In 1896, the Missouri Tigers Went Missing
More than a century ago, Missouri’s football team took an unapproved Christmas vacation of the Chevy Chase variety. Following a scheduled December game against Texas, they left the territorial boundaries of the United States to play a few postseason matchups in Mexico City. The only problem: no one informed the University.
Few accounts of the fateful trip survived, except for stories in the university yearbook, the Savitar, and a 1921 interview with then-student and team manager George H. English Jr. in the Joliet (Ill.) Evening Herald-News. Although the team won just a few scheduled football games in 1896, its story will forever live — albeit rarely told — in the annals of Missouri football history.
An offer they couldn’t refuse
After a disappointing Thanksgiving day loss to Kansas, the Tigers looked for redemption — and perhaps warmer weather — in Texas. The team left Columbia by train on December 10, and four days later beat the University of Texas Longhorns in a somewhat anticlimactic four quarters. The Tigers won 10-0 during a game the Savitar called “slow and uninteresting.”
But the drama would soon commence.
An Austin, Texas, promoter named George A. Hill had been planning to host the first-ever American football games in Mexico, all to be played during the holiday season and during the student-athletes’ Christmas break. His dream was to match the Longhorns against a team of all-stars, but those plans changed.
“Our defeat of Texas rather put a crimp in his plans, and besides, he had been unable to line up his all-star team satisfactorily,” English told the Joliet Evening Herald-News. “So he asked us whether we wouldn’t like to go along — with all expenses paid — and play the University of Texas again at Laredo, Monterrey, the City of Mexico (now Mexico City) and outlying points. As there was nothing to restrain us except college discipline, we said we’d love to.”
But English and the team neglected to perform one slight detail: No one bothered to inform university President Richard Henry Jesse (for whom Jesse Hall is named). “We didn’t communicate with college authorities back in Columbia at all,” English said. “What would have been the use? They would only have ordered us to come home.”
Mexico’s President Porfirio Diaz approved the south of the border game, even planning to attend. While they waited to travel, the Tigers barnstormed around Texas, beating the San Antonio YMCA, 29-0, and the Austin YMCA, 21-0. Both the Tigers and the Longhorns boarded a train for Mexico on December 22 and arrived in Monterrey on Christmas Eve. The next day, in a pregame of sorts, the Tigers again beat the Longhorns, 18-4. Both head coaches played.
Finally, on December 27, the big game was played in Mexico City. “The first football game ever played in the Republic of Mexico took place here yesterday between the Missouri Tigers and the Texas University team,” the New York Times reported. “The game resulted in a score of 12-0 in favor of the Tigers. Fully, 3,000 people witnessed the sport.”
The reaction from the Mexico City audience to the game was a collective yawn. “It is not likely that so violent and muscular a game will be introduced here,” noted a story in The Mexican Herald. ”Football will probably remain an exotic as far as Mexico is concerned.”
“The Mexicans didn’t take the least interest in football,” English said. “They evidently regarded it as merely another bit of evidence pointing to madness of all Americans.”
President Diaz was not in attendance, opting instead to attend a bullfight across town; but Thomas Theodore Crittenden was there. The former Missouri governor was consul general to Mexico under President Grover Cleveland. (Crittenden’s claim to fame was offering a reward for the capture of outlaw Jesse James. It led to the shooting of James by Robert Ford, whom Crittenden later pardoned.)
Facing the music
Shortly after New Year’s Day, the Tigers boarded a train back to Columbia to face an uncertain fate. After a round trip of 21 days and 6,000 miles, they encountered an angry President Jesse and a university disciplinary committee. Head coach Frank Patterson was fired (or “left for pastures new,” as English phrased it). English and team captain Tom Shawhan were both suspended, but took it in stride.
“It was made effective during the week of the midyear examinations,” English said, “and as my standing was luckily good enough for me to pass in all my courses without the tests, it merely gave me a week’s holiday, while everybody else was boning up for examinations.”
As a measure of atonement, a letter from Crittenden surfaced years later. The consul general commended the Tigers for the manner in which they had represented the University while in Mexico: “The American boys have behaved remarkably well since their arrival here — so far none of the wild freaks of the college boy — away from the professors’ gaze and the charming Columbians.”