HEALDSBURG — Sonoma County's first known Olympian may stand forever as its greatest. Ralph Rose, a giant of the sporting world in every sense, won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, spread over three Summer Games. He delighted big crowds at athletic exhibitions and set numerous records for strength, then became a city prosecutor. He also played the central role in an incident that ignited debate for decades and contributed to the passage of a federal law.
And Rose, the amiable titan from Healdsburg, did all of it before his 30th birthday. He died of typhoid fever in 1913, at the age of 29.
"At the time of his death he held more of the world's championships than any living man," the Healdsburg Tribune wrote.
Ralph Waldo Rose seemed an unlikely candidate for world renown, born and raised in a sleepy town known for growing prunes. But one attribute made Rose special: his size.
Rose's physique was Ruthian: normally proportioned arms and legs attached to a great barrel of a torso, with a lot of muscle but not a lot of definition. Rose weighed 229 pounds when he went from Healdsburg College to the University of Michigan in the fall of 1903. His measurements at full maturity varied depending on the source. Most put his height at 6-foot-5 or 6-6, but his reported weight ranged from 260 to 350 pounds, almost unheard-of immensity at the time.
Rose channeled his strength into throwing events. Adult men now put a standard 16-pound shot. In Rose's day, the metal balls came in a variety of weights, and results were charted for each. Rose began claiming records early, setting a new world standard in the 12-pound shot and an American record at 16 pounds as a freshman at Michigan.
Secret of his success
"He believes his self-taught method is the secret of his success in the shot puts," the New York Times wrote in 1904. "He moves quickly across the ring, crouches very low, and then rises like a small mountain on springs, concentrating all his power behind the shot."
Rose won seven Amateur Athletic Union titles in throwing events, but he had some sort of falling out at Michigan, and bounced around to other universities, including Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago.
He was only 19 years old when the Summer Olympics came to St. Louis in 1904, but Rose was dominant. He won the shot put, finished second in the discus (losing a throw-off to fellow American Martin Sheridan after they had tied in the final round), took third in the hammer throw and was sixth in throwing the 56-pound weight.
Rose became a celebrity, and he set about dismantling the world's shot put records, one at a time — or several in one swoop. Before a crowd of nearly 10,000 at a meet sponsored by the New York Athletic Club and held at Travers Island on Sept. 14, 1907, Rose broke six distinct shot marks — with 8-, 12-, 14-, 16-, 18- and 28-pound balls. He missed a record in the 24-pound shot by an inch.
Though Rose was by all accounts good-natured, he somehow managed to court controversy. The first storm appeared in December of 1907, when Stanford president Dr. David Starr Jordan publicly called Rose's amateur status into question, saying he had been financially induced to compete at Michigan.
"I did not know Rose and all my information is second hand," Jordan wrote. "He came from Healdsburg, had no money, I understand, and he was, I understand at Michigan two years. I do not know who paid his expenses. The newspapers stated that he was excused from college examinations because his health had suffered in going from California to Michigan. ... Rose was no college man."
The critique seemed unduly harsh. The athlete's father, John Wesley Rose, was a prominent Healdsburg attorney and almost certainly could have afforded his son's higher education. And declaring that Ralph Rose "is not a college man" runs counter to his subsequent career as an attorney.
It's possible that Rose had offended men like Jordan when he publicly talked of defeating heavyweight boxing champion James J. Jeffries. At the time, many considered boxing to be a low-class sport, unfit for gentlemen. Rose did fight a few amateur bouts, but never took the pursuit further.
The scrutiny blew over, and in early 1908 Rose began to gear up for the Rome Olympics — until Mount Vesuvius erupted and sent all of Italy into a panic, and the games were hastily moved to London. Rose, now representing the Olympic Club of San Francisco, was selected to carry the flag for the American delegation — a role that would make him a controversial figure in international sports.
The flag-dipping controversy
The tradition then, and many years after, was for each national delegation to dip its flag at the opening ceremony while marching past the head of state of the host country — in this case Edward VII. Even more than his massive throws, Rose would one day be known as the man who refused to lower the Stars and Stripes before the king of England.