From July 23 to Aug. 8, athletes from around the world will compete for national and personal glory in the Tokyo Olympics. At another Olympic Games 93 years ago, a Bailey Island lobsterman was among those athletes — and he returned from Amsterdam with a bronze medal in the hammer throw.
Edmund F. “Rip” Black was the first Mainer to win an Olympic medal, according to a 2005 article in The Boston Globe. But he was an unlikely Olympian.
Black grew up on the island and lobstered from a young age. He attended Portland High School.
Dave Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, said it was not unusual for Bailey Island students to travel by boat to Portland for school. In fact, many islanders shopped for groceries in Portland and would cross the bay by steamboat.
Black’s introduction to the hammer came during his freshman year at Portland High.
The “hammer” in the men’s hammer throw is a 16-pound metal ball at the end of a steel cable. Competitors throw the hammer from inside a circle 7 feet in diameter, set inside a cage to protect bystanders. They spin around three or four times to build momentum before they release the hammer.
As the Maine Sports Hall of Fame tells the story, Black was watching the hammer team work out when “he picked one up and threw it further than the others had.”
Bill Green, the executive director of the hall better known for his career as a broadcast journalist and host of “Bill Green’s Maine,” interviewed Black in the 1980s or early ‘90s. He remembers a different story about the beginning of Black’s hammer-throwing career.
Black was walking by the practice area when a foul-tempered athlete “threw a hammer near him to scare him,” Green said, recalling Black’s story. “He threw it back.” The coach witnessed the episode and recruited Black.
He joined the team and went on to win the New England championship in 1923, then set two records in the state meet in 1924.
Black seems to have excelled at every sport he tried. He played baseball and hockey in high school, but his performance on the football field rivaled his hammer throwing. He was selected as the best fullback in the state in 1923, according to the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.
A 1928 article about Black’s Olympic chances in the Courier-Post, of New Jersey, attributes his nickname to his football days.
“He is better known as ‘Rip’ Black, the nickname having been tacked to him, when, as a schoolboy halfback, he used to slash opposing lines to fragments,” Jack Ramsay wrote.
The headline of the article was “Boy who liked to fish now hammer chucker.” Black was sometimes more interested in fishing than football, as Portland High coach James Fitzpatrick learned.
“It was a common practice for Jimmie to send out a scouting party for ‘Rip’ on Friday and have his star halfback stay ‘in town’ that night in order to be on hand for Saturday’s game,” Ramsay wrote.
Despite his accomplishments in high school and the promise of a college career, Black initially opted to stay home and work. He spent either a year or two years lobstering, by different accounts, before family and friends convinced him to enroll at the University of Maine at Orono.
At Orono, he again starred in multiple sports. He pitched a no-hitter against Bowdoin College and played on the football team.
In the hammer throw, he won the Maine and New England championships in 1928. His come-from-behind victory at the national championships and Olympic trials that year sent him steaming across the Atlantic to Amsterdam on the SS President Roosevelt.
At the Olympics, Black had to adjust to a change in the elevation of the circle. Green remembers the story, although he doesn’t recall whether the Olympians threw from an elevated or sunken circle. Either way, the change affected the arc of Black’s swing and he fouled twice in competition.
He took the bronze with a throw of 49.03 meters, or about 160 feet, 10 1/2 inches, according to the International Olympic Committee.
“He was a little bit disappointed that he hadn’t won the gold medal, because he thought he was the best,” Green said.
He finished third in the national championships in 1929 and second in 1930, according to Track & Field News. He sought a return to the Olympics in 1932, but didn’t qualify.
Black’s days of competitive hammer throwing seem to have ended there. He did, however, organize a hammer-throwing exhibition on Bailey Island in 1939 “with many past greats” of the event, according to the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.
He worked as a lobster buyer for a few years, but spent most of his life as a lobsterman. He lobstered until the age of 85, while finding time to distinguish himself in one more sport: candlepin bowling.
“He was a quiet lobsterman, a very polite man,” Green said, recalling a meeting when Black would have been in his 70s or 80s. He was “still rugged” and spry — during the interview, he picked up the hammer and executed “a little move,” spinning it slowly around his head and feet.
He was the only Mainer to win an Olympic medal in track and field until Joan Benoit took gold in the marathon in 1984, according to Green.
The Maine Sports Hall of Fame inducted Black in 1980. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him the fourth-best Maine athlete of all time. The 2021 book “Maine’s Greatest Athletes” dedicates its second chapter to Black.
Black moved to Massachusetts with his son in 1993 and died there from complications of pneumonia on Oct. 22, 1996. He was 91.
Black was humble about his athletic career, his son told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 2008. Just as he once chose lobstering over college, he preferred to tell fishing stories rather than brag about Olympic feats.