November 29, 1890 Singing Second

In 1944 and ’45 with the country at war, Army and Navy both entered that final game of the season,with perfect records.  Army finished both of those seasons, undefeated.

Bull Reeves
Admiral Joseph Mason “Bull” Reeves

Sometime during the 1893 football season, a navy doctor told Midshipman Joseph Reeves that another kick to the head could result in “instant insanity”, even death.

Reeves commissioned an Annapolis-area shoemaker to build him a leather covering, thus making himself the father of the modern football helmet. Years later, this man of the battleship era became an ardent supporter of naval air power. Today, Admiral “Bull” Reeves is widely known as the “Father of Carrier Aviation”.

The naval academy’s football program is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to 1879.

The Army got into the game in November 1890, when Navy challenged Army cadets in what was then a relatively new sport.

First College Football Uniform
The naval academy introduced a canvas jersey in 1879, believed to be the first college football uniform, in history. Photo by Caspar W. Whitney – Whitney, Caspar W. (May 21, 1892). “The Athletic Development at West Point and Annapolis”. Harper’s Weekly XXXVI (1848): 496., Public Domain,

That first Army-Navy game was played on November 29, when the Midshipmen humiliated the Army cadets at West Point, 24-0.

The Black Knights had their revenge the following year, defeating Navy at Annapolis, 32-16.

The two teams met some 30 times between 1890 and 1930, when the game became an annual event.

More than inter-service “bragging rights” are at stake.  Only 17 schools can boast Heisman Trophy winners. Army and Navy, combine for five.

West Point and Annapolis fielded some of the best teams in college football, during the first half of the 20th century.  In 1944 and ’45 with the country at war, Army and Navy both entered that final game of the season,with perfect records.  Army finished both seasons, undefeated.

Today, size and weight restrictions combine with a five-year military service commitment, while dreams of NFL careers draw some of the best football talent in college ball away from the service academies.  Since 1963, only four seasons have seen both teams enter the Army-Navy game with winning records.   Yet, the  game remains a college football institution, receiving radio coverage every year since the late ’20s, and broadcast on national television, since 1945.

The first instant replay in American football history, made its debut during the 1963 Army–Navy game.

Arguably, the Army-Navy game may be the purest such event, in all of college sports.  These are the kids who play for the love of the game, knowing that their next years are unlikely to lead to careers in sports, business, or academia.  These young men have given the next few years of their lives, to the United Sates military.

Roger Staubach

Five-year post-graduation military service commitments preclude the NFL career aspirations of most Army-Navy game veterans, but not all.  Notable exceptions include Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Roger Staubach (Navy, 1965), New York Giants Wide Receiver and Return Specialist Phil McConkey (Navy, 1979), and (then) LA Raiders Running back Napoleon McCallum (Navy, 1985).

President Dwight Eisenhower earned the distinction of being the only future President in history to play the Army-Navy game in 1912, alongside future General of the Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and teammate, Omar Bradley.

Most games are played in a neutral city, almost always on the east coast. Most often in Philadelphia.  The Army-Navy game has appeared west of the Mississippi only twice, first for the national dedication of Chicago’s Soldier Field, in 1926.  The second was in 1983, when the Department of Defense earned Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire’s not-so-coveted “Golden Fleece” award, for spending $100,000 to transport cadets, midshipmen and mascots, to play in Pasadena, California’s Rose Bowl.

HeismanOh, for the days when the government pretended to look out for our money.

With capacities of only 38,000 and 34,000 respectively, Army’s Michie Stadium and Navy’s Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium are far too small, to hold the assembled crowd.  Out of 117 games, only six have been played on either campus.  Two of those (1942-’43), were due to WWII travel restrictions.

In 1963, the Army-Navy game was canceled in observation of a 30-day period of mourning, following the assassination of president John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Knowing her now-deceased husband to be a big fan, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the game go on, and so it was, quarterback Roger Staubach leading his #2 nationally ranked team in a 34-14 Navy romp.

Kennedy, army navy game

For most seniors, the “First Classmen” of either academy, the Army-Navy game carries special meaning.   Some may go on to play in a bowl game, but for most, this is the last regular season football game, each will ever play.  In times of war, they and others like themselves will be among the first to go, in defense of the country.  Some will not return home, alive.

