Sign and Punishment: The Birth of American Football Penalty Signals

American football is a physically taxing, oftentimes brutal game.  Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on protecting players at all levels from the blunt force trauma associated with long-term injuries. Increased precautions written into the rules of the game in recent years have introduced additional infractions to the game.  Much the same thing happened during the early 20th Century.  After the particularly brutal season of 1905, in which at least 18 players were killed and more than 150 severely injured,  President Theodore Roosevelt called on his alma mater Harvard and other leading universities to curtail the violence.  This led to the formation of an intercollegiate conference that became the forerunner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  It was over the next four years that football began to shed any resemblance to its European ancestors soccer and rugby.  The forward pass was legalized, the first down distance was set at 10 yards, additional referees were added to enforce rules, and hurdling was penalized.

Then, as now, experts bemoaned the transition towards a safer game as a death knell for true football.  More damaging to the games long-term popularity, however, was the inability of coaches, players, and fans to keep up with the myriad changes.  As this editorial cartoon from 1910 shows, football rules were becoming increasingly harder to understand.

1910 was a confusing time for football players and fans.

1910 was a confusing time for football players and fans.

The 1910 season was significant due to several rules put in place to increase forward passing.  While meant to make the game more exciting, there were several complicated limitations to the new passing rules.  Ends, the only eligible receivers, could not catch a pass more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The quarterback could not throw a pass unless he was at least five yards behind the line of the scrimmage.  The remaining linemen and backs had to be at least one-yard behind the line of scrimmage.  Additionally, the ballcarrier could no longer be pushed or pulled by his teammates in an effort to gain ground.  Tacklers could no longer thrown themselves at the ballcarrier in what was known as a ‘flying’ tackle.  One foot had to be on the ground at all times when making a tackle.  The Pittsburgh Press summed up the thoughts of many fans during the 1910 season:

“This season more than ever before, the football spectators are at a loss as to why the various penalties are imposed and why now and then, for no apparent reason, the attacking eleven is forced to relinquish possession of the ball.”

The Wichita Eagle suggested that officials use megaphones to inform fans as to the nature of infractions:

“Penalties to which teams are liable in football are manifold, and nine times out of ten the spectators don’t know what particular breach of the rules has incurred a penalty.  Generally they put it down to holding or offside and let it go at that.  It might be one of several dozen offenses.  An announcement of the offense and the nature of of the penalty would clear up doubt and educate the spectators, and that the big majority of football patrons need education in the fine points of the game, and lots of it, nobody can deny.  better understanding of a game won’t hurt its popularity.”

Famed University of Chicago coach Alonzo Stagg wanted the game to be more fan friendly, and in November 1913 he and other officials from the Western Conference, aka the Big Nine, precursor to the Big Ten Conference, set out to do just that.  The members schools agreed to begin numbering player uniforms to help fans and referees identify players during the 1914 season.  They also appointed Stagg to devise a code to help officials inform fans of the reasons for various penalties.  It would take three more seasons before a system was devised to make sense of penalties.

On October 27, 1917, Stagg’s University of Chicago team faced in-state rival Northwestern University in Chicago.  Chicago entered the early-season contest undefeated and Northwestern had lost just once to Big Nine power Ohio State.  The matchup was assured widespread coverage by Chicago newspapers.  Like the fans in the bleachers, however, writers in the press box were left deciphering just what penalties occured during the game.  This made accurate write-ups of games problematic at best.  Luckily for the sportswriters that day, the Chicago-Northwestern game was being officiated by Frank Birch.  Birch, a graduate of Earlham College, had developed a system of hand signals to inform members of the press what penalty had been assessed.  Each sportswriter was given a slip of paper as to the meaning of each signal.  Great for the press, but no help to fans.  The Chicago Herald described these initial signals in detail:

“No one without the code slip new that when the referee grasped his wrist there had been holding on one side or the other.  They were equally at loss to know the meaning when he shook a couple of business like fists.  That conveyed the information that there had been unnecessary roughness.  Referee Birch did not pose for the multitude when he crossed his legs.  The initiated were aware that there had been attempt at tripping.  A sifting motion of the hands indicated illegal motion and hands on the hips was the signal for an offside play.  One arm aloft denoted that one or the other side had refused a penalty, something which has always been Greek to the rooters.

The majority of the spectators could usually tell when a forward pass was incomplete, but in order that the reporters might avoid guessing he held his arms extended sidewise.  Should there be any interlocked interference both arms would be folded over the breast.  An arm raised in military salute meant that a loose ball foul had been committed, while the glad tidings of a touchdown or a goal kicked were conveyed by both arms held aloft.”

