I thought I would take this bye week to expand our discussions to Central New York and the Syracuse Athletic Association (S.A.A.). Formed in 1890 under the name Syracuse Amateur Athletic Club – changing their name to the S.A.A. in 1892 – the S.A.A. was an outlet for athletes not participating in the college game. Before we delve too deeply into the S.A.A., it would be beneficial to discuss the history of athletic clubs and the rise of football in Central New York.
American society changed during the 1800s. Focus was shifted from an agricultural base to an industrial base, creating fabulous wealth among its pioneers and leaders. This nouveau riche focused some of their leisure time on the attendance and participation in sport. Athletic clubs were the outlet to satisfy this desire, but there was another reason for joining these organizations. According to historian J. Thomas Jable, “This class of socially-conscious businessmen strived to reach society’s highest echelon, and club memberships were a stairway to the top. Athletic clubs were on the lowest rung of the social club ladder. Membership in them was generally the first step toward gaining admission in the more exclusive Union Leagues and University Clubs or the top-level Metropolitan Men’s Club. Members of the latter tended to dominate the economy and social life of their respective urban areas. Eager to join society’s elite, the New Rich sought admission to the exclusive clubs.”
Athletic clubs started to pop up in the late 1860s. The New York Athletic Club is considered to be one of the first, organized in 1868. The next athletic club football team to form was the New York City Crescents in 1878, followed in 1882 by the Baltimore Athletic Club. Clubs would continue to form throughout the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, as desire for membership in these organizations continued to flourish.
At this point, a different problem arose. The organizations needed success on the field in order to gain prestige. Therefore, clubs needed to find a way of persuading the best athletes to compete for their institution. According to football historian Dr. Harry A. March, it was not uncommon for clubs to give a member a watch or a trophy for playing a game, only to find that item at a local pawn shop soon after the game. This item would then make its way back to the team manager, who gave it to the very same player the following game. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but this was a way to keep the air of amateurism alive, while still giving financial inducements to players to have them compete for their club. The San Francisco Olympics had another approach. They found jobs for their players as a way of getting the best to play for their club. The move toward professionalism began.
The Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) was formed in 1888 and was a combination of the Intercollegiate Football Association, the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America and amateur athletic clubs and schools throughout the country. This organization was created in order to keep professionalism out of the sports programs of schools, clubs and other aggregations. By 1889, the American Football Union was formed, consisting of the current football programs at the New York City Crescents, the Boston Athletic Association and the Baltimore Athletic Club. It also included new football teams from the Orange (NJ) Athletic Club, the New York Athletic Club and the New York Manhattans. The formation of this union spurred the creation of additional clubs in the surrounding areas of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Even with the creation of the American Football Union, it was still the A.A.U. that wielded all of the power and prestige, as any club that wanted recognition outside of their city joined the A.A.U.
Central New York started seeing football teams spring up in the late 1880s. Syracuse University first formed a team in 1889 and Hamilton College started fielding a squad in 1890. Hamilton College started in 1793 as the Hamilton-Oneida Academy. In 1812, it became Hamilton College and is the third oldest college established in New York State. The Syracuse Athletic Club (S.A.C.) was Hamilton’s first opponent. By the mid to late 1890s, athletic club football teams started springing up throughout the area, including Baldwinsville, Cortland, Danforth, Auburn, Ogdensburg and Watertown. These clubs were not immune to allegations of professionalism. According to accusations by Harvard University, Ned Glass was paid $20 to play for an unknown athletic club in Syracuse. Further investigations revealed that this club was the Danforth Athletic Club, which Glass joined in 1894. No definitive proof ever surfaced that Ned Glass actually received money to play for Danforth, but the situation made it problematic for Glass while at Yale as professionalism was not tolerated in the amateur ranks. According to the members of the Syracuse Athletic Association (S.A.A.) none were paid to play for the association.