Navy FootballThe game is particularly emotional for this reason.  Despite intense rivalry, it would be hard to find a duel in all of  sports, where the two sides hold the other in higher respect and esteem.

The game is steeped in tradition.  As their opposites cheer them on, each side takes the field in a spectacle of precision drill, unmatched in any venue outside of the military.  After the game, both teams assemble to sing the almae matres (‘On Brave Old Army Team’ and ‘Anchors Aweigh’) of each institution, to the assembled students and fans.

Navy marches on the field, 1950

The first such serenade is always performed for those of the losing academy, hence the coveted position of “singing second”, signifying the victor of this, the oldest sports rivalry in service academy history.

Respect and tradition is all well and good, but such rivalries do not come without a share of debauchery. During junior year, selected “Middies” and Cadets attend courses with the opposite military academy. On game day, each is restored in a “prisoner exchange”, returning from their semester in “enemy territory”.

“Bill the goat”, mascot of BB-17 USS Rhode Island, circa 1913

Goats have a long history with all things maritime, having gone to sea since the age of sail and eating all manner of garbage and other undesirable food, in exchange for which, usually “she”, provided companionship, milk and butter. Sir Joseph Bank’s nanny goat was the first creature two-legged or four, to circumnavigate the planet, twice.

Navy had multiple mascots during the early years, including a gorilla, two cats, a bulldog, and a carrier pigeon. Legend has it that a beloved goat once died aboard a Navy cruise, and two ensigns cavorted about wearing the skin during half-time, before making their way to the taxidermist.

Navy won that game, and a live goat named “El Cid” (The Chief) appeared at the fourth Army-Navy game, in 1893. Navy won that game too, its third victory of those first four games. Small wonder that Billy goats have been the Navy mascot, since 1904.

The 2016 matchup was attended by “Bill” the Goat #XXXVI and his backup, Bill #XXXVII.bill-01

Small wonder too, why Army cadets will go to any length, to kidnap that goat.  The first such kidnapping of the modern era, took place in 1953.

On November 5, 1995, US Military Academy cadets staged a pre-dawn raid at the Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, Maryland, kidnapping Bill the Goat #s XXVI, XXVII and XXIX.  The Pentagon was notified, and the goats were returned under a joint Army/Navy policy, stipulating that the “kidnapping of cadets, midshipmen or mascots will not be tolerated”.

Cadets pulled off the caper in 2002, disguised in Grateful Dead T-shirts.  “Operation Good Shepherd” launched in 2007, to kidnap Bill #XXXII, XXXIII, and XXXIV.   The whole thing was posted, on You Tube. 

It’s been said that only the Army, would mount a military operation to kidnap a goat, and only the Navy would involve the Pentagon, to get him back.

Army MuleThe Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot decided in 1899, that Army needed a mascot in response to the Navy’s goat.  Mules have a long history with the United Sates Army, going back to George Washington, the “Father of the American Mule“.  The question was self-answering.  Little is known of the “official” Army mules prior to 1936, when former pack mule “Mr. Jackson” (named for Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson), arrived from Front Royal, Virginia.

Mr. Jackson served twelve years, the first of seventeen “official” Army mules. Only one, “Buckshot”, was a female. Currently, the “Mule Corps” consists of “Ranger III”, the son of a Percheron mare standing at 16.2 hands (66″) high, his only slightly shorter half-brother “Stryker”, and “Paladin”, a half-thoroughbred, standing a full two hands shorter than either of his counterparts

Army FootballAlways the last regular-season game in Division I-A football, the next four Army-Navy games are scheduled in Philadelphia. The game site will then move to Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford New Jersey, to mark the twenty-year anniversary of the Islamist terror attacks on the World Trade Center. The 2022 game moves back to Philadelphia, marking the 91st time Army and Navy have played there.

To date, Navy leads Army in the series 60-50-7, with Army’s Black Knights ending Navy’s 14-game winning streak in 2016.  The 2017 edition is scheduled for Saturday, December 9, at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

This son and grandson of Army veterans going back to the Revolution and beyond, is compelled to say,  ‘Beat Navy’.

Meeting of the mascots
Meeting of the Mascots, 1939

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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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