The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2001

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Sweet Bitterness


David Minor

Today's sports sponsors have their headaches. In the first place, its not a poor man's game. 30-second spots on the Super Bowl broadcast this past September climbed to two-and-a-half million dollars, or eighty-three thousand, and change, a second. And if you're the network charging such fees you're expected to give a good rate of return on each of those dollars, especially if you intend to charge even more the following year. Just ask NBC. Having made the decision to show the Olympic events from Sydney, Australia, during prime U. S. viewing hours, they had to broadcast delayed, taped versions and ended up being scooped by just about every news outlet under the down-under sun. About all that's left to do then is make grand pronouncements to the effect that it's the prestige, not the money, that counts, Yeah, right! Oh, for the simpler times.

Well, cheaper times anyway.

If Quaker Asa T. Soule had a resumč back in the 1870s it would have listed his background in farming, real-estate sales, banking, hotel management and peddling cough elixirs. By the time he moved to Rochester, New York, he'd parleyed the latter sideline into a real cash cow. Reportedly a millionaire, due to phenomenal sales of his Doyle's Hop Bitters—the invalid's Friend and Hope (not to mention the brewer's friend and hope)—Soule began looking around for ways to repay the city that he now called home. Feeling a little publicity along the way would not be amiss, he looked for high profile product placement opportunities. The city short-sightedly declined the golden opportunity to found a Hop Bitters University, but the field of sports would prove more hospitable. Soon there was a local baseball team, imported from Albany and renamed the Hop Bitters, playing in Hop Bitters Park and displaying the words Hop Bitters on every player's handsome gray and scarlet uniform. Too bad they soon found a niche for themselves in the league cellar.

Oh, well, if hometown sports didn't turnout to be that lucrative, perhaps it was time to think on a global scale. Well, the U. S. and Canada, at least. The hardest part was to find a sport with enough universal appeal and pizazz. Basketball hadn't been invented yet. Foreigners didn't know how to play football or soccer like normal people did. Cricket? Too polite. Croquet, a big yawn. Boxing was too brutal for the ladies. There must be some sport that could combine fast-paced action, universal appeal (or at least Anglo Saxon appeal) and gentility with self-promotion. It may have been a local rowing regatta on the Genesee River that gave Soule his inspiration. More likely it was a boat race in Qučbec the previous year, 1878. The race pitted Charles Courtney, a Union Springs, New York, carpenter who had won the amateur championship at Phildelphia two years ago, against Canadian Ned Hanlan, who won the professional championship at the same event. At Lachine, outside of Montrčal, the two squared off on October 3rd. Local citizens had raised the official prize of $2500, adding another $6000 to the pot. As crowds from both sides of the border gathered at Lachine on race day, the smart money was on the New Yorker. But then, with slightly suspicious rapidity, the odds changed. 100 to 60 in favor of Hanlan. The starter, a local sheriff, hollered "Go."

Rowers Charles Courtney and Ned Scanlan dug their oars into the water when the starter's "Go" rang out. As they neared the halfway mark, four miles out, Scanlon was in the lead but Courtney had almost caught up with him. Scanlan was gaining a reputation among aficionados of the sport as an intentional late bloomer, goofing off in the early stages of a race, sometimes even clowning around for the crowd's amusement, then turning on his prodigious strength and skill and winning races with seemingly little effort. But this time he plays it straight. Courtney begins crowding into Scanlan's lane, Scanlan warns him off. As Courtney straightens himself out, Scanlan gets down to business, shoots into the lead, and it's all over but the shouting. And a bit of grumbling about the sudden, last-minute change in the betting odds before the race.

The following summer Scanlan travels to England, where he first defeats their fair-haired boy John Hawdon, clowning around and stopping to bail out his boat in the middle of the race and still crossing the finish ahead of his opponent. Then Scanlan turns his sights on the reigning British champion William Elliott. Without even working up a sweat, the Canadian, his body working in perfect coordination and harmony with his boat and his oars, beats Elliott by 10 lengths, breaking the course record by 55 seconds. Canada has it's first international sports champion. And Rochester, New York, medicine man Asa Soule has an idea.

With his baseball team the Hop Bitters and it's successor the New Hop Bitters club struggling, a rematch between Scanlan and the home state boy Courtney could prove to be a real money machine and also reap lots of publicity for his alcohol-fortified medications. He swings into action. By early autumn word of a race has been gotten out. Soule figures he might as well bring those gambling dollars into the U. S. this time, so the agreed-upon site is on Chautauqua Lake, home for the past five years of the Chautauqua Institute, with its growing reputation for wholesome, educational and uplifting pursuits. Which does not mean that dollar signs won't dance in the heads of the villagers of Mayville, home to the coming event. A 2,000-foot-long grandstand, with capacity for 50,000 spectators is erected. A local railroad puts in a spur line and sets up a half-mile long observation train. The sale of steamboat tickets soars and abandoned barges are fixed up and sport new seats, at $5 a rear end. October 15, 1879, the night before the race finds Mayville stuffed to the gills with outsiders. Hotel prices have gone from one dollar to twelve; even so thousands find themselves sleeping under tables, on chairs and, in one case, in a rented piano crate. Soule is elated, especially since he is earning five cents on every dollar the fans are spending. And it surprises no one that the Hop Bitters king has named Courtney's boat, you guessed it, the Hop Bitters. Early next morning the bombshell hits. While the two men guarding the Hop Bitters overnight, have played a little hookey to see the sights, someone has sneaked in and sawn the boat in half. Courtney refused to row in a borrowed boat, but the ref declares the race will still be run, even if Scanlan rows alone. Which he does, breaking the standing record by 1 minute 14-and-a-quarter seconds. Apparently Scanlon's backers, without his knowledge, have fixed the race. His reputation still intact, he goes on to more victories and further fame. Courtney takes permanent shore leave. And Soule takes his percentage and runs, back to Rochester, to ponder on the thankless burden of being a sports promoter.

© 2001, David Minor
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