Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Sporting America

article number 277
article date 10-10-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American Football Grows & Excites the Masses, 1896-1906
by Lamont Buchanan

From the 1947 book, The Story of Football in Text and Pictures.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nothing does justice to this great book like reading the book itself. Reproductions of many of the pictures cross the pages. No attempt was made to fix the crease in these pictures.

SOME people at the turn of the century made jokes about the “Indians” of the Carlisle Indians. But the people who made the jokes were watching the Indians play from the stands. Yale and other teams that played Carlisle found there was nothing to joke about. Leave the wisecracks to the people sitting around in the old Polo Grounds, they said.

Though Jim Thorpe had not yet arrived on the scene, Carlisle had plenty of steam with Johnson, Hudson, Wheelock and Seneca. Occasionally one of the Indians wore a nose guard; usually, though, it was the opposition.

It also helped to have a coach around like Glenn Warner. He guided Carlisle for 16 years, starting in ‘99, and introduced with his rampaging Indians the first shift seen in football, the crouch start, the clipping block and the reverse play.


Because of these novel intricacies the Carlisle Indians were one of the greatest box office attractions in college football. They played spectacular ball, usually started off at a terrific pace but often lacked staying power.

Warner and his Indians perpetrated that famous, original and outrageous (to Harvard) hidden ball trick in a 1903 game against the Crimson. According to football historians, Mt. Pleasant of Carlisle received the kickoff and promptly, behind a screen of his cohorts, hid the ball under teammate Johnson’s jersey. Then the Indians scattered in all directions.

Harvard was puzzled, then totally confused and the guilty Indian escaped detection until he had crossed the Cantabs’ goal line. At this point he fell on the ground and the ball burst loudly. The Harvard protests were even louder but the score was permitted as there was nothing in the books against it.

Texas A & M, along with Arkansas and Texas, were the first to start operating in the Southwestern Conference, destined to become America’s “slingin’est” league.


The Aggies formed their first team back in 1894. They had no coach to fire after each bad season for their own captain did all the tutoring that was necessary. A faculty advisor—usually impeccably dressed—was at hand constantly to see that all was done properly. He even appeared, black bowler and all, on squad picture-taking day.

The College Station gridders lost that first ‘94 game to arch rival Texas from up Austin way by a thumping big score. But there have been plenty of years of revenge since then. And how many teams have won more conference championships than A & M! They know the answer to that one all over the Southwest.

Some critics once pointed out that the Southwest was short on bonafide All-Americans, that other sections of the country outlist them on All-Star compilations. Perhaps the Southwest, being younger, isn’t represented as often as some other sections on all-time All-lists. But, as one coach put it, “When you play a Southwest team it’s like taking on eleven All-Americans, or guys who think they are—which is the next toughest thing!”

* * *

Harper’s Weekly 1896 “All-America Eleven”

(the following is the text and close-up pictures from Harper’s Weekly 1896 “All-America Eleven”)


Baird (Princeton), full-back.
Kelly (Princeton), and Wrightington (Harvard), half-backs.
Fincke (Yale), quarter and captain.
Gailey (Princeton), centre.
Wharton and Woodruff (Pennsylvania), guards.
Church (Princeton) and Murphy (Yale), tackles.
Gelbert (Pennsylvania) and Cabot (Harvard), ends.


In the line.
Cochran (Princeton), Rinehart (Lafayette).
F. Shaw and Wheeler (Harvard).

Back on the line.
Smith (Princeton), Minds (Pennsylvania).
Brown and Dunlop (Harvard).

THE FOOTBALL SEASON OF ’96 provided interesting and brilliant illustration of the impossibility, under the present rules, of insuring an open game. And yet the rules of ’96 revised under the auspices of the University Athletic Club by a most competent committee, were the best rules which by the light of past experience could at that time have been made. American football, however, is continuously growing, and we must keep pace with its development by accepting the lesson of each season’s play, and by recasting our rules in accordance.

For several years the tendency to more or less close play has been marked; two years ago mass plays were the rule, last year much of them was eliminated, and this year the five-yard rule abolished actual mass formation, but left abundant room for close play, and failed to open the game, as most of us had wished it might do.

