Game postponed by an epidemic? Or maybe canceled? A desperate scramble to find a substitute? Minimal chance to prepare? Why does all this seem familiar? But never fear, Cal fans. The second game of the “Wonder Team’s” amazing 1920 season turned out to be a rousing success for the Golden Bears, and provided the first real hint of the greatness to come.
Coach Andy Smith and his “Wonder Team” had begun the 1920 football season with a solid, if unspectacular 21-0 win over San Francisco’s Olympic Club. (For the full story of the Cal vs. Olympic Club game, click here.) The Bears had played excellent defense throughout the game, even sealing the win with a fourth quarter pick six by Charly Erb – a rare feat in a time when the forward pass was still a bit of a novelty. The offense, however, had struggled. All three of the Bears’ touchdowns had resulted from defensive plays or punt returns. Heading into the second week of the season, Andy Smith was looking for offense and expressed particular concern about his backfield, which one local paper described as, “none too promising.”
One bright spot was the return of halfback Albert “Pesky” Sprott. A star for Smith’s 1919 Bears, Sprott had missed pre-season practice because of his trip to the Olympics in Antwerp, where he competed in the 800 meter race. As a result, he had also missed the opening game against the Olympic Club. He was expected to help move the offense against Cal’s next scheduled opponent, Santa Clara University.
Epidemic Hits Santa Clara
The Santa Clara game was set for Saturday, October 2, 1920 at California Field on the Berkeley campus. Santa Clara looked to be a good team. They had a 9-0 win over the Olympic Club under their belt and would be coming off a bye. But on Wednesday, September 29, the news broke: an epidemic was running rampant through the Santa Clara team. The San Francisco Examiner‘s William Unmack reported that players were suffering from sore throats and high fevers, and all eleven starters “were in bed with the ailment.” Santa Clara’s vice president, Father Sullivan, said he did not consider the epidemic to be serious, but it did incapacitate the players.
The following day, Unmack reported that Father Sullivan had asked California to postpone the game to October 12. But that was a Tuesday, just three days after the Bears were scheduled to play St. Mary’s and four days before they would be hosting Nevada, giving California little time to rest or prepare between games. Meanwhile, the Bears would be left without an opponent on October 2. What’s more, there was no guarantee the Santa Clara team would be recovered and ready to play by October 12. Although Father Sullivan expressed confidence that the epidemic was not serious, no one was certain what the illness was. The Examiner reported that the same illness was “raging in the public schools” of the South Bay, and might spread further. According to Dan Brodie, writing 30 years later in his book 66 Years on the California Gridiron, the illness turned out to be diphtheria. The Bears declined to reschedule, and the Santa Clara game was canceled.
The Thursday afternoon cancellation left Coach Andy Smith with precious little time to find a new opponent for Saturday’s game. He asked USC and Pomona if either school would be willing to make the trip to Berkeley. Pomona already had a game scheduled. USC had an open date, but the Trojans had not yet even started their season. Taking the train up to Berkeley on Friday would give them literally no time to practice or prepare. On October 1, the day before the game was scheduled, the Daily Californian reported that telegrams had been dispatched to Occidental and Whittier Colleges, asking if they would be willing to make the trip, but this seemed unlikely at such a late hour. The Daily Californian further reported that the Olympic Club was interested in a re-match, but called this “the final alternative.” California was guaranteeing its fans that a game would be played, but as of Friday morning, “matters are completely up in the air.”
California finally secured an opponent at almost literally the last minute. On Friday afternoon a team from the naval base at Mare Island in Vallejo agreed to play in Berkeley the following day. The base had begun fielding a football team during World War I, when it had a constantly changing cast of players, as sailors and marines were transferred in and out of the base. The Bears had played Mare Island twice during the war, along with teams from such military installations as the San Francisco Presidio, the San Pedro Navy Base, Mather Field in Sacramento, and even the Navy Hospital Corps. This phenomenon would recur during World War II, when once again so few regular opponents could be found that the Bears had to look to the Coast Guard base in Alameda and the Pre-Flight Training Center in Moraga for games. The Mare Island team, referred to as the Marines or sometimes as the Sailors, had been competitive in their games thus far, having lost to the Olympic Club 26-13 before bouncing back the previous week to beat St. Mary’s 7-0. The game arrangements might be a rather strange, rushed affair, but at least there was a game!
