Ray Bronson: “The Indianapolis Pugilist”

Ray Bronson, circa 1911. Library of Congress.

Boxing holds a revered place in the history of American life. From Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali, the sport has captivated audiences and broken barriers. One boxer who did just that was Ray Bronson, known as the “Indianapolis Pugilist.” Starting his boxing career in his teens, Bronson fought in 104 matches, with 48 wins and 22 Knock-Outs. His skill in the ring took him all over the world, from Sydney to London, where he was one of the first American boxers to fight abroad. Later in life, he cultivated upstart boxers, acting as their manager, and worked to promote the sport. Bronson’s name has largely been forgotten by sports aficionados, but his mark on boxing remains.

Bronson circa 1912, in an article from Horseshoer’s Magazine. Google Books.

Ray Bronson was born on August 2, 1887 in Webster City, Iowa. As an article in the May 1912 issue of Horseshoers’ Magazine wrote, “When Ray was just a little kid he was thrown upon his own resources.” It is unclear as to how he ended up in Indianapolis, but what is clear is his chosen profession before life in the ring: horseshoeing. Working as an apprentice to Indianapolis “horsehoer” (or farrier) Dennis Egan, young Bronson learned his craft as well as built up his physique. Within six months on the job, it was said that “there was never a horse too frisky for Ray to shoe.” He belonged to the International Journeymen Horseshoers and served as the Vice-President of its local lodge 24 until 1906. After that, the boxing gig took off.

Ray Bronson at the age of 18. 1906. Newspapers.com.

He began his boxing career in 1905, as a seventeen-year-old kid, and racked up wins almost immediately. As the Indianapolis News wrote on February 21, 1905, “Young Bronson made a splendid showing in the first preliminary of four rounds. His opponent was Billy Hinkle. Bronson had the better of each of the rounds, in which there was hardly an idle moment, and easily won the decision.” A month later he fought Jimmy Casey to a draw, where he was willing to “rough it with his smaller opponent” but couldn’t secure a clear victory.

Indianapolis News, January 25, 1906, Newspapers.com.

Nevertheless, Bronson was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most capable fighters. About a year later, in another article in the Indianapolis News, Bronson’s budding prowess was described in detail:

Bronson apparently has all the requisites of a successful fighter. He has appeared in almost every boxing entertainment held in this city during the last two years, and has nearly always won by the knockout route. He can weigh in at 120 pounds. A blacksmith by profession, he is as strong as a bull and has hands like a heavyweight. Although there has been a great deal of boxing in this city, the good fighters that have been developed are extremely rare.

Bronson’s victory against Willie Riley in 1906 at the Empire Theater in Indianapolis cemented the newspaper’s opinion of the upstart boxer. In another editorial, Bronson was described as “all muscle and bone” and lauded for his defeat of Tommy Grant, which took him only “one minute and fifty seconds.” He “appears to be most promising candidate for high pugilistic honors this city [Indianapolis] has produced in a long time.”

Hammond Times, May 9 1907, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After continued success in the ring, Bronson went professional in 1909. When he didn’t knock them out or win by points, Bronson came out of matches with a draw. On January 22, 1909, Bronson fought Jimmy Dunn in ten rounds that resulted in said draw. “Dunn seemed heavier and his work in the earlier rounds gave promise . . .,” reported the Hammond Times, “. . . But Bronson was the aggressor all the way.” A match later that month caused a stir among the boxing world. Ollie Chill, “an ex-prize fighter and umpire[],” posed as “Julius Stein” and let Bronson knock him out in one round in exchange for “considerable money” in Atlanta, Georgia. While evidence suggests that Bronson was aware of Chill’s motives, since he fought to a draw against the real Julius Stein in three separate matches, it nonetheless gave the young Indianapolis fighter one of his more peculiar wins.

Hammond Times, February 2, 1909, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In February of 1909, Bronson suffered one of his first major defeats, when he was knocked out by Freddie Welsh in the thirteenth round of “what was to have been a twenty round bout before the West Side Athletic Club” in New Orleans. However, he bounced back with a victory against Jack Redmond and a strong bout against Packey McFarland that ended in a draw decision. As the Hammond Times concluded, “For fifteen rounds, Bronson had a shade the better of the bout, and had it ended at the close of the tenth victory would have gone to the Indianapolis man.” Over the next year, Bronson continued to rack up victories, including a knock-out victory against Tommy O’Keefe, and even opened his own boxing club in Indianapolis.

Hammond Times, August 2, 1910, Hoosier State Chronicles.

While Ray Bronson enjoyed success in boxing here at home, it was his fights abroad that gave him his renowned reputation as well as his legacy. In the fall of 1910, boxing promoter Hugh D. McIntosh organized a group of boxers to travel to Australia for an extended campaign. Bronson was one of these boxers, alongside such well-known names as Packey McFarland, Jimmy Clabby (also from Indiana—Hammond), and Billy Papke. They left for Australia in September on the steamer Zealandia, arriving in Honolulu, Hawaii for a brief resupply, before their final leg to the land down under. They landed in Brisbane, Australia on October 2, 1910. Upon his arrival, the Sydney Sun declared Bronson the “most promising of the coming lightweights.”

The group of boxers who traveled to Australia with promoter Hugh McIntosh, 1910. Bronson is in the front row, first on the right. Terapeak.

In many respects, they would be quite right. Of the six bouts during his 1910-11 Australian tour, Bronson only lost one. Of the other five, there were three knock-outs and two won on points. His first match against Tommy Jones ended with a points victory, with Bronson doing “most of the forcing, using the right hand mainly to the body.” His next victory came via points against Sydney’s Sid Sullivan. The Sydney Referee referred to the match’s attendance as “possibly the biggest crowd attracted to the Stadium so far this season” and that Bronson’s style was “high-pressure,” but “chivalrous.” He secured his first knock-out win against Frank Thorn, in a match so intense, that Thorn actually broke his arm in the third round.

Sydney Referee, November 23, 1910, National Library of Australia.

His only defeat came at the hands of Hughie Mehegan, then lightweight champion of Australia, likely the result of his physical condition, which was described by the press as “drawn and pocky around the face, his eyes [were] sunk deeply, and a plainly visible black ring [shown] under both ribs.” Nevertheless, he “staved off serious trouble, and remained on his feet until the end,” losing only by points. His final two bouts, against Arthur Douglas and Jim Armstrong, ended with knock-out victories for the Indianapolis lightweight. Before returning home, he had a final overseas bout in London, England, fighting against Sid Burns at the Olympia. He would have won this fight had it not been for a foul called in the eighteenth round against him. Nevertheless, he returned home to a hero’s welcome, having cemented his place in the boxing world.

Hammond Times, April 19, 1911, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within a year after coming home from Australia, Bronson achieved his greatest triumph when he won the welterweight championship against “Young” Erne in Indianapolis on February 24, 1912. As the Hammond Times reported, the two “battled ten furious rounds” and while “No decision was rendered by the referee, [but] on points Bronson had the lead and earned the unanimous newspaper verdict.” That same year, he fought career rival Packey McFarland again, to a capacity crowd during the week of the Indianapolis 500. While they fought to what amounted to a draw, McFarland was given a slight points edge and awarded the victory. The Indianapolis News reported that Bronson “did not put up his usual exhibition of good boxing, and about his only damage was done at infighting and at close range.”

Hammond Times, May 29, 1912, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Packey McFarland, circa 1910. Library of Congress.

This was the beginning of Bronson’s decline as a professional boxer; he would never again stack up wins as he did before he held the championship. He lost the welterweight title on January 13, 1913 against Spike Kelly in Memphis, Tennessee and continued to have lackluster showings against Tommy Howell and Hillard Lang, despite Bronson holding his own in the latter match until the eighth round. He even returned to Australia in 1914 to try recapture his former edge, but to no avail. His first match against Waldemar Holberg on New Year’s Day 1914 in Melbourne ended in defeat, with Bronson taking most of the damage during twenty rounds. His second match against Frank Picato was especially disappointing. As the Sydney Referee reported, “Neither Ray Bronson nor Frank Picato was in condition to do justice to his reputation,” and “at one stay the galleryites counted both men out.” His final match in Australia against Matt Wells on February 28, 1914 ended in defeat, with Wells knocking him out in the seventh round. His days as a prime boxer were over.

An advertising card for the Bronson-Wells match featuring Ray Bronson, 1914. National Museum of Australia.
An advertising card for the Bronson-Wells match featuring Matt Wells, 1914. National Museum of Australia.

However, with endings come beginnings, and Bronson reconfigured his career with the same determination outside of the ring as he had shown in. On a personal level, he finally settled down. Bronson married Marguerite Ryan on June 26, 1913, and as the Hammond Times noted, “Bronson has done well financially in the fighting game and will probably devote himself to business interests with which he is now connected.” In 1914, he began devoting more of his energies to managing boxers. As the Tacoma Times reported, “Ray Bronson, Indianapolis welterweight champion, [is] now managing Milburn Saylor. . . and has a number of crack battlers under his wing. . . .” Saylor became one of Bronson’s key fighters during his years as a manager. Under Bronson’s wing, Saylor had many victories, including a knockout of New York fighter Leach Cross and a ten round romp against Jimmy Murphy.

Tacoma Times, July 18, 1914, Chronicling America.
Ray Bronson and protégé Milburn Saylor. Indianapolis News, February 24, 1916, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1916, Bronson started managing young Philadelphian Jack McCarron, a middleweight who “started fighting in 1909 and has never been knocked out.” McCarron also had a slew of wins under Bronson’s management, including his “lacing” of Joe Borrell, noted as “one of the fastest bouts ever staged here” by the Indianapolis News. He also gained victories against Silent Martin and Tommy Burke, with the latter bout being “the worst lacing that the blond haired boy [Burke] ever received.” Managing and promoting boxers became Bronson’s second life within the sport and continued to provide him with a generous income. However, as the Indianapolis News editorialized, Bronson “believes the boxing game is getting into the seer and yellow,” and that boxing’s key fighters should treat it as a “business” rather than “side-show attractions.” It is interesting to contemplate what Bronson would have thought of the sport’s big-time spectacle today, given his opinion in 1916.

Indianapolis News, September 7, 1920, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite all his success as a manager, he wanted to try fighting one more time. On September 7, 1920, after nearly six years out of the ring, Bronson fought Jack Britton in Cedar Point, Ohio. The Indianapolis News’s coverage of the bout wasn’t kind to the veteran boxer:

Jack Britton, welterweight champion, jogged along to an easy victory over Ray Bronson who essayed a comeback after six years out of the ring.

Bronson apparently lasted the full ten rounds through generosity of Britton, who toyed with his opponent throughout the fight and never appeared to be in danger. In a statement, the champion claimed he could have knocked Bronson out in the first round, had he been so disposed.

His comeback was short-lived. Within a month, Bronson announced his formal retirement from boxing. As the Collyer’s Eye in Chicago reported, “Ray Bronson, welterweight, has retired from boxing to devote his time to managing football and basketball teams and promoting bouts.” While his name did appear on a boxing card in 1922, according to the Richmond Palladium, it is unclear whether he was there as a manager or fighter. Either way, Ray Bronson’s boxing career was finally done.

Collyer’s Eye, October 16, 1920, Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.

After his retirement, Bronson’s story is rather difficult to piece together. By the 1920s, he was living in Portage, Ohio in a boarding house with his wife, according to Census Records. He then apparently moved to Jacksonville, Florida by 1935; he also applied for Social Security in 1942. Based on secondary sources, as well as a listing in the Florida death index, Ray Bronson died in 1948. His cause of death or exact date are currently unknown. For a man so widely covered in the national and international press, his death is ironically elusive.

With a “young man’s clean-cut face” and a “horseshoe punch,” Ray Bronson rocked the boxing world during the early 20th century. His considerable wins, international bouts, and successful management of other boxers put him a cut above most fighters. He was also a Hoosier, with a Midwestern work ethic and dedication to clean living, that buttressed his success in and out of the ring. As the Horseshoer’s Magazine wrote in 1912, “The Horseshoer’s Union may well be proud of this boy, for every one [sic] in Indianapolis is.”

Ray Bronson, 1921 Exhibit Card, BoxRec.com.

Title IX: Hoosiers React

The Indiana Historical Bureau is celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the passage of Title IX all week! Title IX, which was authored by Hoosier Senator Birch Bayh, provided that:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

As Title IX legislation worked its way through Congress, many questions arose – would this affect sororities and fraternities? Would colleges and universities be able to comply with the non-discriminatory laws while still turning a profit?

Many Hoosiers turned to their elected officials to voice their concerns in the lead up to the passage of Title IX and in the immediate aftermath. The Indiana State Library Rare Books and Manuscripts collection contains several of these letters in the Earl F. Landgrebe collection. In reading these letters, you can get a glimpse into the worries of average Americans and see how their elected officials addressed their concerns.


Billy Sunday: Revival in Richmond

Billy Sunday preaches in Jacksonville, Illinois, 1908. Indiana Memory.

The Reverend Billy Sunday, born November 19, 1863, started life as a professional baseball player before his conversion to Christianity in the late 1880s. From 1891 to 1895, Sunday learned the craft of evangelizing with an apprenticeship at the Chicago Y.M.C.A. (of which evangelical icon Dwight Moody was a co-founder), and by 1896 had become a professional evangelist. For the next 40 years, Sunday preached a Presbyterianism that represented “the more ‘American’ side of that denominational tradition—a broad, somewhat tolerant, not highly doctrinal, moralistic, patriotic, and often optimistic version of evangelical Protestantism.” His “sensational and vaudevillian” style urged personal responsibility and growth, which he advocated for in his urban evangelizing campaigns. From Sunday’s style of Americanized evangelism, one can easily see a connection to more modern evangelicals like Billy Graham.

Richmond Palladium, May 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many years, Sunday made Winona Lake, Indiana his home with his wife and family. It gave him more opportunities to hold revivals in Indiana, especially ones lasting for weeks at a time. One such revival came to Richmond in the spring of 1922. For six weeks, Sunday preached to scores of people in Richmond, “saving souls” and collecting donations from audiences. The Palladium, the city’s premiere newspaper, provided  a supplement section in its daily paper for Sunday to share his sermons, stories, and testimonials with the public. It is unclear as to why the Palladium decided to provide such expansive coverage; perhaps a publishing agreement between Sunday’s ministry and the newspaper facilitated the section. An insight into this arrangement might be gleamed from Sunday biographer Theodore Thomas Frankenberg:

Newspapers in any community, whether large or small, must necessarily pay attention to an enterprise which the business men of the town or city are backing to the extent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The element of publicity continues with increasing vigor to the very end of all campaigns, and one of the remarkable features in connection with it is the fact that this publicity is never sought by any direct or overt act — it comes naturally, almost spontaneously, and is easily the fourth factor toward preparing the field for the advent of the evangelist.

In any event, a half-page ad in the Palladium advertised Sunday’s revival and the paper’s forthcoming coverage. “The Palladium will publish a daily supplement giving two full pages of news and pictures regarding the meetings and the sermons in Richmond,” the ad stated. The paper also boasted of its team of reporters who would cover the revivals with a “direct telephone line . . . run from the Tabernacle to the Palladium office in order that there be no delay.” While Sunday’s preaching may have been “old time religion,” the Palladium’s supplement was a modern affair that anticipated the rise of twentieth century American protestant evangelicalism.

Richmond Palladium, April 13, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium published its first supplement on April 17, 1922, right after Easter Sunday. Throughout its six-week run, the Billy Sunday supplement followed a predictable pattern. The first page would run a photo of Sunday, often with a quote. The first one, called “I’ve Got a Combative Nature,” quotes the preacher talking about his background in sports and its influence on his preaching. “I was graduated from five gymnasiums. I can go so fast for five rounds you can’t see me in the dust,” declared the Reverend Sunday. The right hand side carried his main sermon, which often focused on a specific topic. For the first issue, Sunday ruminated on what he believed was the “real essence of Christianity,” love:

I will admit that Christianity has fallen away beneath love as the original standard. Love is the dominant principle of the world; love can never be defeated. Love may be checked; love may be prevented for the time being, in accomplishing its aim, but love will drill a tunnel through all the mountains of opposition and reach the goal of a touchdown. Love—it’s the mightiest thing in the world! And the world is starving today for the manifestation of the love of God in the hearts of men and women.