The Syracuse Athletic Club reorganized in August of 1892 under a new name. The new Syracuse Athletic Association (S.A.A.) opened their 1892 season by playing Cornell University at Star Park on September 24. There were a few contentious times during the game, one resulting in the ejection of Tom Cawley of the S.A.A. and White of Cornell for fighting. Bert Hanson and E. Truesdell also should have been ejected for their rough play, but Referee Mills allowed them to continue. Cornell started the scoring when Captain Carl Johanson lateralled to Hanson early in the first half for a 6-0 lead. The Swedish-born Johanson attended Harvard and Williams before joining the Cornell squad. Supposedly, at Ithaca, he “discovered” legendary Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner at the law school and convinced him to try out for the football team. In effect, he gave the man who invented numerous football innovations and coached more than three-hundred victories his first gridiron lessons. Johanson was also involved in the next score, as he lateralled it again to Hanson. This was actually an illegal pass (the forward pass was not allowed until 1906), but Referee Mills did not see it as such and awarded the touchdown. This would give Cornell a 12-0 lead, but the scoring was not finished.
Syracuse regained possession at the center of the field. A few plays later, Archie Hughes fumbled the ball out of bounds, where it was recovered by Hanson. This is where things got a little confusing. The inexperienced Hanson asked Captain Johanson what he should do with the recovery. Johanson answered, “Bring it in fifteen yards.” Instead of doing this, Hanson touched the ball down (putting it in play) and ran down the field, crossing the Syracuse goal. The referee initially awarded the touchdown, which incensed the S.A.A. squad. After heated arguments, Referee Mills reversed his decision and disallowed the points. A few possessions later, Cornell scored again, as Johanson sprinted around right end for the touchdown. The goal was missed. Cornell took the 16-0 victory and the S.A.A. opened their season with a 0-1-0 record.
The S.A.A. was happy with the result of the game, even though it was a loss. The fact that they were able to stay with Cornell and lose by “only” three touchdowns gave them confidence to move forward with their season. Still, they realized that they needed to make improvements and they picked up R. Arthur Downey to add to their running attack.
The S.A.A. took the first of the three games to be played against Syracuse University in 1892, this one being played on October 12. Sam Jacobson started at quarterback, but moved to halfback after several unsuccessful plays. R. Arthur Downey swapped positions with Jacobson and the team started to roll. Jacobson, Downey and Dwight Coville combined to drive the S.A.A. down the field for their first touchdown, making the score 4-0.
Throughout the game, the S.A.A. ran most of their plays to the center of the line. Since the first touchdown, the S.A.A. was unable to sustain a drive. At this point, they decided to change tactics and test the outside of the University line. It would prove to be beneficial as Jacobson, Downey and Coville combined to drive the ball for another score. They would continue this philosophy throughout the rest of the game with success. Coville scored the third Athletic touchdown when he returned a punt. This would be the last scoring of the half and the S.A.A. had a 12-0 lead.
The S.A.A.’s opening series of the second half saw Downey practically gallop the length of the field for a score. Downey received a George Kessler kick and started his return. Henry Morgan leapt to tackle Downey, but the latter was too strong and broke free of Morgan’s grip, sprinting downfield. George Bond was able to catch Downey and knock him down, causing a fumble. The University squad recovered, saving a scoring drive. The collegians were unable to sustain any kind of drive throughout the rest of the game, whereas the S.A.A. was able to put together two more scoring drives before the final whistle blew. The S.A.A. had a 24-0 win to even their record at 1-1-0.
The S.A.A. continued their success throughout the season, ending with a 4-2-1 record and the city championship. They would also go on to win the city championship in 1893 and 1894, but the team would take a turn for the worse as the decade finished. Financial troubles and a lack of players plagued the squad, forcing them to only play one game in 1896 and disbanding for the 1897 season. The team would re-emerge in 1898, but the S.A.A. officially closed their doors at the end of 1900. In their ten years of playing independent football, the Syracuse Athletic Association racked up an impressive three city championships to give them the distinction of being the first and best independent team in the area.
The information in this game summary came from Turmoil vs. Truimph: The History of the Syracuse Athletic Association Football Team (1890-1900), written by the author of this article.
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