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The Upset of 1896 (Part I of III)

by Don Sayenga '56 - December 2013

On a windy Saturday afternoon, Oct. 24, 1896, something incredible occurred in downtown Philadelphia. Twelve or thirteen thousand people saw it happen, many of whom walked away shaking their heads in disbelief. One person, who was deeply involved as he watched, called it "the most sensational game in the history of football." That day, when the University of Pennsylvania's team was defeated 6-4 by Lafayette College, it wasn't called an "upset" because sportswriters didn't have any word to describe it. It was David v. Goliath. Nothing like it had ever happened before.

1896 football teamWithout an overload of superlatives, here's a quick summary: during a five-year period 1893-98, Penn's team, the best football team in the United States, won more than 60 consecutive games with only that single loss. Very few teams were able to score against them. Most of Penn's victories were lopsided shutouts. When they controlled the ball, the Penn offense didn't hesitate to humiliate its opponents. In 1893, near the beginning of its reign, Penn had beaten Lafayette 82-0.

The man who dubbed The Upset of '96 "most sensational" was Lafayette's coach Parke H. Davis (1871-1934), much better known as an Easton attorney and a member of the NCAA Rules Committee. Davis became football's top statistician in the 1930s. He knew what he was talking about. He had been an outstanding lineman for Princeton in the 1880s and he'd coached at Wisconsin and Amherst prior to his arrival in Easton. Davis was a modest, highly-respected expert who wasn't faulted by anyone when he named both his alma mater Princeton and also Lafayette as the national co-champions of 1896. Earlier that year they had played to a 0-0 tie.

We are lucky Davis recorded not only a balanced assessment of The Upset but also a photograph of the afternoon's most crucial play. Both appeared in his 1911 book Football - the American Intercollegiate Game. He omitted any win-one-for-the-gipper slant, but it deserves mention: Lafayette's captain and star halfback George Walbridge suffered an attack of appendicitis on the train while traveling toward Philadelphia. Upon arrival he was taken directly into emergency surgery. He survived the infection although he didn't play again that year. After the game the entire team went to his room and sang "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow".

Another aspect omitted in the Davis summary was the complicated financial impasse during the weeks prior to the game. Dr. Francis March Jr, the faculty member responsible for athletics on campus, went to Philadelphia one week in advance to settle the argument. When he saw the evidence, he realized Lafayette's student managers were "emphatically in the wrong." They had agreed to play the game for $500 (which wouldn't even cover their expenses) but then they tried to extort more cash from Penn by saying they would back out unless given a sizeable percentage of the gate receipts. Dr. March solved the dispute with an elegant political ploy. He announced Lafayette would play for nothing, hinting Penn might reconsider after the game and share some of the receipts. In good faith, the Penn managers did exactly that.

Scoring was slightly different in those days. In an 1894 essay written for a British audience, Walter Camp explained how the college boys then were awarding points: "carrying the ball across the goal-line...will entitle them to a try-at-goal. The touch-down itself will count four points...the touch-down and goal together count six points.. at the spot where the ball is carried over...any player of his side may then bring it out, making a mark...on the line as he walks out, and when he reaches a suitable distance place the ball for one of his side to kick, the opponents meantime standing behind their goal line."

Lafayette's defense clearly made the big difference in the outcome by holding Penn to merely one touchdown. The score was 4-0 with only a few minutes remaining in the game. The Quakers were performing poorly ¬- demoralized by their inability to crush the small college boys. Lafayette blocked a punt, recovered the ball on Penn's 30 near the left sideline, faked a field goal to make a quick dash down to the 10, and finally sent the fastest runner on either team all the way around the opposite end to score a TD. That same runner next kicked the goal to move into the lead 6-4. It was the first time in two years Penn had been behind on any scoreboard.

The keystone of the Maroon and White defense (also the lineman responsible for throwing the key block when Lafayette uncorked the play to get ahead) was usually known on campus by his nickname, The Babe.

The Babe

Before George H. Ruth permanently retired the nickname in 1948, it was a common practice in America to refer to any oversized athletic kid as The Baby or The Babe. Accordingly, the biggest student who came out to play football at Lafayette in '94 when Parke Davis began to coach the Maroon & White team was Charles Rinehart (1875 -1930) of Phillipsburg N.J. The Babe stood 6 feet 3, weighed 225 pounds, and was exceptionally strong and fast for that era. As of 1911, Davis ranked him as one of the two greatest football players of all time.

In the national media, Caspar Whitney and Walter Camp had begun naming the best players of the four major teams (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn). No one from a small school ever was listed but the famous New York Times sportswriter Alison Danzig quoted the response of Penn's All-American guard Truxtun Hare when he was asked who was the best player he ever faced. Hare replied promptly "Charley Rinehart of Lafayette...he was better than anyone from Harvard, Michigan, Brown, the Indians, or any other of our opponents...".The Babe was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1964.

In 1931, George Trevor of the New York Sun summarized his abilities: "Rinehart remains the towering figure among linemen at Easton... Although normally a guard, Rinehart was equally brilliant at tackle...He wore down the giants of his day without asking for time out. He was the mainstay of the '96 line..."

Davis wrote an eloquent memorial in the 1934 rulebook. "He knew every detail of football technique. He could make openings and hold them open; he could lead interference around either end and block one tackler after another...he could carry the ball...send the kick-off booming up the field, and in practice drop kick goals at 65 yards. Handsome in appearance, disdainful of every protective device, he was a flashing figure on the field...His comrades loved him, opponents revered him..."

Rinehart's nickname is relatively easy to analyze in comparison with some of the curious sobriquets assigned to other players on the '96 team. There is probably a fascinating story in each case to explain why Bray was called "Kidney," Worthington was "Choctaw," Rowland was "Stop," and Yost was "Hurry Up". The best nickname of the whole bunch, and the most captivating story of all in '96, belonged to the halfback nicknamed "The Rose". He was the student who got the bouquets because he was the one who scored all the points against Penn in The Upset of '96.