The Border Wars of 1893: KU and MU football

On a cold, windy Thanksgiving Day in 1893, 5000 football fans, including Kansas’ controversial Populist governor Lewelling, were at Kansas City’s Exposition Park to watch the third annual contest between the Universities of Kansas and Missouri. Both teams were members of the Western Interstate University Football Association, consisting of the Universities of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa. Kansas had won the inaugural championship title in 1892.

Football was an Ivy League sport which had only recently made its way west with alumni of eastern colleges. In the East, reported the Times, the game was enjoyed by “the business man on his athletic club eleven and the youth on the scrub organization of his school. Even the young ladies enjoy the sport, and an interesting struggle between the mighty athletes of Smith and Wellesley may soon be reported.”[1]

Hand-drawn illustration of playing field KC TimesIn the west, however, the game was so new that a football enthusiast and writer for the Kansas City Times, “Q.A.,” found it necessary, using hand-drawn illustrations, to explain the game to readers. In 1893, American football bore more resemblance to English rugby than to today’s game. There were no forward passes and only eleven men on each team, one of whom was frequently also the team coach. On offense, it is customary, writes “Q.A.,” to play seven “rushers” in the front line and four “backs” behind. The ball is put in play by a center who “either rolls or hands the ball to the quarter-back.” “Q.A.” offers detailed guidance on how the ball should be passed from center to quarterback:

In taking the ball from the center rush, who should roll it on its side and not end over end, the quarter’s hands should take it by the ends. Then let it rest with one end pointed down in the hand …. Turning the body around, facing the man to whom the pass is to be made, give the arm a swing underhand, pendulum-like exactly in motion.[2]

The ball holder then runs toward the goal line “protected by as many players as can get in front of him,” until opposing players can “grab him firmly and energetically anywhere between the knees and shoulders and throw him down….”[3] Rules prohibited tackling below the knees or above the shoulders. Only five yards were needed for a first down; if a team fell short, the ball went to the other team. There was no fourth down kick. 

Like rugby players, footballers wore no protective gear except canvas jackets and although they were lightweights by today’s standards, KU’s front line averaging a mere 169 pounds[4], and the playing season only 7 or 8 games, serious injuries and even deaths were common enough that frequent calls came for abolishing the game: “simplyFootball tackling shocking, brutal and inhuman!” an editorial in the Daily Journal called it; it “serves only to incite the very worst passions in the human heart. It is a disgrace to a civilized and intelligent people.” The Journal proposed instead competitive examinations in difficult subjects like Greek at colleges and universities: “how much more satisfactory such a contest would be and how different the feelings engendered, compared with the brutal instincts intensified by a ‘football fight.’”[5] In a later editorial, the Journal compared football, unfavorably, to prize fighting and bullfighting.[6]

Regents at the Kansas State Normal school in Emporia prohibited students from playing football,[7] with a member of the board saying the game “as it is now played is the height of brutality. It is injurious to the health and retards class work.”[8] The faculty of the University of California considered prohibiting inter-collegiate football games not only because of injuries but also because of “the greed for gain which is engendered by the business-like manner in which the contests are conducted. Foot ball … has become a business, not a sport.”[9] Already there were concerns about incipient professionalism in college football; the Times ran an editorial arguing that paying players would ruin the game.[10]

Tackling in footballThere were also calls for reform rather than abolition. General Nelson Miles, a veteran of the Civil War, Indian wars and, later, the Spanish-American war, called for a change in the rules, saying “I don’t believe it can endure under the existing so-called Rugby rules... Hitting and crushing is too generally excused upon the plea that the offender is excited and does not wish to do bodily injury to an opponent. He knows that by slugging or jumping upon his man  he can disable him until a retirement is necessary…. I want to see the unnecessary roughness barred.”[11]

In Kansas City, the Y.M.C.A. and high schools in the two Kansas Cities were among the first to play regular games, even before state universities and local colleges had teams.[12]  The Y.M.C.A. team included Fred Wolferman of muffin fame and several alumni of eastern colleges. Its quarterback had played under Harvard’s famous coach Lauren Deland, inventor of the predominant offensive technique of the day, the “flying wedge.” Another Y player had once played opposite the man considered the country’s first professional football player, Yale’s all-American guard “Pudge” Heffelfinger.[13]Flying wedge

The Kansas City High schools of Missouri and Kansas both fielded teams that, in the opinion of Mr. “Q.A.”, “played a far better game comparatively than did either Kansas or Missouri.”[14] Kansas City, Missouri, also had a team, noted mainly for its poor tackling.

Among the colleges, William Jewell College organized a team in the spring but, lacking experience and “even the most elementary coaching,” according to “Q.A.’s” report in the Times, it was easily defeated by high school teams from both Kansas Cities. He suggested that with a coach and proper training the William Jewell boys should “in a few years” be competitive with the State universities.[15] It was not to be; in October, Jewell’s eleven was reported as having “given up the ghost from lack of college spirit.”[16]

Baker dallies with ColumbiaIn contrast, Baker University was a formidable competitor, winning the 1892 Kansas state championship after beating KU. Baker handily defeated the University of Missouri, 28-0, in an October game at Exposition Park in Kansas City. The Times reporter criticized the “child-like play” of the Missouri side: “as a game of foot ball, it was a poor exhibition…,” he complained. “Both teams have much to learn about the fundamental plays of the game, but as this was the first game for both, some excuse can be made.”[17][ Baker did not have to face KU for the state title later in the season because of a dispute over officiating. Baker, not surprisingly, objected to KU’s choice for referee, who happened also to be a KU coach, and KU would not accept Baker’s counter-proposal for game officials. So the 1893 Kansas state championship went by default to Baker, its third title in four years.[18]

