The old Indian game of lacrosse has come into its own as a spring sport. Its ingredients include brave hearts, stout clubs and a slow whistle
A Navy attackman known now as Homicide Hargrave, aiming his 230-pound self at a Duke player scurrying about on the sidelines, miscalculated the range and hit his coach instead. The impact broke Dinty’s leg in two places and severed most of the ligaments.
“What a body check! Man, that’s the way to play lacrosse!” exulted the coach as they carried him off the field.
Several years ago, after a lacrosse game played between a team of college stars and a team of Onandaga Indians, the chief of the Onandagas took one of the particularly deserving college boys aside and showed him a couple of the deadlier secrets of the game.
“Lookum here,” the chief said. “Hold your foot over other fellow’s foot, so. When he start, put foot down. Dislocatum hip. When fellow too fast, run away from you, hitum in heel with stick. Gettum just right, he no run no more. Ever.”
The young man thanked the chief courteously and departed. In 28 years of coaching lacrosse since then, 19 at Navy, Dinty Moore has never felt called upon to teach his men how to dislocatum hip, but some of Navy’s bruised opponents have often wondered what holds him back. Last year Navy was national lacrosse champion but the real proof of Dinty’s coaching ability occurred during the game with Duke. A Navy attackman known now as Homicide Hargrave, aiming his 230-pound self at a Duke player scurrying about on the sidelines, miscalculated the range and hit his coach instead. The impact broke Dinty’s leg in two places and severed most of the ligaments.
“What a body check! Man, that’s the way to play lacrosse!” exulted the coach as they carried him off the field.
This spring some 60 colleges and as many secondary schools fielded lacrosse teams. In many schools it was the third biggest sport, after football and basketball. More players were participating than at any time since before the white man arrived and spoiled the fun. (Thousand-man Indian teams used to stage contests lasting for days, not even stopping to bury the dead.) It’s a game that is exciting both to play and to watch. “After you see lacrosse,” said Rip Miller, athletic director at Navy and one of the Seven Mules of Notre Dame, “other spring sports are like kissing your sister.”
Although lacrosse is a rough game, you don’t have to be either a behemoth or a goon to play it. In what other team contact sport these days can a 140-pound honor student like Virginia‘s Jimmy Grieves make All-America in his junior year? “I just don’t know what comes over me when I play lacrosse,” Jimmy mused recently.
Another good thing about lacrosse is that it’s easy to understand. If you have ever sat in a darkened projection room with a bunch of football coaches running one play over and over trying to find out what their own team was doing, you appreciate the simplicity of lacrosse all the more. “It’s basketball played on a football field with a club and a slow whistle,” someone once observed with a shudder. The idea is to throw a hard rubber ball in the opponent’s goal, around or through the goal tender. Each team has 10 men, but only six can cross the midfield line at a time, so that the melee is restricted to 12 men and the goalie.
“We used to play with 12 men and what the rule book called natural boundaries,” recalls Joseph B. Beck-man, an All-America at Maryland 24 years ago. “We used to knock down a lot of fences. We played Syracuse in the football stadium. There were high concrete walls around the field. The referee got both teams together before the game and told us he didn’t want to see anybody get bounced off those walls. Well, the game started, and the ball went over against the wall, and I had a good shot at a guy—could a slammed him through the wall—but I remembered what the referee said and laid off. All of a sudden BOOM two guys hit me and knocked me up against that concrete and the whole stadium shook. Hell, the whole town shook. I looked up at the referee and he was laughin’ all over himself. He was from Syracuse!”
NAMES WILL NEVER HURT
When a man has possession of the ball you can do most anything to him to make him wish he hadn’t. Provided you hit his stick at the same time, you can hit him with your stick anywhere between the shoulders and the knees. A new rule this year prohibits hitting him on the head at any time. He doesn’t even have to have the ball, just be within 15 feet of a loose ball, to be eligible to receive your best body block. The only restraint is that you can’t hit him from behind or below the knees.
A body check is a most effective weapon. In the Dartmouth-Maryland game this year a quiet, unassuming young man from Dartmouth mistakenly intercepted a Maryland pass near his own goal and stood for a split second in perplexity wondering what to do with it. Three Maryland men hit him at the same time and he, ball, gloves and stick all shot up as though squirted out of a toothpaste tube.
