Without live sports for most of 2020, the Daily Pennsylvanian looked back at the history of the Red and Blue. The state of Penn football during the 1918 pandemic puts our current situation into perspective, while the early stages of women’s athletics on campus demonstrates the progress women in sports have made. Other stories reintroduced the earliest and now-forgotten Penn teams of cricket and bowling, and celebrated some of the most successful Quakers of all time, who have gone on to medal in the Olympics for both track and field and rowing.
One team that was determined to return to its regular schedule during the 1918 pandemic was Penn football. The Red and Blue were coming off a 1917 season that featured their first and only Rose Bowl appearance.
Early on, the team was rocked by the loss of several major personnel, including their coach Bob Folwell, who contracted influenza. While Folwell made an appearance at practice on Oct. 8, a few days following his diagnosis, he ultimately returned to his farm in New Jersey to recover for the better part of the season. Several players began missing practice at the same time, as they too had come down with the virus.
Opening day was delayed three times before the Quakers eventually played USS Minnesota in front of an empty crowd on Oct. 19. Penn won by a score of 27-0 despite only having three returning players on its roster.
The Quakers were ultimately able to complete the rest of the season, albeit with a slightly modified schedule, and finished with a record of 5-3. Every game but one was played at home, with the team only traveling to Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
In 1921, with a lack of access to sufficient sports facilities, a group of female students arranged for time at the West Branch YMCA to practice basketball. Sensing interest in the student body, the University then offered gym classes for women two hours per day. Although the classes were only for elective credit, more than 50 women attended, instructed by Margaret Majer.
During these gym classes, the Penn women developed baseball and tennis teams and strengthened their basketball team. In the latter sport, they played eight games against external teams, including those from Bryn Mawr, Temple, and Drexel. At the helm of the program, Majer earned the title of the first official coach of women’s athletics at Penn.
By 1922, the athletic teams had expanded significantly. The basketball team put up a record of 5-6, with some of their victories coming against teams like Pittsburgh, George Washington, and Adelphi. Fencing, swimming, baseball, and tennis programs continued to develop. Penn’s first intercollegiate field hockey game was played against Temple.
Bowling was among the earliest sports offered by Penn, closely tied with the construction of one of the most prominent buildings on campus. When Houston Hall first opened, it housed a swimming pool and a four-lane bowling alley in its basement.
In 1906, Penn joined an official intercollegiate bowling league, also composed of Haverford, Columbia, and Lafayette. However, interest within the league didn’t last long. The Houston alley was closed and converted into storage space in 1914.
Bowling became a feature of campus life again with an eye towards a varsity program in 1927, with the construction of a new bowling alley at 37th and Walnut.
“Bowling is a real sport here, taking in several hundred players each week, and having a longer schedule than at any other school,” the proprietor of Walnut Street Alleys, Joe Travis, told the Daily Pennsylvanian on May 6, 1937.
Cricket was the first organized sport to be offered by Penn. In 1842, a student named William Rotch Wister brought the European game to campus when he founded the Junior Cricket Club, one the first cricket clubs in the United States to be made up of Americans.
In 1881, Penn formed the Intercollegiate Cricket Association together with Haverford, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. Penn dominated the early years, winning the title in 1882 and 1883. While Haverford took back the crown in 1884, the Quakers followed up with an eight-season tear, winning every year between 1885 and 1892.
With such local success, Penn’s cricket program turned towards international competition in 1895. Also, when Franklin Field opened that year, along with its track, field house, and tennis courts, the stadium housed a cricket crease.
The Quakers certainly made their mark on the 1900 Olympics in Paris. Penn’s track coach, Mike Murphy, was named trainer of the U.S. Olympic team and took 13 of his best athletes overseas with him. In total, the Quakers won 21 Olympic medals for the United States and Canada, 10 of which were gold.
The most impressive performance came from Alvin Kraenzlein, a student at Penn’s dental school and a member of the track team from 1898 to 1900.
Kraenzlein’s revolutionary hurdling technique won him four gold medals in Paris in the 60m dash, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles, and long jump. The feat of capturing four gold medals in one Olympics would not be replicated until Jesse Owens’ famed performance at the 1936 Berlin Games.
In 1976, the first year women’s rowing was an Olympic sport, a Penn law student named Anita DeFrantz traveled to Montreal as a member of the U.S. women’s eight team, notching a bronze medal. DeFrantz’s plan to improve upon this result at the 1980 Moscow Olympics was thwarted by the United States’ boycott of the Games that year. DeFrantz, along with the rest of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, instead received a Congressional Gold Medal to honor her efforts.
DeFrantz has remained heavily involved in the Olympics even after retiring as a rower. In 1986, she became the first woman and first Black person to represent the United States on the International Olympic Committee. In 1997, she was elected to vice president of the IOC, becoming the first woman to hold that position. DeFrantz was re-elected to another four-year term as IOC vice president in 2017.
The most recent Quaker to win an Olympic rowing medal was Susan Francia, who rose from a walk-on to a world champion, winning gold for the United States in the women’s eight at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Two generations of Penn rowers came together that year atop the podium when DeFrantz presented Francia with her medal.
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