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Healdsburg's Ralph Rose in action, on his way to winning his second gold medal in the shot put at the London Olympics in 1908. (Press Association via AP Images)

Ralph Rose: Sonoma County's first Olympian

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.

But the incident is shrouded in questions, the first one being: Did Rose really not dip the flag?

Writing in the Journal of Olympic History in 1999, Dr. Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan researched the event in detail and concluded that, yes, Rose probably did walk past the royal box without lowering the American flag. They also noted that Rose probably DID dip the flag at a second opportunity, when all of the flag-bearers lowered their staffs in unison.

"Ralph Rose, carrying an American flag in the parade in the stadium, failed to lower it when passing the king's stand, as those of all other nations did," fellow thrower Sheridan wrote in the Chicago Record-Herald on July 14, 1908. "Rose did not give any reason for not lowering his flag."

Rose eventually claimed that no one had advised him to dip, an improbable explanation. The athletes had rehearsed the ceremony twice, and every major English newspaper had printed the order of events for several days before the games began.

It is possible Rose was miffed that the display of flags ringing brand-new White City Stadium for the opening ceremony did not include the American flag. (The Swedish flag also was omitted, and the British Olympic Association apologized for what it deemed an inadvertent mistake.) It is just as likely that Rose, an Irish-American, had more personal reasons for refusing to acknowledge the English monarch.

Rose's action, or lack of it, would later be applauded by American patriots and derided by English traditionalists. At the time, it didn't cause even a ripple. As Mallon and Buchanan point out, the gesture went unmentioned in the local press. The Brits either didn't notice or simply did not care.

The Americans did not seem to care a whole lot, either, at least at first. Over time, though, Rose's nonverbal statement grew in stature and gained a defiant verbal component: "This flag dips to no earthly king."

The declaration is sometimes attributed, incorrectly, to Rose himself. More often it is credited to Sheridan. But even that might be pure legend. The quote doesn't show up until the 1950s, years after Sheridan's death — and don't forget, he penned dispatches from London for a major U.S. newspaper during the 1908 Games.

"Perhaps more apocrypha has been written about this incident than any single Olympic controversy," Mallon and Buchanan wrote.

And yet the story persisted. Refusal to dip the flag became an American tradition, and then a law. In 1942, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 829, which states at the beginning of Section 4: "That no disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing."

Winning another gold medal

Rose repeated as gold medalist in the shot put at London. He also competed on the American men's tug-of-war team that lost to the Liverpool Police in the first round. Before he returned to the U.S., Rose participated in an exhibition on the promenade quay in Queenstown, England, and for good measure put a 16-pound shot 51 feet, 1? inches — more than four feet longer than his winning Olympic throw.

In 2000, Track & Field News would recognize Rose as the outstanding athlete of the first decade of the 20th century. He was the magazine's second choice as shot putter for the All-Century Track Team, behind only Parry O'Brien.

Rose continued to throw, and became the first man to exceed 50 feet with a 16-pound shot when he hit 50 feet, 6 inches at the AAU Championships in Seattle in August, 1909. Soon after, he threw to 51 feet at Golden Gate Park Stadium, a record that would last 16 years.

Meanwhile, Rose passed the California bar exam in early 1909 and joined his father's practice in Healdsburg. By 1910 he was the city attorney there, and he later joined a partnership in San Francisco.

Rose promised it wouldn't be the end of his athletic career. And as the Olympics approached again in 1912, he began shaping up to compete. On Jan. 14 of that year, Rose set an indoor world record of 48 feet, 9? inches at the Auditorium Rink in San Francisco.

"For the past three weeks Rose has been working hard at the (Olympic) club to remove some of the large amount of superfluous flesh," the Healdsburg Times said on Jan. 18, 1912. "He dropped twenty-five pounds."

The veteran made the U.S. team and competed at the Stockholm Olympiad, winning gold in the two-handed shot put; the Swedish tradition was to add the total of two separate throws with the left and right hand. Rose placed second in the regular shot put, losing out to another American, Pat McDonald, a Times Square traffic cop. Legend maintained that Rose's trainer had trouble getting the big man out of bed that morning. Rose was also eighth in the hammer throw and 11th in the discus.

Hailed as &‘Le Procureur'

After the Olympics he embarked on a tour of Europe. Rose broke the German shot put record in Berlin and set another mark throwing a 36-pound square stone, an event in which he had never before participated. He set a world record in the 24-pound throw in Paris, where the French delighted in referring to Rose as "Le Procureur," or prosecutor, in recognition of his legal position.

He just couldn't go long without picking up a metal ball. In February of 1913, Rose came out of retirement to set a record in the 18-pound shot at an annual meet at the Olympic Club.

He was the picture of robustness, but a microscopic bacterium wound up taking the big man down. He fell ill with typhoid fever (caused by a strain of salmonella) in the fall of 1913. Newspapers first mentioned the illness on Oct. 3. Rose was put to bed at the home of a relative in San Francisco, then moved to McNutt Hospital, where two of his sisters — Alice and Ethel, both professional nurses — cared for him. He died there Oct. 16.

Rose's body was transported to Healdsburg, where he was buried in Oak Mound Cemetery.

"They brought flowers to cast on his last resting place," The Press Democrat wrote on Oct. 21, on the same page as an ad for Jap Rose Soap and an articled titled LEG IS CRUSHED UNDER A TRAIN. "Many of those blossoms of the late summer were jewelled with tears, for everybody liked the big, genial, boyish Ralph Rose."

Rose left no wife or descendants to fill in the blanks of his vivid biography. Only his newspaper clippings remain, and the tape measurements of his remarkable feats of strength.

(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.)

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