|"University Athletes Ship as Stokers"
It sounded like a great adventure, one that would yield $30 per man and a bounty of stories to tell. The seven University of Chicago freshmen were already on the top of the world because they played for Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of the twentieth century’s most winning college coaches.
These guys were hot stuff: fullback Sherburne Wightman, quarter-miler “Tommy” Taylor, high jumper Arthur Sullivan, tackle Frank G. Burrows, shot-putter Burt Gale, and track star “Jimmy” Carroll.
And the group’s leader, freshman class president Barrett Clendenin “Bab” Andrews, told reporters that Stagg had recruited him for the baseball team.
Founded in 1892 with a $600,000 gift from the oilman John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago was young compared with the nation’s major research universities.
Rockefeller, who would donate $35 million more to Chicago during the next decade, chose as its president William Rainey Harper, a rotund 36-year old Semitology scholar and Baptist minister who had taught previously at Denison and Yale.
|Rockefeller (left) and Harper walking
to Chicago's tenth anniversary celebration
(University of Chicago Special Collections)
The ambitious Harper set forth to innovate. He established departments of Egyptology and Sociology and one of the first university presses in the U.S. He poached many a professor. And he capitulated to the craze for college sports, with the university joining the Big Ten Conference in 1896.
The football team achieved fame and glory. They were the “Mighty
Maroons” until 1946, when Chicago withdrew from the conference.
But now it is April of 1903 and an agent of the Marine Carriers Association, which represents the owners of the steamers that ply the Great Lakes, meets with Stagg and some of his athletes. Stokers have struck at the port in Buffalo, N.Y. Surely the coach’s brawny young men are up to the work of shoveling coal into the freighters’ furnaces.
They were not the nation’s first student strikebreakers. In 1901, UC-Berkeley athletes had unloaded cargo on the San Francisco docks. The San Francisco Labor Council denounced the students but UC president Benjamin Wheeler cheered them on.
Two years later in Chicago, William Rainey Harper kept mum after the student “stokers” made the news. But when representatives of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Material Trades Council demanded an explanation, Harper issued a statement:
- *I was out of town when the athletes decided to act as strikebreakers
students did not consult with university officials
officials would have discouraged the students from proceeding
university places no requirements on students except that they behave like
gentlemen and perform their duties
may absent themselves from their studies but must accept the consequences
university is not responsible for its students’ opinions
university does not take a side on any question; students and professors are
free to think and do as they see fit
As the editor of American
Industries noted, “President Harper of Chicago University Gets Solidly on
Both Sides of the Question.”
Indeed, Harper would have been foolish to laud the students despite Rockefeller’s (and possibly his own) anti-labor stance. The university was in the midst of a building spree with a gymnasium, commons, bell tower, and law school under construction, not to mention perennial modification of the wooden stands that encircled the football field.
Chicago could not afford a strike and never again—to my knowledge—would its students cross a line. But others did.
Historian Stephen H. Norwood, University of Oklahoma, has written extensively about student strikebreakers.
Columbia students broke a subway workers strike in 1905. Harvard students were called upon by university president A. Lawrence Lowell to help break the Boston Policemen’s Strike of 1919. Students were paid or volunteered to be strikebreakers well into the 1920s.
Norwood attributes student strikebreaking to several issues:
- *the early-twentieth-century cult of Christian masculinity, of which President Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent
- *the brutality of football
- *bans on violent hazing practices which left a void for aggressive social behavior
Further, the 1900s saw the rise of the “gentlemen’s C.” Many male students were not serious about their education and spent much of their time in pursuit of adventure—“larks.”
|Class of 1906 president "Bab" Andrews, far left
“Bab” Andrews, leader of the Chicago strikebreakers, was the king of larks.
A few months before heading to Buffalo, he had rounded up ten students on behalf of the Wisconsin Central Railroad, whose officials were trying to identify an embezzling conductor. Andrews et al purportedly found the culprit and declared that they’d had a great time.
Not so fast, observed the editor
of the Chicago Tribune:
Though the young man may flatter himself
with the titles of detective and strike-breaker, he has really earned the
degree of “Spotter” and “Scab” and all the dishonor pertaining thereto.
Indeed, anti-unionism among middle- and upper-class Americans lay at the heart of the strikebreakers’ capers. Most students who could afford to attend college at the turn of the twentieth century would likely side with capitalists over laborers.
Especially for the fun of