Cumberland - Chapter 10: The Baseball Game

Beware the fury of a patient man.
- John Dryden, English poet

     As it would turn out, it wasn’t bad blood from the 11-11 tie in the 1903 conference championship game that motivated John Heisman to orchestrate, and guarantee, a high-profile football exhibition against the pint-sized Cumberland University law college nestled up in Lebanon, Tennessee. Even though that tie denied Heisman’s Clemson team sole ownership of the southern title. The truth be told, Heisman, who was the individual who had arranged the game, was the one who actually stipulated the tie go to Cumberland. As the deciding voice, it was, after all, the sporting thing to do. More than likely it also had little to do with the sixty un-answered points Cumberland had allowed Vanderbilt to roll over them for on their way to the 1915 scoring title and yet another Southern championship.

     The Vanderbilt Commodore’s SIAA championship in 1915 came at the expense of the best team Heisman had ever coached, a team he believed to be far more deserving of the title. Both of these things, at face value, would seem enough to ruffle the feathers of John Heisman and draw his vengeful wrath, but that would not be the case. There was something else responsible for provoking the ire of the immortal coach in the prime years of his career: A game. Except the game had not been played on a football field. It had been played on a baseball diamond.     

     The prior spring, George Allen had filled in as manager of the baseball team at Cumberland. This was not entirely out of the ordinary. Allen was a member of the school’s athletic board and had previously managed the school’s basketball team. When the former star athlete and football coach John Burns left school to take a job during the middle of the spring semester, he also left a vacancy helming the baseball program at Cumberland. Since the position did not involve studying constitutional law and tort reform, Allen was more than willing to take over the job. From his participation on the athletic board, he was aware of the school’s struggles to field quality teams and attract interest. In hopes of making a splash against a big-name opponent, Allen (in what must have seemed a good idea at the time) was rumored to have employed the services of a few “ringers” to better his team’s odds. That opponent, as luck would have it, was Georgia Tech. And the team’s coach was none other than John Heisman.

     Heisman, if you recall from the contract he signed, was responsible for overseeing baseball as well as football at Georgia Tech. In fact, that contract now paid the forty-six-year-old coach $3,000 annually and, in just a few years, it would jump to $4,000 annually. Though Heisman never made the same impact on the baseball diamond as he did on the gridiron, he brought the same passion and intensity to every game. As it was with any endeavor he engaged in, John Heisman did not like to lose.

     “The prospects for a winning team at the beginning of the season’s practice were the best that had confronted Coach Heisman in a number of years,” predicted the 1917 Blue Print. The Georgia Tech baseball team put up an impressive record outside of the reported game against Cumberland. According to the yearbook, when all was said and done, the team lost their series with Auburn, tied their series with Georgia and won each series against Mississippi, Sewanee, Vanderbilt and Trinity. Trinity was admittedly a poor team made up mostly of freshmen, but most of the season was made up of hard fought games, wrapping up with their four-game series against Georgia with games on May 12, 13, 19 and 20.

     Playing for the Yellow Jackets under Heisman were standout football players Jim Senter at pitcher and Froggie Morrison at catcher. Also on the roster were first baseman Jim Preas and outfielder Tommy Spence from Heisman’s football ranks. All would be embarrassed and befuddled over the humiliating shellacking they endured over the course of the nine excruciating innings against Cumberland. Those who attended the game witnessed a squad of semi pro players dressed in the Cumberland maroon with large letter “C’s” on their chest, score twenty-two runs while holding Georgia Tech scoreless. The game was not something Heisman would forget anytime soon.

     The ringers Allen recruited for the baseball game were reportedly semi-professional baseball players out of Nashville. The Nashville Vols were a minor league team who played out of Nashville in those days. The Vols played Class A minor league ball in the Southern Association. Grantland Rice held a contest in 1908 to name the team and the name Volunteers, from the state nickname, won out. The name would later be shortened to Vols.

     The team was generally regarded as a farm team for major league clubs, and in 1916, the Vols pitcher delivered the first perfect game in the Southern Association on their way to the league pennant. Whoever these pro players were who Allen recruited, he may have underestimated the dominance they would wind up displaying on the field. In the 1983 book “You Dropped It, You Pick It Up!”, author Jim Paul described the ringers striking out on purpose late in the game to slow down the scoring. Allen had been hoping to get a big win to put more attendees in the stands and generate some much-needed funds for the school’s struggling athletic association. He just hadn’t planned on the win being this big. He had to have known his shortcut to sporting excellence would bite him in the backside if he were not careful.

