Integrity on the Gridiron: 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.

Check back for Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three.

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.

Guns, Germs, and Indiana Athletics, 1917-1920: How Did the Great War and the Great Pandemic Affect Indiana Sports?

In September 1918, the sports reporter for the Bloomington Evening World wondered how the expanded Selective Service age range (revised to include 18-21 year olds) would affect the local high school basketball team’s prospects. Only two of Bloomington high’s players were young enough to be exempt from draft registration. A month later, the World reported that the influenza epidemic had incapacitated six of the squad’s fourteen players. The intrusion of World War I and a worldwide influenza pandemic disrupted the lives of many Hoosiers. In particular, this article explores how war and the Spanish flu affected Indiana athletes and sports. The Great War and the Great Pandemic had calamitous short-term effects on Indiana athletics, but long-term benefits in developing athletes and sporting culture in Indiana.

In September 1917, these thirty-nine civilians from Blackford County were drafted into military service for WWI. They are posed on the courthouse grounds in Hartford City. Source: Indiana Historical Society.

A month after Congress declared war in April 1917, the legislature passed the Selective Service Act re-instituting the military draft. The first draft registration began in June 1917 for men ages 21-31. A second draft registration occurred a year later in June 1918 for those who had turned 21 since the last draft, and by September 1918 Congress expanded the conscription ages from 18-45. Indiana as a state contributed 130,670 soldiers to the conflict, over 39,000 of them volunteers. Indiana University claimed that 35% of their alumni and current undergrads had enlisted. Purdue University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute stated that over 12% of their alumni were in the service, whereas Butler College [changed to university in 1925] and Quaker affiliated Earlham College counted around 2% of their graduates at war.

Enlistments of college men would ultimately erode the short-term quality of college athletics. A March 1918 article in Indiana University’s Indiana Daily Student reckoned that enlistments and the draft would reduce the number of quality players for the upcoming football season. At Wabash College, several athletes left school at the close of the 1917 football season and enlisted, including multi-sport star Francis Bacon. A Crawfordsville Journal reporter assessed that these athletes had attributes that would make them excellent soldiers. The reporter wrote, “Training, alertness, physical fitness and courage to tackle a hard task and stick to it along with the habit of “team work” have all contributed to their advancement [in the military].” Meanwhile in Lafayette, a Purdue sports reporter held out hope that Purdue’s athletes could avoid military service. He wrote, “If Uncle Sam can do without several of Purdue’s basketball stars until the present season is over, Purdue should be able to look forward to a very successful season.” Uncle Sam could not do without, and Purdue lost the athletic services of several basketball players as well as basketball Coach Ward Lambert, a future Naismith hall-of-famer, to the military.

1917-18 Purdue basketball team. After being conference runner-up in ’17, Purdue fell to .500 in Big Ten play in ’18 without Coach Ward Lambert to guide them. Source: Purdue University Debris yearbook, 1918.

College athletics experienced great uncertainty during the war, especially regarding the loss of student athletes to the military. South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call calculated that 13 of the 15 Notre Dame basketball players from recent years were in the armed forces, which was a higher service percentage than any of Notre Dame’s four major sports. Among Call’s statistics was multi-sport athlete, and basketball captain-elect Thomas King, who, in October 1917, awaited a summons to Camp Zachary Taylor, the mobilizing center for Indiana recruits near Louisville.

Similar to Notre Dame, IU lost three-sport letterman, and 1917 team basketball captain, Charles Severin Buschman, to the Army when he graduated at the end of the spring semester, enlisted, and received a captain’s commission in September 1918. College athletes who became officers in the armed forces came as no surprise to DePauw University coach Edbert C. Buss, who had seen seven of his football eleven* enlist. He assessed the military value of athletics and said, “We feel that college athletics is as big a factor in developing our men as any other department in the university, and it is a well known fact that army officers are picking football and basketball men for some of the most important branches of service.”Arguably the most-famous Indiana college (or ex-college) athlete to be drafted into the Army was 6’4” basketball sensation Homer Stonebraker of Wabash College. College authorities stripped Stonebraker of his collegiate athletic eligibility his senior season in 1917 because he violated his amateur status. Although not an active college athlete, the Army’s drafting of Stonebraker carried such importance that the New York Tribune and the Boston Herald both carried news items on the matter.

