here was a nice, thorny issue for a council of war. In the end it was Weston who made the decision. Bring the Chief of Police in on their side; trust he would aid and abet their scheme. If he was on the level, he had a lot to gain and could be a valuable ally after the race. Weston was worried. Just outside Corry proper was Sugar Grove, the Negro encampment where Batson lived. A huge contingent of Batson supporters was sure to be at the race and could get ugly if their subterfuge was discovered. Having the Chief of Police on their side could be important.
Right on the heels of this dilemma came another. Walter had been leery of this whole setup from the start; the situation seemed too good to be true. He had sent a telegram to Tom Keane, his backer during his sojourn in Boston in 1904, inquiring as to Batson’s reputation. Now his reply came back: Batson was no lily-white amateur. He had a history for “pulling fast ones that was almost as black as himself.”14
“Don’t take him as an easy mark and don’t race him unless you are in tip top condition.” he warned. “That’s his game. To make himself look as though he’s easy meat but get him in a race and he’ll show you a pair of flying heels!”
That telegram sobered Walter up.
Soon after, the Chief of Police returned as directed. Walter laid his cards on the table with trepidation, saying he’d never been as fit in his life, then held his breath for the Chief’s response. With a grin, the Chief, in no uncertain terms, made it clear he was no friend of Batson’s camp. Whether due to racial prejudice or past underhanded dealings, it was conceivable to Walter and his camp that the Chief was on the up and up. Satisfied he was going to double his money, the Chief left “pleased and laughing”. The next few days of betting would reveal if he was really on side or not.
It didn’t ease Walter’s nerves any either, when the official stakes holder, William O’Rourke, suddenly asked to be excused, and a hotelman had to take his place. That was always a sign that some underhanded tactics were being used.
Race day, Saturday, September 15th at 5 p.m., finally came and Walter nervously watched the huge crowd assemble. Spectators were charged 25 cents a head admission with half the profit going to rent the Fair Grounds field and the rest to the winner. Batson arrived just as he’d been described, a fine, strong fellow, built like a runner, obviously well educated in technique. Walter knew he was in for a race. What he didn’t know was whether Batson had any shenanigans planned, although Walter suspected he did.
Batson wasn’t an intimidated black man either. After Walter false-started Batson, “the coon”, as Walter referred to him, admonished him, “You needn’t be in such a hurry, white boy.”15 Walter was dead serious now.
At the second start Walter hit his stride perfectly, taking the lead after just 10 yards and never looking back. He won easily by 4 yards with a time of 10 seconds flat.
All his fears of being played for the sucker were put aside by his pure ability and determination. When the race was on and the stakes were high, Walter, as he so often did, let his feet do the talking. Batson was a serious opponent. It looked for all the world like a set up. All Walter could do was out-perform Batson, to not let his machinations, if there were any, matter. In these situations, Walter had a wonderful power of concentration and the ability to focus all his powers on performing. Like a caged tiger, Walter took matters into his own hands when the cage was opened.
That night the Chief of Police visited Walter and offered him some of his winnings. Walter refused but they had a good laugh over the whole event. The Chief could now start building his house.
Walter headed back to Canada with close to $1500 in winnings in his pocket.
Taking a break from the hustling circuit, Walter Knox stopped to spend a few days at the hot springs in Blairmore, Alberta in 1905.
One afternoon, Walter noticed a small crowd forming in front of the hotel and sauntered over to see what was going on. There a big strapping fellow was putting on a heavy weight throwing demonstration.
After watching for a while, Walter sidled over to him and said, “You throw a nice stone. I can throw a weight myself. Maybe you and I could make a match and a few dollars for both of us.”5
He was suggesting a fixed match whereby they’d set up the contest, garner bets from among the crowd heavily weighted towards the agreed upon loser, the brawny local hero, then split the proceeds when Walter beat him. They could net a tidy sum from the betting crowd.
Walter’s offer was met with a good bawling out and an insulting accusation of “Crook!”
Surprised and hot at this dressing down, Walter retired to the bar to cool off.
The affable bartender quickly took Walter’s side, telling him how much he despised the braggart and would do anything to “take” him. “What gets me so sore at him is that he is always looking for marks. He pulls out a big wad of bills and slaps it down on the counter when he thinks he has someone he can overawe and wants to bet the pile that he can throw the stone farther than him or anyone else.” Of course no one who ever took him up on the challenge could beat him; it was calculated braggadocio.
