In a sunny patch in Old Gray cemetery, the ancient McClung plot features a melancholy Victorian memorial column. Facing it is a more classical marble stone with Beaux-Arts lines, about five feet tall, headed with the name LEE MCCLUNG. The stone mentions that he was Treasurer of the United States, and that he died, in London, England, at age 44. That information in itself is enough to interrupt a stroll through the old graveyard.
There’s no mention, though, that this same Lee McClung was also known as “Bum McClung,” or that he was, for a brief moment, the most famous football player in America.
And he wasn’t even a Vol.
In ca. 1880 Knoxville, he was known as Thomas Lee McClung, the kid in a large and famously wealthy family—their big house was at the corner of Locust and Church. Lee was only 11 when his mother Eliza died; his father shipped him off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter, in New Hampshire. At 18, he went to Yale, as had some other McClungs before him. He’d already been a baseball player, a star pitcher. A newer game distracted him.
In 1888, football was a northeastern diversion, little known in East Tennessee. Baseball was Knoxville’s sport, and the University of Tennessee then had a baseball team, but not football. (McClung’s contemporary, Japanese student Kin Takahashi, would soon be playing around with a pigskin at Maryville College.)
But football had been a very big deal at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, for almost two decades. Lee McClung loved the sport. Where he got the nickname “Bum” isn’t obvious in the records. A handsome, serious-looking young man with a dark mustache, he didn’t look much like a bum. At 5’10, he weighed, at most, 180. By the standards of the day, it was actually on the heavy side for a college football player, especially one in the backfield. He played halfback, which in those days meant he was expected to play both offense and defense in a 70-minute game. He was also a kicker, a master of the drop kick.
Even given the changes in the game—touchdowns were four points, field goals five—his record is astonishing. In his first year on the squad, as well as his last, Yale was not only undefeated, but unscored-upon. A high point was Thanksgiving week in 1891, when in the space of five days, Yale blanked both its main rivals, Harvard and Princeton. It was a rough sport, especially without helmets. McClung was credited with a safety innovation: football players should grow their hair long, to protect their heads. Maybe it worked for him. He never once had to leave a game due to injury. He was in every single play.
McClung was captain of that championship team, and a legend in the northeast. He was less famous in Tennessee than in Connecticut, but may have helped introduce football to his home town. Home for the holidays in late 1890, McClung offered coaching advice to an experimental non-collegiate football club in Knoxville, the year before the first organization of the UT team. A brief social blurb in the Sentinel reported, “Mr. Lee McClung, the famous half-back of the Yale team, is home to visit, and will assist the local organization in every possible way.” McClung sometimes hinted he might pitch in as a player on the Knoxville team; it’s unclear whether he ever did.
His glory was in New Haven. Yale teams during McClung’s four years as the Bulldogs’ most durable player had a record of 53-2, scoring 2,339 points to 49 for all opponents. In his four years there, McClung is personally credited with scoring 494 points.
Lee McClung seems to have suffered no illusions that football fame would last. He had a talent for numbers, and after graduation, threw himself into business. His professional life took some unpredictable turns.
He worked in railroads for 10 years before his alma mater offered him a job as university treasurer. He did such an astonishingly good job that another Yale alum, William Howard Taft, offered McClung the job of treasurer for the nation. The post was crucial in those days, and McClung kept the job for three years, most of Taft’s term in office. Thousands of dollar bills, most of them in antiquarians’ collections today, still bear Lee McClung’s neat signature.
Then he quit, allegedly over his refusal to back up the Secretary of the Treasury in a dispute about his methods. Unmarried at 42, with no children, and suddenly no job, McClung may have experienced some sort of existential crisis.
According to a memoir by stylish artist Juliet Thompson, a personal friend, the year McClung quit as treasurer, he was getting involved in the Baha’i faith, a philosophy that all religions are one. In 1912, at the Washington home of the elderly Alexander Graham Bell, McClung met Persian teacher Abdu’l Baha, son of the movement’s founder, and had a private meeting with Baha. According to Thompson, who was surprised at previously skeptical McClung’s sudden conversion, McClung compared Baha to Isaiah, Moses, and Jesus. “He seemed to me my divine father,” McClung said.
He had spent much of his adult life traveling, and in 1914, he went back for an extended stay in Europe. It was not an ideal summer to spend in Germany; after war broke out, he offered his assistance to American refugees trying to flee the Kaiser’s regime while they could. He began to suffer some serious illness, apparently typhoid. He moved to London, and seemed to be recovering, but slowly. His brother Calvin heard he was ill and arranged to meet him to escort him home to Knoxville, they hoped, in time for Christmas. But he died there, suddenly, on Dec. 19. Just after the holidays, his family had him buried beside his parents in the familiar old plot at Old Gray.
For decades after his death, big-city sportswriters would sometimes refer to the rough, wild, long-haired early days of football as the “Bum McClung era.” You don’t hear that phrase so much anymore.