     Soliciting the use of ringers to even up the odds against favored opponents had briefly become common practice in the early days of college sports, particularly football. In his biographical book Creating the Big Game, Wiley L. Umphlett wrote that 1907 was declared “Ringer Season” as players for hire ventured south to offer their services to teams at a price. Heisman liked to refer to such players as “boilermakers”. Grantland Rice, writing for the Nashville Tennessean, accused the 10-0 SIAA co-champion LSU Tigers of hiring seven ringers. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame recalled the controversy:

     With news of LSU’s football success spreading across the country, Grantland Rice - a Vanderbilt graduate then writing for the Nashville Tennessean - wrote a story charging the Louisiana school with unprofessionalism. Tulane also accused the Tigers of using ringers, claiming a player named Charles Ora Buser had changed his name to Bauer.

     Walter Camp, the famed coach and sportswriter known as the “Father of American Football” spoke out on what he considered the “folly” of hiring professional plays to inject auxiliary talent into a team and why, aside from its obvious illegality, it was not an effective strategy for winning. “The psychological blunder of believing that loyalty and zeal can be bought shows up not infrequently in sport, where it takes the form of hiring ‘ringers,’” Camp wrote in Collier’s The National Weekly in 1922. “In the big schools, the use of ringers is dying out not only for ethical reasons, but because they go wrong. In the first place, they are not ‘at home’ and comfortable with the regular students; they get no feeling of loyalty and solidarity; they are likely to become resentful, and they play only half-heartedly. In the second place, their play is merely a job to them, without personal interest, and they are likely to break up the morale of a team.”

     The ringers epidemic would also have a direct impact on Heisman’s own Georgia Tech team. “The 1907 season was perhaps the worst campaign of Heisman’s career,” wrote John M. Heisman, the great nephew of Heisman, in his authorized biography Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. “The Yellow Jackets finished 4-4, and pressure was mounting on their coach.”

     Along the way, head coach Bull Whitney of hated rival Georgia was forced to resign when Grantland Rice exposed the hiring of at least four ringers for their game against Georgia Tech. It would not matter in regards to the outcome, as Georgia Tech still managed to win the game 10-6, but it did intensify the hatred between the two schools. The following season after the ringers episode, Georgia accused Georgia Tech of recruiting violations, but the accusations were found to be unsubstantiated. Football was becoming big business and everyone was looking to get that extra edge needed to win. Heisman was feeling the direct effect of this new trend of players for hire sweeping through intercollegiate sports.

     One year after a five-year contract renewal, Heisman and the Tech athletic association entered into an additional agreement that stipulated Heisman assumed no duties or employment that conflicts with his role as coach at the school. His service as president of the Atlanta Baseball Association or athletic director of the Atlanta Athletic Club was fine, but Heisman had to legally agree to not coach any other teams. This contract was attached to the existing one and served as an extension of that contract.

     The usually noble and fair-minded coach did not have his hands entirely clean when it came to utilizing ringers to achieve a big football win. According to a 1971 article in Sports Illustrated, John Heisman was fired from his one-year coaching position at Buchtel College due to his success in transforming the previously non-existent football program into a winning team with a 5-2 record. According to the article, the Buchtel faculty believed the objective of football “should not be to win… but to minister to the physical development of those engaged in this exercise.”

     Heisman moved on to his next coaching stop, a return to Oberlin College, but not before coaching one last game against Ohio State University to kick off the 1894 season. To help ensure a win, “Heisman enlisted a few ringers for his team, several of which came from Oberlin. The outstanding ringer, though, was Heisman himself, who quarter-backed the squad.” Despite the fact Ohio State also recruited a “few outsiders” for the matchup, the Zippers, under the stewardship of Heisman, avenged the previous season’s 18-32 loss with a 12-6 sudden-death overtime win. The win was the first ever against Ohio State for Buchtel College, who a decade later in 1913 changed their name to the University of Akron. Even in the words of Heisman, the ringer-fueled contest was everything the critics detested about the sport. “All the players of both teams were half dead before the first half was over,” recalled Heisman who allowed a requested ten-minute break from hostilities by the OSU captain when players from both teams were suffering from the “sun staggers” and in danger of sunstroke.