Richmond Palladium, April 17, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Christianity was more than just love to Billy Sunday. It also manifested itself in good works, particularly donations to the church, or in his case, to his revivals. In every supplement, an article or informational table would display the amount of money, in cash and pledges, Sunday’s ministry received for his sermons. The first day, the total collections were $859.71. This wasn’t good enough for the fiery evangelist. “I turned down 25 cities to come here, and it is not fair to me or to the other cities if you do not support me,” Sunday chided. As subsequent issues were published, the money totals and people “saved” became more explicit.

Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium’s Billy Sunday supplement also shared with readers some of his best one liners or bits from his sermons. This was a smart move; Sunday was extremely quotable and articulate and would often do more with a sentence than other speakers could do in a paragraph. For example, in the April 18 issue, the Palladium published some of “Today’s Hot Epigrams from Billy Sunday’s Lips.” Here’s some of his best quotes from that issue:

*

I think that God is too busy to pay any attention to the fellow who is trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

*

This is not a world of chance. God don’t wind it up and then throw away the key and let her rip till she runs down. Nothing comes by chance.

*

Christianity is not a simply a creed. Christianity is a creed plus Jesus Christ.

*

Like with the first issue, a picture of Sunday, often in an animated preaching pose, accompanied the quotes. This gave readers a choice; either read the long-form sermons or check out their best bits and quotable lines. This provided Sunday with a wider readership than if he had just provided the sermons as a whole.

Richmond Palladium, April 19, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of Sunday’s indispensable lieutenants in his crusades for Christ was Robert Matthews, described by the Palladium as the “custodian of the tabernacle.” However, this was not his only job. Matthews served as Sunday’s secretary, a “buffer between the world and his boss,” as well as his “pianist for the chorus, understudy for Rody [Homer Rodeheaver] as the leader of the choir, and finally a good talker when he has to be.” A native of Kentucky, Matthews graduated from Lake Forest College, received musical education in “New York, Paris, Milan, and Melbourne,” and spent time in the newspaper business before joining Sunday’s staff. The Palladium described Matthews as “faithful to Billy,” further noting that “he is sure that Billy is the greatest man on the face of the earth.” Matthews, along with other staff, made sure that the Sunday revivals went perfectly.

Homer Rodeheaver, known as “Rody,” was Sunday’s musical director. Richmond Palladium, April 20, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The revivals benefited additionally from a well-organized schedule of prayer meetings, led by Florence Kinney, a graduate of Dr. Wilbert W. White’s Bible Training School in New York City and dedicated lieutenant to Sunday. Kinney believed that, “Souls can be saved and individuals converted in those neighborhoods, just as well as at the big tabernacle meetings.” Kinney and Reverend Alfred H. Backus organized Richmond into 10 sections, each with their own superintendent responsible for prayer meetings. Kinney herself taught Bible study classes during the week, scheduled “immediately after the afternoon sermon.” These individualized, personal meetings reinforced Sunday’s sermons, gained new converts, and emboldened the already converted. In this regard, Sunday’s bureaucratic approach echoed the modern evangelical enterprises of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell decades later.

“Come Up to Help the Lord,” hand-written proclamation from Reverend Sunday. Richmond Palladium, April 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the supplement for April 21, the Palladium published a hand-written proclamation from Sunday, calling for evangelism in Richmond. “The history of the church is the history of revivals—the Church was born in the revival at Pentecost,” Sunday declared in his letter. He also summoned all of Richmond to join his revival. “I issue a proclamation,” Sunday wrote, “to the forces of truth, morality, righteousness in and out of the churches of Richmond ‘come up to the help of the Lord, against the and devil and all his hosts.” He signed it with his name and “Psalm 34,” which, among other verses, stated that “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” Sunday fervently believed that the message of Christianity would fail unless the people actively worked for the propagation of its message.

Billy Sunday’s tabernacle in Richmond, Indiana. Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

To hit home this message, the Palladium ran a small chart, starting in the April 19 supplement, chronicling the money raised and those “saved” at the daily services. Between the afternoon and evening services on April 21, the ministry collected $344 and preached to 4,900 attendees. However, by the weekend’s end, the collection ballooned to $3,183.36 and attendance expanded by 19,700 people. As an aside, the paper also noted that the “foregoing does not include pledges, which will swell the total.” The chart began including converts with the April 26 issue, where 119 “’hit the sawdust trail,’ the first converts of the Richmond campaign.” Within days, the paper named the converted as “trail hitters,” a term used throughout the rest of Sunday’s revival in Richmond. By the time Billy Sunday’s six weeks in Richmond came to a close, his ministry claimed 5,876 “tail hitters” and $34,658 in collections. Not too bad for an old baseball slugger turned champion for the Lord.

Richmond Palladium, April 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Sunday was not without his controversies. He was openly against divorce, appearing in films, dancing, drinking alcohol, and the theory of evolution. With evolution, Sunday chided that, “If you believe your great, great granddaddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him, but leave me out! I came from a different bunch, thank God.” He was also particularly bothered by divorce, saying “I shall never prostitute my manhood and high and honorable calling to unite in marriage a man or woman that has ever been divorced for any reason, as long as the man or woman from whom he or she is divorced is alive!” Sunday also railed against hypocrites within the ministry, stating, “I don’t like to see a minister who has one mannerism for the pulpit and another for the street.”

Richmond Palladium, May 3, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, despite his calls for moral behavior and rejection of modern life, there was one group with which he was incautiously naive: the Ku Klux Klan. On May 14, 1922, 12 Klansmen in white robes approached the pulpit during Sunday’s evening service. They stood silent as they handed the reverend an envelope containing a “commendation and $50 in bills.” Sunday took the letter, merely replied “I thank you,” and said to the audience after they left, “I don’t know how you felt, but I commenced to check up on myself.” The Palladium reported that Sunday was “dumbfounded,” even though this was not his first encounter with the Klan. “The klan [sic] has made a present to Mr. Sunday in every city he has been in during the last year. . . . Even the Klan in Sioux City did the same thing,” Sunday confidant Robert Matthews told the press.

Richmond Palladium, May 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Muncie chapter and the provisional Richmond chapter of the Ku Klux Klan signed the letter commending Sunday for “the wonderful work that you and your associates are doing in [sic] behalf of perpetuating the tenets of the Christian Religion throughout the nation. . . .” The Palladium further noted that this was “the first time in the history of Richmond that the Ku Klux Klan had appeared. . . .” It also would not be their last time. According to historian Leonard Moore, 4,037 men from Wayne County, of which 3,183 were from Richmond, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Of Richmond’s 26,000 residents, over 12% belonged to the Klan during the decade. Sunday’s interaction with the Klan was not an aberration, but rather a sign of things to come.

As for the Reverend, he shrugged off the “dumbfounding” incident, declared that he did not belong to any secret fraternal organizations, and said that “if you behave yourself they won’t bother you.” In an odd turn, Sunday never readdressed the incident, but instead criticized the liberal wing of Baptist Christianity. “It’s the liberal bunch that don’t like me, and I don’t want their backing,” Sunday shared with his audience before he called for attendees to come forward to be saved.” Sunday’s apparent lack of moral clarity on the issue of the Klan does not imply an endorsement of its politics; it only demonstrates that Sunday was not aware of the implications of associating with them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s actions remain problematic.

Richmond Palladium, May 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Towards the end of his run, Billy Sunday’s crowds, collections, and the “saved” continued to grow. On May 25, over 600 members of the local Odd Fellows organization attended the evening service, pushing the audience to 5,200 people and past tabernacle capacity. The next day brought a record 2,000 people to the revival on a week day, the highest it had ever been. His final night of evangelizing brought to his ministry over $10,700 in donations, mostly from those in attendance but also from those unable to attend who donated earlier in the week. The Palladium covered Sunday’s final sermon and the start of his travel home to Winona Lake:

Billy Sunday’s residence at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.

About 1,500 saw Mr. Sunday off to his home at 10:20 o’clock Sunday evening. As the train started. Billy Sunday was shaking hands with a member of the crowd and was pulled off the steps to the platform. He managed to catch the steps of the end car as it passed and Richmond’s last sight of the evangelist was as he stood on the platform, waving goodbye.

During his six-week revival, Sunday gave 95 sermons in front of nearly 250,000 people, making him one of the biggest draws in the history of Richmond. He left the city a massive success.

Richmond Palladium, May 29, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the biggest reasons for that success was the daily newspaper coverage he received in the Richmond Palladium. “The papers in this town have done better in covering this campaign from every angle than any other city have been to,” Sunday told the Palladium on his final day in Richmond. This is no exaggeration. The Palladium gave Sunday six weeks of uninterrupted newspaper coverage in a special supplemental section, a unique experiment in the newspaper’s near-200 year history. They printed his sermons almost verbatim, alongside other stories, quips, and updates on the prayer meetings and the amount of people “saved.” The Palladium‘s wall-to-wall coverage of Sunday’s revivals foreshadowed today’s network of newspapers, magazines, television stations, and internet media devoted to religious programming. Thus, the Palladium’s “Sunday Supplement” underscores the immense influence of Billy Sunday and evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest during the early 20th century.

To learn more about Billy Sunday, visit Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium, May 9, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Portions of the introduction appeared in my thesis, Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Central Midwest.

“Coed Mayhem”: Roller Derby in Indiana

 

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:

Roller Derby.

Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport?  Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.

“Two women’s league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallend,” World-Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, March 10, 1950, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Leo Seltzer, Courtesy of Jerry Seltzer’s blog, rollerderbyjesus.com

Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.

Dance Marathon, Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]

Photo courtesy of Made in Chicago Museum.

The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans.  Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary).  One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]

Martin and McKay, Courtesy of the National Roller Skating Museum.

The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]

For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation.  However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters.  According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however.  Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937, Accessed via ProQuest.

The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]

But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.

“Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium,” 1937, Lane Brothers Commerical Photographers, Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections, Digital Public Library of America

Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]

Damon Runyon, 1938. Courtesy of the Irish Times and Getty Images.

Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers.  Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.

Courtesy of the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), October 9, 1936, Accessed via Newspapers.com
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1949. Accessed via ProQuest.

This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, October 31, 1954. Accessed via ProQuest.

Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 4, 1941. Accessed via ProQuest.

Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]

Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.

Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!

Sources:

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.

[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.

[iv] Marino, 18-22.

[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.

[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.

[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.

[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;

[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.

[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.

[xi] Marino, 30.

[xii] Marino, 30-32.

[xiii] Marino, 30.

[xiv] Marino, 30.

[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.

[xvi] Marino, 38, 128-130

[xvii] W. Blaine Patton, “Playing the Field of Sports,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1940; Marino, 39.

[xviii] Frank Anderson, “Mayhem on Skates: Roller Derby Squads Follow Wrestling Cue,” Indianapolis Star, Sun. Oct. 31, 1954.

[xix] Anderson.

[xx] Anderson.

[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949;  “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxiii] Anderson.

[xxiv] “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field.”

Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan

 

Program, “Stanford vs Notre Dame,” 1925, in David Kiefer, “Stanford 125: The 1920s,” September 10, 2019, accessed gostanford.com.

This is Part Three of a three-part series on the University of Notre Dame’s opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. See Part One for information on the May 1924 riot and Part Two for more about the integrity modeled by the Fighting Irish during the 1924 regular football season.

Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan had a good year in 1924. Its members’ lobbying paid off and their xenophobia was codified into law with the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act). The act established a strict quota system that unfairly targeted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, in large part because many immigrants from these areas were Catholics. The Klan and other xenophobes charged that Catholic immigrants would always be loyal to the Pope and to Rome, as opposed to the laws of their adopted country, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. The new immigration law would keep out these “undesirable” immigrants. For many xenophobes, including Klan members, this was not enough. The Indiana Klan worked to further block Catholics and immigrants from gaining political power and influence. They did so by working to portray immigrants, Catholics, and Jews as “other,” as alien, as unassimilable, as un-American.[1]

Left: Ku Klux Klan, “Information Sheet,” 1922, Indiana Pamphlet Collection, Indiana State Library, (top page of sheet). Right: Detail from “Information Sheet.”

In Indiana, the Klan circulated “Information Sheets” before elections. These were copies of ballots where the Klan noted candidates who were “Negro” or “Foreign Born,” those who were Catholic or had Catholic family members, and those who refused to respond to inquiries.[2] The Klan newspaper, the Fiery Cross, accused Catholics and immigrants of various wild plots against their fellow Hoosiers and positioned Klan members as the innocent victims of attacks by Catholics. The propaganda mouthpiece dedicated full pages to this “mounting list of Roman Catholic offenses,” which supposedly included such “papist crimes” as “arson, theft, assault and battery, murder, slander, intimidation, breach of contract, disrespect for flag and violation of the immigration law.”[3]

Advertisement, Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan also continued to use the May 1924 incident at South Bend to vilify the city’s immigrant population as “hoodlums” and Notre Dame University as a front for secret, un-American, “papist” activities that would undermine the values of good Protestant Hoosiers. The Fiery Cross distributed a booklet, “The Truth About the Notre Dame Riot” and ran articles and anonymous letters it claimed were penned by neutral, non-Klan member observers of the “foreign rioting”of May. [4] In truth, these “letters” were racist, anti-Catholic propaganda. These strikingly similar letters, signed with pseudonyms like “An American Citizen” and “Observer” referred to Notre Dame students as”anti-American” and “gangsters. [5] The writers claimed that the students were armed with guns and knives, outnumbered Klan members thirty-to-one, beat women unconscious, tore up the American flag, and spilled the blood of all-American Klansmen, “the same true blood shed at Bunker Hill and Argonne.”[6]  While local non-Klan affiliated newspapers reported no such level of violence, no weapons, no women present, and no destruction of the flag, the Klan’s version of events was repeated in mainstream newspapers, tarnishing the university’s reputation.

Notre Dame officials knew that the Klan wanted them to react. The Klan had baited students into conflict in May and had been thriving off the propaganda opportunity ever since. The xenophobic group continued threatening to return to South Bend, even holding large rallies on the edge of town. Instead of responding to the Klan, the university worked to counter the damage done to their reputation by promoting its increasingly-popular football team. By winning games, growing its fan base, publicizing its players as wholesome American boys, and linking the school’s Catholicism with its success on the field, Notre Dame flipped the script on the Klan. Newspapers across the country were now talking about Coach Rockne’s brilliant plays, the unstoppable Four Horseman offensive backfield, the Fighting Irish’s undefeated regular season, and the team’s odds at the upcoming Rose Bowl.[7]

Minneapolis Star, December 26, 1924, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

The trip to the Rose Bowl presented university leadership with a unique opportunity—a national stage on which to demonstrate that Notre Dame was both proudly Irish Catholic and thoroughly American. Many players were sons of immigrants, improving themselves through education and hard work to achieve success and the American dream. And what could be more American than football? Positive press coverage generated by the Fighting Irish’s undefeated 1924 season convinced President Walsh that mobilizing the full power of the university behind the football team was a winning promotional strategy. According to Notre Dame historian Robert Burns:

When reporters wrote about Rockne’s success or the exploits of the Four Horsemen, they could not do so without also writing about the special religious and academic environment that had made such success and exploits possible. That sort of reporting…was good for Note Dame, for Catholic higher education, and for American Catholics generally in the bigoted climate of 1924. [8]

Walsh gave his blessing to the January 1925 match up between Notre Dame and Stanford at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. He then handed over the reigns to Father O’Hara, the school’s “prefect of religion and  unofficial keeper of the institutional conscience.” Father O’Hara turned the train trip to Pasadena into a “public relations spectacular.”[9]

“Mass Celebrated by the Notre Dame Football Team on the Road,” n.d., University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed https://www.nd.edu/stories/whats-in-a-name/.

