In The GreatTussle with Hopkins, a work dealing with heroics in that sometimes violent andalways exhausting game of lacrosse, Frank Merriwell had an especially heavytime of it. The captain of the Johns Hopkins University team attempted to takeFrank's girl (unsuccessfully), conspired to get him to smoke (unsuccessfully),to get him to drink (unsuccessfully), to have him beaten up (Merriwell won by aknockout) and in a last flash of satanic inspiration tried to put him out ofthe game by cracking his skull with a lacrosse stick. At the end of the storyMerriwell tells the imaginative but villainous Hopkins man: "I don't knowhow you happened to be chosen captain of the Hopkins team. You can playlacrosse, but you are a dirty fellow."
As the picture atleft shows, it is unnecessary to play dirty lacrosse to become a dirty fellow.It is, in fact, a misconception shared by thousands who know a little bit aboutthe game that dirty fellows naturally gravitate to it because in it they canslake their devilish thirsts. It is a riotous sport. Sticks and bodies fly. Theseeming alternative for the practitioner is to skewer or be skewered. Butrefinement has come steadily since the bloody days of its origin when Indiansplayed to kill. Nobody gets killed playing lacrosse anymore. It only seems likeit.
Even thoseMephistopheles at Johns Hopkins, that Maryland school which feels as ferventlyabout lacrosse and plays it as well as Notre Dame does football, have changedsince Merriwell. The present captain of the team, Henry Ciccarone, is a lovingfather who hasn't stolen anybody's girl in years. Jerry Schmidt (see cover) isan All-America attackman who hits like a fullback and has been known to causesuffering, but he is a mannerly boy and always says he's sorry. "Why,lacrosse people are always nice people," says Jack Kelly, who publicizesthe game (Lacrosse Newsletter, circ. 1,100) out of the goodness of his own niceheart. They are also all peculiarly devoted to their art, which is, if notvicious, no tippy-toes game either.
As has been thecase for 70 years, the major lacrosse powers are on the East Coast. TheUniversity of Maryland, Virginia and Duke compete eagerly to get a share of theslickest prep school players in the Maryland area and turn out teams withconsiderable finesse. Navy gets local talent, too, and adds enough footballplayers to be both fast and strong, while Army has done well by emphasizingmuscle. But regardless of how any individual season goes—Army and Navy wereco-champions last year—it is Johns Hopkins, with its 19 national titles, whichreigns as the symbolic and often the actual leader of the sport.
At Hopkins thereare no subsidized athletics. The school ended athletic scholarships in 1935,and stopped charging admission to all sports in 1938. It is now consideredgauche at Hopkins to fawn over football players. But neither Hopkins norBaltimore itself will brook indifference to lacrosse, a unique love which thecity holds as dear as its crab cakes and its Preakness. Half the country mayspell it La Crosse, or think it is a vegetable to be creamed and served withspareribs, but in Baltimore it is regal. Undefiled by scholarships, small-timein every other sport, Johns Hopkins plays big-time lacrosse. Jerry Schmidt, whowas carrying his first lacrosse stick at 4 and has been a star since his earlyteens, is typical of the town product.
On the day of therecent Yale game the Johns Hopkins campus offered for intellectual perusal ascience fair in the gymnasium, where the effects of tranquilizers andstimulants on certain daphnia shellfish were on display, and a politicalcampaign, for which the posters were sublime: "Matt Crenson is insecure,frustrated, emotionally unstable. Vote for him for class representative. He'llfeel lots better."
But Yale andlacrosse were the big attention-getters. The crowd arrived early at HomewoodStadium and was noisy. It was particularly aware of the progress of youngSchmidt, which was neither political nor scientific, but intemperately directedtoward the Yale goal. He scored five times. The crowd cheered. Six leggycheerleaders chorused nasally, "All here for Hopkins, stand up andtwist!" and then heaved into the orbit of that dance, with sufficient flairto stimulate the most lab-softened daphnia.
It began to rainas the score mounted against poor Yale, and some timorous fans retired to thegym to pay perfunctory respects to the science exhibits and to crane their wetnecks to see if they could still catch a glimpse of the action on the field,where the score eventually reached 15-7. "Lacrosse," groaned oneexhibitor, upset at the muddy footprints and lack of scientific interest,"lacrosse is too much."
