September 2, 2008

When Johns Hopkins Was Ready for Some Football

When the varsity football team charges from its locker room to play its season opener on Homewood Field this Saturday, they might want to raise their helmets in salute to the Class of 1884, founders of the sport at Johns Hopkins.

George D. Penniman, a member of that class, recounted the origins of the game in a talk to the Class of 1939 during his 55th reunion. His remarks, on file in the Hamburger Archives of the Eisenhower Library, tell how he and some of his classmates introduced the game not only to Johns Hopkins but to Baltimore. He also tells how the colors black and blue were chosen for the first uniforms.

The class decided, Penniman said, “that we must have our own football team, and therefore that we must select the Hopkins athletic colors.” He said football “was absolutely unknown in Baltimore” then. It was played mainly at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “And we boys suffered because our friends who went to those colleges were very snooty and patronized us” because Johns Hopkins did not have a football team.

A committee, of which Penniman was a member, decided the uniforms should be “black with a light blue stripe.” He said that “the jerseys arrived and were beautiful at first, but the light blue stripe showed the dirt so clearly that we changed it to a very dark blue and black as we felt that combination would stand wear better.” Their uniforms included “little woolen caps with tassels.”

Penniman said that at first none of the students knew anything about the game, but they persuaded some graduate students who had played elsewhere to teach them. They practiced in Druid Hill Park, traveling there from the campus near Howard and Center streets by horse-drawn streetcar. He said they “created quite a sensation” as they rode to the park.

About the same time the Johns Hopkins students were learning the game, some members of the Baltimore Athletic Club were beginning to play, and the university played its first game against the club on Oct. 7, 1882, losing 4-0.

Penniman said that by the time he graduated in 1884, Johns Hopkins football “had not attained any eminence but several students had learned the game and were quite efficient members of the team.”

This year’s season opener, on Saturday, Sept. 6, pits the Blue Jays against St. Lawrence. The action begins at noon on Homewood Field.