Father O’Hara planned a three week trip centered around the Rose Bowl game and mobilized Notre Dame alumni and Catholic organizations to set up public events en route. Alumnus and railroad executive Angus D. McDonald arranged for a special train to transport the team, coaches, managers, alumni, and Father O’Hara. The train included a chapel car for Mass, Holy Communion, and confession. Father O’Hara believed that the devoutness demonstrated through daily communion, combined with “the gentlemanly conduct of the team” would win over the American public “while bigotry and prejudice received an abrupt setback.”[10]

“Notre Dame University’s Unbeaten Football Team at Illinois Central Station Chicago en Route to California via New Orleans,” Illinois Central Railroad Company Photograph, December 20, 1924, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

On Thursday, December 18, 1924, Rockne drilled his players “on a field covered with ice and in a slow drizzle,” a public display of a steadfast team determined to win in January.[11]  The next day, the special Notre Dame train left for Chicago. The Tennessean reported that “Hundreds of students and townspeople braved zero degree weather” to see them off.[12] When they arrived in Chicago on Saturday, alumni and members of the Knights of Columbus greeted the team and posed for photos. Notre Dame had become increasingly popular among Chicago’s immigrant community, and local newspapers thoroughly covered the team’s arrival in the city, openly rooting for them over the days leading up the Rose Bowl.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the entire Midwest was “pulling for Knute Rockne’s famous ‘Four Horsemen’ to ride rough shod over the Californians.”[13] The newspaper stated that midwesterners had a vested interest in the game’s outcome “because of the intersectional reputation of Notre Dame, the most widely advertised eleven the country has ever known.”[14] The Tribune reported that while normally telegraph offices would be closed on New Year’s Day, they would “remain open to receive the returns.”[15] The paper also encouraged “everybody with a radio, or those who know somebody with a set” to keep “their ears glued to the headpieces” as Tribune radio station WGN would be airing the game.[16] Pasadena hotel companies even beckoned to Chicago-area residents to follow the team out West for the Rose Bowl through newspaper advertisements.[17] In fact, newspapers all across the country reported on the team’s travels from this first stop. By the time the train left Chicago, the Rose Bowl seats were completely sold out.[18]

“A ticket from the 1925 Rose Bowl between Notre Dame and Stanford,” in “The First Bowl Trip, 125 Moments, University of Notre Dame Football, accessed 125.nd.edu.

The Notre Dame train traveled south, stopping briefly in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 21. Here, the team and entourage were again greeted by alumni and Knights of Columbus members, who had set up a special Mass in the team’s honor. They continued on to New Orleans, where locals pulled out all the stops for “a series of entertainments”over a two-day period.[19] The first day Coach Rockne held an hour-long practice at Loyola University stadium, “consisting chiefly of passing and kicking and the execution of several plays,” and the second day the team spent the afternoon in workouts at Holy Cross College.[20] In the evenings, the team was “elaborately entertained.”[21] According to Burns, “The team was a huge favorite of the large local Catholic population, who turned out in large crowds to cheer and follow the players as they enjoyed the city.”[22] They reportedly enjoyed themselves too much and were “so stuffed with oysters and creole food that they could barely run” at practice.[23] Rockne was not happy and threatened to send players home if they didn’t restrain themselves, maintain their physical fitness, and obey his 10:00 p.m. curfew from this point forward.

The team arrived in Houston, Texas, on December 24 to a now-familiar scene as Notre Dame alumni and the local Catholic community greeted them. Several representatives also arrived from nearby St. Edwards College in Austin, including the college president Father Matthew Schumacher and the athletic director Jack Meager, who was also a former Notre Dame player.[24] Rockne drilled the team hard, despite the rain, and they showed improvement from their lackluster practice in New Orleans.[25] Newspapers reported that Rockne made the team run drills on Christmas day. This was likely a short practice, considering the devout Father O’Hara was supervising the trip, dressing up as Santa Claus that day.[26] The players also attended Mass, a private party, and a Knights of Columbus dinner.[27]

“Horsemen in Action,” 1924, in Harry McGuire and Jack Scallan, eds., Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 51, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

With the Rose Bowl game drawing near, Rockne cancelled the team’s scheduled stop in El Paso, and the train headed straight to Tucson, Arizona, to get down to work. Here the team practiced for four straight days in order to adapt to the warmer climate. Again, Rockne was joined by former players, this time at the University of Arizona stadium. One of these players, Edward Madigan, “scouted Stanford for Rockne” and made the coach aware of a “sideline screen pass that the Stanford coach used two or three times a game.”[28] Rockne devised a play to block this pass and taught the players to recognize its set up. This intelligence would greatly impact the results of the Rose Bowl game.

Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1924, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

When the team arrived in Los Angeles on December 31, 1924, several thousand supporters met them at the train station. Commenting on the crowd and the success of Notre Dame’s publicity machine, the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine reported:

Despite the early arrival hour, seven o’clock, the station platform was crowded with alumni, Knights of Columbus, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (who presented a massive silver football to the team) and various motion picture people anxious to see their rivals in publicity.[29]

At least one hundred of the folks gathered on the platform that day were South Bend, Lafayette, and Chicago-based Notre Dame alumni who had arrived on the “Rockne Special,” a Pullman train chartered by the Notre Dame Club of Chicago, to take them from the Windy City to Los Angeles.[30] The train full of super fans garnered its own round of press coverage with wire services reporting on its stops across the country, where these alumni also stopped for daily Mass and were welcomed by local Catholic organizations.[31]

“Notre Dame Grid Men at Pasadena, California,” January 1, 1925, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

Rockne, worried about the players getting distracted by all the fanfare, had the team driven immediately to their hotel in Pasadena. Even famous heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey couldn’t convince the coach to let him entertain the players first.[32] But the hotel lobby was just as festive as the train platform. Former football player and Chicago Tribune sportswriter Walter Eckersall wrote:

Again at the hotel the squad was accorded another rousing reception for the lobby had been filled all day with curious personas who continually asked to see the warriors who have brought so much glory to Notre Dame.[33]

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl championship. Coach Rockne worried that they hadn’t gotten in enough practice time during the trip because of inclement weather, but felt optimistic about the plays they studied and ran in Tucson. The players wore “looks of determination on their faces which indicate they realize the burden of responsibility they are carrying.”[34] The Fighting Irish returned to their hotel at 8:30 p.m. without accepting any local offers of entertainment. Rockne notified the hotel staff: “No incoming calls answered.”[35]

Meanwhile, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. And the excitement was building. Eckersall wrote:

Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football. [36]

On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. (4:15 for those Midwest fans listening to the WGN Chicago broadcast). [37] As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops” so as not to tire his first string, especially under the warm California sun. (See Part One on this famous Rockne’s strategy). The shock troops buckled under the pressure of Stanford’s offense and the Cardinals scored first with a field goal. [38]

Chicago Sunday Tribune, January 11, 1925, 115, accessed Newspapers.com.

Stanford continued to outplay Notre Dame in the first quarter, even after Rockne sent his first string players into the fray. According to Burns, “The Four Horsemen could not mount a sustained drive against the huge but agile Stanford line.”[39] When Stanford kicked a bad punt, placing Notre Dame offense on the Stanford thirty-two yard line, the Irish got their first break. Burns continued: “Seven plays later, [full-back Elmer] Layden scored the first Notre Dame touchdown on a three-yard run early in the second quarter.”[40] The score was 6 to 3, Notre Dame. The Cardinals drove the Irish back hard, quickly putting them on the defensive at the Notre Dame six-yard line. Stanford brought out their trusty sideline screen pass, hoping to breeze by the Irish. This was the moment the Horsemen had trained for in Tucson after receiving the scouting report on the play. Coach Rockne explained:

We were primed for that play. Not only had Layden been instructed to intercept it, but we had two men to take out the safety man and the passer in the event that he did intercept the pass.[41]

Not only did Layden intercept the pass, he then ran seventy yards for a touchdown in one of the most exciting moments of the game. Half-back James Crowly kicked the extra point and Notre Dame led at the half 13 to 3. [42]

Los Angeles Times, January 2, 1925, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although Notre Dame led in points, Stanford was outpassing and outrushing the Irish, while shutting down their offense. The game was “hard fought,” physically exhausting, and Notre Dame looked tired at the half.[43] The Notre Dame Alumnus reported:

The boys were obviously feeling the effects of the long trip, the unusual heat of the day, and the hard, but clean, combat of the game . . . It was doubtful if some of the men, particularly the linemen could finish the game.[44]

Stanford missed two field goals early in the third quarter but kept Notre Dame “confined within their own thirty yard line throughout the period.”[45] About halfway through the quarter, Stanford fumbled, and Irishman Edward Huntsinger grabbed the ball. Coach Rockne had almost sent Huntsinger home days earlier in New Orleans for disobeying curfew to buy postcards in the hotel lobby. The Irish were lucky the coach reconsidered, because Huntsinger ran the recovered ball for another touchdown. Crowley again kicked the extra point, and Notre Dame led 20 to 3 at the end of the third.[46]

Des Moines Register, January 2, 1925, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

The crowd was tense when the fourth quarter began, as the score did not reflect how close the game really was.[47] Stanford intercepted a Notre Dame pass, and “in seven running plays” the Cardinals “moved the ball to a fourth down situation inside the Notre Dame one yard line.”[48] Then,“in the final period Stanford made a beautiful march of 60 yards” to put the ball at the Notre Dame one-yard line on the fourth down.[49] Stanford’s quarterback was stopped only a foot, or mere inches (depending on the report), from crossing the “counting mark” for a touchdown.[50] Layden punted back to Stanford’s 48-yard line, and “again the Cardinal[s] started to march down the field.”[51] With two minutes to go, Stanford again attempted their sideline screen pass. Layden anticipated the move, intercepted the play, and ran 60 or 70 yards (depending on reports) for a touchdown. Crowley came through with the extra point, and Notre Dame beat Stanford 27 to 10.[52] Both teams played exceptional football, and the Rose Bowl game was noted for “aggressive playing” but “remarkably clean” sportsmanship.[53]

The stadium roared with Notre Dame fans “jubilant in victory,” but the Fighting Irish were surprisingly stoic.[54] The Notre Dame Alumnus reported:

As 53,000 spectators jostled their way through the crowded tunnels of the Rose Bowl . . . thirty-three tired young lads dropped their football togs [clothing] on a damp cement floor of the dressing room, for the last time in a long season, silent in their contemplation of a hard-earned victory and buoyed up only by the realization that they had acquitted themselves to the credit and price of Notre Dame and Knute Rockne.[55]

Boston Globe, January 2, 1925, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

The victorious players were so tired, they couldn’t enjoy the dinner and dance held for them back at their hotel that night. But the Fighting Irish would have to muster up a last bit of energy.[56] For while it had been a long trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl title, there was one last but important journey ahead of them: a victory lap across the country and back to South Bend.

On January 2, Hollywood welcomed the victorious Notre Dame team. The Alumnus reported that if there was a famous movie star who did not meet the players that day, it could only have been because the actor was not in town. The Alumnus also noted that “cameras worked overtime” capturing the stars and star players. [57] That night, the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles hosted a dinner dance which “gave the men their first opportunity to really celebrate.”[58] Father O’Hara was proud to report that at all times the players conducted themselves as honorable gentlemen and good Catholics.[59] After all, a large part of why they were on this trip was to reflect positively on the university. Every team member would have been aware of the expectations.

Indianapolis Star, January 9, 1925, 12, accessed Newspapers.com

The next day, January 3, the group arrived in San Francisco. Notre Dame alumni, the Knights of Columbus, and the city’s Irish-American mayor welcomed the Fighting Irish. Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish that day. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group: “WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.”[60] At the dinner and dance that evening “once again, the players and coaches were charming, properly dressed, and well-behaved.”[61] They attended a special Mass the next morning and spent the day as the guests of some of the city’s most prominent citizens and leaders.[62]

The rest of the trip must have been a whirlwind for the exhausted players. They arrived in Salt Lake City on January 5, where they took historical tours, went to a concert, had dinner, and attended yet another reception. They received a Wild West themed welcome the following day from the local Catholic community of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Irish were provided with “six-gallon hats, stage coaches, a military band and the key to the frontier town.”[63]

“The Fighting Irishmen Notre Dame Cheyenne Wyoming,” January 1, 1925, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

On January 6, a crowd of thousands waited on the platform as the team’s train pulled into Denver. Mothers of Notre Dame students and “a remarkably beautiful group of girls” greeted the players, pinning blue and yellow streamers on their coats.[64] The Denver alumni club reported:

Movie cameras were clicking, press photographers were snapping, and over it all sounds the low rumbling roar of the admiring crowd.[65]

The Denver Alumni Club drove the team through the cheering crowd to the Denver Athletic Club for yet another banquet. Two hundred prominent Denver citizens, including the governor of Colorado, attended the gala, where celebrants sang Notre Dame fight songs. Speeches that night focused on the moral strength of the university and on Catholicism as a powerful force in shaping students into upstanding American citizens. The Denver Alumni Club reported that “no one who attended the dinner can ever forget that Notre Dame builds character, manliness and righteousness along with wonderful football elevens.”[66]

Surprisingly, the next stop on the tour, on January 8, was Lincoln, Nebraska, where the team had been accosted by xenophobic and anti-Catholic insults on the gridiron over the previous two seasons. [See parts one and two]. Only now, they arrived in the city of their conquered rivals as national champions. Lincoln “forgot the defeat of November” at the hands of the Irish and treated them with sportsmanship and respect. The Notre Dame players even attended the inauguration of the new Nebraska governor that evening.[67]

Lincoln Journal Star (Nebraska), January 2, 1925, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Notre Dame train pulled into Chicago on January 9. Some players stayed for a few days in the city that had rooted for their victory beside radio sets a week earlier. Others went straight back to South Bend. By January 12, the Fighting Irish had all returned to the university.[68] They were completely exhausted from physical exertion and from continually being on their best behavior. The constant scrutiny of serving as representatives not just of the school, but of Catholics everywhere was a lot of pressure for young students. The Notre Dame Alumnus wrote:

The word ‘banquet’ is an alarm, ‘look pleasant, please’ is an oath and ‘the game’ is an unmentionable now that the men are back on campus — with exams less than two weeks away.[69]

The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacular. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Burns noted that “By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.”[70] The Fiery Cross continued to blather about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men. Burns wrote:

For O’Hara and millions of American Catholics throughout the country who believed and felt as he did, and especially for the 300,000 Catholics living in Indiana—11 percent of the population of the state—the performance of the Notre Dame football team in that year gave them all a supreme moment of restored pride and dignity.[71]

The Klan would continue to influence Indiana politics for several years. But other Hoosiers would rise up in opposition like South Bend and Notre Dame. Cities passed anti-mask ordinances to prevent the Klan from marching in their hoods and robes.[72] Prominent citizens founded civic clubs “to fight the Ku Klux Klan.”[73] The Indianapolis Times launched a multi-year “crusade” against the Klan, exposing members’ identities and combating the secret organization’s influence on Indiana politics, and winning a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. [74] African American voters risked being jailed as “floaters” (someone whose vote was illegally purchased), but came out in record numbers to cast their votes in opposition to Klan-backed candidates.[75] Local Catholic organizations called on politicians to denounce the Klan and include a plank in their official party platforms rejecting “secret political organizations” and supporting “racial and religious liberty.”[76] Indiana attorney Patrick H. O’Donnell led the American Unity League, a powerful Chicago-based Catholic organization that also published the names and addresses of Klan members in its publication Tolerance.[77]

As students of history, we should remember that, in many ways, the Indiana Klan succeeded  in their goals. They were able to elect officials sympathetic to the xenophobic demands for strict immigration quotas, which were enforced for decades. But we should also note that some Hoosiers refused to accept intolerance even when wrapped in the flag.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, “Konsternation in Indiana,” October 7, 1926, accessed State Historical Society of Missouri Digital Collections.

