Al Franken, one of the sport’s finest impressarios, has died, at the age of 96. Having lived a full and exciting life, Al Franken was paid tributes by many of the finest athletes in the past and present. Quite the character, Al influenced several generations of athletes, athlete managers and federation officials and sponsors.
(Please note, more photos and tributes will be added later this evening).
This tribute was compiled, edited and collected by Jeff Benjamin.
John Walker, Steve Scott, Tom Byers, Sunkist Invitational, photo courtesy of Franken Enterprises (from Ken Popejoy)
Sunkist Indoor Invitational, photo by Getty Images for World Athletics
Al Franken – A Legend Remembered By Legends!
By Jeff Benjamin !
One of the Sport’s greatest fans and impresarios has left us.
Al Franken, who dedicated decades of his life towards promoting Track & Field by any means necessary, passed away least week at the age of 96.
For those who have a historical passion for the Sport, below are tributes from many of the greatest legends.
However, if you don’t recognize any of the Great names below, please Google, do your own research and you will be inspired.
No doubt that is what Al Franken would want you to do!
“I was sad to hear of Al Franken’s passing.
He was a true champion of the sport.
Al had me headline a couple of events in the mid 1990s towards the end of of the west coast indoor track series. He was such a fan and wanted to see track compete with the NFL and the NBA. You could feel his passion for the sport and you always knew he respected the athletes. He had a knack for convincing the top athletes to come to the LA sports arena and attempt World records even though the facility (track surface) was sub par. He didnt always get that world record, but he did always get a full house.
He will be missed.
The world of track field needs more people like Al Franken.”
“A very sad day when I received the message of the passing of Al Franken at 96 years old.
An incredible inspiring, inspirational, and enthusiastic outdoor track and field and indoor track and field promoter/director.
I first met Al in 1975 when I was running the LA Times indoor games at the Los Angeles Forum Arena, I was introduced to Al by Mr Will Kern who is the Meeting director at the LA Times indoor games and we all agreed that John Walker and I would go and race at the Jack in the Box indoor games in San Diego.
During the next few years race participation in Los Angeles at either the indoor games or the outdoor track and field Al and his wife Shirley would often take John Walker and myself out for lunch and we even went and hit a couple buckets at a local golf range, Al was a very good golfer.
His son Don Franken has been a great friend over the last years and has always kept me updated on his father’s Health and Wellness and participation at various golf events he lived a long and productive and inspiring life!
RIP Al Franken”
“Al Franken was a great and very personable meet promoter in the Southern California region. My first indoor meet outside the SFO Bay Area where I grew up was an Al Franken organized event. He was inclusive in that in an era in our sport when most men’s and women’s track meets were held separately. I and many other women were invited to compete in his meets. I especially loved competing at the Sunkist and Jack-in-the Box indoor meets!
Al’s meets were among my first ventures into gaining experience competing in such an incredible atmosphere (full of spectators) for athletic competition.”
“I met Al Franken at a competition in America.
He was a person totally committed to our sport and a paradigm for its development both inside and outside the USA.
Rest in peace dear brother.”
“June 1972….my very first “big meet invite” Al Franken’s Von’s Coliseum Classic….my first sub 4 in my first race with Jim Ryun!
I wrote a letter to Al thanking him for the opportunity…(he said the first he had ever received!)…..he forwarded it to T&F News who published it in the II July 1972 edition (#1pic to follow)
June 1973 …. Von’s again….my first big victory over a “named field” (Wottle, Liquori, Boit, Wheeler!)
Even received a letter from Al after that race!
Then in Dec 1974, after not running a step during my first year of law school I decide to give it another go for ’76 and write to Al and not only get a Christmas card back AND a follow up letter with an invite to the ’75 Sunkist – NO reason to bring me into that field with NO racing since June ’73!!!!
Feb ’76…..invite to Jack in the Box meet in SanDiego …,. My first sub 4 indoors behind Dixon and Bayi.
Jan of 1991….invites me as a masters athlete to compete in the ELITE mile race at Sunkist won by Steve Scott and even though my race wasn’t the best (4:18 I wasn’t lapped (LOL) and was invited back again the next year!
SO many memories…SO many opportunities…SO many high points of my running career…..ALL because in 1972 Al Franken had some faith in a 117lb MSU junior, a thank you letter was written back, and a friendship developed that gave me opportunities in law school and into the 1990’s (in my forties!!!) to participate and experience his track meet mastery ALWAYS centered around the well being, promotion and success OF THE ATHLETE….not just the meet organizer!
