Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, here is Robert Benchley‘s essay on “watching” football at the Club where the play-by-play is announced by a member reading aloud the latest telegram.
This esssay appeared in Benchley’s book Love Conquers All , published Printed October, 1922.
Note 1. On personal preference: We are Penn State.
Note 2. Thanks to my distinguished webmaster Kathy Forer, this posting is available in Spanish, Hebrew, Chinese, Hindi, etc. See home page, top left for the language of your choice. www.joelsolkoff.com
Note 3. This posting will be first shared on Keep State College Weird:
Sunday morning these fine fall days are taken up with reading about the “40,000 football enthusiasts” or the “gaily-bedecked crowd of 60,000 that watched the game on Saturday.” And so they probably did, unless there were enough men in big fur coats who jumped up at every play and yelled “Now we’re off!” thus obstructing the view of an appreciable percentage.
But why stop at the mention of the paltry 50,000 who sat in the Bowl or the Stadium? Why forget the twice 50,000 all over the country, in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Atlanta, who watched the same game over the ticker, or sat in a smoke-fogged room listening to telegraphic announcements, play by play, or who even stood on the curbing in front of a newspaper office and watched an impartial employee shove a little yellow ball along a black-board, usually indicating the direction in which the real football was not going.
Since it is so important to give the exact number of people who saw the game, why not do the thing up right and say: “Returns which are now coming in from the Middle West, with some of the rural districts still to be heard from, indicate that at least 145,566 people watched the Yale-Princeton football game yesterday.
“Secretary Dinwoodie of the San Francisco Yale Club telegraphed late last night that the final count in that city would probably swell the total to a round 150,395. This is, or will be, the largest crowd that ever assembled in one country to watch a football game.”
And watching the game in this vicarious manner isn’t so bad as the fellow who has got tickets and carfare to the real game would like to have it. You are in a warm room, where you can stretch your legs and regulate your remarks to the intensity of your emotions rather than to the sex of your neighbors. And as for thrills! “Dramatic suspense” was probably first used as a term in connection with this indoor sport.
The scene is usually some college club in the city—a big room full of smoke and graduates. At one end is a scoreboard and miniature gridiron, along which a colored counter is moved as the telegraph behind the board clicks off the plays hot from the real gridiron.
There is also an announcer, who, by way of clarifying the message depicted on the board, reads the wrong telegram in a loud, clear tone.
Just as the crowd in the football arena are crouching down in their fur coats the better to avoid watching the home team fumble the kick-off, the crowds two and ten hundred miles away are settling back in their chairs and lighting up the old pipes, while the German-silver-tongued announcer steps to the front of the platform and delivers the following:
“Yale won the toss and chose to defend the south goal, Princeton taking the west.”
This mistake elicits much laughter, and a witty graduate who has just had lunch wants to know, as one man to the rest of the house, if it is puss-in-the-corner that is being played.
The instrument behind the board goes “Tick-ity-tick-tick-tickity.”
There is a hush, broken only by the witty graduate, who, encouraged by his first success, wants to know again if it is puss-in-the-corner that is being played. This fails to gain.
“Gilblick catches the kick-off and runs the ball back to his own 3-yard line, where he is downed in his tracks,” comes the announcement.
There is a murmur of incredulity at this. The little ball on the board shoots to the middle of the field.
“Hey, how about that?” shout several precincts.
The announcer steps forward again.
“That was the wrong announcement,” he admits. “Tweedy caught the kick-off and ran the ball back twenty-five yards to midfield, where he is thrown for a loss. On the next play there was a forward pass, Klung to Breakwater, which—”
Here the message stops. Intense excitement.
The man who has $5 on the game shuts his eyes and says to his neighbor: “I’ll bet it was intercepted.”
A wait of two triple-space minutes while the announcer winds his watch. Then he steps forward. There is a noisy hush.
“It is estimated that 50,000 people filed into the Palmer Stadium to-day to watch Yale and Princeton in their annual gridiron contest,” he reads.
“Yale took the field at five minutes of 2, and was greeted by salvos and applause and cheering from the Yale section. A minute later the Princeton team appeared, and this was a signal for the Princeton cohorts to rise as one man and give vent to their famous ‘Undertaker’s Song.'”
“How about that forward pass?” This, as one man, from the audience.
The ball quivers and starts to go down the field. A mighty shout goes up. Then something happens, and the ball stops, looks, listens and turns in the other direction. Loud groans.
A wooden slide in the mechanism of the scoreboard rattles into place, upside down. Agile spectators figure out that it says “Pass failed.”
Every one then sinks back and says, “They ought not to have tried that.” If the quarterback could hear the graduates’ do-or-die backing of their team at this juncture he would trot into the locker building then and there.
Again the clear voice from the platform:
“Tweedy punts—” (noisy bond-salesman in back of room stands up on a chair and yells “Yea!” and is told to “Shut up” by three or four dozen neighbors) “to Gumble on his 15-yard line. Gumble fumbles.”
