Chapter I: The Early Days



It is hard for one living in the 1970’s to picture for himself what kind of young men and boys were the ten, twenty or thirty students who first attended the little Benedictine school located out in the Indian Bush a few miles north of St. Cloud one hundred and thirty years ago. That they studied hard and followed the regulations of an American curriculum based on the rigorous German Gymnasium system that the Benedictines brought with them to Minnesota there is no doubt. But what they did during their recreational periods when, cramped from leaning over a desk or taking notes in class, they got outside into the fresh air of the outdoors remains a mystery until one digs it out of the sparse official documents that stand on shelves awaiting investigation. We can, of course, form some offhand opinion that they were rugged young men, ranging from fifteen to twenty years of age, sons of farmers, small store keepers, an occasional lawyer or doctor or small town banker, most of them with hands more inured to the handle of an axe or hammer or pitchfork than to a baseball bat. Of one thing one may be sure, once arrived at St. John’s it did not take them long to find some pleasant way of spending the leisure time between study and classes. Recreation, as a general thing, depends on environment, on what is possible to do in the area where one is located. For the early St. John’s student it was the woods to be explored, the lake for swimming and boating, skiing in winter, and possibly a cleared space for baseball, for even then the national sport was baseball, and doubtless many of the students brought along with them from home a bat and ball.

In those early years it is certain that there was no officially regulated program for recreation. We know from an old letter written by an alumnus and quoted by Fr. Alexius Hoffmann, O.S.B., in his history of St. John’s that there was at least the semblance of a baseball diamond at that time. Referring to the tree stumps and the roughness of the ground, he wrote:

Our baseball grounds were at the college gates. They were constructed like an angry porcupine’s back. The frantic efforts of a fielder to chase down a ball in its crazy career through an array of maple stumps with which the diamond was studded would be a revelation to the present champions of St. John’s University. It was appalling! (St. John’s University: A Sketch of Its History, 1857- 1907,” Alexius Hoffmann, O.S.B., Record Press, Collegeville, 1907).

The document does not say when the stumps were cleared away, but it must have been sometime before 1873-74, the year Fr. Leo Winter, O.S.B., organized the Athletic Baseball Club, the first of several other clubs that followed suit.

It seems that Fr. Leo Winter was a man of great enthusiasm and interest in sports. He doubtlessly followed the major league baseball reports published in the newspapers of the time, for he modeled his Athletic Baseball Club very closely on the established patterns of professional baseball. The club was divided into two leagues under the authority of a president and a vice-president. Each league had two teams, and each team a designated captain. The players chose fanciful names for their teams: there were the Athletics, the Crusaders, the Classics, the Torn Stockings, the Invincibles, and “The Little Fellows”- the last a group that was equivalent to our present-day junior high school players. Some of these titles were retained for years in the annual St. John’s Catalog, when as many as 180 students were playing in the intramural organization.

But boating did not take a second or third place to baseball for long. The year following the organization of the Baseball Athletic Club the Boating Club was organized. The club had a president and vice-president who supervised the affairs of the boatmen. The first year they had crews for two boats and later at one time for six boats. Each boat had a captain, four oarsmen, and a coxswain. Like the baseball players, they exercised their imaginations in selecting suitable titles for their boats. There were the Hiawatha, the Germania, the Fraud, and the Little Fraud, the Belle of the Lake, the Gem. A piratical tinge was given to the crew of the Jolly Six. In 1891 the boats were spoken of as the Lake Fleet, or the Lake Flotilla, under the overall command of a Commodore instead of a President.

It will be impossible to enter into detail with descriptions of all the sports patronized. For several years there were individual tennis players who finally banded together in the Tennis Club in 1892. In 1900 four new tennis courts were constructed. It is hard to say when handball was first played, though, guessing from its popularity, it might have been a contemporary of baseball. There were several handball alleys of wood, but the most popular one of all was of brick, constructed in 1900.

For those interested in outdoor winter sports there was a large variety of activities: skiing and tobogganing on the hills, skating on the lake until the ice became covered with snow, ice fishing on the lake, ice hockey when someone could be found ambitious enough to shovel the snow from an area close to the laundry, from which it was possible to get water for flooding. Another sport was the chase, defined by one wag as “the hunt of rabbits and squirrels with a slingshot.” Firearms were banned from the college.

As for indoor sports, ideal accommodations were unavailable, though St. John’s did its best to provide them. In fact, there were few colleges of this era who did better than St. John’s and there were others who did nothing at all. In 1886 St. John’s provided “a spacious play hall (60 x 80 feet)” in the basement-now the part of the present day refectory below the Alumni Lounge. It was provided with a bowling alley and a handball court, two pool tables, and several gymnastic items such as a punching bag and weights for weight lifting, parallel bars, etc.

According to Fr. Alexius, the play hall was never considered a permanent provision for indoor activities. In 1892 he wrote about it as follows:

Among the improvements for the new school year (1892) was the renovation of the Play Hall in the basement. A new bowling alley was fitted up, also a pool table, horizontal bar, chest weights, punching bag, Indian clubs, and dumb bells. The quarters were close (i.e., poorly ventilated) and gloomy and oil lamps lit up the place in the evening. (*Electric lights were first installed in the buildings of St. John’s in 1896).  Still it was a step towards a gymnasium, an ideal that was realized ten years later (Hoffmann, p. 100).

