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Johnny Mathis, Bill Russell and Mackay Stadium

High-jump rivalry between legendary singer and NBA legend played out in Reno

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal

The first significant record singer Johnny Mathis ever made was at Mackay Stadium.

Mathis, who exploded into the world of entertainment in the late 1950s with such hits as Chances Are, Misty, Twelfth of Never and Wonderful Wonderful, is still performing on stage at the age of 84 after having sold more than 350 million records and albums.

But there was a time, before he was earning $27,500 a week at the Sands in Las Vegas in 1960, before he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, when Mathis was merely a skinny 5-foot-7 athlete with an uncanny spring in his step.

And Northern Nevada got to witness Mathis at his best.

A cloudy, warm 80-degree afternoon greeted the Nevada Wolf Pack and San Francisco State track and field teams at the original Mackay Stadium on May 7, 1955. That morning a five-paragraph story in the Nevada State Journal about the final meet of the season at Mackay Stadium had one sentence in paragraph four about John Mathis, who “regularly clears 6-4” in the high jump.

But that was the only clue that history was about to be made in the 46-year-old stadium.

The Gators, winners of the 1953 and 1954 Far Western Conference track and field championships, dominated the Wolf Pack that day as expected, 83-43, just like they did the year before in San Francisco, 82-49. The Gators’ Willie Ellison won the 880 with a time of 2:06.6, the fastest time in that event seen at Mackay since the Wolf Pack’s Bernard Hartung ran a 2:00.1 in 1927.

But it was the skinny 5-foot-7 high jumper that stole the headlines the following day. “A little fellow who doesn’t reach five feet eight inches in height cleared the crossbar at six feet five and a half inches,” wrote Nevada State Journal sports editor Ty Cobb.

John Mathis, the Gators’ sophomore high jumper, gave Mackay Stadium a new high jump record. He broke the stadium record that had been set just the year before by another elite Bay area athlete. Bill Russell, the same Bill Russell that would lead the University of San Francisco to NCAA basketball tournament titles in 1955 and 1956 and the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, came to Mackay on May 1, 1954 and jumped 6-feet-5. Russell, who stood a towering 6-foot-9, beat the Mackay record of 6-3 set by Henry Coggershall of the San Francisco Olympic Club on April 14, 1928.

It was fitting that Mathis broke Russell’s record in Nevada. The two, after all, had been linked and became lifelong friends ever since their high school track days, Mathis at Washington High in San Francisco and Russell at McClymonds High in Oakland.

A San Francisco Chronicle photo in 1954 showed Russell soaring over Mathis and the high jump bar. Mathis stood in front of the bar with his arms stretched out to each side, holding a book in each hand.

Their friendship is why the record at Mackay Stadium still means so much to Mathis. Hardly anyone, after all, ever beat Russell in anything connected with athletics. At one point Track and Field magazine rated Russell as the No. 7 high jumper in the world. He would later clear 6-9 ¾. But on one cloudy day in Northern Nevada more than six decades ago, it was little John Mathis, 14 inches shorter in height, who was a half-inch better than the great Bill Russell.

“I beat his high jump record in Nevada,” Mathis told the San Francisco Chronicle just last year. “I’m very proud of it. But I think that’s the only time (that he beat Russell).”

Russell and Mathis, two of the greatest performers in athletics and entertainment this country has ever produced, will forever be linked by Mackay Stadium. Their Mackay records came almost exactly a year apart. Both were achieved by elite Bay area athletes. Both occurred on the very same day the Kentucky Derby was held in Louisville (Determine won in 1954 and Swaps won in 1955). And both were a constant source of curiosity because of their physical height and not just the height of the high jump bar.

‘“I’m 5-8 ½ in height,’ solemnly stated young Mathis who barely came up to my shoulder,” wrote Ty Cobb in the Nevada State Journal two days after Mathis set the Mackay record. ‘“He’s 5-7 ½,’ emphatically insisted Gators’ coach Ray Kaufman. ‘That’s what our school P.E. records show.”’

Russell, already a rising star in basketball when he came to Mackay in 1954, also grabbed everyone’s attention because he could seemingly stand in the middle of Virginia Street, reach up and touch the top of the Reno arch.

“If you want to take a look at the biggest track athlete in captivity, take a jaunt up to Mackay Stadium tomorrow afternoon,” wrote Cobb in 1954, the day of the USF-Pack track meet. “The Dons will depend upon Bill Russell, who is taller than some pole vaulters can jump. When he gets those long legs unwound Russell can really explode.”