During the week preceding the game, Coach Smith had pared back his team by several dozen players, bringing it down to the manageable number of 30 from the more than 300 students who had shown up for try outs two weeks earlier and the 100 who had been on the roster during the Olympic Club game. As expected, Smith announced that Pesky Sprott would start at halfback in place of Andrew “Shad” Rowe. Otherwise, the lineup was largely the same as the previous week.
The game began in a fairly ordinary fashion. The Marines received the opening kickoff and according to the Daily Californian, for the “initial three minutes of play looked as though they were likely to prove dangerous.” But then they fumbled and, “the slaughter started.” The Bears marched down the field and “Sprott tore through outside tackle for the first touchdown.” After the teams traded a couple of few punts, Archie Nisbet rushed for a second touchdown. At the end of the first quarter, the score was a still-reasonable 14-0, with the Bears out-gaining the Marines 49-30. But then came the second quarter.
The Bears began the second quarter by marching down the field for a Sprott touchdown. Then they recovered a Mare Island fumble and ran it back more than 50 yards for another score. Sprott scored again on a 40-yard run. Even California mistakes turned out in their favor. After a Sprott-to-Irving Toomey reverse, Toomey fumbled at the Mare Island 3. But the ball dribbled into the end zone where it was recovered by California’s Lee Cranmer for another Golden Bear touchdown. California out-gained the Marines 120-22 in the second quarter and the halftime score was 49-0. As Doug Montell wrote in the Oakland Tribune, “The first three minutes of the game were excellent. Then California started scoring and after that it was another of those ‘now you chase me’ contests with Mare Island doing the chasing after California backs.”
Andy Smith tried to take mercy on Mare Island coach Lute Nichols and his team by removing his starters at the half, eventually playing all thirty men on his roster except the luckless Walter “Dutch” Eells. But California’s back-ups were eager to show what they could do. They added another 41 points without surrendering a point themselves, and gained another 253 yards of offense. The final score was California 88, Mare Island 0. The Bears out-gained the Marines 422-74.
The Bears excelled in every aspect of the game. According to the Oakland Tribune‘s Montell:
It was not a case so much of Mare Island making misplays (they made few of them), but California being at her best in all departments, that produced all the scoring. California outplayed the navy boys at every angle of the game – punting, forward passing, line bucking [rushing] and field generalship. The Bruins showed enough yesterday to win three or four ball games.
Comparing California’s play to the previous week against the Olympic Club, Montell said he “noticed about 100 percent improvement in the machine-like work of the Bears.” He predicted “a big victorious season for the boys of General Smith.”
The only negatives to be found for California were missed conversions on three of their thirteen touchdowns, all by back-up kickers in the second half, and California losing 29 yards to penalties to zero for Mare Island. In Montell’s view, the Berkeley crowd had been “treated to a first class track meet in which California took the leading part.”
An 88-0 final score is impressive regardless of the competition, and it was biggest score in Golden Bear history to that time. While Mare Island was at best a mediocre team and the game had been hastily arranged, the Marines had just come off a win over St. Mary’s. Fans and sportswriters alike were beginning to show considerable interest in the potential of Andy Smith’s team. Was the 88-0 score a fluke brought on by the unusual circumstances or were the Bears really that good? The next game would be California’s first against a college team, St. Mary’s. As the Daily Californian pondered: “Mare Island defeated St. Mary’s and California meets the Saints next Saturday. Will the score be greater?”
Come back next week for the answer!