Meet me in St. Louis — Winnipeg lacrosse team captures gold medal at 1904 Olympics

by Bruce Cherney

R.H. Smith announced to the press at the end of March that the Winnipeg Lacrosse Club was considering the possibility of sending its lacrosse team to the Games of the III Olympiad in St. Louis.

St. Louis had captured the imagination of North America as the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, which was already part of popular culture as the result of the catchy tune Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis (Louis is pronounced Louie) released to coincide with the exposition. The song relayed the message from “Flossie” that the World’s Fair and its many attractions were hard to resist, so she left a note to Louis telling him to “meet me at the fair.” Apparently, Smith and the Winnipegs also wanted to join Flossie and Louis at the fair.

“It will practically rest with the players themselves whether the trip is made or not,” reported the March 29, 1904, Morning Telegram. “The club officials have been assured of sufficient funds  to pay half the expenses of the trip to the fair, and the players will be asked to contribute the other half of the amount required.”

It was believed the Winnipegs possessed some of  the best lacrosse players in the Western Canada Lacrosse Association. During the off-season, the club had bolstered its ranks with imported players “who should cut a wide swath in the seniors series.”

The ’Pegs also tried to entice such players into their ranks as Eli Blanchard, “the sturdy defenceman,” from the Montreal Nationals, who had moved to St. Boniface; Doug Munroe, “a hustling little homefielder” from Durham, Ontario, who had arrived just a week earlier; and the two McBrides, one from Toronto and the other from Brantford who played defence.

Weldon Clarke played the point a year earlier, while other members included George Tooke, Clarence Winkler, Bill Cleary, Claude McMullan, Harry Reynolds, Bart Hendron, Jim Murphy, Jack McLeod, Bill Cameron and Fordie Cassidy.

The club confirmed after its April 19 annual meeting in the basement of city hall that it would send a team to St. Louis, which besides holding the Olympic Games was the host city for the 1904 World’s Fair.

On behalf of the executive committee, past club president Smith congratulated the senior team for its uphill fight to regain the senior lacrosse championship of Western Canada. Although the team was unsuccessful, Smith said the ’Pegs made a “credible showing,” in the city championship final despite losing to the Winnipeg Shamrocks.

During the 1903 season, the Winnipegs were not among the best local teams. The ’Pegs won only four exhibition games, tied another and lost six, with their opponents outscoring the team 78-63. Among the teams defeating the Winnipegs in an exhibition match was a “strong aggregate” from Souris, Manitoba. At the time, Souris had one of the best lacrosse teams in the province. 

The ’Pegs split a September 1903 two-game exhibition series in St. Paul, Minnesota, winning the first game 11-8, but losing the final game 10-8. The last game was noted for the defection of goaltender Haines, “the crack Winnipeg player,” to the St. Paul side. It was reported that Haines played a significant role in the defeat of the Winnipeg lacrosse team by St. Paul.

While the ’Pegs had a lacklustre record in 1903, the Winnipeg Shamrocks were the Western Canada Lacrosse Association champions and as such regarded as the best senior team in the city and province. 

The Shamrocks club had completed only the second year of its existence by 1903, but had already been crowned city champions for two years in a row. In 1903, the team won the Hudson’s Bay Trophy (winner of Canada and northwest U.S. competition, primarily contested by Manitoba teams against St. Paul), the Drewry Cup (WCLA champions — more correctly a provincial championship as only Manitoba teams then belonged to the WCLA formed in 1896) and the Commonwealth Shield (Winnipeg champions) “with the loss of only one game and a record of scoring nearly three times as many goals against the teams as was scored against us,” reported club president Dunc Cameron.

As the top-ranked local team, the Shamrocks initially considered challenging for the Minto Cup instead of going to St. Louis. 

The Minto Cup was donated on May 31, 1901, by Canadian Governor General Lord Minto and was  awarded annually to the best senior amateur lacrosse team in Canada. Similar to the initial years of the Stanley Cup then awarded to the best amateur senior hockey team in Canada, any club could challenge for the cup, although the challengers and dates of competition were decided upon by the Minto Cup trustees.

In its early years, just one Manitoba challenge was accepted for the Minto Cup, which after 1910 became the trophy for the professional lacrosse championship of Canada and in the 1930s the trophy for the Canadian junior men’s lacrosse championship.

In 1905, the Souris lacrosse club lost its Minto Cup challenge to the Montreal Shamrocks.

At the Winnipeg Shamrocks’ annual meeting, the lacrosse club reversed its earlier position and said it would defer its Minto Cup challenge and compete at the Olympics.