Indiana University’s 1916-17 basketball team. Three-sport athlete and basketball captain, Charles Severin Buschmann (seated front row with the ball), graduated and immediately enlisted in the Army. Source: Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

An Indiana Daily Student reporter surveyed the college athletic landscape at IU in 1918, and wrote the following:

Athletics at Indiana, like all other activities, have been materially affected this year by the war. Not only has the status of the primary sports been changed but nearly every one of last year’s stars who were eligible to play this year are in the service, and the participants for this season must be culled largely from the ranks of the inexperienced.

Curiously, even while experienced college-age men were leaving academia for the military, college enrollment grew. At IU, student enrollment increased, even though the quality of their athletics decreased. The Daily Student in October 1918 reported the largest enrollment in the history of the school with 1,953 students; 1,100 of that number were freshmen, and 875 of the freshmen were men, or 600 more males than the first year class enrolling in 1917. More males enrolled to take advantage of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) classes that were also available at Purdue, Notre Dame and other college campuses around the state. The 1918 freshman class at IU also saw a decrease in female enrollment: 695 down from 780 in 1917. The university authorities speculated that the decreased number of female enrollees was due to young women entering the workforce to take the place of men going to war.

Student Army Training Corps, DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind., 1918. Source: Indiana Historical Society.

The SATC proved a mixed blessing for the campuses that housed the corps. The War Department initially advised that intercollegiate football in institutions with SATCs be discontinued as a war measure. This policy would allow students to devote 14 hours a week to military drill and 42 hours a week to studying military tactics. Wabash College was without a SATC, and had no such time demands. The Crawfordsville college planned to proceed uninterrupted with their football schedule. The proposed change did not go over so well in football-crazed South Bend with first year coach Knute Rockne. The War Department ultimately backed off their initial proposal and instead set limits on travel, mandating that only two away games could be played during the season that would require the team to be absent from campus for more than 48 hours.

Another change the war prompted was changing freshman eligibility rules. Freshmen were eligible to compete in varsity athletics at smaller schools like Wabash and DePauw. Larger schools like IU, Purdue, and even Notre Dame prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity. While not concerned with varsity athletics specifically, the War Department encouraged mass athletics participation by every enrollee in the SATC so that “every man . . . may benefit by the physical development which . . . athletics afford.” The Daily Student reporter assessed this development:

Sports on a war basis will probably lose some of the excitement and glamour, but the benefits derived from them will be much greater than it has been in the past. Not a favored few, but the mass of the student body will profit by the advantages thus afforded.

Notre Dame Coach Rockne opposed freshman eligibility. The South Bend News-Times explained Rockne’s position: “men . . . might be strong football players but not genuine college students.” Representatives of the Big Ten and other Midwestern college athletic associations met in Chicago and voted to allow freshmen to play in 1918. While Rockne may have opposed the measure in principal, in practice it was a good decision since he had only two returning lettermen including the famous George Gipp. Among the freshmen Rockne coached in 1918 was Earl “Curly” Lambeau from Green Bay, Wisconsin.

University of Notre Dame’s football team, 1918. Back row: Coach Knute Rockne, Charles Crowley, Early “Curly” Lambeau, George Gipp, Raleigh Stine, Frederic Larson. Middle row: Eddie Anderson, Maurice “Clipper” Smith, Captain Pete Bahan, Bernard Kirk, Heartley “Hunk” Anderson. Front row: Frank Lockard, Norman Barry, William Mohn. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives

Notre Dame’s need for athletes was not unique. At IU, only six players, including three who had never played football before, turned out for the team’s first practice. IU football coach Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm remarked, “I have never before faced a season with so few experienced men to rely upon.” The Daily Student explained, “The teams will have to be built up almost entirely from green material, strengthened by men who had training on the freshmen squads throughout the year.” In Crawfordsville, seven Wabash College freshmen won varsity letters at the conclusion of the 1917 football season. To which the Crawfordsville Journal commented on the benefit, “This is an unusually large number of first year men to receive such recognition and the situation is brought about by war time conditions which have depleted the ranks of the older athletes. However, it is encouraging as it means that the majority of these men will be on hand to form the nucleus of next year’s team.”