The lesson taught by the ’96 season is, therefore, that the rule reading: …

“When the ball is put in play, at least five men must be on the line of the scrimmage. If, when the ball is put in play, five players, not including the quarter-back, be behind the line of scrimmage and inside of the positions occupied by players at end of said line, then two of these players must be at least five yard back to said line,”

… has partially failed in its purpose, and that it does not entirely proscribe mass formations, nor give us the open games so very much desired.

IT WOULD BE UNWISE, I think, to go further in prohibitive legislation in so far as the formation of the eleven is concerned. It seems to me the captain should be bound in that respect to no greater extent than the present rule hold him. Moreover, we do not wish the strategic element of football destroyed, because it is on of its most fascinating qualities. Unless very radical and altogether undesirable rules were made, it is more than probable the ingenuity of captains and coaches would devise a means of getting around any rule in favor of some play which relied for its success largely on mere physical exertion. Nor would it be desirable, in my opinion, forever to expel close play from the captain’s catalogue.

What we do wish is to make the play more open. Not because close play is more fruitful of injury, nor because it is not scientific, but because it rather makes of mere brute force an ascendant quality, and tends to the introduction of plays that show woo wide a discrepancy between mind and matter.

It is not well for the future of football that its development should be along only the strength-requiring lines. Much physical effort is needful in all the plays of football, but a close adherence to wedges, turtle-backs, and other mass plays would soon destroy the traditions of the game and the interest of the spectators. And it is well to bear this in mind.

RATHER THAN TO GO further in the prohibition of close plays, it seems to me the advisable course of legislation lies in suggesting rules that will make close plays less valuable to the side using them. Experience has taught us that a close play at its uttermost perfection is more often than not sure to gain the requisite five yards in four downs. it may be argued that a team which attains such skilful development in this direction is entitled to the reward, and in a general way this is of course true. But that brings us back to the point from which we stared, and from which we wish to diverge. Given two teams of equal physical strength using mass plays, and the game would resolve itself into a pushing-match.

The only apparent solution appears to be through increasing the number of yard that must, in order to retain possession of the ball, be gained in four downs.

It is not probable that greater skill in close plays will be developed than has already been shown, so we are safe in taking what has been accomplished in the past as a basis in providing for the future. If therefore, it were ruled that a team must gain ten instead of five yards in four downs, we should undoubtedly attain the open game without entirely abolishing close play.

INCREASING THE DISTANCE to be gained would not, so far as I can see, make the game harder. It would naturally make a faster game, and certainly give us plenty of kicking and some of the old long passing and the criss-crosses. Instead of depending on close play almost entirely, it would be reserved for a supreme effort when near the opponents’ goal, or tried for a down, or perhaps for even two, on first possession of the ball; but a kick or some brilliant open play would beyond doubt be necessary to making the required ten yards.

Besides, it would relieve the present wear and tear on the men in the hard match. Take, for instance, that “revolving tandem” which Princeton worked this year on Yale to a consummate degree of perfection. It is beyond human possibilities for a tackle—even though he were eight feet tall and weighed a tone—to stand up, not to say to resist, that catapult when directed against him. Any team that perfected such a play would drive through any given point of any opposing line; it is simply the concentration of several men on one man of the opponents’ line, towards whom they are whirled in single file. The strength of this play is in the rapidity of the whirling and the contiguity of the men in the whirl. It is the philosophy of shooting a tallow candle through and inch board applied to football. Princeton did it superbly, and wore Yale’s line men to a standstill. If Yale had had the same play and played it so well, Princeton would have found it as impossible to stop as Yale did.

We do not want to lose plays like this, but neither do we want the afternoon devoted to them: because they are practically unstoppable, and is all the teams employed …

Cabot, Harvard, End - Wrightington, Harvard, Halfback. (HARPER’S WEEKLY 1896 ALL-AMERICA ELEVEN.)
Kelly, Princeton, Halfback – Baird, Princeton, Fullback – Gelbert, Pennsylvania, End. (HARPER’S WEEKLY 1896 ALL-AMERICA ELEVEN.)
Murphy, Yale. Tackle – Fincke, Yale, Captain and Quarter – Church, Princeton, Tackle. (HARPER’S WEEKLY 1896 ALL-AMERICA ELEVEN.)
Wooddruff, Pennsylvania, Guard – Gailey, Princeton, Centre – Wharton, Pennsylvania, Guard. (HARPER’S WEEKLY 1896 ALL-AMERICA ELEVEN.)

