By JOHN S. McCRIGHT
MIDDLEBURY — When Frank Kane was eight years old his aunt Mildred gave him an antique trophy. It was silver, ornately engraved and featured a baseball player in an old fashion uniform poised to pitch a ball from the lid of the cup.
He knew that it had been won by his grandfather, and namesake, Frank T. Kane for winning a Connecticut state championship race in, according to an inscription, 10 3/4 seconds. But otherwise, it was a mystery.
When had his grandfather won the race, who was the competition, why was there a baseball player on the top when he knew that Frank T. Kane was a strong runner in his day?
“Ten years ago I retired and had every intention of tracing down the story behind this old trophy of my grandfather’s,” Kane said.
What he has uncovered so far has turned out to be a surprising story about the caliber of runner he had in his family, and an unexpected strengthening of his relationship to the past.
Last November Kane — who grew up in central Connecticut, moved in 1971 to Middlebury and taught auto mechanics at the Hannaford Career Center — got serious about his search with some research on the Internet. His investigation led him to the Hartford (Conn.) Historical Society and a person named Richard Mallory. The researcher looked into the inscription on the trophy, which read: “Champion Cup of State of Conn., won by Frank Kane of New britian. Time 10 3/4 seconds.”
Mallory dug up an article in the Hartford Courant newspaper dated Oct. 17, 1892. The Hartford Athletic Association had sponsored what they called a “foot race” with numerous heats that were run at Charter Oak Park in Hartford. Reviewing his research last week, Kane refers to antique newspapers and documents that show the racetrack at the park with a grandstand where, in the later part of the 19th century, Mallory said, throngs of spectators came to relax on the weekend and enjoy the races.
In that era, Malloy explained to Kane, gambling was more pervasive than it is now, and betting on races involving men on horses, on bicycles and on foot was a regular feature at the park. The newspaper boasted that bookies from Philadelphia had come to Hartford for the race.
“(Malloy) told me that there would have been a lot of money changing hands that day,” Kane said.
The final race that day — the Connecticut state championship — pitted Frank T. Kane of New Britain against H.M. Rigney from Waterbury. The distance was 135 yards.
The modern-day Frank Kane knew, of course, that the lad from New Britain had won the race — he had the cup to prove it. But the newspaper corrected at least one error in the cup’s inscription (in addition to the misspelling of Kane’s hometown). It reported that the winning time was 11 3/4 seconds (not 10 3/4, as the cup said).
The Connecticut State Champion received a $100 prize for winning the race.
The cash was no mean prize, the winner’s grandson said. Like his father, an Irish immigrant, Frank T. Kane of New Britain was a “polisher,” which Kane described as an often itinerant laborer who did the grunt work to make fancy brass and silver fixtures shine.
“They were immigrants, you know how it was back then. They couldn’t buy a job,” Kane said. “So they were polishers.”
Like many in his situation, running was more than just a pastime for Frank T. Kane.
“I don’t think he made a lot of money as a polisher,” Kane said. “As a young person he could make some money racing.”
Looking further into the history of the trophy, which he discovered was made in Meriden, Conn., and the man who won it, Kane traveled back to Connecticut and looked through the old New Britain directories (essentially a town census) in the local library and talked to an enthusiastic librarian. He found out more about his family, making further connections to people he’d known only vaguely as a child.
Old photos turned up. They had been given to him by his mother decades earlier but languished in an envelope in a box somewhere. “I totally forgot about them,” he said.
One showed Frank T. Kane dressed in the popular running togs of the day near the head of a line of young men ready to pull a cart with a fire hose. In the 1890s, many towns had several fire companies and even large businesses sometimes had their own fire departments; and these various companies competed against each other in races. This photo, which is embossed with “Amsterdam, N.Y.” in one corner, shows the young Frank T. Kane preparing to compete in such a race.
Another photo shows grandfather, his wife and a baby daughter who turned out to be an aunt Kane never knew — she died young. Frank T. Kane had five children, but Kane’s father — Frank James Kane — was the only one to have children of his own, so the trophy passed down to through his line.
“FAMOUS AS RUNNER”
Back at the library, Kane finds an obituary in the New Britain Herald from 1953 that bares the headline: Frank T. Kane Dies, Famous as Runner, Held State Title. The son of an immigrant polisher warranted a three-deck headline and someone had gone to the effort to interview his friends and acquaintances for the obituary. It read in part:
“One long-time friend said he was ‘one of the fastest runners in these parts.’”
Kane, who is 70 years old, didn’t do much running himself much as a youngster. There was no track team when he was in high school. He took up the sport in his 30s, when Bill Rodgers was helping ignite the running boom in the mid-1970s. He ran lots of races. His son Chris, in whom Kane sees a resemblance to the famously fast Frank Kane, also caught the bug and has run four or five marathons.
Kane still swims, walks and bikes — quite strenuously some say — but he ran his last marathon at age 64.
He’s still looking further into his family’s past. “I find it fun,” he said.
Kane recalls the old men in his family he knew as a youngster, and sees them in a new light after learning what they were like when they were young.
“When you look back you gain a whole new respect for (your ancestors),” he said. “That thread to the past becomes stronger and stronger.
“The older we get the more we are drawn by something inside to find out where we came from so just maybe we can shed some light on the future for ourselves and our family members. It’s the history of the family which shows the threads of lifeline, which connects us to today.”