Friday, November 22, 2019

Grinnell Football Takes It On the Chin...

Readers of this blog will perhaps have heard that, part-way through the 2019 football season, Grinnell College canceled the remainder of the games on this year's schedule. After losing the first three contests by a combined score of 114-3, the Pioneers found themselves with so many injured players that the depleted squad could hardly compete, and the football players elected to quit rather than risk more injuries. Responding to the players' complaints, college officials have committed themselves to support the football program better and field a competitive team next year.
Photograph of Iowa (Grinnell) College Football Team, 1906 Cyclone
Canceling the rest of the 2019 season was grim news for the college's fans, perhaps especially Grinnell College athlete-alumni. But it could have been worse, and, in fact, it was worse in 1904. You might be surprised to learn that back then Grinnell played a variety of big-time football opponents, including both Iowa state university teams, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Minnesota. In fact, it was the October 22, 1904 game against Minnesota that set a record little to be wished-for by Grinnell football enthusiasts: by beating Grinnell 146-0, Minnesota set the high-water mark for point differential against a football opponent. How Grinnell received this humiliating defeat and how the players responded are the subjects of today's post.
In this blog I have often pointed out how the past differs from the present, and how we ought refrain from coloring in the past with today's palette. Football constitutes an excellent example of this warning, because today's football is very different from the game played in the early 1900s. The photograph of the Iowa College team (above) makes clear some of those differences, including the scant protections the 1904 players wore. For instance, the tiny leather "helmet" (which at the time was, in any case, voluntary) hanging from the hands of the man in the front row is world's apart from today's helmets, and the same might be said of the rest of their uniforms: there were no shoulder pads or hip pads, nor anything beyond the cloth uniforms the men wore.

Lest one infer from the lack of protective equipment that early American football was a low-contact sport, it bears remembering that serious injuries and even fatalities were not uncommon. As Aaron Gordon wrote recently about football in the early 1900s, "It was an ugly game" that may have killed as many as 20 players in 1905 (Deadspin, 22 Jan 2014: Gordon cites as an example of the unrestrained violence an incident in the November 25, 1905 Harvard-Yale tilt. Harvard's Francis Burr was set to receive a Yale punt when
Two Yale defenders bore down on the helpless Burr, one of whom, Jim Quill, punched him in  the face, shattering his nose. The other player, according to John Sayle Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, citing contemporary newspaper accounts, "delivered a body blow with his feet which knocked Burr 'senseless'...No foul was called on the play.
There were at least eleven football-caused deaths that year, and a host of injuries, many of them quite serious. Part of the explanation is that, in an era that did not know (or allow) the forward pass, most offensive plays involved some form of the "flying wedge" in which a mass of players bunched together and ran directly at the defense, which tried to resist the moving mass by forming its own mass—all this without protective clothing. Rule changes (like allowing the forward pass) instituted in 1906 helped in some ways, but other aspects of the on-field violence remained.
1907 Cyclone entry for Ernest Jaqua, member of the 1904 Grinnell College Football Team
Like most teams of the era, the 1904 Grinnell football squad was small, usually numbering fewer than twenty players.  As was common elsewhere at the time, most players played both both sides of the ball instead of the specialist squads (offense; defense; special teams) now universal in college football. Surprisingly, scoring also differentiated yesterday's football from today's. For example, in the early 1880s a touchdown gained a team only two points, whereas a field goal counted for five. Gradually the scales turned, so that beginning in 1912 a touchdown was worth six points and a field goal just three. When Minnesota conquered Grinnell in 1904, a touchdown was still worth just five points, so the Gophers' 26 (!) touchdowns accounted for 130 of their 146 points, the rest coming on point-after-touchdown kicks (they missed several). Had the 1904 game been using today's scoring system the loss would have been even more one-sided.
Lineups for the October 22, 1904 Grinnell-Minnesota Game (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 23, 1904)
1908 Cyclone entry for Wilford Bleamaster, member of the 1904 Grinnell College Football Team
But what about the 1904 game? Exactly how did Minnesota so completely dominate Grinnell, which, local fans might remember, had been victorious (24-0) against the University of Iowa in the first football game west of the Mississippi? Well, for starters, the 1904 University of Minnesota football team was no pushover. Although Minnesota began its season by playing against a team of Minneapolis and St. Paul high schoolers (Minnesota winning 107-0), the Gophers proved to be almost as unstoppable against more potent opponents. That year Minnesota defeated South Dakota 77-0, Lawrence 69-0, Carleton 65-0, St. Thomas 47-0, and North Dakota 35-0. Against some stronger teams Minnesota was less successful, but won every game: 28-0 over Wisconsin, 17-0 against Northwestern, and 11-0 against the University of Iowa. Minnesota also beat Nebraska (16-12), the only team all season to score on the fearsome Minnesota defense. Over the course of the season the Gophers scored a total of 724 points to their opponents' total of....12.  So, in being overwhelmed by the Gophers the Grinnell Pioneers were not alone. The 1904 Minnesota football squad was very good.
Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1904
It was not always so, however. In 1899, for instance, the Pioneers managed to play to a tie with Minnesota, 5-5.  In 1900 Grinnell lost to the Gophers by a score of 26-0, and in 1903 Minnesota won again, 39-0. In 1901 they did not play one another, but in 1902 Minnesota pasted another powerful loss upon the Iowa College footballers: 102-0. One understands, then, why the Grinnell newspaper offered a caustic prediction on the eve of the 1904 game in Minneapolis: "The Iowa College football team left this morning for their annual drubbing at the hands of the University of Minnesota" (Grinnell Herald, October 21, 1904).
1907 Cyclone entry for Arbor Clow, member of the Grinnell College 1904 Football Team
In fact, as the Scarlet and Black noted in reviewing the Grinnell team's opening game of that season, the Grinnell team was young and inexperienced.
The men, by loose and inconsistent playing, sometimes exhibited their rawness and ignorance of the game. This was due to the fact that this year they have few old heads to steady them (Scarlet and Black, September 24, 1904).
1907 Cyclone entry for Ross McDonald, member of the 1904 Grinnell College Football Team
Minnesota, by contrast, fielded a veteran squad that included "plenty" of "two hundred pound men of respectable speed" (Scarlet and Black, October 26, 1904). The student newspaper went on to report that Minnesota repeatedly employed the  "flying wedge" to drive through the Grinnell defenders.
In almost every play a half back or a tackle or an end would be buried in an invincible phalinx [sic] of interference and usually the ball stopped only when the man with the it [sic] out ran his guards and exposed himself to tackle (ibid.)
Compounding the effect of Minnesota's experience and size were the Grinnell mistakes. According to the S&B, Grinnell lost the ball "on fumbles as often as it was gained that way" (ibid.). While the Gophers marched down the field for twenty-six touchdowns, Grinnell's longest gain of the day was Ernest Jaqua's four-yard run.