While much of Indiana became Klan territory, the publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead. And they played with the honor and dignity imbued  through “the spirit of Notre Dame.”[78]

(Newport, VA) Daily Press, January 2, 1925, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Notes:

For a thorough examination of the opposition to the Klan by African Americans, Jews, Catholics, lawyers, politicians, labor unions, newspapermen and more see: James H. Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History 116, no. 2 (June 2020): 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01.

[1] Jill Weiss Simins, “‘America First’: The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s,” accessed Hoosier State Chronicles Blog.
[2] Indiana Ku Klux Klan, “Information Sheet,” 1922, Indiana Pamphlet Collection, Indiana State Library.
[3] “Tales Need No Adornment,” Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[4] Advertisement, Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “High School Boy Writes of Experiences in Notre Dame Riot,” Fiery Cross, July 25, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[5] Ibid.; “May 17 — November 8,” Fiery Cross, November 21, 1924, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” accessed Indiana History Blog.
[8] Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 361.
[9] Ibid., 364-65.
[10] Ibid. Burns quoted from Father O’Hara’s Religious Survey for 1924-25.
[11] “Name N.D. Squad,” Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1924, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.
[12] “Stanford – Notre Dame Seats All Sold Out,” Tennessean (Nashville), December 21, 1924, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.
[13] “Midwest Anxious for Notre Dame Victory,” Chicago Tribune, December 31, 1924, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.
[14-16] Ibid.
[17] Advertisement, Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1924, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.
[18] “Stanford – Notre Dame Seats All Sold Out,” 17.
[19] “Notre Dame Football Team in New Orleans,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), December 23, 1924, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 116-17, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Times (Shreveport, LA), December 23, 1924, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.
[22] Burns, 366.
[23] Ibid.
[24] “Saint Coaches to See Micks,” Austin American (Texas), December 24, 1924, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
[25] “Notre Dame at Houston,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 25, 1924, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.
[26] “Rockne’s Team Spends Holiday with Practice,” Oakland Tribune, December 25, 1924, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.; “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[27] Burns, 366.
[28] Ibid., 367; “Football,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 106-107, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[29] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 17.
[30] “Rockne Special,” South Bend Tribune, December 19, 1924, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lafayette’s Off for Coast,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), December 27, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[31] Ibid.; “Notre Dame to Stop Here,” Kansas City Times, December 18, 1924, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.
[32] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.; Walter Eckersall, “53,000 to See N. Dame Battle Stanford Today,” Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1925, 37.
[33-34] Eckersall, 37.
[35] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[36] Eckersall, 37.
[37] “Rose Tournament Throng Sets Record,” Pasadena Evening Post, January 1, 1925, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[38-40] Burns, 368.
[41]“Football,”  Notre Dame Alumnus, 106-07.
[42] Burns, 368.
[43-44] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[45-46] Burns, 368.
[47] “Iowan Stars as Notre Dame Beats Stanford Team,” Des Moines Register, January 2, 1925, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.
[48] Burns, 368.
[49] Ibid.; “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1925, 1, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.
[50] Ibid.
[51] “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” 19.
[52] Burns, 368.
[53] “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” 19.
[54-55] “Football,”  Notre Dame Alumnus, 106.
[56-58] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 116-17.
[59] Burns, 369-70.
[60]  Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, reprint, 2003), 171.
[61] Burns, 370.
[62-64] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[65] “Local Alumni Clubs,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 115, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[66] Ibid.
[67] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[68] Burns, 372.
[69] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[70] Burns, 349.
[71] Ibid.
[72] “Michigan City Passes Anti-Mask Resolution,” Star Press (Muncie, IN), September 8, 1923, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
[73] “Political Club to Fight Klan in Lake County,” Times (Munster), April 10, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[74] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indianapolis Times,” 2013, accessed State Historical Marker Text and Notes.
[75] “Many Factions Clash,” Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1925, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
[76] “Request Parties to Oppose Klan,” Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), January 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[77] “Former Local Man to Fight Ku Klux Klan,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 16, 1922, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
[78] Jim Langford and Jeremy Langford, The Spirit of Notre Dame (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2005), passim.

Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda

“Football: Notre Dame (South Bend) by South Shore Line,” 1926, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadside Collection, accessed ISL Digital Collections.

This is Part Two of a three-part series, but also stands alone as a story of the incredible strength of the 1924 Notre Dame football team and the university’s struggle to combat prejudice in the age of the Klan. See Part One for the 1923 Notre Dame football season, context on the political strength of the Klan in Indiana, the May 1924 clashes between Klan members and an alliance of Notre Dame students and South Bend’s Catholic residents of immigrant origin, as well as the ensuing damage to the university’s reputation.

Notre Dame students returned to campus in the fall of 1924 under the looming threat that the Klan would return before the November elections. Just months earlier, in May, the Klan had been able to bait Notre Dame students into a violent confrontation. While initially embarrassing to the Klan, as they were all but driven out of town by students, the Klan’s propaganda machine was able to revise history. Using widely circulated brochures and newspaper articles, the hate group painted the students as an unruly mob of Catholic immigrant hooligans who attacked good Protestant American businessmen assembled peacefully. By fall, local Klansmen still wanted revenge for the previous spring’s humiliation, while state Klan leaders sought to show voters that they needed protection from the “Catholic menace.” Notre Dame University staff and leadership prepared for further violence and worked to rehabilitate the school’s image in the wake of the spring clash between students and Klansmen. The school needed a public relations miracle to combat the Klan’s far reaching propaganda.

University President Father John O’Hara devised a strategy for countering the negative press coverage inflicted on Notre Dame by highlighting one university program that was beyond reproach, not to mention already popular and exciting enough to draw press coverage. Father O’Hara’s inspired strategy was to put the full weight of the university behind championing its successful football team and the respectable, upright, and modest team members. The Fighting Irish football team had finished the 1923 season with only the one loss to Nebraska and a decent amount of newspaper coverage.* Much more was riding on the 1924 football team’s success. The school administration, the student body, alumni, as well as Catholics and immigrants in Indiana and beyond, looked to the Notre Dame players to show the world that they, and people who shared their religion and heritage, were proud, hardworking, dignified, and patriotic. The model team could prove the Klan’s stereotypes about Catholics and immigrants had no resemblance to reality. [1]

Father O’Hara recognized that linking the players’ Catholicism with their success on the gridiron created a strong positive identity for the university. Since at least 1921, he had arranged for press to cover the players, Catholic and non-Catholic together, attending mass before away games. He provided medals of saints for the team to wear during games and distributed his Religious Bulletin, in which he wrote about “the religious component in Notre Dame’s football success,” to alumni, colleagues, and the press. [2] According to Notre Dame football historian Murray Sperber, Father O’Hara conceived of an ambitious outreach plan for the 1924 season as a direct response to the Klan’s propaganda. In fact, O’Hara may have gotten the idea from a 1923 New York Times editorial that sarcastically reported on the reason for the Klan’s rise and extreme anti-Catholicism in Indiana:

There is in Indiana a militant Catholic organization, composed of men specially chosen for strength, courage and resourcefulness. These devoted warriors lead a life of almost monastic asceticism, under stern military discipline. They are constantly engaged in secret drills. They make long cross-country raiding expeditions. They have shown their prowess on many battlefields. Worst of all, they lately fought, and decisively defeated, a detachment of the United States Army. Yet we have not heard of the Indiana Klansmen rising up to exterminate the Notre Dame football team. [3]

This editorial and other similar articles implied that making the football team the symbol of Catholicism at Notre Dame could serve to combat the Klan in the press. In 1924, Father O’Hara created a series of press events to align with the game schedule, hoping to link the school’s proud Catholicism with the excitement of the winning team. [4] Of course, for this strategy to work, the team had to keep winning games.

Hammond Times, October 6, 1922, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Coach Knute Rockne, who had led the Fighting Irish since 1918, had built an almost unstoppable football team by the close of the 1923 season. In six seasons, the team only lost four games. Two of these were tough losses to Nebraska where the players faced anti-Catholic hostilities. [5]  In 1924, with the eyes of the nation on them, the Notre Dame team needed a perfect season. Luckily “the 1924 Notre Dame Machine was bigger and better than ever,” according to the editors of the Official 1924 Football Review. [6]

Harry McGuire and Jack Scallan, eds., Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 24, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

The season opened October 4, 1924 with a home game against Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. Coach Rockne employed a brilliant opening strategy. He started his secondary unit, called the “shock troops” who would “take the brunt of the fight” during the opening game and “wear down the opposition.” [7] Rockne then put in his main players, who most coaches would have started. This strategy meant that their opponents, in this case Lombard, would think they were holding their own against the Fighting Irish. Then the eleven regulars would show them the full force of the team. While the Chicago Sunday Tribune reported that Lombard “outplayed the second team Rockne started,” aka the “shock troops,” Notre Dame decisively beat the Illinois team 40-0. [8]

South Bend Tribune, October 12, 1924, 12, accessed Newspapers.com

On October 11, the Irish defeated Wabash College just as handily, winning 34-0. The South Bend Tribune reported, “Notre Dame took the game easily and without much apparent effort . . . The Irish were never forced for a touchdown by that old spirit known as a fight.” [9] While Notre Dame was clearly the better team, the Tribune criticized them for being “crude and lumbering” and the play “slow and listless.” In fact, the local paper was fairly pessimistic about the upcoming games, noting that the Irish “may crumple” in the following week’s game against Army or “give way” to Northwestern. The game against Army would decide if Rockne’s 1924 team was as good as the previous season’s hype foretold. [10]

While the Fighting Irish prepared for the battle against Army, Notre Dame officials readied for another kind of clash. The Klan had declared their intention to return to South Bend 200,000 strong on October 18 – the same date as the upcoming game. They also claimed to have the support of local officials. The Fiery Cross reported:

Chief of Police Lane and Mayor Siebert have promised their support to the demonstration and the procession will be escorted by a squadron of police on motorcycles, lest their be a repetition of last May’s attack on Klansmen by Roman Catholic Notre Dame students. [11]

Fiery Cross, October 10, 1924, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Notre Dame officials had no way to know if the Klan gathering was to be believed or if it was just Klan propaganda. What President Walsh did know was that he couldn’t trust city officials to protect his students. If the Klan descended on South Bend, Notre Dame would stand alone. As October 18 neared, Walsh noticed that the city was not making preparations to host a large gathering. Walsh also heard from Republican insiders that the state party was trying to quiet these kind of Klan demonstrations and distance itself (in public but not behind closed doors) from the Klan in order to not lose voters before the November election.

Drawing on this information, Walsh predicted that the rally would not happen. In fact, Indiana Republican Party Chairman Clyde Walb had forced the Klan to cancel the meeting by threatening to close the party headquarters. This would have left Republican state candidates, including those supported by the Klan, to fend for themselves for promotion and organization right before the election. [12] But the Fiery Cross continued to promote the rally, using the event to repeat their version of the clash earlier that spring. The Fiery Cross reminded its sympathetic readers:

Last May, when the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan attempted to hold a peaceful demonstration in this city, they were set upon — along with other Protestants — by Roman Catholic students from Notre Dame. They were beaten, kicked, and cursed, the women were called vile names and the American flag was trampled under foot. [13]

This was of course not what had happened (see Part One), but through continued repetition, the Klan convinced many people of their biased version of the story. Despite the Fiery Cross‘s claim that 200,000 Klansmen would take over South Bend “from morning to midnight,” they ceded to the political pressure and called off the rally. [14] Notre Dame officials and supporters must have breathed a sigh of relief. They could now return their focus to the upcoming game and all the hopes that rested on this win.

“The Squad” in Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 8, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

The sports media’s hype was intense leading up to the October 18th Notre Dame – Army game that would take place in New York. This press coverage was owed in part to the East Coast alumni. Several graduates were in the city drumming up support for their alma mater by feeding Notre Dame-produced press statements to New York newspapers and proselytizing at Catholic social organizations like the Marquette Club. Another factor, likely more influential, was Rockne’s decision to hire a New York Times writer for an exorbitant sum. This all but guaranteed a round of good press for the Irish. [15] All they had to do was win.

“Running the Army Ends,” in Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 28, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

The New York Times reported that the 60,000 person crowd that gathered at the New York City Polo Grounds was the largest ever in that city. The reporter raved about “Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football machine, 1924 model” and their “speed, power, and precision.” [16] He gave special notice to the backfield, referring to their “poetry of motion.” Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, reporter Grantland Rice went further in praising the backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden.  In a passage described by Sperber as perhaps the most famous in sports history, Grantland wrote:

Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden. [17]

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Each kiss flamed with danger!” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In fact, this famous line came from Notre Dame’s own publicity machine. George Strickler, a press assistant employed by the university had just seen Rex Ingram’s new movie, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Strickler mused that the Notre Dame backfield recalled “those ethereal figures charging through the clouds.” [18] Rice took the idea and made it his lead. The article quickly found a life of its own. The catchy lead was picked up by other newspapers and the nickname stuck. Strickler was delighted with the press coverage and determined to make the most of it. He called the university and arranged to have a photographer shoot a picture of the “horsemen” upon their return — on horseback, of course.

“Four Horsemen Are Ready for Gallop to Coast,” Minneapolis Daily Star, December 11, 1924, 10, Newspapers.com
Princeton-Notre Dame football program, October 25, 1924, Princeton University Archives, accessed https://princetonarchives.tumblr.com.

With more attention on them than ever before, the Fighting Irish still had most of their season ahead of them. When they faced the Princeton Tigers on October 25, 1924, it seemed like they might not survive the increased scrutiny. Despite the previous year’s upset, Princeton was favored to win as the Tigers defensive line was much improved. When the game kicked off before 45,000 spectators, Coach Rockne again started his substitutes. At one point in the first quarter, Princeton nearly scored, with the second-string Irish stopping the Tigers at the three-yard line. The game quickly shifted in Notre Dame’s favor when the starters entered the fray. The Four Horseman again stole the show. The New York Times reported that “the darting thrusts of Notre Dame’s lightning backfield were more than Princeton could handle today.” Left half-back James Crowley scored two touchdowns for a 12-0 Notre Dame win. [19] But all was not smooth sailing for the Irish, as quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, who was responsible for the most yards gained that game, was injured. Notre Dame was down one horseman as they returned to South Bend.

Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 34, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

On November 1 Notre Dame faced Georgia Tech for their homecoming game at Cartier Field. By now, Coach Rockne’s method of tiring out the opposing team while holding back his best players had been published in newspapers across the country. Perhaps recognizing that their best chance at scoring was against the second string starters in the first quarter, the Georgia Tech Golden Tornado team came out strong. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Georgia Tech took advantage of the Notre Dame seconds early in the first period, and [full back Douglas] Wycoff promptly ran through the bewildered Rockmen for 40 yards, placing the ball on Notre Dame’s 35 yard line. [20]

Georgia Tech “place-kicked” for three points and the second-string Irish struggled through the first quarter. While Rockne’s strategy was no longer a surprise, it was still effective. When the varsity Irish started the second quarter they were unstoppable, even without the injured Stuhldreher. The other three horsemen led the team to a 34-3 victory with several substitutes also making important contributions. [21] Next, the Irish were ready to take on their first Big Ten team.

Notre Dame faced the Wisconsin University Badgers on November 8th before a crowd of 40,000. While it was an away game for the Irish, it didn’t feel like it to the players. The game was the main attraction for an annual student trip, and so the blue and gold section in the stands was full. The Notre Dame marching band came as well and marched out onto the field playing fight songs. The first quarter saw Rockne’s second-string starters equally matched with the starting Badgers and the quarter ended 3-3, but the tide quickly turned in favor of Notre Dame. The Notre Dame Official 1924 Football Review reported on the start of the second quarter:

Then came the call, and the entire first team burst onto the field while the Notre Dame stands went into an uproar. Then the fun began. [22]

1924 Football Review, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

With all four horsemen in the game, the Badgers didn’t stand a chance. “They simply galloped over the foe,” the Chicago Tribune reported. [23] The score was 17-3 at the half and 31-3 within the first ten minutes of the third quarter. Rockne called in his varsity players and gave some third stringers and rookies the chance to play. The Tribune joked that “no one in the press stand could call them by name” and that Coach Rockne probably could not either. [24] In the final quarter, Rockne put back in his starting “shock troops” who brought the final score to 38-3 for a sweeping Notre Dame win. The students in the stands threw their hats and rushed onto the field to follow their marching band, snaking across the gridiron while singing and dancing. The Chicago Tribune spotted some “well-known Chicago men of Celtic origin out there romping with the students.” [25] Notre Dame was becoming the beloved team of people with Irish heritage across the country. Thus, it was even more important that they beat Nebraska.

