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.