The Missouri Tigers gave a better account of themselves a month later when they defeated Nebraska at Exposition Park. The Times reporter called the game “a desperate one …. There were black eyes and bloody noses galore and at the termination of the game some of the players could scarcely be recognized. Big Robinson’s face was smeared with blood and caked with dust, until his features were almost obliterated. Others were in the same fix.” Kansas vs Nebraska

The Times provided typically florid play-by-plays descriptions from coin toss to the game’s final play, in which Missouri scored the winning touchdown:

With a drizzling rain beginning to fall [Missouri half-back] Shawhan tried for another run. Again escorted by Young and Anderson he avoided Nebraska’s ends and succeeded in gaining twenty-five yards. A few more yards gained through Nebraska’s vaunted line and a splendid dive by Young for fifteen yards carried the ball within a yard of the goal. To Anderson was entrusted the honor of making the fifth touch-down. He went through the hole Robinson and Thompson opened for him and scored the last touch-down of the game. His rough handling did not shake his nerves, for he kicked a beautiful goal. Score, 30-18. [19]

Then it was Kansas’ turn to face a formidable opponent, the University of Michigan, less than a week before the “Sunflower boys,’” as the Times called KU’s players, were to meet Missouri. The Kansas Jayhawks had one important distinction from their foes: the only African-American player on either team, Ed Harvey, played for KU. 

KU Football team 1893

Harvey was the youngest of three brothers, sons of former slaves. All three played baseball for KU; Ed also competed in track and field and was center on the 1893 football team,[20] though apparently he was not treated entirely equally. When a Times reporter visited the KU team’s “training table” at a small house in Lawrence where the team ate its meals, Harvey was not present. He was said to dine “at home,” and though he was from the reporter’s observation a “man who really played his position in decent form… [who] breaks through and gets into end interference and gets the ball in play like a veteran… the peer of any man on the team....,”[21]  KU usually played Rush Coleman at center rather than Ed Harvey.

In the Michigan game, KU had little reason to celebrate Coleman’s skills. Summarizing the game, which KU lost, 22 to 0, the Times reporter put much of the blame for the loss on his “bad snapping. He was altogether too strong,” the quarterback “having frequently to reach over his own head to catch the ball on the snap back.” Coleman sustained a nose fracture which the reporter speculated would “lay him off for awhile,”[22] but he was back at center a few days later for the Thanksgiving Day game against Missouri. In a game described as “remarkably free from slugging,”[23] his nose was re-injured in the game’s last half. Ed Harvey came on as his replacement.

Though the Times story did not remark on it, one can suppose that Missouri fans did not welcome the appearance of a black player on the field; the Lawrence Daily Journal opined that Harvey’s presence on the field “weakened the team.”[24] The Times sports reporter, however, attributed Missouri’s 22- 0 victory to the “brotherly stick-together of the Missourians….” In contrast, he wrote, the Kansas players “did not keep together….” One has to wonder whether if Ed Harvey, all-round athlete and “peer of any man on the team,” had been fully accepted by his teammates, the outcome of the two games might have been different.

Within a few years, as the country drifted further into segregation, African American players were banned from KU athletic teams.  Ed Harvey, successful civic leader and enthusiastic supporter of KU football, wrote to the KU Board of Administration in 1914 questioning KU’s policies on race in athletics: “Has not the negro student the same right to show his prowess on the athletic field as the white student?he wrote. “Why have conditions changed? The negro formerly participated in athletics and always with credit to his school and to himself… “ The pleas of Ed and his brothers were ignored.[25] Almost half a century would pass before the ban was lifted.

[1] “Football in Kansas City.” Kansas City Times, July 30, 1893, p. 2.

[2] “Low! Tackle Low, There.” Kansas City Times, October 1, 1893, p. 9.

[3] “Keep your eye on the ball.” Kansas City Times, September 17, 1893, p. 13.

[4] “Low! Tackle Low, There.” Kansas City Times, October 1, 1893, p. 9.

[5] “Knowledge vs. football.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 13, 1893, p. 4.

[6] “Football brutality.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 4, 1893, p. 4.

[7] “Foot ball Under a Ban,” Kansas City Star, December 21, 1893, p. 1.

[8] “No more foot ball.” Kansas City Times, December 21, 1893, p. 3.

[9] “For and against the game.” Kansas City Times, December 3, 1893, p. 7.

[10] “Professional foot ball.” Kansas City Times, October 15, 1893, p. 4.

[11] “General Miles on sport.” Kansas City Star, December 26, 1893, p. 3.

[12] “Foot ball in Kansas City.” Kansas City Times, July 30, 1893, p. 2.

[13] William Heffelfinger, from Wikepedia.

[14] “Keep your eye on the ball.” Kansas City Times, September 17, 1893, p. 13.

[15] “Keep your eye on the ball.” Kansas City Times, September 17, 1893, p. 13.

[16] “K.U. is all right.” Kansas City Times, October 8, 1893, p. 13.

[17] “It was a snap for Baker.” Kansas City Times, October 15, 1893, p. 7.

[18] “Is Baker’s Team Champion.” Kansas City Times, November 7, 1893, p. 3.

[19] “Missouri’s Men on Edge.” Kansas City Times, November 12, 1893, p. 7.

[20] Jayson Jenks, “Taking on the color barrier, twice.”

[21] “K.U. is all right.” Kansas City Times, October 8, 1893, p. 13.

[22] “Joy for Ann Arbor.” Kansas City Times, November 26, 1893, p. 2.

[23] “Joy for Ann Arbor.” Kansas City Times, November 26, 1893, p. 2.

[24] “Tiger by the tail: November 30, 1893.” KU History.

[25] Jayson Jenks, “Taking on the color barrier, twice.”


June 21, 2012