Long before the white man came to North America, Indians played a game called baggataway. It was played with a wooden stick bent at the top where thongs were stretched across to form a pocket just big enough to hold a crudely fashioned ball. The stick was made of light hickory or some other wood that was strong and flexible. The ball was made of deerskin stuffed with hair or it might be nothing more than a wooden knot cut out of a tree.
To the early French settlers, the stick resembled a bishop’s crozier, or ‘croisse’ so they called the game ‘la crosse”. Later in English it became lacrosse.
The game seems to have been popular among all the Indian tribes but the rules varied. The shape of the stick, the size of the ball, the number of players, the size of the field and the goals, the length of the game—all depended upon local custom. Some games lasted from two to three days; fields might be anywhere from a few hundred feet to half a mile or more long. About the only general accepted rule: picking up or catching the ball with the hand was never permissible. Beyond that, anything went.
The Indians often played tribe against tribe, or village against village, with as many as 1000 taking part in a wild melee that usually resulted in serious injuries to some, and perhaps even a fatality or two. These tribal contests were more a test of endurance and manhood than a game, and were preceded by rigorous training that might last up to two weeks. Despite all the rough play, after the contest was over the Indians never seemed to hold any grudges.
On at least one occasion the game played a major role in a conspiracy. June 4, 1763, was the King’s Birthday, and at the suggestion of Chief Pontiac of the Ottawas, the British garrison at Michillimackinac were celebrating by watching an exhibition game of the popular Indian game in a field outside the fort. The fort’s gates were left open. At a moment in the game when the ball was tossed near the entrance, the Indian players dropped their sticks, seized tomahawks from under the blankets of their watching squaws and, followed by other Indian warriors who had been spectators, stormed into the fort. Almost the entire garrison was massacred. Had there been a lacrosse association at the time, history might have recorded the game’s first official protest.
The earliest notes of games involving the white man place the date as the mid 1800’s. Since then the rules, the team size, everything about the game has changed except the basic pattern of the stick. Contrary to the concerns of some, lacrosse is not a brutal free-for- all, and with today’s protective equipment and strict rules, less dangerous in terms of injury than some other body contact sports such as Rugby, Football and Hockey. It is a game in which physical size is not as important a factor, while speed, quick thinking, agility and stick-handling are all important. Teamwork, endurance, selfcontrol and courage are also “musts”.
What we have left from those early days is two games—the original “Field” version played in schools throughout the United States, and the “Box” indoor game in Canada. It is this indoor game, booming at the minor sport level as never before and catching hold everywhere, that the two year old National Lacrosse League is in the most ambitious, best-financed project in the history of the sport.