While the evolution of collegiate football was gradual, its rise in popularity was quite sudden—and it all began with Walter Camp, consummate Yale man and watch company executive. Minneapolis lawyer Roger Tamte has now given us the definitive Camp biography…
Walter Camp and the Creation of American Football by Roger R. Tamte (408 pages, University of Illinois Press, 2018)
Here it is, 2019, and football, it must be conceded, truly has become America’s national game. It’s been just that for a long time now, at least since… oh, go ahead and offer your own guess. My guesstimate would be somewhere in the middle of the godawful 1970s, meaning sometime not long after Joe Willie Namath and his New York Jets stunned the sports world by defeating the Baltimore Colts in the third Super Bowl. Or was it already Super Bowl III at that early date?
It would also have to have been sometime shortly after a fateful decision was made by then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. No, that would not be his non-decision to stand by and let the American League tamper with history and tradition, courtesy of the designated hitter intrusion. Rather, it would be an actual Kuhn decision to consign the World Series to night games. Of course, by then the actual World Series was already preceded by league playoff series, which had begun in 1969 or the first year of the Kuhn reign as “commish.” No longer would the country come to a virtual stop to take in possibly seven, but never more than seven, day baseball games.
But a full month of playoff night games? Who or what can stop for that? And just as the football season is heating up to boot? Impossble!
And to think it all began with Walter Camp, consummate Yale man and watch company executive. Minneapolis lawyer Roger Tamte has now given us the definitive Camp biography. He has also provided readers with a highly detailed account of the gradual evolution of British rugby into American football.
While the evolution itself was gradual, the rise in popularity of collegiate football was quite sudden. The takeoff decade was the 1890s. The locale was first New England and then the northeast. But initially it all centered on Walter Camp and Yale.
As a Yale undergrad, Camp played a variety of sports. But his main interest was rugby. In short order that interest became an endeavor, if not quite an obsession, directed at transforming British rugby into American football.
Camp’s key contribution was to replace the rugby scrum with a line of scrimmage, coupled with a system of plays and downs. Initially, Camp gave a team three downs to advance the ball five yards. No longer could a team simply retreat to the “safety” of the end zone. “Safeties” were recorded, but no points were awarded. For that matter, touchdowns were initially pointless until the ball was “touched down” and subsequently kicked through goal posts. Why else would the game be called football?
Of course, all territory had to be conquered on the ground. How best to accomplish that task led Camp to develop the flying wedge. Others had other ideas, one of which was the forward pass, which Camp opposed. In part, the story that Mr. Tamte tells is one of an innovator who becomes a conservator. In this story, Camp, the innovator, had to surrender more than once. The flying wedge had to go, both because of the mounting injuries resulting from this momentum play and because spectators had a difficult time finding and following the ball carrier within the wedge.
Camp fought harder to block the innovation that was the forward pass, meaning a pass that crossed the line of scrimmage. But in the end he surrendered gracefully and without complaint, as was the lot of a Yale man and a gentleman.
Perhaps Camp also surrendered because he always had lives other than football. Married to the half-sister of Yale professor and laissez faire economist/sociologist William Graham Sumner, Camp had an ordinary and fulfilling life in New Haven. An executive with the New Haven Watch Company, Camp worked diligently to make this sometimes struggling company profitable.
Given the importance of the clock and “clock management” to modern football, Camp’s double professional life is more than slightly ironic. Actually, triple life would be more accurate, for Mr. Tamte gives considerable attention to Walter Camp, the author of numerous football books and pamphlets, magazine articles, and youth sports fiction.
Would the creator of American football recognize the modern game? In many respects, he would. As early as the 1890s, crowds of 50,000 and more would gather for the annual Thanksgiving Day Harvard-Yale game. Would he revel in its current popularity? Probably, even if he might shake his head at some of the excesses, on and off the field of play.
And no doubt he would be right in the thick of things when it comes to the never-ending post-season tinkering with the rules of the game. Where to begin? And where will it end? Should the kickoff be abolished? What to do about overtime? Are three points too many for a field goal? How should the quarterback be protected? How to interpret—and call—holding or pass interference? The questions and controversies are endless.
Aside from the intrusions of the DH and cameras, baseball has remained relatively unscathed by changes. (Here’s hoping the use of “openers,” as opposed to “starters,” will die a quick and quiet death.) Football, on the other hand, is always changing, and yet its essence remains the same. Perhaps that helps explain why it has become America’s game.
Of course, the vicarious conquest of territory was—and remains—part of its appeal. To be sure, the violence and spectacle cannot be ignored. The same goes for the machine-like precision of the play—or at least the start of a play. All of this is central to modern sensibilities and interests.
And to think it all began with the interest of a mild-mannered, level-headed Yankee gentleman. Roger Tamte has not bothered to explore the psyche of Walter Camp, preferring instead to concentrate on the inside story of the early development of the game itself. And that is more than enough.
Sometimes Camp gets lost in the details, but the overall result is a fascinating tale that almost inadvertently helps account for football’s standing as America’s national game. For good or for ill, it is a game that is forever subject to tinkering, to innovation, to controversy and even conflict, and, yes, to lawyerly distinctions.
Who better then than a lawyer to tell such a tale? And who better than a watchman to watch over the early history of a game in which time weighs so heavily? It certainly hooked this fellow, who continues to cling to the delusion that baseball has always been and will always be America’s game.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Walter Chauncey Camp (1859-1925) taken in 1910, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.