Posted by: siday38 | March 6, 2013

Part 5: Coffee and Violence in London

The Tea Bowl had been a roaring success, but was intended to be the only US-Canadian encounter on the football field; however Canadian officer General Stuart was goaded into a rematch by an American General.  Unbeknown to Stuart at the time, the American side was getting a significant upgrade thanks to the US 29th Blue Division – A unit containing many experienced players, including Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Sgt Tommy Thompson.  To add to the Canadians problems, by the time the rematch came round most of their team were no longer based in the UK and they fielded a significantly weaker team, despite the presence of 2 former Toronto Argonauts players.

Sgt Thompson

Sgt Thompson

And how do you follow the Tea Bowl?  With the Coffee Bowl of course!  Once again White City was the venue, this time a remarkable 50,000 turned up on a cold March afternoon to watch the Americans exact revenge on their Canadian counterparts.  As expected, Thompson was the difference maker and he led the Americans to a comfortable 16-0 victory, although the headlines went to running back Col Johnny Bayne who scored 3 touchdowns, 2 of them from Thompson passes.

Remarkably, given that there was a war going on, a match report appeared in the Montreal Gazette the following day.  The report provides a fascinating look at the terminology and language used in American Football at that time.  Bayne is described as a “line smasher”, a touchdown a “major” and a PAT a “placement”.

Thanks to the success of the Tea and Coffee Bowls, there were many more American Football games played in the UK during the Second World War.  One such occasion was the November 12th 1944 encounter between the US Army and US Navy.  Amongst the massive crowd of 60,000 was a British journalist Vivien Batchelor.  Her report of the game has recently been discovered in Springfield USA, and provides an insight into how Brits viewed American Football at that time.

The most striking aspect of the game for Batchelor was the violence on show.  “The only thing that moves play towards the goalposts seems to be the instinct of self-preservation of the man with the ball. He runs as far as he can before he is maimed or killed by the other players”.  Clearly, compared to the Corinthian nature of rugby, American Football was an altogether more dangerous sport.

References to the physicality of the sport are littered throughout the report, garnished with some poetic licence.  Take the following extract; you can forgive the hyperbole, as it seems as if Batchelor is secretly enjoying the spectacle:  “A free fight seemed to be going on in the centre of the stadium.  Twenty-two enormous young men in crash helmets were locked in deadly struggle for an oval football.”

As for the actual objectives of the game, Batchelor had a brave stab at explaining how the game worked:  “The object of the game seems to be to pass the ball to some unfortunate player and run as far as he can, before he is maimed or killed by the other players.”

More ambitiously, she has a go at explaining play calling:  “Before each ‘try,’ the team which has the ball goes into huddle while the captain decides who shall be the victim to receive the ball and the subsequent assaults.  It’s clear that the violent nature of the game is overriding her thoughts.  The same can be said for her thoughts on tackling assault your opponent any way at all except by ‘clipping’ the back of his legs.  That, an American beside me solemnly explained, is liable to break them.  The favoured method of attack yesterday seemed to be 1) Springing like a tiger at the man’s throat, or, 2) Just shoving so that sheer weight bore him down.”

Away from the violence, Batchelor was intrigued by the fashion on show.  The players’ uniforms were described as such: “They wore spiked-cleated (is the word Americans use) shoes, strange ginger shorts which cling closely to the thighs and end abruptly just below the knee, and padded jerseys, red and white for the Navy, navy blue for the Army.”  If that description seemed underwhelming, she was far more impressed with the referees, “splendid in white plus fours and striped shirts.”

One American Football tradition evident at White City that day was cheerleading.  Before the game, “Girl cheerleaders from the services pranced in front of the crowd waving megaphones, inciting yells like “A-R-M-Y, Army,” or “N-A-V-Y, Navy”.  Whilst at half time the crowd were treated to an appearance by Ruby Newell.  “Ruby who” you say.  Well, back then Miss Newell was quite a catch, having just been “voted the prettiest girl in the U.S. Women’s Forces”.

Ruby Newell  - Phwoar!!!

Ruby Newell – Phwoar!!!

All in all Batchelor seemed to have had a great day out, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence on show.   The Army won the game 20-0, although Batchelor’s report makes it pretty much impossible to ascertain what happened.   The key difference between the sides appeared to be the weight difference:  “As the average weight of the Army was about 16 stone (224 pounds), one felt sorry for the Navy, whose top weight was a mere 13 stone (182 pounds).”  If only the NFL Network would adopt a similar style of coverage!

Finally, I’ve managed to find around 7 minutes of Pathe video footage from one of the games played at White City during the War.  There’s no sound, but it’s still well worth a look and adds some flavour to the above.  Enjoy!

That’s it for World War 2 Football in the UK.  Next Time I’ll be moving on a few years to look at the first Brit to play in the NFL…

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