The Klan had not forgotten about South Bend. On November 8, while the Fighting Irish celebrated their win over Wisconsin, 1,800 Klansmen and women “from Chicago and from a number of Indiana cities,” gathered just outside the city limits. [26] Between six and seven o’clock they paraded through the streets of South Bend, a quick clip compared to other Klan parades and events. There was little reaction to their presence and the South Bend Tribune reported that “few people were on the streets.” [27] It’s not clear why there was no response from students. Perhaps they simply didn’t have advance notice of the parade, and when the event happened quickly, they didn’t have time to form a response. Maybe they simply refused to be baited into further confrontations. Either way, the Klan had surely succeeded in reminding the Irish Catholic students that the threat of violence still loomed.

The Fiery Cross claimed that the Klan held yet another South Bend parade on November 11, just days after the quiet, uneventful rally of a few days earlier. The newspaper claimed that thirty-five thousand members from across the Midwest gathered and paraded through the city, purportedly “one of the biggest Ku Klux Klan demonstrations ever held in this section of the country.” [28] The Fiery Cross again claimed that the Klan had the cooperation of the mayor and the police chief. No other newspaper reported on the event. The Klan newspaper’s claims are dubious. A crowd this large would surely have drawn at least passing comment from the South Bend Tribune. It seems more likely that this was hype generated by their propaganda machine after the turnout for the rally on the 8th was reported by the South Bend Tribune to have been small. Whether the Klan gathered that day or whether this was just more propaganda, Notre Dame students and officials certainly felt the continued threat. For now, however, the Notre Dame players and their supporters had their eye on a different kind of opponent, albeit one with anti-Catholic prejudices of their own.

The last time they faced the Cornhuskers, the 1923 Fighting Irish team encountered prejudice and xenophobic epithets from Nebraska fans. The university was also still facing public backlash and disapproval from the violent confrontation with the Klan the previous May, as well as the Klan’s ongoing propaganda campaign. In an attempt to remedy their school’s reputation, the 1924 Notre Dame football players had handled themselves with dignity throughout the season, serving as examples of upstanding Catholic American citizens and scholars. But they still needed to beat Nebraska for two reasons. One, the symbolic victory of the hardworking and stoic Irish Catholic school over a team with anti-Catholic fans would be significant to their Irish Catholic supporters in an era dominated by the Klan. Two, to revenge their only loss of the previous season and make 1924 an undefeated perfect season would give them the public platform they needed to further improve the reputation of Notre Dame.

“Football: Notre Dame (South Bend) by South Shore Line,” 1926, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadside Collection, accessed ISL Digital Collections.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish faced the Nebraska Cornhuskers November 15, 1924 at home in South Bend. Notre Dame supporters packed the stands at the recently enlarged Cartier Field while overflow fans stood on the sidelines or even sat on the fences. The local newspaper estimated the crowd at 26,000 people, the largest to date. [29] Recognizing the increasing popularity of the Notre Dame team to those in the wider area, the WGN radio station in Chicago delivered a live broadcast of the game. [30] Likewise, the South Shore interurban line, which ran between South Bend and Chicago, created large color posters of Notre Dame football players in action to advertise their service. [31]

Photograph from Notre Dame Archives, accessed “This Day in History: Irish Topple A Nemesis,” Department of Athletics, University of Notre Dame, https://125.nd.edu/moments/this-day-in-history-irish-topple-a-nemesis/.

Football fans had a beautiful day for the game, which was “easily the headliner” of Midwestern match ups that week, according to the Lincoln Star. [32] The newspaper reported: “A glorious November sun was shining through golden haze and the tang of frost was in the air.” [33] Photographs from game day show supporters well-bundled in hats and coats.

This game had been the focus of the entire season for Notre Dame. The players’ had written slogans on their dressing room lockers such as: “Get the Cornhuskers” and “Remember the last two defeats” (losses in 1922 and 1923). [34] A Lincoln newspaper complained that “Rockne has pointed his team for Nebraska and doesn’t mind telling the world about it.” One reporter stated simply: “They hope to taste revenge.” [35]

The players took the field at 2:00 and it was clear almost immediately that Rockne’s shock troops would not be able to handle the Cornhuskers. The second stringers fumbled early, got penalized for being offsides, and Nebraska pushed through to the four-yard line. Not taking any chances, Coach Rockne swapped the troops for his first-stringers. But it was Nebraska’s ball and they were able to drive through the remaining yards for a touchdown. [36] That touchdown would be Nebraska’s last of the game.

Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, accessed Note Dame Archives.

The Irish thoroughly outplayed the Cornhuskers with much of the credit going to the Four Horsemen. The South Bend Tribune reported:

First it was Miller circling around the ends for notable gains, then it was Crowley, and then there was Layden splitting the line with the speed and momentum of a cannon ball. Then to top it off there was Stuhldreher to carry the ball or to toss the pigskin with deadly accuracy into the hands of his waiting backs. They were all there, they were all stars and together they make Notre Dame the greatest eleven in football history. [37]

Harry McGuire and Jack Scallon, eds., Official 1924 Football Review,

In the end, Notre Dame beat Nebraska 34-6, but even that score did not reflect how well the Irish played. The Tribune reported, “Twenty-three first downs for Notre Dame gave the fans some idea of the complete swamping the western players received.” [38] The most significant aspect of the win for the Fighting Irish though was symbolic. They had finally overcome a rival who had not only ruined their otherwise perfect 1923 season, but had insulted them with anti-Catholic, anti-Irish slurs as well. The Tribune summarized the feeling that day for the victors:

There may be games with more sensational playing, with more artistic foot-ball handling, but none, past or future, will ever appeal to the heart of Notre Dame men as this game which witnessed Rockne erasing the memory of two years defeat, but trouncing the huge Cornhusker squad soundly, without apology. [39]

Rockne reveled in both the football win and the symbolic victory of besting a team whose fans had personally humiliated his players. Rockne said, “Nebraska, as usual, was the dirtiest team we played, and after the game, a few of their players even called me a few choice epithets.” [40] The next game would have symbolic undertones as well. Catholic Notre Dame would face Methodist Northwestern.

Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1924, 25, Newspapers.com

For the November 22 Notre Dame – Northwestern match up, Rockne manged to move the game from Northwestern’s hometown of Evanston, Illinois, to Chicago. As the Irish middle class grew in Chicago, so did support for Notre Dame football in the city. Over 45,000 people bought tickets, the majority of them Notre Dame fans. [41] The game played that day at Grant Park (soon to be called Soldier Field) was the most difficult of the season. Northwestern held the lines against the Horsemen for much of the game and their halfback, All-American Ralph “Moon” Baker “threatened for a time to act as presiding host at an Irish wake,” according to one Chicago reporter. [42] After Northwestern almost immediately scored three points, fans began chanting for the Horsemen, and Rockne put in his first stringers. But Northwestern scored another three, giving them six points and leaving Notre Dame scoreless. The Irish rallied soon after and began to arduously shift the game in their favor. Stuhldreher ran for a touchdown in the second with Crowley’s field goal giving the Irish a one point advantage by the half. After a scoreless third quarter, Layden ran 45 yards for a touchdown in the fourth. Notre Dame won 13-6 against a tough Northwestern team. [43]

“Camera’s Eye Catches Thrilling Plays in Carnegie-Notre Dame Game,” Pittsburgh Sunday Post, November 30, 1924, 26, 26, Newspapers.com.

Notre Dame played their last game of the regular season against Carnegie Tech on November 29, 1924. Tech played well, scoring three touchdowns – two against the shock troops but one against the regulars, minus one Horseman (Bernard Livergood and William Cerney filled in for Elmer Layden who was injured). Even so, Notre Dame dominated the contest with their passing game drawing note in the press. The Fighting Irish beat Carnegie Tech 40-19, and closed the season undefeated in nine games. [44] This perfect record was everything the university administration had hoped for in order to engage their publicity machine and improve the school’s marred reputation. A trip to the Rose Bowl gave them the opportunity to set their plan into action. On New Year’s Day 1925, Notre Dame would play the Stanford University Indians, a game that’s long remembered in the history of this classic Fighting Irish Team. More significantly, the several week tour by rail of the Midwest and West masterminded by Father O’Hara forever repaired the university’s reputation. According to Notre Dame historian Robert E. Burns:

O’Hara saw the Rose Bowl invitation as an almost providential opportunity to counter the extremely negative Klan-inspired image of Notre Dame . . . [and] might well turn out to be the most successful advertising campaign for the spiritual ideals and practices of American Catholicism yet undertaken in this century. [45]

The Klan continued their propaganda campaign into December, through the weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl. As they prepared for the big game, the Fighting Irish faced anti-Catholic vitriol and hatred that the Klan had helped to make socially acceptable. Nonetheless, the Notre Dame football team would establish themselves not only as the greatest players in the country, but also as patriotic Americans, many the sons of Irish immigrants, and as proud Catholics.

See the conclusion of this series, Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three, to learn about the Notre Dame publicity campaign that crushed the Klan in South Bend.

Notes

*The University of Notre Dame did not officially accept the name “Fighting Irish” for their athletic teams until 1925, but newspapers had been using it for quite a while beforehand.

[1] Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999) 347-48.
[2] Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, reprint, 2003), 157-158.
[3] “Where the Klan Fails,” New York Times, November 1, 1923, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.
[4] Sperber, 157-58.
[5] Burns, 348.
[6] Harry McGuire and Jack Scallan, eds., Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 24, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[7] Ibid., 17.
[8] “Notre Dame Too Husky; Lombard Loses by 40 to 0,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 4, 1924, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[9] Notre Dame Defeats Wabash, 34-0,” South Bend Tribune, October 12, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Expect 200,000 at Gathering: South Bend To Be Host to Klansmen,” Fiery Cross, October 10, 1924, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[12] Burns, 342-44.
[13] “Prepare for Large Gathering: South Bend Ready for Many Visitors from Four States,” Fiery Cross, October 17, 1924, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[14] Ibid.

[15] Sperber, 164.
[16] “Notre Dame Eleven Defeats Army, 13-7; 60,000 Attend Game,” New York Times, October 19, 1924, 118, accessed TimesMachine.
[17] Sperber, 178-79.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Notre Dame Sweeps Princeton to Defeat,” New York Times, October 26, 1924, 116, accessed TimesMachine.
[20] “Notre Dame Is 34-3 Victor Over Golden Tornado,” Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1924 reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Official 1924 Football Review, 36, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[23] James Crusinberry, Chicago Tribune, November 8, 1924, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] “Klansmen in Parade,” South Bend Tribune, November 9, 1924, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.
[27] Ibid.
[28] “No Violence of Any Sort Mars Parade,” Fiery Cross, November 14, 1924, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[29] Kenneth S. Conn, “Notre Dame Soars Over Corn-Fed Nebraska,” South Bend Tribune, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, 39, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[30] “N. Dame Stakes National Title on Tilt Today,” Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1924, 17, Newspapers.com.
[31] “Football: Notre Dame (South Bend) by South Shore Line,” 1926, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadside Collection, accessed ISL Digital Collections.
[32] Edward C. Derr, “Nebraska – Notre Dame Classic Dominates Interest,” Lincoln Journal Star, November 14, 1924, 16, Newspapers.com.
[33] Cy Sherman, “Nebraska Battles Notre Dame: Cornhuskers Clash with Irish Eleven,” Lincoln Star, November 15, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com.
[34] Jim Lefebvre, Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, excerpt reprinted in “This Day in History: Irish Topple A Nemesis,” Department of Athletics, University of Notre Dame, https://125.nd.edu/moments/this-day-in-history-irish-topple-a-nemesis/.
[35] Edward C. Derr, “Nebraska – Notre Dame Classic Dominates Interest,” Lincoln Journal Star, November 14, 1924, 16, Newspapers.com.
[36] Cy Sherman, “Nebraska Battles Notre Dame: Cornhuskers Clash with Irish Eleven,” Lincoln Star, November 15, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com.
[37] Kenneth S. Conn, “Notre Dame Soars Over Corn-Fed Nebraska,” South Bend Tribune, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, 39, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Sperber, 167.
[41] Ibid., 167-68.
[42] Jimmy Corcoran, “Notre Dame is Forced to the Limit,” newspaper not cited, November 22, 1924, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, 41, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[43] Ibid.; “Game By Quarters,” South Bend Tribune, November 23, 1924, 14, Newspapers.com.
[44] Warren W. Brown, “Notre Dame Gallops Over Carnegie Tech,” Chicago Herald Examiner, reprinted in Official 1924 Football Review, 43, accessed Notre Dame Archives.
[45] Burns, 369.

A Wonder to Behold: The Franklin Wonder Five Makes Its Mark on Indiana Basketball

Franklin High School Basketball Team, 1920, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

March Madness may not officially start for another week, but here in Indiana it’s already underway. This is the time of year when basketball reigns supreme in the Hoosier state, as fans flock to gymnasiums and arenas to support their high school and college teams and reminisce about the legendary players and moments of the past. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the annual Indiana high school boys basketball tournament (the 109th officially sponsored by the Indiana High School Athletic Association). Throughout its long history, the tournament has given us numerous memories of underdogs defeating giants to claim the state title and bring glory to their towns. Hoosiers will no doubt recall Milan’s 1954 championship, but well before Milan other small schools made their mark on Indiana basketball. The tournament also gave us players like Johnny Wilson and Bill Garrett, who used basketball to overcome racial barriers and help pave the way for others. And it served as a unifying force both at the state level and in small towns across Indiana, creating a shared interest and passion for basketball among Hoosiers. This was certainly the case in the 1920s when the Franklin Wonder Five made their mark on Indiana basketball and established one of the first dynasties in the state’s history.

The Franklin Wonder Five era represented an eight-year period from 1918-1926, wherein Franklin, a small town just twenty miles south of Indianapolis, dominated the state basketball scene. The Wonder Five won an unprecedented three consecutive state championships at the high school level, followed immediately by two state collegiate championships. They were the talk of the town and the target, envy, and dream of many teams across the state and the Midwest. Basketball was already immensely popular in Indiana by this time and the excitement surrounding the sport would later earn the moniker “Hoosier Hysteria.” In Franklin, as in other small towns across Indiana, local residents and businesses rallied closely behind their basketball team. Games were intensely followed by the majority of the community and regular season wins were often celebrated with bonfires and parties in the town square that brought people of all ages and classes together.

Coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner, “The Scenario,” Franklin High School Yearbook, 1922, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

Many of the young men who played during Franklin’s Wonder Five years had grown up playing the game together or competing against one another in grade school. This experience helped them develop a remarkable sense of teamwork once they reached Franklin High School and later Franklin College, which no doubt contributed to their success. It’s important to note that despite their nickname, the Wonder Five comprised more than five young men. That being said, not every player on Franklin’s rosters between the years 1918 and 1926 earned the distinction of being part of the Wonder Five. According to Phillip Ellett, author of The Franklin Wonder Five: A Complete History of the Legendary Basketball Team, Wonder Five teams all featured player Robert “Fuzzy” Vandivier and Coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner. Additionally, “to be considered a member of the Wonder Five, a player must have been on at least one of the three high school state championship teams.” Using this as a benchmark, Ellett identified fourteen players that he considered to be members of the renowned team. [1]

Robert “Fuzzy” Vandivier. “Franklin College Ace,” Indianapolis News, January 2, 1923, 20.

