Mansfield’s 1892 Football Team
The revolutionary idea of a night football game started with a group of students who had played on Mansfield University’s first football team a year earlier. Eager to showcase their new sport, they came up with the idea of playing a game in front of the crowds at the Great Mansfield Fair.
The talk of the fair was not football, however, but something never before seen in Tioga County, a glimpse into the future and to modernization – the electric light. Invented just 13 years earlier by Thomas A. Edison, this new wonder was brought to Mansfield by John L. Cummings and the General Electric Company.
Word of the electric light coming to Mansfield was out long in advance of the event. Fair posters announced the demonstration as early as September 7th, when the Mansfield Advertiser reported “Normal school football enthusiasts are endeavoring to arrange a game to be played by electric light with the eleven from Wyoming Seminary, near Scranton.”
Professor Sprole, manager of the Mansfield team and Cummings arranged for the game to be played on Wednesday evening. Sprole reasoned that the crowd would be even larger to witness the first electric lights in Mansfield, since more people had heard of the electric light than of football.
The first night football game was only the fifth game Mansfield had ever played. The Red and Black posted a 3-1 record in its inaugural season in 1891. The match against Wyoming Seminary was the 1892 season opener.
Seminary already boasted an eight-year football tradition and had finished 1891 as perhaps the best prep school in the nation with a 5-1 mark.
Nonetheless, Sprole was quite likely confident of a good showing. His team featured players such as Morton Jones, who went on to star at Lafayette, and James A. and James G. Dunsmore, who both later played for Penn State.
The star of Mansfield’s 1892 squad was George Walbridge, who later captained Lafayette and was named a Walter Camp All-American in 1897. The speedy halfback would win $5 by finishing first in the 100-yard dash at the fair the next day.
The boys of the first night game used practically no protective equipment. The only noticeable protection in team photos is padding sewn in the pants around the knees.
Helmets would not come into play for another 20 years. Players grew their hair extra long to protect their heads. At the end of the season they would have their locks shorn at the annual football banquet.
Wyoming Seminary wore white uniforms, reasoning they would reflect light more effectively. Mansfield sported new black uniforms. It cost $40 to outfit the whole squad.
Some of the players wore snug fitting canvas jackets over their jerseys since tackling below the waist was not permitted. Others wore pants, or jackets of black horsehair. Many opponents tackled players wearing these jackets, and many lost their fingernails.
Numbers would not be part of uniforms until Washington and Jefferson wore them for the first time in 1908.
The ball itself was much larger and rounder than today’s football.
The Game: The 1892 game, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., actually started at 6:45 p.m., perhaps to take advantage of the few remaining moments of twilight.
Wyoming Seminary reports say at least some of the lights were posted on a pole in the middle of the field, adding a hazard to the already perilous sport. Other accounts say lights were also draped along the front of the grandstand.
The lighting was minimal and the teams were often unaware of which squad had the ball. Anyone in a uniform was liable to be tackled. The playing surface, also the site of many other events at the fair, was full of holes, butternuts, pebbles and “animal residue”.
Mansfield won the toss and opened with a close “V.” They gained 100 yards before being stopped. A few short gains were made through the center, but they soon lost the ball to Wyoming who started in with a rush.
Right halfback T.C. Jones circled left end for 25 yards. Left halfback Jaynes also found a hole on the left side for 10 yards. But the Mansfield defense stiffened and held Seminary on downs.
After this, neither team was able to move the ball consistently until, late in the half, Wyoming Seminary penetrated into Mansfield territory before losing the ball on downs at the 20 yard line. After three plays, Mansfield was unable to make a first down.
At this point Referee Dwight Smith, who played on Mansfield’s 1891 team, deemed it “inconvenient to continue” because the limited lighting and foggy conditions made the dangerous game, well, too dangerous.
The game was called at the end of the first half and was followed by fireworks both on and off the field. ‘Sem’s’ team manager, J.H. Race, was the umpire and Mansfield’s Smith the referee. Wyoming accused the Normals of using ineligible players, and the officiating was controversial.
The world’s first night football game ended bitterly in a 0-0 tie.
Before leaving Mansfield, Race submitted a challenge for a rematch. One hundred years later, Mansfield answered the challenge.
The Rematch Challenge: Mansfield Advertiser, October 5, 1892
To Prof. S.E. Sprole, Manager Mansfield S.N.S. Football Team:
Since you claim that your team won that farcical exhibition of football given at Mansfield last Wednesday evening, I hereby challenge your football team to meet the Wyoming Seminary team at West Side Park, Wilkes-Barre, Pa, Oct. 15, 1892, or on any other date prior that you may suggest. The referee and umpire to be competent men who have never had any connection with either school, and every member of each team to be a bona fide student of the school represented by such team.
We agree to pay the necessary traveling expenses and local entertainment of your team and their substitutes.
Respectfully, J.H. Race, Manager
The Challenge Accepted: Area Newspapers, August 2, 1992
To the Wyoming Seminary Football Team:
A century ago, your coach challenged the red-blooded sons of Mansfield to a rematch following the world’s first night football game played by our teams September 28, 1892 at Smythe Park in Mansfield, PA.
We, the members of the Freshman and Sophomore Football Club of Mansfield University, hereby accept that challenge!
Our squad, stout-hearted stalwarts to the last man, will meet your varsity at 7:00 p.m., Monday, Sept. 28, 1992, at Smythe Park exactly 100 years after our first titanic tussle.
We agree to clear the field of the horse chestnuts that your team uncharitably claimed impeded their efforts in 1892. Your team and its loyal fans are also invited to enjoy the hospitality and attractions of Mansfield’s “Fabulous 1890s Weekend” September 25-28.
Together, Wyoming Seminary and Mansfield University will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first night football game played in the United States of America!
Sponsored by Mansfield University and the Greater Area Mansfield Chamber of Commerce