Every fall at the University of California a piece of adhesive tape is stuck on the wall where the freshmen line up to register. The tape is at a height of six feet. Whenever the head of a passing boy obscures the white strip a member of California's varsity crew cozies up to him and bluntly proposes: "Let's go somewhere quiet and talk about crew and you."
Last week, on the polluted waters of a 4½-mile-long lake just north of Syracuse, N.Y., this informal approach to talent scouting paid off again for California's traditionally powerful oarsmen. For the second year in a row California won the nation's fattest rowing prize, the testing and taxing three-mile Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta on Onondaga Lake. From behind his mirror sunglasses, freckle-faced Jim Lemmon, the onetime juvenile probation officer who moved up from freshman to varsity coach two years ago, said, "Just put it down that I'm twice blessed. There's no other explanation." "That guy Lemmon can sure relax about holding his job," said Stork Sanford, whose Cornell crew finished 1.4 seconds behind. "We did everything right, exactly as we planned—with the exception of one tiny detail—we lost."
As a matter of fact, the one-two finish of California and Cornell was not precisely as predicted by any of the experts. Early on the morning of the race, as the 13 varsity crews mobilized on the lake shore to put the final polish on themselves and their racing shells (some rub oil on the fragile boats, some rub it off; the engineers from MIT even sand the factory varnish off their shell, muttering about surface tension factor), the coaches on hand were almost unanimous in picking the University of Washington to win. The threat of unbeaten Navy, winner of the Eastern Sprints in May, was suddenly forgotten as word spread that Joe Baldwin, Navy's muscular No. 6, had lost 10 pounds in a bout of severe stomach cramps only a few days before. (The word had not spread, even to Joe himself, that the doctors had diagnosed his cramps as a mild attack of appendicitis. "We know he's well enough to row," confided Coach Paul Quinn, "so we don't want to get him mentally upset at this point by telling him what he had.")
The new threat to the other 12 IRA contenders lay in the crew from Washington, whose giant oarsmen, all of them tall and straight and tough as Douglas firs, ranged in size from a midget of six feet three inches to a titan of six feet six. "With that long-legged load of beef pulling against this 12-knot headwind that all of us are fighting," said one of the eastern coaches, "it's hard to see how the race can go any other way but the Huskies over Navy."
June 25, 1961
Hard to see or not, the race went another way altogether, thanks to the stubbornness of two other top contenders, neither of which would admit it was out of the running. The husky Huskies, as it turned out, finished in fourth place, dismally behind an unfavored and willow-slim (average weight 177 pounds) crew from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Navy's Middies were never really in the race at all and finished sixth behind a crew from the University of Pennsylvania that hadn't even been mentioned in prerace conversations. Joe Baldwin, still innocently unaware of his flirtation with appendicitis, tried manfully to shoulder the blame for Navy's debacle. Asked how he felt at the end of the race, he replied staunchly, "I was feeling too good. If I'd been working as hard as I should have, I would have felt terrible."
By the time the varsity race got under way at 4:30, the carnival atmosphere on Onondaga's shore and in the cruisers moored at courseside had reached its peak. Crowds estimated by an enthusiastic Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at upward of 12,000 had gathered on the banks early in the afternoon in time to see the Washington freshmen sustain their record for an undefeated season in the first race. They already had consumed a generous quantity of beer when Cornell's junior varsity pulled in three lengths ahead of California and Navy in the second race. As the varsity boats lined up at the start, the beer was beginning to seep under the side flaps of the refreshment tents set up by frolicking collegians. A German band was in full basso-profundo voice at Penn's headquarters, and assorted undergraduates were walking on their hands, dancing and stealing kisses.
First man over
At the gun, Syracuse got off first. Princeton, California, Cornell, Washington and, for a brief spell, Navy, were close behind. At the first half mile, California and Cornell were fighting past Princeton for the lead (Syracuse was back in the pack by now). Then for one incredible moment Pennsylvania, which had not won an IRA since 1900, moved up to third place. The German band, caught between an "oom" and a "pah," held its breath for an instant, heard the news that Penn was beginning to fade and went right on as if nothing had happened. From there on out, it was the California boat—triumphantly named the A-OK in honor of the space age—holding a slim edge on Cornell all the way. Beating the water at 42 strokes per minute to Cornell's longer stroke of 38, California finished so fast that its bowman, Jack Matkin, lost his grip on his oar just 20 strokes from the finish and barely recovered it in time. "That's a hell of a way to wind up my rowing career," said the senior, "but I guess it doesn't matter now. I was still the first man over the line."
There was fun and there was plenty of beer on the banks of the Thames River as well, 300 miles away in New London, Conn., where the other big boat race of the week was being held. The only trouble there was that there was no race. Rated virtually even with its ancient rival before the race began, a smoothly pulling Harvard crew covered the four-mile yacht-lined course a good 29.5 seconds faster than Yale. The seven-and-a-half-length defeat was the worst ever suffered by either crew in the 109-year history of the race.