When RPI Lacrosse Went To The Olympics
While athletes are competing in dozens of different sports at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, one that’s not in the mix is lacrosse. But back in 1948 the United States was represented at the London Games by the team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Lacrosse was first displayed at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis with three teams competing: Two Canadian squads, including one of Mohawk Nation players, and an American team. In 1908, Canada beat Great Britain in a single game to take home the gold. In subsequent Olympic Games in 1928, 1932 and 1948, lacrosse was featured as a demonstration event. And in that final year, the cherry and white of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute represented the red, white and blue.
“In ’48, coming off of a very good season the year before, in ‘47 for RPI, they went 11 and 1 in 1947,” said Perry Laskaris, the communications specialist in the athletics department at RPI. “They went 13 and 0 in 1948. So in the midst of that season, maybe even before that a little bit, there was an inkling that they would be invited. And sure enough, they had even better season in ’48 under Ned Harkness, and they were invited to play in the Olympics. So it was a big deal at the time. All the clippings we can find from then showing it was a big, big deal for not only the school, but the city of Troy and the Capital Region, I'm sure.”
Laskaris and I sat down with scrapbooks compiled by two players on that 1948 team –Marty Davis and Ronnie Ball – to discuss the squad’s Olympic journey.
“One of the co-captains who we have is his book here, Marty Davis,” Laskaris detailed. “He was nicknamed ‘getaway man’ for his knack at winning faceoffs. And you see it today in lacrosse, winning a faceoff and going and scoring immediately. He was a Navy pilot during World War II, came back to school. I mean that kind of brings you a little bit different perspective on what these kids were and maybe we don't call Marty Davis a kid even when he's in college, with that kind of experience.”
But before the players could leave for London, the team and RPI needed to raise the money to get there – a concept that’s hard to fathom in today’s sports landscape driven by sponsorships and television deals.
“So they wanted to raise $20,000,” Laskaris said. “It turned out to be a little over $17,000. You're talking about March through basically May when they stopped, fundraising, but the way they brought in money in was, I think at least in this day and age, to be very interesting. $2 buttons to Troy community members. They ended up raising $2,296 from the buttons, which is a decent amount of money. By May 26, they had 10-grand. So finished off in June, they organized a parade ahead of their game against Virginia, which was their second to last home game of the year to try and drum up some interest. It had cadets from Lasalle, RPI’s Army and Navy ROTC were in this parade saying ‘come on out to watch RPI take on Virginia.’ The students who usually got in for free, voluntarily pay full price for this game. With over 6,000 fans coming to the Virginia game. The Virginia game in ticket sales raises $5,184. So almost a third of this trip is from this one game alone. They beat Virginia 12 to 8, part of their 13-0 run. Other funny things I found…The professors at RPI held a pie eating contest where you tie your hands behind your back, and I'm sure that raised the plenty of money from that. You had the Troy Record newspaper fund, $1,300. The Sophomore Soiree donated all of their earnings to the trip. Freshmen class donating $300, which, you know, thank you freshmen. The student carnival raised $1,400. I talked about the souvenir programs, which we have one of here, for 35 cents apiece.
Those raised $659. Civic committee donations $314. Student store rebates $474. And then the RPI trustees, I'm sure helping along the cause there, $3,500 from the trustees. And one final note on donations, Union College collected donations. This is a road game for RPI in Schenectady. Even though RPI beat the Dutchman 13 to 1 on the day, they raised $40. Just went took a collection I guess out into the crowd and said ‘RPI is trying to go to England’ and Union fans donated $40 to the trip.”
When it was time for the team to leave, members had been sent a letter from RPI President Livingston Houston offering his “whole-hearted support” and reminding the players that they represent the college. An itinerary detailed that there was to be no laundry service aboard the ship they would take and therefore the players should prepare accordingly and bring plenty of clothing, including a Sunday suit. Also of note, cigarettes could be purchased aboard the ship from $1 per carton, and everyone was encouraged to buy one before leaving the ship.
“They started practicing on June 25. So it was not during a school year,” Laskaris said. “So they had to bring everybody back together. They took the bus down from Troy to New York City, and they boarded, the name of the boat was the Marine Flasher, for a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. They slept in bunks that were six bunks high. And they took 900 pounds of canned goods over. I think, because they didn't know what to expect. And they did daily workouts on the ship leaving July 2. And they arrived in Southampton on July 11.”
In addition to a series of games – which overwhelmingly went in favor of RPI – team members wrote that they were treated like royalty, dining and having tea with dignitaries.
“They went, you can call it 8-0-1 or 7-0-1, with one of the games counting, to be disputed,” Laskaris explained. “But the one tie was actually the most exciting and really the reason for going over there if you could put one exclamation point on the trip. It was a game versus the all England team at Wembley Stadium in London in front of between 35,000 and 60,000 fans depending on who you ask. August 5, 1948. RPI wearing its red shirt with the RPI and the USA on the front, with England wearing all white including white hats. RPI led 4 to 2 after the first quarter. And this is a story one of the players tells but King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II arrive after the first quarter and England scores three straight goals to take a 5-4 lead. So RPI is down and this lasts for quite some time. Before Alan Myers tied the game for RPI with 55 seconds left. According to notes, on a shot from his knees that tied the game at 5 and they didn't have any plans for overtime. So it was a 5-5 draw. That was the only tie RPI had. The Engineers then finished their trip beating the London Iroquois 19-nothing on August 7 at the London Athletic Ground, and the team made it back to the United States once again on the Marine Flasher on August 21. So build in a couple of days there and they didn't leave too long after the last game, it looks like they had some time to maybe explore and take some photos and be a real tourist of Great Britain.”
Laskaris, an RPI grad himself, says the 1948 group should be commended for what they did and the foundation they laid for the school’s lacrosse program.
“It really it really spurred on the RPI, not only men's lacrosse program, but I think athletics as well,” he said. “Because if you look at Ned Harkness, who started coaching the team as an assistant in 1941, had to go fly for the Canadian Royal Air Force during World War II comes back in 1945. From ’45 to’48, that's not a lot of time to build a program, but he was able to do so almost immediately. And he went on to coach the team up through 1958, picking up the RPI hockey program in 1949, coaching them to a national championship in ‘54. Mind you, the men's lacrosse program won their first and only national championship in 1952. So this is a short period of time for Harkness to build you know what's renowned in this Capital Region as you know some of the best athletic achievements you know ever.”
Lacrosse backers are hoping the sport will be included in the 2028 Summer Olympics Games in Los Angeles – 80 years after the boys from Troy represented the U.S.