"A good racing town": popular sports in 1893 Kansas City
When it came to attendance, the most popular spectator sport in 1893 Kansas City was neither football – widely regarded as for hooligans and college students – nor baseball – Kansas City had no major league team – but horse racing. Not far behind, however, were boating and the new sport of bicycling, their popularity buoyed by the increasing participation of women in athletics.
Prizefighting, and dog-fighting, though illegal in Missouri, had an exclusively male following; police made only a public show of disapproval. Bowling was also an all-male sport. The Kansas City Bowling Club held weekly tournaments in winter at Scharnagel’s on Walnut Street. First and second place winners in a March tournament were “Kid” Nichols, a Kansas City boy who pitched for the championship Boston Beaneaters, and his brother George. “Kid” Nichols remained an outstanding bowler long after he left baseball, winning Kansas City’s class A bowling championship at age 64.
Boating received a boost when the Kansas City Boat Club moved from Washington Park to the new Fairmount Park and built “an elegant little boat house” on the lake, complete with dormitories and lockers for use when club teams were in training, reported the Times.The boats could be hoisted out of the way to convert the boat room into a space for dancing.
In the first regatta at the new locale, in July, the Kansas City Ladies’ Rowing Club competed in a half mile ladies’ crew race against the Ladies’ Boat Club of Independence. Independence won by a length and half in what the Journal called “the event of the day,” outdoing even the blowing up and sinking of a pirate ship, or the full brass band that played on a steam yacht at the regatta’s conclusion.
Women were also among the many riders of the new, easier-to-ride “safety” bicycles, available in designs for both sexes, unlike the preceding, more dangerous “high wheeler.” The Star estimated that in Kansas City there were “probably 500 in all, counting ladies, children, and sedate men of business and the professions who take their daily exercise on a wheel.” Enthusiasm for the new machines is apparent in a Star article, reprinted from the Scranton Truth, which predicted, rightly enough, that bicycles a hundred years hence would be built along much the same lines as the 1893 safety bicycle, i.e. “with two small wheels very nearly of a size,” so the rider’s weight is more evenly distributed between them.
The safety bicycles of 1893 were expensive, however: a good bike in 1893 cost $150, equivalent to more than $3000 in current values, partly due to high tariffs.
The Scranton writer correctly believed that prices would fall, putting bikes within everyone’s reach, and projected a utopian future as a result.
New materials, along with “filling the tires and the tubes in the framing with hydrogen instead of air” would reduce the weight of racing bikes to five pounds or less. Children would be taught to ride “as they are now taught to walk,” he thought. Believing that bikes would by 1993 be able to reach 150 miles an hour, the writer foresaw the expansion of suburbs from sixty to 100 miles in every direction, so “There will be no more crowded tenement houses. The artisan, who will work only four hours a day, will live with his family in a cosy little home in the suburbs, where he can see the sunshine and breathe the fresh air. The use of the wheel will have so improved the stamina and physique of the race that the only causes of death will be old age and accidents.”
The safety bicycle had become such an embodiment of modern progress that a reprinted cartoon in the pro-Cleveland American Citizen used it to make a political point about the desirability of the gold standard over silver: safety bicycles, ridden by Uncle Sam and an assortment of reliable-looking European types, are analogized to gold, while the risky high wheelers, ridden by a dubious-looking pair in sombrero and Mandarin hat, are compared to silver.
Bicyclists were known as “wheelers;” many belonged to the League of American Wheelmen, and new spring “wheels” were greeted with fanfare like that of new car models in a later generation.
The Times noted the increasing number of female riders: “Formerly, a woman riding a wheel at once became the subject of much comment and undesirable attention, but the sight is becoming so common now as to excite scarcely any comment. No sporting stock is too small now to keep ladies’ wheels in stock whereas formerly they could only be bought from the larger houses. The next question is, will the women want to join the clubs, and will they be admitted?”
Whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second was “no,” at least in 1893. The “Kansas City Cyclists” was the leading bicycling organization in the city. An all-male preserve, it lobbied for road improvement, sent racing teams to competitions in other cities, and sponsored the first annual road race in May, which attracted a crowd of 3,000 to 5,000, according to the Times, “so dense that two rows of bicycles had to be set up to keep the spectators back.”
Enthusiasm about bicycle riding carried over into interest in competitive racing. “Beauty and the beaux were there in full force,” the paper reported on the crowd watching the race, “and the groomed steeds of the aristocratic South side rubbed noses with the bob-tailed cobs ridden or driven by the butcher’s or grocer’s boy out on vacation.” A Kansas City rider, Kindevatter, had the fastest time, riding a King of Scorchers bicycle. His fellow members celebrated his win and the success of their first road race with “a jolly smoke at the club rooms on East Fifteenth street.” No women were noted as having been present.
