Happy 77th birthday to the great Ralph Boston of Laurel
Happy 77th birthday to the great Ralph Boston, born May 9, 1939, in Laurel, MS. What follows is a column I wrote about Ralph four years ago when he was a mere 73.
It was 52 years ago this week, about a month before the 1960 Rome Olympics. Ralph Boston, a Laurel farmer’s son and the youngest of 10 children, was a nobody, a largely unknown 21-year-old student at Tennessee State.
Boston, at 73, well remembers the night a nobody became a big somebody. The U.S. Olympic track and field team was holding a conditioning meet in preparation for Rome at Mt. San Antonio College near Los Angeles. Boston, a long jumper, leaped 26 feet, 11 inches, breaking the 25-year-old record of the legendary Jesse Owens. It was the last world record Owens owned.
“Suddenly people recognized me,” Boston said, chuckling at the memory Wednesday. “Before that night nobody outside of Laurel, Mississippi, knew who I was and the people in Laurel knew me as Hawkeye Boston, not Ralph Boston.”
Boston remembers a strapping, young man from Louisville, Ky., stopping him in New York just before the U.S. team boarded a plane for Rome.
“He said, ‘You’re Ralph Boston, I want to take your picture,’” Boston said. “Then he said, ‘You don’t know who I am yet, but you will soon.’ And then he introduced himself as Cassius Marcellus Clay. You don’t forget things like that.”
No, we can only suppose, you don’t. Nor do you forget what Boston did next, which was win the gold medal in Rome.
“I was just a bright-eyed, skinny kid from Laurel, Mississippi, who didn’t know which way was up,” Boston said. “And then I walk into that stadium and there are more people than I had ever seen in my life. I thought, ‘Man, what have I gotten myself into here.’”
After Boston won the long jump, the huge crowd chanted, “Boston! Boston! Boston!.”
You don’t forget things like that, either.
Now, here’s the kicker: Boston jumped the same distance that night 52 years ago in Rome that American Will Claye jumped Sunday in winning the Olympics bronze medal at London.
“That’s really amazing when you think about it,” Boston says. “That’s not much change in over half a century. On the one hand, you’d think the distances would be much longer now, but on the other hand, you want to think, ‘Hey, maybe I WAS pretty good.’”
There’s so much more to know about Ralph Boston, including the fact that he went on to win silver and bronze medals — “a full set,” he says — in the next two Olympics. And that he was the first African American voted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1976. And that he always has represented his homestate as a scholar, which he was, and a gentleman, which he most certainly is.
Years ago, famed long jumper Bob Beamon was through town on a promotional trip and sat down for an interview with this writer. Naturally, the conversation turned to Mexico City and the 1968 games when Beamon incredibly leaped 29 feet, 2.5 inches, breaking the world record by nearly two feet.
“What people don’t know is that I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t have been for Ralph Boston,” Beamon said. “I fouled on my first two attempts and was about to get disqualified and then Ralph told me I needed to adjust my footwork leading to my takeoff. I figured I had better listen to the master, and I did. The rest, as they say, is history. I owe a lot to Ralph Boston.”
Wednesday, I recounted that story to Boston who laughed before saying, “He beat me by two feet; that’s a heck of a way to treat your teacher isn’t it. If you see Bob again, tell him I’m still waiting for my check.”