A unique man who always gave, gave and gave for the benefit of the athlete, a promoter of ALL who competed, a dear and treasured personal friend to me!
My running career and life were enhanced and enriched from my many blessings that Al created for me!”
I have always lived in Southern California and had the good fortune of knowing Al Franken. Most track people know of Al and the events he put on and promoted. I was lucky to also know him as the guy who supported and encouraged me whether I was racing well or not. He always greeted me warmly and genuinely wanted to know how I was doing, including asking about my husband, Tom, and my family. He always cared about people and the sport of track and field.
As a youngster, I remember many of his meets including a Master’s Mile, which my father would run. I would go to these meets and watch the stars of track and field compete. Al created opportunities for high school and local runners, not just the elites. Even though I didn’t always run well indoor on those small tracks, Al always invited me to participate. I have such great memories of Sunkist, San Diego, and the Pepsi Meet in particular. I always enjoyed the Track Writer’s Luncheons prior to many of Al’s events. In the pre-internet days, it was great to spend time with a lot of people – journalists, coaches, other athletes – and catch up on what was happening.
Al is a legend, especially in Southern California! He was a wonderful man who will be remembered fondly. I’m sure that stories about Al will be flowing freely when I attend local events and reunions. I am imaging a great reunion in heaven with Al and so many who have gone before – Jim Murray, Mal Florence, Scott Davis, Jon Henderschott, Tom Sturak, Lazlo Tabori, and so many others who I miss spending time with.
“I remember competing at the Sunkist Invitational and it was East against the West with Brisco! Delisa in the 400! 500 and 600! Of course I always won and Al always invited me year after year and was very generous! My condolences to his family! ðŸŒ¹ðŸ™ðŸ¾ðŸŒ¹ðŸ™ðŸ¾“
“In 1981 I was running well my senior year at BYU; I had run 4:02 on the indoor Smith Fieldhouse track at BYU. Someone said that I should run the 2 Mile at the LA Times meet in CA in Feb. Coach contacted the meet, and they turned us down. Bob Wood contacted Al to see if he would allow me to run in the 2 Mile at the Sunkist Meet. Al was willing and gave me a spot on the starting line. The Sunkist meet was just a week or two away.
When I got to the meet, I found out that an athlete at UTEP was also running the 2 Mile, Suleiman Nyambui. I didn’t know anything about any of the other competitors, but I knew Suleiman well, with both of our schools being in the WAC conference. He had defeated me many times. Since I knew Suleiman, I planned my race strategy around him. The race plan was simple; follow Suleiman and try to hang on. Whatever place he was in, stay with him. As we approached the last few laps of the race (22 in total), Suleiman was in the lead, and I was still with him. When we hit the top of the turn on the last lap with 3/4 of a lap remaining, I gave it everything that I had and burst past him. (He was definitely not expecting it!) I held on to the end, winning the race in 8:28.1, a huge PR and a major breakthrough. First time that I had ever defeated Suleiman Nyambui. And, my first experience in big time track and field. Al made it possible. The confidence boost that came from that race was critical to me believing in myself; that I could run with the athletes in those meets. Without that race when it occurred in my career, I might not have ever had a breakthrough. I owe that to Al.
After the meet Al thanked me for being there. I still have and use the citrus juicer that I received as a first place trophy.
Throughout my career Al was always gracious and kind. I ran in most all of his meets after that: Sunkist, Jack-in-the-Box in San Diego, Pepsi at UCLA, Kinney at Berkeley. Wonderful memories of Al and Don. One time I was in the LA area and was looking for a place to stay. Al had me stay at his home. He and Shirley were wonderful! I thought it most appropriate when Al offered me a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice the next morning.
Al was a great man who cared deeply about what he did. He did it right.
Thank you, Al.”
“My everlasting reminiscence of Mr. Franken during the years that I spent as an athlete’s representative, was that he unceasingly looked after their interests first and foremost. As a spectator at dozens of Al’s meets over a period of two decades, there was never ever a dull moment. And finally, as a historian and archivist of the sport, I am amazed at Al Franken’s vast body of work…it is absolutely beyond compare. Al was clearly the P.T. Barnum of track and field, and his legacy shall live into perpetuity.”
“Al Franken was the consumate promoter.
Connected and relentless, he brought indoor track to the west coast and staged some of the greatest races ever indoors. There wasn’t anyone he didn’t know in track field and he didn’t take no for an answer. My favorite meets Jack in The Box San Diego and Sunkist Los Angeles on the West Coast are some of my greatest memories ever competing.”
