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Throwback Thursday: The 1941 Harvard Crimson

There's more to the Crimson's 1941 season than boring uniforms.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Let's take a trip into Harvard's past:

Here's what 1941 looked like for the Crimson:

  • The team went 2-10, not the worst campaign that Harvard experienced in the 1940's (the team went 1-9 in 1942) but not a particularly joyful season where players would send flowery letters home to their mothers proclaiming their "near-exotic triumphs against lesser schools of inferior stock." The details of the team's season are pretty rough:

    4/2/41 at Pennsylvania 2-5 L
    4/3/41 at Maryland 2-14 L
    4/5/41 at Navy 0-12 L
    4/18/41 at Stevens Tech 3-9 L
    4/19/41 at Army 1-12 L
    4/26/41 at Springfield 4-11 L
    4/30/41 MIT 5-2 W
    5/10/41 at New Hampshire 4-7 L
    5/13/41 Dartmouth 3-14 L
    5/17/41 Boston Lacrosse Club 6-7 L
    5/20/14 Tufts 8-3 W
    5/24/14 at Yale 5-17 L
    Average/Totals 3.58-9.42 2-10
  • Look at the dates of the games: Harvard played three games within four days in early April and played another two games back-to-back in mid-April. A coach would be shot out of a cannon into the sun if he played compressed regular season games like that in 2015. And it's not just the concentrated nature of the Crimson's games that's interesting. Think about travel in 1941 -- Harvard was on the road for all of these April games. This is basically a bad mid-century vaudeville joke.
  • Harvard played four games where it scored two goals or fewer, including a shutout at the hands of Navy (more on that game below). That's probably the reason why every player in the team photo looks grumpy.
  • Douglas M. Anderson was the captain of this Harvard squad. He does not otherwise appear in the Crimson's record books. He was a one-year captain. George H. Hanford earned second team All-America honors for the Crimson in 1941, though, as a goalie. This is presumably because he survived playing for a 2-10 lacrosse team that featured an offense that coughed black smoke as it attempted to create combustion.
  • This was the second -- and final -- season for John Witherspoon on the sideline for the Crimson. In his two seasons in charge of the Crimson, Witherspoon went 9-15 overall (the team went 7-5 in his first season at the helm), the fifth worst winning percentage among Harvard's 16 head coaches with a record attributed to them. Witherspoon was a former captain of the Crimson, piloting the team in his senior season in 1937 (a rollicking 8-3 effort from Harvard), and earned first team All-America honors as a "Point" -- whatever the hell that was -- in 1936 and as a "Cover Point" -- there's a difference? -- in 1937.
  • Okay, the Navy game: It was a big, huge deal. There's a whole Wikipedia entry on the game, and it has to do with the fact that the Crimson were racially integrated in 1941 (as the photo above makes clear) and the Naval Academy had a problem with that. Even if Harvard's 2-10 season was nothing exceptional, it stands as one of the most important in history given an issue that wedged its way into an otherwise nondescript campaign:

    [L]ucien Alexis Jr. (Harvard 1942) helped spark the great race awakening at Harvard when he and fellow members of the Harvard lacrosse team arrived for a match at the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1941. The academy insisted that my father, the only black team member, be removed, declaring that no midshipman would take the field with a colored man.

    Tempers boiled, and the Harvard lacrosse team prepared to forfeit the game. William J. Bingham, the university's athletic director, intervened, ordering Harvard's coach to send my father back to Cambridge. Harvard played the scheduled match.

    Almost 70 years later, it's clear that the Harvard-Navy lacrosse game of 1941 offered a near-perfect teachable moment for the cause of equality (a cause Harvard claimed to espouse) had the school so chosen. Early on, Harvard could have shattered the grip of racial hatred by standing firm. But Harvard didn't seize the moment. Instead, it chose the easy path.

More on 1941 Harvard-Navy