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Robert Edgren: Cal's First Olympian

Note: This is the first in a series of stories about early Cal Olympians.

Over the past 106 years, nearly three hundred athletes from the University of California have participated in the Olympic games. They have represented 37 different countries, and have won 159 Olympic medals. But only one athlete was Cal's first Olympian, and that was Robert Edgren, Class of 1896. Edgren, who at 6'5" and 225 pounds was considered absolutely massive in his era, represented the United States in shot put and discus at the 1906 Athens Olympics. In the mid-1890s, Edgren starred at Cal in all the throwing events: shot put, discus, hammer, and weight. He was a member of the famed 1895 Cal track and field team, which gained the first national notice for University of California sports during a triumphant tour through eastern schools, and helped give Cal its knickname of "Golden Bears." After graduating from Cal, Edgren became a nationally renowned journalist, cartoonist, and sports writer, while at the same time continuing to participate in amateur athletics. In 1901, Edgren held the world record in the hammer throw, and his athletic career culminated in the 1906 Olympics. He set a high standard for all Cal's future Olympic athletes.

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Robert Edgren, as a member of the 1895 Cal track and field team.

Robert Wadsworth Edgren was born on January 7, 1874 in Chicago. His family moved to California when he was a child, and after he graduated from high school in 1892, he entered the University of California. At that time, track and field was one of the most popular sports on college campuses, including in Berkeley. Track was only exceeded in importance by football, and only equaled by baseball. With Edgren's size and great strength, he was immediately recruited by the track and field team for the throwing events.

By 1894, Edgren had become one of the stand-outs on the great Cal team. In the track team's greatest annual event, the dual meet with Stanford, Edgren finished first in the 16-lb. hammer throw and the 16-lb. shot put, and even managed to be Cal's top finisher (in third place) in the pole vault, which was far from his best event. He thereby helped Cal to blow Stanford out, 90 points to 36 points.

But Bob Edgren was a young man of many talents. After the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco became affiliated with the University of California in 1893, he enrolled in art classes there, focusing on drawing and painting. In 1895, while still a junior at Cal, he applied for a job as a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner. The paper's owner, William Randolph Hearst, took a liking to the young man and hired him on the spot.

Neither his art classes nor his work for the Examiner kept Edgren from participating on Cal's track team. And in the spring of 1895, he traveled with the rest of the team on an eastern tour which would go down in Cal history. At that time, the University of California was virtually unknown in the eastern United States, for sports or for anything else. The 1895 track tour was the first time any Cal team had competed out side the state of California, and little note was taken of them by the eastern newspapers. That all changed at the first meet of the tour. On May 11, 1895, the California team faced the vaunted Princeton team in New Jersey. The entire American sports world took note when the upstarts from Berkeley won the meet, 61 to 51.

The California team then traveled to Philadelphia, where they tied the meet with the University of Pennsylvania, each school winning seven events. A two-day event in New York followed on May 24 and 25, with a nearly a dozen schools participating. California was not traveling with a sufficient number of athletes to participate in all the events, but finished strong in every event in which they did participate. Edgren finished third in the hammer. The eastern swing continued to Union College in Schenectady, where California crushed the home team, 59 to 39. By the end of the tour, three California athletes held American records: James Scoggins in the 100 yards (tying the record of 10 seconds), Ernest Dyer in the 120 yard hurdle (15.75 seconds), and Robert Edgren in the hammer throw (141 feet). The east coast sports world was astounded by Cal's success and was, for the first time, compelled to take notice of a western sports team.

During the trip, Edgren served as a reporter as well as a Cal athlete, telegraphing reports about the meets and the events of the tour back to the Examiner, so that the excited Bay Area fans could follow the team's progress. Such enthusiasm had been generated by Cal's great success, and by Edgren's reports, that the returning team was greeted at the Berkeley train station by a huge crowd of students, faculty and Berkeley residents. Professor Charles Mills Gayley noticed the blue silk banners, with the word "California" and a grizzly bear embroidered on them in gold thread, which the team had carried with them throughout the tour, and was moved to write a song which he called "The Golden Bear." It was the first Cal fight song, and included the phrase, "Our silent, sturdy, Golden Bear." And from that day to the present, California sports teams have been known as "the Golden Bears."

