The Untold History of Seattle Lacrosse

 
 

Lacrosse is understood to be a sport that was transplanted into the Northwest by former East Coast collegiate players. For the game we play today, this is true. But there is a largely unknown history of the sport. A much richer tradition of lacrosse exists in Seattle than anyone in our generation has previously understood.

A few years back, a photo surfaced in the Seattle Times of a group of men holding lacrosse sticks for the Seattle Lacrosse Club. There was no explanation or backstory of who this team was. The caption simply read: “Seattle Lacrosse, 1905”.  There was clear photo evidence that some history of lacrosse existed in Seattle prior to the 1970s. As it turns out, Seattle lacrosse can trace its roots back to the late 1800s. 

Photo that surfaced in The Seattle Times in 2015.

From Seattle lacrosse’s early beginnings with organized labor, to its 1905 pinnacle when entering the British Columbia Amateur Lacrosse Association, the first lacrosse era in Seattle is a story that should be shared. Lacrosse was growing in popularity back then, but a backstabbing by two of Seattle’s Canadian rivals derailed what may have been a long and storied history of lacrosse in the Northwest. The treachery extinguished the game in Seattle for nearly 70 years until Dave Reichgott, Mike Held, and John Steiger showed up at the University of Washington in the early 1970s and started tossing the ball around.

* * *

The first documented game of lacrosse in Seattle was a July 4, 1896 exhibition match between the Vancouver Lacrosse Club and the New Westminster Salmonbellies. In promoting the game, the Seattle Daily Times advertised the largely unknown Canadian sport by saying lacrosse “consists of bursts of speed, pretty passing, hot attacks and stubborn defense; sky-scraping throws and fast scrimmages, and even the ladies will refuse to keep their seats.”  The Western Central Labor Union organized the first games of lacrosse in Seattle. The organized labor group in Seattle was connected to the organized labor group in British Columbia where the game was already well developed. For the next few years, Seattle secured exhibition matches of British Columbia teams for their summer holiday celebrations.

By 1900, Seattle was ready to get in the game. On April 19 of that year, the Seattle Lacrosse Club was officially formed. The team consisted of mostly ex-pat Canadians living in the city and a few locals new to the game. Donning blue and white jerseys, the first game Seattle played was against the Nanaimo Lacrosse Club, a game they lost. Seattle’s first win in a lacrosse match came on August 5, 1900 against a depleted Victoria Lacrosse Club.

Document__News_Article_-_America_s_News_–_Historical_and_Current.jpg

The game in the 1900s was much rougher than today’s game. Players used traditional solid wooden sticks that were between 4 and 6 feet long. Typically gloves were the only pads that were used. A slash to the head could cut an opponent's eyebrow or scalp wide open.  A cheap shot or unkind words frequently lead to dropped gloves and fisticuffs. The old school Seattle game was more akin with the sport of hockey than today’s sportsmanship focused game.  Seattle was not alone in the Northwest during the first era of lacrosse. Teams in Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, and Portland also sprung up. However, Seattle Lacrosse Club was undoubtedly the most talented out of the U.S. based teams.

Seattle’s play allowed them to secure some marquee match-ups.  In October of 1903, the World Champion Montreal Shamrocks, who held the Minto Cup, traveled to Seattle to play the club. Somewhat amazingly, Seattle played the Shamrocks to a tight game, only falling 11 goals to 9. Seattle’s performances may have earned them some clout with the British Columbia teams heading into the two next seasons.

In 1904, a true Northwest Lacrosse League was created that brought together the Washington teams and the team from Portland. There were heated rivalries, and Portland and Seattle were certainly not friends on the lacrosse field. A game held between the two teams in Seattle led to a massive brawl and the expulsion of Portland from the Northwest league. According to news reports detailing the game, a Seattle player knocked a Portland player out cold with a vicious stick check to the head. The Portland player left the game, requiring a doctor to see him. Not soon after, another Portland player retaliated with a slash of his own, and a mass of Seattle players dropped him to the ground. The benches cleared and the fight that ensued included both teams and some of the spectators. After the fight was broken up and the dust had settled, Portland was kicked from the league. Soon after Portland’s removal, five of Tacoma’s best players left their city and that team folded as well. Any potential longevity of the Northwest Lacrosse League had expired with Tacoma’s departure.

