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What Happened To The Cannon?

So here I was, less than 24 hours before Patriot League Media Day tomorrow, and I was thinking about a topic to write about today.

Then a message board post made it a foregone conclusion; something about "little brass cannons", The "Middle Three", and "The Rivalry". Oh yeah, and a possible trophy for "The Rivalry" as well.

Being a fan of noisy, harmless firearms deployed at football games - and always a sucker for anything involving the most-played Rivalry in all of college football - I pounced on the challenge with gusto. It's time to do a little digging - where can the "Little Brass Cannon" be today?(more)

The genesis of this quest comed from this message board posting on Any Given Saturday from legendary Lafayette curmudgeon carney2:

Back in the days when Lafayette, Lehigh and Rutgers were known as the Middle Three we played for a trophy called The Little Brass Cannon. News articles indicate that it was originally contributed to Rutgers by a former Rutgers football coach and a former Rutgers cheerleader in 1931. It entered the three cornered rivalry as the annual prize . The Middle Three rivalry ended with Lehigh winning the Cannon. No one has seen or heard of it since, and it is assumed to rest in a crypt under Grace Hall or Packard Lab next to Asa Packer's last rocking chair.

How about if some of you loyal 'neers rattle [Lehigh Athletic Director] Joe Sterrett's cage and have him begin a search for The Little Brass Cannon. We can then assume that Rutgers is no longer interested (Help me out here, lawyers. We must be able to invoke some sort of statute of limitations thingie to bilk them out of their share.) and make it the trademark trophy that the Leopards and ChickenSquawks tussle for on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving each year.

Reading the thread, including a funny reference to Lehigh "bogarting" the trophy since 1956, I decided to do a little digging on the Lehigh side about this trophy.  Here's what I found out.

First of all, a history lesson.  In 1929, Lehigh, Lafayette and Rutgers entered into a sporting alliance.  They were called the "Middle Three" (in contrast to the Eastern "Big Three" of Harvard, Yale and Princeton and the "Little Three" of Williams, Amherst, Wesleyan).  Not really a conference, it was more of a scheduling arrangement based on student preferences on which games their most bitter rivals, but it involved many sports, not just football.  (Most notably, it involved lacrosse, a sport then in its infancy in the Northeast.)

"The rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette has been traditional,", the New York Times wrote at the time, "but changing conditions seem to have dimmed that a bit and and in its place the "Three" idea is growing rapidly."  In addition, another Times article mentions that the games with Lehigh and Lafayette in all sports "are the most significant to the [Rutgers] student body."

The "Middle Three" Cannon enters onto the scene somewhere in the 1940s, which was a trophy for the winner of the axis of Lehigh, Lafayette and Rutgers. But that's not the only cannon involving Lehigh or Rutgers.  Lehigh had a separate cannon that was used to signal scores - and the opening of the Lehigh/Lafayette pep rally - hat started as a tradition in the late 1940s.  Jim Hildebrand, a student at that time, donated a 75 year-old cannon which was used in New Bedford, Mass. to signal the arrival of whaling ships.  He had used it to fire up Lehigh fans for football, and it became a permanent part of the athletic department.  (To this day, Lehigh scores at home are punctuated by sonic blasts from a little cannon.)

Rutgers also had their own cannon - and uses one today, too, to signal their scores at their football games as well.  Back in the days of the "Middle Three", however, Lehigh used to steal Rutgers' cannon as a prank before their football games, which upset not a few Rutgers students and alumni at the time.

But the "Middle Three" cannon - a different cannon, presumably, from the Rutgers cannon and Lehigh's cannon - starts to be referred in the Lehigh student paper in earnest as a football trophy in the late 1940s, not coincidentally when Lehigh football started to become better under legendary head football coach Bill Leckonby.  In 1950, an article details the Cannon's delivery by Rutgers' team captain to the football player's end-of-the-year banquet.