The noisy bond-salesman tries to lead a cheer but is prevented.
Frightful tension follows. Who recovered? Whose ball is it? On what line? Wet palms are pressed against trouser legs. How about it?
You can hear the announcer’s boots squeak as he steps forward.
“Mr. A.T. Blevitch is wanted on the telephone,” he enunciates.
Mr. A.T. Blevitch becomes the most unpopular man in that section of the country. Every one turns to see what a man of his stamp can look like. He is so embarrassed that he slinks down in his seat and refuses to answer the call.
“Klung goes around right end for a gain of two yards,” is the next message from the front.
The bond-salesman shouts “Yea!”
“How about that fumble?” shouts every one else.
The announcer goes behind the scenes to talk it over with the man who works the Punch-and-Judy, and emerges, smiling.
“In the play preceding the one just announced,” he says, “Gumble fumbled and the ball was recovered by Breakwater, who ran ten yards for a touchdown—”
Pandemonium! The bond-salesman leads himself in a cheer. The witty man says, “Nothing to it.”
There is comparative quiet again, and every one lights up the old pipes that have gone out.
The announcer steps forward with his hand raised as if to regulate traffic.
“There was a mistake in the announcement just made,” he says pleasantly. “In place of ‘touchdown’ read ‘touchback.’
“The ball is now in play on the 20-yard line, and Kleenwell has just gone through center for three yards.”
By this time no one in the audience has any definite idea of where the ball is or who has it. On the board it is hovering between midfield and second base.
“On the next play Legly punts—”
“Block that punt! Block that punt!” warns the bond-salesman, as if it were the announcer who was opposing Legly.
“Sit down, you poor fish!” is the consensus of opinion.
“Legly punts to Klung on the latter’s 25-yard line, where the first period ends.”
And so it goes throughout the game; the announcer calling out gains and the dummy football registering corresponding losses; Messrs. A.T. Blevitch and L.H. Yank being wanted on the telephone in the middle of forward passes; the noisy person in the back of the room yelling “Yea” on the slightest provocation and being hushed up at each outbreak; and every one wondering what the quarterback meant by calling for the plays he did.
In smaller cities, where only a few are gathered together to hear the results, things are not done on such an elaborate scale. The dummy gridiron and the dummy announcer are done away with and the ten or a dozen rooters cluster about the news ticker, most of them with the intention of watching for just a few minutes and then going home or back to the office. And they always wait for just one more play, shifting from one foot to the other, until the game is over.
About a ticker only the three or four lucky ones can see the tape. The rest have to stand on tip-toe and peer over the shoulders of the man in front. They don’t care. Some one will always read the results aloud, just as a woman will read aloud the cut-ins at the movies.
The one who is doing the reading usually throws in little advance predictions of his own when the news is slow in coming, with the result that those in the back get the impression that the team has at least a “varied attack,” effecting at times a field goal and a forward pass in the same play.
A critical period in the game, as it comes dribbling in over the ticker, looks something like this:
(Ticker stops ticking).
Murmurs of “Come on, there, whasser matter?”
Some one suggests that the pass was illegal and that the whole team has been arrested.
The ticker clears its throat. Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r
The ticker stabs off a line of dots and begins:
“UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”
A few choice remarks are passed in the privacy of the little circle, to just the effect that you would suspect.
A newcomer elbows his way in and says: “What’s the good word? Any score yet?” and some one replies:
“Yes. The score now stands 206 to 0 in favor of Notre Dame.”
This grim pleasantry is expressive of the sentiment of the group toward newcomers. It is each man for himself now.
“Here she comes, now!” whispers the man who is hanging over the glass news terminal, reading aloud:
“Yale-Princeton-Game-Second Quarter (Good-night, what became of that forward pass in the first quarter?)
“Yale’s-ball-in-mid-field-Hornung-takes-ball-around-left-end-making-it- first-down-Tinfoil-drops-back-for-a-try-at-a-field-goal. (Oh, boy! Come on, now!)”
“Why the deuce do they try a field goal on the first down?” asks a querulous graduate-strategist. “Now, what he ought to do is to keep a-plugging there at tackle, where he has been going—”
“Bet he missed it!” offers some one with vague gambling instincts.
“AS. 66.991.059 LBS..
And just then some one comes in from the outside, all fresh and disagreeably cheery, and wants to know what the score is and if there have been many forward passes tried and who is playing quarter for Yale, and if any one has got a cigarette.
It is really just the same sort of program as obtains in the big college club, only on a small scale. They are all watching the same game and they are all wishing the same thing and before their respective minds’ eyes is the picture of the same stadium, with the swarm of queen bees and drones clinging to its sides.
And every time that you, who are one of the cold and lucky ones with a real ticket, see a back break loose for a long run and hear the explosion of hoarse shouts that follows, you may count sixty and then listen to hear the echo from every big city in the country where the old boys have just got the news.