row2k Features
Peter Mallory's 'The Sport of Rowing'
Yale Versus Cornell and Navy During the Mid-1950s - Part III
The 1956 Season
February 10, 2009
Peter Mallory

1956 Harvard-Yale Race

Read Peter Mallory's introduction, and Part I, The Development of the 1956 Yale Varsity, here and Part II, The Development of the 1956 Cornell Varsity, here.


The 1956 collegiate season is remembered for a vigorous and contentious rivalry between Yale and Cornell. That rivalry continues today in the vivid recollections of the members of these two very strong squads.

In Ithaca, Cornell's 1956 Varsity was based on their 1954 IRA-winning Freshman crew, stroked by Phil Gravink. Having been more-or-less together since the fall of 1953, the 1956 Cornell Varsity entered the Olympic year with high hopes and very high ambitions.

Over in New Haven, "victories over Harvard in 1954 and 1955, including in 1955 the first Yale sweep at New London since 1935, had provided both a squad of impressive depth and a quiet confidence in the good health of Yale rowing."60

Seven members of the 1955 Jayvee had returned, but the heart of the 1956 Yale Varsity came from their 1955 Freshmen. "Art Gilcreast took a 16mm film of them, particularly the stern four, which Jim used to show as the best representative of the technique that he was trying to achieve.

"That lineup had been 5-man Cooke, 6-man Stalford, 7-man Wailes, stroke-man Morey and coxswain Becklean. Four of the five made the 1956 varsity.

"Obviously, Gilcreast had Jim's stroke interpreted exactly!"61


In 1956, the first showdown between the Elis and the Big Red came in the Carnegie Cup on Yale's home course on the Housatonic in Derby. Undefeated Princeton was also in the race.

Wailes of Yale: "The wind was blowing up river, creating a nasty chop. Our crew loved a head wind - it made the work harder, and we believed we were the strongest crew.

"We took off as well as possible in the high wind and chop, moved ahead of Cornell by about half a length in the first half mile, and had almost a length with a half mile to go.

"Carl Schwarz, the Cornell cox, was yelling at his crew, 'We're moving on them, we're moving on them!!' to which Becklean yelled over to Cornell, 'The hell you are, you silly bastards.'

"Cornell took it up with about a half mile to go and moved back up on us to cut our lead. We moved our pace up to 34 and moved out a length on them. The race was over."62

Cooke: "We beat them by one and three-quarter lengths over two miles.

"Yes, they claimed that a crab caused their loss, but we were leading by open water with less than a quarter-mile to go when they caught their crab."63

It was a very bitter defeat for Cornell.

Wailes: "The press the next day reported: 'The Yale crew overwhelms Cornell and Princeton to gain the first Carnegie Cup trophy since 1951.' It went on to say that 'although Yale looked very impressive and handled the rough water in superb fashion - can they win on a good surface? At a long, slow beat the Eli's can pour it on, but whether they can win on flat water or over the short distance must still be proven.'

"Jim [Rathschmidt] responded by saying, 'We move the boat well at a low beat, but we'll have to increase our stroke rate for the Sprints. Our boys definitely rowed their best race of the year. However, we have a long way to go.'"64


The following week, the Eastern Sprints were held on the Potomac River in Washington, DC.

Wailes: "Yale was seeded No. 1. Both Cornell and we won our morning heats. That afternoon we lined up for the finals with Cornell, Penn, Navy, Harvard, and Princeton. Our start was decent, and we settled down to work.

"Somewhere in the first 1,000, we allowed Cornell to move out on us to almost a length lead. We built up our stroke to 34 and brought them back, passing them, and at about 200 to go we had two men on them. Beck said, 'Build it all the way . . . '"65

Cooke: "Yale was leading Cornell by a third of a length with about 20 strokes to go when we were caught in a double peak swell [a wave off starboard doubled up with a reflected wave off the seawall to port] causing the entire port side of Yale's eight to bury the riggers in a dead stop.

"We took a racing start to get going again, but finished a deck-length behind Cornell."66

The blood still rises in Eli throats over this memory.