Russell, unlike Mathis’ standout San Francisco State team a year later, was about all the winless Dons’ track team had in 1954. And despite Russell’s best efforts, the Dons also left Northern Nevada winless as the Pack won nine of 16 events on the way to an easy 87-44 victory.

But Russell, who cleared 6-7 ½ earlier in 1954, did not disappoint Northern Nevada track fans. The so-called biggest track athlete in captivity won the high jump and the broad jump, anchored the Dons’ winning mile relay team and finished third in the javelin.

“Russell presented a good crowd in Mackay Stadium with its finest taste of high jumping in many a year,” wrote the Reno Gazette-Journal in May 1954. “The rangy Don sophomore, who reaches six-nine in height and handles it with the grace of a natural athlete, soared over the bar at six feet five inches to outdo his nearest competitor by seven and a half inches.”

That 7 ½-inch difference, coincidentally, was the same distance between Mathis and his closest competitor at Mackay a year later.

If Russell was the biggest track athlete in captivity then Mathis became The Biggest Little High Jumper in the World in May 1955.

But when Mathis eyed the bar at Mackay before taking off, he had no idea he was about to break Russell’s record.

Mathis plugged his ears with his fingers before the jump because he didn’t want to hear the Mackay track announcer say how high the bar was placed. “I never wanted to know so I wouldn’t be intimidated,” Mathis told Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Examiner in 1987.

Mathis used the western roll, which was made popular by Stanford’s George Horine after a jump of 6-6 1/2 on March 29, 1912. He approached the bar at Mackay from the left side, planted his left leg and swung his right foot over, clearing the bar on his left side.

Cobb, who wrote, Mathis “leaps with one shoe on, one foot bare,” also reported that Mathis later missed three jumps that day in 1955 of 6-feet-6 ½ inches.

The record made headlines in Reno and in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Nevada State Journal ran a photo of Mathis’ record jump taken by famed Northern Nevada photographer Don Dondero three days after the event. Dondero, a Carson High graduate, was known for capturing images of famous celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe in Northern Nevada in the 1950s and 60s. Little did Dondero know on that warm, cloudy afternoon in early May 1955 that Mathis would become as famous as Sinatra, Monroe and even Elvis just a couple years later.

Mathis’ jump was big news in Reno and the Bay area but that’s about it. Texas A&M’s Walt Davis, after all, owned the world record at the time with a jump of 6-11 1/2 in 1953. USC’s Ernest Shelton won the 1954 NCAA tournament with a leap of 6-10 ¼ and would win the NCAA title again a few weeks after Mathis’ Mackay leap in 1955 with a jump of 6-11 1/8.

But Mathis, just a college sophomore and still four months shy of his 20th birthday, was only getting started on a path that just might land him in the 1956 Olympics. So it was not a complete shock to anyone that he set the record at Mackay.

In 1952, jumping for Washington High, he went to the California state meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum after winning the high jump at the San Francisco All-City meet with a jump of 6-1.

“The highlight for Washington was a six-foot, one-inch high jump by tiny, shy Johnny Mathis,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. “Johnny, you see, stands only 5-6 and what a sky-climbing job he did.”

Mathis set the San Francisco State school record at 6-3 in a meet at Sacramento State on the very same day Russell set the Mackay record (May 1, 1954) in Reno. He also won the Far Western Conference championship in 1954 with a jump of 6-2 ¾.

Mathis also jumped 6-2 on April 10, 1954 when San Francisco State beat the Pack in San Francisco. A month before his 1955 Mackay appearance he jumped 6-4, setting another school record at UC Davis.

Mathis and Russell certainly were not the first noteworthy high jumpers to grace Mackay Stadium.

The Pack’s Frank Smith, who grew up in Genoa, cleared a school-record 5-9 in 1903. John Gilmartin set the Wolf Pack record of 6-2 ¼ in 1930, breaking a record of 6-0 3/4 that Howard Arthur set only weeks before. Gilmartin’s jump also set a Far Western Conference record.

Another talented San Francisco State jumper, Runar Stone, came to Mackay in 1936. The Nevada State Journal called Stone “San Francisco State’s one-man team.” Stone had cleared 6-1 earlier in 1936 and appeared ready to threaten Gilmartin’s stadium record. But all he could muster on April 25, 1936 at Mackay was a jump of 5-10.

