Heroes of Swimming History Remembered In Cartoon Art

Most remarkable of the super-champions of the Golden Age of Sports

By Bruce Wigo

The list of heroes from our sport’s past is long and glorious. One of the most remarkable super-champions of the Golden Age of Sports was Johnny Weissmuller.  If the present generation remembers him at all, it is as a somewhat portly and inarticulate fellow swinging from jungle trees and wrestling crocodiles in old black and white Tarzan movies.  Not as the great swimmer who regularly received more votes than Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Ty Cobb and Jim Thorpe as the World’s Best Athlete – and the man who won 5 Olympic Gold Medals in swimming, a bronze in water polo and set a world record in the 100 yards freestyle that lasted 17 years.

In timed sports like swimming, retired champions lose much of their glamour with each passing season. Even though Weissmuller’s “unbeatable” record of :51.0 for the 100 free is slower than the 12 & under girls record for the same event held by Missy Franklin ninety years later (:50.27), we should not lose sight of the fact that in his day, Weissmuller wore the same “GOAT” (Greatest of All-Time) label Michael Phelps wears today.

World's Best Ten Athletes

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive: Sybil Bauer Scrapbook – Heroes of Swimming

Sadly, many of History’s “GOATs” – including the likes of Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, Mary T. Meagher, Tracy Caulkins and Matt Biondi – are as unfamiliar as Weissmuller to almost every visitor to the Hall of Fame under 30.  With this series of articles, showcasing ISHOF’s collection of sports cartoon art, we hope to entertain and educate our readers about some of the athletes who helped to make our great sport what it is today.


In the first half of the 20th century, the sports sections of virtually every American newspaper, of any size, prominently featured sports cartoons with heroes of swimming. These amusing and informative caricatures of prominent sportsmen and women of the day were created by artistically adept sportswriters. They drew upon their imaginations and knowledge of personalities to create their stories, rather attending sporting events as visual reporters. Their works were reflective of an era when the sports section was all about fun and games. Among the legendary sports cartoonists who created the art in this series are: Joe Archibald, Phil Berube, Robert Edgren, Thornton Fisher, Fredric “Feg” Murray, Tom “Pap” Paproki, Robert (Believe It Or Not) Ripley, Jack Sords and Lindsey Prescott.


One of the earliest cartoons in the ISHOF collection features Duke Kahanamoku. When the 20 year old Hawaiian “beach boy,” entered his first swimming competition and broke the world record in the 100 yd. freestyle (yes, once times in yards counted as “world” records) by 3 4/5 seconds, the AAU refused to  recognize him until he equalled the time in a pool at the 1912 Olympic Trials. Duke did and went on to win gold at the Olympic Games in Stockholm.  In 1915, when this cartoon was published, Duke was in Australia where he broke the world record again and introduced the sport of surfing to the Australian continent.

Duke K Oakland_Tribune_Sun__Jan_24__1915_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

At the 1920 Olympic Trials, Robert Edgren’s study of Duke (below) shows his “Peculiar start for a sprint.” “He hits the water in a running stride and throws himself forward, gaining several yards.” In this meet, Duke broke the world record in the 100 meters freestyle and then went on to win his second gold in the event at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, eight years after his first. He lost his opportunity to compete in the 1916 Games because they were cancelled a little disagreement among European Royalty. Edgren, the cartoonist, had attended the University of California at Berkeley where he had been a member of the track team. He competed in the discuss and shot put at the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece and later became the sports editor of the NY Evening World.

duke by edgren 1_1920 for article_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

Reporting on the Olympic Games at Antwerp in 1920 was Robert “Believe it or Not” Ripley, who did cartoon renderings of many of the USA’s Olympians, including Duke Kahanamoku, “the most famous swimmer in the world.”  Accompanying the cartoon below, Rigley quoted Duke before his race: “I want to make anew world’s record that will stand as a tombstone over my athletic career. I have taken 10 pounds from my normal 200 pounds and never felt in better condition in my life.” Duke did in fact win (by over 3 seconds) and set a new world record of 1:00.4. Hawaiian teammate Pua Kealoha finished second 1.8 seconds behind.  Duke won a second Olympic Gold in Antwerp as a member of the 4 x 200 free relay.

Duke by Ripley__Aug_4__1920_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

In 1922, Johnny Weissmuller came along and started breaking some of Duke’s records. By the time this Feg Murray cartoon appeared in 1923 there was a great debate – which one of them was “The greatest swimmer the world has ever known?” The 33 year old “Champ from antiquity” or the 18 years old phenom from Chicago?  It was a question that called for the wisdom of Solomon.  Like all similar debates about who’s better – the Beatles or the Stones?   Adele or Beyonce? – Duke or Johnny? remains a question argued by aquatic historians to this day. The two would not race against each other until the 1924 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. There, and at the Paris Games, Weissmuller would win the gold medal in the 100m freestyle, while Duke won the silver and his younger brother Sam Kahanamoku copped the bronze.

Duke & Johnnie__Feg Murray_1924_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

Duke Kahanamoku was revered throughout the sports world both for his athletic prowess and as ambassador of Hawaii’s Aloha philosophy. He was also a favorite subject of political and sports cartoonist Feg Murray. Murray was educated at Palo Alto High School and graduated from Stanford University’s art department in 1916. While at that school, he was an inter-collegiate track star and later became Duke’s teammate on the 1920 Olympic Team, earning a bronze medal in the hurdles.

Duke a colorful athlete wo article feg murray8__1927_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

Duke didn’t participate in the 1928 Olympic Trials due to a bout with the influenza, but came back at the age of 43 to try out for the 1932 Olympic team.  For the first 25 meters Duke cut through the water like a human torpedo but faded over the final 25 and failed to qualify for the final. When asked what happened, he replied: “The legs, the legs. I was moving with no effort for 25 yards and was cutting through the water with ease. Then I started feeling something heavy hanging onto my body. I had my strokes, but the legs couldn’t push me along.”

Thus marked the end of one of the greatest careers in the history of sports. In Murray’s last cartoon featuring the great Hawaiian – he portrays the man who had once been unbeatable in his prime, the Duke who reigned as the King of swimming for twenty years – as a famous “has been” – who plays golf. Know any recently retired swimmers who enjoy golfing?

Duke famous guys who golf feg murray__8__1932_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

Today, Kahanamoku is best remembered as the “Father of Surfing” but when he was in his prime as a swimmer no one could beat him. He served as Hawaii’s sheriff until the 1960s and has the honored distinction of being the First swimmer inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in 1965.




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