Nothing could be more fitting than that rugby, one of the University of California’s signature sports, should have brought the first Olympic Gold Medals to Berkeley. The 1920 United States Olympic Rugby team was comprised entirely of northern Californians: six players from Cal, nine from Stanford, five from Santa Clara, and two club players. The captain was a Cal man. These Californians had to convince the United States Olympic Committee to enter a rugby team in the Olympics and although the USOC reluctantly agreed, it had so little interest in the 1920 rugby team that it made them pay their own way to Antwerp. But after a shocking upset over France, that team came home to California with Olympic Gold.
Rugby had a spotty history in the Olympics. The sport was included in the second modern Olympics at Paris in 1900 and again in London in 1908. But it was dropped in 1912. Rugby was also not scheduled to be played in the 1916 Olympics, which were in any event cancelled because of World War I. But in 1920 the sport was set to return at the Antwerp Olympics. Before 1920, the Americans had never entered a team in the Olympic rugby competition. It was not a well-known sport in most of the United States in 1920 and was completely overshadowed by American football. But there was one place in the country where rugby had gained a significant foothold — northern California.
As the sport of college football began developing in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s, the game was closer to rugby than to what is now understood as “football.” At that time the rules under which football games were played tended to vary between regions of the country, and sometimes even from game to game. Not until the 1890s did American football become something a modern fan might recognize. It was in that decade that such concepts as plays beginning from a line of scrimmage and the requirement of making 10 yards in four downs began to be regularized. But early American football became a very brutal and dangerous game. The rules permitted “mass plays” such as the “flying wedge,” which encouraged large numbers of players to slam into each other while running at full speed. And in the absence of the forward pass, there was no reason for any of the players to stay back from the collisions at the line of scrimmage. Combined with the lack of any protective equipment, these tactics led to serious injuries and even deaths on the field. In 1905, 18 young men died playing football in college and club games. These genuine dangers were further exaggerated by the press, which led fans to believe that wholesale death and carnage was to be found on every football field every week.
These safety concerns, as well as a number of scandals about non-students being paid to play in college games, brought college football to a crisis in 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and encouraged the adoption of new rules to enhance safety. A number of new rules were adopted in 1906, most notably making the forward pass legal. But the California schools did not believe they went far enough. President Benjamin Ide Wheeler of the University of California and President David Starr Jordan of Stanford agreed to abandon the American game altogether in favor of rugby, which they regarded as more of a “gentlemen’s game.” Several other California schools, including Santa Clara and USC, followed the lead of Cal and Stanford and dropped football for rugby.
Rugby remained the primary sport played in California from 1906 to 1914, and Californians became by far the best rugby players in the country. But the students and public never entirely warmed to the sport. They wanted a return to “the American game,” and to be able to compete against teams in other parts of the country. So the University of California re-instituted football in 1915, followed by Stanford in 1918. Rugby continued at both schools as a club sport.
In early 1920 the California rugby team made a triumphant undefeated tour of British Columbia. This success started northern California rugby enthusiasts talking about sending a team to that summer’s Olympics in Belgium. Harry Maloney, President of the California Rugby Union, sent a letter to the United States Olympic Committee requesting that a rugby team be sent to Antwerp. The Olympic Committee was unenthusiastic, to say the least. It did not believe Americans had much chance of success in rugby and was unwilling to spend the money required to field a team. Eventually the USOC did agree to authorize the northern Californians to represent the United States in Olympic rugby, provided they paid for the entire venture themselves. In its letter to Maloney, the USOC said, “Due to the fact that California is the only state playing rugby in the United States, the Committee has decided that, while its sanction will be given for a team to represent the US, the financial aid must come from the State of California itself, and by the men from whom the team will be chosen.”
While the USOC may have expected that this would be the end of the idea of an American rugby team, the supporters of Olympic rugby immediately started a fundraising drive. Contributions were solicited from cities like Santa Clara, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. Support was sought from wealthy and influential individuals like former San Francisco mayor and U.S. Senator James Phelan, and the family of Charles Tilden, a former Cal rugby player. Charity baseball games were held, and even fundraising dances, such as one in Palo Alto featuring the music of a band called the Six Stanford Syncopaters.
In the meantime, try-outs were held. The final selections were made from a pool of 42 players who played three intra-squad matches. The resulting team has been described as, “a collection of rusty rugby players and risky additions, who would have to be taught the game on the way to Europe.” Six of the twenty-two players selected were from Cal: Charles Tilden, who was made captain, George Fish, Matthew Hazeltine, Charles “Red” Meehan, James Winston, and Colby “Babe” Slater. (Slater is claimed by both Cal and U.C. Davis. Although U.C. Davis did not yet exist as an independent university, Slater did his practical work in the study of agriculture at the “University Farm” in Davis, and played on sports teams sponsored by the “Davis Farm.” However, Slater did classroom work in Berkeley, and his degree was conferred by the faculty of the College of Agriculture in Berkeley.) Fish and Hazeltine had played on the varsity Cal rugby teams in 1912 and 1913. Tilden had played varsity rugby for Cal in 1913 and 1914, and had been a member of the Cal football team when that sport returned in 1915.
