Review of The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh

Review of The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh

Anderson, Sheldon. The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. 227. Notes, bibliography, and index. $38.00 USD hardback.

Reviewed by Robert Pruter

On December 4, 1980, in a Polish-American neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, a 69 year old Polish immigrant woman–leaving a shop and returning to her car with red and white ribbons to present to the Polish National Women’s Basketball Team that was coming to Cleveland for a visit–was murdered. It appeared two young men had tried to rob her and, when she tried to slap their gun away, shot her. She was rushed to the hospital still alive, but she had lost too much blood and died on the operating table. She was buried days later after an autopsy.

This unfortunate woman was the once-famous track athlete and Olympic champion, Stella Walsh (born Stanislawa Margaret Walasiewiczówna , April 3, 1911 in Poland). Her death made the newspapers around the nation, with sizable obits. So did the results of her initial autopsy, which found, as reported in the first graphs nationwide, “she had male sex organs and no female organs.” That, along with a sentence that included the insinuation, “that she might have been a man masquerading as a woman,” had the effect of distorting the legacy of the great Stella Walsh.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

I detail this evidence, which I found in my local Chicago Tribune rather than this excellent biography by international diplomacy historian Sheldon Anderson, to help me understand why in January 1981 I came away with the erroneous idea that Walsh was born as essentially a man. While the Chicago Tribune report on the autopsy said it was incomplete and needed chromosome tests, there were no further reports in the paper that gave information on the complete autopsy and chromosome tests. I only read about the results of the later tests in Anderson’s book. According to Anderson, much of the country and the public shared my understanding, including a highly respected sport historian, Allen Guttmann, my NASSH colleague, whom Anderson correctly quotes him as saying “Stella Walsh was a man” in his 1991 Women’s Sports: A History (although Anderson’s citation gets the book title wrong and page number wrong). As a result of the incomplete and crudely rendered reports on Walsh’s autopsy in January 1981—that I and much of the public took in—the great Hall of Fame runner’s legacy seemed stained, with many considering her a dishonest fraud.

But there was a subsequent report around mid-February 1981 by the coroner Samuel Gerber. As Anderson explains in his illuminating book, Gerber determined that Walsh’s genetic make-up was both male and female. He theorized that she developed more prominent male sex organs at puberty, and was “probably traumatized by it.” Two months later, Gerber said she had a “rare malady” called mosaicism (non-medically called “intersex”), as her body contained both female and male chromosomes. Gerber said, “In her case, Miss Walsh did have male sex organs. That alone does not make her a man. All you can say is that her sex chromosomes were male dominant.” Gerber stressed that Walsh’s birth certificate listed her as female, she was given a female name, and raised a female, and remained a female all her life.3 Because the Chicago Tribune, and I suppose other newspapers across country, never published any subsequent reports from Cleveland that would amend and add to the initial January 1981 report, I and many readers of the news remained misinformed about Stella Walsh and her gender. This is why contemporary newspaper accounts are sometimes called the “first draft” of history. Thankfully, Anderson’s much-needed biography of Stella Walsh is a subsequent draft.

Stella Walsh was one of the greats of women’s track and field, and the author credibly asserts that ‘[f]or a quarter-century , she was the best all-around female athlete in the world.” She earned two Olympic medals in the 100 meters, gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Game and silver in the 1936 Berlin Games, both by competing for Poland. Walsh had wanted to compete for the United States, but she lost the day job that would have paid for her travel to the Olympics. She thus accepted an offer of support from Poland, which paid for her trip and allowed her to earn a degree in her native country. From 1930 to 1954, she won 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national titles and set 20 world records in a range of events, from sprints to the discus throw to penthalon. Her last national title was in the penthalon, which was her fifth straight. As a representative of the Cleveland Polish community’s Falcon club, Walsh broke won a number of world championships, broke many records, and ran running in meets in the United States, Poland, and around the world.

Anderson mentions the number of other sports Walsh competed in at a high level, including basketball, volleyball, and softball, well into her sixties. Walsh even had her own basketball team for a time. The author, however, never explored any of her other sports activities in any depth. I realize that getting this other information may be a bit challenging—having done biographies on a number of early female track stars where information on their other activities was lacking—so I am not sure if the author may have attempted to fill in his narrative with Walsh’s other sports activities but discovered little evidence. Anderson did make a smart decision not to open the book with the dramatic autopsy reports, but rather to tell the story of Walsh’s career, presenting her in her time, as people of her day perceived her, without conveying to the reader any knowledge of the autopsy reports that followed her death. Those perceptions were that she was a female athlete, on the mannish side, and, among her friends and relatives, a knowledge that she was born with a sexual abnormality. Thus, the reader understanding of Walsh’s story and significance is not colored by her post-death controversy.

Anderson has done considerable research in contemporary newspapers. He also has a valuable advantage over other sports historians in researching Walsh. Able to read Polish, he could review and include information from the Polish press, both from Poland and the Cleveland Polish community. Still, in absence of a lot of the nitty gritty of Walsh’s career, he fills in the text with contextual byways, some necessary but too many not so much. The author expends in too many places with needlessly extensive contextualization, notably his three pages on Leon Czolgosz, the second-generation Pole who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, justifying his expansive number of words with the claim that his act deepened prejudice against Polish Americans. Other unjustifiably long contextual byways include several paragraphs on Marie Curie, “the most famous Polish woman of her time,” and a page and a half on silent film star Pola Negri, a Polish immigrant to America. However, the virtue of having a Polish history expert writing a Walsh biography is evident in his inherent understanding of the importance of Helena Konopack, and he rightfully gave her generous ink. She was “Poland’s first great female athlete,” having won the gold medal in the discus in the 1928 Olympic Games (the first to hold women track and field events).

