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Of the 41 current varsity sports at Harvard—the largest number in the country—men’s squash has won the most national championships by far, with 30, all of which have come in the second half of the twentieth century.
What might surprise some Crimson fans is that second on the list, tied with women’s squash with 14 national titles, is one of the nation’s most popular collegiate sports—men’s lacrosse.
As the game looks to crown a new national champion at the end of the month, the Crimson is on the outside looking in at the bracket that will decide the year’s winner for the 38th time in the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament’s 43-year existence, never having advanced past the quarterfinals.
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harvard was a men’s lacrosse powerhouse, winning all of its 14 championships before 1916.
Even students at the time were unaware of what Winthrop Nightingale, class of 1915, called the school’s “supremacy in this branch of athletics.”
“The majority of men in College today do not yet realize that the lacrosse team offers more to the individual than any other athletic team representing the University,” Nightingale wrote in a 1915 letter to The Crimson.
Indeed, during Nightingale’s era, lacrosse was just beginning to become popular, but as it did so, Harvard excelled.
The sport had its intercollegiate origins in New York City in the fall of 1877, when NYU played Manhattan College in the first game ever. Harvard, along with NYU, was the first university to join the United States National Amateur Lacrosse Association in 1879. Two years later, those two schools, along with Princeton and Columbia, competed in the first intercollegiate tournament sponsored by the association, and the Crimson beat the Tigers to win its first championship.
Around the turn of the century, a number of innovations greatly improved the game. Nets were fastened to the goalposts in 1897, and a year later, shorter, lighter sticks gave rise to a short passing game. In 1905, the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse League was founded with Northern and Southern Divisions, and the new league brought with it a number of innovations as well, including the implementation of 35-minute halves.
Yet despite all these changes to the game’s regulations, Harvard continued to win. The Crimson earned the first USILL national title in 1905 and then garnered six straight titles from 1908-1913.
One hundred years ago today, Harvard defeated Cornell, 5-1, to win the last of that string of championships and preserve its spot atop the collegiate lacrosse world.
The five-time defending national champions began preparing for its quest for a sixth straight title two months before the season was set to get underway. As an article in The Crimson noted, “the hard games at the beginning of the schedule, especially those during the southern trip early in April, necessitate an immediate start.”
On a frigid February 17th night—temperatures had hit a low of 27 degrees Fahrenheit during the day—a meeting was held in Thayer Common Room for all those interested in pursuing a spot on the team. Following that gathering was another discussion about the formation of a Boston Lacrosse Club, which would have the dual purpose of providing both a league in which Harvard graduates could continue their careers and an additional means of practice for the undergraduate squad.
Apparently, turnout was low, as two weeks later another meeting was held in Sever Hall.
“One of the objects [of the meeting] is to get out as many new men as possible, and show them some of the advantages lacrosse offers to men who, on account of afternoon work, are unable to go out for other teams,” an announcement explained. “It is mainly to accommodate these men that practice begins at 4.30 o'clock in the afternoon.”
The notice also pointed to the program’s recent achievements, writing that “the records of the [lacrosse] teams during the last ten years speak for themselves and there is no reason why more men should not take up the sport.”
In order to draw students to the event, guest speakers included Charles Marsters, a former president of the Intercollegiate Lacrosse League who had graduated from Harvard in 1907, as well as Fred Alexander, Phillip Nash, and Paul Gustafson, the respective captains of the 1910, 1911, and 1912 national champion squads.
At the meeting, William Garcelon, class of 1895, spoke of lacrosse’s “great value as a sport in which any style or build of athlete can win success.” Marsters “discussed the better and cleaner aspect of the game in recent years,” Alexander noted the program’s past triumphs, and Gustafson “devoted his attention chiefly to the practical side of the game.”
“Every man must apply himself diligently to learning the rudiments of the game, and freshman candidates particularly should devote themselves to securing a mastery of the rules,” said Gustafson, who also discussed the Boston Lacrosse Club he had recently helped form.
About fifty prospective players attended the meeting in an effort to join a squad that was returning a wealth of talent.
“There are seven regular players back from last year’s team and also a number of substitutes who will form a splendid nucleus for this year's twelve,” The Crimson wrote. “In view of the large number of new candidates, prospects for a successful season are very bright.”
