Rob Tannenbaum | Longreads | August 2016 | 63 minutes (15,868 words)
On the night she was murdered, Stella Walsh was in a great mood. The Cleveland resident spent much of December 4, 1980, thinking about her two passions: sports and Poland, the country she ran for when she won two Olympic medals. There was a women’s basketball match the next week between Kent State and the Polish national team, which Walsh helped arrange. Mayor George Voinovich asked her to be his proxy, and his office gave her a key to the city, which she planned to present at the game.
Walsh had planned to leave for Atlanta that day, on a trip with her co-workers at the recreation department, but two days earlier, she’d canceled her ticket, which she said was too expensive for her. She skipped work, slept late, went to the nearby Lansing Tavern in the early afternoon, then returned to the tiny home she shared with her bedridden 84-year-old mother Veronica. After dinner, without saying goodbye, she drove off to buy ribbons for the visiting Poles. She had a lot of money in her pocket, which rarely happened.
In Walsh’s brilliant career as a track and field star, she’d won 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles and set 20 world records in a range of events, from sprints to the discus throw. She was the first superstar of women’s track and field, a dominant performer who intimidated her competitors, and the only woman of her era whose box-office appeal matched a man’s. Walsh “is to women’s track what Babe Ruth is to baseball,” one journalist wrote.
In 1980, long after her last world record, Walsh was working for Cleveland’s recreation department at an annual salary of $10,400, which was the most she’d ever earned. She bought a bag of ribbons at the Broadway Avenue location of Uncle Bill’s, a chain of Ohio discount department stores, on the city’s southeast side. In the parking lot, men approached her, one of them holding a .38. Walsh, 69, was still remarkably strong. As she tried to grab the gun, a bullet scratched through her stomach and intestines, and severed an artery in her pelvis. The thieves ran off without checking the pants pocket where she had her money.
Walsh was unconscious when a policeman working security inside Uncle Bill’s found her face down in the parking lot. As the officer turned her over, a wig fell off, and he recognized it was Stella Walsh. He asked for an ambulance to be called, but the nearest one had a flat tire, which created a delay in her care. Instead, a police station wagon came for Walsh, and officers took her to St. Alexis Hospital, less than a mile away, where she died on the operating table. A hospital inventory of her personal property included $248.17 in cash, a 1932 Olympic ring, and a pair of falsies, as they were called, for padding her bra.
In the 25 years prior to her murder, little had been written about Walsh. Born as Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna—that’s the story she told reporters, though, like many aspects of her life, it turned out to not be true—in the rural Polish town of Wierzchownia, she’d had a groundbreaking athletic career. But she also had little charisma, made bad copy, and kept to herself. Although she’d lived in the U.S. since she was 15 months old and spoke almost without an accent, she’d won her Olympic medals for Poland. Even her nickname, “The Polish Flyer,” identified her as an alien. She didn’t experience any of the twilight glory that often comforts athletes late in life; there was no documentary about her, no Congressional Medal of Honor. While she was working for the city, handing out softball permits, her fellow pioneer and ’36 Olympic contestant Jesse Owens was making speeches and earning more than $100,000 a year.
“One of the great women of sport was murdered last night,” Walter Cronkite intoned on the CBS Evening News. “Stella Walsh, who was 69, was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot. No suspects have been arrested.” In Slavic Village, the Polish-American neighborhood where she spent most of her life, everyone knew and loved Walsh. She tended bar at a local tavern, coached young athletes, and was viewed as an example of Polonia’s greatest virtues. “Children were her life,” one friend said. “She loved to train them, and she always trained them to be winners.” She’d been “a Cleveland institution,” Mayor Voinovich told a reporter.
Because Walsh had been murdered, an autopsy was required. On the eve of her funeral, a Cleveland TV station went on the air with a news bulletin that rattled the city, then the country, then the world: Stella Walsh was a man.
The station’s claim about Walsh was incorrect. It was neither the first nor the last mistruth told about her. Because women athletes were carelessly documented in her era, and because she cultivated mystery, there are lots of conflicting statistics and incompatible stories about Walsh, ranging from when she arrived in the U.S. to how she died. As best as these tales can be sorted out or disproven, here’s the first full account of her incredible life. Read more…