When the Scarlet and Black next reported on the football season, the prose sounds eerily prescient of the 2019 team's fate. Describing the "increasing gloom" of the previous two weeks, the campus newspaper noted that
Hardly a night has passed without a man being dropped from the squad for one cause or another.... Injuries have been largely responsible for the rapid diminution of material... Carlson, Clack, Gilley, Barber, Shifflett, Clow and Bleamaster have been lost in rapid succession and their positions have fallen to men as deficient in weight as in experience.... The fortunes of the scarlet and black seem at complete low ebb... (Scarlet and Black, October 29, 1904).
Despite the numerous injuries, the 1904 squad bravely (and perhaps foolishly) played on. The results were not pretty: Drake won 67-0; Iowa State won 40-0; Iowa won 40-0; and Simpson closed out the campaign, winning 12-6. Reporting on the Iowa game, the campus newspaper regretted that "The game was simply a repetition of that old, old story which we have heard so often. Grinnell was outweighed and at times outplayed but nevertheless fought on..." (Scarlet and Black, November 16, 1904). Looking back over the season, the student journalist thought it "a remarkable fact that any team should survive at all, after receiving the defeats that Grinnell has" (ibid.).

Not all the team's fans were able to view the season with this much compassion. At least one athlete-alumnus (William Pierce 1899) wrote the S&B to express regret at the team's failures. Noting that in football of that era
weight has been made such a factor in the plays that speed is discounted; but the day is not, and never will be, when speed and spirit, coupled with discipline, which alone can make teamwork and physical condition perfect, will not increase the strength of any team by 50 per cent (Scarlet and Black, November 9, 1904).
Complimenting himself on the many hours he himself had devoted to football practice back in the day, the alum waxed philosophical:
When you go up against the cold facts in the great game of life you will find that the race is not to the swift, nor to the man with a record but to the man who...has the true staying qualities; [sic] just such as are engendered by football discipline (ibid.).
We cannot know what the members of the 1904 team thought of these sententious remarks. Certainly the team seems to have rebounded, fashioning winning records over the next few years. During the 1907 campaign, for instance, the Pioneers posted a 7-2-1 record, and had the pleasure of defeating Simpson 75-0 (although the University of Iowa that year bested Grinnell by a score of 45-0). Therefore, it seems clear that the humiliation of 1904 did not short-circuit future Pioneer football, and future teams—aided, perhaps by the 1906 rule changes—enjoyed new successes.

Consequences for the men who played during that 1904 season, and endured the Minnesota shellacking, varied. Some, like Wilford Bleamaster '08 (1881-1973), Ernest Jaqua '07 (1882-1972), and Wade Shifflett '08 (1883-1946), continued to play football at Grinnell, taking that experience with them into post-graduate life. Jaqua, for example, who hailed from tiny Reinbeck, Iowa, went on to acquire an MA from Columbia University, a divinity doctorate from Union Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Harvard before becoming in 1926 the first president of Scripps College. Bleamaster stayed closer to sports, serving as football coach at Carroll College (now Carroll University), Alma College, and the University of Idaho before settling in Corvallis, Oregon to coach high schoolers. Shifflett, a Grinnell boy, in 1917 left the Midwest for Napa, California, and there made for himself a very successful career in the lumber business.

Other members of the 1904 team left college without having graduated. Steadman Noble x-'09, for instance, who as a first-year had played much of the 1904 season as quarterback and handled most of the kicking duties, left Grinnell, and by the following autumn was working in St. Paul, Minnesota. Emory Auracher (1884- ), who had played several positions during the 1904 season, also left college before graduation, and by 1909 was coaching football in South Dakota. Had these men left college because of their 1904 football experience? For now, we can only wonder.

However, as seems likely from comparing the different life journeys that these men took after 1904, we may imagine that each of the twenty or so men had a unique perspective on the punishing football campaign of 1904. None of them, I am sure, would have wished to have been part of the humiliation visited upon them that October day in Minneapolis. But some of the veterans of the 1904 season found a way to work that experience into the rest of their collegiate career and into successful careers thereafter. Others may have found it less easy to reconcile the football nightmare with their personal ambitions, or perhaps they discovered new interests that took them away from the violence of the football field into other, fairer fields.

In any case, the 1904 record of the Minnesota-Grinnell game did not stand long. In 1916 Georgia Tech pinned upon tiny Cumberland College (now Cumberland University) an even more humiliating defeat, 222-0, which still stands as the highest point differential ever in a college football game.

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