It seems that the system of independent athletic clubs worked out successfully for at least fifteen years. If the club needed new equipment of any sort, the officers merely “passed around the hat” -an expression commonly used in the committee reports of the athletic association-and then bought it. There is no reason for doubting that the club members had a royal good time playing with friends of the same athletic interests.

Sometime during the 1880’s, however, dissatisfaction arose with the club system, possibly because as the school grew in numbers there were too few small clubs, or possibly also that the early zest for athletic competition was waning and there was too much lazying around and not enough physical activity. Whatever the situation, the school magazine, The Record, was founded in 1888, and in its first number. urged the Ajax Athletic Association to call upon the student body, and particularly the clubs, to get busy for the spring outdoor sports campaign.

The season of outdoor sports is at hand. The ball clubs have already made a move in the right direction. They are organized. What they have done excellently omens an interesting season. But what about the other sports? Baseball will become more or less stale as the season advances, and very few provisions are made for other field sports, boating, etc. The Ajax Association ought to lose no time but at once provide for other sports. We suggest a field day for the middle of May. The consent and co-operation of the faculty are assured, and there is no reason why the present season should not be an active and energetic one (The Record, January, 1888, Vol. 1, p. 42).

The above editorial by the pen of P. F. McDonough (later Rev. Patrick McDonough, ’89), who was both president of the Ajax Athletic Association and co-editor of the Record, is all that is known of the Ajax Association in operation. It seems to have disappeared in thin air, and the officers of club athletics reverted to their traditional inactivity as independently of one another as before. Fr. Alexius wrote of the Ajax Athletic Association: “This club, which had for its motto ‘No mouthing: all training,’ did not live long enough to secure recognition in the annual catalogue” (Hoffmann, p. 87).

Stagnation continued in the intramural system, however. By 1895 the Tennis Club had dissolved, and about the same time the boats of the Boating Club disintegrated beyond repair and without complaint. In 1897 a Record writer railed against the apathy reigning over the campus: “There is no backbone or life! Wake up, managers and captains, make things lively! Let people know you are in it, and remember that it is only by your cooperation that you can make college days golden days” (Record, April, 1897, Vol. 10, pp. 119-120).

In 1897-98 Fr. Alexius recorded the final decision that followed the charges leveled against the negligence of athletic officials: “Repeatedly,” he noted, “dissatisfaction was expressed with the system according to which sports were conducted; here and there a voice timidly queried, Why not start something like an Athletic Association?-The question was finally taken up and an organization by that name was called into being during the second term” [i.e., spring of 1898] (Hoffmann, pp. 117-118).

The athletic association referred to by Fr. Alexius in his history of St. John’s as having been established in the spring of 1898, apparently failed to impress the student body as a viable, vigorous organization, for in the fall of 1900 we read the following statement: “October 8  found the allied athletes of St. John’s assembled in their assembly hall for the purpose of reorganizing and electing officers. Presiding was Moderator Fr. Bruno Doerfler, O.S.B.; President J. O’Leary; Secretary and Treasurer, C. Houska.” Fr. Bruno, only recently returned from Rome after four years of study and appointed Director of the college and ex officio moderator of athletics, was liberal-minded, and without much ado gave his approval to a request to organize an American style football team and schedule games with St. Cloud High School. Discussed in the meeting was the resolution to amend the constitution by the addition of a new association objective-“to foster athletics in all its branches” (Record, October, 1900, p. 314).

In February, 1901, at a second meeting of the association, the resolution to make official the new regulation adopted in October, 1900, was confirmed. The confirmation reads as follows: “The St. John’ Athletic Association met for the second time with a report on the constitution. The constitution was accepted. The aim of the constitution is the furtherance of athletics. Moderator, P. Bruno, O.S.B.; President, J. O’Leary; Secretary and Treasurer, C. Houska.” The editorialist for athletics commented on the new reorganization: “The permanent founding of the Athletic Association will be good news to all sports loving students. The aim of the society is the promotion of all athletics. The staff elected last fall has drawn up a constitution and a set of by-laws which were unanimously adopted at the last meeting” (Record, February, 1901, p. 75).

Such was the beginning in 1900-01 of the new St. John’s Athletic Association, popularly known by the initials A.A., as it was generally called. The A.A. was directly responsible for the organization of a new intramural system that for the space of seventy-eight years has continued to make it possible for any St. John’s student to join some team that matches his abilities and interests. But even more, it was the chief moving force that directly introduced intercollegiate athletics on the St. John’s campus and indirectly led to the construction of a new gymnasium by calling faculty attention to the need of new physical development facilities. The gymnasium was the pride of St. John’s and for several years was spoken of as “the finest gymnasium in the Northwest.”

