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.
This story is excerpted with permission from Longreads. Read the full story at Longreads.com.
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.
By 1980, thanks to decades of immigration restrictions, the Polish-born population of Cleveland had dwindled from 36,000 to about 8,300. But those few thousand, incensed by decades of Polack jokes, could raise hell. When 400 mourners crowded into Sacred Heart of Jesus church, they saw TV crews waiting. “Get out of here!” one Walsh pal shouted. “You’ve got a lot of nerve after that garbage last night,” yelled another. Other mourners tried to bar media from the funeral. The Polish women’s basketball team attended, in red warm-up jackets that said POLSKA on the back. The Sacred Heart priest, who didn’t know Walsh well, nonetheless happened upon an epitaph that has held true for her: “There is a saying that no one remembers who came in second. Sometimes, no one remembers who came in first, either.”
Walsh was buried with a simple flat headstone: her name, Polish surname, two crosses, the Olympic rings, and the words OLYMPIC CHAMPION.
If the Walsh story was a ratings ploy, it didn’t work. “It made us the least popular TV station in Cleveland,” Abromats says. Clara Battiato, the younger of Walsh’s two sisters, spoke only long enough to vow, “I’ll do anything to sue that channel.” Tom Beres, who was married to a Polish-American, fielded “many outraged phone calls, berating us for doing the story.”
“In Cleveland, especially the Polish community, people showed equanimity about what was in the autopsy,” observes former mayor Dennis Kucinich, who grew up in Slavic Village, and later served eight terms as a liberal US Congressman. “It was extraordinary. There’s a phrase in Polish that roughly translates as ‘God judges.’ It’s not up to us to judge. There was a very powerful, loving acceptance of Stella, both prior to and after her unfortunate passing. The arrangement of her physical parts was of minor interest. It didn’t matter: This was our Stella. She was loved. The deeper story here, if I may be so bold, is how Cleveland dealt with sensitive social issues long before other cities, and accepted people for who they were. The power of this town is in its live-and-let-live approach.”
Polish-Americans staged protests outside the Channel 3 studio, urged a boycott, and threatened to sue. WKYC needed proof of their report, or lawsuits would follow.
The only man who supposedly knew for sure, Sam Gerber, the coroner, was being cagey, because even he didn’t know for sure. In a statement to the press, he invoked John Lennon, who was murdered four days after Walsh: “John Lennon was known as a male and apparently was killed as a male and autopsied as a male. Stella Walsh’s birth certificate said she was a female, she was known as a female and her death certificate says she was a female.” Gerber ordered chromosome testing, even though it wasn’t relevant to a murder investigation, and refused to release any additional information until his autopsy was final.
WKYC was anxious to prove their report was correct. The station’s lawyer sent a letter to Gerber on December 18, demanding he “either confirm or deny to me in writing that Stella Walsh was in fact a male.” As Abromats said in a court document, the WKYC report, “which we consider to have been very tastefully and sensitively done, has raised a furor in many segments of our community,” and Gerber’s records would “quell the furor by (I believe) confirming the truth and accuracy” of the report. It was a gamble—if the report was wrong, Polish-American groups might chase Abromats and Beres all the way to Akron.
After Gerber ignored the letter, as well as repeated phone calls from the station, Abromats arranged a meeting with the station lawyer and the doctor. The lawyer told Gerber he was not legally entitled to withhold public documents. According to Abromats, Gerber shrugged. “I am not only a physician, I am an attorney. If you want those records, sue me,” he said. “Dr. Gerber, it would be my pleasure,” parried the WKYC lawyer.
By now, the news had spread across the country. In a front-page story, the Washington Post told of Walsh’s death and the “seamy and controversial story on Cleveland television.” By using the headline “Heroine or Hero?,” the Post was complicit in any seaminess, while pretending to stand above it.
A month after Walsh’s death, WKYC appealed to District Court for a writ of mandamus, a court order instructing a government officer to obey the law. The court issued the writ. There was a guideline hearing a few days later, during which Judge Thomas Parrino—who’d run for a judgeship shortly after his key role in prosecuting the first Sam Sheppard trial—gave Gerber two weeks to release his autopsy report, or face contempt of court. The doctor’s plan had worked; he’d stalled until he was ready. The truth was about to become public.