But it's a 1961 New York Times article where things start to get a but, shall we say, curious:

Rutgers alumni have remedied a situation that had irked traditionalists on both sides of the Raritan.
For years a trophy known as the Little Brass Cannon was awarded to the "Middle Three" football round-robin between Rutgers, Lafayette and Lehigh.  Rutgers has won the "Middle Three" title for the last three years but received naught but honor.  The cannon, it seems, disappeared mysteriously while in the possession of Lehigh, which wrested it away from Lafayette in 1956.
Deciding that the silence had reigned long enough at New Brunswick, the Monmouth Country Rutgers Club purchased a cannon to be fired after Rutgers scores.

Hence, the "Bogart" reference from the Leopard faithful - and, perhaps, a clue that it was Rutgers who took a page from Lehigh when it comes to firing the cannon during football scores.  And a Brown & White reference to the Brass Cannon in 1960 implies that the cannon trophy was still an important part of the football season.

But there's also more to the story here, too.  Did Lehigh "steal" or "Bogart" the cannon... or not?  The Brown & White mentions a key piece to the puzzle, after their 1951 win over Lafayette allowed them to keep the "Little Brass Cannon" on South Mountain:
On a cold, slippery patch of turf in Liberty High stadium Saturday, Lehigh's football team did what no team in the school's history since 1936 had been able to do.  It beat its 67-year old rival Lafayette 32-0 for the second year in a row.  Along with the victory goes the "Little Brass Cannon" which the Engineers are permitted to retain for the second straight year, another feat which has been a long time in coming.  With Rutgers dropping out of the Middle Three for the next two years, the Cannon might have a long rest in Lehigh's storehouse of athletic treasures.
As it was the explicit "Middle Three" championship, when Rutgers left the "Middle Three", the trophy stayed at Lehigh.  Rutgers returned in 1953, and the cannon was returned to Lehigh in 1956.  After a 1957 win by Lehigh, though, something important happened.

Lehigh, Lafayette and Rutgers joined up with Gettysburg, Muhlenburg, Temple, Delaware and Bucknell to form the University division of the "Middle Atlantic States" conference.  It wasn't just the "Middle Three" anymore - there was a conference championship to play for now.  And when Rutgers won the inaugural University division championship, they were presented the divisional trophy - the Wilmington Touchdown Club Trophy.  The presentation of an old cannon at the closing banquet wasn't all that important to Rutgers anymore.  It was the division trophy that was more important.

The actual location of the trophy today is still a mystery.  Some think it might be in Taylor Gym, along with other Lehigh football mementos and trophies.  Others have eyewitness accounts of it being in a lobby in Grace Hall.  (But which cannon - the trophy cannon, or the donated cannon that got the pep rallies started?)  But until the original cannon is found, the questions will persist.  Where is it?  And why wasn't it returned to Rutgers?

(Until proven otherwise, I have to believe Rutgers was too fraidy scared to come to Lehigh to get it.)


As for the other idea about the cannon - bringing it out or retirement and having it become a "trophy" in the Lehigh/Lafayette rivalry clash every year - I think it's a very interesting idea.  (Even if the idea came from a Leopard.)  It reflects the history of the rivalry from both Easton and Bethlehem, before the Patriot League's founding and predates even the idea of Division I Athletics.

What do you think?  Does "The Rivalry" need a true trophy, and is the "Brass Cannon" a good choice?


carney2 said…
Enough already with the history of the Cannon. Find it! Designate it as the trophy for THE Game. A pretty simple concept, don't ya think? Fergawdsake, what do we have now? "The Rivalry." Sounds like something your parents called all the bickering and rasslin' that went on between you and your siblings. Inspiring. Sounds like something dreamed up by some media type with zero creativity.

Curmudgeonly yours.

No, make that legendarily curmudgeonly yours.

carney2 of the loyal opposition.

PS: Find the freakin' Cannon!
rob.guzzon said…
i always wondered why we had a cot damn cannon firing after each touchdown.

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