That's what thewhite settlers used to say about it. Lacrosse is indigenous to America (not toBaltimore, which came upon it circumstantially); it is the old Indian game ofteiontsesiksaheks, or baggataway, and got its present name when French settlerssaw the curved sticks and were reminded of their word for the bishop'scrosier—la crosse. The Indian game flowed with the landscape. Goals ranged fromvillage to village, with as many as a thousand braves to a side, but thenumbers diminished as the pace quickened. Fractures and fatalities wereconsidered the luck of the game.
Today lacrosse isplayed 10 men to a side on a field 110 yards long and 70 yards wide. The goals(similar in size and shape to the soccer goal) are 80 yards apart. Boundariesare a fairly recent addition, partly to bring some tidiness to the game andpartly to eliminate slashing behind the barn and elbowing in the dogwood. ARutgers man once chased a Lehigh ballcarrier under the grandstand. After somemoments the Rutgers man emerged with the ball. The Lehigh man emergedeventually.
Actually, thegame is not quite as brutal as it might appear. It is fast and cute, likebasketball. It demands more sustained exertion than football, though its bodycontact is less frequent. Its main requirement, especially on its fleet littleattackmen who contend with defensemen twice their size, is a rugged willingnessto get knocked flat and come up charging for the ball again. Like hockey, itsblocking and body checking are isolated and therefore spectacular. The Indiansplayed nine-tenths naked, but the modern lacrosse player is outfitted in afiber-glass helmet, face guard, cleats, thick forearm-length gloves, shoulderand body padding (called "armor plating" by disdainful oldtimers whonever used helmets or face guards) and, to complete the ensemble, a pair ofshort shorts. These give the lacrosse player an air of incompleteness, as if hehad started to dress and then had experienced a change of heart. Only thegoalie wears long pants, to ease some of the sting when a hard rubber ball shotat 100 mph bounces off his legs. (A goalie can be identified on any Marylandbeach in the early summertime by his white legs and bruised, blue chest.)
The sticks—theymust never be called rackets or bats—used to carry the five-ounce India rubberball are from three to six feet long. Attackmen use a short stick to facilitatecutting and shooting; defensemen use long and heavier ones to knock down passesand swat foes. The shaft is of bent hickory, with the net at the end made ofeither catgut or rawhide strips.
The stick is aformidable weapon. Watching a practice session at West Point, Doc Blanchard,the esteemed All-America fullback of the mid-'40s, shuddered and declared hewould "have no part of a sport that permits fellows like Hank Foldberg andUg Fuson to perform with sticks in their hands." The flailing for a looseball is terrific, with the players looking like a swarm of African bushbeatersflushing game. The rules specify that one can legally whack only the gloves orstick of an opponent. Some swings and jabs stray, of course—there are only twoofficials and they can't see everything. It is a debilitating game, especiallyfor midfielders, who must cover the entire length of the field. But seriousinjuries are infrequent. All-America Schmidt's only wound is a 13-stitch scaron his mouth. He got that playing football.
Given speed andstamina, the other thing a good lacrosse player must develop is stickwork. Thisis the art of the game. Lacrosse players give their sticks tender care,patiently shaping and forming the gutted pocket. By a measured jerk of forearmsand wrists (both hands going at once), the ball is disgorged from the stick atsurprising speeds. While he is running, the player keeps the ball in the netpocket, hopefully impervious to hostile jabs, by constantly twisting the wrist,as one revs a motorbike.
Uniquely, thelacrosse player dearly loves to practice. Unlike many sports, lacrosse practiceis play. Jimmy Brown of the Cleveland Browns, an All-America at Syracuse, foundin lacrosse none of the five-day-a-week drudgery of football. "It's a gameall the way," he said,-'rough as football at times...and there is alwaysthe stick." Schmidt gets in shape for the lacrosse season by playingfirst-string end on the Hopkins football team. Like many lacrosse players inthe Baltimore area, he views football as a mere conditioner.
This is how ithas been there since 1878, when a touring track team returned to Baltimore fromNewport with news of a "most activating and exciting new game." Now thefirst signs of a Baltimore spring are the dents in auto fenders whereyoungsters have missed passes while playing catch en route to school, and fansfind themselves having trouble thinking about that more typical springtimesport, baseball. One day in 1956 the Navy-Maryland lacrosse game drew 11,500paying customers while the Baltimore Orioles were playing to 3,800 at the sametime.
