When Carlisle Indian School Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt acceded to students’ request that they be allowed to play football against other schools he had two conditions: 1) that they not slug or they would be considered savages if they did, and 2) in a few years they would play and beat the best team in the land. In 1896, just their third full season of play, they played tight games with the country’s four best teams in successive weeks, all on the road. Experts observed that all the Indians lacked to be a great team was good coaching.
The missing component arrived in 1899 in the person of Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner. He led them to their first victory over one of the Big Four that year and Walter Camp selected Isaac Seneca for his All-America First Team, the first Indian to receive this honor. Their popularity with fans caused the team to be in demand across the country. Their Christmas Day game in San Francisco against the University of California that year was the first time an East Coast team played on the West Coast.
Indian athletes from across the country enrolled at Carlisle to be part of this phenomenon. Soon, the best teams became reluctant to play Carlisle for fear of being beaten. Rule changes made in the 1906–1912 period laid the way for Warner to mitigate the Indians’ weakness: size and take advantage of their strengths: speed and deception, by designing the single- and double-wing formations. The Carlisle System, as Walter Camp called it dominated football the first half of the 20th Century. The Indians’ exploits are the stuff of legends still resounding today.
Carlisle’s great run from 1907 to 1913 created myths still repeated today. A scandal regarding the school’s then management—Pratt retired in 1904—resulted in shortened enrollments which greatly reduced the number of boys of age for competitive athletics. In 1918, the Army needed Carlisle Barracks for a hospital to treat soldiers wounded in WWI. The school was closed never to reopen but, due to the exploits of the students, stories about it continue to be told.
As the title suggests, this work is written in the spirit of the times it surveys. Benjey’s use of “Indians'' throughout (not just as a team name) reflects the tenor of the century-old press accounts that he draws on, which tend to sound like this: “Hoodwinked and hypnotized by the native trickery and masterful strategy of the aborigines … St. Louis University went down to an ignominious defeat.” The accounts of games and seasons are engaging and exciting, bursting with fascinating revelations, like Carlisle losing to Harvard 12 to 11 in the last-ever game at the original Soldiers Field, as Benjey charts the team’s growth from underdogs to powerhouse.
Benjey’s focus is on the games themselves, two decades’ worth recounted with vigor and attention to the history of college football and Carlisle itself. Especially interesting is America’s response to Carlisle’s success and the question of what a Carlisle education offered its students—and whether and how they benefited afterwards. Abundant photos, newspaper cartoons, and other well-selected visual documentation fill out the story, both celebrating these athletes and offering an illuminating (and sometimes upsetting) glimpse of bygone attitudes.
Takeaway: The fascinating history of a Native American college football program founded in 1879.
Great for fans of: Wade Davies’s Native Hoops, Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Midwest Book Review
Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer
Gridiron Gypsies by Tom Benjey
Tuxedo Press 978-1-936161-06-5 $21.99 www.GridironGypsies.com
Gridiron Gypsies: How the Carlisle Indians Shaped Modern Football is a study of Carlisle's team that begins in the late 1800s and delves into tradition and development in the team to 1918, when it ended.Much research into archival history, politics and social issues, and football went into Gridiron Gypsies to create a much fuller-faceted flavor than what readers might anticipate from the subject of football.Indeed, it would be a shame to relegate Gridiron Gypsies to sports collections alone, or limit its audience to sports history enthusiasts, because its accompanying insights into a small town Pennsylvania school whose football team become known nationwide against all odds offers rare glimpses into the politics of the sport.It's especially notable because the only other study of Carlisle's extraordinary achievements was made in the 1950s, prior to the advent of modern research tools.
School founder Richard Henry Pratt well knew the popular 1890s admonition “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” One would think that his background as a cavalry officer in the Indian wars would have led him to support this idea, but Pratt was convinced that Indians could be educated, established a school (Carlisle) for them, and fostered a liberal and far-sighted attitude towards their place in white society that helped belay some of the prejudice against them: "In great demand, the school’s popular band marched in several inaugural parades and played at world fairs and other major events to show the general populace what Indians could do if given the chances whites had. So, even though he abhorred the violence in the game, it was totally in character for him to demand that, if Carlisle boys were to play football, they must soon play and beat the best college elevens."
As Gridiron Gypsies evolves, readers learn about the making of the school and its famous team, and will find the history of both to be fascinating and thought-provoking. Lively descriptions of team developments, major players and leaders, changing times and challenges, and the politics governing the Indian School and its competitive abilities reveal stories that ideally will see the light of classroom discussions. If there was ever a book that should be a mainstay in collections strong in Native American history, culture, and issues, or early civil rights efforts, it should be Gridiron Gypsies. The story is about far more than sports, tackling the subject of integration and Native American rights in an era when most would rather have killed than educate them.