The Badgers vs. The Business Men of MBC
In the spring of 1894, Schlitz Brewing of Milwaukee donated a stunning three-foot, gold-lined, silver challenge cup to the University of Wisconsin’s fledgling varsity crew to shore up support for the team and spur on a rivalry. The trophy was to be given to the winner of three consecutive races between the Badgers and a team of their choosing. At that time, the American Midwest was a collegiate rowing desert leaving Wisconsin with no choice but to engage one of the regional amateur rowing clubs. The men of the Minnesota Boat Club (MBC) were the obvious choice. The Minnesotas were still basking in the afterglow of a spectacularly victorious 1893 racing season, during which their junior and senior fours enjoyed an unmitigated winning streak earning MBC a national reputation as the fastest club in the Northwest. The Men of MBC accepted Wisconsin's challenge and agreed that the two-mile straightaway eights race would be held on June 23rd, 1894 in front of the Hotel Lafayette on Lake Minnetonka.
The Schlitz Race Series offered Wisconsin a valuable opportunity to compete against an experienced team. Moreover, since the arrival of President Adams, athletics had become increasingly important to campus life, contributing to what was, according to Pyre (1920 see note below), a ‘form of animal excitement, vivified by the sentiment of loyalty known as college spirit.’ The overriding belief was that the power of a university’s athletic teams was an important contributing factor to the overall power of the institution. Athletics could be leveraged to strengthen the sense of belonging and community throughout the university. The excitement of a healthy rivalry would extend beyond the campus to draw in local businesses and townspeople. The Schlitz Race series offered the Men of MBC a refreshing opportunity to compete in their new eight, The Geneva, after over two decades of racing almost exclusively in singles, pairs, doubles and fours. Placing a spectacular trophy on their shelf was also enticing.
A few days before the race, the Badgers settled into the Hotel Lafayette amidst rife speculation as to whether they had any chance of beating the more experienced Minnesotas. There was no question that they were in top physical condition. Their lithe, well-built, athletic physiques impressed. Heads turned. The press took note. According the the June 24, 1894 St. Paul Daily Globe: They showed up in magnificent form. They looked oarsmen, every inch of them. They were trained down to a fine point...' Moreover, they displayed admirable sartorial taste with custom-made uniform lounging suits that they wore about the Hotel Lafayette and that was described in the Sept 21, 1894 Daily Cardinal:
The uniform cap consisted of a navy blue, full hook down cap, ornamented by a monogram U.W.B.C. worked in cardinal silk in front. The uniform lounging coat was a double-breated navy blue serge coat with the same large monogram U.W.B.C. worked on the front upper pocket. Uniform trousers were of white duck (see photo above).
Not everyone was convinced that Wisconsin could apply their strength effectively to move a boat given that they had had only four weeks of formal coaching. Earlier that spring, President Adams had drawn on his Cornell connections to retain Amos Marston, an former Cornell crew man, as the team's first rowing coach. Marston had rowed for four years under professional sculler Charles Courtney and held the position of team captain for one. Competent and hard working, Marston got his crew on Lake Mendota twice a day to impart as much of Courtney's winning technique as time would allow.
The Courtney-inspired Cornell stroke was likened to a piston rod, with the crew furiously pumping back and forth with a truncated body swing and a strong, quick, leg drive. Courtney believed shortening the traditional long English body swing preserved energy and helped with optimal catch placement. He believed the propelling force of the oar was most effective the nearer it could be applied at right angles to the boat, or forward the outrigger (Paine, 1905 - see note below). To compensate for a shorter swing, Courtney employed a wider oar, a longer slide, and a much higher stroke rating. The Cornell stroke often went well above 40 strokes per minute on the theory that speed was gained by clawing the water as often as possible after the fashion of whipping a hoop along with a stick.