All this did not happen by mere chance. By 1900 St. John’s had passed its years of “beginnings” and was now a thriving college that inspired feelings of a high destiny that awaited it sometime, somewhere in the future. Remarkable as it may seem, the students had the same feeling of destiny and looked forward to the time when the college would be famous not only in academics, which they took for granted, but also in athletics. The building of the gymnasium therefore clinched the students’ conviction. When, on his return to the college in the fall of 1901, the Record’s sports columnist inspected the partially completed gymnasium, he wrote an enthusiastic prediction of St. John’s future greatness in sports: “With the school year 1901-1902 a new era has dawned in the field of athletics. Although heretofore St. John’s has enjoyed an enviable record, this year will bring it much higher on the ladder of fame” (Record, October, 1901, p. 268).

In view of St. John’s smallness and isolation in the woods north of St. Cloud, the pronouncement of future fame may have sounded like sheer rhetoric to the skeptical, as it certainly did to unsympathetic ears in 1901. On the other hand, Minnesotans were accustomed to talk in big terms regarding future developments in the state, and St. John’s was no exception. The A.A. went all-out for expansion of athletics. Interest in intercollegiate athletics had risen high in all the colleges of the nation around this time, and at St. John’s the prospect of a victorious St. John’s first team competing with other colleges in the state loomed up strongly in the imaginations of the Johnny athletes. Intramural athletics, while affording many moments of enjoyment, could offer nothing so exciting as the prospect of matching strength, skill and speed with other colleges of its own size and class-and winning! As for the faculty, the ease with which the introduction of intercollegiate sports was accomplished is proof that the comparatively young men who formed the major part of the faculty at that time were eager to make St. John’s an attractive, up-to-date college that would appeal to the youth of 1900, the future business men, doctors, lawyers, teachers and priests of the church.

It is doubtful that the promoters of the intercollegiate program were fully aware of the problems they would encounter. One of the first problems was the inconvenience of team travel. At that particular time all distant travel, with the exception of that by railroad, had to be done with horse and buggy. For the Twin City colleges, St. Thomas, Hamline and Macalester, games with one another were easily arranged, whereas colleges outside the Cities had a distance to travel by train-a matter of considerable expense, for the Association was responsible for the cost of travel, the purchase of uniforms, etc.

Another problem was the difficulty in obtaining competent officials who both knew the rules of the games and administered them with authority and impartiality. Charges of partiality made officiating for years a fearsome business. In a game played on the Fargo Agricultural College floor even as late as 1909, and which St. John’s won by a score of 30-18, a crowd of spectators surged out onto the floor to mob the referee. “When the whistle was blown, thus ending the game,” states the Spectrum (the Fargo College newspaper), “everyone made a rush for the referee; . . . with difficulty he was piloted unharmed to the dressing room. The crowd was then forced out of the gym, where they awaited their victim, but when he arrived at last the crowd had nearly dispersed, and those who were left deemed it unnecessary to do him permanent injury, although they did follow him down town just to make things cheerful.” It is hard to take the above account seriously, though there is no doubt that the incident bordered on a riot.

That feelings ran high during the course of the games we know from other reports published in the newspapers of the time. In 1905, on one occasion the St. Cloud Normals, behind in the score 6-0 in a football game, disputed an off-side penalty of five yards regarding which the umpire and referee differed in their interpretation. When the referee refused to change his decision to suit the umpire, the Normals withdrew from the field and forfeited the game to St. John’s. On a later occasion St. John’s returned the compliment to the St. Cloud High School over the completion of a forward pass. On two occasions quarrels arose when the scorekeepers differed in their final count of free-throws in basketball games.

Perhaps the most faulty of the early practices was the manner of determining championships at the end of the season. Fr. Oliver Kapsner, O.S.B., a member of the 1919 baseball team, the first baseball championship team during the period from 1900 to 1920, writes, “There was no official conference to decide championships nor official recognition, and so whoever with a good winning record hollered first and loudest could be the unofficial champion.”

An unsuccessful attempt to overcome problems such as those listed above was made in 1908, mainly on the initiative of the then new St. John’s football coach, Bill Brennan, along with the coach of Shattuck Academy, J. A. Foster. Foster and Brennan, both men of vision and energy, hoped, by the organization of a Minnesota College Conference that would include college preparatory schools, to do away with most of the problems intercollegiate athletics was afflicted with at that time. In a news item that appeared in the St. Paul Daily Times, for October 12, 1908, we read: “The most important meeting ever held between Minnesota colleges took place this afternoon when representatives of all the leading institutions of the state met for the formation of a Minnesota college conference.” The article continues: “The plan is to have the schools meet annually in executive session and arrange foot~ ball, baseball, and track schedules, as was done several years ago. This would eliminate friction in the arrangement of dates and would bring about a series of contests that would definitely decide the state championships in the different branches of sport.”

An article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press for the next day, October 13, 1908, added to the above article another objective of the meeting- “to make arrangements for securing a number of well-known and impartial judges for the football games to be played among the schools this fall.” The colleges, however, decided against a conference: “While a form of organization was perfected, no conference was organized, and each of the teams will continue to carry on its athletics entirely independently of each other.” Something was gained, however: “each of the schools presented a list of the men thought eligible for the coming schedules and the rules of the game as they now stand” (ibid).