What the Seahawks did at this year’s Super Bowl, the Washington men’s rowing team did in 1936: made Seattle the center of the sporting world, thrilling its citizens to the core.
On Saturday, when the 28th annual opening day is celebrated on Montlake Cut, the scene will offer a taste of the civic fervor the city directed toward rowing nearly 80 years ago.
Yet, as explained in the widely praised best-seller “The Boys in the Boat” by Seattle author Daniel James Brown, 1936 was something special. That was the year a UW crew of working-class lads from around the state rowed for Olympic gold in Berlin under the glare of Adolf Hitler.
Flash back to the late 1920s to mid ’30s: Dust Bowl winds scoured the Great Plains; working a jackhammer on cliffs at the Grand Coulee Dam site paid 75 cents an hour; major-league baseball players appeared in cigarette ads; “Top Hat,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, was showing at Seattle’s ornate (and now long-gone) Orpheum Theater.
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And, college rowing was headline news.
The Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta, rowing’s national championship (then decided in 4-mile races for varsity crews), drew 125,000 spectators in 1929 to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The annual event, Brown writes, “came to rival the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series as a major national sporting event.”
In Seattle, in both 1934 and ’36, crowds estimated at 80,000 descended on Lake Washington to view the UW-California dual, a West Coast rivalry that itself attained national prominence.
Washington’s men’s crews have won 16 IRA titles, including the past three and five of the past seven. The first: 1923, repeated in 1924 and ’26.
But in Olympic years, the IRA champion advanced as a unit to an Olympic qualifying race. In both 1928 and 1932, that was Cal. Thus Cal, coached by former UW coxswain and assistant coach Ky Ebright, represented the U.S. in back-to-back Olympics and won gold twice — the equivalent, from a Seattle perspective, of the 49ers winning consecutive Super Bowls.
Brown, a former writing professor at Stanford and San Jose State and a past writer/editor at Microsoft, points out that Seattle had a minimal sporting legacy before the ’30s: two UW Rose Bowl appearances and, surprisingly, one Stanley Cup championship (in 1917).
So rowing, popularized early in the 20th century by Ivy League schools, mattered. And winning in rowing on a national stage could make a city matter.
This, Brown writes, explains why legendary Seattle sports writer Royal Brougham covered crew vigorously, in part to fulfill his wish “to transform the world’s view of his gray, sleepy, logging-and-fishing town into something far grander and more sophisticated.”
When the UW varsity upset Cal on the Oakland Estuary in a 1935 dual, adding to wins by the junior varsity and freshman boats and completing an unexpected sweep, euphoria swept over Seattle.
Once home, Brown writes, UW coaches and crews were celebrated with a Seahawks-like, confetti-filled parade on Second Avenue. Varsity rowers waved to fans while riding a flower-draped logging truck.
Brown, whose book rose to No. 11 on The New York Times best-seller list after its release in June, says rowing’s popularity was eventually supplanted by TV-friendly sports.
“There weren’t the same options available to sports fans in the 1930s that there are now,” he said. “There weren’t 80 channels of sports available.”
A crowd of 2,000 watched UW win a third straight IRA title last June at Lake Natoma near Sacramento. “Rowing has a place in American sporting society,” said UW coach Michael Callahan.
“People have, even I have, a fascination with professional sports. We love the crossover dribble, the fadeaway jumper,” he said. “Maybe we can package rowing differently. There’s been talk about shorter races, something the length of Montlake Cut. Think 500 meters, so the crowd could be along the entire length of the race. It would make it really exciting for fans.
“We’ve got to bring people closer to the action. We need to get people inside the boat.”
Brown, who in his book writes thrilling descriptions of the mostly wordless in-boat interplay, agrees. That’s where the magic, the “swing” of a crew, happens.
“This is clearly a sport that requires so much trust once you get in that boat with other people,” he said. “You become part of something larger than yourself. Each of these guys (in the 1936 boat) had an element of humility. They listened to their coaches. They knew they had things to learn, so I think that was part of their success. That’s something crew teaches, both then and now.”