1892 : Who won the Oberlin-Michigan Football Game?

November 19, 2020 all-day

To stress the perils of documentary research for students writing seminar papers, historians urge skepticism about everything they read until it can be verified by another source. To underscore the point, I used to teach that possible exceptions to this rule were newspaper reports about yesterday’s weather or the scores of yesterday’s ball games. Nobody bothers to lie about those. But when looking at the history of football at Oberlin a while ago, I learned that even on the playing field the truth about outcomes can be wonderfully elusive.

On a cold Saturday afternoon in November 1892, Oberlin’s team took the field in Ann Arbor against a heavily favored Michigan 11 which had trounced them handily the year before. Notable among the Oberlin visitors was their new player-coach John Heisman, who had been hired away from the University of Pennsylvania by the Oberlin Athletic Association (a student-run enterprise in those days) and who brought an undefeated team with him to Ann Arbor. The team’s fastest running back was Charles Savage, who a few years later would become Oberlin’s director of athletics and, like Heisman, a nationally prominent figure. Oberlin’s best lineman was theology student John Henry Wise, half-German, half-Hawaiian, who after graduation returned to his island home and joined a nationalist drive to overthrow the Hawaiian government. He was sent to prison for three years charged with treason. Oberlin’s team trainer, “nurse to the wounded,” was pre-med student Clarence Hemingway, who would go on to practice medicine in Oak Park, Illinois, and pass on his love of hunting in Michigan to his son, future novelist Ernest Hemingway.

The game in Ann Arbor was close all the way. At halftime Michigan led 22-18. The team captains agreed on a shortened second half, to end at 4:50 p.m. so Oberlin could catch the last train home. With less than two minutes remaining, Michigan drove to the 5-yard line before Oberlin stopped them and took over on downs. Then halfback Savage entered the mists of Oberlin athletic legend by dodging through the line and sprinting 90 yards to the Michigan 5, where Michigan’s star player, George Jewett, caught him from behind.

Two plays later Oberlin made its final touchdown. Score: Oberlin 24, Michigan 22, with less than a minute to go. As Michigan launched its last drive, the referee (an Oberlin sub) announced that 4:50 p.m. had arrived, time had expired, and the Oberlin squad trotted off the field to catch the train. Next the umpire (a Michigan man) ruled that four minutes remained on the game clock, owing to timeouts that Oberlin’s timekeeper had not recorded. Michigan then walked the ball over the goal line for an uncontested touchdown and was declared the winner, 26 to 24. By that time the Oberlinians were headed home clutching their own victory, 24 to 22.

The Ann Arbor mood that night was muted: Oberlin, much better trained than the year before, had surprised the home team, and Michigan’s victory was a squeaker with an odd taste. Oberlin’s victory was less complex and more emphatic. When news of the outcome arrived on campus, students raided the box and barrel pile of every downtown store, and soon a monstrous bonfire lit up the square. (By mistake, a box of clothing in front of Johnson’s dry goods was tossed in to brighten the blaze.) The team rallied on its return with an oyster supper enlivened with town-and-gown toasts, player’s responses, and a medley of college yells and fight songs celebrating what turned out to be Oberlin’s only victory over Michigan in nine games played between 1891 and 1905.

In 1906, long after Heisman’s departure for the big time, Charles Savage, after graduate training at Harvard and Columbia, became Oberlin’s director of athletics and pursued a simon-pure sports program til his retirement, one year before the first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1936. When Savage died 20 years later, a Cleveland sports writer recalled his greatest personal athletic achievement: “Those of us who knew him and loved him hope that at the moment he was departing this earth he was once again galloping over that Michigan gridiron with the ball tucked under his arm, his straight-arm working to perfection, and the goal posts getting nearer and nearer and nearer.”

Who really won that game in 1892? A newspaper scan yields these results: The University of Michigan Daily–Michigan; The Detroit Tribune–Michigan; The Oberlin News–Oberlin; The Oberlin Review–Oberlin.

George Blodgett, “The Day Oberlin Beat Michigan, Or Did We?”, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Winter 1999.

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