“We do that all the time!” Jack Faber, the Maryland coach, exclaimed proudly. “When they intercept we bump ’em quick to get that ball back before they can move it!”
With a big aggressive squad and two potential All-Americas in Ronnie Smith and Charlie (Wimp) Wicker, Maryland is virtually assured of the national championship this year. Saturday, the red-and-white-clad Terrapins edged by Navy 9-8 in a rugged game witnessed by what is reported to be the largest crowd in lacrosse history, 13,000.
For Navy, last year’s champion, the loss was its first in almost two years, and the main difference was Wicker. A strapping 185-pounder from the sand-lots of Baltimore, Wicker was all over the field on the attack, set up four goals, scored another and with less than a minute to play intercepted the ball and ran away from Navy’s great football end, Ron Beagle, as the clock ticked off the final seconds.
In lacrosse, there is never any argument over who is the champion. The selection is made by the Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association by means of an elaborate point system. Likewise, the All-America team will be the All-America team, chosen by one central committee on advice of the coaches.
Lacrosse teams are divided into three divisions, and there’s as much difference between the top and the bottom as there is between the Big Leagues and Class D. The top teams in the A Division last year were, in order of national ranking, Navy, Army, Duke, Maryland, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Syracuse was first in the B Division, followed by Washington College, Hofstra, Harvard, Penn, Rutgers, Cornell, Baltimore, Swarthmore, Loyola, Hobart, Dartmouth, Penn State, Williams and Delaware. Class C teams were, in order, Union, New Hampshire, Stevens Tech, Amherst, Lehigh, Oberlin, MIT, Adel-phi, CCNY, Cortland State, Tufts, Hamilton, Dickinson, Lafayette and Worcester Poly. Incidentally a team gets as many points for losing to some Class A powerhouse like Johns Hopkins as for beating some Class C patsy like Ohio State University.
There are two distinct types of play, loosely referred to as northern and southern. Army, Navy, Princeton, and the teams in and south of Maryland pass a lot, with close team work and deft scoring plays. Baltimore is the breeding ground for this type of game. Northern teams play a dodging game with one or two fleet-footed stars zigzagging down the field with the ball. The southern teams also play a more aggressive game. The annual Army-Navy encounter, each team sporting a half dozen or so football players, is a glorious riot, and good lacrosse too.
The service teams develop their own players. At Army, Coach Morris Touchstone works his candidates out all winter in the riding hall. Coach Moore of Navy can’t get on the job until March 1. (For eight months of the year Dr. W. H. Moore III runs a home for wealthy oldsters. “We have a man playing piano at luncheon every single day and an organ concert in the afternoon.”) He handpicks his squad from over 200 candidates each year.
First he puts them through wind sprints, noting the fast ones. Then he lines them up in a column of threes, sticks in hand. He throws out a ball, blows a whistle, and the three front men take off after it. The two men on the left work together against the one man on the right. The midshipman who winds up with the ball gets a hearty clap on the shoulder, but it’s the man with the matted hair and blood on his stick who makes the team. Speed and aggressiveness, that’s what Dinty wants. Given a boy with those attributes, he can teach him lacrosse.
Not every school has 200 man-eaters out for lacrosse and a refugee from the old ladies’ home for a coach. A more normal cross section of lacrosse powers can be had in Baltimore, the home of the organized game. The Baltimore Athletic Club fielded a team in 1880 and the town has loved lacrosse ever since. Though now the public schools field teams, the game was long the exclusive property of fine old private schools like Gilman, Boy’s Latin, Friends, McDonogh and St. Paul’s. When these teams play, usually on Friday afternoon, gangs of mothers from the exclusive Guilford and Roland Park sections descend upon the field and range the sidelines shouting “Cream him, Donald!” and “Lay the wood on, Roger!” At cocktail parties later all you can hear are indignant remarks like, “Why, they were running through the crease all afternoon/”
Spring Saturdays in Maryland are busy days indeed. Several of the natives managed to see four games April 2. Dartmouth and Maryland played at College Park in the morning, Washington and Lee and Loyola played in Baltimore in early afternoon, Mount Washington Lacrosse Club and Princeton played in the late afternoon at Baltimore, and the Maryland Lacrosse Club and Duke played in Annapolis that night.