John Kennedy, long time MBC trainer, coached a stronger, slower, stroke with an emphasis on power. He subscribed to what he called the 'all-in-one-piece' theory where the beginning of the stroke merged seamlessly with the recovery. Kennedy taught his crew to take the water firmly at the catch, but without violence, slipping in rather than grabbing at the water and pulling through with no let-up to the finish. He wanted his men to engage their legs as soon as the blade was anchored and their back was ‘on.’ MBC had been working with Kennedy for seven years. Yet, they were business men with work obligations; they only got out on the water once a day.
Wisconsin felt further handicapped with their three-year-old paper shell, a cast-off from Harvard. They believed the boat had been unfairly pawned off on them by the original boatbuilder. It had been shipped in three sections and sustained damage during transport. The bracing was weak and one of the seams between sections was so badly damaged that the boat could only be rowed on calm waters. Stormy or rough conditions would overwhelm the fragile shell. MBC's paper shell was just over a year old and had seen very little use. It had only been raced once.
The one clear advantage the Badgers held was their size. The Wisconsin crew averaged 163 pounds, which was considered heavy despite being virtually lightweight by today's standards. Sedgwick, who sat in four seat, was considered particularly hefty weighing in at a whopping 177 pounds. The business men averaged just 157 1/2 pounds.
On the evening of June 23rd, over 2000 spectators gathered in front of the Hotel Lafayette. The lake was a hive of activity. The St. Louis, bursting at capacity, held 600 passengers. Many small boats plied the waters including a dozen chartered launches, hosts of row boats, and numberless sailboats all comfortably filled with sightseers. MBC had chartered the Lotus, which was overflowing with members and fans. Judges rode on the Saucy Kate. Wisconsin had an alumni boat positioned further up the course.
As predicted, the race was a walkover. MBC gained half a length with their first stroke and increased their lead with every additional stroke for the first half mile. At the one mile mark, MBC led by an impressive four boat lengths. Wisconsin kept up a breathtaking piston-rod 40 strokes per minute bringing their rating up to 43 in two different spurts, while MBC held a long, even, stroke rating of 36. Wisconsin made an aggressive spurt at the end of the race ultimately reducing the gap to 2 ½ boat lengths.
Despite their loss, Wisconsin graciously complimented MBC by pointing out that they were almost as fast as Harvard.
Later that evening, a reception was held at the Hotel Lafayette for the oarsmen and 500 prominent Twin Cities guests. According to the St. Paul Daily Globe (June 24, 1894): '...as the Wisconsin crew entered the applause was simply deafening and that it was hearty and sincere was expressed in every voice and gesture.' Two tables had been reserved, richly decorated with cut flowers sent by T. L. Schurmeier in the colors of the two crews, red and white roses for MBC and crimson carnations for Wisconsin. The Honorable D. W. Lawler presided presenting the Schlitz Cup to MBC and a five-sided gold medal--a gift from the Great Northern Railway Company--to each oarsman. Lawler addressed the Badgers taking full advantage of the opportunity to promote MBC:
Gentlemen of the Wisconsin university, you are members of a noble state and also of a noble university. The Bravery and fortitude shown by you in a defeat have won for you a place in the hearts of all Minnesotans. Knowing the reputation of the men that you had to meet you may well feel with the Saracen youth that it is a privilege to have crossed swords with a Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Wisconsin didn't win their first race against MBC, but they clearly enjoyed themselves. They would later reflect that they had made the acquaintance of Saint Paul and Minneapolis society without having stayed in either city for more than 30 minutes. And they looked good, which is no small consolation.
Notes and Sources
Pyre, J.F.A. Wisconsin. 1920. Cambridge University Press, New York P. 255.
Paine, Ralph D. The American College Stroke, Outing, June 1905. Vol. XLVI No. 3 p 373 - 377.
Sketch of Schlitz Challenge Cup taken from the St. Paul Pioneer Press June 17, 1894.
Photo of The Lotus and The Saucy Kate - Minnesota Historical Society Collection
Sketch 'Coming Down The Home Stretch' from the St. Paul Daily Globe, June 24, 1894.
Description of the Wisconsin Uniform Lounging Suite and depiction of spectator boats from The Daily Cardinal. September 21, 1894. Vol IV, No 9. P 1.