Mark Hebscher had never been a researcher.
He’d been a reporter and sportscaster in Canada for years, but had never done significant academic research. Though he’d written his fair share over the years, he’d never written a book.
So what inspired him to write his first book at the age of 63?
“It was my ego,” Hebscher said.
Hebscher presented his book, The Greatest Athlete (You’ve Never Heard Of), at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore on April 26. It is the story of one George Washington Orton.
It all started when Hebscher’s son sent a trivia question his way. Who, he asked, is the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal? Hebscher hemmed and hawed, made his guesses, and found himself stumped. The answer, his son told him, was a fellow by the name of George Washington Orton, who won a bronze in the 400-meter hurdles in 1900, followed by a gold in the 2,500-meter steeplechase. Hebscher has been involved at the professional level with knowing such tidbits since the ’80s. He wondered why he hadn’t heard of the guy.
“It’s trivia, but at the same time, it’s, well, how come he wasn’t in the history books?” he thought.
Orton, born in Strathroy, Ontario, in 1873, fell out of a tree at the age of 3, severely injuring his right arm for life and nearly paralyzing himself; he didn’t walk again until he was 10, and wasn’t fully mobile again until 12. He earned his B.A. in romance languages from the University of Toronto in 1893, smoking Canadians in the mile and the half-mile.
He then decided to become a Penn Quaker, making his way to Philadelphia to pick up an M.A. and a Ph.D. by 1896. Oh, and he ran everywhere from the 1893 World Fair in Chicago to the 1900 Olympics.
Orton is credited with being the person who introduced ice hockey to Philadelphia in 1896, while serving as the captain of Penn’s first hockey squad. He even founded the Philadelphia Hockey League.
After his own competition days ended, he became a running coach and a teacher of romance languages in local high schools. He also helped shepherd the Penn Relays, then in their infancy, to greater prominence.
His favorite discovery: Orton, he said, was instrumental in cajoling college football authorities into putting numbers onto players’ jerseys.
To Hebscher the sportscaster, a chance to highlight the life and career of a forgotten man is a nice feather in his cap; to Hebscher, the long-ago Jewish kid growing up in Toronto, it’s the culmination of a lifetime of watching, playing, thinking and talking about sports — especially the obscure characters that make them what they are.
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