The Wonder Five era began in the fall of 1918, Vandivier’s freshman year and Coach Wagner’s third leading Franklin’s high school squad. The team had a strong season, losing just one game before tournament play. In January 1919, the Indianapolis Star described them as “one of the fastest passing quintets . . . [they] have both speed and stamina, and play a wonderful floor game with a fine degree of team work.” [2] They won the sectional tournament handily, outscoring their four opponents by a total score of 123-34, but fell to Crawfordsville 18-16 in the first round of the state tournament. [3] While the loss no doubt stung, hopes for the future were high. The majority of the team remained intact for the 1919-1920 season and players were eager to improve upon the previous year. They did not disappoint.

As early as November 1919, the Indianapolis News considered Franklin to be a “strong contender” for the state title. [4] They dominated their opponents throughout the season, again losing just one game, to Martinsville, on December 24, 1919. Newspapers frequently commented on their “stonewall defense,” their terrific passing game, their shooting accuracy, and perhaps most importantly, their remarkable sense of teamwork. [5] The team continued its winning ways through sectionals, where they again walloped their opponents by a total score of 174-50. Heading into the state tournament, they were the favorites to win it all. After three big victories, followed by a tight overtime victory over Anderson, Franklin defeated Jefferson High School of Lafayette 31-13 on March 13, 1920 to claim the first state championship for the school and forever cement their name in IHSAA history. [6] The Indianapolis News reported on the celebrations in Franklin in its March 15th issue:

Indianapolis News, March 15, 1920.

Franklin is hilarious today despite the fact that celebrations have been going on regularly since the results of the final game with Jefferson were flashed over the wires. The official Franklin city celebration did not take place until today. The jubilee started at [one] o’clock this afternoon and was scheduled to last until 6 this evening. A mammoth parade in which all the high school students, the greater part of the Franklin College student body, and hundreds of townspeople participated, was the first thing on the program. – Indianapolis News, March 15, 1920.

In a show of appreciation for leading the team and bringing a championship to the town, Franklin’s residents raised a $1,000 purse, which they presented to Coach Wagner shortly after the tournament. [7] With four of the team’s five starters graduating that spring, leaving only junior “Fuzzy” Vandivier, few could have expected Franklin to claim a second championship in 1921. Little did they know that Franklin’s period of basketball dominance was just beginning.

Advertisement promoting new electric score board, Franklin Evening Star, January 8, 1923, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Wagner frequently adjusted his Franklin High lineups early in the 1920-1921 season as he experimented with his new starters. The different combinations proved successful, as Franklin continued to score big wins early in the season. Despite losing four games throughout the year (twice as many as it had in its previous two seasons combined), the team proved that it was again a top contender for the state title. Fans came out in droves to support the team both at home and on the road, with tickets often selling out within minutes. During these years, Franklin alternated between playing their games at the South school gym and Franklin College’s gym, as their gymnasium at the high school was far too small. In December 1920, a new opportunity to follow the team presented itself when the Franklin Opera House placed an electronic score board on its stage. [8] The new scoreboard provided play-by-play coverage of the game for fans. As Ellett notes, “With radio still a novelty and television unheard of,” the electrical scoreboard provided an incredible opportunity for Franklin’s residents to gather together to follow the game “live” with friends and family. Interest in “watching” the game on the scoreboard became so high that its use at the Opera House (and in later years at the Artcraft Theatre as well) became commonplace throughout the Wonder Five years.

Franklin College Gymnasium, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History. The Franklin Wonder Five played many of their high school games in this gym to accommodate more fans.

Franklin’s continued success during the 1920-1921 season and its huge following helped underscore the need for a new high school gymnasium that could properly accommodate its fans. As the team prepared for another strong run in the tournament, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce began a season ticket drive for the following year in an effort to help raise the needed funds for construction of a new facility. The drive was successful, as Franklin’s loyal fans purchased 1,000 season tickets, a sign of their faith in and support of the team. [10] It quickly proved to be good investment, as Coach Wagner and his young men again advanced to the state tournament shortly after the drive’s completion.

The team defeated Anderson High School 35-22 on March 19, 1921 in front of more than 10,000 fans at the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for its second consecutive state championship. [11] According to the Richmond Palladium-Item, that evening, “a crowd of about 3,000 persons met the victorious squad at the town square and bonfires were built, yells were given and even the old canon [sic] gave vent to its feelings with an awful roar.” [12] Later that month, the Chamber of Commerce held an official celebration for the team that attracted thousands more. The team had again brought glory to the small town of Franklin.

Indianapolis News, February 25, 1922, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

While fans were eager to see the team claim another state title in 1922, they also recognized the enormous difficulty of the task at hand. As the Franklin Evening Star noted on December 3, 1921, “Franklin high school admittedly has the hardest job of any team, for it will have to do the thing that has never yet been done, namely, capturing the state high school championship for three successive years.” [13] Despite a few losses, Franklin had another strong season and looked poised to make another run in the tournament.

Indianapolis News, March 17, 1922, 34.

With over 500 teams contending for a chance at the state title that year, the competition was fierce, but Franklin did not let the pressure get to them. On Saturday, March 18, 1922, the team made history when it defeated Terre Haute’s Garfield High School 26-15 for its third consecutive state title. [14] This remarkable feat would not be matched for over sixty years, when Marion won three straight state titles from 1984-1987.

Franklin High School Basketball Team, 1922, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

The end of the 1922 season symbolized a changing of the guard for Franklin High School in more ways than one. While the school would experience many other successful basketball seasons in the decades to come, the 1922 state championship was its last. In late April, Coach Wagner became athletic director and basketball coach at Franklin College. Franklin High School graduates Fuzzy Vandivier, John Gant, Carlyle Friddle, and Ike Ballard joined him there that fall in hopes of continuing their reign as champions. Coach Wagner began the 1922-1923 season by alternating between the college’s veteran players and his group of freshmen, but the freshmen quickly claimed the starting roles. As they had in high school, they continued to score impressive wins, drawing attention and praise from across the state.

Indianapolis News, March 2, 1923, 36.

By January 11, 1923, the Indianapolis News reported that:

Franklin College seems to have a world championship basketball team. This assertion may be made advisedly for basketball reaches its greatest state of perfection in Indiana and there is no team now playing in the state that appears to be able to conquer the Franklin five.

Twice that season, the team defeated the Indianapolis Omars, an independent professional team that many considered to be among the best in the Midwest. [15] These victories earned them further clout. Franklin College lost only once during the season, to Indiana University in December 1922. However, because IU refused to waive its rule preventing freshmen from playing in the game (as such, none of Coach Wagner’s former championship team could compete), the game is often omitted from Wonder Five history. [16] On Thursday, March 1, Franklin defeated Butler to secure the best record in the state and thus claim the 1923 state collegiate title. [17]

Richmond Palladium-Item, January 3, 1924, 10, accessed Newspapers.com

Franklin maintained a highly competitive schedule during the 1923-1924 season, playing and defeating the likes of Wisconsin, Marquette, and Notre Dame. The team lost just one game of the season, to Butler, and clinched their second consecutive state collegiate title in March 1924. [18]

There is only one team of any sort in the world that can’t lose. That is the Franklin College basketball team. When DePauw failed, why should others try? This machine is the nearest approach to perpetual motion that scientists have found and it seems not to be affected by flood, famine, or fate. – Muncie Star Press, February 10, 1924, 13.

Injuries and ineligible players hurt the team’s chances in 1925 and 1926 and Franklin fell short of the state title both years. Although the Wonder Five era had come to an end, the team’s legacy endured. Many players later coached basketball, imparting on other young men the skills they had learned under Coach Wagner. In 1962, Wagner and Vandivier were among the five charter members inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. John Gant was inducted five years later in 1967 and Burl Friddle (half brother of Carlyle Friddle) in 1969. Vandivier was also enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1975. [19] Even more important than individual honors though was the team’s impact, both on the town of Franklin and on Indiana basketball in general. For years they brought Franklin residents together and turned the state’s attention towards the small town. They had set a new bar for the quality of play that other teams would continually try to match for years to come.

Footnotes:

Note: All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Phillip Ellett, The Franklin Wonder Five: A Complete History of the Legendary Basketball Team (RLE Enterprises, Inc., 1986), 1-2.

[2] “Shortridge Loses Again,” Indianapolis Star, January 23, 1919, 15.

[3] “Franklin Lost 18-16,” Franklin Evening Star, March 14, 1919, 1.

[4] “Franklin High Looms Up,” Indianapolis News, November 13, 1919, 25.

[5] Ibid.; “Rushville Easy for Franklin,” Franklin Evening Star, December 13, 1919, 2; “South Gains Comment for Splendid Playing,” Indianapolis News, January 26, 1920, 16.

[6] “Franklin Trounces Jefferson, 31 to 13, for State Net Title,” Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1920, 26.

[7] “Franklin Coach Awarded Purse,” Columbus Republic, March 18, 1920, 6.

[8] “Big Game at the Gym Friday Night,” Martinsville Reporter-Times, December 16, 1920, 1.

[9] Ellett, 58-59.

[10] “New Gym for Franklin,” Muncie Star Press, March 6, 1921, 15.

[11] “Franklin Defeats Anderson for Title, 35-22,” Indianapolis Star, March 20, 1921.

[12] “Franklin Does Honor to Quintet Champion,” Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1921, 11.

[13] “Want County to Nail Three Championships,” Franklin Evening Star, December 3, 1921, 1.

[14] “Franklin High School Wins Title for Third Time,” Indianapolis Star, March 19, 1922, 25.

[15] “Vandivier Shines in 32-31 Victory,” Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1923, 10.

[16] “Local Freshmen Barred in I.U.-Franklin Game,” Franklin Evening Star, November 18, 1922, 1; “Baptists Defeat Omars, 36 to 29, in Last Half Rally,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1923, 13.

[17] “Franklin College Wins State Championship,” Franklin Evening Star, March 2, 1923, 1. Some sources claim that by winning the state championship, Franklin College was also the national champion during this period. Because the NCAA tournament did not start until 1939 and there was no other official national tournament at this time, it is difficult to definitively claim Franklin as the national champion. In fact, other schools like Kansas also try to lay claim to the “national” 1922 title. For more information about this, see Zach Miller’s “What Constitutes A Basketball Championship? Don’t Ask Kansas,” The Missourian, March 6, 2012.

[18] “Franklin Wins State Title,” Franklin Evening Star, March 5, 1924, 1.

[19] Details about the Wonder Five players is limited in this post due to space constraints. For more information on the players, specific games, and fan reactions, see “Franklin Wonder Five,” Marker File, #41.2020.1, Indiana Historical Bureau or Ellett’s The Franklin Wonder Five.

Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame

“Football Notre Dame (South Bend) by South Shore Line,” 1926, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadsides Collection, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The history of the traditionally Irish-Catholic University of Notre Dame located in South Bend, Indiana, has paralleled the larger story of Catholic immigrants making their way in the United States.  Starting as a persecuted minority, Irish Catholics integrated into the fabric of the American tapestry over the twentieth century. [1] The challenges and threats posed to Notre Dame in the 1920s, mirrored those periling Indiana, the United States, and in many ways, democracy. As Americans reacted to shifts in U.S. demographics brought by immigration and urbanization, those threats to equality and justice included rising nationalism, animosity toward Jews and Catholics, discrimination against immigrants and refugees, and even violence against those not considered “100% American.” No group represented these prejudices as completely as the Ku Klux Klan. While the Klan had gained political power and legitimacy in Indiana by the early 1920s, it had yet to find a foothold in South Bend or larger St. Joseph County. The Klan was determined to change that. [2]

“Main Building, Notre Dame,” ca. 1900s, Michiana Memory Digital Collection, St. Joseph County Public Library accessed https://michianamemory.sjcpl.org/digital/collection/p16827coll7/id/124.

University of Notre Dame leaders and officials understood that the only way to combat the xenophobia and anti-Catholicism of the Ku Klux Klan, while maintaining the school’s integrity, was to not play the Klan’s game. So the school chose another – football. During the 1920s, renowned coach Knute Rockne led Notre Dame’s football team to greatness. But these athletes fought for more than trophies. They played for the respect of a country poisoned by the bigoted, anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Klan. They played to give pride to thousands of Catholics enduring mistreatment and discrimination as the Klan rose to political power.

By 1923, the young scholars writing for the Notre Dame Daily, the student newspaper, expressed concern over the rise of the Klan. Several students had also given speeches on “the Klan” and “Americanism.” The Klan’s use of patriotic imagery particularly bothered the young scholars. In one Notre Dame Daily op-ed, for example, the writer condemned the Klan’s appropriation of the American flag in its propaganda while simultaneously “placing limitations upon the equality, the liberty, and the opportunity for which it has always stood.” [3]

“Class Orators Awarded Place,” Notre Dame Daily, May 20, 1923, 1, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.

This was not only a philosophical stand. For the students of predominately Catholic and of Irish immigrant origin, the Ku Klux Klan posed a real threat to their futures. The Indiana Klan was openly encouraging discrimination against immigrants, especially Catholics. The hate-filled rhetoric they spewed through their newspaper, the Fiery Cross, as well as speeches and parades, created an atmosphere of fear and danger for Hoosiers of the Catholic faith or immigrant origin. The Klan encouraged their membership not to do business with immigrants, worked to close Catholic schools, and most destructively, elected officials sympathetic to their racist position and lobbied them to impose immigration quotas. [Learn more about the Klan’s influence on immigration policy here.] While the 1920s Klan was a hate group, it was not an extremist group. That is, its xenophobia, racism, anti-Catholicism, and antisemitism were the prevailing views of many white, Protestant, American-born Midwesterners. In other words, the students of Notre Dame had to worry about facing such prejudice whenever they left campus – even for a football game. [4]

Fiery Cross, March 16, 1923, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1923, Notre Dame football had made great strides towards becoming one of the most prestigious athletic programs in the country. University President Father Matthew Walsh had recently added Princeton to the team’s schedule and moved the Army game to New York [from West Point] where many more Notre Dame alumni could attend. Father Walsh also hoped that the large number of Irish Catholic New Yorkers would make the team their own. These were also significant strides towards creating enough revenue to build a legitimate football stadium at Notre Dame, thus attracting more opponents from more prestigious teams. More importantly, the team was almost unstoppable. [5]

(Muncie) Star Press, October 18, 1923, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

By the time they met Army in October 1923, the Notre Dame players were in peak physical condition and coming off of several Midwestern wins. They quickly wore out Army’s defense, winning 13-0 in front of 30,000 people. [6] Notre Dame’s gridiron battle with Princeton on the Ivy League team’s home turf was even more important. According to Notre Dame football historian Murray Sperber:

The game allowed the Fighting Irish* to symbolically battle their most entrenched antagonists, the Protestant Yankees, embodied by snooty Princeton . . . A large part of Notre Dame’s subsequent football fame, and the fervent support of huge numbers of middle class and poor Catholics for the Fighting Irish, resulted from these clashes with – and triumphs over – opponents claiming superiority in class and wealth. [7]

Example of Gridgraph. “Michigan Stadium Story: The First ‘Broadcast of a UM Football Game,” Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

On October 20, the Irish beat the Princeton Tigers handily, 17-0, as Notre Dame students back home watched on the Gridgraph and celebrated in town. [More on “Football Game Watches” here.] The returning players were greeted by their fellow students with a celebration around a blazing bonfire. The students cheered, a band played and speakers, including President Walsh and an Indiana senator Robert Proctor extolled the team. [8]

Caption from Notre Dame Archives: Football Game Day – Notre Dame vs. Army, 1915/1106 Students and fans gathered outside of Jimmie & Goat’s Cigar Store getting a wired play-by-play report of the game, updated on a chalkboard on the street.

