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 [in two weeks] 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.

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.”