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Kramer, Frank Louislocked

(21 November 1880–08 October 1958)
  • Frank V. Phelps

Kramer, Frank Louis (21 November 1880–08 October 1958), bicycle racer, was born in Evansville, Indiana, the son of Louis H. Kramer, a lumber merchant and amateur athlete, and Helen Euler. During the early 1890s the parents believed Frank exhibited symptoms of tuberculosis. They bought him a high-wheeled “safety” bicycle for exercise and sent him to the supposedly healthier atmosphere of East Orange, New Jersey, to live with Dillon and Lillian Bennett, who became his foster parents. In his first bicycle sprint race, held during May 1896 at Weequahic Park in Newark, New Jersey, he finished last. When “ordinary” bikes, equipped with equally sized wheels and pneumatic tires, supplanted safeties in public favor, Kramer switched to the newer type. He gained notice in 1897 when, during one day’s competition in White Plains, New York, he won two cups and six medals. In 1898 and 1899 he captured the national amateur sprint championships.

From an undersized, frail youngster, Kramer grew into a robust athlete. He was fractionally under six feet tall, big-boned, barrel-chested, muscular, golden-haired, and called “Chisel Chin” because of his jutting jaw and pronounced underbite. Noting the huge cash the famous black cyclist Major Taylor was accumulating in prize money, Kramer turned professional in 1900. After Kramer defeated former U.S. sprint champion Tom Cooper, the Pierce-Arrow company, which manufactured automobiles and bicycles, signed him to race their custom-made, nickel-plated bikes. That summer Taylor vanquished him in several meets in the East and the Middle West and in the final of the U.S. professional sprint championship at the banked wooden velodrome in Newark. Kramer never again lost a championship event to Taylor and proceeded to dominate sprint races, winning the U.S. titles from 1901 through 1916.

Floyd McFarland, a rider turned promoter, managed Kramer and Jackie Clark, the “Australian Rocket,” in 1906, and publicly nicknamed them “Big Steve” and “Little Steve.” Throughout his career, Kramer remained “Big Steve” to the sport’s public. Kramer usually defeated Clark, despite the latter’s explosive sprints. In the 1908 U.S. championship at Madison Square Garden, New York City, Kramer won the half-mile and one-mile events by coming from behind to nip Clark at the finishes.

Although universally regarded as the world’s best cyclist, Kramer competed in the world championship only once, when it was held at Newark; he won the event. He did undergo European tours in 1905, 1906, 1913, and 1914, drawing record crowds in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, and other western European capitals and defeating all rivals more frequently than not. During his first two tours, he won the Grand Prix of Paris, each time earning purses of $2,500 for those sprint races.

Kramer obsessively sought racing perfection. Quiet and reserved, he made few friendships and did not fraternize with other riders away from the tracks. He raised roses and chickens in East Orange and lived a temperate, Spartan existence. Always physically fit, he employed a trainer, Jack Neville, to guide his training and apply daily massages. He went to bed punctually at nine o’clock every evening, practiced long hours at the track regularly, studied racing techniques and tactics thoroughly, and periodically spent days at the Pierce-Arrow factory in Buffalo, New York, scrutinizing bicycle construction. He also meticulously kept books recording his receipts and expenditures.

In 1911 “Colonel” John M. Chapman, the “czar of bike racing,” constructed a new velodrome in the Vailsburg section of Newark, enclosing a six-laps-to-the-mile banked track, and signed Kramer to a ten-year contract to ride exclusively under his control. Repeatedly Kramer beat the greatest world talent Chapman could bring to Newark, mostly at sprint distances but occassionally at longer races. He rode in six-day bike races, with different partners, in 1911, 1912, and 1918, winning none of them. He became so uniformly dominant in sprint races that eventually other riders, including his chief rival, Alf Goullett, combined against him, by “teaming,” a practice of three opponents alternately challenging him in sprints while the others conserved energy, tiring him, beating him, and sharing prize monies coequally. These tactics almost lost Kramer the 1915 championship to Goullett and caused him to consider retirement. Such incidents prompted the National Cycling Association to reduce the number of racers in championship semifinals and finals from four to two.

After losing his sprint title to Arthur Spencer in 1917, Kramer installed a larger gear on his shiny silver bike, regained the U.S. championship in 1918, and won it again in 1921. He closed out his career on 25 and 26 July 1922 with attempts to better his own best time of 15-4/5 seconds for one-sixth of a mile and the world record of 15-2/5 seconds, set in 1911 by Albert Krebs. At the New York Velodrome on 25 July his time was only 16 seconds, but at the Newark Velodrome on the next evening he equalled the world record, a remarkable performance by a 41-year-old veteran after a five-minute ovation rendered him by 20,000 spectators. At retirement he also held world records for one-quarter-, one-third-, one-half-, and three-quarter-mile sprints. The bicycle racing historian Walter Bardgett named Kramer the greatest all-time bike racer over Goullett, Taylor, and all others. Chapman never found a star to replace Kramer; and the sport, whose attendance marks surpassed baseball’s at times, virtually disappeared after a 1930 fire destroyed the New York Velodrome; it resumed later on a lesser scale.

Kramer married Helen Malcolmson Hay of East Orange on 24 November 1924; they had no children. During their honeymoon he took her to the bike races in Paris, at the Velodrome d’Hiver, a site of his earlier triumphs. Unacquainted with his heroic status among racing fans throughout the world, she was astonished when he was recognized immediately and hoisted on a bike to pedal a slow lap to the accompaniment of tumultuous cheering in memory of his accomplishments there. He cherished the recollection of that incident more than those of his most impressive victories. For many years he performed as an official and a meet referee for the National Cycling Association, participated in civic affairs, served on the East Orange police commission, and, principally, managed Record Ambulance, a nonprofit, partly charitable ambulance transportation service for the hospitals and people of the Orange communities. He died in East Orange.

Bibliography

Two feature articles describe Kramer’s victories and personality: David Chaumier, “Yesterday: Back in the Early 1900s, Bicycling Was Big and Frank Kramer Was King,” Sports Illustrated, 11 Feb. 1985, pp. 192–98; and Al Laney, “Boy Cyclists Don’t Know ‘Big Steve’ but All East Orange Knows Him,” New York Herald Tribune, 24 Dec. 1946. Peter Nye, Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing (1988), details events during Kramer’s time. The New York Times provides coverage of Kramer’s accomplishments in its issues of 10 Aug. 1915 and 26 and 27 July 1922. Andrew Ritchie, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Style of a Champion Bicycle Racer (1988), describes the Kramer-Taylor rivalry. Other useful materials are in Frank G. Menke with revisions by Suzanne Treat, The Encyclopedia of Sports, 6th rev. ed. (1977), pp. 199–211; Arthur Judson Palmer, Riding High (1956), pp. 175–76; and Ralph Hickok, A Who’s Who of Sports Champions (1995), p. 448. An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Oct. 1958.