Tiger By The Tail
While many families in Kansas City dined on turkey and cranberry sauce in the warmth of their houses, a steady, cold wind whipped through the bleachers of the city’s Exposition Park, making it difficult for the 3,000 or so people watching the inaugural KU-MU Thanksgiving Day football game to keep warm. Despite the weather, the Lawrence Daily Journal and Evening Tribune boasted the following day that the game “was witnessed by the biggest crowd ever gathered for an athletic event in the west.” (This probably was a bit of an exaggeration, since the turnout differed little from that of the two previous encounters of the football squads.)
A number of prominent state officials, including Kansas’ Populist Governor Lorenzo D. Lewelling, had turned out to watch what was already a bitter football rivalry. As fate would have it, the Kansas supporters would have little to cheer about. The hated Tigers of Missouri would overwhelm the Jayhawker squad and earn their first gridiron victory against KU.
Little went right for the men from Lawrence that day. Less than two minutes into the game, Missouri’s star, a fellow by the name of Thompson, broke through KU’s line “as though it was made of paper instead of bone and muscle,” blocked a punt, scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. Surprised by their early good luck, the Missouri fans “roared forth with ‘Tiger! Tiger! M.S.U.!’ “ While the KU players tried to regroup, “canes were broken, hats were thrown and Missouri went wild.” The ensuing kick made the score 6-0 in favor of the Tigers. (At the time a touchdown was worth four points and the kick after two.)
Taken aback, the Jayhawkers promptly gave their fans something to cheer about as well when they proceeded to drive the ball inside the Missouri five-yard line on the ensuing possession. However, the KU men squandered the opportunity by fumbling away their possession. After getting the ball back the Kansas eleven again drove to the Tiger’s goal line, but the squad from Columbia made a determined stand and forced KU to surrender the ball on downs. Finally, after holding Missouri, the Jayhawks managed a touchdown but missed the ensuing kick, and so trailed 6-4. A promising Missouri drive was interrupted by halftime, but in spite of the reprieve the men from Lawrence still found themselves behind on the scoreboard.
The second half would prove equally disappointing for KU. In their frustration and eagerness to defeat the Tigers, they were penalized time and again for being off sides. Several times during the second half the game was stopped for injuries, although in an era in which football provided an opportunity for young men to prove their masculinity and toughness, the hurt players were not inclined to leave the field. A Missouri player, for example, “went down with his leg badly sprained,” but after being attended to by a doctor, “pronounced himself all right” and returned to the contest. After his return, tempers began to flare and “some of the players took occasion to indulge in a little fist fighting.” As such scrapping befit a rivalry game, the referees didn’t penalize anyone.
In “one of the mix-ups,” a KU player by the name of Coleman got his nose so badly broken that his “face was covered with blood and he looked like a prize fighter who had just been knocked out.” Like his injured Missouri counterpart, however, Coleman insisted on staying in the game. However, when he was again bloodied, Coleman was helped to the sidelines and replaced by a teammate named Harvey, whom the Lawrence Daily Journal identified as “the colored boy.” The newspaper, revealing the racial biases of many Kansans at the time, continued that the presence of Harvey on the field “weakened the team” and helped spell doom for his Jayhawkers.
With about ten minutes left in the game, Missouri scored another touchdown and converted the kick as well, increasing the Tiger lead to eight. Down by at least two scores, the KU squad began “playing without hope” and Missouri might have won by a final score of 18-4 if the referee had not ruled that time had expired before the team from Columbia crashed across KU’s goal line on the last play of the game. Thus KU’s season ended on a loss, and worse, with a record of 5-2, the Jayhawkers had allowed Missouri to tie them for the Western Inter-collegiate Football Association crown.
Disappointed by the defeat and unwilling to concede that their rivals had fielded a better team, students on Mt. Oread and other Jayhawker supporters hunted around for excuses. Some blamed the overconfidence of the Kansas eleven, while others found the cause of the failure in the fact that the team had no real coach. (A fellow by the name of A.W. Shephard served both as the team’s right end and its coach.) Others looked to the injuries that had prevented two of KU’s starters from competing at all and forced Coleman from the game.