Birch’s next two games that season no doubt helped spread his system to colleges throughout the nation.  On November 10, he officiated the Nebraska-Missouri matchup in the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Conference, precursor to the Big Eight, whose teams would one day form the Big 12 Conference.  On Thanksgiving he officiated University of Nebraska’s game against eastern power Syracuse University.

“Birch’s system of wig-wagging from the field is likely to be adopted by other officials, and it would be a good idea to print the code on the slips which the line-up and the numbers of players are printed,” wrote the Herald.  “The code is simple enough so it would not take the rooters long to memorize it, and it could hardly prove exhausting to the official doing the signaling”

The system certainly did not take long to catch on.  Birch’s system gained widespread credence when it was published in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Sign Talk of the Indians.

Birch’s system was so influential that his signs for holding, unnecessary roughness, an incomplete pass, and a touchdown remain virtually unchanged to this day.  Many of his other signs, like the military salute for a loose ball foul, lasted for several decades, as seen in this 1932 chart.

1932 Penalty Signals

1932 Penalty Signals

Over time, signals evolved and multiplied.  Here’s a similar chart from 1949, notice the necessary roughness sign is still indicated by a military salute.

1949 Penalty Signals

From there, the number of penalties written into the game continued to grow.  As this 1963 chart illustrates, there were 25 hand signals less than fifty years after their development.

1963 Penalty Signals

1963 Penalty Signals

According to the National Football League, there are currently 36 official penalty signals–a useful valuable tool for an increasingly complex game–and it all started with the wigwagging of Frank Birch.

Portsmouth, Ironton, and the Making of Thanksgiving Football

     

Advertisement for the 1929 Thanksgiving game between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Cincinnati National Guards. Portsmouth won 25-0 and claimed the independent professional championship of the United States.

It’s Thanksgiving time again in the United States, and for millions of Americans Thanksgiving is synonymous with American football. Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the holiday itself Princeton and Yale began an annual Thanksgiving Day game in New York City in the 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday.

America’s top professional league, the National Football League, will feature an entire day of games on Thanksgiving. The afternoon game will feature the Detroit Lions playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit has hosted Thanksgiving Day games since their first year in the league in 1934. The seeds of Detroit’s Thanksgiving tradition, however, sprouted in a little field in Portsmouth, Ohio six years earlier. 
In the late 1920’s, Portsmouth was a bustling industrial city. The town, which had just over 33,000 residents in 1920, would swell to over 42,000 by the end of the decade. Like many blue-collar towns in Appalachia during that time, Portsmouth fielded a semi-pro football team. Portsmouth had a problem, though—their teams weren’t all that great. Portsmouth’s industrial base dominated the Scioto Valley, but each autumn the teams representing the city failed to defeat the best team from the region—the Ironton Tanks. Ironton, 30 miles down the Ohio River from Portsmouth, was a town of just over 14,000 people in 1920. The Tanks were a powerhouse football team during the 20’s, though, racking up wins against NFL teams and laying claim to the mythical Ohio Valley Championship numerous times. There were few professional teams during that time, and many semi-pro outfits hired the talents of top-notch players—sometimes fresh out of college and sometimes playing under assumed names while still undergrads. The Tanks began hiring enough talent to compete on a national level. In the early years, the Tanks scheduled games against regional rivals on Thanksgiving Day. By mid-decaade, though, the Tanks were competing with NFL teams like the Kansas City Cowboys and Canton Bulldogs on Thanksgiving. 

Their most bitter rivalry, however, was with Portsmouth. For years during the 1920’s, Portsmouth found no answer for the powerful Tanks. That all changed in 1927, when a team from Portsmouth calling themselves the Shoe-Steels, and led by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe, defeated the Tanks. The Spartans were formed the following year and, taking a cue from the Tanks, scheduled the rival Ashland Armco Yellowjackets for an afternoon contest at Labold Field in Portsmouth. Ashland, like Ironton, was a big draw in Portsmouth featuring nationally-known talent. 

“The demand for tickets is unprecedented in the history of football for this city,” wrote the Portsmouth Times. Portsmouth fans were rewarded with a 19-0 win over Ashland. Portsmouth finished the 1928 campaign with a record of 9-3-2, there only setbacks coming against Ashland early in the season, the Cincinnati National Guards, and Ironton. 

