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1893: Lehigh's Powerful Team Helps University Cope With Uncertainty

It was common knowledge in 1893 that Lehigh was a rich institution.

“[Our] forced economy in itself is a great hindrance to our success in athletic competitions,” a 1890s letter sent out by Lafayette’s alumni committee said.  “Our nearest antagonists - Lehigh, Princeton, Pennsylvania - are now so wealthy, that we, with our comparatively untrained teams, are at great disadvantage.  Our alumni all desire our success but few realize how much this success depends on them.”

Thanks in no small part to Asa Packer’s bequest to Lehigh of a huge sum of money and stock after his death in 1879, the University was the richest institution of higher learning at that time, surpassing, according to the New York Times, even Harvard and Yale.

The vastness of Lehigh’s endowment was actually controversial.

“In one view, the gift is the noblest one of the kind ever made,” the New York Times said of the bequest, “for it establishes the only institution - so far as we know - which gives absolutely free tuition to all comers, rich or poor.  It is merely in an economic sense that the opinion is expressed that any addition to the more than 300 colleges now dwarfing and starving one another in this country is wicked waste of resources.”

For more than a decade Asa’s success in building the railway and navigating the business dealings of the railroad barons kept his family, and Lehigh University, rich, even a decade after his death.

But in 1893 that would begin to change.

By the order of Asa Packer’s will, a significant number of the assets of the University were actual shares of Lehigh Valley Railroad stock.

This benefitted Lehigh University greatly - as long as the stock price remained high.  This wouldn’t last.

In 1893, the entire American financial system was in crisis.  A series of failed investment endeavors, fuelled by massive lending, led to a rash of bank defaults and closures.  A silver mine protectionism scheme ended up undermining the gold standard upon which the banks’ legitimacy was based, causing money to flee the country.

The money used to finance the railroad company expansion suddenly dried up, and when the Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy, outside investors looked closely at the source of the Packer fortune, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, to see if they would be the next victims.

Unemployment in Pennsylvania skyrocketed, affecting many Lehigh and Lafayette graduates.  By the end of 1893, railroad strikes were plaguing the L.V.R.R. and there was great uncertainty in its ability to survive the crisis.  Several prominent train crashes involving the L.V.R.R. were national news, which didn’t help.

Over the course of 1893 the richest university in the country would go through its first true financial struggle of its existence.

“When the panic of 1857 came,” E.B. Coxe, Asa Packer’s one-time business partner and large L.V.R.R. stockholder said about that time, “[Asa] stood as firm as a rock and fought to win, and he did.  That is what we have to do today with Lehigh University.  She has struck a panic, but she is not going to waver.  Her resources may not be as great as they were, but her diploma is going to be as great in value as it ever was.”

During this time Lehigh’s nationally-recognized football program provided a welcome distraction from the seriousness all around them, even though football games, in general, were becoming much more violent and dangerous, in part due to the mass-momentum plays (like the "Flying Wedge" and "Lehigh V") that were revolutionized by Lehigh and starting to be used ever more effectively by Lafayette.

Godwin Ordway
Walter Okeson
Athletes like halfback Godwin Ordway and end Walter Okeson, with mops of long hair to protect their heads from concussion and injury from the onslaught of mass momentum plays, were stars.

Lehigh’s 1893 schedule was a first for the Brown and White, packed with high-profile opponents of the time.

The matchups with national championship contender Princeton were especially interesting.

In 1891, Lehigh’s star center, 24 year old D.M. Balliet, became Lehigh’s first-ever Walter Camp All-American.  But in 1892, Balliet enrolled at nearby Princeton, where he helped the Tigers win several more national titles and continued his all-American ways.

Even though he remained friendly with his former teammates, he nonetheless suited up against his former team, twice beating Lehigh 12-0 and 28-6.  Balliet would go on to become a big part of Princeton’s undefeated national championship team of 1893.

While there was no rule preventing this type of player transfer, nor a rule preventing a team from suiting up a 25 or 26 year old player, many schools were finally pushing back against these types of practices, enforcing schools to only suit up players that were actual students who were in good academic standing.

Balliet was in the center of the controversy.

Princeton was roundly criticized for prying Balliet away from Lehigh.  In the past, the Tigers had talked a good game in regards to students competing on their football teams, but the presence of Balliet made them seem like they were not beyond enrolling mercenaries when it suited the school.