“Listen,” Walter said, seeing his opportunity, “If we can get him into that mood, grab his money quick and say you have a man that will cover it.”
Then they sat down to wait. The braggart came into the bar every day, larger than life and telling the world, but no money was slammed down.
On the third day, after a friendly heaving competition on the lawn with a tourist, he came in waving his wad of cash, declaring, “I can put the stone or the shot farther than anyone and there’s my money to say so!” as he threw a roll of bills on the bar.
The bartender had his hand over the cash almost before it was put down, and Walter immediately stepped up, announcing he would cover the full amount, which turned out to be around $200!
The man remembered Walter and snarled, “You tried to proposition me.”
“Yes,” Walter shot back, “in a joking sort of way. But now this isn’t talk. My money’s up and so is yours.”6
The braggart insisted the match be then and there, so out onto the lawn they marched where a 12 pound shot put was produced. Walter then proceeded to beat him by a full two feet, and pocketed his wad of cash.7
Walter did not use any delay tactics to make time to work the crowd for bets, as he normally would have. This was more about putting the braggart in his place, to avenge his holier-than-thou insulting attitude. Even though Walter, by soliciting a fixed match, earned that type of condescension, he could never understand it. In his mind, everyone should want to make a little cash. It would all be good fun. He was so entrenched in the matched racing world now that he could rationalize any tactic he used to make a little money. To belittle Walter based solely on his casual suggestion was uncalled for. This guy was a blow-hard and asked for it. No more justification was needed. The frown on his face as Walter pocketed his wad of cash was all Walter wanted.
After winning a big shot putting challenge match in Port Arthur, Ontario in 1907, another opportunity arose for Walter Knox.
Then two old “acquaintances” made their appearance. Walter had responded to a challenge in the paper for a matched sprint for up to $1000 a side, with his own public acceptance in the paper. The runner was Alf Cooper, whom Walter had raced here two years earlier on his way out west. In that race, Walter couldn’t drum up any bets so let Cooper win. Cooper was confident of another win now and had good backing in the town, having beaten several good runners in the meantime. Soon the second “old friend” made his presence known. It was Fred Mitchell from Fernie! Walter had double crossed him in a big race in Nelson and outwitted him in the re-match to take his forfeit money in 1904. Mitchell was a dirty-dealer, a fixer of races who would stoop low to come out on top. He was handling Cooper now.
It didn’t take Mitchell long to approach Walter with a deal. He wanted Walter to put up only $200 (instead of the $1000 stake) but agree to lose again. Money could be made from side bets they would share. Walter played for time. He found, through a friend, (he seemed to have one in every town), a wealthy, eccentric Englishman backer who would take all the bets Mitchell wanted to lay on Cooper if Walter could double cross him again. “Let’s teach the bally rotter a lesson!” was his motive, needing only Walter’s word that he could beat Cooper. With that arrangement in his back pocket, Walter found Mitchell and took the deal, passing over $200 to guarantee he wouldn’t double cross him again.
This race caught the town’s attention. Cooper was a real local hero who commanded a lot of faithful support there. Newspaper articles predicted the race would draw the largest crowd ever assembled in the district. The runners gave themselves a week to prepare and get their bets laid. Cooper, confident the fix was in, even had a large trophy made for the winner labeled with his self-proclaimed title of “Champion of Western Canada”. The race was set for a Thursday in late October over 100 yards. Walter, dealing with the difficult and incessant Mitchell, had allowed himself to be talked into giving Cooper a two yard head start, making Cooper even more confident. They were to race down Court Street in Port Arthur, near Pearl Street.
Over 500 spectators gathered in the crisp fall air, lining both sides of the racecourse. The betting was brisk, but “perhaps not as much as the Port Arthur group (Cooper’s people) looked for”, the paper reported. The starter, calling the runners to their marks, kept having to halt the proceedings to push the crowd back off the racecourse. It was four o’clock in the afternoon before he could get everyone organized.
At the sound of the gun, Walter false started and was called back. He was penalized one yard, now positioned three yards behind Cooper. At the second gun, Walter exploded out of the blocks (“Knox is a wonderful starter” the paper noted) and had passed Cooper by the 50 yard mark. Mitchell’s face must have dropped as he realized he was being double crossed again. Walter won by a full three yards. Mitchell got to keep the $200 Walter put up as a forfeit against their fix, but he lost many times that amount in side bets, mostly to Walter’s English backer.
