The Upset of 1896 (Part III of III)


by Don Sayenga '56 - December 2013


The Vacant Year in The Rivalry

Lafayette College and Lehigh University currently celebrate the most outstanding football relationship in the United States. They have scheduled a football game every year since they began playing in 1884. The Rivalry has endured for 120 years. None of the other colleges and universities ever achieved continuity approaching this. They began contending at a time when college football was still in its infancy. For example, in 1889, both schools defeated Penn State with ease (Sorry, Princess Nit-A-Nee, but it is true - that year Lehigh beat Penn State 106-0)

Lafayette wore "Beat Lehigh" jerseys for the 1968 Lafayette-Lehigh game.

Lamentably, The Rivalry game set for November 7, two weeks after The Upset of 1896) was cancelled by Lehigh, marking the first and only break in the annual contests. To understand how and why this could have happened requires deeper discussion of circumstances affecting all leisure sports of the 1890s, illuminated by the glare of the current media frenzy surrounding the pay-for-play dispute in our colleges.

Two dozen years afterward, Dr. March emphasized at the beginning of student sports activities in Easton “the faculty paid no attention to athletics at all.” Slowly, the administration began to realize there was an audience willing to pay cash to watch the college boys play games against each other. The growing spectator group included members of the general public in additional to the student body and alumni. Today, there are thousands of people who gamble on college games without any affiliation to either school. There are thousands of others who haul in a substantial income when players put on school uniforms to perform the activities we call varsity sports.

Dr. March also highlighted the controversial “amateurism” problem. It had existed for a long time prior to the 1901-03 organization of pro baseball. “Many members of the faculty do not object to summer ball playing at all. They see no reason why college students should not earn money during the summer by playing baseball, nor why such work is not quite as respectable as waiting on the table at some summer hotel or selling aluminum. All they insist on is that the boy should be a regular student in good standing in his studies.”

Reviewing the issue which plagued Jim Thorpe in 1912 and still remains with us, March asked: “Is it necessary to have a rule that no person shall take part in college athletics unless his own parents pay his college expenses? Must the faculty athletic committee investigate each candidate for a team to find out who pays his bills?"

These are fundamental philosophical questions our American educators haven’t been able to answer for more than a century.

The vacant year in The Rivalry was a spin-out from some unfortunate confusion created when the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee collapsed in 1894. The split followed a furious debate over the exact definition of mass blocking. Chaos forced many colleges and universities to negotiate individualized rules agreements permitting their teams to play against each other. On March 26, 1896, six adults who were associated with athletics at the two schools met in Easton to hammer out a permanent agreement. They reached consensus on six guidelines to be followed by the student managers of Lafayette and Lehigh.

For the most part, the language of the Lafayette/Lehigh treaty was simple and straightforward. The schools agreed to exchange lists of player’s names for mutual approval in advance, restricted student participation in any sport to a period of five years, and denied giving financial aid to any students from their respective athletic treasuries. As it turned out, however, the wording of Rule 3 was slightly ambiguous: “They shall not contest elsewhere hereafter for a financial consideration”. A sentence such as that would have provided a circus for some of our civil trial lawyers today.

Three weeks later Lehigh’s student newspaper commented favorably regarding the stipulations by non-student adults. Citing “the merit of brevity”, the editors of The Brown & White said it “will have a tendency to promote a better feeling between the two colleges, as well as to improve the tone of athletics in both institutions. This agreement cannot be expected to cover all cases which will arise, and it would hardly be possible to draw up an agreement which would do so but it does include the important points and the spirit of fairness which has characterized all contests in the past insures a liberal interpretation of these rules and their honest enforcement.”

For the record, it should be noted Lafayette’s baseball team defeated Lehigh three times in April and May 1896 after the ink was dry on the pact. George Barclay starred in all three victories. Despite this, the Rule 3 wording caused a stalemate when the fall semester began in September. The names of five students on the lists of players from the two schools were challenged. All five had been involved with summer baseball. The gist of the argument is best explained by quoting the students themselves:

