Season 1, Episode 2: Beginnings

Premiere date: May 16, 2019. This episode introduces the Saint Mary’s Cadets, predecessors of the Dayton Triangles, and talks about radical changes in American football in 1905 that helped them succeed.

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About the Saint Mary’s Cadets

The Cadets were typical of athletic clubs of their day. They played baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. In fact, the Cadets were better known in their era for their basketball skills. At one point, observers considered them the best independent basketball team in the United States, if not the world.

Not all of the members of the club played all sports. Al Schumaker, later the Reverend Father Schumaker, specialized in basketball. Meanwhile, Al Mahrt was a three sport standout, playing quarterback in football, forward or guard in basketball, and catcher in baseball. An umpire who called some of Mahrt’s baseball games once expressed the opinion that Al would have a legitimate shot to succeed as a catcher in the major leagues.

What It Was, Was Football

A segment of this episode that covers the violence in American football around 1900 and the reforms of 1905-1906 mentions Andy Griffith’s recording of “What It Was, Was Football.” If you’ve never heard it before, check out this YouTube video. The part where he describes the fighting in that game starts around the 4:20 mark.

The cartoon scenes depicted in the video shows people with “ND” flags and uniforms, which I assume stands for “Notre Dame.” But I think the game Griffith was referring to was the Tennessee-Alabama game, one of the great rivalry games of that era in the South.

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Episode Transcript

(Please note: The transcript may not be word-for-word accurate.)

They were kids, just neighborhood kids playing in backyards and empty lots near the southwest edge of the downtown business district in Dayton, Ohio, just after the turn of the twentieth century. That’s how Alphonse Herman “Al” Mahrt remembered it when interviewed in 1965. Besides Mahrt; there were Al Schumacher, Ralph Baker, and the Sacksteder brothers, Hugh (also called Hugo) and Norbert (better known as Norb). Their activities centered around the corner of Ludlow and Franklin Streets, near the Emmanuel Church and its parochial school, which all the boys attended.

The boys’ families were middle class in 1900 terms. Al’s father John emigrated from Germany and settled in Dayton to work in his brother’s cigar making firm. Business waned in the early years of the century, and John’s brother Herman struggled to keep it afloat. Creditors finally forced the Mahrt Cigar Company into bankruptcy in 1905, but John eventually landed on his feet, obtaining employment at the National Cash Register Company. The Sacksteders’ grandfather Nicholas moved to Dayton in 1852 and established himself as a gardener. His son John, Hugo and Norb’s father, worked at a local brewery for much of his career.

The boys graduated from Emmanuel school and continued their education at Saint Mary’s Institute in town, starting in the fall of 1908. It was tough at first. As “day” students, who came to campus for classes and went home each day, they often clashed with the resident students at the Institute. Father William O’Maley, a relatively young member of the administration, wanted to help the boys establish a sense of identity. O’Maley was a Dayton native, but completed his seminary studies in Switzerland. He decided to organize the “day” students into a basketball team. They were not the official Institute team, but were allowed to use the school’s gym for home games. They called themselves the Saint Mary’s Cadets to distinguish themselves from the school’s varsity teams, who were known as the Saints.

Harry Solimano undertook to coach the team. Solimano was a star of the great Saint Mary’s Institute basketball teams in the middle part of the decade, and was a standout in baseball as well. Now a graduate, he maintained close ties to the school while preparing for a career in the law. Solimano’s decision to mentor the young Cadets began a lifelong commitment to nurture young men in the Dayton community.

George Zimmerman was one of the new Cadets Mahrt and the others met at Saint Mary’s Institute. Although small of stature, the young man everyone called “Babe” displayed extraordinary skill, athleticism and heart. Zimmerman, Mahrt, and the other Cadets opened play in the local Bomberger Park junior amateur basketball league on November 30, 1908. Under Coach Solimano’s guidance, they defeated “The Invincibles” by a 23-10 score.

The newspaper report accidentally left the Cadets out of the first week standings, a mistake unlikely to be repeated.