Walter, his friend and the eccentric Englishman met back at the hotel to divvy up their winnings. Strangely, the Englishman gave his share to Walter too.
“Take it, m’lad, and make no bother about it. I have plenty of money, enough to take a flyer if I wanted. What got me into this bally thing, you know, was for the satisfaction of being able to say to my fellow townsmen that they saw a truly run race and that it was my good fortune to be able to keep it straight.”14
Walter met many characters on the frontier, shysters, thugs, enthusiasts, rubes, even honest men, but this was the most interesting turn of events he had ever faced. He took the money, likely clearing over $700, even after losing the forfeit.
In August 1913 Walter Knox was in Scotland, touring the many Highland Games and making some honest money as an athlete. But he wanted more. Getting on in years, he now was determined to leave a legacy, to win a championship. After two years of hounding, Walter finally had a match set up with the Scottish jumping champion, Bryce Scott. They would compete in six jumping events for the title of British champion.
Walter only scheduled two Games between the 4th and the championship on the 16th, Dundee on the 9th and Kincardine on the 15th, allowing himself time to sharpen up the day before the match. He was going to be rested and at his best.
At the meet the day before the jumping championship he had spent two years arranging, Walter badly sprained his ankle landing in the pole vault. He had to travel the 25 miles to Crieff that afternoon to discuss postponing the jumping championship with the officials there. It couldn’t be changed, the officials said; they had heavily advertised it and a very large crowd was already assembling in town for the big event in the morning. “Go through with it for our sake”, they asked Walter. The highland Scots were a tough people; a mere sprained ankle was something to be overcome. So Walter went to Scott and explained his situation. Walter said he’d compete if Scott would agree to meet again later that summer for another championship contest. He did so, and Walter told the officials he would go through with the match in the morning.28
Thirteen thousand people, a record, crowded the field for the Crieff Highland Games in the morning. In addition to the prize money for each event, the organizers posted a hefty (for them) 10 pound prize for the winner of the jumping championship, plus the gold medal worth three pounds. Given how close their previous two encounters had been, the betting in the crowd would have been brisk, “the Canadian” against the Scottish Champion.
Walter made his way painfully out onto the field, hiding his limp. Like all athletes in Scotland, Walter generally competed in bare feet squeezed into thin, low cut leather shoes. But not on this day; a photo of the jumpers clearly shows Walter in socks up to his mid-calf, hiding the swollen, black ankle. Nothing else covered his ankle except the long trench coats the athletes wore to fend off the chill air off the moors. But the crowd was far away, and the papers never mentioned Walter’s injury, only that he “seemed well below form”.29 He was the stoic Scot that day.
Bryce Scott and Walter Knox were both smaller men, Scott an inch taller but Walter about 10 pounds heavier. Scott was a lithe, more wiry athlete, Walter agile but much more powerful, with thicker arms and legs and a much more squat, solid midsection. From a distance, they were easily identifiable by their physiques. Walter, of course, also had that great big red maple leaf on his chest.
As expected, Scott took four of the first six events and tied the fifth. Walter only managed to take the standing long jump. Nursing his sprained ankle, he no-heighted in the high jump and passed on the triple jump. The final event, after the affair had been decided, was the pole vault, and the jumpers put on a thrilling display. Both cleared 11’, the highest mark on the uprights. There was a delay while officials fashioned extensions so the bar could be raised. Scott eventually cleared 11’ 4” but Walter continued over 11’ 7”, just an inch below his Scottish record.30 But it was too little too late; Bryce Scott took the gold medal and the title.
It turned out that Scott, grasping the championship medal, had no intention of letting Walter take it from him. Walter, writing in 1950 at the age of 72, said, “And I am still waiting for another match!” His opinion of Scott, one of his best friends on the tour, was ruined.
“I had considered him one of the finest sportsmen that I had met in all the games I had taken part in during my years of competition, but again you meet some people who cannot stand defeat and don’t consider their word worth very much if it is going to take away some glory that they think they have won. I lost faith in a Scotchman’s word after that, and made up my mind that I wouldn’t be caught by any of the rest of them.”
Attempting to establish his legacy, and after waiting two years for Scott to make this match, Walter was stung by the double cross. The bitterness lasted his whole life.