Front page editorial from The Lafayette November 13, 1896 -
“A committee from Lehigh... met a committee from Lafayette ... and discussed the recent protests interchanged between the athletic associations against White and Carman of Lehigh, and Walbridge, Bray and Barclay of Lafayette. All of the protested players were admitted to be bone fide students of the two institutions and the charges all related to the alleged connection of them with summer baseball clubs during the season of 1896. The charges against Walbridge, Bray and Carman, it was agreed, were unfounded; the case against White, who played on the Demorest professional team last summer, was dismissed as insufficiently supported. In the case of Barclay evidence was submitted that he had received money from the treasury of the Chambersburg baseball club last June. Barclay presented as evidence in rebuttal a statement...he agreed to play for a time for expenses only which is permitted under the Lafayette-Lehigh agreement... This statement was endorsed by Professor March and confirmed by a telegram from the manager of the Chambersburg club. Barclay also submitted a list of his expenses at Chambersburg which amounted to a greater sum than it was shown he had received... The Lafayette athletic committee ... declined to sustain the challenge... Last Friday a letter was received from Lehigh declaring the game off.”

Front page editorial from Brown & White November 9, 1896 -
“As for Lafayette, her team deserves the highest credit, or at least it would were it not for the unfortunate taint of professionalism. Barclay, one of her mainstays, is an out-and-out professional baseball player... While it is a matter of regret that the Lehigh-Lafayette football games will not be played this year, the evident determination of the Lafayette committee to play Mr. Barclay, regardless of his professional standing, and in direct violation of the agreement, left no other course open to the Lehigh authorities than to refuse to play. In view of the indisputable character of the evidence produced, the Lafayette committee cannot consistently maintain its position. It has been proven Mr. Barclay received a salary for playing baseball last summer... This clearly renders Mr. Barclay ineligible... It is unfortunate that our neighbors should permit their football enthusiasm to outweigh all other considerations, and the more difficult to understand since the members of their committee are not undergraduates.”

The break was reviewed for a national audience by the football guru Caspar Whitney. According to March: “His opinion seemed to be that, although the Lafayette position might be technically right, from the point of view of pure athletics Lafayette had not acted wisely.”

As affirmation of Lafayette’s attitude, let the record show The Rose functioned well as captain of Lafayette’s baseball team for ’97. He had a good year (15 wins 6 losses) which included victories over Bucknell, Cornell, Fordham, Penn, Virginia, West Point and Yale among others. None of these other schools at any time objected to playing against George Barclay.

Toward the end of the semester, the ice began to melt. The Lafayette editors observed May 28, 1897: “It is gratifying indeed to note the kindly spirit which Lehigh men have upon recent occasions manifested towards Lafayette and it is received with an appreciation which betokens a speedy resumption of friendly athletic relations and healthy rivalry ... Then to the credit of both institutions let the hatchet be buried...”

The Rivalry was resumed in 1897 without further discussion.


When It Was All Over

This story does not have a happy ending. In September, 1908, Lafayette instituted a new policy whereby only men who had been athletes at the college on the hill would be hired to coach varsity teams. Dr. Barclay became first head coach of the football team under the new policy. When he returned to the Easton campus, The Rose was given a warm welcome by the student body at a smoker. Parke Davis, then a prominent local attorney, praised his record of attainments, and agreed to help him as an assistant.

The editor of The Lafayette observed: “Owing to the extreme modesty for which Mr. Barclay is noted, his remarks were few but to the point.”

The football team responded to his presence by winning five of their first seven games. Prior to November, only low-scoring ties with Princeton 0-0 and Bucknell 6-6 marred a perfect record. Walter Eckersall, writing for the Chicago Tribune, observed Lafayette had “one of the strongest elevens in the East” for which “great credit is reflected upon Dr. Barclay”.

But in the eighth and ninth games on the schedule they fell apart, resulting in irksome losses to Penn 34-4 and Lehigh 11-5. According to Dr. March “he was not able to control the discipline of the team as well as was hoped” because the students refused to “respect properly the graduate of their own college”.

Four months after the end of football season, Dr. Barclay became gravely ill. Although he told his family it wasn’t serious, his ailment was a badly infected appendix causing peritonitis. He underwent emergency surgery at Penn’s University Hospital, but by then it was too late. With his wife at his side, he died in the morning Saturday, April 4, 1909. An alum in Philadelphia, D.L. Reeves ’96, who had played baseball with him, proposed immediately a memorial tablet ought to be placed on campus to honor Dr. Barclay. A committee was formed. They decided to put a marker into a wall being built around March Field where Barclay played in the first home game and where the Lafayette team wore the first football helmets. Today, no trace of it remains on campus.