As the basketball season progressed into 1909, it became clear that the young Saint Mary’s Cadets were something special. They not only won, they dominated the Bomberger Park junior league, defeating opponents by ridiculous scores. On February 15, 1909, they scored 128 points in a single game – the largest total ever scored in an organized basketball game in Dayton. The record stood for exactly one week, until they broke it by scoring 139. In that two game span, the Cadets outscored their opponents 267-1. They finished that first season as champions of the Bomberger Park junior league with a 17-0 league record.

The Cadets soon branched out into other sports. By the fall of 1909, they had expanded their ranks and organized a football team. At the beginning of October, they put out a challenge to any local junior teams that might want to play them. Within a month, the press had taken notice of their football prowess. They took special note of Mahrt, the “vest pocket edition quarterback” who gained renown for his play on both offense and defense. (There was no specialization in football in those days; everyone played on both sides of the ball.) The papers did not report all of the Cadets’ scores, but those they did report were shutout wins over high school and similar competition. In one victory, the Cadets’ opponent outweighed them, but they overcame the size disadvantage with speed and agility.

It must have seemed hard to imagine at the time that these slightly built young men could compete against larger men on the gridiron, but recent rules changes played to their unique skills and advantages.

Decades later, a former preacher turned aspiring comedian called “Deacon” Andy Griffith would make a name for himself with a recording of a monologue he had written and performed about the impressions of a non-football fan trying to understand events at a college football game. In “What It Was, Was Football” Griffith somewhat exaggerates the level of violence in the game for comic effect. To be sure, American football is, and has long been, a violent sport. Even Andy Griffith’s exaggerated description, though, pales in comparison with the real level of violence in the game at the turn of the twentieth century.

What it was was brutal.

Having developed mainly from rugby, the early game of American football was dominated by what were called “mass formation” plays. An example of these plays was the “flying wedge.” Players would group themselves in a wedge or “V” shape, lock their hands, arms, or both together and run at top speed toward the opposing team trying to break through their defenses. Even when most forms of the flying wedge were outlawed, teams would stack as many men as possible at the line of scrimmage to try to break through the defense or stop forward progress of a ball carrier. Teams with heavier players had a consistent advantage. There were also arguments that the game had become too dirty, with winning placed above all other considerations, leading to thuggish behavior on the part of some teams.

Two turning points brought the situation to a head. The first occurred October 6, 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Teddy, Jr. sustained an injury during a freshman football practice at Harvard. Young Teddy dove in from his defensive end position to make a tackle and suffered a cut over his eye. Fortunately, the cut did not require stitches. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt immediately called on college football authorities to reduce the violence of the game. The president invited top leaders of the sport for a conference at the White House. There, on October 9, the president stated his case for reforms to usher in a less violent and more open style of play.

One of the Yale representatives at the White House meeting was Walter Camp, legendary former player and the man considered the greatest expert in the game. He literally wrote the rules of the game and single-handedly chose the players to be honored as All-Americans at the close of each season. Camp said that he did not believe sufficient changes could be made to the rules for the 1905 season about to begin, but intimated that reforms could occur following the season. A few days after the White House meeting, he issued the following, single-sentence statement on behalf of the college representatives:

At a meeting with the President of the United States it was agreed that we consider an honorable obligation exists to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game of football relating to roughness, holding and foul play and the active coaches of our universities being present with us, pledged themselves to so regard it and to do their utmost to carry out that obligation.

In other words, when in doubt, punt. College coaches around the country echoed Camp’s statement publicly, but privately believed it would be a long time before real change came to the game.

They were mistaken. The second turning point came the final weekend of November 1905.

In Rockville, Indiana during a high school game, eighteen-year-old ball carrier Carl Osborne got up after a tackle, staggered, and fell dead. The force of the tackle had broken a rib and driven it into Osborne’s heart.

Back East, twenty-year-old right halfback Harold Moore of Union College suffered a blow to the head during a game against New York University. After the referee stopped play, Moore was unconscious. Bystanders rushed him to Fordham Hospital but Moore never regained consciousness. Harold Moore’s father was at the bedside when doctors pronounced his son dead. The medical examiner cited cerebral hemorrhage as Moore’s cause of death. On hearing of Moore’s death, NYU Chancellor Henry MacCracken sent a telegram to Harvard President Charles Eliot imploring him to call a meeting to either reform or abolish football.

The following Monday, the Washington Times published a list of 22 players killed across the United States in college, high school and informal football games, and a tabulation of gridiron deaths by year dating back to 1893. In its main article, it included a long list of injuries. “Twenty-two Young Men in Prime of Life Sacrificed to Sport in Three Months,” screamed a subheading to the Times’ article. “Something Must Be Done.”

By this time, a significant number of college officials seemed intent on what that “something” should be. On November 29, Columbia University moved to abolish football. Other schools quickly began to follow suit, including New York University and the University of Southern California.

Faced with the literal extinction of football, leaders of the sport finally signaled their willingness to accept extreme changes in the rules to open up the game and reduce serious injuries. After a series of meetings stretching through March 1906, the colleges hashed out the new rules.

The number of yards to gain in a series of downs doubled from five to ten. All linemen (guards, tackles and center) had to be on the line of scrimmage, eliminating V-shaped formations. Line players who had previously been able to carry the ball would now be prohibited from doing so. On defense, only six men would be allowed on the line of scrimmage; other players had to be visibly behind them on the field of play. These changes amounted to a permanent ban on mass formation plays.

Beyond requiring open formations, the committee adopted rules to eliminate dirty play, including prohibitions against violence, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct. Physically violent acts, such as striking, elbowing or kneeing other players, were punishable by disqualification from the game and a penalty of half the distance to the goal. Two disqualifications in a season would result in disqualification of the player for the remainder of the season. The unnecessary roughness rule was very similar to the modern rule, including prohibiting things like tripping and late hits out of bounds. Unsportsmanlike conduct included verbal abuse of players or officials, and is the same as the rule in place today. The committee also codified what became the modern “fair catch” rule, as well as prohibitions against holding and hurdling. Snap interference and tackling below the knees were restricted.

The most radical change to play was, of course, the introduction of the forward pass. However, the forward pass of 1906 was not the forward pass of contemporary football. There were several restrictions. Passes lobbed within five yards on either side of the center were illegal. A forward pass that fell to the ground without touching a player from either team was a turnover to the opponent at the spot of the pass attempt. A pass that went past the goal line on the fly without being caught resulted in a touchback for the opposing team. A pass out-of-bounds resulted in a turnover at the spot where the ball went out of bounds.

An old aphorism in football, often attributed to Woody Hayes warns that when you pass three things can happen, and two of them are bad. In 1906, even more things could happen, all but one of them bad. Even so, passing brought a new excitement to the game. Combined with the other changes in the game, it improved the speed of action and tipped the balance somewhat toward smaller, more nimble players. By 1907, attendance at games nationwide had increased by two million, and the stage was set for American football’s new aerial attack to find a home – fittingly, in the Birthplace of Aviation.

The Saint Mary’s Cadets followed up their successful inaugural football campaign by defending their junior league basketball championship at Bomberger Park in 1909-1910. Their ambitions now far exceeded local glory, though. They began to challenge teams from outside Dayton, intent on claiming the mantle of state junior champions, establishing a pattern they would later follow in football. They also found themselves in demand to perform during preliminaries and intermissions of important senior-level games. In the spring of 1910, the Cadets branched out again, this time into baseball.

Later that year, Father O’Maley received a transfer from Saint Mary’s Institute to a new posting in Montana. With their benefactor at the Institute gone and confronting the real possibility of losing administrative support, the Saint Mary’s Cadets decided to take matters into their own hands. On September 15, 1910, the members of the group met to create the Saint Mary’s Cadet Athletic Association. Harry Solimano, the boys’ coach and mentor, wrote the association’s constitution and chaired the meeting. The members voted Al Mahrt as president, Ralph Baker as vice-president and Al Schumacher as secretary. Their stated mission in forming the club was to advance “the further promotion of good fellowship and athletics in general.” They also hoped that having an organized athletic organization would make it easier to attract talented young players in baseball, basketball and football.

The Cadets were now a semi-professional athletic club, and an improbable sports success story was underway.