     As far as the 22-0 walloping of the Tech baseball team goes, the game has been widely reported in regards to the Cumberland-Georgia Tech football game, but there is little record of the game occurring. The game is not mentioned in the yearbook of either university. It is not listed in the 1916 or 1917 editions of the Blue Print nor is it documented in the 1915 or 1916 editions of The Phoenix. The 1916 the Cumberland baseball team listed John Burns as coach and boasted about the “Burns Machine” when hyping up the team. But in the final paragraph of the write up, there was a brief mention of Allen filling in for the team.

     “Following close on the heels of this delightful episode came the two-ring circus with the Middle Tennessee State Normal,” the yearbook stated. “The first affair resulted in a beautiful victory for the sons of Cumberland. The second - well, Jupiter Pluvius must have seen what "Fullback" was going to do to those poor lads, for he staged a show that put the old ball game on the blink.” The “two-ring circus” referred to was a late season double-header that Cumberland won the first of and the second was apparently rained out. The team schedule also included an early season game against the Nashville Vols semi-pro team who Allen may have reached out to for players. Why the game with Georgia Tech doesn’t show up on the schedule of either team is unknown, but according to all accounts, the game took place and the outcome was as stated.

     The train ride home back to Atlanta for the Georgia Tech baseball team was most certainly not a pleasant one. As unpleasant as Heisman would be on his own players, however, it was nothing compared to what he would have in mind for those responsible for this disgraceful humiliation. Although he may not have realized it at the time, the Tech coach received wind of the professional players Cumberland allegedly enriched their team with. Alleged or not, Heisman did not plan to let this indiscretion go unpunished. He was not the sort of person to let sleeping dogs lie. As pointed out in the book Everything a Georgia Tech Fan Should Know & Do Before They Die, “Nobody held a grudge like John Heisman did.” Revenge was a dish best served by a two-hundred-pound lineman who could tackle a freight train. It was safe to assume Heisman would certainly have his before all was said and done.

     None of this was good news for the boys from Cumberland. There is little reason to suspect George Allen knew Heisman was wise to his underhanded shenanigans, but a reasonable person might have suspected as much. The allure of the glamour and pageantry of football most likely led to his undoing. He had apparently cheated his way to a position managing the ever-popular football team at Cumberland. Baseball and basketball were both second tier sports. Football was the crown jewel of college athletics. Football was the sport that got the headlines and had all the excitement. Not just on game day, but all through the week, all through the season and all through the year. That’s why Allen loved it. He belonged on the main stage. He wanted to be the star attraction or nothing at all. That’s also why he was fighting so hard to keep the experience at Cumberland. 

     Whether word had gotten back to Cumberland or not about Allen’s alleged use of ringers in the previous season’s baseball game against Georgia Tech is not clear. There is no reason to assume even Allen was aware Heisman had gotten wind of what he had allegedly done. Allen must have been more than a little bit suspicious, however. He was no stranger to the world of sports. He had surely been aware the individual coaching in the opposite dugout the previous spring had been the immortal John Heisman. He surely noticed how red his face had gotten as Heisman watched his team give up run after run to the oversized and highly skilled Cumberland batters.

     It was no small beating Allen’s talent-enriched baseball team put on Tech. Allen’s short-term solution the previous baseball season was now a real-time problem he had to deal with. His chickens were coming home to roost. The terrible mess they were in was all on account of him and his decision to forgo the rules and cheat. Allen had a skeleton hanging in his closet and it was dressed in a baseball uniform.

     Leading the way in exposing a number of other schools who had engaged in the practice of supplementing their team’s talent with players for hire was Grantland Rice. Back in 1908, the not-yet-famous Rice was a rising reporter at the Nashville Tennessean when he exposed the misconduct of schools like LSU and Georgia. It was safe to assume Cumberland, being the small-town school it was, had flown under the radar of crusading journalists such as Rice. Now their dirty laundry was getting dragged out into the sunlight. All of this was putting Cumberland in a precarious situation. Rules had been violated, in the past and in the present, almost too many to count. Professional players. Unsanctioned games. Secret practices.

     For the university, the timing of all this could not have been worse. Not since the Civil War had the southern law college faced such a challenging time. The merger of the two Presbyterian churches had taken a heavy toll on the university. There were difficult decisions to be made. Salaries had already been cut. This new crisis had the potential to push the school over the economic deep end. In the event the school was forced to pay the forfeiture penalty, they might not be able to recover in time to survive the setback. Putting in real financial jeopardy the one thing Cumberland University could least afford to lose.

Written by Scott Larson
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