Further, added Jayhawker apologists, the team had not been adequately rested following its “severe drubbing at the hands of Michigan” the prior week, and consequently no team “member was in good condition” for the showdown with the Tigers in Kansas City. (The previous year, KU had allowed its second teamers to play at Baker the week before the MU game and “had saved her best men for [the] all important game” against Missouri.) In words that would echo through much of the twentieth century, the Lawrence Daily Journal declared that for Kansas to field a winning team in subsequent years, it would need to “work harder, practice more, play better, talk less and get a coach.”
Although KU lost the first Thanksgiving Day game held in Kansas City, the men from Mt. Oread would dominate this holiday series in the Midwest metropolis until its abrupt end in 1910. In the 17 gridiron contests between the Tigers and Jayhawks held in Kansas City on Thanksgiving Day between 1893 and 1910, the University of Kansas lost only four. (It also won a Turkey Day showdown held in St. Joseph in 1907.) Despite the lopsided nature of the rivalry early on, by 1906 the Kansas City Star could rightly assert that the annual Thanksgiving Day clash had come to play so prominent a part in buttressing the universities’ pride that the students and alumni of the two schools gave “thanks on that day because there [was] such a game as football.”
Support for the game, however, was far from universal. Opposition to football developed almost at the sport’s inception. With little protective equipment to protect the players, sprains, broken bones and concussions became commonplace. Deaths, while hardly routine, were not entirely exceptions either.
During the 1890s, for example, two players had died from injuries incurred while playing on Mt. Oread, and over the course of the 1905 season, 18 college athletes from around the country had died from injuries sustained in football games. The fact that the officials overseeing football contests tended to enforce what few safety rules there were rather unevenly augmented the danger posed to the players. (The referees’ failure to penalize the Jayhawkers or Tigers for fighting in the first Thanksgiving Day tussle was hardly extraordinary at that time. The following year, for instance, a Michigan player was not penalized for deliberately jumping on a Kansas player who had just scored a touchdown.)
To the danger apparently inherent in the sport, opponents added varied criticisms. Some opposed gridiron contests because of their propensity to arouse (both among players and spectators), “the smashing and destroying instinct which comes down to us from our animal ancestors.” Others condemned its violent nature, believing that athletics ought not to be practiced with the brutality common “2,000 years ago among heathens.” Still others contested the game on the grounds of public morality, pointing out that college football had become linked to gambling, drinking, cursing, and all manner of sordid behavior. And some critics, of course, opposed the game simply because it privileged athletic achievement over academic accomplishment. (In 1908, for example, KU professor William H. Carruth presented a lecture titled “How Can Studies Be Made as Interesting as Athletics, or Can Study Be Made as Interesting as Football?”)
In light of these criticisms, it was not surprising that as America’s “Age of Reform” gathered steam in the 1890s, cries for the reform (or outright abolition) of gridiron contests echoed from every corner of the nation. By 1895, KU’s fifth football season, the University’s first coach (and one of its best), Edward M. Hopkins, was not alone in wondering if football on Mt. Oread had come to “stand for brutality, for trickery; for paid players, for profanity, for betting before games and for drinking after them.” The following year, newspapers reported that the Populists, who had swept into the Kansas legislature, were “carrying around in their vest pockets [a] table of injuries received by football players Thanksgiving Day.” (According to the table, 125 total injuries were sustained nationally on Thanksgiving the previous year, including three deaths and nine qualified as “dangerously injured.”) Rumors began circulating that the Populists were bent on passing a law that would make “the playing of football in Kansas a felony.”
By the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, public sentiment in Kansas was forcing KU officials to make various symbolic overtures, the aim of which was to protect the game by curbing its excesses. Chief among the efforts launched by the University was an attempt to persuade Missouri to abandon the tradition of holding the annual showdown in Kansas City. Accordingly, in 1907, the University’s Athletic Board invited Missouri to play the game on McCook Field in Lawrence with a promise that the next year’s contest would be held in Columbia. Missouri declined to travel to Lawrence but offered to play the game in St. Joseph instead of Kansas City. Although KU agreed to hold the showdown in St. Joseph that year, it notified “the University of Missouri that after 1907, the University of Kansas will insist on playing the game on college grounds.”
The following season, however, Missouri remained adamant that the game be played in Kansas City and KU’s Athletic Board conceded to “postpone the removal of [the] Thanksgiving day game to college grounds until such time as it becomes feasible to do so.” Thus, after a one-year hiatus, the Jayhawker-Tiger clash returned to Kansas City.