As if the effects of mobilizing for war were not enough to inhibit Indiana athletics, the state also had to deal with an influenza epidemic. Indiana health authorities reported the first cases of influenza in September 1918. While the flu pandemic in Indiana was less severe than in other parts of America, it still afflicted an estimated 350,000 Hoosiers, and claimed 10,000 lives between September 1918 and February 1919. In October 1918, the South Bend News-Times reported on how the flu impacted college football:

Already staggering under the new military regulations, middle western football was dealt another blow tonight when a score of colleges and universities cancelled gridiron games scheduled for tomorrow because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Nearly 20 of the 30 odd games scheduled were called off. Reports received at Chicago indicated that some of the games had been called off because members of the teams were slightly indisposed, others because of probable attendance due to the influenza epidemic, and still others for the reason that it is feared crowds cause a spread of the disease.

Authorities cancelled the first three games on Notre Dame’s 1918 schedule on account of flu quarantines. Health officials even forced Rockne to cancel a practice. IU football coaches cancelled the team’s season finale, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day in Indianapolis, on account of the influenza situation in the capitol city.

The flu also affected high school sports. Bloomington High School expected to play their first basketball game of the season on October 18, but the city’s influenza quarantine forced the team to cancel games against Waldron, Orleans, Mitchell, Sullivan, Greencastle, and Indianapolis Technical. Coach Clifford Wells hoped that they could open their season on December 6 against 1918 runner-up Anderson. Hoping to stay sharp, the team played an exhibition game against an alumni team on November 17, but it was not much of an exhibition since health officials mandated the gym doors be closed to the public. The team succeeded in playing their first inter-scholastic game 43 days after their season was set to begin when they defeated Greencastle in Greencastle on November 29. The Bloomington team did not expect to play a home game until after the New Year on account of the flu.

Bloomington High School’s basketball team would win the 1919 state tournament despite a rocky season interrupted by flu and war. Their coach, Clifford Wells, was serving in the Navy reserves at the time. Source: Indiana High School Athletic Association Handbook for 1919.

At South Bend, the high school cancelled the first game of the season against Elkhart on account of the flu. They scheduled a replacement game against Michigan City, who had not practiced much indoors on account of the flu. The next game on the schedule against LaPorte was cancelled for the same reason. A replacement game against Valparaiso saw South Bend at half strength as one player was recovering from the flu, and two others had fallen ill.

While the Great Pandemic in Indiana officially lasted from September 1918 to February 1919, another wave of severe respiratory problems afflicted Indiana the following winter as well. In South Bend, there were 1,800 reported cases of the flu in January 1920. Notre Dame basketball coach Gus Dorais was among the afflicted and lay in the hospital for weeks. In his absence, Knute Rockne took over coaching the basketball team. Mishawaka High School lost a star player for the season on account of an attack of pneumonia that nearly cost him his life. At Goshen High School, basketball captain Clement McMahon recovered from scarlet fever, only to die a short time later from double pneumonia.

The effects of war and disease should have been enough to end competitive inter-scholastic sports for at least one season. Instead, Hoosier athletes played on. The ordeals Indiana sportsmen experienced at home and abroad strengthened athletic teams, developed sporting culture, and contributed to the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. As one observer noted, “On every side there is convincing evidence that the war has and will prove a great stimulus to sport.”

The playing experience first-year college athletes gained while upperclassmen were away became a competitive advantage to teams in the war’s immediate aftermath. As a Notre Dame sports reporter observed, Rockne made “a team out of a lot of fatheads” whose year of seasoning “will bring back the [glory] days [of Notre Dame].” Major college athletic associations rescinded freshmen eligibility after the war, but they allowed the athletes who had competed as freshmen to have a total of four years of athletic eligibility.

The combination of game-tested underclassmen, returning war-tested veterans, and an infusion of good athletes from the SATC who remained in college after demobilization produced extremely strong post-war teams. The best example of this was at Purdue for the 1919-20 season. Coach Lambert returned from his military service, which was enough of a boost in and of itself for the Boilermakers’ prospects. Several pre-war veterans returned to the court and joined four returning lettermen from the previous season. United Press reporter Heze Clark, who had followed college basketball for 25 years, forecasted a strong season for Purdue that should “net them not only the Big Ten Championship, but also western collegiate high honors.” Purdue ended the season as runner-up in the Big Ten, but they tied for the lead the following season, won the Big Ten outright in 1922, and continued to have strong teams throughout the 1920s and 30s.