The road race in May was an amateur, regional event, but the Kansas City Cyclists’ tournament on September 1-2 with a purse of $2500 aimed to attract nationally competitive racers like Arthur Zimmerman, who, though technically an amateur, was reported to have won in the previous year “twenty-nine wheels, several horses and carriages, six pianos, a house and lot, household furniture of all kinds and enough silver plate, medals and jewelry to stock a store.”
The Club constructed for the race a new track, “banked or inclined heavily at the turns,” according to the Journal, and issued invitations to some of the most famous racers of the day, including Zimmerman, John S. Johnson, Walter Sanger and W.W. Windle. It will, said the Times with its customary flair for hyperbole, be “the greatest cycling tournament ever held west of the Mississippi.”
In addition to the $2,500 purse, the prize list for the twelve scheduled events included “four high grade wheels, a Vose piano and watches, diamonds and silverware and other articles…. It will be a meeting of the champions,” the paper promised: “The fastest men East and West will be brought together for the first time in Kansas City,” with the rivalry of Zimmerman and Johnson expected to be “the big feature of the tournament….”
The tournament would also feature competition between rival cities -- Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago -- and between Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Colorado, practically deciding, declared the paper, “the championship of the Western states.” Special trains were laid on, ads for the event proclaiming that “visitors from every city within hundreds of miles” would come to witness “the most hotly contested races ever witnessed.”
On the first day of the race, the Journal described the grand stands at Fairmount Park’s Athletic Club as
“crowded…a handsome audience, being largely composed of ladies.” Bicycle races being new in Kansas City, said the reporter, the sport had the “charm of novelty,” if not the excitement of a horse race.
The famous Zimmerman had not been able to come, to the crowd's disappointment, but M.H.
Burt, the “Kansas Wonder” was popular with the crowd. J.S. Johnston, “one of the fastest men in the world,” broke the Missouri state record for a half mile sprint, receiving a “racing wheel” for his pains. Burt was matched against Johnson in the mile open and “rode all he knew how, and managed to make the race interesting,” but couldn’t match Johnson. Diamonds went to the top three riders.
Women came to horse racing in large numbers as well. For the June opening of the Kansas City Driving Park Association’s season at Exposition Driving Park, “owners of stables of national repute” were reported in the Times to be bringing their horses to compete for the Kansas City cup. No fewer than 450 horses were expected, according to a later Times report, and women would be admitted free “except July 4.” In addition, “Messengers will be provided to place money for women who have betting tendencies.”
The predicted number of 450 horses proved too low, reported the Journal an unusual event given the papers’ penchant for exaggeration: it appeared some 500 would show up for the races, some of them “brush horses” whose owners “might as well turn them out on grass and save oats,” but there were also “any number of good ones – enough to give every race a big field without any ‘dogs’ in it.”
Although purses were not large -- the Kansas City Cup purse was $1000, along with “one of the handsomest pieces of plate ever run for” -- the Journal predicted there would be “one of the largest crowds ever seen on a race course in Kansas City” for cup day races. Mayor Cowherd declared a half holiday in honor of the cup race. Attendance, according to the Star, was 10,000 (the Mail said 12,000). The Journal observed that there were “many ladies in the crowd, and their bright costumes made the grand stand a very pretty sight.”
Less respectable citizens watched the races from electric light poles, cottonwood trees, and wagons along Kansas Avenue, “without money and without price,” as a Driving Park policeman complained to the Times. The Times reporter counted forty-six wagons with from one to a dozen spectators each along the road: “A dirt wagon held eleven men,” he wrote, “who stood up when a race was being run and sat down to rest when it was over.”
Kansas City had harness racing in 1893; one of the best known stables in the country for trotters and pacers, “famous in the annals of the trotting turf” as the Times put it, was Bob Stewart’s at 15th and Prospect. The Times described Stewart as “the only man in the world who possesses three horses with records better than 2:11 ¾.” He had the additional distinction of having as his “lieutenant” George ‘Cheyenne’ Tyler, who had been under Custer when that “gallant soldier was cut to pieces with his advance squadron by the Cheyennes.”
But as the Journal commented as the fall horse racing season opened in October, “Kansas City is not a trotting horse city. The public here… wants to see running races. Kansas City is a good racing town….” said the paper. Thirty-five “well known racing stables” were reported to have arrived for the meeting, with more horses arriving every day.
No limit was set to the time the meeting would run: “It will continue as long as the public is pleased with the sport.”