Games People Play: A Press Photo of Track and Field Star Lillian Copeland, Los Angeles, 21 May 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the Homestead’s collection of historic artifacts related to sports, there is a lack of objects relating to women, but tonight’s featured item is a press photograph from this day in 1926 of the remarkable Lillian Copeland, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, who was a dual world’s record holder for women in the shot put and the discus throw at the time, but went on to greater achievements in two successive Olympic games.

She was born in November 1904 in New York City as the eldest of three children of Jewish emigres Morris Copeland (the name was obviously adopted after arrival and it is not known what the original family name was) and Minnie Drossin, who migrated to the United States a couple of years prior to her birth.

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Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1925.

Her father was a fruit and produce merchant and the family resided in Boyle Heights, which had a large Jewish population during the 1920s, with one of their residences being directly across Boyle Avenue from the estate of Andrew Boyle and then of his daughter Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) and her husband William H. Workman, the founder of Boyle Heights and nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman.

Copeland graduated from Los Angeles High School and then went to U.S.C. , where she quickly became a star athlete in tennis and basketball, as well as in track and field.  She joined the latter team in 1924 and the following year, her earliest mention in the local press was in an announcement in late June that she’d joined the Pasadena Athletic and Country Club, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team,

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Copeland at the right in a dramatic pose and striking background, Times, 28 February 1926.

Referred to as “a star woman athlete” and “an all-round athlete,” Copeland was to appear that national AAU track and field championships in Pasadena on 11 July and “entered in the baseball throw [an event that has not survived in the world of track and field!], the discus, and the shot put.”

By early 1926, she was receiving greater attention for her exploits, including a national shot put record of 35 feet, 5 inches and a second place finish at the AAU championship in both the baseball throw and discus.  A Los Angeles Times photo in late February showed her in a field hockey game at U.S.C. and wearing the same outfit in the press photo highlighted here.  Another image on the same page is a great one of Copeland in her discus throwing form and sporting her Pasadena AAU team uniform, while to the left is the phrase “Who Said ‘Weaker Sex?'”

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Sacramento Bee, 16 April 1926.

A month later, in a meet between her Pasadena squad and the team from Santa Ana, Copeland, who took first place overall in the competition, established two new American records by putting an 8-pound shot nearly 36 feet and, amazingly, hurling the discus at nearly 95 feet, a full seven feet more than the previous record by one of her teammates.  She also came within just two inches of breaking the world’s record for the baseball throw.

Fewer than three weeks later, Copeland was at it again during an interclass meet at U.S.C.  Her record against Santa Ana in the shot put was bested by a South Carolina college hurler, but she wrested the record back with a distance of just shy of 38 1/2 feet.  Not only that but she took first place in four events as the sophomores beat the other classes in the competition.

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Pasadena Post, 18 May 1926.

This led to a feature article in the Pasadena Post of 18 May in which her AAU coach, Aileen Allen, declared that Copeland was likely the best all-around woman athlete in the world.  By this time, the track and field star not only held the world record in the shot put, as noted above, but she also had the best showings on the planet for the discus at just over 103 feet and the javelin at nearly 116 feet.

She achieved these records in sanctioned AAU meets, with the discus and shot put marks made at the Coliseum three days prior and the javelin record established the week prior. Beyond that, her time in the 50-yard dash was “very close to world’s time” and she was a member of a track relay squad.  Allen believed that Copeland would soon hold the world record for the baseball toss.

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This press photo from the Homestead’s holdings, dated 21 May 1926, shows Copeland on the USC campus, with caption stating that she set world records for the shot put at 38 feet, 8 1/4 inches and for the discus at 103 feet and 55/100 inches at the AAU championship meet.

Beyond this, the article continued, “Miss Copeland with all of her athletic prowess, is a delightfully mannered young lady, very gracious and feminine in her conduct.”  The last point is especially striking because, evidently, to be an excellent athlete as a woman could seem mannish without those softening qualities!

More generally, the piece observed that the public was “beginning to appreciate the thrill to be had by seeing these thoroughly clean-cut young athletes strive for leadership in a field that has heretofore been reserved almost entirely for the boys.”  In this new environment, however (and decades before the Title IX enactment to guarantee equal access to resources for female athletes),

the girls themselves have learned that careful living and strict attention to training rules has been very beneficial to their health as well as aiding them in the way of graceful carriage and all-around agility.

For the 1928 Olympic summer games in Amsterdam, which is the first time women’s track and field events were offered at the world games, Copeland, one of seven USC track and field stars and the lone woman among them to participate in the games, captured a silver medal in the discus.   In a post-Olympics meet held in Brussels, however, Copeland took first place in her three bread-and-butter field events of discus, javelin and shot put and established another world record in the latter at 38 feet 5 1/2 inches.

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Post, 31 July 1928.

She returned to Olympic competitions four years later, when Los Angeles hosted the games by setting a world record in the discus at 40.59 meters or 133 feet 2 inches.  During her seven years of national and international competition she broke the world’s mark a half dozen times in the three field events.

When her career ended, Copeland became a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy working with juveniles in the Lennox and Firestone stations and her career lasted nearly a quarter century with her retiring as a sergeant in 1960.  She died young, however, passing away in July 1964, several months shy of turning 60, of an undescribed illness said to have been lengthy.  She was a member of the Woman’s Track and Field Hall of Fame while alive and was one of eight American women to win an Olympic gold medal at the time of her death.  Fifteen years later, she was induced into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and, in 1994, she was admitted to the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame.

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San Pedro News Pilot., 6 August 1932.

In an era where female athletes were just starting to get broader attention in the sporting world and mass media for their exploits and achievements, Lillian Copeland stands out for her palette of specialties and overall abilities and, as the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, about the possibilities available to the progeny of migrants to the United States.

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