It was a big enough crisis to cause all the members of the old, powerful Intercollegiate Football Association to withdraw – and causing the old governing order to collapse, just like many banks were.

Despite the turmoil – and the lack of their former star player - Lehigh did very well in 1893.

That their early losses came to Penn and Princeton, who were both loaded with questionable football players, wasn’t seen to the fans as much of a blemish on their record, and the fact that the Brown and White scored more than 4 points on Princeton was seen as especially encouraging.  (In fact, they would be the only team that scored more than four points on them all season.)

From there Lehigh would defeat the other national powerhouses on their schedule.

Against Army, Lehigh benefitted by some critical injuries on the Cadet team to cruise to an 18-0 victory – including a broken ankle on the Cadet’s starting halfback, undoubtedly caused by a mass momentum play.

After the season, Army’s superintendent was very critical of football’s benefit to the officer corps.

“It is doubtful, in my opinion,” Major O.H. Harvey said, “if the benefits from playing this game are commensurate with the risks it entails to life and limb, which, according to statistics, are much greater than commonly supposed.”

His feelings were shared by a growing number of college presidents, who were starting to see more and more serious injuries to college football players from mass momentum plays.

Against Cornell, Lehigh would win 14-0 after denying their team three times at their goal line.  In that game Lehigh would face the “Flying Wedge”, from Cornell, but it wasn’t enough to allow the Big Red to score any points against the Brown and White.

A few years later, after increasing political pressure from a variety of sources, the “Flying Wedge” would be banned, deemed to be too dangerous to the players to continue using.

Against Navy, Lehigh would go down 6-0 in Annapolis before roaring back to score 12 unanswered points to win the contest.  “Lehigh forced the fight in the second half and played their strategems to good effect,” the New York Times reported, showing that, nationally, Lehigh was seen as a team that could engineer wins out of their plays and strategy over bigger brawn.

Using interference and misdirection, Balliet’s innovation, Lehigh continued to beat bigger, more powerful teams like Navy.

Lehigh also swept their nearby Eastonian rivals as well.

In the first game, after falling behind 6-0, Ordway and Lehigh’s strong line would ultimately wear down Lafayette’s resistance, eventually piling up a 22-6 win.

In the second, “although the threatened, inclemency of the weather kept many would-be spectators from the game,” The Lafayette reported, “the crowd was the largest ever to our campus to witness a foot-ball contest.   It was unusually exciting and the victory was a matter of speculation until the close of the game, for the score stood 4-0, Lehigh having scored on a fluke, until five minutes before time was called, when Lehigh made her second touchdown.“

The 10-0 win wouldn’t be the end of Lehigh’s football season, however.

“Considerable interest is being manifested in Southern college circles in the football game to be played at Manhattan Field next Saturday between the teams of the University of North Carolina and Lehigh,” the New York Times reported the last week in November.  “It will be the first time that a Southern team has ever played a football eleven in the North.  They all seem to regard the University of North Carolina as their champion to test their strength against a good Northern team.”

The game would also be Lehigh’s first-ever contest in New York City, taking place at Manhattan Field next to the the Polo Grounds.  (Lafayette had already faced off against Columbia in the Big Apple in 1889.)

Though many looked at the tale of the tape, seeing a bigger, stronger Tar Heel side probably being able to dominate Lehigh physically, the Brown and White instead used their “science”, as the New York Times called it, in a 34-0 romp over the best team in the South.

“A large delegation from Bethlehem and members of the Lehigh Club, of this city,” the New York Herald reported, “occupied one of the stands, freely bedecked with brown and white.”

“’Hoo, ‘roo, ‘ray!  Hoo, ‘roo, ray!  Ray, ‘ray, ‘ray!  Lehigh!’ was heard, and the Pennsylvanians appeared,” the New York Times reported.  “The Lehighs would play a trick or two, old ones at that, and in the end win by 34 to 0.”

For years afterwards Lehigh historians would state many great things about the team of 1893, saying that they were the “fifth best team in the nation”.  Thanks to their first-ever win in New York City over the consensus “Champions of the South”, not to mention their wins in an extremely challenging schedule and a sweep over their bitter rivals to the east, the Brown and White team of 1893 came at the right time - a challenging time in Bethlehem history.


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