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The famous 1895 California track team. Front row: Harry Beal Torrey and Melville Dozier. Middle row: Philip Bradley, Chester Woolsey, William C. Patterson, Fred W. Koch, Robert Edgren, Ernest Dyer, and James Scoggins. Back row: Theodore Barnes, Louis T. Merwin, and Arthur North (manager). The banners from which California derived the knickname of "Golden Bears" are behind them.

After he graduated from Cal in 1896, Edgren began working for the Hearst newspapers full time. His 1897 coverage of the world heavyweight championship fight in Carson City between "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons made him a national figure. But then Hearst sent him to New York to be a political cartoonist for The Evening Journal. With the dispute between the United States and Spain over the fate of Cuba heating up to the point of war, Edgren was sent to Cuba. He sent back graphic drawings of Spanish atrocities for publication in the Journal, called "Sketches from Death," which created a sensation. (The technology of the time permitted drawings to appear in newspapers, but not photographs.) Even the war-mongering William Randolph Hearst thought the drawings were exaggerated, and he told Edgren to tone it down. An angry Edgren sent back 500 photographs from which he had made the drawings, which proved there was no exaggeration. His drawings and photographs became exhibits at Congressional hearings, and increased the clamor for war with Spain, which was, in fact, declared a few weeks later. And because of his drawings, Edgren was court-martialed by the Spanish government -- in absentia, fortunately.

Following the Spanish-American War, Edgren's journalistic career became almost exclusively focused on sports reporting. He became especially well-known for his coverage of boxing, and continued to draw cartoons of sporting events for the sports pages.

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A 1920s boxing cartoon by Robert Edgren.

At the same time, he continued to participate in amateur athletics. By 1901 he held the world record for the 16-lb hammer throw, at 147 feet, 6 inches. In 1903, he defeated the reigning Olympic champion in the hammer throw, John Flanagan, at a meet in New York City. And in 1906, he was chosen to represent the United States in the Olympics in both shot put and discus.

Those who follow the Olympics may at this point be wondering how there could have been games in 1906. Wasn't the first modern Olympics in 1896? And aren't the Olympics held every four years? So there should have been games in 1904 and 1908, but not in 1906, right? All this is true. But 1906 was an exception. The first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, were a great success. So much so, in fact, that the Greek government lobbied to have the Olympics held permanently in Greece. But the founder of the Olympic movement was French, and he was determined to have the 1900 games in Paris. They were a disaster. Not only was the public not overwhelmed by "sports" such as motorboat racing, obstacle course swimming, balloon racing, tug-of-war, and croquet (which was attended by exactly one paying spectator, an elderly English gentleman), but the games were scheduled to coincide with a World's Fair, which lasted nearly five months. The games were thus dragged out over that five month period, and were completely overshadowed by the Fair. In fact, some athletes were not even aware that their particular events were considered part of the Olympics. The 1904 Olympics were no better. They were held in St. Louis, and again were spread out over a period of several months. Worse, almost nobody showed up. Many athletes found it too difficult or too expensive -- or too uninteresting -- to travel to St. Louis. As a result, although 523 American and 52 Canadian athletes participated, there were only a total of 55 athletes from 10 other countries at the games. The Olympic movement seemed to have sputtered out.

To save the games, it was decided that an "Intercalated Olympics" (i.e., an Olympics inserted between the regular Olympics) should be held in Athens. The idea was that the Olympics would be held every two years, alternating between Athens and other cities. But the 1906 Olympics revived the Olympic movement to the point that after the 1908 London games, returning to Athens for Intercalated Olympics in 1910 was no longer necessary, and the idea was abandoned.