The Wolf Pack’s Elmer Green stood out in the late 1940s. He broke Gilmartin’s school record on April 7, 1948 with a jump of 6-2 3/4 but he did it at UC Davis, not Mackay.

One person who likely would have set the Mackay Stadium record and perhaps put it out of reach even for Mathis and Russell was Fresno State’s Walter Marty. Marty jumped 6-4 ½ in high school (in Fresno) in 1929. He set the national high school record by clearing 6-6 3/8 in 1931. As a Fresno State freshman Marty cleared 6-6 ½ to win the Far Western Conference championship in 1932 and jumped a world-record 6-9 1/8 in 1934.

Marty, who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in both 1932 and 1936 and failed to make either team, never competed at Mackay Stadium in a meet against the Wolf Pack. But he did make a brief appearance at the stadium.

Marty and Fresno State stopped over in Reno in 1935 to practice for an afternoon at Mackay Stadium as they were on their way to a meet at BYU. Marty, according to reporter Ty Cobb, practiced with the bar at 6-4 and 6-6 and repeatedly cleared the bar with ease.

There is little remaining but memories and old newspaper clippings from that 1955 afternoon when Mathis set the Mackay Stadium record. The stadium, the record and even the Far Western Conference all no longer exist. A Wolf Pack men’s outdoor track team also vanished in the early 1990s because of budget cuts.

Mathis’ San Francisco State school record, set in 1955 at Mackay, was broken in 1960 by Jim Brown with a jump of 6-6 ½. The Top 10 high jumpers in San Francisco State history now all have jumped 6-7 or higher.

Mathis’ jump of 6-5 ½ remained the Mackay standard for nearly 10 years. Wolf Pack junior Otis Burrell shattered Mathis’ Mackay record with a leap of 6-8 ½ in March 1965 against, coincidentally, San Francisco State. Just four months before in November 1964, by the way, Mathis was singing at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.

Burrell, who spent two seasons (1965-66) at Nevada, also owns the high jump record at the new Mackay Stadium, jumping 7-0 on May 21, 1966 in the College Division Pacific Coast meet. He would also jump 7-2 ½ at a meet in Portland in 1966 and was one of the best high jumpers in the world in the 1960s though he never competed in the Olympics.

Mathis’ track career basically evaporated after that 1955 San Francisco State season when he began to concentrate full-time on the singing career that would make him internationally famous.

One of Mathis’ first appearances on stage came in 1949 at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco when he was described by the San Francisco Examiner as that “14-year-old colored sensation.” Also in 1949 he won a San Francisco talent show that earned him a coveted television set as first prize.

At Washington High Mathis’ singing ability was well known. He would take off his shirt, wrap a sarong around his waist and perform the song “Babalu” quite frequently at high school pep rallies. His singing ability was known throughout Northern California.

In 1953 he went to Chico High School as a member of the Washington High basketball team for a game and stayed three extra days. The Chico student body president heard Mathis sing at a post-game party after the basketball game and convinced Mathis to perform at the Chico Christmas show three days later. He attended classes for three days at Chico, stayed at the home of the Chico student body president and even attended student council meetings.

The story of Mathis’ Chico experience appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. “It seems that Johnny, who can warble a mean ballad, stayed three more days at Chico.”

By the summer of 1955, just a couple months after his Mackay record, Mathis was already appearing nightly as a singer in downtown San Francisco at The Gala Club and the 440 Club. By 1956 he was basically a full-time singer with track now firmly in his past.

There is an often repeated (in newspaper articles) legend about Mathis’ transition from track star to singing sensation. That story has him turning down a chance to compete in the 1956 U.S. Olympic Trials in late June in Los Angeles because he received a contract offer from Columbia records that very same week. He chose the record deal, the story goes, bypassed his Olympic dream, went to New York and made hit records and the rest is pop music history.

It’s a wonder how Mathis found the time for track by the time June 1956 rolled around.

First of all, he did not compete for the San Francisco State track and field team in 1956. He wasn’t there when the Gators whipped Nevada 86-45 on April 14, 1956 in San Francisco in the rematch a year after Mathis’ record Mackay leap. He wasn’t there when his buddy Bill Russell, making a return to track after a two-year absence, jumped 6-6 on April 21, 1956 in a meet against San Francisco State. Mathis also didn’t compete in the 1956 Far Western Conference meet or any other meet that season for the Gators.

By January 1956 Mathis was appearing nightly at The Fallen Angel nightclub in San Francisco. An advertisement that ran in the San Francisco Examiner from January through March 1956, promoting his engagement at The Fallen Angel, was already describing him as a “Columbia recording star.”

