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When Men Were Men and Football Was Brutal
It was in 1875 that Yale and Harvard first met on a football field. Harvard won. And that rankled. After losing the inaugural battle, the Yale team trained ferociously, mastering tackling and blocking techniques, vowing to perfect the game Harvard had taught them. The training paid off. Yale took over as top dog starting with the second game. The Yale winning streak grew. And grew. And grew. An annual drubbing of the Crimson became routine, and the “little brother” syndrome subsided somewhat. But finally, in 1890, the inevitable happened. After a fifteen-year drought, Harvard at last beat Yale.
The 1890 Harvard victory angered the Yale football gods. They delivered to the Yale squad a Fury. He would mete out punishment and restore Yale’s position as the nation’s supreme football power. His name was Frank Hinkey.
Twenty-year-old Hinkey arrived at Yale in 1891 as a 5'9” 145-pound freshman and became a starter in his first year. The scrappy boy had a lung problem that doctors had told him would curtail his life span, and he was encouraged to live an easy, healthy lifestyle. That would have meant not playing football—especially in that early era, before protective equipment, before modern rules and enforcement of them. At that time, football was so dangerous that even the legendary heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan once declared: “Football! There’s murder in that game. Sparring! It doesn’t compare in roughness or danger with football.”
Hinkey ignored his doctors’ advice. He played football and he played it with reckless abandon, hurling his body into oncoming opponents with utter disregard for the physical consequences. Off the field he stayed up late and drank the worst brands of whiskey. Just to spite his weak lungs, he smoked cigars by the box, the cheaper the better.
Walter Camp ’80, the team’s coach, marveled at Hinkey’s abilities. Camp was a militant when it came to physical conditioning, and he couldn’t figure out how a small man of ill health, one who treated his body so poorly, could perform as Hinkey did. He referred to Hinkey as “the disembodied spirit” because the freshman had an ability to drift effortlessly through opposing interference to get to the ball carrier. When he met up with the unfortunate carriers, they typically found themselves suddenly and viciously hurled to the ground. No one tackled like Hinkey. He was a tightly wound ball of hate, compensating for his size with unequaled speed and violence. Sportswriters said of Hinkey: “When he tackled ’em, they stayed tackled” and “When he hit ’em on his blocking assignment, they stayed hit.”
Hinkey’s teammates also knew him by another nickname: “Silent Frank.” The boy kept to himself and let his playing do the talking. Part of that may have been temperament; his bottled-up anger and short fuse didn’t lend themselves to forming friendships.
One night, Hinkey’s teammate George Foster Sanford heard a scuffle in the adjacent room. When Sanford investigated, he found Hinkey whaling away at a much larger man cowering on the floor. The 200-pound Sanford grabbed Hinkey by the shirt, lifted him clear off his feet, and hurled him into the wall. Panting and wild-eyed, Hinkey stared at him and said, “Sanford, that was the greatest sensation I’ve ever experienced—try it again!”
It turned out that the larger man had picked a fight with Hinkey. Though volatile and completely willing to defend himself, Hinkey wasn’t an instigator off the field. Thankfully for his teammates, Hinkey saved his rage for their opponents.
Frank Hinkey eagerly awaited his first Harvard encounter at Hampden Field in Springfield, Massachusetts—site of The Game in the days before either team had its own stadium—in 1891. Somebody had to exact revenge for the 1890 loss. The two teams both held perfect records, putting the national title on the line as well.
Hinkey made an immediate impact on The Game. With Yale holding a 4–0 lead, Harvard halfback Tom Corbett attempted to sweep Hinkey’s end. Unfortunately for Corbett, Hinkey hated being thought of as the weak point. He made an example of Corbett, exploding into him and popping the ball out of his hands. As a flattened Corbett lay on the ground watching helplessly, Yale halfback Laurie Bliss ’93 streaked 25 yards into the end zone for the clinching touchdown. With that, Harvard’s quest for a repeat undefeated season came to an abrupt end, and Yale regained the national crown with a perfect record of 13–0–0. Hinkey had restored order.
The following year, 10–0 Harvard and 11–0 Yale again entered their annual contest with perfect records. Hinkey had continued his assault on opponents throughout the season, and Harvard, now well aware of the danger he posed, had devised an ingenious plan to counter the formidable end. Lorin Deland, a Harvard graduate and Boston businessman, had formulated a mass-attack formation based on decidedly warlike precepts. He called the play “the Flying Wedge.”