In March, club secretary Howard Carper in March had tried to think of ways to involve the Shamrocks in both the Minto Cup and the Olympics in St. Louis, but had trouble juggling a schedule for both events.

He told reporters the World’s Fair trip looked particularly enticing to the Shamrocks since “the championship of America would be involved, and “the United States clubs that will compete there do not look at all formidable ...”

The lacrosse tournament in St. Louis was “billed (as) the world’s championship, but which in reality (will) be only the championship of the United States,” commented the Telegram, “though a trifle like that never bothers our American cousins, accustomed as they are to calling everything by similar high sounding but little meaning titles.”

The newspaper claimed the true world champions were the Montreal Shamrocks.

“That the (Winnipeg) Shamrocks can win at the Saintly City (St. Louis) seems a foregone conclusion for none of the American teams has shown much better than intermediate form,” concluded the Telegram.

The Manitoba Free Press added, “the boys are in good shape and fully expect to bring home the World’s Fair championship and medals.”

The newspaper welcomed the addition of a Winnipeg team to the World’s Fair lacrosse competition, as it “will do much to bring the name of the city before the visiting public ... and will certainly be a good advertisement for our western city.”

Civic leaders reasoned the fair was the most popular event scheduled for 1904. Their confidence in the fair as a “good advertisement” was well-founded as the exposition eventually attracted over 20-million people.

During this era, civic boosters aspired to bring their city to the attention of the world. Terms such as the “Bull’s-eye of the Dominion” and “Chicago of the North” were used as evidence of its favourable geographical location and the desire for Winnipeg to earn a place of prominence on the North American continent.

Carper said he intended to write to the director of the St. Louis lacrosse tournament asking that the dates for the competition be “set back till the last week in July, when the National Regatta will be held at the fair.”

With an early July date for the competition and the popularity of the regatta, Carper added it would be more likely that a “larger delegation of Canadians would take in the fair, and better rates for the teams could be obtained.”

“We have challenged for the Minto Cup,” announced the club secretary at the Shamrocks’ annual meeting in April, “but could not play for (the) same last fall on account of the (cup) trustees’ promise to the cup holders (Montreal Shamrocks) that they would not have to defend the same last fall on account of their trip to the (West) coast.”

Eli Blanchard, who earlier agreed to play for the Shamrocks instead of the Winnipegs, said at the club’s annual meeting that dates couldn’t be arranged to compete against the Montreal side before July 1 and advocated taking on the Canadian champions in the fall.

“His opinion carried great weight ... and when the matter was put to a vote, a  resolution was almost unanimously carried to take the St. Louis trip in July and go East after the Minto Cup at the end of the local playing season,” reported the Morning Telegram on April 15.

Postponing the Montreal series wasn’t really a hard decision, since the challenge from the Brantford Lacrosse Club already took precedent over that of the Winnipeg Shamrocks, and the Ontario squad had earlier indicated its intention to ask Montreal to play on July 1.

In June, the Winnipegs announced they were postponing their planned trip to St. Louis in favour of taking on the Minto Cup champion Montreal Shamrocks.

The Winnipeg Lacrosse Club provided a rather lame excuse for not pursuing the opportunity to play at St. Louis. “The club has concluded not to take party in the big lacrosse tournament at the World’s Fair owing to the intense heat prevailing at the Saintly City in July,” reported the Telegram.

Regardless of their intentions, the ’Pegs would have had difficulty convincing the cup trustees and the Montreal team to play against them for the Minto Cup while the Winnipeg Shamrocks were deemed the best lacrosse team in the city. 

The Montreal Shamrocks had been undisputed Canadian senior amateur  men’s lacrosse champions since the Minto Cup was first awarded in 1901, defeating teams from Cornwall, Ottawa and Brantford, Ontario, as well as the New Westminster Salmonbellies from British Columbia.

As a prelude to the 1904 season, the Shamrocks kicked off its practice sessions in late April at Fort Garry Park. The team also changed its club colours, opting for a green jersey instead of the purple worn in previous years. 

Besides Blanchard, the club also announced that it had successfully recruited a number of new players from outside the province such as Jack Hunter, the previous  year’s goaltender for Cornwall, homefielder George Smith from Collingwood, and defenders Percy McBride from Brantford and George Stewart from Western Ontario. Another addition was R.J. Barber, the previous year’s centre for Souris.

