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The Wheelmen
Bicycle Club Football Championships, 1892-1893

 

When you get right down to it the appeal of football is its power to stir our primal instincts.  It's a brutal contest of latter day gladiators fighting a virtual war.  This was especially true in the early days of the game, when it was a blood-sport of often uncontrolled violence that included punching, kicking, gouging, hair pulling and even biting.  The early 1890s' games between the teams representing two of Philadelphia's bicycle clubs provide excellent examples of this no-holds-barred style of play...

The Bicycle Club Football Championships

Bicycling, for both sport and leisure, was extremely popular in the late nineteenth century.  This popularity gave rise to cycling clubs which sprang up across the country.  These clubs were very competitive and the rivalries between them were often fierce.  One of the fiercest such rivalries in Philadelphia was between the Century Wheelmen and Park Avenue Wheelmen, and it seems only natural that this rivalry soon spilled over into other forms of athletic expression. 

Spokes from the wheel...

No, they didn't play the game on bicycles! This is simply a fanciful illustration from an 1892 edition of The Philadelphia Record.

In the autumn of 1892 the Century Wheelmen organized a football team.  Their first game of the season was a hard fought 22 to 6 loss to the Athletic Association of Camden.  The very next day the Philadelphia Record carried the following blurb in its regular cycling feature, Spokes From the Wheel, "The Century Wheelmen think they can do the Park Avenue football team to the tune of 100 to 0."  In just three weeks time Century would get the chance to back up its boasts with actions.

There was controversy before the game, with each team accusing the other of trying to "ring-in crack college players."  This prompted both sides to agree to announce their rosters in advance of the game.  When the Park Avenue Wheelmen finally met Century on the gridiron of the Phillies' Ball Park, the contest was a shining example of the brutality that often accompanied such early games, especially those between hated enemies.  Punching and kicking occurred throughout, with several players being knocked senseless.  On one play alone no less than three players, two from Park Avenue and one from Century, had to be revived by "the dashing of a bucket of cold water over the men."  The Philadelphia Record began its report of the game with the caption, "No-One Killed, Several Wounded. Good Blood Spilled and Bad Blood Made."

With the teams evenly matched this hard fought contest ended in a scoreless tie a crushing blow to to Century's ego and a moral victory for a Park Avenue eleven playing in it's first, and probably only, game of the season!

Beautiful points...

In the autumn of the following year talk of a rematch between Century and Park Avenue was rampant.  Given the antics in their previous contest the hype built quickly.  By early November the Philadelphia Record had advertised the game and assured spectators an afternoon of "...kicking, biting, gouging, head punching, hair-pulling and other beautiful points."

The two teams finally met on November 18, at the Phillies' Ball Park, before a crowd of about 2,000 spectators four to five time the crowd for the previous contest!  Again, the game hadn't even started and already controversy abounded. The 2 o'clock start time was delayed nearly an hour until the teams could agree on who would officiate the contest.  This was only the only the first of several delays.

As in the previous game, punching and kicking were the norm.  The game had barely begun when it was stopped for ten minutes as a Park Avenue player, disqualified for slugging, refused to leave the field.  A similar incident, this time involving a Century player, also occurred in the second half.  At one point Century's captain appealed to the police during an altercation along the Park Avenue sideline.  The police, however, refused to get involved.  As far as injuries are concerned, aside from the usual battered and bloodied noses, ears and fingers there was at least one instance of a "split-cheek", as well as a stoppage in play of about eight minutes to allow one player's broken nose to "lose sufficient blood to clear his head."

While Park Avenue fielded the heavier squad and their left half-back, Highley, had perhaps the best game of any of the players on the field, the team only managed single touchdown.  Century's lighter squad played a better overall game, making the first score and never looking back on their way to a 12 to 6 victory.

Park Avenue played at least one other game that season, losing to Widener University, 22 to 0.  While it is not known whether Century played any additional games that season, several Century players did join the Penn Mutual eleven for that team's game against the Burlington AA just one week after the Philadelphia bicycle club championship.

Links to Additional Information

Century Wheelmen Membership List, 1891.

The Bicycle's Early Years in Ambler
An insightful article on the popularity of cycling in late nineteenth century Ambler, Pennsylvania, home of the Century Wheelmen.


John J. Fenton, 2007-2002, all rights reserved.