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The official poster for the 1906 Athens Olympics.

The 1906 Olympics introduced a number of traditions which are now a vital part of the games. The games were held in a compressed time of two weeks, to increase spectators' interest. It was the first Olympics that included the parade of nations in the opening ceremonies, with athletes entering the stadium by country, which has been such an important part of the games ever since. It was the first Olympics where the flags of the winning athletes' countries were raised. And it was the first Olympics to hold a closing ceremony.

Unfortunately, Robert Edgren did not have great success at the 1906 games. Although he participated in both the discus and the shot put, at the age of 32 he was past the prime of his career, and he did not make the cut for the finals in either sport. But he made good use of his time, as he was also covering the Olympics for his newspaper, sending back reports on the games, and even making drawings of his competitors:

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Edgren drawing from the 1906 Olympics.

After his Olympic adventure, Edgren returned to New York and continued to build his reputation as a sportswriter. His boxing coverage became legendary, as he came to know all the great American boxers: John L. Sullivan, "Gentleman Jim" Corbet, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Dempsey, and many others. A small sample of his work is found in this 1928 article, in which Edgren discussed the boxing champions he had known personally, and concluded that Fitzsimmons was the greatest:

Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest fighter I've ever seen, I think he was the best for his weight in all ring history. Bob was a physical freak. Six feet tall, with broad shoulders and large chest, long arms, a blacksmith's forearm and hands, narrow hips and skinny legs, he weighed only 147 ½ pounds when he knocked out Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, for the world's middleweight championship. . . .Fitzsimmons had amazing physical power and combined with it a cunning and resourceful mind and endless courage. In later fights, when he broke his hands on Jeffries and Gardner, he fought with the broken hands, concealing the Injury until the fights were over. He lost the heavyweight title to Jim Jeffries, in a furious 11 rounds at Coney Island. Fitz was dropped flat on his back a jab in the second round. Realizing the young giant's power then, Fitz attacked with relentless fury until he was finally beaten down. He tried to beat Jeffries three years later, hammered the giant to a pulp in eight rounds, but was knocked out again.

Robert Edgren's articles and drawings are still highly respected, so much so that many of them are available online, 100 years after they were drawn and written. Here are links to just a couple of the sites on which they are available. Many Edgren drawings can be seen here, and also here. And several of his boxing articles can be found here.

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Robert Edgren in the 1920s

In 1932, Edgren was in a serious automobile accident. Although he survived, he never recovered his health. After a long decline, he died at his home in Carmel, California in 1939, at the age of 65. In his obituary, The New York Times gave him this tribute:

Even-tempered always, well-informed in all sports and particularly in boxing, to which he paid much notice, he was known the world over as an authority who always told the truth as he saw the events he watched.

It would be hard to ask for a better first Olympic representative for the University of California.

GO BEARS!

__________________________

Sources

Anonymous, 1896 Blue and Gold, Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, CA (1897)

Anonymous, Robert W. Edgren, Wikipedia (2012)

Anonymous, 1900 Summer Olympics, Wikipedia (2012)

Anonymous, 1906 Intercalated Games, Wikipedia (2012)

Anonymous, 1904 Summer Olympics, Wikipedia (2012)

Cal Song Book Committee, Songs of California: The U.C. Berkeley Tradition, Medius Corp., Milpitas, CA (2007)

Kraychir, Hank, Cal Athletic Stories, Vol. 1, Kraychir Publications, Desert Hot Springs, CA (2009)

Pickerell, Albert G., et al, The University of California A Pictorial History, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA (1968)

Sheehan, Jack F., The Games of California and Stanford, Commercial Publishing Co., San Francisco (1900)

Sibley, Robert (ed.), The Golden Book of California, California Alumni Association, Berkeley, CA (1937)

The opinions expressed in a FanPost are, in every way, reflective of the opinions of every California Golden Blogs Marshawnthusiast. Moreover, they are reflective of every employee of SBNation, including Tyler "Blez" Bleszinski.

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