Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: Just Call Me Jock

Sometimes you seek out a book and sometimes it finds you. Of course, even if the book finds you, it can take you a while to actually pick it up and read it. That's what happened here.

Late last fall my now-wife, then-fiancee, and I were in Mystic, Conn., on one of our many weekend visits to her parents' house to prepare for our wedding. Her folks had been living there for over a year at that point and despite well over a dozen visits to the coastal town, the two of us hadn't yet made it in to Kelley's Pace, the local running store once owned by 1957 Boston Marathon winner John J. Kelley. For some reason, on that day we decided it was time to check the place out.

The store is currently undergoing some remodeling, so I won't talk about it today, though I'll definitely post about it in the future. Instead, I'll just tell you that while browsing the shelves I came across a book titled, Just Call Me Jock: The Story of Jock Semple, Boston's Mr. Marathon. It was published in 1981 by Connecticut's Waterford Publishing Co.--I doubt it ever made its way into the stacks of your local library. Intrigued, I shelled out a whopping $14 for my own copy.

Though I bought the book last fall, it was only a couple weeks ago that I finally picked up and gave it a read. I certainly wasn't disappointed by the subject matter, even if the organization was a bit unusual.

Ostensibly written by Jock himself, the title page credits Tom Murphy and John J. Kelley as co-authors. What does that mean? As far as I can tell, Jock mainly dictated stories to Murphy who tried to organize them in some coherent fashion--he's only half successful in this, but it doesn't really matter. Keeping some of the stream of conscientiousness flow helps to mimic the way that Jock himself probably talked. The Kelley passages are a bit different. Every few chapters, there's a break from the main narrative, marked by long block quotes, in which Kelley talks about Jock or about his own experiences as a young runner. These passages never really contradict Jock, though at times one wishes they would, if only to add another layer to the story.

Regardless of what one things of the writing style--and I generally enjoyed it, finding it reminiscent of the New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell--the book is rich with Boston Marathon trivia. By way of example, the reader learns that for years the BAA's headquarters was Jock's "salon de rubdown"--his physiotherapy clinic--inside the Boston Garden.  While the marathon had once been one of a number of BAA events, by the 60s all the others, like the BAA's more prestigious indoor track meet, had vanished.

The book ends as the first running boom was really taking off. One can sense a sadness in Jock's recollection. He's clearly happy that the marathon has continued--if it hadn't been for his efforts, it likely would have disappeared in the 50s or 60s--but he seems unable to understand what it's becoming. It was he who introduced qualifying standards for men in 1970, and later for women when they were finally allowed to compete, in order to maintain the dignity of the race. It's clear to the reader that Jock wouldn't recognize today's Boston Marathon with its corporate sponsorship--something against which he fought tooth and nail--and prize money--another big Semple no-no.

Nonetheless, the book also shows that Jock wasn't immune to a changing world. He knew how to adapt and he knew how to guard the legacy of the BAA Marathon. If he were today, it's hard no to believe that we would be right there on that press truck, cheering on the leaders, and enjoying his beloved race.

Note: If you're interested in reading the book,  the link above will take you to the publisher's website. I am not affiliated with them in any way and receive no benefit, I just figure you might want to support a small local company over the Amazonian juggernaut.

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