A nativeBaltimorean hesitates to admit he can't play lacrosse, and learns to talk agood game in any event. Wherever he subsequently wanders he evangelizes—thereis no game, he says, like the great game of lacrosse and why don't we have someright now? The origin of almost all the nation's lacrosse coaches can be tracedto Baltimore, where the city's schools play it, colleges play it, and theBaltimore and Mount Washington lacrosse clubs were organized for those whostill weren't satiated with the game.
The clubs enjoy astrange existence. Their teams are made up of former college players, many ofwhom are ex-All-Americas, and they play (and usually beat) the best collegeteams. The clubs practice and play for nothing, and their members participateuntil they are too old to compete with the more recent graduates. Little elsethan age benches an avid club player. Karl Rippelmeyer, an ex-Navy All-America,commuted from Quantico, Va. to play as an attackman for the Baltimore club alllast season.
A lacrossefollower invariably can be heard explaining how the game is "spreading likewildfire," and it is true that lacrosse has found many new homes. Beyondthe suburbs of Baltimore, however, the wildfire is under control. There areestablished hotbeds—the service academies, some Ivy colleges and such smallereastern schools as Hofstra. New converts have been made in Colorado andCalifornia, and Ohio State is leading a midwestern spurt of interest in thegame. But lacrosse can be a real spectator attraction only where it is playedwell. When played poorly, the scrambling at midfield is no more artful orsporting than an army of panhandlers diving after a discarded cigar."Inexperience shows in all sports," says Jack Kelly, a realist andformer All-America at Maryland. "It shows especially in lacrosse. Our sportis growing, but slowly, with control."
Lacrosse is agame for girls, too. Strong national girls' teams are fielded in othercountries, and the ladies at Smith College have zestfully played and beenbeaten by touring teams from Ireland and England. The girls' game prohibitscontact, which enables them to forgo the armorplate and appear fetching, exceptfor the goalie, who is uniformed like Yogi Berra.
Molly Schmidt, apretty blonde Baltimore debutante who married Jerry Schmidt, played girls'lacrosse but found it boring and much prefers watching her husband's team inaction. Raised in a lacrosse tradition, she comes from a large family oflacrosse players and devotees. Her uncle, Howard Myers, is the head coach atHofstra.
The Schmidtsoccupy the third floor of her family's home in fashionable Guilford. There isalways a family turnout for Jerry's games; Molly has missed only one—a footballgame last fall, the day she had Ann Austin, their 5½-month-old daughter.Hopkins teammate Bobby Mayne's wife isn't allowed at the games because he saysshe makes him nervous. But Molly Schmidt sits near the Hopkins bench and cheersmightily. She has had dreams of Jerry winning the scoring championship.
This is areasonable dream. Schmidt made 32 goals last year, becoming the sixth leadingscorer among major college teams. He is not big (170 pounds) and is not overlyfast, but he has forearms like Alley Oop and what his coach, Bobby Scott, calls"a knack for getting the ball in the goal." Schmidt will lurk behindthe opponent's goal until he gets the ball; then, cradling it to his side likea short-order cook with a hot skillet, he cuts around the left side of thegoal. He always goes to the left because he is left-handed. Though everyopponent stacks him strong to the left side, they still cannot stop him."If there's an opening any bigger than a keyhole, he'll get through,"says an admiring teammate. "And when he's mad, he'll knock you down.Legally, of course." Conversely, Schmidt has been known to offer opposingdefense-men sincere advice on how to improve their game.
After scoringfive goals against Yale, Schmidt got four in a 15-9 Hopkins rout of Princeton.Then last Saturday he scored the crucial goal which put Hopkins ahead 9-8 asthe Baltimore team beat its toughest rival to date, previously undefeatedVirginia, 12-8. With Schmidt at his best, Hopkins can challenge Army, Navy andVirginia for the national championship this year.
It is fittingthat Hopkins is a contender, as it has been regularly for 20 years, for inproud Baltimore they do not take kindly to lacrosse mediocrity. Hopkins lostall its games one year and was tartly reminded in the yearbook—TheHopkinsian—that the record was attributable to "a careful andlong-continued abstinence from training and practice which has becomeproverbial in Johns Hopkins athletes.... We blush to own it. The team had whatis vulgarly known as a 'swell head.' " This year it certainly has beenpracticing.