Saturday night at the New Balance Armory Track Center, some of the best athletes in the world will compete in what should be a terrific track meet in one of the best indoor facilities in the world.
It will be entertaining for the 4,000 or so fans in attendance and the thousands of others who will watch it streaming on the internet. But even though the official name for this track meet will be the Millrose Games, the meet Saturday will not be the Millrose Games. The Millrose Games died years ago, and whatever that was in Madison Square Garden for the last decade or so before the move uptown this year to the Armory, it was not the Millrose Games.
The Millrose Games was an event for which the 18,000 seats at MSG were sold out months in advance and was the beginning of the American indoor circuit, not just about the only major indoor event in America. The Millrose Games was an event that when the lights went down, the smoke wafted up to the rafters, and announcer introduced the runners for the Wanamaker Mile, the crowd went wild. And if the winner was little Jim Beatty from North Carolina, or Eamonn Coghlan from Ireland, so much the better.
Of course, the crowd had earlier gone wild during the shot put, with the spotlight on the throwers like in the 1960s when a big guy from Queens who threw for NYU and couldn’t make the Olympic team even though he was the world indoor record holder and was the fourth best thrower in the world, because the top three were Dallas Long, Randy Matson and Parry O’Brien and they were all Americans, too. So Gary Gubner, my cousin, became an Olympic weightlifter instead and just missed a medal in Tokyo in 1964. And the crowd had also gone wild in the 600 yards for Martin McGrady, who owned Olympic 400 meter gold medalist and former world record holder Lee Evans.
And it welcomed a female star like Diane Dixon, Brooklyn’s own or Wilma Rudolph, fresh from Olympic gold or a 14-year old Mary Decker, who looked like a little girl but ran like a gazelle with thunderous applause.
And the crowd went home raving about a redheaded sophomore from Montvale, N.J. running for Bergen Catholic who had given anything and had scrapes and bruises all over his body diving to the finish in a valiant but vain attempt to beat a legend named Marty Ludwikowski. And for the next two years of 1976 and 1977, Kevin Byrne, now at Paramus Catholic, dominated the indoor mile, running an amazing 4:08.0 as a senior, a time no one has approached on the MSG oval in the 35 years since.
It was an event where a Marine Corps corporal named John Uelses became the first vaulter in the world to clear 16 feet indoors or outdoors on something called a fiberglass pole.
And after that, the crowd cheered just as loud when Iona faced off against NYU and St. John’s in an IC4A 4-x-800 relay before everybody went home on a Friday night.
And then Saturday, the black-and-white TV set would show a meet from Boston or Philly or Cleveland or Detroit or maybe Toronto. And the next week, there’d be a large crowd at the Garden for the AAU championships or the Knights of Columbus meet or the NYAC meet. And later on, there even was a pretty good meet in the Meadowlands on a lightning-fast track that made the Garden’s 11 laps to a mile track look even slower. And then of course there was the last event of the year at the Garden, the IC4As, which wasn’t as well attended as Millrose, but might have been even more exciting as it seemed every event was a photo finish.
But it was the Millrose Games, with its officials in tuxedos, and the old-timers in the same seats every year, that everybody talked about for the rest of the season, even as records fell, and old stars shone and new stars were created. Year after year, sellout after sellout, the Millrose Games was a highlight of the year at the Garden, even while the Knicks were winning their (two) titles and the Rangers were lighting up the scoreboard. The K of C stopped holding meets, as did the NYAC and eventually the AAUs became TAC and then the USATF and the national championship moved out of the Garden, briefly from 1966 to 1969 and then permanently in 1994. Even the IC4A left, bound for George Mason in Virginia or Princeton, N.J. or Boston, where it now rests.
But the Millrose Games lived on. In 1999, attendance was still 15,800. And even in 2005 it was 13,000. But year by year, attendance got smaller and smaller and the meet got shabbier and shabbier. Now, after a sub-6,000 crowd last year, the Armory Foundation, which had quietly obtained the rights to the name in 2009 for a pittance, moved the meet to its headquarters site. And now instead of 18,000, there will be roughly 4,000 Saturday night.
If the Masters ever left Augusta, it wouldn’t be the Masters. When the Big Five in Philadelphia stopped playing basketball in the Palestra, it wasn’t the Big Five anymore. And the Millrose Games at the Armory isn’t the Millrose Games any more. It’ll probably be a very nice track meet. But it’s not the Millrose Games.
Paul Schwartz has covered high school track and field for more than 40 years, and has also covered three U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials meets, and more than a dozen Millrose Games. He saw his first indoor track meet at Madison Square Garden as a 10-year-old in 1961.