Notre Dame continued their winning streak, beating Georgia Tech 35-7 and Purdue 34-7 over the following two weeks. [9] On November 10, the Irish faced the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Unfortunately, the Nebraska team attracted a group of “rabidly anti-Catholic Lincoln fans.” [10] In fact, the Daily Nebraskan, in trying to stir up Cornhusker fans before the big game, wrote that there was a rising “loyalty to Nebraska which bodes ill for the conquering ‘Micks’ from the Hoosier State.” Mick was a derogatory term for an Irishman. The Nebraska newspaper concluded: “LET’S SETTLE THE IRISH QUESTION!”[11]

“Nine Teams Stand as Undefeated Elevens of the Country,” [Oshkosh, WI] Daily Northwestern, October 29, 1923, 10, accessed Newspapers.com
Nebraska crushed Notre Dame 14-7. After this game, the Irish would go on to beat Butler University, Carnegie Melon, and University of St. Louis. The Nebraska game proved not only to be Notre Dame’s only loss of the season, but a mortifying experience for the players who were subjected to bigoted vitriol from some Nebraska fans. In an editorial in the Notre Dame Daily, a student newspaperman wrote about the game and especially the fan reaction. He wrote that when the “whistle blew in far-off Nebraka,” the eleven players on the field couldn’t believe what had happened: The undefeated Irish had lost to the Cornhuskers. In the Notre Dame gym there was silence. He wrote, “Little lights stopped flickering on the Gridgraph” and “two thousand hearts near burst.” The worst part for the players was not the loss, but the jibes from the stands. The editorial concluded:

But, beaten and bruised, stung even by the insults of your hosts, you came off that field with more glory in defeat than many another team has found in victory. [12]

To their credit, Nebraska students, coaches, and administrators condemned the anti-Catholic behavior and issued public and sincere apologies. Nebraska football coach and athletic director Fred T. Dawson wrote the Notre Dame Daily editor: “We are all mortified indeed to learn that the members of the Notre Dame team felt that Nebraska was lacking in the courtesies usually extended to the visiting teams.” Dawson assured the South Bend students that the “many people” heard making “remarks to the Notre Dame team as it withdrew from the field” were in no way connected to the university. He concluded, “our student body and alumni had nothing in their hearts but friendship for Notre Dame.” [13] The Notre Dame Daily graciously accepted Nebraska’s explanation and apology. [14] They had bigger problems at home.

“Attendance at Husker-Irish Battle Shatters Valley Records,” Lincoln State Journal, November 11, 1923, 9, accessed Newspapers.com

By the spring of 1924, the Klan was thoroughly integrated into Indiana communities and politics.  South Bend was an exception. In addition to the Irish Catholic students at the university, St. Joseph County had become home to a large number of Catholic immigrants born in Hungary and Poland.  Notre Dame historian Robert E. Burns explained that to the Klan, South Bend was their “biggest unsolved problem.” [15]  Klan leader D.C. Stephenson worked to change that, sending in Klan speakers and increasing anti-Catholic propaganda in the widely-circulated Fiery Cross newspaper. He created a plan that was a sort of two-sided coin. On one side, he attempted to legitimize and normalize the hate organization through philanthropic actions and grow its power through politics and law enforcement groups. On the other side, he worked to demonize minority groups such as immigrants and Catholics. [16]

W. A. Smith, “Ku Klux Klan Group Photo,” 1922, photograph, W. A. Smith Photographs Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

He did not have to work very hard. Burns explained:

The Klan did not invent anti-Catholicism . . . Throughout the nineteenth century anti-Catholicism had been both endemic and respectable in American society. Protestant ministers inspired their congregations with it, and politicians captured votes by employing it. [17]

“Ku Klux Klan Picnic, Freeport, Indiana,” circa 1919, photograph, Mary Ann Overman Collection, accessed The Indiana Album.

The Klan successfully used anti-Catholicism as a driving principle because Hoosiers already accepted it. Stephenson hoped that a large Klan rally in South Bend would be the match that lit the powder keg of prejudice. If he could bait a reaction from Notre Dame’s Catholic students and St. Joseph County’s Catholic residents, he could paint them as violent, lawless, un-American immigrants in contrast to his peaceably assembled 100% American Klansmen. This might convince Hoosiers to vote for Klan members or Klan-friendly candidates. On May 17, 1924, just three days before the Indiana Republican Convention, the Ku Klux Klan would hold a mass meeting for its Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois members in South Bend. [18]

Fearful for the safety of their students and local residents, Notre Dame and South Bend officials worked to stop a potentially violent incident. South Bend Mayor Eli Seebirt refused to grant the Klan a parade permit, although he could not stop their peaceful assembly on public grounds.[19] President Walsh issued a bulletin imploring students to stay on campus and ignore the Klan activities in town. He wrote:

Similar attempts of the Klan to flaunt its strength have resulted in riotous situations, sometimes in the loss of life. However aggravating the appearance of the Klan may be, remember that lawlessness begets lawlessness. Young blood and thoughtlessness may consider it a duty to show what a real American thinks of the Klan. There is only one duty that presents itself to Notre Dame men, under the circumstances, and that is to ignore whatever demonstration may take place today. [20]

“Ku Klux Klan at Main Street Interurban Terminal,” 1926, photograph, Allen County Public Library, accessed Allen County Community Album.

Father Walsh was right. “Young blood” could not abide the humiliation of this anti-Catholic hate group taking over the town. The Fiery Cross had hurled insults and false accusations at the students. The propaganda newspaper called them “hoodlums,” claimed that Notre Dame produced “nothing of value,” and blamed students for crime in the area.[21] As Klan members began arriving in the city on May 17, 1924, South Bend was ready to oppose them.

The South Bend Tribune reported:

Trouble started early in the day when klansmen in full regalia of hoods, masks and robes appeared on street corners in the business section, ostensibly to direct their brethren to the meeting ground, Island park, and giving South Bend its first glimpse of klansmen in uniform. [22]

Not long after Klan members began arriving, “automobiles crowded with young men, many of whom are said to have been Notre Dame students” surrounded the masked intruders. The anti-Klan South Bend residents and students tore off several masks and robes, exposing the identities of “kluxers” who wished to spread their hate anonymously. The Tribune reported that some Klan members were “roughly handled.” The newspaper also reported that the anti-Klan force showed evidence of organization. They formed a “flying column” that moved in unison “from corner to corner, wherever a white robe appeared.” By 11:30 a.m. students and residents of South Bend had purged the business district of any sign of the Klan. [23]

“South Bend Ku Klux Klan Headquarters,” July 4, 1924, photograph, General photograph collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

Meanwhile, Klan leaders continued to lobby city officials for permission to parade, hold meetings in their downtown headquarters, and assemble en masse at Island Park. Just after noon, the group determined to protect South Bend turned their attention to Klan headquarters. This home base was the third floor of a building identifiable by the “fiery cross” made of red light bulbs. The students and South Bend residents surrounded the building and stopped cars of arriving Klansmen. Again, the Tribune reported that some were “roughly handled.” The anti-Klan crowd focused on removing the glowing red symbol of hate. Several young men “hurled potatoes” at the building, breaking several windows and smashing the light bulbs on the electric cross. The young men then stormed up the stairs to the Klan den and were stopped by minister and Klan leader Reverend J.H. Horton with a revolver. [24]

The students attempted to convince Klan members to agree not to parade in masks or with weapons. While convincing all parties to ditch the costumes wasn’t easy, they did eventually negotiate a truce. By 3:30 p.m., “five hundred students and others unsympathetic with the klan” had left the headquarters and rallied at a local pool hall.  Here, a student leader spoke to the crowd and urged them to remain peaceful but on vigilant standby in case they were needed by the local police to break up the parade. After all, despite Klan threats, the city never issued a parade license. The plan was to reconvene at 6:30 p.m. at a bridge, preventing the Klan members from entering the parade grounds. In the end, no parade was held. Stephenson blamed the heavy rain for the cancellation in order to save face with his followers, but the actual reason was more sinister. [25]

Stephenson knew that he had been handed the ideal fuel for his propaganda machine. Using a combination of half truths and blatant lies, he could present an image of Notre Dame students as a “reckless, fight-loving gang of hoodlums.” [26]  The story that Stephenson crafted for the press was one where law-abiding Protestant citizens were denied their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and were then violently attacked by gangs of Catholic students and immigrant hooligans working together. They claimed that the students ripped up American flags and attacked women and children. [27] The story picked up traction and was widely reported in various forms. In the eyes of many outsiders, Notre Dame’s reputation was tarnished. Unfortunately, they would have to survive one more run-in with the Klan before they could begin to repair it. [28]

The press they garnered from the clash in South Bend had been just what Stephenson ordered. He figured one more incident, just before the opening of the Indiana Republican Convention, would convince stakeholders of the importance of electing Klan candidates in the face of this Catholic “threat.” Local Klan leaders just wanted revenge for the embarrassing episode. [29] Only two days later, on Monday, May 19, the Klan set a trap for Notre Dame students. Around 7:00 p.m. the lighted cross at Klan headquarters was turned back on and students began hearing rumors of an amassing of Klan members in downtown South Bend. The South Bend Tribune reported, “Approximately 500 persons, said to have been mostly Notre Dame students, opposed to the klan . . . started a march south toward the klan headquarters.” [30] Meanwhile, Klan members armed with clubs and stones spread out and waited. When the students arrived just after 9:00 p.m., the Klan ambushed them. The police tried to break up the scene, but added to the violence. By the time university leadership arrived around 10:00 p.m., they met several protesters with minor injuries. The students were regrouping and planning their next move; more violence seemed imminent. Climbing on top of a Civil War monument, and speaking over the din, Father Walsh somehow convinced the Notre Dame men to return to campus. The only major injury sustained was to the university’s reputation. [31]

Some secondary sources have claimed that it was the Notre Dame football team that led the flying columns and threw the potatoes that broke the lit-up cross. These sources claim that that the football team were leaders in these violent incidences. [32] While it is possible that the players were present at the events, no primary sources confirm this tale or even mention the players. It’s a good story, but likely just that.

“Football Team Photo: Starting Team in Formation,” 1923, Item: GBBY-57g199, Bagby Negatives, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.

But there is a better story here. It’s the story of how the 1924 Notre Dame football team stood tall before a country tainted by prejudice as model Catholics and American citizens of immigrant heritage. It’s the story of how they polished and restored the prestige and honor of their university. It’s the story of how one team established the legacy of Notre Dame football and fought their way to the Rose Bowl.

This is the end of Part One of this two-part series. See Part Two to learn about the historic 1924 Notre Dame football season, the university’s media campaign to restore its image, and the players victory on the gridiron and over its xenophobic, anti-Catholic detractors. 

Notes and Sources

*The University of Notre Dame did not officially accept the name “Fighting Irish” for their athletic teams until 1925. I have felt free to use it here as students, alumni, and newspapers had been using “Fighting Irish” at least since  1917.

Further Reading:
Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999); Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, reprint, 2003)

Notes:
[1]Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), ix.
[2] “For What Purpose?” Huntington Press, October 1, 1922, 1, Newspapers.com. This editorial decries the Klan trying to establish itself in South Bend, noting the city’s history of tolerance around the university.[3]“Class Orators Awarded Place,” Notre Dame Daily, May 20, 1923, 1, University of Notre Dame Archives;“Washington’s Birthday,” Notre Dame Daily, February 21, 1924, 2, University of Notre Dame Archives.
[4] Jill Weiss Simins, “‘America First:’ The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s,” Indiana History Blog.
[5] Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, reprint, 2003), 138-139.
[6] “Surprises in Indiana Foot Ball Results,” Greencastle Herald, October 15, 1923, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[7] Sperber, 147-8.
[8] “Irish Victory Is Celebrated,” Notre Dame Daily, October 23, 1923, Notre Dame Archives; Sperber, 148-9.
[9] Thomas Coman, “Rockmen Conquer Georgia Tech, 35-7,” Notre Dame Daily, October 28, 1923, 1, Notre Dame Archives; Thomas Coman, “Irish Gridders Beat Purdue, 34-7, Notre Dame Daily, 1, Notre Dame Archives.
[10] Sperber, 149.
“It Shall Be Done,” Daily Nebraskan in “What They Say,” Notre Dame Daily, November 10, 1923, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[12] “To Those Who Can Read,” Notre Dame Daily, November 17, 1923, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[13] “Letter Box,” Notre Dame Daily, November 27, 1923, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[14] “Settled,” Notre Dame Daily, December 15, 1923, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[15] Burns, 278.
[16] Ibid., 265-280, 302.
[17] Ibid., 267-9. Burns also explains the reasoning Klansmen and others employed to justify their anti-Catholic prejudice.
[18] Ibid., 303-5.
[19] “Heads, Not Fists,” Notre Dame Daily, May 17, 1924, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[20] “Yesterday’s Bulletin,” Notre Dame Daily, May 18, 1924, 2, Notre Dame Archives.
[21] “Notre Dame Students Stage a Riot,” Fiery Cross, March 16, 1923, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[22-25] “Klan Display in South Bend Proves Failure,” South Bend Tribune, May 18, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com.
Based on first-hand descriptions in the article, its clear that the South Bend Tribune reporter was on the scene during the May 17 event. Thus, this article proves the most reliable of the many that ran in newspapers throughout the country. The Tribune‘s report, unlike many later reports in other papers, was untainted by subsequent Klan propaganda. Thus the descriptions of the event in this post are drawn from this article only, though others were consulted.
[26] “Arrogance of Notre Dame Students Gone,” Fiery Cross, June 13, 1924, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Burns, 314-316.
[29] Ibid.
[30] “Mayor Seebirt Moves Toward Peace in Klan War,” South Bend Tribune, May 20, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com.
[31] Ibid.
[32] In his 2004 book Notre Dame vs. the Klan, Todd Tucker tells a fictionalized version of the May 17 incident using a composite student character. [Tucker named this fictional character named Bill Foohey after an actual Notre Dame student who appeared in a photograph wearing one of the confiscated Klan robes, but left no further record of his involvement]. In Tucker’s version of the incident, Notre Dame quarterback Harry Stuhldreher threw a potato in a “perfect arc” to hit the “lone red bulb” remaining in the cross at Klan headquarters. Stuhldreher hit it and the crowd cheered like it was a football game. Tucker wrote in his author’s note at the beginning of the book that he had “taken a great liberty” in the creation of Foohey and that he had “extrapolated historical events to bring out the drama of the situation.” However, several other sources have now repeated Tucker’s version as factual as opposed to fictionalized. For a thoroughly researched, factual account of events, see Chapter 9 of Robert Burn’s Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934.

World Series Returns to the Capital!: A Look Back at the 1924 Fall Classic through Hoosier Hall of Famer Sam Rice

Video credit: “Calvin Coolidge and the Washington Senators’ 1924 World Series,” White House Historical Association.

Not since 1924 has a Major League Baseball team from the City of Washington, D.C. clinched a World Series championship. [1] That year, the Washington Senators defeated the New York Giants four games to three to claim the first World Series title for our nation’s capital, in part because of Indiana native, Sam Rice. [2] The Senators returned to the Series in 1925 and 1933, but lost each. No Washington-based Major League team has made it back to the Fall Classic since then. Until now. This week, the Washington Nationals face off against the Houston Astros as they try to bring another title back to the capital.

Washington’s ball club featured several future Hall of Famers during its championship runs in the 1920s and early 1930s. Most notable among them was pitching great Walter Johnson, but the roster also included lesser-known Hoosier outfielder Sam Rice, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963. [3]

“Sam Rice,” photograph, accessed National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Rice spent nineteen of his twenty seasons (1915-1933) on the Senators. When he hung up his bat and glove for the last time with the Cleveland Indians following the 1934 season, he had amassed a career .322 batting average and 2,987 hits, just thirteen shy of baseball’s coveted 3,000-mark. To date, only 32 players in the history of the sport have achieved more hits than him. [4] And yet, despite his impressive statistics, Rice’s name remains largely unknown among even some of baseball’s biggest fans. Many would argue that it was due to his lack of power compared to some of the big hitters of the time (he only hit 34 homeruns during his entire career). More than likely, it’s because he was just short of the 3,000 club. Regardless, Rice was a mainstay for Washington and helped lead the capital city to three World Series appearances in the twentieth century. He was a quiet, but consistent force at the plate throughout his twenty years, a threat on the bases well into his thirties, and one of the greatest outfielders in the American League at the time.

Signage in Morocco, Indiana. Photograph courtesy of Tim Myers, Newton County Economic Development.