“In all,” the Telegram reported, “the club has about twenty-five men to choose from this season, as the following roster of eligibles from last year’s lot will show: goalkeeper, Jack Irving, defencemen George Cattanach and Jack Flett, whom secretary Carper positively states will stay in this city, Buck McGibney, who has informed the club officials that he will leave Ottawa in the course of a couple of weeks for this city; George Bretz, Jack ‘Daddy’ Innes and Alex McCourt, all of them capable defencemen; Stuart Laidlaw, centre; Alfred Laidlaw, Billy Brennaugh, Charles Lambert, Billy Burns, L. Pentland, W. Herchmer, W. O’Brien and W. West, who returned to the city last week, all of them experienced in attack.”

Whatever preparation the Shamrocks made prior to the start of the season, it wasn’t enough. In the very first game of 1904 on May 24, they lost to the Winnipegs 10-4 in front of 1,500 spectators at Fort Garry Park, which was then located on the Hudson’s Bay Company Flats at The Forks. The park, which no longer exists, was immediately east of Main Street and flanked on its north side by Broadway Boulevard which at the time ended at the Red River where it met the Broadway Bridge (no longer in existence) over to St. Boniface. Fort Garry Park was one of the city’s primary sports and entertainment venues of its day, featuring stands that could hold over 3,000 people, facilities for concerts and live entertainment, a track (horse and bicycle races) and a infield for lacrosse and other team sports such as baseball and rugby.

It was reported that the Winnipegs outclassed their opponents in every aspect of the game. From the result, it was said to be impossible to determine if the Shamrocks were stronger or weaker than in 1903. The excuse was offered that they “were simply played off their feet” because they weren’t in physical shape. The Shamrocks controlled play for the first seven minutes of the game, but their lack of conditioning showed as the game progressed.

Although the team had struggled in the early part of the season, the Shamrocks on June 23 announced they were indeed going to St. Louis, and planned to reach the American city on July 2 by way of St. Paul and Chicago.

Since the St. Louis World’s Fair management had ruled that no gate receipts would be provided to the clubs competing, it was felt the Winnipeg club would have a difficult time raising the funds needed to make the trip.

The St. Louis organizers were said to have made their decision at the urging of New York lacrosse clubs which feared Canadian competition.

To fund the trip to St. Louis, the Shamrocks organized a match against a “picked team” at Fort Garry Park with ticket sales going to the club for travel expenses. Some 3,000 spectators turned out to “see the big game” prior to the club departing for the Olympics.

“The finish saw the Shamrocks triumphant with the score 5 to 4, which was not exactly to the liking of the majority of the spectators who, humanlike, rooted for the underdogs — the Winnipegs — and pulled for the downfall of the champion Shams,” reported the Telegram.

In St. Paul, the local team gave the Shamrocks a genuine scare in a “hotly contested” game at Lexington Park which ended 6-6.

Winnipeg had actually jumped ahead 6-1 by the end of the second quarter, but St. Paul replied during the next two quarters with five unanswered goals.

“The brilliant plays made by Armstrong of the Shamrocks was a feature of the game,” the Telegram reported on July 4,” and while the St. Paul team appeared to be in better form than the visitors they could do no better than break even ... the only regret was that one side or the other could not get a decisive victory.”

Despite the game ending in a tie, it was reported as the greatest lacrosse match played in the history of St. Paul, which the Free Press said was witnessed by 2,500 spectators.

Surprisingly, Armstrong, who played so well at St. Paul, is not listed on the official roster of the International Olympic Committee as a member of the team that competed in St. Louis. What happened to him during the journey between St. Paul and Chicago is a mystery.

The game in Chicago was called “just practice for the Shams,” as the Winnipeg team won easily by a 14-5 score.

“The work of the Winnipegs was a revelation to the Chicago followers of the game,” said a special report from the “Windy City” on July 5. “In defensive work the visitors showed the advantage, (George) Cloutier, their goaltender, proving almost impossible to score through ... The Canadians played the most accurate passing ever seen in this city, every movement showing them to be splendid players. Their dodging and backhand shots were far superior to the Calumets (of Chicago).”

The local newspaper said 3,000 fans showed up for the game, which was “easily the largest crowd ever at a lacrosse game” in Chicago.

The Shamrocks’ next stop was St. Louis, where lacrosse would be an official Olympic sport for the first time. 

Actually, the Olympics were overshadowed by the World’s Fair occurring at the same time in the city. The Olympics were originally scheduled for Chicago, but the St. Louis World’s Fair committee objected to another international event occurring at the same time in the U.S. The St. Louis organizers even threatened to stage a sports competition that would eclipse Chicago’s unless the Games were moved to the “Saintly City.” 

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, relented leaving the choice of venue to American President Teddy Roosevelt. It was a forgone conclusion the venue would be changed, as Roosevelt was the honourary president of the World’s Fair.

