Magnificently But Uselessly
by Jack Neely
That chilly weekend patrons of Staub’s Theatre on Gay Street were looking forward to the show of the season, a concert by Gilmore’s Band, the famous 50-piece orchestra formed by the late Irish bandleader Patrick Gilmore. Even though a show featuring the renowned bandleader John Phillip Sousa was coming up the following week at the same theater, some considered the Gilmore show to be the concert not to miss.
Gilmore’s Band had played Knoxville before, but this performance promised to be “brilliant with new and modern things.” Part of the buzz circled around the band’s new leader, the young Victor Herbert. His fame as a composer of operettas was still ahead of him. In 1895, his featured cornettist, Herbert Clarke, was better known.
That third Saturday in October was an even bigger deal for a certain few, the fans of that rough new college game from up north.
It was “the first foot ball game of the season as far as Knoxville is concerned,” according to the Knoxville Journal . “The eastern universities have been playing for three weeks, but not until now have our teams had sufficient practice to put up a good game.”
Football was only four years old at UT. The big sport in 1890s Knoxville was still baseball, and the Knoxville Reds had just concluded their season. The Reds were pros, though they didn’t make enough to make ends meet. At the end of the season, most of them found winter jobs, one as a trolleyman, a couple as mechanics.
Maybe the University Eleven, as they were known, were underpracticed because they had to wait to use the field. There was no field on campus, but Baldwin Park, where the baseball teams played, was just over the Fort Sanders ridge from UT, at the corner of Asylum Street, later to be renamed Western, and Dale Avenue, right on the streetcar line.
On the baseball park, football promoters marked out a field, described as 110 yards long and 53 yards wide, from the grandstands to the gate.
The UT team, not yet known as the Vols, faced a formidable opponent that third Saturday of October. Their rivals were heavier, on average, than the UT boys. Some were reportedly better athletes.
In years to come, UT’s third Saturday of October would be reserved for Alabama, but Tennessee’s much-anticipated opponent that particular fall afternoon wasn’t the Crimson Tide. In 1895, UT’s opponent was the redoubtable Knoxville YMCA.
The two teams met at Baldwin Park at 3:30 that Saturday afternoon. The 1895 season opener was greeted by “an enthusiastic crowd of 200 people.”
Though the Journal includes a play-by-play account of the game, we know most of the players by last name only. The stars that day were “Booth,” the right end, and “Floyd,” the right halfback. We can guess at the identities of a few players. UT’s quarterback in 1895 was “Chapman,” apparently David Chapman, later the Knoxville druggist who led the movement to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Chapman Highway would be named for him.
UT’s coach was a “Mr. Jones,” whose understanding of this complicated game still fairly new to Tennessee was said to be considerable.
They were called the UT Eleven, and it wasn’t an oversimplification. All 11 players played both offense and defense. It’s not clear whether there was anyone waiting on the bench.
Four officials, a referee, two umpires, and a linesman, were on hand to call the game. Because the players on both sides were regarded to be “soft,” there was mutual agreement that the game would be slightly shortened, to two 25-minute halves.
About 12 minutes into the game, UT drove the ball down to the YMCA 15. “To gain this 15 yards and make a touchdown required the most strenuous efforts on the part of the Hill boys. The YMCA fought nobly to prevent a gain, but the better training of their opponent told at this critical juncture.”
The left halfback, S. Boyd, made the score, and the way it was described says something about the way the game was played: “Boyd was forced forward by the U of T for a touchdown.” He earned four points, considered fair value for a touchdown in 1895.
There was no halftime, but a “10-minute intermission.” In the second half, the Y got the ball to the Tennessee 10. “The YMCA struggled magnificently but uselessly, for their opponents were also aroused to an appreciation of their danger, and presented a formidable front against which the YMCA boys hurled themselves like an avalanche, only to be repulsed again and again.”
Time was called, and UT was the victor, 4-0.
Women were new to UT in 1895, and they were noticed. The players were reportedly “often nerved to a desperate tackle by the presence of several appreciative co-eds.”
It apparently wasn’t a very pretty game to watch. I challenge my sportswriting colleagues to use this line, next time it applies: “The ball was dropped entirely too much by the runners.”
However, according to the Journal , “the contest was spirited throughout, and although both teams indulged in some rough play at times, there was no heinous violation of the rules.”
By a later account, “As a whole, the game was clean and gentlemanly and only once was there anything like a squabble.”
There were a couple of significant injuries, both on the YMCA side. French got a broken nose. Players in 1895 didn’t wear facemasks. They didn’t even wear helmets. By the end of the game, the YMCA Eleven may have become the YMCA Nine.
Two weeks later, Tennessee played another game against the Maryville Giants: “to decide the championship of the neighborhood.” There was a struggle even before the game. Maryville wanted to institute some new safety rules recommended by the college-football authorities at Princeton and Yale. UT’s squad wanted to keep the “old, rough rules.” It sounds like they compromised somehow.
A more-impressive crowd of 300 came out for that one. The Maryville team was more of a challenge. Their quarterback was none other than Kin Takahashi, the 5’2”, 123-pound Japanese athlete who had introduced football to Maryville College a few years earlier, as a student—before it arrived at UT, in fact. Takahashi’s Giants gave those pioneer UT footballers a fight. The final score was 6-6, two touchdowns with extra points.
The blood, sweat, heroism and bruises of the third Saturday of October 1895, were for naught. In all the official histories of UT football I know of, the entire 1895 season is dismissed with the phrase, NO TEAM. Sometimes history slaps you in the face.