* * *

Clarence Bert Herschberger, fullback of Chicago, wore his “C” proudly. And why not? He was Chicago’s and the West’s first All-American.

But if the “All” experience was then novel to a non-Easterner, the honors were nothing new to Pennsylvania’s T. Truxton Hare who once joked to a friend that “the only time they give me the ball is when they’re going to take my picture.”

Clarence Bert Herschberger, fullback of Chicago - Pennsylvania’s T. Truxton Hare.

Hare, immortal Quaker guard who was honored in ‘97, ‘98, ‘99 and ‘00, was one of very few men to make Walter Camp’s All-American four years running.

Another was Yale’s fabulous player and perhaps the greatest defensive end of football history, Frank Hinkey, who got into the charmed circle ‘91 through ‘94.

Columbia, one of football’s earliest pioneers but later in semi-eclipse as a grid power, came back strongly at the turn of the century. Two reasons were All-Americans Harold Weekes (left) and Bill Morley. Weekes, although a small man, stood alone as a line hurdler; it took a new rule to stop him. His long, spectacular runs against Carlisle, Dartmouth and Yale are still remembered on Morningside Heights.

All Americans HaroldWeeks and BillMorley.

Columbians were so fond of rugged Bill Morley that they wrote verses about him and set them to the music of a popular song of the day, “Mr. Dooley.” George Trevor, eminent football authority and journalist, once named Morley to his All-Time list of football’s best blocking backs.

Other Columbia acquisitions kept the Lion roaring. There was Dick Smith and Stangland and Tom Thorp. In this period the Blue and White not only gained one of its infrequent victories over Yale, but knocked over arch-rivals Penn, Cornell and Navy several times, and considerably “woke the echoes of the Hudson Valley.”

Meanwhile, out in the Mid-West at Madison, Wisconsin the echoes were reverberating to cheers for Pat O’Dea, the Badgers’ first “All” player. Wisconsin had been doing more than all right for itself in the late 1890’s and O’Dea was the big reason.

University of Wisconsin 1898-’99 Captain, Pat O’Dea.

This Australia-born fullback first attracted attention with an 85 yard punt against Lake Forrest. But his drop-kicking feats will live in football memory the longest. In his last year, his dropkick from mid-field against Minnesota was one of O’Dea’s greatest.

The Kangaroo, as his team-mates sometimes called him, caught a Gopher punt and, nonchalantly side-stepping tacklers, promptly performed a perfect drop kick. This proved the inspiration needed to fire Wisconsin to victory over a potentially superior Minnesota eleven.

The herculean feats of these early stars become more remarkable when it is recalled that they played until they dropped—literally. Coaches today often count on the utilization of at least two different elevens in each game; there are offensive and defensive combinations and substitutes for these.


Till the end of the eighties a gridder had to play until he was so badly injured he could no longer carry on. Then “seconds” were allowed but no man once removed could return to the game.

The scrub player was as much a part of the bench as its wooden feet. He was “anxious, envious and un-used,” peering across the field at his varsity counterpart.

In 1910 a new rule allowed a removed player to return at the beginning of any subsequent period and this led gradually to the liberal substitution regulations now in vogue.

* * *

Here comes the Eli’s,
We’ll open up their eyes,
Give them a big surprise,
Teach them football,
Princeton can never fail,
Can’t twist the Tiger’s tail
We are from Old Nassau!

This was the song the Jerseyites sang many times in 1903. For in that year Princeton had the outstanding team in the country. The Orange and Black beat a great Yale team as Nassau’s Captain De Witt fired his line with undeniable fervor.

In the early 1900’s post-game picture spreads on games often resembled our pre-game layouts now. The football action picture was still something of a rarity but in ‘02 Princeton and Columbia yielded some fast moving scenes. Despite Columbia’s great Harold Weekes who made his usual long runs, the Orange and Black took the day 22-0.

Picture spread promoting 1902 Princeton-Columbia game.

(larger pictures from spread)

Capt. Weekes, Columbia Going Round End For A Long Run.
Columbia Backs Formation For A Run Around The End.
Brown, Columbia Being Pushed Through For A Good Gain.
Burke, Princton’s Great Quarterback, Catching The Ball – De Witt, Princeton, Toeing A High Kick.
: R. L. Smith, Columbia, Kicking Goal After A Touchdown – Capt. Davis Princeton, Ready to Go Down The …
Moore, Princeton, Running Down The Field – Henry, Princeton, Ready To Smash Into The Opposing Line.
Post, Columbia’s Left End, On The Jump For An End Play – Trainer Crooks Sponging Off Weekes After A Long Run.

John De Witt, scowling, togged out in canvas jacket, shoulder pads and leg guards, had the ability to steam his comrades on. He would rage up and down the line, cuffing his teammates, “Come on, we can beat these guys,” and Princeton often did.

* * *

But the folks up New Haven way, riding the famous trolley out to Yale Field—on which no one has ever been known to get a seat—were happy. After a bleak period where Harvard had taken four out of five from the Elis, Yale, in ‘02 started a six year victory reign over the Johnnies.

Fans rode the trolley out to Yale Field.

Yale banners sold out at New Haven station and the “Undertaker Song” was more popular in the Blue stands than even that new hit song “In the Good Old Summer Time.”

Come on dad, buy your kid a Yale Pennant.

Yale had the players and Yale had the coaching. Walter Camp, official tutor ‘88-’92, even afterward had a habit of turning up informally in shirt sleeves to “help with the boys.” The Bulldogs couldn’t help but benefit.

The headline, Yale Smashes Harvard.

But after all, men like end Tom Shelvin, a bruising indomitable fighter for Yale, don’t need much telling how. It comes “natural.”

Tom Shelvin.

That’s what they say about little Walter Eckersall of Chicago. This 138 pound marvel is generally accepted as the game’s All-Time quarterback. Those who saw the Midway Mite against Michigan and Willie Heston in ‘04 say amen. Heston was a powerhouse; Heston was fast but Eckersall was faster.

Walter Eckersall.

One of John Heisman’s favorite memories was of this game, of Eckersall missing his first tackle on Heston, yet still getting his man a second later from behind—a sure measure of greatness.

Eckersall was versatile too. One Saturday he would peel off for a 100-yard touchdown run, then another day, as against Wisconsin he proceeded to kick five field goals.

Chicago vs. Wisconsin.

Another capable upright splitter of the period was Columbia’s Tom Thorp who was so fond of the game that after he finished his star tackle playing, he became a coach, and then an official.

Tom Thorp splitting the uprights.

When anyone talks about quarterbacks the name Charley Daly pops out quicker then presto-chango. The presto-chango is applicable because the little fellow who might have coaxed the scales to 135-pounds after a seven course feed, cavorted first at Harvard, then Army.


At both schools he was tops. As a freshman at Cambridge he is reported to have piped loudly “Play fiercely, Harvard.” People may have laughed then; they all cheered later.

Yale opponents sneered and his own teammates grinned sheepishly—but not after Daly dove in and stopped play after play with his clean, vicious tackles.


Later against Navy, in a West Point uniform, he was the same vital, incredible performer. His 98 yard run against the Middies after catching Belknap’s kickoff still stands as one of the great thrills of the classic series.

If Eckersall stopped Willie Heston in a famous Chicago-Michigan tilt, it doubly insured the lasting fame of the ‘Midway Mite’ without in any way detracting from the Wolverine back’s fame.

(placed above mention of Willie Heston.)

Heston was a two time Camp backfield selection; he could kick, run and tackle with equal skill. In four years of playing at Ann Arbor he piled up nearly 100 touchdowns—an incredible total in any league, unbelievable in the kind of competitive company Michigan keeps.

By 1905 the heavy pile-ups and mass plays and wedges had begun to disappear. The close formations were about to give way to more open football and forward passing was just around the corner. Experiments in passing were carried on at all corners of the grid map.

One way of tossing the ball, demonstrated by Somers of Harvard, resembled the two handed push shot in basketball. This method was soon shown to be sadly lacking in effectiveness.

(placed above mention of Somers.)

Early members of the Football Rules Committee credit Navy’s Skinny Paul Dashiell with being one of the very first to propose a new rule to “permit the ball to be passed forward.” Dashiell, becoming Navy grid coach in ‘04, was tired of seeing Army footballers tramp off the field triumphantly (as above) year after year with “another” win over Annapolis under their belts.

In 1906 the story was different, the Middies won 10-0 by means of “Dashiell’s New Football”, i.e. the forward pass.

< Back to Top of Page