Cooke: "Sports Illustrated showed a picture of the finish and carried the banner headline 'King of the River!!!'

"That demonstrated how little SI knew about rowing in those days, and, more importantly, it was probably the single most important incentive to our Yale crew to prove all of the pundits wrong when next we met Cornell in the Olympic Trials."67

Charlton: "The sting of that loss gave us the motivation to set our sights on Cornell in the Trials. Our Yale crew needed a lot of motivation, and I say that as the captain.

"Losing to Cornell in the Sprints was the best thing that could have happened to us."68

Essy: "I knew we could beat Cornell because I was the one that crabbed at the Sprints, right after Morey!"69

Wailes: "It was Jim's words to us in the bus on our way back to our Washington D.C. hotel that I will never forget. The crew's emotions ran the gambit from tears to rage. He said in his quiet voice, 'I'll say this once a day until June. If Cornell is the fastest crew you meet in the USA, I'll see you all in Australia in November.'"70


The Navy Great Eight
Meanwhile, the members of the Navy 1952 Olympic Champions had been recalled from their duty stations around the world and were training for another shot at Olympic glory. Now nicknamed 'the Admirals,' they were rounding into shape, beating Princeton decisively enough to convince the Tigers to break up their eight into small boats for the Trials.

Historian Mendenhall: "This led Rusty Callow rashly to rate them superior to their Helsinki form."71

And the Cornell Class of 1957 warmed up for their appearance at the 1956 Trials by winning their third straight IRA, one freshman title followed by two varsity titles and counting.

Not since the days of Charles Courtney half a century earlier had the Big Red boated such a crew as this.

Yale Manager George Pew, at the team's 50th Reunion: "When word reached Jim that Cornell had won the IRA, his comment to the press was, 'We're kind of glad it was Cornell in the IRAs. We're looking forward to another race with them.'"72

Preparing for the New London race against Harvard was a chance for the Yale crew to wind down emotionally from their Sprints loss and get valuable mileage at their rowing compound, Gales Ferry.

1956 Yale-Harvard Race
(photo from Tom Charlton)

Wailes: "What Jim sought was to get the most speed out of the boat that he could, but only enough to win comfortably [against Harvard]. When the lead was big enough, down went the stroke. [The 1956 Varsity] achieved the second-fastest downstream time in New London, rowing the last mile at 26 and even going down to 24."73

They beat Harvard by 22 seconds.


Pew: 'When the time came for the Trials, we all got into cars and drove to Syracuse, stopping at the Esselstyn farm for lunch, and Essy's grandmother had very carefully found four-leaf clovers for each of us. This is mine [opening his wallet]. I haven't dared not carry it ever since."74

The 1956 Trials were held on Onondaga Lake at Syracuse, site of the IRA regatta ever since the debacles on the Ohio River at Marietta a few years earlier.

Onondaga was named for one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy and is situated just northeast of and is a sister to the eleven Finger Lakes of Upper New York State. All were formed by the same receding glacier at the end of the last Ice Age.

Onondaga runs southeast to northwest. The rowing course is out on the lake, while the Syracuse University Boathouse is located on a channel which connects the top of the lake to the historic Erie Canal.

Cooke: "It should be noted that Onondaga was practically home water for Cornell. They had rowed and won the IRA there only a week or so before the Trials began.

Onondaga Lake
City of Syracuse is at lower right, The Erie Canal is at upper left
(photo from

"Yale had never before rowed on Onondaga, being totally engaged with the Boat Race against Harvard each year on the same date as the IRA.

"Thus, Cornell clearly had an advantage in familiarity with the area, the lake and the race course."75


Cooke: "Jim Rathschmidt was an outsider among his fellow coaches, not even a college graduate.

"He was never accepted by the Washington Husky coaching 'fraternity.' We called them the 'Washington Mafia.' He was resented by most of them, and barely tolerated by the others. Somehow they thought they deserved to have a lock on all the important coaching positions.

"The one exception was Princeton coach Dutch Schoch, the Washington grad Jim had gotten to know well when they were both coaching at Princeton.

