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The 1929 Bunion Derby

Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace Across America

by Charles B. Kastner

Publication Year: 2014

On March 31, 1929, seventy-seven men began an epic 3,554-mile footrace across America that pushed their bodies to the breaking point. Nicknamed the “Bunion Derby” by the press, this was the second and last of two trans-America footraces held in the late 1920s. The men averaged forty-six gut-busting miles a day during seventy-eight days of nonstop racing that took them from New York City to Los Angeles. Among this group, two brilliant runners, Johnny Salo of Passaic, New Jersey, and Pete Gavuzzi of England, emerged to battle for the $25,000 first prize along the mostly unpaved roads of 1929 America, with each man pushing the other to go faster as the lead switched back and forth between them. To pay the prize money, race director Charley Pyle cobbled together a traveling vaudeville company, complete with dancing debutantes, an all-girl band wearing pilot outfits, and blackface comedians, all housed under the massive show tent that Pyle hoped would pack in audiences. Kastner’s engrossing account, often told from the perspective of the participants, evokes the remarkable physical challenge the runners experienced and clearly bolsters the argument that the last Bunion Derby was the greatest long-distance footrace of all time.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Editor's Choice, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations, Maps, Tables

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

On a gravel road that had once been the stagecoach route from El Paso to San Diego, an extremely muscular, leather-brown man was flying through a fifty-four-mile course in rough desert country—running at seven minutes and forty-four seconds per mile with the sun beating down and only...

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1. Race Day: New York City to Elizabeth New Jersey, March 31, 1929

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pp. 1-11

March 31, 1929. After a decade of peace and unprecedented economic expansion, Americans could look back on the 1920s with an understandable sense of pride. The United States had helped stop the carnage of the First World War and emerged as an industrial marvel. As the decade of...

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2. Down the Eastern Seaboard: Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Baltimore, Maryland, April 1–April 5, 1929

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pp. 12-35

The bunioneers had five more days until the serious running began after racing down the Eastern Seaboard to Baltimore. Then they would turn west to tackle the Appalachian Mountains, the traditional barrier to the hinterland that had challenged pioneers ever since the first European colonists...

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3. Six Days of Hell—Crossing the Appalachian Plateau: Baltimore, Maryland, to Wheeling, West Virginia, April 6–April 11, 1929

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pp. 36-52

Shortly after the first bunion derby ended, John Stone Jr. wrote his memoir, The Hells of the Bunion Derby (ca. 1928). It lays out in stark terms the challenges of transcontinental racing. Stone described a scene near the finish of a brutal seventy-five-mile run through the Catskill Mountains...

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4. Fast Times in the Old Northwest: Wheeling, West Virginia, to Collinsville, Illinois, April 12–April 23, 1929

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pp. 53-74

For the next twelve days, the front-runners would test the limits of speed and distance on the fl at roads of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Each day, they would need to determine if the distance Pyle set for the stage race would allow the front-runners to race competitively, without pushing...

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5. On Familiar Ground: Collinsville, Illinois, to Chelsea, Oklahoma, April 24–May 3, 1929

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pp. 75-94

Eddie Gardner was the first man to cross the Mississippi River, running across the Free Bridge to St. Louis, a mammoth city of more than eight hundred thousand souls.1 He was running fast on the short twenty-two-mile course from Collinsville, Illinois, to Maplewood, Missouri. None of...

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6. Heading to the Promised Land: Chelsea, Oklahoma, to Dallas, Texas, May 4–May 10, 1929

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pp. 95-106

Charley Pyle's day of reckoning was coming closer. Each stage race brought the derby a bit nearer to Los Angeles, where he would be called upon to pay his bunioneers their hard-earned prize money. With a month and a half to go, Pyle was a man with few options: his follies had contributed...

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7. Under Western Skies: Dallas to Pecos, Texas, May 11–May 22, 1929

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pp. 107-120

From the country's early days as a collection of colonies, the western frontier has been a beacon of hope to Americans searching for a better life and a new beginning. “Go west” has always been a hallmark of the American character. In the California Gold Rush of 1849, thousands of..

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8. West of the Pecos: Pecos to El Paso, Texas, May 23–May 27, 1929

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pp. 121-129

The bunioneers had seen the last of the oil-rich Texas towns. For the next 219 miles, the twenty-three survivors would race across the barren desert uplands that separated them from El Paso, Texas, at the far western edge of the state...

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9. Across a Roughand Unforgiving Land: El Paso, Texas, to Yuma, Arizona, May 28–June 10, 1929

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pp. 130-149

For the next fourteen days, the men would cross the arid wastelands of southern New Mexico and Arizona as they followed the old stagecoach route to Yuma—486 miles to the west. This section would challenge the men to the utmost and demand careful coordination between the runners...

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10. “Overcoming the Killing Distances”—The Last Five Days to Los Angeles: Yuma, Arizona, to Los Angeles, June 11–June 15, 1929

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pp. 150-160

After seventy-two days of trial and error, the front-runners had a fairly clear idea about how far they could race without pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion. In other words, they had found that vague frontier, the line where sustainable racing was no longer possible...

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11. The End of the Rainbow: Los Angeles, June 16, 1929

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pp. 161-174

The bunioneers had reached the end of the long transcontinental rainbow in Los Angeles as they rested for the night in Huntington Park. They had been chasing Pyle’s “pot of gold” for the last seventy-seven days. All that remained was the seventy-eighth and last stage race, the 26.2 mile marathon...

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12. Searching for the Pot of Gold

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pp. 175-190

On Monday, June 17, 1929, the day after the finale at Wrigley Park, Johnny Salo disappeared. He slipped away, to the annoyance of fans and reporters. By late afternoon, they had found him resting with his wife in the secluded home of some Finnish American friends. A reporter asked...

Appendix A

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pp. 191-194

Appendix B

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pp. 195-198

Appendix C

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pp. 199-222

Appendix D

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pp. 223-252

Appendix E

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pp. 253-254


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pp. 255-288


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pp. 289-290


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pp. 291-296


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pp. 297-305

Further Reading, Back Cover

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pp. 306-308

E-ISBN-13: 9780815652816
E-ISBN-10: 081565281X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815610366
Print-ISBN-10: 081561036X

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 25 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2014