Thanksgiving Day, 90 years ago, Kirkwood and Webster were set to play football for the fourth time on Thanksgiving Day since 1907. Since 1913, Kirkwood had not won a single game of football against Webster, but things were different in 1922.
In 1919, a former local high school and collegiate football star, Albert P. J. “Hap” (short for “happy”) Bernard became coach of the Kirkwood squad and he advanced the Kirkwood program yearly until, in 1922, the Kirkwood squad played the entire season, not only undefeated, but not even having been scored upon. Webster this year had not done as well, having attained a record of 5-2-1 going into its game with Kirkwood – the game scheduled to be played at Webster.
An interesting component to the story is that Webster had lost a game to Clayton High School, who Kirkwood had beaten, and if Kirkwood won the game they would be the County League Champion but, in the event of a loss, would be part of a tripartite tie with Webster and Clayton for the title – which Webster had won outright the previous year.
Prior to the game and given the two teams’ seasons, it was generally conceded in the news that Kirkwood would win by two or more touchdowns. Despite the prediction, reports of the game state that Webster began the game as the aggressor and apparently outplayed Kirkwood from start to finish. Kirkwood scored first in the game when B. Payne recovered a Webster fumble and ran 42 yards to place (actually placing the ball in the end zone) for a touchdown. Immediately following, Webster broke through the Kirkwood line and smothered the “point after touchdown” kick.
The offensive, which led to Webster’s victory, started late in the third quarter and culminated in two plays into the fourth quarter when sophomore Chester Greene plunged through the Kirkwood line for a touchdown. The winning point was scored when junior Quentin Gaines completed the extra point kick. As a result of the final 7-6 victory for Webster, it was decided that the County League Championship be awarded to Webster – who had simultaneously besmirched Kirkwood’s record with points scored against and gave it its only loss of the season.
The events of the game put into much greater perspective one of the triggers for the melee in the 1923 game and the subsequent four-year suspension of football games between the two schools.
The 1923 Melee
After the 1922-23 school year, Hap Bernard was released as a teacher and football coach, likely due to fiscal constraints in the school district. With Hap Bernard’s release, the school principal, Frank Tillman, took control of the team. There is no evidence that Tillman had ever played the game but it should be noted that his older brother Ben was good enough of a player to be the captain of the 1906 Missouri Tigers.
The next season, in 1923, both Webster and Kirkwood had one loss on the season reaching their pinnacle game but, unlike the previous year, this game would determine which team would tie University City for the County League Championship – the game this year being held in Kirkwood.
Again scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, a drenching rain caused a postponement to two days later on Saturday, thus becoming to this day the latest held game between the two schools – held on Dec. 1. The field was described by the St. Louis Countian newspaper as being “all but a quagmire, the sticky clay… covered the shoes and togs of the players making it impossible to make gains of any distance.”
The St. Louis Countian also bemused that the game was “the best and most bitterly fought games of the past several seasons marred only by a most wretched exhibition of refereeing.”
During the game, Kirkwood scored first but had the ball recalled due to a player being offside and later scored again in the game, having that score recalled because a Kirkwood player was penalized for holding – both scores and penalties occurring in the first half.
At the opening of the fourth quarter, Webster captain, George Senne, made two screen passes in two plays to Carpenter Barnett, who gained a total of 40 yards, leaving the ball on the two-yard line. Vesper Schnellbarger ran the ball for a touchdown on the next play and kicked the extra point – both scores being only those counted in the game.
The St. Louis Countian newspaper had a clear bias regarding the game both before and after its finish and contended – although the reporter was not at the game – that “many were the spectators on both sides that did not and do not now believe that Kirkwood was given a square deal in umpiring, and with decent decisions the score would have been a tie. It is doubtful indeed that Webster would have made their touchdown if Kirkwood had been allowed to keep their score instead of being penalized for holding, as the team was discouraged and disheartened over the continual hard luck break.”
The emotions of the players and Kirkwood crowd about the “hard luck” caused a massive melee to occur on the field and in the stands that were later recorded as a “riot.”
In 2007, Jane Pollard Gould, who had just matriculated Kirkwood High School in 1923 and was in attendance at the game, scoffed at the description of the events as being riotous. “I never felt afraid,” she shrugged with a smile.
The events, however, were unsettling to Webster principal, James Hixson, who conferred with Webster coach, Charley Roberts, and they agreed to suspend football between the schools to cool tensions and to wait for Kirkwood to have a football coach who was not also simultaneously an administrator with the school. Originally planned for two years, the suspension extended to four until legendary coach Ernie Lyons took control of the Kirkwood squad in 1928.
Shawn Buchanan Greene is a 1987 Webster alumnus and Turkey Day Game historian. He is the author and organizer of several Turkey Day Game yearbooks available at Lulu.com. His books include: Turkey Day Centennial 1898-1999, Turkey Day Decennial 2000-2009, Turkey Day Annual 2007, Turkey Day Annual 2008, Turkey Day Annual 2009, Turkey Day Annual 2010 and Turkey Day Annual 2011.