Edgar Charles “Sam” Rice was born on a farm near the small town of Morocco, Indiana in 1890. His family moved between Newton County and Iroquois County, Illinois during his early years and Rice would eventually settle in Watseka, Illinois with his wife, Beulah Stam, and their two children. During the spring of 1912, he traveled to western Illinois to pitch for the Galesburg Pavers in the hopes of securing a spot on the minor league team’s regular roster. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed almost immediately. On April 21, 1912, while away with the team, Rice received word that a tornado had torn through eastern Illinois and western Indiana, tragically killing his wife, children, parents, and two of his three sisters. [5]  The tragedy clearly left its mark on him, but Rice rarely discussed it and few knew about this chapter of his life until decades later. With most of his family gone and no clear next step, he eventually enlisted in the Navy, serving aboard the USS New Hampshire. [6] During his service, the New Hamphire took part in the American intervention at Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Rice continued to play baseball with some of his fellow Navy men, and in the summer of 1914, while on furlough, he joined the Petersburg Goobers of the Virginia League. Impressed with his play, manager Heinie Busch and owner Dr. D.H. Leigh arranged for the purchase of his discharge from the Navy. He remained with the Goobers for the remainder of the season and for a good portion of the 1915 season, before Clark Griffith and the Washington Senators purchased his discharge in July 1915 at the age of 25. [7]

[Sam Rice, Washington AL (baseball)], 1916, accessed Library of Congress.
Rice struggled to excel on the mound in these early years, but made up for it at the plate. By July 1916, he officially moved from pitcher to right field where he would play the majority of his career. That season, his first full year in the Majors, Rice batted .299. It was one of only five seasons in which he did not bat over .300. He saw much more playing time in 1917 and made the most of it, securing 177 hits over the course of the season and 35 stolen bases. Like so many other young men of the period, he missed most of the 1918 season after being drafted into the Army, but came back even stronger after his service. [8] He led the American League in steals in 1920 with 63 and led the league in hits in 1924 and 1926 (216 in both seasons). Even more impressive, he finished in the top ten in both categories in twelve of his twenty seasons. [9] While it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, the statistics highlight the consistency with which Rice played most of his career.

Tampa Tribune, January 13, 1929, 12, accessed Newspapers.com

After a losing record during the 1923 season – and several previous disappointing seasons – few expected the Washington Senators to bounce back so well in 1924. With rookie manager Bucky Harris (who continued to play second base) at the helm, things finally fell into place for the Senators. After an average start, the team surged to the top of the rankings in mid-summer. By July 1, 1924, the Pittsburgh Daily Post suggested that they could be a “possible dark horse to win the flag,” noting:

Every American league fan is pulling for the Washington Senators to win the pennant, more out of sentiment than anything else. This team has been the underdog so long that the fans want them to win, not only the fans of the National capital, but in other American league cities. It would be a great thing for baseball if Washington could grab off a world’s series. [10]

The Senators battled the defending champion New York Yankees for control of the American League throughout August and September. During this remarkable stretch, Rice compiled a 31-game hitting streak, the longest in the Majors that season. [11] Within days of the streak ending, the Senators clinched the pennant to earn a spot in the World Series, where they would face the New York Giants.

Boston Globe, October 10, 1924, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

On September 30th, a news article ran comparing the value of potential World Series players. In it, umpire Billy Evans described Rice as “one of the fastest men in the American League. Fine fielder, good baserunner, and dangerous batsman. . . A veteran who has played high-class consistent baseball throughout his career.” [12] Rice did not disappoint. He had two hits in Game 1 in which the Senators fell to the Giants 4-3 in 12 innings, and was one of the best hitters through the first three games of the series, going 5-for-11. [13] Though he struggled at the plate the remainder of the series, he made up for it in the field with several key defensive plays, including a homerun-robbing catch in Game 6 that helped save Washington’s season and force a Game 7. [14]

The series ended in similar fashion to how it started, with a spectacular 12-inning clash. The only difference was the victor. The Senators pushed the winning run across the plate in the bottom of the twelfth, defeating the Giants 4-3 to claim their first World Series championship.

Press and Sun-Bulletin [Binghamton, New York], October 11, 1924, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.

The wildest, most frenzied demonstration that ever followed a world’s series victory came with the winning run. Most of the vast crowd of 35,000 which included President Coolidge, swept down on the field in a joy mad outburst of enthusiasm over the climax to Washington’s first pennant victory−her first World title. [15] 

Press and Sun-Bulletin [Binghamton, New York], October 11, 1924, 19.
Washington looked to defend its title in 1925 when the team squared off against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. Despite a valiant effort by Rice, in which he batted .364 and had an incredible, though controversial catch in Game 3 that remains part of baseball history lore, the Senators lost in seven games. [16] Rice continued to be a strong force at the plate and in the field into the early 1930s despite the fact that he was already in his forties. The Senators reached the Series again in 1933, but by that time Rice was nearing the end of his career. He made only one appearance at the plate, getting a hit. The Senators lost to the Giants in five games. Rice was released from the Senators after that season and played his last year with the Cleveland Indians. [17] After retiring from baseball, he and his wife operated a chicken farm in Ashton, Maryland. For years, reporters and former players such as Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb clamored for Rice’s entry into the Hall of Fame and criticized the selection committee for not voting him in. [18] Finally, in 1963, almost thirty years after he stopped playing, Rice was inducted. Today, he is one of ten Indiana-born men in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Sam Rice, Former Washington Ball Player on His Farm,” ca. 1938, accessed Library of Congress.

This week, America’s pastime has the opportunity to briefly unite the nation’s capital as it did in the 1920s and early 1930s, as the Washington Nationals try to return a World Series title to the city. As in 1924, Washington is considered the underdog, but this time to the favored Houston Astros. The Series is already spurring numerous articles recalling the 1924 season and more are sure to come. Sam Rice will be referenced, his name likely included among the list of strong outfielders and batters of that bygone team, but only today’s most devoted fans may recognize him. Nevertheless, Rice deserves the acclaim. As President Herbert Hoover wrote to him in July 1932: “You have given all of us who love baseball so much pleasure that you have rightly earned the honor of a ‘Sam Rice Day.’” [19] Rice earned the day and a whole lot more.

Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania], September 24, 1924, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
Sources Used:

Edgar Charles “Sam” Rice historical marker notes.

“Sam Rice,” accessed Baseball Reference.

Footnotes:

[1] The Washington Homestead Grays of the Negro National League clinched three Colored World Series titles for the capital city in 1943, 1944, and 1948. They were the last professional baseball team based in Washington, D.C. to compete in a World Series.

[2] Washington’s Major League Baseball team was officially named the Washington Nationals from 1905-1956, but was more commonly known as the Washington Senators during this time. For more on this and on the various franchises that played in Washington, D.C. over the years, see “Washington Senators,” accessed Baseball Reference. The current Washington Nationals franchise was established as the Montreal Expos in 1969 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005.

[3] “Sam Rice,” National Baseball Hall of Fame. Rice was actually one of seven Indiana-born men on the two teams’ rosters. The others included Nehf and Grover Hartley of the Giants, and Nemo Leibold, Pinky Hargrave, Ralph Miller, and By Speece of the Senators.

[4] “Career Leaders & Records for Hits,” accessed Baseball Reference.

[5] “Seven Victims at Home of Charles Rice and Two at the Home of Charles Smart,” Newton County Enterprise, April 25, 1912, 1.

[6] “Edgar Rice,” U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

[7] “Sam Rice Gets His Name in Big League Score for the First Time,” Washington Herald [Washington, District of Columbia], August 8, 1915, 9.

[8] “Rice will Report Ready for Season,” Washington Times, January 27, 1919, 17.

[9] “Sam Rice,” accessed Baseball Reference.

[10] “Fans Pulling for Senators to Win Flag,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 1, 1924, 14.

[11] “Hitting Streak of Sam Rice Stopped,” Boston Globe, September 27, 1924, 8.

[12] “How World Series Rivals Stack Up,” Times Herald [Olean, New York], September 30, 1924, 17.

[13] “Sam Rice Boss Series Hitter with Big 455,” News-Messenger [Fremont, Ohio], October 7, 1924, 6

[14] “Big Moments in World Series Games,” Pittsburgh Press, October 18, 1924, 11.

[15] “Washington Wins First World Championship,” Palladium-Item [Richmond, Indiana], October 10, 1924, 1.

[16] “Rice Secret Revealed: He Did Catch It,” Cumberland News [Maryland], October 15, 1974, 8.

[17] “Sam Rice to Join Cleveland Indians,” Sandusky Register [Ohio], February 14, 1934, 7.

[18] “Hall of Fame Voting Unfair, Says Hornsby,” Daily Independent Journal [San Rafael, California], January 21, 1958, 9.

[19] “Hoover Congratulates Rice, of Senators, for Record of 17 Seasons n Big Leagues,” Tampa Tribune, July 20, 1932, 8.

For more information, see the entry on Sam Rice by Stephen Able of the Society for American Baseball Research or Jeff Carroll, Sam Rice: A Biography of the Washington Senators Hall of Famer, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008).

 

Start Your Aircraft Engines!: Aviation Accomplishments in Speedway During World War II

Note: For those interested in learning more about aviation in the Speedway area during World War I, see “Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I.”

This weekend, some 300,000 fans are expected to descend upon the Town of Speedway to watch the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. The Speedway area has been home to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since 1911. The race attracted drivers and fans from all over the world. It has only been cancelled on two occasions: during World War I (1917-1918) and World War II (1942-1945). While there was no roar of race cars, the area was by no means quiet. Instead, the Speedway area became a hub for wartime production, with aircraft engines taking center stage.

James A. Allison, photo courtesy of Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Entrepreneur and Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder James Allison quite literally shifted gears when he devoted his precision machine shop’s resources on Main Street, just south of the track, to the war effort in 1917. Allison originally built the shop to redesign and rebuild foreign and domestic racecars. By mid-1918, the War Department awarded government contracts to Allison Experimental Company to build parts for the Liberty aircraft engine. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Liberty represented “America’s major technological contribution to World War I.” The United States’ auto industry produced over 20,000 of these engines during the war and Allison’s Speedway company played its part in this endeavor. The Speedway area also saw the development of an aviation repair depot where workers helped repair, modify, and test hundreds of airplanes and aircraft engines.

Allison Engineering Company Main Street Building and Employees, 1921, photo courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Just one month after the war’s end, in December 1918, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that the Indianapolis 500 would resume in May 1919. The focus in the Speedway area quickly shifted back to automobiles and racing, but interest in aviation there had just begun. During the 1920s, Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921) worked on rebuilding and inverting Liberty engines.

Liberty 12-A Inverted Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Following James Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors Corp. filed an appropriation request to buy the company the following year. According to the request, General Motors planned to continue Allison’s work in the aviation industry. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce promoted the acquisition, stating that with General Motors’ purchase of the company:

Development of this city as a center for the nation’s aviation industry seems assured.

General Motors Corporation Appropriation Request to Purchase Allison Engineering Company. Courtesy of Rolls Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch Archival Collection.

The Chamber of Commerce was not far off the mark. During the 1930s, Allison Engineering Co. focused its efforts on developing a 1,000 horsepower liquid-cooled aircraft engine in the Speedway area. Known as the V-1710, it would become the primary engine that powered Allied fighter aircraft during World War II. Norman Gilman, chief engineer and general manager for the company, reasoned that a liquid-cooled engine could be placed inside the fuselage, where a radial type engine could not and therefore developed high wind resistance or drag, particularly at higher speeds. Despite initial hesitation from both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, the Navy placed an order with Allison Engineering Co. for a liquid-cooled airplane engine of 750 horsepower in June 1930. The company designed, built, and delivered this engine to the Navy in March 1932. After completing a 50-hour development test, the Navy accepted the engine in September of that year. The Army Air Corps followed suit and soon after placed an order for the engine with the company.

Throughout the mid-1930s, Allison Engineering Co. worked to improve the engine, with the goal of making it 1,000 horsepower. After several tests and improvements to the design, the company delivered the engine to the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in March 1937. One month later, the V-1710 passed the 150-hour acceptance test.

AllisoNews, March 31, 1942, vol. 1, no. 18, photo courtesy IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

By 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Allison Engineering (renamed Allison Division of General Motors in January 1941) committed itself to mass production of the V-1710 aircraft engine in Speedway. At the time, Allison employed 600 people, but this number grew exponentially as orders for the V-1710 came pouring in. In April 1939, newspapers reported that the company would soon triple its facilities with construction of a new plant that would span 200,000 sq. ft. By the end of the year, employment figures had almost doubled to 1,200. Allison Division constructed additional plants in Speedway and the Indianapolis area throughout the war years and with these plants came thousands of additional employees.

V-1710 engine, photo courtesy Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Demand for the V-1710 engine made Allison Division one of the three principal manufacturers of aircraft engines in the country during the war, alongside Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical. In January 1941, Life magazine ran a feature on the engine, highlighting it as the “plane motor on which the Army puts its biggest bet.” By July 1941, the War Department awarded Allison a new contract for the engines. With this contract, total orders for Allison engines since the beginning of the defense emergency program totaled approximately $242,000,000.

America has bet heavily on the Allison engine in its aircraft defense plans, just as the war industries board in 1917 bet everything on the Liberty engine . . . the Allison engine has been delivering regularly for the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force]. Allison is now producing 400 aviation engines a month, where a year ago it was delivering only 150, and expects to approach 1,000 engines a month by the end of 1941. – “More Air Power,” Mason City [Iowa] Globe Gazette, August 13, 1941, 4.

Curtiss P-40, photo courtesy AllisoNews, July 18, 1941, 4.,

Orders and output for the V-1710 engine continued to grow, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By this point, employment at Allison Division surpassed 12,000. It swelled to 23,019 in October 1943. The company’s growth impacted the Town of Speedway as well. As early as 1940, Indianapolis newspapers commented on Speedway’s growing pains, reporting that officials from the town were seeking state aid to address problems that had come about from the influx of workers to the plants. These problems included the need to improve streets, sanitary conditions, and the need for a better water system. The Indianapolis Times noted that with more employees at the Allison plants came “more money, more home buying, more eating, etc.” School enrollment in the area doubled, church attendance rose greatly, and many new homes were built.

Bell Airacobra P-39, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 1, 1941, 6.

Meanwhile, Allison Division continued to impress. By March 1944, it built and delivered its 50,000th liquid-cooled engine. By the war’s end, the total figure reached 70,000. These engines powered many of the United States’ fighter planes during the war, including the P-38 Lightning, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-40 Warhawk. The engine was also used in several fighter planes flown by the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.

Lockheed P-38, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 15, 1941, 4.
Program for the Presentation of the Army-Navy Production Award to Allison Division, General Motors Corporation, November 5, 1942.

Allison Division received high praise for the fine precision, workmanship, and durability of the V-1710. It won the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production four times during the war: in October 1942, March 1944, October 1944, and June 1945. By the spring of 1945, Allison Division reduced production schedules of the V-1710 to focus more of its time on building jet engines, which could power planes at much higher speeds. The U.S Army Air Forces had awarded Allison a contract for the production of jet propulsion units in the fall of 1944. The Navy followed the Army’s lead and placed their own order with Allison in the summer of 1945, citing Allison’s “well established reputation for delivering the goods on time.” This reputation would continue through the end of the war in August 1945 and through the post-war years.

As had happened following the conclusion of World War I, racing returned to the Speedway area in 1946 to much fanfare. Left abandoned for nearly five years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had fallen into disrepair during World War II. Tony Hulman purchased the track in November 1945 and worked to restore it in preparation for the May 1946 500-mile race. Fans came in droves to witness the 30th running of the Indianapolis 500 that year, as racing returned to center stage in the Speedway area.

AllisoNews, March 1944, 1, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

Allison’s work in Speedway and its commitment to technological advancements did not end with World War II, but rather continues through today. In addition to continuing its investment and development in the aviation industry following the war, Allison also organized a new department for the design and development of transmissions. The transmissions were manufactured for commercial and military use, with many powering tanks during the Korean War. Their production ushered in a new chapter in the company’s history. Today, James Allison’s experimental company in Speedway , now known around the globe as Allison Transmission, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of fully automatic transmissions.