The lost team of 1896: Missouri football goes to Mexico

Thursday, November 10, 2011 | 8:43 p.m. CST; updated 8:55 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 10, 2011

How do you lose a football team?

These days, college football programs have players' time budgeted down to the minute on long road trips. But, back in 1896, when the Missouri football team didn't return from a trip to play at Texas, folks back at MU were left wondering what happened. Had someone taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque?

That year, the Tigers wrapped up their regular season with a 30-0 loss to Kansas on Thanksgiving Day in Kansas City. But, like they had two years before, they had scheduled a post-Thanksgiving game with Texas in Austin.

Two years earlier, Missouri defeated Texas 28-0, so the team went back to the Lone Star State, and this time they made a stop along the way, playing and defeating the Dallas Athletic Club on Dec. 12. Two days later, the team beat Texas again 10-0.

After that, things stopped going according to plan.

According to then-Missouri team manager George H. English Jr. — who was interviewed by the Joliet Herald-News in 1921 — a promoter named George Hill had planned a Christmas trip to Mexico City which was to feature the Texas football team playing a team of all-stars. But, English explained, after the loss to Missouri, Hill had trouble organizing the all-star team and recruited the Tigers to replace the all-stars, which gave them a trip to Mexico, all expenses paid.

The thing was, no one bothered to seek the permission of MU.

"As there was nothing to restrain us except college discipline, we said we’d love to," English said. "We didn’t communicate with college authorities back in Columbia at all. What would have been the use? They would have only ordered us to come home."

So, without permission, the Tigers went to Mexico.

A few days before the trip, Hill set up a couple of other games for Missouri in Austin. There are some discrepancies between the College Football Historical Society and the Missouri football media guide about what the schedule was. The media guide lists a pair of shutout victories against the Austin Mutes and the San Antonio YMCA, and the CFHS lists wins against the Austin Mutes, "a team from San Antonio" and the Austin YMCA.

After these games, Missouri and Texas left for Mexico by train, stopping to play a game against each other on Christmas Day in Monterrey, which Missouri won 18-4. Then they went to Mexico City to play exhibitions on Dec. 27 and Dec. 29.

A notable dignitary of the day attended the first game. Hill, though he tried, was unable to get the president of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, to come. However, Thomas Theodore Crittenden, the former Missouri governor and then-Consul-General of the United States to Mexico under President Grover Cleveland, was there. According to Crittenden, it was the first football game ever played in Mexico City.

Crittenden had gained fame by offering a reward for the capture of Jesse James. This led to the shooting of James by Robert Ford, who was later pardoned by Crittenden.

Crittenden had heard from the players on the Missouri team that punishment could be coming their way from the university. So, the former governor penned a letter to MU president R.H. Jesse, defending the trip.

In the letter, Crittenden informed Jesse that the football team, despite its reputation back in Columbia, was behaving very well.

"The American boys have behaved remarkably well since their arrival here, — so far none of the wild freaks of the College boy — away from the professors gaze and the charming Columbians," Crittenden wrote.

The former governor also praised how the football game was promoting the university, perhaps foreshadowing the way football would act a century later.

"I think this powerful invasion, where the toe and heel play such an important part," Crittenden wrote, "will do more to advertise the Universities in Mexico than will the Laboratories Electric Batteries — Class Room Expositions and Smooth eloquent, classical, lectures had within their sacred walls. The boys are making reputations for the Universities, — more than your learned Professors could do in quintriple the time."

He also made a point of saying how valuable the trip would be to the players.

"And then this trip is one of much education to them — infinitely more than they could obtain in months there," he wrote. "Mexico is rapidly growing into notoriety in the U.S. — No one can possibly have an idea of it from papers and books. ... This trip will be a revelation to the boys. ... They will educate their teachers, on their return, on many things about Mexico — from the great President to the beautiful senioritas, 'Fit for the model of a statuary.'"

Crittenden wrote that he was writing on the team's behalf, without the players' knowledge, in hopes to alleviate any trouble they might be in upon their return to Columbia. Missouri won the first of two games in Mexico City, and the Tigers and Longhorns played to a tie in the second. The team left Mexico and played one more exhibition against the Longhorns in Laredo, Texas — an 18-6 Missouri victory — before returning to MU after New Year's.

Still, the Consul-General's correspondence wasn't enough to prevent punishment. Head coach Frank Patterson was fired. (English was much kinder, saying the coach "left for pastures new.") Additionally, the team captain, running back Tom Shawhan, as well as English were suspended from school. English wasn't too concerned with his punishment, though.

"My suspension, however, was not such a severe penalty," English said. "It was made effective during the week of the mid-year examinations, and as my standing was luckily good enough for me to pass in all my courses without examinations, it merely gave me a week’s holiday while everybody else was boning up for examinations."

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Russell Barclay November 12, 2011 | 5:52 p.m.

This story has the makings for a great novel and/or film. ...The ultimate, guy, road trip.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 20, 2015 | 3:17 p.m.

Another football team from what is today the University of Missouri System also played a game without permission. In fact, both the faculty and Board of Curators forbid the team going to the contest, and tried to stop the team from leaving Rolla, Missouri. The team was undefeated, with a regular season record as follows:

Miners 9, University of Missouri 0
Miners 19, Washington University (St. Louis) 0
Miners 40, University of Arkansas 0
Miners 68, Drury College 0
Miners 104, Pittsburg (KS) Teachers College 0
Miners 150, Kirksville Osteopathic College 0
Miners 63, St. Louis University 0

The other best regional football team during the 1914 season was Christian Brothers College. A promoter scheduled a post-season game between the Miners and Christian Brothers to determine the unofficial "champion" of the area, but both the faculty and University of Missouri Board of Curators wanted no part of such a contest.

The team got away anyway (by rail to St. Louis) and played the game, winning 27 to 6, the only time in 1914 they were scored upon.

When the team returned to Rolla as victors, all the players were suspended by the faculty. :) Downplaying of athletic events is apparent on campus even today.

Today the campus, now known as Missouri University of Science and Technology, still plays football*, but in NCAA Division II. There has only been one other undefeated season, in 1980.

*- UMKC and UMSL do not play football.

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