History 101: Why My Town Loves Lax
I'm 33, been in Baltimore my whole life, worked at US Lacrosse for 10 years and stunningly learned I needed a history lesson when a reporter hit me with what you'd think was a softball of a question: why is lacrosse so popular in Baltimore?
I really did not know. I could speak to the strong participation at the youth and high school levels and to the tradition of local colleges in my lifetime, but I did not know how or why it got to be that way here in the first place. We all know the sport was first played by the natives of what is now southern Canada and upstate New York.
So I hung up on Tom Schad of The Washington Times and called US Lacrosse archivist emeritus Joe Finn.
What a story, and what a storyteller.
"If you look at a map, there's no logical connection for Baltimore to have with lacrosse, given where it originated," Joe said.
I wasn't surprised. Rare is it that we do things logically around here. We're an emotional, provincial bunch.
Joe continued. In the spring of 1878, members of the Baltimore Athletic Club traveled to Newport, R.I., to compete in a track meet. Somewhere around there, they saw lacrosse being played. The lacrosse bug existed even then, as those fellas took a liking to what they saw and brought the game back, importing rules and all. Later that fall, the city's first game was played at the Mount Washington Cricket Club.
From there, as the century turned, the game spread to other athletic clubs in the city and to Johns Hopkins University. We know what the Blue Jays have done with it on the field; off it, a couple alums actually helped start Navy's program in Annapolis in 1908. But the sport got perhaps its biggest boost in the city when its two preeminent high schools, City and Poly, started playing somewhere in the 1910s. Others followed, and before World War II, The Baltimore Sun was covering lacrosse like other city papers covered football and baseball, according to Joe.
The local popularity of lacrosse mixed with the city's provinciality to create what many locals thought was an exclusive pride in the game, or a pride in an exclusive game. That's still evident today, witness the clamoring by some locals for Baltimore to become the permanent home to the NCAA men's championships. Of course, some of these same locals were just as quick to stay home and watch on TV this weekend because they didn't want to fight downtown traffic with Hopkins not a participant.
There's that logic thing again.
Regardless, Baltimore's adoption of a geographically northeastern sport is, at worst, intriguing and entertaining. But the Newport-to-Baltimore connection also may have been the most important clear in the sport's history.