Mathis’ name appeared regularly in early 1956 in Ivan Paul’s “Around Town” column in the Examiner. In early February 1956, Paul wrote, “Johnny Mathis winds down his Fallen Angel engagement March 3 then skies to New York to make his first Columbia records.” Also in February Paul wrote, “Columbia records is planning a big buildup for Johnny Mathis, now at the Fallen Angel, when the young singer’s records are released early this summer. They think Mathis is a future Nat ‘King’ Cole.”

Mathis apparently made his first record for Columbia months before the U.S. Olympic Trials and had not competed in track and field since the end of the 1955 season. His first album, titled simply, “Johnny Mathis,” was released in the middle of July 1956, just two weeks after the Olympic Trials.

Mathis, though, would have had little chance to make the 1956 Olympics even if he competed at the Trials, given that his best high jump was the 6-5 ½ he accomplished in Reno. The last time a jump of 6-5 ½ would have even finished as high as third in the U.S. Olympic Trials would have been 1928.

Charles Dumas ended up setting a world record at those 1956 Olympic Trials by becoming the first person to clear 7-feet (7-0 ½). The second and third-place finishers at the U.S. Trials in Los Angeles each jumped 6-9 ½.

Dumas, of Compton College in Los Angeles, would then go to the Melbourne, Australia Olympics and win gold with a jump of 6-11 ½.

Mathis singing career was already skyrocketing long before the Olympic Trials in late June and certainly the Olympics in November.

In March 1956, Mathis was already appearing nightly in New York having made his first album.

“Young Johnny Mathis of Our Town is sizzling in New York,” Ivan Paul wrote in March 1956. “He closed Monday at the Basin Street and opened the next eve at the famed Blue Angel.”

That doesn’t sound like a world-class athlete in training for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

By August 1956 Mathis was already appearing far away from Northern California at an event in Connecticut and by October there was already a story about his blossoming singing career that appeared in newspapers all over the country.

Also, in October 1956, Examiner columnist Herb Caen mentioned that Mathis was going to be the guest of honor at a San Francisco Press Club gathering. “Be sure to attend next week’s meeting,” Caen wrote. “Johnny Mathis, a local boy who is making good, will be here. And he’ll sing for us if we can dig up a piano player. ‘I’m available,’ piped up the evening’s guest of honor: Harry Truman.”

By 1957 Mathis was on the Ed Sullivan Show, had two singing roles in Hollywood movies and was competing with Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Paul Anka and Little Richard and other legends on the Top-40 charts. The city of San Francisco also held an official “Johnny Mathis Day” in 1957.

In 1957 his 45-rpm single, that featured “Chances Are” on side one and “Twelfth of Never” on the flip side, made him a star.

“In this era of rock ‘n roll and novelty tunes, the romantic voice of Johnny Mathis singing sweet music has moved this young man into the forefront of the nation’s singers,” wrote Ty Cobb in the Nevada State Journal in 1957. “He’s the biggest little high jumper we ever saw. His purple and gold San Francisco State track suit covered a frame which stood barely five feet seven inches in height.”

By 1958 Mathis also had his own special “Olympic” moment. That is when he appeared at the Olympic Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, the same stadium where Dumas won his gold medal, and sold the place out. Also, by 1958, Mathis was earning over $1 million a year and already had a top-selling greatest hits album. At one point he had the third most record sales for a solo artist behind just Elvis and Frank Sinatra.

By 1960, the San Francisco Examiner was writing about him like he was the next Sinatra. “Johnny Mathis has arrived where Frank Sinatra was 17 years ago,” wrote the Examiner. “He has the gals almost faint, their mouths open, their eyes glazed while their escorts growl.”

Athletics, though, always remained a huge part of Mathis’ life. And he also has never forgotten his magical day in Reno in 1955. A day before a 2015 performance at Reno’s Silver Legacy, Mathis appeared at the current Mackay Stadium for a publicity photo to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his record jump.

Starting in the early 1980s Mathis was giving San Francisco State $20,000 a year to fund the track and field program. In 1982 the school honored him with the Johnny Mathis Invitational Track and Field Meet that still continues to this day, though it was canceled this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I had the most wonderful life a young person could have,” Mathis told the San Francisco Examiner in 2013. “It offered everything I could want.”

Just like one magical May afternoon in 1955 at Mackay Stadium.