The money having been raised, the team set off by train from Berkeley to New York on July 28, 1920. They stopped in New York for some sight-seeing and to play a practice match. Then they set sail for Europe on the SS Sherman.
Only four countries entered teams in the 1920 Olympic rugby competition: the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. The British had declined to send a team after the French insisted that they could only send one combined team, rather than separate teams for England, Scotland and Wales. And when British Rugby refused to attend, so did the rugby teams from the British Empire and Commonwealth. This was very fortunate for the Americans considering that when the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team toured the western United States and Canada in 1913 they had destroyed every team they played – including notching three blow-out victories at California Field in Berkeley, two against the Cal Bears Varsity squad and one against a combined US national team.
When the American team arrived in Antwerp in mid-August, they discovered that both Czechoslovakia and Romania had dropped out. This meant there would be no preliminary matches, and that the only game would be the final between the Americans and the French for the Gold and Silver Medals. Since the final was not scheduled until September 5, in between practices the California ruggers whiled away the time attending Olympic events and taking sight-seeing trips to Amsterdam and to some of the Belgian battlefields of the just-concluded World War — in which some of the team members, including Cal’s Colby Slater, had served.
Finally game day arrived. The French were prohibitive favorites. They were playing practically a home game, since Antwerp is only 200 miles from Paris. The French were experienced and well-regarded rugby players. The American team, by contrast, was made up of some players who had experience from college, but had not played competitive rugby for several years, and some players who were still just learning the game. As the 5:00 p.m. start time approached, it began to rain heavily. There was a crowd of 20,000 in the stands, the second largest of the 1920 Olympics. They were almost all rooting for France.
The first half was “a grim war of attrition,” and the half-time score was 0-0. As the pro-French crowd become restless, not seeing the dominance from their team they had expected, the frustrated French team began to play recklessly. In the wet conditions, this was a mistake even against the inexperienced Americans. In the middle of the second half the Americans were able to get the ball close enough to try a 55-yard drop kick. It went between the posts and the Americans led 3-0. Late in the second half, the Americans capitalized on a French dropped ball to score again. One of the American players, Santa Clara graduate Rudy Scholz, singled out three of the Cal players, Slater, Fish, and Tilden, for praise when he described the game for the San Francisco Call:
About the game. It started at 5 PM, (time here for all big matches) and there was a crowd of about 20,000 present, despite the fact it was raining. At a council of war we decided that because the ground was wet and slippery and the ball likewise, we would make it a forward game. The French tried a backfield game, and they lost although they were fast. The slippery ball and field proved their undoing. Our forwards outweighed the French easily, and ‘Babe’ Slater was a wonder in the line-outs, as was Mahoney, Fish, and Tilden. We in the backfield didn’t have one passing rush, but our defense was superb, and Templeton did not have one tackle to make. . . . Score end of first half 0-0. Middle of second half our forwards dribbled to the French’s ten yard line and then we marked a kick directly in front of the goal and [“Dink”] Templeton put it over 3-0. Latter part of second half we dribbled to their five yard line and when the French first five fumbled, [Joseph] Hunter picked it up and fell over the line. Converted. Final score 8-0.”
With that 8-0 victory, the upstart Americans from Cal, Stanford, and Santa Clara had won Olympic Gold, and Charles Tilden, Colby “Babe” Slater, George Fish, Matthew Hazeltine, Charles “Red” Meehan, and James Winston became the University of California’s first six Olympic champions.
The French were in shock. After the Olympics ended, the French rugby union invited the American team remain for several weeks to play other French teams. The Americans scored wins of 26-0 in Lyon, 14-3 in Toulouse, and 6-3 in Bordeaux, demonstrating that their Olympic victory had not been a fluke. Only in the final game, back in Paris, did France prevail, 14-5. A new French star emerged in that game, Adolphe Jaurenguy. The Americans would see more of him in 1924, when the French tried (and, as will be seen in a later story, failed) to get their revenge on another U.S. Olympic rugby team which included more players from the University of California.
Blue and Gold Yearbooks, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, The H.S. Crocker Co, Inc., Berkeley, CA (1913-16)
Miller, John J., The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, Harper Collins, New York (2011)
Phillips, Ellen,The VII Olympiad, World Sport Research & Publications, Inc., Los Angeles (1996)
Rugby at the 1920 Antwerpen Summer Games: Men’s Rugby, SR/Olympic Sports (2012)
Rugby at the Olympics, RugbyFootballHistory.com (2012)
Rugby Union at the Summer Olympics, Wikipedia (2012)
Ryan, Mark, For the Glory: Two Olympics, Two Wars, Two Heroes, JR Books, London (2009)
Tibballs, Geoff, The Olympics’ Strangest Moments: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of the Olympic Games, Anova Books, London (2004)
Watterson, John Sayle, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (2000)
(NOTE: For anyone wanting more detailed accounts of rugby at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Ryan.)