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In 1874, Crew Was Oarsome

Never mind Ali-Frazier, you should have seen Columbia rowing Yale

We can scarcely remember an event not involving a war or some vast issue in politics which has occasioned so much excitement," the New York Times editorialized. "Crowds of persons waited around the newspaper offices last night until long after dark...requesting information about the result...."

The sports event that stirred the multitudes in the summer of 1874 was not a heavyweight championship fight, a crucial baseball game or a classic horse race but a college rowing regatta, a three-mile, nine-team race scheduled to take place at Lake Saratoga on July 16, 1874. If it is now difficult to imagine groups of two-fisted men in their favorite saloons debating the merits of Columbia's crew vs. that of Yale or Wesleyan, it might be well to remember that Civil War soldiers frequently wagered consequential sums of money on races between paper sailboats or even pet lice trundling from one edge of a metal plate to the other. We tend to take what action is available, and a century ago rowing was very nearly the all-American sport. There were, after all, many beautiful streams and rivers to be traveled, without interruption by commercial traffic or encountering pollution, and those were the days when many more people participated in sports than watched.

Not that the sports fan was an unknown creature in 1874. He was alive and quite well, and July of that year presented him with a number of interesting events. Although still a new activity, so new that it was hyphenated, base-ball attracted thousands of spectators to Watertown, N.Y. for a tournament involving 14 amateur clubs from the United States and Canada. On July 3 the Maple Leaf team from Guelph, Ont., the eventual winner, beat the Ku Klux Klan club (Klub?) of Oneida by a score of 13-4. (The newspaper accounts of the time did not say whether the Oneida team was handicapped by having to wear its sheets.)

And sports-watching had its hazards then, as now. On July 4, for example, eight young men were struck by lightning while watching a game of marbles near Rockwood, Tenn., and in Memphis, four days later, the following occurred: "During a game of base-ball in the suburbs last evening, a negro man, who was in the way of Peter Meath, the catcher, was ordered out of the way, to which he responded with an oath and, drawing a pistol, fired at Meath, who ran to his coat, and getting a pistol, returned the fire. Some half-dozen shots were fired in the melee that ensued, the negro firing at the other members of the club. Fnally he was shot in the back and then beaten terribly." So much, as they say, for the lighter side of the news.

Many "base-ball" fans were also excited about the upcoming European tour of the National Association's Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Stockings, which were to be the first professional clubs to play abroad. Meanwhile, league play went on as usual—with one newspaper's accounts of the games being distinguished by a curious, almost compulsive, criticism of the umpiring. On July 10, for instance, it was remarked that "the umpiring was excellent," even though Philadelphia beat the hometown New York Mutuals. On the 15th, following a 9-8 victory by Boston, the officiating was termed "very strict." The next day, as the A's beat Boston, it was deemed "very satisfactory," while on the third, a more detailed critique asserted that "the game was lost to the Philadelphians by a poor decision of the umpire, who in the 6th inning gave Craver out at the plate when it was evident that he got there before the ball."

Receiving less critical attention in the sports pages that month were the antics of Professor Squire, the Utica balloonist who got involved with a church spire at Brockville, Ont. on July 1 and such "decided novelties" as the rare spectacle of a "ladies swimming contest" at Fort Hamilton Beach, N.Y. on the 8th. The first race, for the prize of a gold opera chain, was won by Sophie Stevens under the supervision of Miss Kate Bennett, "herself an expert swimmer and ladies instructress in the free swimming baths, foot of eleventh street."

But the big event for sports fans of July 1874 remained the college regatta, in anticipation of which thousands of persons had elbowed their way into the New York resort town of Saratoga. It was rumored that even President Grant would attend. As the pre-contest ballyhoo swelled to remarkable proportions sportswriters then, as today, made news of trivia: Cornell's particular handicap ("they are all suffering from diarrhea"); the odds established by the official pool sellers, or bookies (Harvard was favored, with Yale second choice and Wesleyan third); and an alleged threat by Yale's Captain Cook to smash into Harvard's boat rather than finish behind his school's most hated rival.

On the morning of the race thousands of young women decorated the streets of Saratoga by dressing in the colors of their favorite team. ("Backing Brown was a distinct sacrifice," one fashion-wise correspondent remarked.) By midday, more than 25,000 spectators had started for the nearby lake, riding farm wagons, brick carts—"everything with four wheels." So critical was the transportation shortage that upwards of $50 was paid for a team of horses, and one farmer who had come to town with a load of spinach had to defend his vehicle from capture by using his whip.

Five hours later, when the crowd had settled back in the grandstand and along the shoreline, the College Regatta Committee announced that the race had been postponed because of choppy water. Grumbling, the throngs returned to Saratoga.

The following day the pilgrimage was repeated and the race was again postponed, after official dawdling. It was noted that the spectators were becoming restless and, even worse, uninterested. "The toilettes of the ladies showed a great falling-off of devotion, for very few were dressed in the college colors," the Times reported.

But the race finally did take place and drama was plentiful as underdog Columbia flashed across the finish line well ahead of the field, while Yale and Harvard exchanged foul charges. Columbia Captain Frank Rees fainted and had to be carried to the hotel, and police officials reported that pickpockets had had a field day. As, indeed, did spectators and participants, 100 Julys ago.