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.

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.

Four of Jean Ritchie’s Most Haunting Songs

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Covers Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX_Shutterstock (1213237a) Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s.

Library of Congress

American folk singer Jean Ritchie died last week at the age of 92.  Her name might not be as well known today as other folk musicians, but perhaps no living person epitomized the link between modern music and the American folk tradition quite like Ritchie.  She was born in Perry County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, in 1922.  she was the youngest of 14 children in the Ritchie family.  Her family’s place in American folk music history is nothing less than monumental.  In the 1920’s, folk scholar Josiah Combs used, in part, the Ritchie family’s repertoire for a 1925 doctoral thesis that was the first scholarly work on the British ballad tradition in America.  British folklorist Cecil Sharp did extensive field work late in his life on English folk songs that had survived in the backwoods of America.  In 1917, sharp collected songs, in part from Ritchie’s older sister Una and May.

Ritchie’s break would come while teaching at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Famed folklorist Alan Lomax began recording her for the Library of Congress.  New York was a catalyst for the folk revival movement in the late 1940’s, and Ritchie took an active part in reconnecting audiences with the music of America.  She was a regular guest on the Folksong Festival radio show and recorded hours of songs and oral history with Lomax.  In 1952 she was signed by Elektra records, where her releases through the 50’s and early 60’s influenced younger artists in the folk revival scene, which by that point had become a highly profitable business.

Ritchie leaves behind a tremendous legacy of music, and her haunting, brooding voice seems more powerful than ever–like the plaintive wail of a past that alludes us–a past the modern world seems ever more ready to discard.  When I listen to Jean Ritchie, though, that past seems to comes back, like a memory I’ve forgotten somewhere along the line.  Here are four of Ritchie’s best.  Two traditional (Hangman and Barbry Allen) and two of her own compositions (West Virginia Mine Disaster and The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore)


Bare-Knuckle Boxer John L. Sullivan Returns in Bloody Glory

Strong Boy The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero By Christopher Klein Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Strong Boy
The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero
By Christopher Klein
Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Libraries are filled with books chronicling the lives of powerful people writ large. Biographies are continuously churned out on the lives of the titans of history. What is less common—and far more interesting—are biographies of famous people whose lives get buried among the history books. These histories provide fresh canvases for the historian and the biographer, canvases without the brush strokes of each generation painting over the one before it. One such canvas is the life of 19th Century boxer John L. Sullivan, a man who rarely felt the canvass of the boxing ring during his 13-year career.

Boston-based writer Christopher Klein offers a blow-by-blow, quite literally, account of Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1888 to 1892. Sullivan’s life is replete with the trappings of a great American success story. The son of Irish immigrants, Sullivan grew up in Boston’s South End neighborhood. It was there that he developed a reputation as a tough fighter with a powerful hook. This reputation eventually sent him into the clandestine world of bare-knuckle boxing.

Klein’s book goes beyond merely a retelling of one man’s life as a prizefighter. In many ways, Sullivan’s is the conduit through which Klein tells a story of America in the late 19th Century. It is a world that is both starkly strange and oddly familiar to the 21st Century reader.

It is no secret that the sporting life of modern America is part public relations fairy tale and part calculating business venture. In the era of the bare-knuckle fighters, those elements mixed together more blatantly than they do today. It is these glimpses into the sporting life of America where the book shines. Prize-fighting was not quite legal in the 1880’s and 90’s, and matches were often staged in out-of-the-way locales frequented by gamblers, pickpockets, and other assorted criminals. A thoroughly-researched work, Klein recreates the scenes of Sullivan’s major battles with gritty realism.

We see a tug loaded with the 23-year-old Sullivan and 400 fight fans skimming over the Hudson River, trying to stay one step of police in a gilded-age Manhattan of gaslights, Victorians, and a not-yet-completed Statue of Liberty. As Sullivan’s career unfolds, we are taken along for the ride across the landscape of the fledgling democracy. Hired decoy carriages speed down Vine Street, the main thoroughfare of Cincinnati, pursued by policemen intent on stopping a Christmas Eve fight. Later that night, we are there as Sullivan defeats his opponent in an abandoned tavern while the barrel-organ strains of a sideshow in the distance. We see an aging, paunchy Sullivan battle to a 75-round victory in the sweltering August sun of Mississippi as locals dip tin pails full of warm water to the crowd. We sees sparring exhibitions that crisscross the country, stopping in Idaho mining camps, gin-fueled barrooms, wealthy athletic clubs, and everywhere in between. These scenes offer an off-the-beaten path view of the Victorians in a way that both debunks and reaffirms the common perceptions of the era. Much like 21st Century America, Gilded Age Americans were equal parts sanctimonious and base inn their pursuits. Their sports, too, were more like ours than we may want to admit. Boxing promoters and managers of the time courted audiences with gentlemanly codes of conducted while doing everything in their power to give their audiences the blood and circus they craved.

Sullivan stands astride two unique eras in American boxing history. He was the last of the bare-knuckle boxing champions and he fought the first championship bout with gloves under Marquess of Queensbury Rules. Among the innovations of Queensbury Rules were the three-minute round, the ten count, and the prohibition of wrestling an opponent in the ring.

John L. Sullivan was an early advocate for gloved bouts. Sullivan, it seems, was many things: an alcoholic, a bully, and an adulterer. One thing he was not, however, was underhanded. He fought clean and fair—a reputation which made him an American folk hero and had millions of fans wanting to “shake the hand that shook the hand of Sullivan,” to quote a famous phrase from the day. It is Sullivan’s life as an American sports hero that is most prescriptive to modern readers. He was the prototypical American superstar athlete. Sullivan was by some accounts the first sportsman to earn $1 million in his lifetime. He came of age when new technology was making the world a much smaller place—namely, the railroad, the telegraph, and the mass newspaper media. Fans could follow Sullivan’s career with unprecedented immediacy. The daily newspapers wanted more than just fight results, however, they wanted to know the man. Sullivan’s private life proved fertile ground for the nascent news media. Sullivan was a notorious hotheaded drinker who was quick to come to blows with those who crossed him inside or outside of the ring. He was also a generous spender where friends and family were concerned, blowing through much of his money showing other people a good time. After his wife Annie left him, Sullivan cavorted with a string of mistresses, leaving the confused press wondering which “Mrs. Sullivan” was which.

Klein deftly brings these biographical and historic strains together against the backdrop of an American blood sport. Equal part sports, economic, folk and popular history, the book’s well-researched and well-crafted narrative should appeal to scholars and historians interested in any of those aspects of the late 19th Century. The book is also a Boston sports fans dream: a seldom told story of Beantown sporting prowess. Klein’s fondness for the city is present throughout, which is fitting: Sullivan was not just “Strong Boy,” he was “The Boston Strong Boy.” In telling the story of his beloved city’s beloved hero, Klein gives us an account of 19th Century America, not from the pristine halls of power, but from the blood-soaked fringes of society. He tells of a man whose story resonated with masses of frustrated immigrants whose descendants, some of them at least, would become those great figures in history books—the kinds of history books that don’t tell the stories of bare-knuckle fighting in smoke-filled taverns late into the night. Fortunately for us, this book does just that.