The Crimson debuted the play in The Game. Harvard lined up with two groups behind the line of scrimmage. When quarterback Bernie Trafford signaled, the two groups raced forward and converged, forming a V in front of Trafford. He handed the ball off to fullback Charlie Brewer. Then the entire Crimson team surged forward, with Brewer engulfed by a protective wall of his teammates’ bodies.
The Flying Wedge was brilliant, and it was nearly invincible. But it had one flaw: it incensed Frank Hinkey. And Hinkey incensed was close enough to a force of nature to beat even the Wedge. The Harvard play gained 30 yards before Hinkey and Yale captain Vance McCormick ’93 finally combined to make the defensive stop. After Yale took over offensively on a Harvard fumble, Hinkey cleared a path for running back Bliss by obliterating Harvard end Slugger Manson and tackling Jim Shea. Bliss followed Hinkey’s block again on the next play and scored the game’s only touchdown.
The Flying Wedge not only enraged Yale players (and fans—it took three police officers to subdue Yale alum and three-time All-American Pudge Heffelfinger ’91). It also raised eyebrows on the national rules committee, which was already unhappy about football’s brutish reputation. The defense needed to put several players in the Wedge’s path to slow it down and get to the ball, and the play always ended in a huge gang tackle. Hundreds of pounds of body weight collapsed in a heap, the players’ arms and legs intricately tangled. Unprotected heads cracked against one another or collided with elbows and knees. In the Flying Wedge a player could just as easily be hurt by his own players as by the opposing ones.
The committee struck back before the 1894 season, outlawing all such formations. (It also proscribed the wearing of the special belts with handles that players clutched to form the interlocking wall.) Harvard would have to find another way to shield its ball carriers from Hinkey and the rest of the Bulldogs.
The idea for the Crimson’s next trick was sparked during the 1893 game against Cornell, a game played in miserable rainy conditions. When the traditional uniforms of moleskin trousers and canvas jackets became saturated with water, each player carried an additional 30 pounds. Inevitably, the players slowed down. Harvard explored alternate fabrics for uniforms, and found that a high-grade thin-layer leather resulted in only one additional pound of water weight in rain. The fact that the slippery leather made tackling difficult was merely a coincidental side benefit.
To the amazement of the Yale team and 25,000 spectators at Hampden Park in 1893, Harvard jogged onto the field in shiny leather uniforms. (They had been designed and manufactured by a trendy Boston tailor, at the princely cost of $125 each.) Hinkey immediately launched into a tirade over the leather uniforms and started arguing with Harvard captain Bert Waters and the officials over the legality of the fabric. He lost. Nothing in the rule book addressed fashion requirements.
Hinkey, of course, knew the rules. He was the Yale captain by then, and he had spent the previous night telling his teammates which of them to break. The argument was actually a stall tactic that made time for someone to track down some resin for the Yale team’s hands. The resin provided the additional traction the players needed in order to grab hold of the gimmicky Harvard innovation. And again, Harvard’s unconventional tactic proved futile. Yale won the game on a one-yard touchdown run by Frank Butterworth ’95, the only score in the game.
In 1894, the sport of football came under attack by Harvard president Charles Eliot. In a diatribe entitled “The Evils of Football,” he declared that “the American game of football, as now played, is unfit for colleges and schools … As a spectacle football is more brutalizing than prize fighting, cock fighting, or bull fighting … Football sets up the wrong kind of a hero—the man who uses his strength brutally, with a reckless disregard both of the injuries he may suffer and of the injuries he may inflict on others.”
But the Crimson football program continued. And that same year saw the one Yale-Harvard game that best illustrated the rivalry’s bitterness and the sport’s brutality, the game where no friends were made—the game that was later dubbed “The Bloodbath in Hampden Park” and also “The Springfield Massacre.”
The night before the game, Hinkey called a meeting of the Yale players in the Springfield YMCA, where they were staying overnight. According to Tim Cohane’s Yale Football Story, his instructions were specific: in the event of a fair catch by a Harvard player, “tackle them anyway and take the penalty.” His status as Harvard public enemy number one was secure.