The war’s aftermath not only created stronger teams it also gave an incredible boost to American sporting culture in terms of increased public interest and participation in sports. The fact that sports continued to be played during a war and in spite of a national health pandemic shows that sports meant something special to Americans, perhaps as an escape from worldly worries. In military camps, soldiers regularly engaged in boxing, baseball, basketball and football in military camps. In some cases, soldiers gained exposure to sports they never played, which developed not only new athletes, but also new sports enthusiasts. This was not unlike the growth baseball experienced after the Civil War when soldiers learned the game in camps, and brought it back to their communities after the war. One newspaper reporter assessed, “With thousands of Uncle Sam’s soldier boys equipped with baseball, boxing and football paraphernalia while in the service, thousands of young bloods coming [home] . . . will demand red-blooded recreations and pastimes on a larger scale than ever before and the country at large weary of death-dealing conflicts and grateful for the chance to relax, sports should thrive on a greater scale than ever.”

Purdue football fans celebrate a touchdown in 1918 by tossing their hats in the air. Source: Purdue University Debris (yearbook), 1919.

Reporters all around America drew the same conclusions. International News Service reporter Jack Veiock observed, “In spite of the war and the hardships it worked in college circles, the pigskin is being booted about by more elevens* today than in any season that has passed.” He observed that  public interest had not only increased for the sport, but participation exploded in colleges and army camps. Men who had never even tried the sport drove the increased participation. A syndicated article printed in the News-Times agreed, “Boys who came away from desks to go into the fight have come back trained men who will want to continue in good red blooded competition. . . . The war has made an athletic team of about four million men.” South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call added,

This world conflict has proved a number of things but none more emphatically than that intercollegiate athletics, often as they have been questioned in time of peace, have made sinewy and adroit the army of a nation hastening to the ordeal of battle.

Another positive effect of World War I on sports was the growth and emergence of professional athletics in Indiana, including football, but specifically basketball. Professional football had a weak hold in Indiana in the early-twentieth century. Pine Village was a notable professional team before the war. After the war, Hammond was an inaugural member of the American Professional Football Association/National Football League from 1920-26.

Historical marker, Indiana Historical Bureau.

On the other hand, professional basketball in Indiana boomed in the 1920s. Todd Gould in his book Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball just gives passing reference to the war and does not examine the impact war mobilization, male social fraternization, athletic competition in military camps, and demobilization had in the birth of professional basketball. During the war, an all-star amateur squad of members of the 137th Field Artillery, which was constituted of men from northern Indiana, fielded a basketball team in France to compete against other military units. Many such groups of athletic veterans would continue to play as league-independent teams, often with local business sponsorship after the war.

Indiana’s basketball star, Homer Stonebraker, made the acquaintance of Clarence Alter while serving in France. In pre-war civilian life, Alter managed an independent basketball team in Fort Wayne that competed against other independent clubs in the state. Alter and Stonebraker discussed joining forces after they were discharged. Their relationship became the basis of the Fort Wayne Caseys, one of Indiana’s most successful, early professional basketball teams. Alter recruited other veterans for the team, including Stonebraker’s old Wabash teammate Francis Bacon. Semi-professional teams cropped up all around the state in the 1920s in cities such as Bluffton, Hartford City, Huntington, Indianapolis, and Richmond. The athletes on these teams were often former local high school stars, but more often than not they were also veterans.

The Great War and the Great Pandemic changed sports in Indiana. In the face of severe, outside adversity, sports emerged from the war with greater popularity. In high school basketball, attendance at the state basketball tournament went from 2,500 before and during the war to 15,000 several years later. More racial diversity slowly appeared on high school teams because of the influx of African-American emigrants from the South during the war (although segregated black high schools were barred from IHSAA competition until 1942, individual black athletes could be on teams at non-segregated schools). Some military veterans returned to college and gave a boost to college sports fandom, if not actually contributing on the field of play. The veterans who returned home probably had a greater appreciation if not love of sports from being exposed to them in camp life. This rise in post-war interest in sports strongly contributed to the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, and the adulation of sports heroes like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Rockne.

*“Elevens” is a term commonly used at this time to refer to the eleven players on a football team. Similarly, baseball teams were often called “nines” and basketball teams “fives” or “quintets.”