"I believe he was Jim's best friend.

"An example of the 'fraternal' animosity toward Rathschmidt occurred at the Olympic Trials when the other coaches approached the regatta officials to complain that Yale's heat was not competitive enough. The luck of the draw had put most of the other fast crews in the first heat.76

"Rusty Callow, Navy Coach, was quoted: 'This draw is the rankest injustice I've seen in thirty years of rowing.'

"Stork Sanford, Cornell coach: 'The draw favors Yale.'

"Al Ulbrickson, University of Washington coach: 'The draw has inequalities. A little better judgment might have averted this problem.'"77

"These coaches insisted that the officials draw again, without Yale's participation, to determine who would be put into Yale's heat."78

Wailes: "On the opening day of the Trials, heavy winds closed down the rowing venue. It forced postponement for the eight-oared events. After the day's races were canceled, there was a long meeting of the Olympic Rowing Committee. Jim was out on the water with us, [and] when we returned to the dock, Jim was surrounded by reporters. They informed Jim that Stanford University had won the coin toss and elected to row in our heat. Tip Goes, Chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee, was quoted in the papers as saying, 'The reason we decided to change the heat assignments is that we wanted to be sure the best crew would represent the country in the Olympics."

"Jim was asked if he had any objections or comments to make on this new heat alignment. Jim paused, and in his quiet way responded, 'As I understand it - if you want to represent the United States in the Olympics, you have to beat all the other crews that are entered. We came here to beat them all. We really don't care what order we do it in.'"79


Bill Becklean: "After we lost the Sprints, we had the advantage of rowing in New London for three weeks or so, in the middle of which was the Harvard-Yale Race, which we won with a course record, I think.

"In any event, I will tell you that following the Harvard-Yale race, we took a couple of days off over the weekend. When we got back together to start training again for the Trials, the boat was horrible. It was just like a ton of lead! It was absolutely terrible!

"I can remember talking to people on the phone and them asking, 'How's it going?' My answer was, 'It's going really crappy. It just isn't moving. We have no idea what's wrong, but the boat just isn't going.'

"It never felt good again in New London, and when we went up to Syracuse and started practicing on the canals, it never felt good up there either . . . until the last time we were out on the water before we raced, and I will never to this day know what changed, whether Jim did something to the boat, but we rowed up the canal and started coming back doing some higher strokes, and all of a sudden it was like someone clicked on a switch, and the boat was right back to where it was."80

Wailes: "Jim was out on the water with us on one of the sheltered canals working to get the stroke rate up to 34 and 36. The boat was flying. You just couldn't pull hard enough! "81

Cooke: "The day before the first heats, Jim had us row up the canal out of sight past the Syracuse Boathouse, then turn around and start back with a strong 28 strokes per minute, raising it in two stages to 34, and then, just before we came into view of the boathouse, when he knew all of our potential competition would be standing on the dock or at the boathouse door, he had us lower the stroke and power on.

"We flashed past the Boathouse at 24 with enormous run on the boat, steady as a rock, poised, appearing to effortlessly kick the boat along.

"The expected effect was achieved. There were audible sighs among the spectators . . . and silence from the competitors."82

Becklean: "And the swing was back. Nobody knew where it had been, but that night we all knew we would win the Trials."83

Look for Part IV next week.

60 Mendenhall, Oar, p. 5
61 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
62 Wailes, p. 2
63 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
64 Wailes, p. 2
65 Wailes, p. 3
66 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
67 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
68 Charlton, personal correspondence, 2005
69 Esselstyn, personal conversation, 2005
70 Wailes, p. 3
71 Mendenhall, Oar, p. 8
72 Wailes, p. 3
73 Grimes, Rathschmidt eulogy, 1992
74 Pew, Yale 1956 50th Reunion, 2006
75 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
76 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
77 Wailes, p. 3
78 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
79 Wailes, p. 3
80 Becklean, personal conversation, 2005
81 Wailes, p. 3
82 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
83 Becklean, personal conversation, 2005

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