“So strange. I had Just thought of him two to three times today and I never think of him. I Actually saw an older gentlemen today while my wife and I were in Naples Florida for the month, and thought he looked like Al about 2 hours ago. Strange!
Al was certainly ahead of his time in promoting track meets. He secured a major sponsor – Pepsi UCLA invite in May; Jack in the Box indoor and Sunkist indoor meets. Each year he made sure he had a full slate of competitions. For me and other US based athletes, it was a great way to test fitness, get paid, and go to the West coast for sun. He and his son Don always made me feel welcome.”
“Big Al Franken! To say his name brings a smile to my face!
Big Al took me by the hand, at 19 years old he promoted me, taught me how to promote myself world wide , how to negotiate ,and that AAU was not to be trusted.
Big Al would fly me up from SD to do
press conferences for my first Sunkist meet.
We lunched at LA’s best restaurants,
Big Al aways nudged me to “talk up -pump up the race”!
Big AL was a master marketer, I sprinted in every meet indoors and out doors.
As a native New Yorker (Bx4Life) meets in
Madison Square Garden were like Mecca to us.
But Big Al Fraken outdid East Coast hands down!
Big Al was always handing me some logo product – Sunkist, Pepsi, Jack in the Box, Vons , – he loved looking out for us athletes any way he could during the Bullshit amature years. Creeps at AAU
even banned him for taking care of us.
Big Al and his lovely wife would take my college girlfriend and I to dinner, of course at best LA restaurants – class all the way.
Okay – my favorite Big Al story!!
I was out leaned in NCAA 100y 1974 ,
and groin injury added to 2 bad races.
I was at a cross roads, the rather dicey move to not compete for SDSU and turning my self “Pro”.
For the 1974 AAU Nationals at UCLA I rushed to LA and got an “out of the way hotel “.
But Big AL saw me striding on the grass 2 days before meet. He just gave me the “Big Al deep handshake. I don’t even remember what we said .
On Race Day:
After first two rounds of the 100m , just before the finals I’m pacing like a race horse – Big Al slips up on me and whispers
“I will give you $500 to wear this Sunkist running top in the finals “
I said yes even though I was loosely connected to Beverly Hills Striders .
I ran my first of five 9.9 100m WR at UCLA Drake Stadium and destroyed a super field a great dramatic picture that went World Wide for Sunkist.
Xmas time that year a card from Al arrived with the Sunkist check for $500!
We Love You Big Al.
“The very first time I got paid for being a professional amateur high jumper was when Al asked me to come over to UCLA to take some photos with that year’s “Sunkist Queen” as part of the promotion for the upcoming season’s Sunkist Invitational (1973). Once we were all done, Al came over and shook my hand to thank me. Inside it was a $20 bill.
I had just turned 19 and was a couple weeks away from competing for the Pacific Coast Club for the first time.
It was 49 yrs. ago later this month. Hard to believe!
“I’m sorry to hear of Al Franken’s passing. In the history of the sport of track and field, Al deserves a place in the pantheon of great meet directors and promoters of the sport (a very small group). Al was an athlete-oriented promoter who challenged the track and field authorities — first the AAU, then TAC, then USATF — to open up the sport and allow athletes to be paid, sometimes paying a price himself (including, I seem to recall, Al being “banned” from the sport for a period). As a former PR professional, he knew how to light up the LA media and entertainment community . . . virtually no door in Hollywood or the local media was closed to him.
Al loved the whole sport, but he had a special regard for milers. He would bring some of us out to LA each winter, house us in a motel near UCLA, and then schedule us with appearances and press conferences to promote the Sunkist indoor event (and often his San Diego-based Jack In the Box meet). One time, Eamonn Coghlan and I went with Al to a Hollywood studio. When we got to the set of a film starring Melissa Gilbert (“The Diary of Anne Frank”), the actors greeted us and said, “Oh, you guys are here to run the Sunkist mile,” another example of Al’s ability to generate attention to his meets.
Al’s long-term involvement in the sport and love for its history meant that Al routinely brought together different generations of athletes, and I remember being at Al and Shirley’s house for a meal and meeting Kip Keino, who had starred in an earlier generation of Al’s meets. That appreciation for the sport’s history meant that he understood which athletes would move the promotional needle, whether it was Houston McTear or Filbert Bayi or Sergey Bubka.