First documented photos of lacrosse players in Seattle.
Players in the Northwest League, May 22, 1904.

* * *

Ed Kennedy was the man largely responsible for maintaining the stability and organization of the Seattle Lacrosse Club during the first era.  As Seattle’s manager, he was dedicated to keeping the team running.  Kennedy brought on ex-Canadian stalwart players like Eddie Milne and Lionel Yorke to the team. However, with the Northwest league now defunct after the single 1904 season, Seattle’s only real shot at true competition was within the British Columbia ranks.  Kennedy made the trip to Canada to meet with the team leaders of Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster and secure Seattle’s admission to the British Columbia Amateur Lacrosse Association (BCALA).

Kennedy’s meeting was successful and resulted in Seattle’s admission for the 1905 season. The result was a real coup for the team. The BCALA had been in existence since 1890 and Seattle was the only American team ever admitted. The newspaper records suggest that the Canadian teams believed Seattle would be competitive, but not too competitive with them.

As it turns out, Seattle was not only competitive in the league, they could win games at a respectable clip. In 1905, the New Westminster team was in a class of their own, and couldn’t really be touched by the other teams. Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver were effectively competing for second place. Late in the season, Seattle posted upset victories over both Vancouver and Victoria at home, propelling them into second place in the league. During the Victoria game the president of the BCALA was in attendance. The league president lived in Victoria and was a supporter of their team. Not only did Seattle win the game, but they also started a fistfight that busted open a Victoria player’s nose. The league president was visibly upset enough that it was reflected in the newspaper coverage.

One month later, and with only two games remaining in the season, second place Seattle was sent an unexpected notice that they had been terminated from the league. The issue cited was non-payment of a $25 league admission fee. Seattle contended the non-payment rationale was a red herring.  Prior to the unexpected notice, Seattle had requested a reschedule of their home game against Vancouver. Seattle’s baseball team had been scheduled onto the field during the date the lacrosse team was supposed to play their game. Vancouver rejected Seattle’s request for a reschedule, forced Seattle’s forfeit, and brought forward the issue of non-payment of the league’s admission fee. The league president, who had been at the Seattle match against Victoria, sided with Vancouver and sent the expulsion notice.

Seattle’s second game at Victoria was scheduled to take place just after the expulsion notice was sent. In the BCALA, home teams were required to send the visiting team an $80 fee to cover their travel expenses to the away city. Victoria decided to side with Vancouver and expel Seattle, whom they did not like, keep their $80, and remove the second place team from the league—all with one stroke.  Vancouver and Victoria both benefited by Seattle’s removal. New Westminster was furious with the double-cross and sided with the Seattle team.

Seattle argued that the non-payment charges were bogus, but they did not have enough votes to overturn the decision. With Seattle and New Westminster on one side, and Victoria and Vancouver on the other, there was no path forward. Seattle was permanently expelled from the British Columbia league.

* * *

Seattle Lacrosse Club’s removal from the BCALA was the death knell of organized lacrosse in Seattle. Seattle’s manager, Ed Kennedy, had already been experiencing pressure from some of his players to be paid for their play. Payment was something Kennedy was wholly against in their amateur league.  Seattle also lacked youth development for lacrosse to replenish their team. British Columbia’s lower leagues provided player development, but Seattle depended entirely upon experienced players moving to Seattle and picking up their sticks again. Keeping the roster stocked was becoming a burdensome challenge. But the true deathblow, once they were dropped from the BCALA, Seattle Lacrosse Club simply had no one else to play.  

Unfortunately, lacrosse in Seattle became nothing but a small blip in the newspaper’s historical archives. However, the game was played at a high level here for a number of years before it came to stay in the 1970s. It is interesting to consider: what would our city’s lacrosse legacy be like today if that first era team were able to continue playing?

If you are interested in more lacrosse history from the Northwest, check out Dave Stewart-Candy’s website Old School Lacrosse.