Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt's 1891 Baby Act?

Sept. 24, 2008

Vanderbilt's 1891 Baby Act? (pdf)  |  Commodore History Corner Archive

In 1891 Vanderbilt failed to show up for a scheduled game—in Nashville.

That’s what happened back in 1891 when the Commodores weren’t ready to play for the fourth game of the season. Maybe there was inclement weather, but the Centre College players didn’t think it was enough to call off the game. And, Nashville’s newspaper, The Daily American agreed.

It came after Vanderbilt’s inaugural season in 1890 when the Commodores made its college football debut by beating the University of Nashville (Peabody) by an overwhelming 40-0 score.

The following year, unbeaten Vanderbilt increased its schedule to a five-game slate. Vandy officially records that season as three victories and one defeat.

So what about the lost game?

That “lost” game was set for Nov. 21, 1891 at Nashville’s Athletic Park (later known as Sulphur Dell) at 3 p.m. The scheduled opponent was Centre College of Danville, Ky. Vanderbilt opened the short season with a 22- 0 shellacking of Sewanee, followed by its first-ever loss, 24-6 to Washington (St. Louis). The Commodores won the rematch at St. Louis, 4-0 and concluded the season by defeating Sewanee again, 26-4.

On the morning of the Centre game, The Daily American, advertised in its game-day edition the anticipated match of the South’s newest game. The report:

The Centre College boys came in on last night’s train from Louisville, looking dusty and tired, but bright-eyed and healthy. Their eleven out averages Vanderbilt in weight by a few pounds, but it is composed of tall men rather than sturdy, and the members of the Vanderbilt team who have seen them think they lack stamina. But appearances all around point to a closely contested game.

The park will doubtless be crowded when the teams line-up and it is certain that the lovers of muscle, sinew and nerve, who attend the game will see a sight that will make their hearts rejoice. Now two lines of men face each other, fairly quivering with suppressed eagerness and a harmless little leather ball lies between.

The Centre squad was in town and ready to play after a restful evening in their hotel. They eagerly rode the trolley to Athletic Park. Upon arrival, they found only one Commodore dressed to play. The remainder of the team was wandering in the grandstands in their “citizen” clothes. The well-dressed Commodores were homeward bound.

There was not a ticket seller or gatekeeper to be seen at the park. The goal posts were lying on the ground, showing no signs of preparation for a football game. There had also been a rainstorm.

Centre needed this game not only for the experience, but to cover travel expenses. It had traveled 200 miles and incurred hotel and railroad expenses. The financial arrangements called for Centre to receive two-thirds of the gate receipts.

The controversy would be important historically since the game was allegedly forfeited to Centre 100-0. The next day, The Daily American, chastised the Vanderbilt team for its apparent lack of interest in playing. With a column headlined “The Baby Act,” the American wrote:

Probably for the first time in the history of the sport, a match game of football was not played on account of rain. It happened in this city yesterday, and Vanderbilt was the cause of it.

Promptly at 3 o’clock the yellow and white of Centre lined up in the middle of the field, but the black and gold of Vanderbilt were nowhere to be seen. Referee Keller called time and gave the game to Centre College by the score of 100 to 0.

The newspaper article continued to explain the plight of Centre with its apparent financial losses and continued its harsh criticism.

All of which looks very much like the baby act. The old gold and blacks may claim that they were sore from the St. Louis game, and that they wanted to be in trim for the Sewanee eleven next Thursday; or were that the Centre College boys were bigger and mightier than they had anticipated; or that they objected to rolling in the mud and getting wet.

They may claim many things, and they probably will. But they should have written the Centre College eleven that they were not in trim and thus declared the game off, dropping in a line or two about their delicacy about rolling in mud and getting wet. But surely, surely, they should not have refused to play because their opponents looked big or the rain was falling.

To continue the pounding insults to Vanderbilt, the newspaper printed at the conclusion of “The Baby Act” column, results of the Michigan-Cornell game. That game was played in Detroit, the same day as the Vandy-Centre scheduled game. The article described the Michigan defeat to Cornell in a “driving rainstorm” witnessed by 3,000 to 4,000 people.