Tryouts began the following afternoon at Soldiers Field, and arrangements were made so that the lacrosse players could use the baseball cage on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after 7 p.m. Such night practices were new to the team in 1913, and according to a March 5 report in The Crimson, they “proved so far highly successful.”
“The special object of [the practices is] to give the men a chance to learn and improve their stick-work and formations, points which are usually too much neglected until the season actually begins,” The Crimson explained.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, practices were held indoors “with the object of getting the men in [physical] condition,” and the freshman candidates for the team were also given one night a week to practice.
Interclass games were held on March 26, 27, and 28 to help finalize the roster. On March 29, the Crimson played an exhibition against the Boston Lacrosse Club, founded by Marsters and Gustafson. The club, composed of former Harvard players, defeated the Crimson, 2-0, in a game the undergraduates largely used as a final tryout.
Marsters would later become a prominent ambassador of the sport, serving as president of the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association from 1909 to 1910 and again from 1917 to 1918. He was inducted into the Collegiate Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1957.
Returning to the team from the 1912 championship squad were second defense Raymond Simmons, the team’s captain and a South Boston native, as well as goaltender Nathan Lincoln, center James Foristall, centerpoint William MacKenzie, in home Ralph Beatley, utility player Joseph White—all class of 1913—and out home Frederic Abbe, class of 1914.
Though the contract of Crimson coach Arthur Warwick was not yet finalized, in March The Crimson noted the team was not worried about his return.
“The officials of the lacrosse team are in communication with Coach Warwick, who has coached the University’s championship twelves for two years,” the paper read. “Though he has not yet signed a contract, he has signified his intention of returning, and it is hoped that he will be on hand for the early games, if not before.”
But Warwick, the captain and manager of a team in Toronto, never returned that season, leaving Gustafson at the helm of the squad.
Once the rookie coach had finalized his roster, the team got set to begin its championship defense.
“Though this year’s schedule is considered an unusually difficult one, there is no reason to believe that the team will fall to uphold its enviable past record,” The Crimson wrote in a season preview.
Harvard began its schedule with a “southern” roadtrip, playing Penn at Franklin Field on April 12 and the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland at College Park) on April 14.
The Quakers and Terrapins were no match for the Crimson, which won by respective scores of 10-0 and 12-0. In the latter contest, drizzling rain created a slippery field with three inches of mud, but the weather did nothing to stop a potent Crimson offense.
“The Aggies were ragged on attack and Harvard outclassed them in teamwork,” read the next day’s Washington Herald. “The college boys [from Maryland] put up a game fight against apparently big odds.”
Next up was an 8-3 exhibition victory over Navy in Annapolis, a win that, according to the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, “was considered especially encouraging as the opponents were heavy football men who were playing lacrosse in order to get into shape for football in the fall.”
But during the contest, Harvard lost Mackenzie, Simmons, and third attack Percival Brundage to injury, leaving the team in “crippled condition” for its next exhibition contest against Johns Hopkins.
A perennial championship contender, the Blue Jays had also won many of the era’s titles, including at least a share in every year from 1906 to 1909 and again in 1911. And according to the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, in 1913 Johns Hopkins was considered to have “the best team which that University has supported for years.”
Twelve months prior, Harvard had knocked off the Blue Jays, the Southern Division champions, to win the 1912 national championship despite losing a 5-4 contest in Baltimore during the regular season.
At the 2013 preseason meeting in Sever, Marsters had noted that “Harvard teams had now attained a standard of excellence where the defeat of Johns Hopkins was most to be desired and worked for.” But during the teams’ 1913 exhibition, on the first sunny day of the road trip, the Crimson showed it was not quite at John Hopkins’ level, falling, 8-3.
Luckily for Harvard, the scrimmage did not count, and it remained undefeated after its early season road trip.
WILD, WILD WEST
After a week on the road, the Crimson returned to Cambridge and played its first—and only—home contest of the season against Stevens Institute of Technology on April 27 at Soldiers Field.
“The University team is in good condition for the game, and has developed well as a result of practice since the southern trip,” wrote The Crimson before the contest, to which tickets cost fifty cents.
Though Harvard allowed its first goals of the season in the match, it nonetheless cruised to a 9-3 victory.