The relocation of the Games duplicated the mistake made four years 

earlier in Paris when the French city also hosted the Olympics in conjunction with a World’s Fair. As in Paris, 

the Olympics in St. Louis became a sideshow to the World’s Fair. To emphasize its secondary status, the Olympics were spaced over the course of four and one-half months to provide more “attractions” to draw more people to the World’s Fair — an event a day was the proud announcement of St. Louis organizers. 

Baron de Coubertin elected to stay in Paris and expressed his disapproval that the Olympics were held in a city that advertised a competition for “aborigines” and “savages” — members of an indigenous people from around the world exhibition — during which an African Pygmy put the shot over 13 feet and a Japanese Ainu tossed the 56-pound hammer three feet two inches.

“In no other place but America would one have dared place such events on a program,” moaned the baron.

The failure of the Olympics to earn widespread notice is shown by Winnipeg newspapers only reporting on a World’s Fair lacrosse championship at St. Louis, while making absolutely no mention whatsoever of the Summer Olympic Games.

The World’s Fair was awarded to St. Louis in commemoration of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. One hundred years earlier, the U.S. had bought from France all the land lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains south of the 49th Parallel. 

Despite the sideshow nature of the Olympics, lacrosse was obviously a popular game among fair-goers as the final game played in World’s Fair Stadium was witnessed by 60,000 people.

In St. Louis, the Shamrocks were to have opened the competition by playing the Crescent Lacrosse Club of Brooklyn, New York, but the team never showed up. Shamrock secretary Carper later explained that the Crescents backed out of the tournament when they saw how easily the Shamrocks had defeated Chicago. 

In the first round, the St. Louis AAA beat the Brantford (Ontario) Mohawk Indians.

As a result of the earlier default, the Free Press reported that organizers ruled the Winnipeg team was to play the St. Louis side in a two-game series to decide the lacrosse champion.

Winnipeg played the AAA for the first time on July 6. Carper said the St. Louis team was confident of victory and had some good individual players, “(but) they seemed to shoot too soon before getting close to the goal, and in this  manner they counteracted all the good work they did by pass work.”

The Shamrocks defeated St. Louis 6-1 setting up the final scheduled for the next day.

The first quarter of the lacrosse championship was scoreless. Winnipeg scored a single goal in the second quarter, while the third quarter featured two goals for each team. The Shamrocks sealed the victory by scoring five unanswered goals in the fourth quarter for an 8-2 victory and the Olympic gold medal.

The victory was heavily reported in Winnipeg newspapers, a demonstration of the tremendous popularity of the sport back home.

“Champions are Easy Victors,” proclaimed the Telegram, adding “Shamrocks Make Monkeys of Crack St. Louis Team.”

“The Triple As played a good game, but were no match for the Canadians.  Their especial weak point being their inability to recover the ball quickly when it got to the ground ... The game was full of lively skirmishes and sensational catches.”

While the Winnipeg Shamrocks received the gold medal, the St. Louis side took the silver, and the team from Brantford, Ontario, the bronze medal. Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded for the first time at St. Louis. 

According to the Lax Standard, the newsletter for the Society for Canadian Lacrosse Research (Summer 2002), the members  of the victorious Shamrocks were: goal, George Cloutier; point, George Cattanach; cover, Ben Jamieson; defence, Jack Flett, George Bletz and Eli Blanchard; centre, Stuart Laidlaw; home, Hilliard Lyle, Billy Brennaugh and Lawrence Pentland; outside, Sandy Cowan; and inside, Billy Burns.

The society explained that their list differs slightly from the official Olympic roster as Winnipeg player Laidlaw is incorrectly given the first name Hilliard, when in reality Laidlaw’s first name is Stuart and the other name belongs to Hilliard Lyle.

On the way home to Winnipeg, the newly-crowned Olympic and “world” champions had a rematch with St. Paul and this time pulled out a slim 8-7 victory.

Carper told the press that the Winnipeg lacrosse team found St. Paul to be the “most aggressive,” while Chicago was defeated with little difficulty and the team was “gratified to disappoint” St. Louis in the final.

The Shamrocks took one of just four gold medals won by Canadians at St. Louis, with the others claimed by the Galt Football Club for soccer, Etienne Desmarteau for the 56-pound hammer throw and George Lyon for golf.

Four years later in London, Canada won the last official Olympic gold medal in lacrosse. Since just two teams entered the lacrosse competition, Britain took the silver and no bronze medal was awarded. In London, the Olympics was contested by national teams for the first time rather than by individuals and clubs as was the case in the  three previous Summer Games. Lacrosse reappeared at the Olympics only as a demonstration sport in 1928, 1932 and 1948.