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The Inquirer fielded its own competition

These days, sports fans live and die with the Eagles and Phillies, but once they thrilled to a different kind of competition.

These days, sports fans live and die with the Eagles and Phillies, but once they thrilled to a different kind of competition.

The Inquirer Games.

That's not shorthand for the puzzles, word teasers and cryptograms in the paper.

The Inquirer Games was an annual indoor track-and-field event that for more than two decades showcased top national and Olympic athletes - and ended in the late 1960s with only a few paragraphs to mark its demise.

The event routinely sold out Convention Hall, the Wachovia Center of its day. The games were covered exhaustively in The Inquirer, of course, but also in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

Walter H. Annenberg, then publisher of the paper, presided over the competition. The sports editor wore a tuxedo, and nobody thought that was out of place.

The Inquirer Games began to evolve during the early 1940s. In fact, one of the first times anyone heard of an Inquirer-sponsored track event was when it was called off. In 1943, the newspaper reported the cancellation of the Inquirer Athletic Association meet - the Swedish running star Gunder Haegg could not come because of wartime travel restrictions.

The next summer, The Inquirer announced a "big sports event to boost sports and healthy athletic activity," with all funds going to "a setup known as Inquirer Charities Inc."

Lawson Robertson, the University of Pennsylvania coach and former U.S. Olympic coach, would be the director of the first Inquirer Invitation Indoor Track Meet.

"Our overall objective in sponsoring the meet is to revive indoor track competition in Philadelphia at the school and college level," declared Francis Murray, head of Inquirer Charities.

The newspaper already promoted three other major sporting events - golf, amateur boxing, and football, the 1944 exhibition played at Shibe Park, with the Eagles against a team composed of the combined wartime rosters of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals.

At the time, newspapers routinely promoted competitions and covered them in their pages, with athletes vying at events such as the Washington Star Games and the Chicago Daily News Relays.

In December 1944, executive sports editor Leo Riordan reported that Annenberg had invited Haegg, then setting records in the mile run, to compete the next month in the inaugural Inquirer event.

Alas, Haegg was again delayed in Europe. And two days before the meet, The Inquirer announced that the event was being moved to an outdoor track at Museum Field, south of Franklin Field.

Temporary grandstands went up, and 2,000 braved what the newspaper called a "polar atmosphere" to cheer a field that included 10 national champions. Teams from Temple, Villanova and Swarthmore helped fill the roster of 438 athletes.

"The runners, jumpers and weight men themselves kept on the move, thus preserving the circulation of bare knees and legs," The Inquirer wrote the next day. "A few found warmth and shelter, between appearances, in a large square tent that had been set up, complete with two scalding hot radiators."

As the second meet approached in 1945, Robertson predicted that the event would gain from something the nation had not known for four years: peace.

"I am confident that indoor track and field will be the first full beneficiary," he said. "The return of servicemen stars, though few in number, directly affected the big league pennant races, and is being reflected in college football."

This time, the meet went on as scheduled at Convention Hall. During the next decade, the event would become fixed there, and firmly established as "the Inquirer Games."

The 1959 games were covered by The Inquirer's Frank Dolson - then four years into writing a column that would become legendary during the 1960s and 1970s. Tickets cost $1.65 to $3.75. A crowd of 10,650 attended, the fifth straight sellout.

That year, pole vaulter Don Bragg, a 23-year-old Army private stationed at Fort Dix, set a new indoor record, crossing the bar at 15 feet, 9.5 inches.

"There hasn't been such excitement in Philadelphia," the newspaper wrote, "since the Liberty Bell cracked."

Bragg, who graduated from Villanova, was known as Tarzan, both for his size and his desire to portray the Ape-Man on screen. When he won the Olympic gold medal in Rome the next year, he let out a Tarzan yell from the podium. The Penns Grove High alum eventually played Tarzan in one movie, although it was never released.

The 1967 games took place as usual, broadcast via videotape on WFIL-TV, with Les Keiter announcing. The newspaper coverage was typically voluminous.

And then, it stopped.

In December, when The Inquirer normally would have been heavily promoting the games, a short story appeared: Mayor James H.J. Tate announced that the city would hold a major indoor meet, called the Philadelphia Track Classic, to replace the Inquirer Games.

No further explanation was offered.

People who worked at The Inquirer at the time can't shed additional light. Some wondered if the games ended because Annenberg was losing interest in the paper and its activities. He would sell The Inquirer in 1969.