In 1909, A. Ross Hill, MU’s president, sent KU Chancellor Frank Strong a letter in which he confessed to being “strongly in favor of playing [the] games on college grounds.” However, he continued, it would be “useless” for him to try to persuade MU’s Athletic Board to move the annual contests to the university campuses “on account of the probable opposition of [Missouri’s] alumni in Northwest Missouri and Kansas City … who [found] it convenient to attend games in Kansas City.” In his reply to Hill, Strong, who had long believed that there was “no justification for college sport unless it [was] in connection with a college atmosphere,” acknowledged that KU had resigned itself “to the idea of playing the Thanksgiving game in Kansas City.”
And so, it looked very much like the Border War would continue to be waged in the Midwest metropolis – so much so that a committee was formed in Kansas City, Kansas that sought to enlist financial aid from the two universities to construct a new stadium. Chancellor Strong realized the matter was “a delicate one” since the University had “many friends in both cities [Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri].”
Ultimately, however, despite the fact that he saw “no likelihood for some years” that “the game [would] be played on the home grounds of the institutions,” KU’s chancellor was unwilling to do anything that might “be construed as a promise that [the universities] would continue to play the Thanksgiving game for any definite length of time in Kansas City” or even that the game “should continue to be played on Thanksgiving Day.”
If things looked bleak for opponents of football in 1909, the following year would see events come to pass that would very nearly culminate in the realization of their ambition to abolish the game outright. For following the 1909 season, a number of rumors had begun circulating about the Jayhawker football squad. It appeared as if certain alumni members had been paying substitutes to cover the shifts of football players (who at that time were allowed to have jobs as long as they actually worked for the money). Further, it looked very much like KU had spent more than the $400 permitted by the Missouri Valley Conference on training tables – steak dinners for the team designed to keep the players strong. However, it was the revelation that opposing coaches had used alcohol and various drugs to ease their players’ pain and enhance their energy that proved at last to be too much for progressive citizens of Kansas to stand any longer.
When the Board of Regents assembled in late January 1910, J.W. Gleed made a motion to abolish intercollegiate football at KU. William Allen White, a member of the Regents and the nationally renowned editor of the Emporia Gazette, seconded Gleed’s proposal. Although the motion failed to win majority support, it did lead to an invitation by the Regents to the other schools in the conference to attend a meeting to be held in April in which the “betterment of the present game” of football might be discussed. If the meeting could not produce substantial changes, then the University of Kansas was willing to substitute English Rugby for the American game. The intervening months saw politicians and newspaper editors flock to the defense of one side or the other. Many KU students and alumni, for their part, genuinely feared that the University might never again field a gridiron squad.
As such, when the conference voted to retain football at its April meeting, it seemed but a small sacrifice to the students and alumni that the institutions had agreed that all subsequent games should be played on the campuses of the universities and that Thanksgiving contests should be suspended. For reasons that are not entirely clear, however, the Missouri Valley Conference permitted the 1910 Jayhawker-Tiger contest to be held on Thanksgiving Day in Kansas City. In 1911, KU played its archrival to a tie in Columbia on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in the first “Border War” game played on a university campus.
But traditions die hard, and the KU-MU Thanksgiving custom was no exception. Although the gridiron clashes moved to Lawrence and Columbia, the schools “returned to the old custom of a Turkey Day battle” after a brief hiatus. However, this revival was to be short-lived.
By the 1920s, fundamentalists and other critics were urging the cessation of holiday games because they interfered with the “observance of Thanksgiving around the family table.” In 1924, KU’s athletic director Phog Allen acknowledged that there was “an unmistakable trend … to get back to the fundamentals in living,” which included the students spending Thanksgiving at home with their families. Consequently, he began lobbying Missouri to change permanently the date of the annual game. In December 1924, the deed was done. “Kansas and Missouri,” reported the University Daily Kansan, “have played their last Thanksgiving day football game.”
This announcement was a tad premature. In 1944 there was one final Thanksgiving Day clash between the two teams in Kansas City. By then, however, the annual showdown had lost much of the early contests’ energy since neither Missouri nor Kansas had developed a football program that consistently fielded great teams. Held in Ruppert Stadium, this last Thanksgiving Day game saw Missouri beat Kansas 28-0. The event proved successful in boosting attendance and interest in the outcome, but Kansas City’s attempt to build on this achievement and permanently relocate the game there proved futile.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas