Hold That Line!

Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr., City Historian

 

The recent get-together by his former players to celebrate an old coach raised the question of when Mechanicville fielded its first football team. Coach Ted Weigle oversaw his charges beginning in 1928. However, it appears that Mechanicville’s first kick-off took place in November of 1897, although it is unlikely that the football team had a continuous existence after that date. Before this could happen, a number of other things had to occur, not the least of which was that football as we know it had to be "invented," and Mechanicville had to have a high school, as we know it.

"Football" in one form or another is first mentioned at the time of Edward II in the early 14th century in England, with our modern version emerging in the 1870’s. In 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played "association football" which more resembled soccer than modern football. Harvard and Yale supplanted this game with a form of rugby in 1876, and these two colleges along with Princeton and Columbia agreed on a set of rules derived from English Rugby Union, rules which were modified in coming years. The number of players was reduced from 15 to 11; kicking and passing were allowed; and scrimmage substituted for scrummage. When these schools formed the Inter-Collegiate Union in 1880, the changeover from rugby was completed.

Quickly, the modified game became quite popular among eastern colleges, and it was not unusual to have crowds of 50,000 present at games. Until the Civil War era, the vast majority of students entering college were preparing for the ministry, but as a sizable middle class emerged in the post-bellum era, more parents were able to bestow the benefits of a college education on their offspring. Much less serious-minded than their clerical classmates, these new students were more interested in fun and games than in parsing Latin sentences and contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Quickly, football took on a life of its own in the new campus environment. Just as quickly, charges of corruption abounded, as the line between "amateur" and "professional" blurred; colleges were hiring paid "ringers" to run halfback, practices were consuming an inordinate amount of time, and absenting oneself from classes was becoming fashionable for football stars. As such, all of this has a modern ring to it. The game also attracted unwanted attention when its violent aspects led to the deaths of a number of players. Faced with a warning from Teddy Roosevelt that the limits of public tolerance had been reached, and threatened with condemnation at many universities, Walter Camp convened a meeting of college authorities under Roosevelt’s aegis to draw up a set of rules to tone down the violence. Colleges subsequently endorsed the rule revisions, and the game was made safer and more socially acceptable.

On the local level, the independent Mechanicville school system was organized in 1887-88, consisting of both elementary grades and an "academic department" which included a small number of students who were seeking a high school diploma. Serious-minded older scholars were more likely to attend Mechanicville’s respected private school, the Ames Academy which was founded in 1869. The public school’s first commencement did not occur until 1892, and it was only in the 1890s that what we would call a "high school" emerged. Although attendance may have been boosted by the closing of the Ames Academy in the early 1890s, the public school’s smallness was indicated by the fact that the number of graduates never reached double digits during that decade. Given the added fact that most older students were females, rounding up a football team was not the easiest thing to do. State law at that time required children to attend school only to age 14, and even at that, newspaper reports indicated that many local young people were regular truants. Thus, one of the appeals of instituting a football team included its potential to bolster attendance. As editor Farrington Mead explained in the Saturday Mercury on November 13, 1897:

The encouragement of athletics among high school students is likely to make school life more attractive….The truant law has a restraining influence in the grammar grades, but in the high school, only the most attractive environment will succeed to hold some students to their work.

The editor went on to note rather obliquely that the new team had lost its first contest to Waterford "by a small score," thereby denying posterity the right to know the exact score of this historic game. But apparently, this initial venture was a mere warm-up for bigger things to come.

The following week, editor Mead reported that Mechanicville’s eleven (and that appears to be the total number of players on the team) defeated Stillwater by the score of 8 to 0. He further reported that team members had begun to make a fashion statement by letting their hair grow long enough that they were able to hold their furthermost locks in their teeth. Whether or not this Samson-like look provided head protection prior to the advent of helmets was not explained, nor was there an explanation of why the players would want to hold their back hair in their teeth. History is unable to solve all mysteries. Another interesting note indicated that Principal Lewis Wells was a member of the team, whether from desire or necessity is not disclosed. While Lewis anchored the center of the line, Hailes Palmer was at right guard; Ralph Clark, right tackle; D. Clark, right end; Chester Gailor, left guard; A. Beddleson, left tackle; John Daly, left end; Lewis Ensign, left halfback; George Enright, right halfback; John Reeves, fullback; and Wesley Allen, quarterback. Presumably, these eleven were two-way men, playing both offense and defense. Following their triumph over Stillwater, the Mechanicville team was scheduled to take on the eleven from Round Lake Academy at the local athletic field. A ten-cent admission fee was to be charged, while ladies were to be admitted free. By comparison, local baseball games (involving teams composed of men and boys of all ages and not limited to students) charged twenty-five cents for male admission, and ten cents for the ladies. Of course, baseball crowds also received the bonus of being regaled by the harmonies of the Job Safford Band, marching bands not yet becoming the fashion at football games.

How Mechanicville fared against Round Lake was not recorded, and indeed, we cannot be certain that the contest was even played since no further mention of it appeared in the newspaper. In the ensuing twenty-three years that he continued to publish the Saturday Mercury here, Farrington Mead made few if any further references to football, whether because of its absence or because he thought the sport too frivolous a distraction for his serious-minded readers is hard to tell. At any rate, it is highly unlikely that Mechanicville’s inaugural season of football can be credited with having established a tradition of continuously fielded pigskin teams.

By the time that Ted Weigle took the coaching reins here, the game had been popularized greatly, especially after Knute Rochne opened up the offense at Notre Dame by regularly resorting to the previously unexploited forward pass. Locally, Mechanicville’s population had more than doubled between the 1890s and the World War I era, and state law had raised the compulsory attendance to age 16, thus vastly expanding the pool of adolescent would-be Red Granges. Now permanently established among its young men, Mechanicville’s football teams would no longer require the services of its principals to "hold that line!"