Nothing about the pregame festivities the next day hinted at the violence to come. At half past one in the afternoon, with the temperature in the low forties, the players began to arrive amid elaborate pomp and ceremony. The appearance of each school—first Yale, then Harvard—set off demonstrations with waving banners, horse-drawn coaches, and cheering supporters festively decked out in blue and crimson. The grand entrance parade was worthy of the Colosseum of ancient Rome. Hinkey, the sport’s most ferocious gladiator, was ready for his farewell performance.
Entering the game a slight favorite, Harvard quickly gave up a touchdown. Then the Crimson revealed their latest innovation—the reverse play. Quarterback Robert Wrenn handed off to halfback Edgar Wrightington for what appeared to be a run around the right end. Fullback John Fairchild had lined up at left end as a harmless decoy—until Wrightington reversed the play to Fairchild. But Hinkey, who had been pursuing the original ball carrier, wheeled around and somehow managed to track down Fairchild. The fullback paid dearly. Hinkey unloaded on him with an earthshaking tackle, driving him into the turf in what was later described as one of the most vicious moves of Hinkey’s career. Hinkey did not like to be fooled.
With a first down at the Yale four-yard line after the play netted sixteen yards, the Crimson were stopped twice for no gain. On the next play, Harvard halfback Johnny Hayes did the impossible. Courtesy of a devastating double-team block on Hinkey, Hayes circled around left end and scored. It was the first Crimson score against Yale since the 1890 victory, four long years earlier. It was also the first, last, and only time that any player succeeded in an attempt to get around Hinkey’s end.
The game became increasingly violent. Harvard’s Charlie Brewer suffered a broken leg, yet played on until he could bear the pain no longer. Yale tackle Fred Murphy ’97 took a blow to the head, leaving him so woozy that his teammates had to point him toward the Yale goal before each play. Harvard’s Bert Waters jabbed a finger into Frank Butterworth’s eye. After Harvard’s Edgar Wrightington called for a fair catch and rolled to the ground, his collarbone was snapped by a pair of Hinkey knees. Harvard fans called for Frank’s head. (It may not have been the elder Hinkey who caused the injury; some contended that sophomore Louis Hinkey was to blame, and that Frank took the blame to protect his sibling.)
The assaults continued. During an official’s conference, Fred Murphy backhanded Harvard’s Bob Hallowell, crushing his nose into a crooked, bloody mess. He also poked Hallowell’s eye, drawing blood, before the Crimson caught up with him. They left him crumpled in a heap on the field. Murphy was carried out on a stretcher and unceremoniously dumped onto a pile of blankets so that the medical personnel could get back to watching the game.
Yale’s Al Jerrems ’96 was the last player to leave the game by injury—yet another blow to the head—but not the last to be removed. Harvard’s Hayes and Yale’s Richard Armstrong ’95 slugged their way to ejections. And the violence on the field spilled over to the postgame (Yale won 12–4), as rival fans fought in the streets on their way to the train station.
The following day, rumors swirled that Fred Murphy had died from his injuries. Not true: he merely stayed in a coma for several hours. Newspapers treated the game like a crisis, listing the injured players in the same format as dead or wounded disaster victims.
The public outcry following the game was swift and far-reaching. It had been by far the roughest, most blatantly violent “big game” yet played. The sport was now under fire from every corner of society. Members of the clergy and law enforcement officials issued denunciations. The press vilified Hinkey in particular, turning him into the poster boy for the anti-football movement. With support from the school presidents, the Harvard and Yale administrations suspended all athletic competition between the two schools for one year and football for two seasons. The Bloodbath in Hampden Park almost shut down the sport entirely.
Frank Hinkey was indeed one of the more violently aggressive players in the game of football—perhaps in any sport. But he was also one of the best. Hailed by coaching legend Pop Warner as “the greatest football player of all time” for his combination of “determination and fighting spirit,” he is one of only five players to be named an All-American four times. Hinkey’s team suffered defeat only once in his career, versus Princeton (6–0) in 1893, in a game in which he was forced to the sidelines with a head wound. (Of course, Hinkey returned to the game, his head swathed in blood-soaked bandages.) All told, the Elis were 52–1 with 48 shutouts in a row while “the disembodied spirit” was at left end.
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