Not all sports bars are created equal. Today, it’s all about flat screens and spicy wings, but there was a time when runners had their own bar in Boston, hard along the marathon route where legends lived, but everyman was welcome, from judges to journalists, Red Sox baseball players to the Stanford marching band. Once, even a horse clopped up to the bar with nary another nay (neigh?) sayer in sight.
Situated in Boston’s fashionable Back Bay neighborhood on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues — just a half-mile from the Boston Marathon finish line — The Eliot Lounge opened shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s. Through its first forty years it was just another musty, smoke-filled piano bar, catering to its Eliot Hotel guests, businessmen, and the occasional MIT or Harvard student stopping off for a final pop before tramping back over the Mass. Ave. Bridge to Cambridge.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1972 that The Eliot began its ascendancy toward legendary status. It was then that a quintessentially Irish bartender with a twinkle in his eye and the glint of gold in his heart came up from Cape Cod to take over the afternoon shift.
An ex-marine who had been working summers on the Cape at the Brothers Four bar in Falmouth, Tommy Leonard was a running fan like few others. After watching Frank Shorter win the Olympic gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Munich Games, Tommy founded the now iconic Falmouth Road Race to raise funds for the Falmouth Girls Track Club. But Tommy wasn’t just a fan; he also completed the Boston Marathon 25 times. He was even pictured in Sports Illustrated in 1957 pounding over the final few meters of the course while workers were cleaning up the finish area.
Tommy’s arrival at The Eliot coincided with what came to be known as the first Running Boom. As interest in the sport grew through the 1970s, and the Greater Boston Track Club became one of the premier distance running clubs in the world, The Eliot became the club’s unofficial club house. With Tommy manning the taps The Eliot became a magnet for the running crowd. After every Tuesday night track session at Boston College the gang would gather to rehydrate. After every big race the place would fill for the post-race celebration. I even had a Tuesday night radio show called Runner’s Digest that aired in Boston beginning in 1977 which Tommy would dial up in the bar, and tell everyone to hush up for an hour as he listened.
Soon The Eliot took on the feel of a museum, its walls festooned with pictures of racing triumphs, its ceiling cluttered with race posters and banners from around the running world. The marathon countdown clock hung at the end of the bar in what was known as the Coach’s Corner where famed GBTC distance coach Bill Squires held forth. Behind the bar Tommy hung flags representing the nations of the Boston Marathon champions in year-round celebration. After Bill Rodgers won the first of his four Boston Marathon titles in 1975 in an American record time, when asked how he was going to celebrate, said, “I’m going to the Eliot to have a Blue Whale”. When he dropped out of the race two years later, he went to the Eliot to drown his sorrows.
After her first of two Boston wins in ’79, Maine’s Joan Benoit could be found at The Eliot late into the night giving backside barracudas to unsuspecting revelers as the line to get in snaked around the corner. Tommy even had the grand idea of making The Eliot running’s version of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1984 he imbedded the sidewalk out front with the footprints of running’s stars — though Tommy mixed the cement formula wrong, so the prints didn’t quite indent properly. No matter. We liked it better that way.
But The Eliot wasn’t just for runners. Writers from the Boston Globe, the Herald, and the Boston Phoenix were all regulars, too. Boston Herald sports scribe George Kimball once famously asked Tommy, “How can they start a road race that finishes two hours before the bars open?” when Tommy informed him that the Falmouth Road Race was moving its start time from noon to 10 a.m.
PGA Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller once closed the place, then tended bar after hours till 4am after meeting Tommy for “one quick pop” following a tournament in town. And when Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee was asked how it felt to lose the heartbreaking seventh game of the 1975 World Series to Don Gullet of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, he quipped, “He might be going to the Hall of Fame, but I’m going to The Eliot Lounge.”
In truth, with Doug Brown and Tommy Sullivan behind the bar at night and the lovely Lisa Gagnon fending off offers while taking orders from the floor, The Eliot was what the Cheers bar on TV was presented as, the place where everybody knew your name. When Cheers made its last call on NBC May 20, 1993, Jay Leno hosted the Tonight Show live from the Hampshire House — the building on Beacon Street that houses The Bull & Finch Pub, the façade for Cheers. Senator John Kerry drove Tommy to the party in his limo, because he knew he’d get a better reception having T.L. with him, since Tommy was good friends with Bull & Finch barkeep Eddie Doyle.
That’s not to say that The Eliot couldn’t have a dark side; it wasn’t just friends of Tommy who stopped by. “I got held up one Monday night,” recalled Tommy from his home in Falmouth, Mass. where he is now retired. “The guy came in wearing a stocking mask over his face. I sensed what he was up to when he walked in the door. But when he stuck a gun in my face, I thought it was a starter’s pistol, so I went to grab for it. But I slipped, and went down just as the gun went off. I had a green ball point pen in my pocket, and it was leaking. I looked down and said, “Hell, I don’t have green blood”.
One of the twenty or so patrons in the place threw a beer bottle at the bandit as he dashed out with his $475 in loot, but he got away in a stolen cab. Tommy called the cops, and next thing he knew about 12 squad cars squealed up onto the sidewalk out front. See, The Eliot was their bar, too.
Tommy’s cop friends told him, “Don’t ever try that again, or we’ll shoot you!” The next day the ballistics guys pulled two slugs out of the wall behind the bar by the service area. Donny Aiken, The Eliot’s real owner, put up a framed Guinness picture to cover the two bullet holes.
Whether stopping in to visit Tommy for some water in the middle of a training run during the day, or dancing to our favorite local band, Heidi and the Secret Admirers on Thursday and Sunday nights, the Eliot was every runners second home for nearly a quarter century.
“I loved every second of it, I used to go in with the attitude, ‘who am I going to meet interesting today?’”
Tommy Leonard reflected upon those golden years behind the Eliot’s blond bar. “Bonnie Raitt used to come in and sing with Heidi in the days when she used to do shots of Old Grand-Dad. One of the greatest days of my life was after the 1992 World Cross Country Championships. The races were held in Franklin Park, and afterwards everyone came back to The Eliot. The Brits, the Irish, Germans, Russians, every great runner from 1500 meters to the marathon was in the bar that night singing. Oh, Christ! It was incredible.”
Then in 1996, the 100th anniversary year of the Boston Marathon, the owners of the newly renovated Eliot Hotel closed the legendary watering hole on its first floor, looking to put in a chic new restaurant in place of the aging hang-out bar.
“I’m an old country bumpkin from Westfield, Mass.,” Tommy says. “I’m corny. So I played Ray Charles America the Beautiful and Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.”
Yes, there once there was a magical time when running was king. And once there was a place where we runners had our own court in which to revel in it all.