The playing conditions were reported as “soft and slippery from an eighteen hour rain.” In spite of the weather, that game produced “brilliant runs” that were frequent.

Ouch! And this is the hometown paper with the writer of the article not named. Centre left for home after the “cancelled” game, discrediting that rain forced cancellation of the contest.

So, should there be a 100-0 loss in the Vanderbilt record books from that long forgotten game?

  1891 Vanderbilt Football Team

Apparently not. The next day, the Commodore side was presented in The Daily American by Vandy team captain Elliott Jones. Jones turned to the reader’s only recourse, the “Letter to the Editor” department, and fired off a letter to the Daily American. The letter began:

The good sense of the people of Nashville is uphold the Vanderbilt foot ball team for not playing the game with Centre College on Saturday. Any one that has seen the Park, especially since the lake was dug for “A Night in Pekin,” knows that it was no fit place for playing a game of foot ball in a driving rain.

However, in order to set the Vanderbilt team right before the public we deem it necessary that a few gross misstatements be corrected. About noon the clouds seemed to be lifting somewhat and we had hopes of it clearing enough to let the crowd come out that would make it worth while to play in the mud.

But, at about 1:30 the clouds grew thicker and the rain recommenced. The Executive Committee, which has charge of such matters, was quickly called together and decided not to play, knowing that no crowd at all would turn out. It was then 1:45, and immediately we sent messages by telephone to the Centre College team and umpire and referee not to go down to the park.

Jones wrote that they learned the Centre team had already left the hotel for the park and had not received the messages. He was confused as to why they left for the park so early. Jones continued his story as regards to the attitude of the Centre team.

The manager of our team with several others immediately went down to the park. The Centre College men were found there in their suits (uniforms). Their captain was called aside and told the action of the Executive Committee. He immediately, and without kicking, acquiesced in the decision and discussed the possibility of a return game. He went over to his team and they consulted a few moments, gave their college cheer for Vanderbilt, which Vanderbilt returned, and then all made for the grandstand to get out of the rain, and then they proceeded uptown It was now about 2:55.

Hence it is seen that the game was declared off through the consent of both captains. And no “lining up” and calling of the game was done at all, and the Centre College captain was distinctly told that we did not consider it a forfeited game. The referee did not even call the game at 3 o’clock, and certainly, if he gave the game to Centre, he did it contrary to the rule, which is that the captain shall be ordered to play by the referee, and then if he refuses the game shall be forfeited.

Jones declared that he was never ordered on the field by the referee. The referee was never quoted in the article. As regards to the finances, Jones acknowledges the two-thirds gate receipt agreement. He stated that due to the fairness, the Centre team’s hotel bill and the game advertising was for paid by Vanderbilt. The University also paid $45.00 in cash to help pay for their return train fare.

Also addressed by Jones was the accusation that the Commodore team was scared. He claimed that the previous opponents of Vanderbilt were of greater weigh and height than of the Centre players.

Captain Jones also took issue with the complaints of fearing the uncooperating weather. He finished his rebuttal:

It amounts to nothing to say that no game in New England is postponed on account of weather. They have grounds that are especially fixed for bad weather, but large pools of water several inches deep were on our field, and then our Southern rains are different from New England mists.

Meteorologist’s records do not exist from that distant date to verify Mr. Jones weather knowledge of the North. To Vanderbilt’s credit, flooding was common with the ballpark’s close proximity to the Cumberland River. However, the game was rained out and washed away into the past.

Centre College had been playing a regular schedule since 1891 against regional colleges. Neither team recorded that 1891 game so all must have been forgiven. In 1894, the teams finally did meet in Nashville which resulted in a 6-0 Commodore victory.

The anonymous writer of this affair backed-off with his harshness as he wrote his last sentence attached to the Jones letter. It stated:

The report of the event was mainly based upon information received from members of the Centre College eleven.

Vanderbilt saves a loss. A lot has changed in the 117 years since that game except the sports writers still have an opinion and sometimes jump to conclusions.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail

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