“The University offence [sic] played well together,” The Crimson wrote. “Nightingale and Foristall displayed clever stick work, while [first attack Putnam] Eaton’s shots at the goal were especially accurate. The defence [sic], though weakened by injuries on the southern trip, held the Stevens forward line well, [with point Fred] Churchill doing particularly good work in spoiling many attempts to score.”
Two weeks later, Harvard departed on its “western” road trip, with games scheduled in upstate New York against Hobart on May 10 and Cornell on May 12.
“As the team has been playing very well the chances for winning the game, and probably the league championship, are good,” The Crimson claimed before the contest with the Deacons (now known as the Statesmen).
The prediction would prove prescient, as Harvard—thanks to two goals each from second attack Nightingale, third attack Brundage, and third defense Percy Catton—won what its student paper called a “brilliant” match against Hobart by a score of 7-3.
“Throughout the game [Harvard] showed better speed and stick-work,” The Crimson noted, adding that “Lincoln played an excellent game in goal.”
Two days later, the Crimson travelled to Ithaca to play the Big Red with the ILL Northern Division Championship on the line. Tickets to the contest, played at Percy Field, cost 25 cents.
The day of the game, The Crimson predicted that “the University will have to work hard to win for Cornell has a strong team.” The Cornell Daily Sun was equally complementary of the Crimson, noting that “the Harvard lacrosse team promises a hard match.”
That proved to be the case for the Big Red, as the visitors were able to come out on top in what both The Sun and The Crimson deemed a “fast and clean game.” Harvard’s 5-1 victory clinched the program’s seventh ILL championship in ten years.
“Both teams showed lots of fight throughout the entire game, and the brilliant defensive work of the Crimson goalkeepers swayed the score in favor of the victors,” wrote The Sun. “Cornell’s fast forwards were unable to keep the ball within the visitors’ territory during the better part of the game, but only succeeded in getting one shot by Harvard’s goal tender, Lincoln.”
On offense, Brundage turned in a strong performance, registering a hat trick, while Catton tallied the Crimson’s other two scores.
“The victory over Cornell was especially credible and was accomplished only by a very hard fight in which Lincoln at goal figured prominently,” wrote the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine.
THAT’S A WRAP
With another Northern Division championship in tow, Harvard offered to play Johns Hopkins, the Southern Division champions, for the national title, as the two teams had done a year prior.
An “important lacrosse practice” was held on May 15 so that the Crimson would be in “good condition” against the Blue Jays if the latter consented to play for the title. But Johns Hopkins was unable to participate, resulting in a split national championship.
The Crimson thus played just one more game, on May 20—Memorial Day—when it traveled to Hoboken, N.J. for a rematch with the Ducks. Before the match, The Crimson warned fans that the contest might be more competitive than the first meeting between the two squads.
“Since...the University team won the championship, they have had very little practice, while Stevens has been playing regularly,” the paper wrote. “Owing to this fact the game should be close and the result is extremely doubtful.”
Yet behind strong games from Foristall, MacKenzie, and Simmons, the Crimson was able to collect a 7-2 victory to finish the year a perfect 6-0.
A month after the season, on June 7, a celebratory dinner was held at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston. Brundage was elected the following year’s captain, while a number of players won letters.
Despite the return of Warwick to the helm, the Crimson would finish just 3-3 in 1914 following the loss of a number of key contributors. But Harvard would put together a championship performance one more time in 1915, when it won its final national title.
Following graduation, the 1913 team’s key players went on to careers in varied fields, including Catton, who became the Crimson’s head coach in 1921.
Simmons became a metallurgist in Gary, Ind., while MacKenzie did the same in Canton, Ohio. Lincoln became a high school teacher in Middletown, Conn., while Beatley taught math in New York City. Eaton worked in commercial administration in London, Churchill became a secretary at an engineering corporation in Boston, Nightingale worked in educational administration at Northeastern University, White went to Harvard Medical School, Brundage became an accountant in Westfield, N.J., and Abbe joined the army before becoming an investment banker in Boston.
Though each player went his own distinctive way after leaving the gates of Harvard Yard, they all shared a special bond.
One hundred years ago to date, after completing what the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine deemed a “remarkable season,” each of them was crowned a champion.
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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