The club teams make up another phenomenon of lacrosse. The Mount Washington squad contains 15 former first-string All-Americas. They not only play for nothing, they get out three times a week and run wind sprints for nothing. Take Redmond Finney, who was All-American in both lacrosse and football at Princeton a few years ago. From a prominent Baltimore family, he has never really seriously considered the pro football offers. But he knocks himself out every Saturday for dear old Mount Washington, gratis.
SWEET AND PURE
So do nearly all college stars in the game today. Although you can find any rumor you want to hear about proselyting around Baltimore, the truth of the matter is that even the best college teams are largely unsubsidized. Maryland offers aboveboard grants-in-aid and jobs to some of its players, and Johns Hopkins has recently made available five tuition scholarships. Most other recruiting is done in the private schools whose students intend to go on through college anyway. Members of the Virginia team even paid their own way to eight games they played last year—in England. Playing against all-star teams, the Cavaliers won six, lost one and tied one. There have probably been more alibis for this one lost lacrosse game than any conflict in history. Some of them are listed in the 1955 Lacrosse Guide. They include:
The games were played according to English (i.e., original American) rules, with 12 men on a side, no substitutions and 40-minute halves. “You try running full speed up and down a field 80 minutes sometime,” one young man said grimly.
During the morning and afternoon the team would be taken on a tour of whatever town they happened to be playing in, always by foot. Just before the game every member was plied with tea. “We had to drink a cup to the Queen, a cup to the President, a cup to the Prime Minister, and a cup to the Secretary of State. You try running up and down a field for 80 minutes with four cups of tea in you.”
SAFETY IN CROWDS
The games were played with “natural boundaries” which frequently meant the crowd. Just close your eyes now and picture a young man clad in shoulder pads, arm pads, blue jersey and shorts, wearing huge elbow-length gloves and carrying a club, peering out from under a helmet with a wire cage attached, poking around through a late-afternoon crowd of English gentlemen and ladies after a little white ball, and you will have some idea of the difficulties encountered. “You try running up and down a field for 80 minutes with a sweet old lady’s umbrella wrapped around your neck.”
Generally, however, the play was quite sporting, with the English apologizing profusely and the Americans reflecting the gentlemanly upbringing of the Baltimore private school boys who play it best.
In Canada, lacrosse is a village game. In 1931 a group of Canadian All-Stars played St. John’s College, then a lacrosse power, in Baltimore. The Canadians quickly found a St. John’s weakness; the college boys went all to pieces when poked in the groin. The game ended in a riot. Somebody decked the referee, and he lay on the greensward as cold as a blue point. A second scheduled game was played the next day, but with more policemen on the field than players, and the magic was gone.
Canada now goes all out for box lacrosse, which is played in an enclosed court from which neither ball nor players can escape and is faster and rougher than the American game. It was tried out in Baltimore, but didn’t go over. Dinty Moore once received a letter from a Florida promoter offering him a job recruiting players for box lacrosse. “Of course,” the letter said, “we’ll have a false floor that’ll make plenty of noise without hurting the players.” Dinty didn’t answer and the promoter apparently gave up the idea.
Even if American lacrosse players were interested in playing professionally, the greatest of them all, the Babe Ruth of lacrosse, is no longer available. He was Jack Turnbull, of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins. A bomber pilot, he was killed during World War II on a mission over Germany.
Jack came from a lacrosse family. His big brother gave him something to shoot at; Doug Turnbull was All-America at Hopkins for four straight years. Jack only made it twice, but he was still the greatest. One time two members of the opposing team got behind their goal and hit him so hard he turned a flip and came down on his head. But he still had the ball and, with one hand, he flipped it 30 yards straight into the stick of a wide-open teammate who scored.
In a real tough Navy game, the score was tied 2-2, when Jack Turnbull got the ball with 30 seconds to play. What a finish! He took out for the goal. Two Navy defensemen, both football players, came to meet him. They both hit him at the same time, but in the split second before the crash, using the oncoming men as a shield to confuse the goalie, he fired. Goal!
“It was the most thrilling play I ever saw,” Dinty Moore says. “I almost didn’t mind getting beat.”