Portsmouth’s fortunes changed in 1929. Portsmouth signed Indiana University halfback Chuck Bennett and first-year fullback Roy “Father” Lumpkin of Georgia Tech. Flush with top-notch talent, the Spartans finished the 1929 campaign with a 12-2-1 record. Ironton edged the Spartans 3-0 in October and the 1929 NFL Champion Green Bay Packers defeated them 14-0 in September Portsmouth faced Ironton again the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drubbing the Tanks 38-0. Portsmouth defeated Cincinnati 25-0 on Thanksgiving to claim the mythical Tri-State Championship. Spartan leadership began using stationary calling themselves “Independent Pro Champions of the United States.” 

In 1930 Portsmouth made the jump to the professional ranks—they joined the NFL. More powerful competition meant a larger stadium. In August, the $150,000 Unicversal Stadium was completed just in time for the Spartans home opener with the NFL’s Newark, New Jersey Tornadoes. The Spartans won 13-6 on their way to a 5-6-3 record and an 8th place finished in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants all played at Universal Stadium that year. The Spartans slate was filled with League contests, but the team still found room to play the hated semi-pro Ironton Tanks in a Thanksgiving grudge match at Universal Stadium. Playing on a snow-covered field, the aptly named Frosty Peters dropkicked two field goals and Bennett plunged for a late touchdown to lead the Spartans over the Tanks 12-0. It would be the last time the purple clad Spartans would clash against the red of the Tanks. It was the last game the Ironton squad would ever play. 

Portsmouth didn’t play on Thanksgiving again. The Tanks were gone and the Spartans had no real rival after their first lackluster year in the NFL. The Chicago Bears were always a big draw, but the Bears had their own Thanksgiving series with the crosstown rival Cardinals. Still, games were schedule against the Bears for the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1931 and 32. Those were years when the Portsmouth-Chicago rivalry began heating up. The Bears and Spartans—along with the Packers, would compete for the league championship. The Bears and Spartans finished in a tie atop the league standings. At that time, ties did not count in league standings, so the Bears (6-1-6) and the Spartans (6-1-4) finished in a dead heat, and neither team had managed to defeat the other during the season, playing to ties on November 13th and 27th. Counting ties as half a win and half a tie, as the NFL would in later years, would have given Green Bay the championship at 10-3-1. Nevertheless, a ‘playoff’ in Chicago was scheduled to determine a champion. In a game dominated by defense, Chicago pulled away thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The Bears won 9-0. The Spartans had a new rival. 

Games were scheduled against the Bears on the Sundays before and after Thanksgiving. The Bears defeated the Spartans 17-14 on November 26 and 17-7 on December 3. The December contest would be the final game played in Portsmouth. The team, struggling as the league’s second smallest market next to Green Bay, was facing financial hardship as the Great Depression dragged on. Offseason rumors began to circulate that the Spartans would be leaving town. Unfortunately for Portsmouth’s fans, the rumors proved true. Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased the Spartans for just under $8,000. 

The core elements of the old Spartans remained intact in the Motor City, however, and the lions started their inaugural season on a 10-0 tear. Despite that fact, the largest attendance for a game in Detroit had been 15,000. That changed on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions met the Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium in a game televised on 94 radio stations coast-to-coast. A crowd of 26,000 showed up to watch the game, which would determine the champion of the Western Conference. 

It was a hard-fought contest. Some Lion players, such as Glenn Presnell, had long histories with the Bears. Presnell, a former All-American for the University of Nebraska, had faced the Bears with Ironton, Portsmouth, and Detroit. In 1930, he scored two touchdowns to lead Ironton to victory over the Bears. Presnell and the Lions would come up short on their first Thanksgiving in Detroit, however, as Nagurski and the Bears won 19-16 nailbiter. When the Bears returned the following Thanksgiving, Detroit handily defeated them 14-2 on their way to the first NFL Championship for the Lions. The Lions would play the Bears every Thanksgiving until the series was interrupted by World War II. When the war was over, there was only one NFL Thanksgiving Day each year—a tradition synonymous with Detroit football, but born in southern Ohio. 

The Typography of Slavery

Runaway Slave Images, Clockwise from Upper left: Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) 1845; Long Island Star (Brooklyn, New York) 1828; Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) 1789; Boon’s Lick Times (Fayetteville, Missouri) 1845; Tarboro Press (Tarboro, North Carolina) 1845; Edgeville Advertiser (Edgeville, South Carolina) 1845; The North Carolinian (Fayetteville, North Carolina) 1845; Western Carolinian (Salisbury, North Carolina) 1824; The Times Picayune (New Orleans) 1852.

Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text.

Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The quality of these ads ran the gamut from crudely made to intricately carved works of art. On the crude end of the spectrum were the common images papers used for small advertisements and announcements made by everyday folks. Most papers had small type that looked like houses for property listings, cows for livestock sales, and dogs for missing pets. These small impressions on 200-year-old papers in digital form are easy to look past with modern eyes. One category of metal type that is hard to overlook, however, is the metal type used to announce the runaway slave. 

As a historian, I always try to remember that the people whose stories I tell were indeed real living breathing individuals. They had hopes and fears and desires and struggles. That’s why these advertisements, with their small black figures pressed into ink centuries ago, are so jarring. These figures not only represent human beings taking the drastic step to flee chattel slavery, they represent how easily this evil was tolerated in everyday life. These newspapers were prepared for the inevitability of masters advertising runaways—masters ready to pay to have their role as master protected. Someone at each of these papers had to physically see that the images depicting runaways were fixed into place, covered in ink, and pressed onto the paper. These papers were accomplices in a worldwide commercial establishment built on slavery. These images show the horrors of slavery reduced to just another small news items among the hundreds of the day. 

One of the greatest horrors of the slave system was the systematic destruction of not only the family unit, but of the enslaved person’s very own identity. The enslaved were often not only taken away from family members, they were removed from any sense of community they might have had on the plantation. They were named by masters and had little control of their own bodies under this system. Ironically, these ads written by masters provide brief glimpses into the lives of these faceless African-Americans. The master’s own words often tell us that these former slaves were intelligent, well-spoken, and strong. The ads describe ways runaways dressed and the physical scars they carried with them.

The moveable type images from these newspapers themselves are intriguing. Obviously, these images were white constructs—a white artisan’s depiction of a runaway. These images were seen by white Americans nearly every day. Some of the type was used so often over so long a period of time that it began to wear, blurring the figures like the image from the Times Picayune featured above. The Times Picayune, based in the nation’s largest slave market in New Orleans, is littered with runaway ads covering every several decades of the antebellum United States. For whites experiencing these images of African-Americans, the message was clear: African-Americans were deception, capable of subterfuge, and often on the wrong side of the law. These runaway ads are more than meets the eye, though. In these images I see determination, self-reliance, and an attempt to strip the bonds of slavery and forge a new identity—their own identity. 

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers and Delta Music

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music

By Ben Wynne

Biography, 312 pages, LSU Press

If American music is a vast river of influence, one genre flowing into another, then the Mississippi Delta is the region where much of 20th Century music flows back to. It’s a region that has been marketed and mythologized by artists and corporations throughout the history of recorded music in an effort to claim some sort of legitimate musical heritage, a kind of preternatural connection to the ‘roots’ of American music. What are the roots of American recorded music and why do we mythologized the Mississippi Delta? Ben Wynne’s book Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers, and the Roots of American Music from LSU Press examines the Delta’s place in the American music like no other book I’ve read.

The men whose lives make up the twin narratives of the book are, even now, shadowy figures in the American musical pantheon. Charley Patton was a seminal African-American blues musician born in Hinds County, Mississippi sometime between 1881 and 1891. Rogers was a white country singer from Meridian, Mississippi known for his yodeling, was one of country music’s earliest superstars. The two men embarked on vastly different career paths during the 1920’s and 30’s. Patton played juke joints and house parties throughout Mississippi, composing such seminal blues pieces as “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere.” He died in 1934 and was nearly forgotten until being rediscovered by the mainstream blues revival of the 1960’s. Rodgers was a national celebrity when he doied in 1933 at the age of 35 after years of struggling with tuberculosis.

Wynne gives us a blow-by-blow account of the hard living ways of both men and the Delta culture that shaped each of them. He chronicles two restless, rootless men at-large in an agrarian world where, to live, one usually had to be tied to the land. More often than not, the land a person was tied to was not their own. Through music, both Patton and Rodgers sought to overcome those ties. Wynne details the multiple romantic relationships of both men, their afflictions, and their musical greatness, but surprisingly the real focus of the book is the Mississippi Delta itself. This is not the romantic Mississippi Delta of American popular culture, however, this is the delta as it truly was. Wynne spends significant time early on outlining the economic and social climate of Mississippi following the Civil War. We see the reascendance of the planter class as they tightened their grip on the economic lives of Both African-Americans and poor whites.

Patton and Rodgers were, in many ways, musical ambassadors of the Delta, and Wynne meticulously shows readers just how far their influence stretched. A continuously revolving cast populates the book, as Patton and Rodgers cross paths with some of the most influential musicians of the last century. We see a young Louis Armstrong backing up Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” We see Rodgers in Louisville recording with the Farter Family, and making a pass at Maybelle in the process. We glimpse the environment surrounding Patton’s infamous alcohol-fueled 1930 trip from Lula, Mississippi to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records with musicians Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson.

