Share this article

print logo


The best Buffalo public high school football team not to win the Harvard Cup?

I'm sure there were teams that lost close games in the traditional Thanksgiving Day championship games that feel worthy of that title.

But did any of those teams go undefeated (8-0, 9-0 counting a forfeit) for the season?

Did any outscore their opponents 215-0?

Did any scrimmage against college teams?

Did any beat a college team in a regulation game?

Were any of those teams paraded down Main Street after winning a big game on the road?

I don't think so.

I have a personal prejudice here, but you've got to tip your hat to the Masten Park High School team of 1900.

Who? When?

You could look it up. I did.

In the final year of the 19th century, Masten Park ruled high school football, not just in Buffalo - where it was one of just two public high schools in existence - but, as boosters of the "Yellow and Blue" boasted, throughout Upstate New York, Pennsylvania and even Ohio.

Of course, the reason Masten Park - founded in 1897 and named for Joseph Masten, Buffalo's mayor in the mid-1840s - - didn't win the Harvard Cup in 1900 was because competition for the trophy awarded to the city champion didn't start until 1904.

Football was a much different game back then, in its infancy. The forward pass didn't exist. Neither did much protective equipment. Newspaper pictures of the era show players wearing helmets and padded pants called "moleskin."

The running game was king. Newspaper accounts told of "footballists" running plays called "line bucks" and "end runs" which were assisted by blocking called "interference." Defenses "took a brace" when making a goal-line stand.

The team that scored a touchdown got five points (plus one point for kicking a bonus "goal") and received the ensuing kickoff.

With radio and television yet to be invented, newspapers provided the main coverage of the sport. Judging from reports of the day, regular schedules were irregular and many games were arranged as the season went on. And the game was so young, teams didn't even have formal nicknames.

Go Mastenites!

Located atop the hill at East North Street and Masten Avenue where City Honors High School now stands, the 1900 "Mastenites" or "Masten Parkers" played their home games at the nearby Buffalo Athletic Field, a commercial turf (admission was 25 cents) they shared with the team from the University of Buffalo.

That wasn't all they shared with the school the headlines called "U. of B." or "the Varsity" or "the Bisons."

Masten Park's coach was Seth Thomas, who was also captain of the college team. On at least one occasion - Thursday, Oct. 4 - Thomas arranged a preseason scrimmage between Masten Park and UB. It lasted about 25 minutes, frequently the time of a half of a regular game.

Two days later, Masten Park - which had been rained out the previous Saturday - opened the season at Olean High School. Playing in 90-degree weather before a crowd of about 1,000, Masten Park won by a score of 58-0. Gene Person, the fullback, scored four touchdowns. John Whitney and Raymond Drake, listed as tackles, scored two TDs each. Harry Kerr, left end, team captain and kicker, booted eight extra points.

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the season.

Not counting Lockport High School's forfeit ("for obvious reasons," reported the Buffalo Daily Courier) the next week, the "boys from the hill" steamrolled all competition. They won at Jamestown (27-0), at Rochester Free Academy (27-0) and at Ithaca High School (29-0).

For the victory in Ithaca, Masten Park was awarded a trophy - called both the "Cornell Cup" and the "Interscholastic Cup" - which went to the champion of the "Interscholastic League."

This apparently wasn't an organized league as we know it today, but rather a confederation of 16 teams that conducted sort of a single elimination tournament (Jamestown, Rochester and Ithaca were all members) to determine the winner of what was described as a "silver football trophy" that was proudly displayed in the window of a downtown store.

Crowds greet champions

When the Masten Park team arrived in downtown Buffalo that Saturday night, they were greeted by so many cheering fans that the Sunday News compared the atmosphere to that at "the foot of Main Street when a new steamship arrives in port on her maiden trip."

"As fast as the members of the eleven appeared from between the lines of cars at the Lehigh Valley station they were picked up and shouldered by their admiring schoolmates. . . . The whole outfit formed a tumultuous parade up Main Street," the paper reported under a headline reading "Yellow and Blue Boys May Be Black and Blue, But They Don't Care a Bit."

Oh, did I mention the fine job my grandfather, Robert J. Summers, did at right guard?

As the Courier reported, "with Summers and (left guard Wells) Knibloe on either side (Ben) Lies at center did first class work and these three successfully stopped the frantic efforts of the Ithaca men to plunge through the Buffalo line when the ball was in their possession."

Rough "road' trip

Three days later, Masten Park won its closest game of the year, a 12-0 victory over visiting Central High School of Cleveland before an Election Day afternoon crowd of about 2,500. The key score was an 85-yard touchdown run by Art Lane, the right end.

The Cleveland team, said to be the champions of Ohio, may have had an excuse. As the Courier said, "The trip from Cleveland was made by boat and it is claimed that not one of the players escaped being sick."

A week later, Masten Park took to the road again, this time to play the Niagara University varsity at Niagara Falls.

Yes, a college team. Yes, they won, 18-0, on scores by Drake, Kerr and Lane.

"Niagara's line was very much heavier than Masten's, though back of the line the men were very evenly balanced," The Buffalo Evening News reported. "But Masten had the skill and it was the old tale of science triumphing over brawn."

On Nov. 21 came the game for the unofficial city championship. It was against Central High School, the oldest high school in Buffalo (founded in 1852) and the only other one besides Masten Park. (The school was on Niagara Square, near the present-day New York State Court House. Its name lives on in Hutchinson Central Technical High School, better known today as Hutch-Tech, which plays in today's 101st Harvard Cup championship game against Riverside.)

By this time, the Courier said, Masten Park had "a team the like of which has never been seen in any High School in the States."

Playing on a muddy field, Masten got an early scare as Central marched the ball down field and threatened to be the first team to score against it until Central fumbled on the Masten 10-yard line.

Mud, sweat and cheers

"Before the game had been in progress ten minutes, every player on both teams was a moving mess of mud from top to toe," said the Courier, which also said, "There was considerable betting down on the game."

The betting was not on which team would win, but "Central supporters offered 1 to 2 that the team would score." They lost. The final score was 26-0, Masten Park.

The season ended three days later with an 18-0 win in the snow and rain over visiting Bradford (Pa.) High School, a club rumored to be playing with several "ringers" from a nearby army base.

Summers, the senior lineman, even got to carry the ball in the finale. According to the Courier, he made 4 yards.

Unfortunately, the fog of time has obscured the fates of most of the members of the team. The only one I've been able to track down is my grandfather, who went on to Hobart College in Geneva, where he played varsity football for four years.

I never knew the man, but judging from newspaper reports and a memoir he left behind, he looked back on that 1900 team with special pride.

His role on the team was even remembered 31 years later, in an article in the Buffalo Times shortly after his election as a City Court judge.

Times reporter Clyde Davis - who cautioned that "you have to watch the judge when he talks, or you can't tell whether he is serious or not" - quoted Summers as saying he didn't follow the sport any more because it didn't compare with the game in his day.

Summers said his Masten Park team played "before the effeminization of football, when you had to be more or less of a dreadnought to survive."