To his credit, Anderson includes a lengthy, useful, and pertinent examination of the Olympic Movement, considering many of its leaders’ opposition to the participation of women. Also valuable is his discussion of Alice Milliat’s Fédératión Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI), which held counter “Olympics” for women—the Women Olympic Games in 1922 and 1926 and the Women’s World Games in 1930 and 1934. The purpose of these games was to provide women a forum for Olympic-style competition and encourage the Olympic Movement to increase women’s track and field events in the Olympic Games, as well as bring more women athletes into the Games. Walsh competed spectacularly in the 1930 and 1934 Games.

Nonetheless, there are a few places I wished that the author had offered further, pertinent context, particularly for his brief paragraph on Walsh’s earliest track and field competition in Cleveland. He gives one sentence to Walsh’s first meet race, a 50-yard dash for South High School in the fall of 1926. This is stunning information. In my years-long research on The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880-1930 (2013), I found most everywhere in the country only minimal sponsorship of inter-school competition track and field by high schools during the 1920s. Notable exceptions among large cities were Philadelphia and Chicago, where girls competed illegally. It would have been helpful to understand how special it was for Walsh to compete in a high school meet competition, giving her an advantage in her development as an elite track and field star. Furthermore, a 2016 article by Suzanne Raga, states, “At her Cleveland high school in the 1920s, Stella matured into an athletic superstar. She played on numerous sports teams—including the boys’ baseball team—and amassed an impressive collection of ribbons, trophies, and medals from track meets.” This one sentence indicates that there was discoverable, usable material on Walsh’s high school years, calling into greater question Anderson’s anemic one sentence for her secondary school career coverage.4

Likewise under-explored by Anderson was Walsh’s “first big track and field meet,” a Junior Olympics event in 1927 that was sponsored by the Cleveland Post and advertised as “seeking Olympic Athletes.” Walsh proved her worthiness as a future Olympian by winning the 50- and 70-yard, and taking second in the standing broad jump and baseball throw. With regard to the mentions of “standing broad jump” and “baseball throw,” it would be useful to explain that these were common events, as many readers might not be so informed. While that is a quibble, it should be made clear to readers that major city newspapers in the 1920s sponsored huge athletic contests, including track and field meets involving girls and women, as part of their circulation wars. In fact, the Junior Olympics, with its inclusion of many women events, could have been inspired by Milliet’s Women Olympic meets. In Chicago, the awkwardly named Women’s “Chicago Olympic” Track and Field Meet, which the Chicago Daily News sponsored from 1922 to 1928, was directly inspired by Milliet, patterning its 1922 meet exactly after her Paris meet. The AAU likewise was influenced by the Milliet 1922 meet, opening its national track and field competition in 1923 to women (although its longtime anti-women leader conveniently dying also helped). I suspect Cleveland’s Junior Olympics may have run for several years, and Anderson, who has gone through the Cleveland Press microfilm, should have discussed in greater detail how this meet came to be and how many years it was held. Contextualizing the Junior Olympics within the broader developments in girls’ and women’s track and field also would have added to the reader’s understanding of Walsh’s budding track career in Cleveland.

Finally, I must question the fundamental premise of the book’s title, The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh. In 1980, I had not written one word on sport history, but, as only a casual sports fan, I certainly knew about Stella Walsh, as did many other Americans and Polish citizens. Newspapers across the country reported on her death, often with sizable space given to her obituaries. Nevertheless, despite this flaw and others, the field of sport history has surely benefitted from Sheldon Anderson’s groundbreaking work. Walsh’s career has become especially significant in the last couple of decades, with the emergence of the contentious issue on intersex female athletes, notably involving Caster Semenya of South Africa. Colleges and universities with sport history programs certainly should add Anderson’s work to their libraries’ collections as Walsh’s career brings to the fore many of the issues that have engaged (and will continue to engage) sport historians, notably the relationship between nationalism and sport, women’s participation in athletics, and intersex athletes.

Robert Pruter is a retired reference and government documents librarian from Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois. He has an MA in history degree from Roosevelt University, and has written extensively on high school and amateur sports, contributing entries to a number of reference books and articles and reviews to a variety of journals. His The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880-1930 was published by the Syracuse University Press in 2013.

Notes

“Olympic Track Star Stella Walsh Slain,” Chicago Tribune. 6 December 1980. “Autopsy Finds That Stella Walsh Was at Least Partially a Man,” Chicago Tribune, 23 January 1981.Sheldon Anderson, The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 20170, pp. 274-76.Suzanne Raga, “The Olympic Sprinter Who Nearly Lost Her Medals Because of Her Autopsy,” Mental Floss, 28 July 2016 (https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/69911/how-olympic-sprinter-stella-walsh-nearly-lost-her-medals-because-her-autopsy).