Al made a living off the sport of track and field when few others could, and his creativity and passion for the sport truly made a difference. Like all of us who had to chart the water from track’s “amateur” era to track’s “professional” era, Al may have taken the occasional misstep along the way, but his contribution to the sport was remarkable and his legacy secure.”
“Yes, I sure did race at Sunkist!
Loved having the opportunity because of the history of the event, and growing up watching it on tv. Loved meeting Al and Don! Such genuine people that made you feel special. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to run in their event and win the 3000m one year. I would have gone back every year if it had continued, because I just loved the way Al ran his event and made it a memorable time. His friendliness and respect will never be forgotten by me. May he Rest In Peace.”
“I was unaware that Mr. Franken had passed. From the time I was in college and first invited to the Pepsi Meet at Drake stadium at UCLA, it was Mr. Franken that stood out as Mr. Track and Field to me. Mr. Franken was the first meet organizer who showed his respect and appreciation to the athletes he invited to his meets. He even invited to to arrive many days prior to his meets in order to get properly acclimated to ensure me being at my best. He was more than a meet promoter to me. He was my friend. He cared about me and did his absolute best for me. And I always felt that I needed to show my gratitude by performing at my very best for him. I set the collegiate record that stood for 40 yrs.
I will miss him. His legacy will forever burn brightly in my heart.”
“I was in two Al Franken Fields during my running life, one in high school the other at Navy. I ran the Sunkist High School Mile in 1983 and it was fantastic. Sat against the wall stretching next to, of all people, Hershel Walker. (Al put together the College Football 60 yard dash. It was awesome) A great memory for me. He was the best!”
“He understood you had to market the meet for people to come out – the best track promoter ever
Fly me in the week ahead to do promotion then fly home then fly back
Hosted writers luncheons in Los Angeles with athletes
I was out promoting the Jack in the box meet needed to do a workout went to SD state track to do 10 or so 200 he said he had to go and he literally car pulled up stood in front of me for a live tv show
I didn’t care because he promoted the sport – he knew the important –
“I first met Al after the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, in early 1975. Along with Dick Taylor the Commonwealth Champion over 10,000 meters, I was given an invitation to compete at Al’s ‘Jack in the Box track’ meet. He was not what I would have imagined of a meet promoter. His favourite catch phrase was ”who needs them?’
Al being a professional meet promoter meant that every dollar he saved was a bonus. He only ever really wanted Eamonn Coglan but he needed the rest of us to fill up the field in the mile. Originally I was not too happy to compete indoors because I was tall, heavy and awkward but I was persuaded with free trips to Disneyland and the promise of a great holiday.
Al seemed to know everyone and had contacts everywhere and he embraced me with warmth and humour and I loved his very direct persona. We became good friends. From then on I raced for him countless times. A highlight was the great race when Eamonn blitz the world indoor record with a at Al’s Jack in the Box’ followed by Ray Flynn with me in third.
I am left with very fond memories of my time with Al and Shirley.
RIP my friend.”
The “Tall, Heavy & Awkward” John Walker wins the 1988 Sunkist Mile!
“Al Franken was one of the great pioneers in Track & Field. He made T&F professional before the sport became professional as we know it today.
Al was the athlete’s man. He fought with the authorities so he could pay his “workers” a fare share for running around in circles fast! Al was the world’s best meet promoter. His PR skills were creative, like me racing a tram up Lombard St in San Francisco because he knew it would make the papers! He knew how to work the media. Al’s vision and passion for T&F was years beyond his time. He knew how to make a meet work and he knew how to put bums on seats. He attracted the stars and he knew how to fill stadia, indoors & outdoors.
I recall Al asking me to invite a young Seb Coe to run in San Diego. I said, “sorry Al, this is my territory, ask him yourself.” Coe broke John Walker’s mile record that year and thankfully didn’t compete for Al.
Al treated athletes very well most times. He knew how to make a buck out of them while willing taking personal financial risks at the same time. Al’s hospitality was beyond bounds. He treated me as if I was his son. He housed & fed me well during my years living and training in California despite being banned by the IAAF on two occasions, it was because he got too close to his studs!
If he was in his prime today, there’s no better man to skilfully showcase T&F at its best. Al made you feel most welcome with his charm and weird wit. He was a gentleman and a man of high morals. He provided the meets and I was privileged to deliver records during my best years in track, particularly in San Diego where I broke the Mile WR which made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Al signed & framed it and it proudly hangs on my office wall all there years later.
So many fond memories of our journey I’ll cherish about Al forever.”
Sent from my iPhone