In the 1930’s Walter Knox was one of the premier track and field coaches in Ontario. He had twice been Canada’s Olympic coach. Athletics had only been open to women for about 10 years then, and Walter had been one of the biggest proponents for the fairer sex to have equal opportunities. He was always on the lookout for talented athletes.
But in 1930, Walter made his biggest sporting discovery in, of all places, his home town of Orillia. That spring, while visiting home, Walter had casually mentioned to a friend, butcher John McInnes, to keep an eye open for “good material”, as he did with friends all across Ontario. One day a customer came into the shop and mentioned a big farm girl who “tossed a grain bag as though it were a powder puff”. After visiting her himself, McInnes called Walter, who promptly made a special trip to the farm seven miles north of town to meet 17 year old Mamie Shrum. The big, strong “milkmaid” told Walter she would “be very glad to participate in sports”.11
Walter had a chance to work with her in six training sessions over six weeks that spring, teaching her how to put the shot. By the end of that time, she was consistently bettering the Ontario Championship throw from the previous year. With that rudimentary instruction, he entered her in the Ontario Championships at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. The favourite at the meet was another of Walter’s star protégé’s, Jean Godson, the Canadian shot put champion. On that Saturday in mid-August, literally from out of nowhere, Mamie put the eight pound shot 34’ 8” to win the title, probably shocking poor Jean Godson. Bobbie Rosenfeld’s Canadian record was only 36’ 3”, not too far off for someone who had only had six practices.
Three days later, Mamie was entered in the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, which doubled as the Canadian Championships. She won again with a toss of 33’ 10”. This “incredibly strong” farm girl went from not knowing what a shot put was to Canadian champion in six weeks. Remarkable.
Mamie’s success was reminiscent of another local Orillia athlete who had done much the same thing 40 years earlier. George Gray, whom Walter had retrieved shot puts for as a youth, had shown up at the Canadian Championships only to be questioned by the officials who called his entry “irregular”. It was the American champion, Flannigan, who pleaded to let the poor boy have a throw. One throw was all he needed to win the event. He went on to be undefeated and world champion for 17 years. Many old time Orillia sports buffs experienced deja vu with Mamie Shrum.12
The big reception for her in Orillia was delayed three weeks (at her request) so Walter could attend. That September day, bunting was strung up and the town band paraded her up onto a stage in the park where her coach and the local dignitaries honoured her with glowing speeches. They presented her with a gold wristwatch and a club bag as a sign of the town’s admiration. Walter’s comment, as reported in the local paper was, “Never in his lifelong experience as an athletic coach had he seen so phenomenal a performance by an athlete so inexperienced… She has the greatest future of any woman athlete in Canada”.13 This shy, bulky girl must have been overwhelmed by the attention.
Mamie, in her few comments, declared her intention to take up the discus and javelin, under Walter’s tutelage, for the next summer’s season.
She didn’t re-appear again until the summer of 1932 as a 183 pound, muscular 19 year old. In the time in between her appearances, Walter became her “ex-coach” and then her “coach” again.14 No explanation was given in the papers.
At the first meet on May 24th, she broke the Canadian record by eight inches with a throw of 36’ 11”. Then, at the Ontario Championships in Hamilton, Mamie heaved the shot an astounding 39’ 9”, bettering Rosenfeld’s old Canadian record by over three feet. However, with his experience, Walter knew the shot had to be accurately weighed to validate the record. It turned out the ball was five ounces light and the record was nullified. She would just have to do it again at the next meet.
The next meet was the 1932 Olympic Trials in Hamilton. Mamie, in her “cool, methodical” way, rose to the challenge, winning the shot put with a mark of 37’ 3”. She followed that up with an unexpected win in the discus, an event she had tried for the first time in competition only that spring.
To everyone’s surprise, Mamie Shrum, the “phenomenal talent”, was not selected for the Olympic Team. There was no women’s shot put event at the Los Angeles Olympics and the officials felt her 103’ discus throw was too far off the Olympic qualifying standard of 120 feet to include her. Walter put in a forceful appeal on her behalf, arguing she had put up a mark “near” this standard but had stepped a few inches over the line, fouling the throw. Walter assured them she could beat the 120’ mark. The officials disagreed and left her home.
The next summer, Mamie married a man from the neighbouring farm, ending her athletic career (though she did appear at the 1934 Ontario Championships to win the shot put). Upon her announced retirement at the grand old age of 20, the newspaper reporter remarked, “She never did appear overly interested”.15