What truly spread the Delta sound throughout the country, however, was recorded sound. Both men would be unknown today if not for the tremendous recordings they left behind, recording that constitute the bedrock for both blues and country. Wynne takes readers inside early recording studies where men like Ralph, director of recording for Okeh Records and Jay Mayo Williams of Paramount Records successfully exploited a growing market for African-American music in the 1920’s. Peer would also record some of the earliest country musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers. This ‘cross-pollination’ of music, as Wynne defines it is, in the end, the real story in the pages of In Tune. There really is no black and white American music, just a flow of ideas and influences, creativity and commercialism, that opens up into the wide world of American music, a legacy that is as wide and deep as the Mississippi itself.

Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone 2nd Edition

Crystal & Stone

There are many back roads and crossroads in American music.  One road leads to another, branches off, and before you know it, the beginning of the trail is left somewhere in the dust.  These musical crossroads have taken many shapes over the years.  In the 19th Century pop and folk merged together, in the early 20th Century it was ragtime giving away to jazz, and later blues led to rock and roll.  One of the most interesting crossroads of the last 50 years was the convergence of rock, country, blues, and folk in the 1960’s and 70’s.  These styles incubated in the emerging American counterculture and led to the emergence of some of the best-known singer-songwriters of the last century.  Artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson all became cultural icons.  Among the most unheralded, at least by the general public, is singer-songwriters of that period is Mickey Newbury.  I say unheralded among the general public, because Newbury’s influence on music is profound.

The man documenting that influence is Joe Ziemer, and the second edition of his biography on Newbury, Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone, is out now from AuthorHouse.  You can order it here.  I met Ziemer while working on my documentary film Dixie, where he discussed Newbury’s most famous contribution to popular music, “An American Trilogy,” a piece that deftly combines “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.”  Newbury spontaneously combined the tunes, which are respectively, the song of the Confederate Army in the U.S. civil war, the song of the U.S. Army during that same war, and a folk song based on a Bahamian lullaby.  Newbury de-anthemized the songs, creating a haunting soundscape of the American experience.  The song was a mainstay in Elvis Presley’s concerts in the 1970’s, popularizing gun the tune overseas. “An American Trilogy” has become emblematic of the United States in some circles and is perhaps more popular in Great Britain than it is anywhere else.  It was chosen as the number one American song of the millennium in a 1999 UK poll.

The irony is that Newbury was a tremendously talented songwriter, whose compositons have been recorded 1,543 times in the last 50 years, by artists like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings–the list goes on and on.  A Texas native, Newbury was at the forefront of the outlaw country movement.  Ziemer has called him ‘the original outlaw.’  As the title of Ziemer’s book implies, Newbury was a complex artist, full of equal parts strength and sensitivity.  Ziemer, who befriended the musician later in life, paints a portrait of Newbury with the exhaustive research of the historian and the fondness of a close friend.  He first encountered the music of Newbury while listening to a friend play him in concert in the 70’s.  Ziemer had no idea who wrote the piece his friend played.  For 50 years, music lovers have been discovering Newbury in much the same way.

I first heard Newbury named-dropped in Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”: “Between Hank Williams pain songs/And Newbury’s train songs/and Blue eyes cryin’  the rain/Out in Luckenbach, Texas/Ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”  I was intrigued.  Who was this man wedged between two Hank Williams references in a Waylon Jennings song?  It turns out, like many people, I encountered Newbury’s music without knowing it.  Many of Newbury songs reached charged for other artists.  Andy Williams reached #4 On the Adult Contemporary chart in 1968 with “Sweet Memories,” Jerry Lee Lewis reached #2 on the Country chart with “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  Younger generations perhaps best know Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s cover of Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” featured in the dream sequence of the Coen brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.

Ziemer’s book is a robust 500 pages and was 15 years in the making, and will help round out the library of any American music aficionado.  Zeimer put it best in his preface to this second edition:

“Mickey was fragile and tough… like crystal and stone… transparent and rock-solid. The man was obliging and stubborn, open-minded and opinionated. He was a brilliant Bohemian and an unpretentious country boy. Loyal and fearless to a fault, Mickey was a tender-hearted, spiritually perceptive Christian, a family man, a rambler at heart, and perhaps bipolar.”

One thing Newbury most definitely was: an American original.  Ziemer’s volume captures the charisma and complexity of Newbury as a person and underscores the impact of Newbury as an artist.