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"But You Can't Call It Sport"

ONE HUNDRED AND eight years ago, football teams from Penn and Princeton clashed on an unlikely battleground -- the stage of the Academy of Music.
   he Quakers have played football in many improbable venues, but none more so than the venerable Academy of Music, where students from Penn and Princeton struggled to a scoreless tie on March 7, 1889. There, on the stage once graced by Jennie Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," a bunch of college boys beat each other senseless as entertainment for the cream of Philadelphia society.
   The Academy of Music had hosted non-musical events before, most famously the Republican National Convention in 1872, but football, obviously, was something different. The sport itself was only 20 years old, the indoor variety a much more recent novelty. Indeed, the contest at the Academy appears to have been only the second football game played indoors. A few weeks earlier, Penn had defeated Rutgers inside New York's Madison Square Garden.
   To accommodate the spectacle, the Academy's stage was extended outward, covering all the seats in the parquet circle, as it routinely was for balls. Newspaper accounts disagree as to the exact length of the field, but it was certainly shorter than the customary 300 ft. Some accounts had it at 200 ft long, others only 150 ft -- as long as an arena football field, but at only 50 ft wide, considerably narrower. Goal posts were erected at either end. Rules also were modified; the teams had only three downs instead of four, which one paper said "gave greater diversity to the game."
   Over the wooden boards was spread "cocoa matting" padded with three layers of cotton -- a crude form of Astroturf. White strips of muslin served as goal and yard markers. Nevertheless, The Philadelphia Inquirer remarked, the carpeting was "a poor substitute for the grassy fields on which the lads were accustomed to play, and as a natural consequence falls were the rule and not the exception." Footing, in other words, was terrible, making "promiscuous kicking" as The Daily Pennsylvanian put it, "out of the question."
   Penn was represented by members of its 1888 varsity, captained by Tom Hulme, 1889. Just who their opponents were remains unclear. They were known as the Riverton Club, but five were either Princeton students or recent graduates. Possibly they were a pick-up group, their roster filled out with ringers, a practice not uncommon even in those early days. Riverton's best known player was Princeton's star fullback, Knowlton L. "Snake" Ames.
   The contest began at 8:15 P.M. under the flickering gas jets. Riverton took the ball first and, "with a V built of brawn and muscle ... forced a breach into the University's opposing front." There was little room to maneuver and play was sloppy. Someone fell over a canvas fence on the stage. As painted cherubs smiled down from the ceiling, one Penn player, described as a "wrestler," "caught a Nelson" on a Riverton rusher "and nearly twisted his head off." Hulme made a break for Riverton's goal, according to The Philadelphia Press, but "catching somebody's toe turned a somersault on his head." The ball squirted loose and in the ensuing pileup, players "rolled over the floor ... in indiscriminate confusion. Caps flew in every direction ... twisting, turning legs and arms mingling together without the slightest regard for proprieties of physical fitness and equilibrium." The game was unusually rough, even by 19th-century standards. As the Philadelphia Public Ledger graphically put it, "time upon time there was an ominous thud as the head or shoulders of some plucky half-back was hurled against the infielding boards or projecting stage scenery that formed the background." The North American, in a more amused vein, wrote:
   
   The playing...was full of vim and kept the audience properly elated. One big athlete would pick up some smaller human being and slam him down and then all the other players would pile on. It seemed to be heaps of fun. In a few minutes it turned out to be heaps of almost dead men.
   
   Far from shocking the patrons, such brutality was part of the attraction. Proper Philadelphia was in attendance, including many of that season's debutantes, all of whom seemed to be having a marvelous time. "Each brilliant play," the Inquirer observed, "was met with the bringing together of daintily gloved hands, and fair maidens, attended by chaperones, so far forgot their reserve as to stand up to witness the individual efforts of the players." The scene must have been almost medieval; the young men in their uniforms, crashing against the gilt-edged balustrades and tumbling into the red velvet boxes while the ladies cheered them on.
   Medieval perhaps, but something new in American sport. According to historian Benjamin Rader, "[u]ntil the advent of college football, women had usually been forbidden by the dictates of Victorian decency from attending the more disreputable sporting spectacles. Football was different." Here was an event where debs and dames could, in all propriety, shout themselves hoarse.
   The game also exemplified a more important social trend then taking place on campuses. College athletics exploded in the 1880s as the sons of the Civil War generation sought glories of their own. In what Christopher Lasch called the "rehabilitation of the ruling class," they found on the football field and baseball diamond a tonic to Gilded Age lives of idle dissipation. Championed in the coming decade by Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid football fan, this "muscular Christianity," as the movement came to be known, celebrated the manly virtues, but in a setting which reinforced the social distinction of both participants and spectators.
   Half-time featured different displays of athletic prowess. There were tugs-of-war and a field-goal-kicking contest featuring several of the best players in the country. Dropkicks were attempted from 15 and 25 yards out, and place kicks from 20 yards. One cringes for the Academy's grand chandelier, hanging overhead.
   The teams switched sides for the second half, with Riverton now facing the audience. Play was described as "desperate," the two teams fighting "like maniacs." The Inquirer drolly observed that "London prize ring rules prevailed ... and the wrestling was of the catch-as-catch-can order." Momentum shifted to Penn, which kept the ball in Riverton territory for much of the 30 minutes of play. Penn actually took the ball across the goal line, but the rules at the time required that it be "touched down," as in rugby, for the points to count. Someone knocked the ball loose and Riverton recovered to preserve the shutout.
   Although the game was pronounced a "great success" and did well at the box office, the Inquirer seemed to pronounce the general verdict. "All the players were winded," it wrote. "All were bruised. Some had their clothes torn. One had a black eye. Two were scratched on the faces. Twenty-two voted in-door football a failure."

Mark F. Bernstein is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and Philadelphia Magazine, among other places.
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/16/97