Howard Schmertz, a lawyer who for 29 years presided over the Millrose Games in Manhattan, long one of the world’s most prestigious indoor track and field meets, died on Thursday in Port Washington, N.Y. He was 88.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, his wife, Judy, said.
Mr. Schmertz, a Bronx native who lived on Long Island, was a link to the very birth of the meet, in 1908. His father, Fred, had been a founder, and Howard, who began attending the event at 7, succeeded him as the meet’s director in 1975.
In 2012, father and son were inducted simultaneously into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Manhattan.
The younger Mr. Schmertz oversaw the event during an era in which track and field, at the elite level, became a professional sport and athletes started receiving large appearance fees. It was also a period of declining attendance at indoor track meets in the United States as the best athletes, earning large fees through endorsements, began choosing not to participate. Mr. Schmertz was almost continually faced with budget cuts.
In 1968, when track was an amateur sport, Millrose spent $15,000 for athletes, almost all for transportation, hotel rooms and meals. By 2002, when the top athletes were pros, that cost had climbed to six figures. By 2011, Millrose was losing close to $500,000 a year.
The games were held at Madison Square Garden for 98 years, until 2012, when dwindling attendance — only 9,611 fans showed up in 2011 — and the high costs of hosting the event there forced them to relocate to a new, and smaller, home: the Armory Track and Field Center in Washington Heights. The Armory has about 4,000 seats, in contrast to the Garden’s 18,200. Control of the event was passed from the Millrose board to the Armory board.
Mr. Schmertz was cleareyed about the state of the event but optimistic. As far back as 1981, he told The New York Running News: “I don’t think track is a dying sport. It may be a changing sport. It’s becoming certainly a very expensive sport, with the athletes demanding more and the arenas, in many cases, more of a share.”
But well into the 1990s, the games were the marquee event of the winter calendar; as George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times in 2012, they “packed the Garden, with bands blaring and celebrities preening.”
Howard Miles Schmertz was born in the Bronx on June 9, 1925, and grew up there. He served in the Army infantry in World War II, seeing combat in France. In 1944, he was hospitalized with frozen feet after spending three months in the French mountains.
After World War II, he earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Columbia University, and practiced law in Manhattan. He married Judy Silman of Rockville Centre, N.Y., in 1953, and they lived in North Bellmore, N.Y.
His father, Fred Schmertz, who was also a lawyer, for the John Wanamaker department store chain, had overseen the event at the Garden for 41 years, beginning in 1934, when the arena was on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. He had been a founding member of the event’s original governing body, the Millrose Athletic Association, formed in 1908 by employees of the New York City Wanamaker store, at Broadway and East 8th Street. The Wanamaker Mile has been a featured event. (Millrose was the name of the Pennsylvania country estate of Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, who ran the company.)
Originally held at an armory, the games moved to the Garden in 1914.
Howard Schmertz, an only son, had been his father’s assistant for more than two decades when Fred Schmertz handed him the director’s job, an unpaid but demanding position. As the track historian Jesse Abramson said, “Fred Schmertz had the foresight to begat his successor.”
The elder Mr. Schmertz, who liked to refer to the games as “the Indoor Olympics,” had declined to retire until he could witness the first sub-four-minute Wanamaker Mile. Tony Waldrop achieved that in 1974, running 3 minutes 59.7 seconds. Fred Schmertz, at 85, then retired. He died two years later.
Howard Schmertz’s favorite Millrose athletes were the Irish miler Eamonn Coghlan, the Kenyan-born American miler Bernard Lagat and the American middle-distance runner Mary Decker Slaney. His favorite Millrose moments came in 1959 when John Thomas, a 17-year-old freshman at Boston University, became the first man to high-jump 7 feet indoors, and in 1962, when John Uelses became the first to pole-vault 16 feet.
The Wanamaker company sold the Millrose Games in 1992, three years before the chain was absorbed by the May Company. Ownership of the event subsequently changed hands several times, and Mr. Schmertz unhappily became meet director emeritus.
Besides his wife, his survivors include two daughters, Amy Weinstein and Carol Katz, and four grandchildren.
Mr. Schmertz retired from his law practice in 2001 and devoted more time to the track meet. As his wife, Judy, said, “His hobby became his business, and his business became his hobby.”
The couple devoted many months to the meet each year, traveling to American and European competitions to watch and recruit. “If we’re going to have a Millrose meet,” Mr. Schmertz said, “someone has to do it.”
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