If the 1953 Orange Bowl is remembered for anything today it is for the final score. The Alabama Crimson Tide annihilated the Syracuse Orangemen in a 61-6 blowout — a margin of victory that would not be surpassed for more than half a century.
Yet this game was about far more than that. Although unknown at the time, the contest marked one of the first battles to preserve segregation in college football involving the Alabama football team. And what transpired in the days leading up to that New Year's Day matchup set the stage for the long painful process of integration of the Crimson Tide program.
Prior to the 1950s, college football was ruled by what has come to be known as the "gentlemen's agreement." Although no policies or rules existed to enforce segregation in the sport, northern schools tacitly understood they would not use black players in games with southern schools. With limited exceptions, it was honored.
As the nation's attitudes toward segregation began to change following World War II schools outside the south with integrated teams began to abandon the "gentlemen's agreement." Southern teams found they no longer could dictate the racial makeup of the opposing team rosters and, as a result, inter-sectional contests became far less common.
As a result bowl games often became a flash point to the racial standoff since most bowls were held in southern states1. The Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the Sun Bowl in El Paso saw the color line fall with considerable controversy in 1948 and 1950 respectively. The deep south bowls such as the Sugar and Orange remained staunchly segregated partially due to local ordinances prohibited integrated play.
The transformation of attitudes about race coincided with the return of the Alabama to prominence. At the conclusion of the 1952 season, the Crimson Tide had rolled to a 9-2 record and were ranked No. 8 in the nation by the Associated Press.
As the season wound down, Alabama was regularly mentioned as a possibility to play in the Orange Bowl. If invited, it would be the first post season appearance for the program since the 1948 Cotton Bowl. At the time, the four-year bowl drought was the longest the program had endured since winning the 1926 Rose Bowl that launched the Crimson Tide into the national spotlight.
For Alabama fans the bowl bid it was a welcome return to the Tide's rightful place in the post season lineup. For the school's power brokers it was a problem. The much-desired bowl bid involved the unwelcome possibility of having to play an integrated northern team. As the Orange Bowl committee began considering likely teams to play in the 1953 game, the possibility of Alabama matching up a team with a black player was very real.
In 1950, the City of Miami had relaxed the rule prohibiting integrated play in its facilities opening the way for northern teams to play in the Orange Bowl Game. While the legal barrier had been lifted, the mindset of the "gentlemen's agreement" had not.
On Nov. 17. 1952, influential Alabama booster V.H. Friedman, for whom Alabama's athletic hall at the time was named, wrote UA president John Gallalee and cautioned the administrator about accepting a bowl bid that involved playing an integrated team.
"I notice they name Pittsburgh as a prospective team," he wrote. "Pittsburgh has FOUR fine negro players. Other eastern teams have negro players. SO if anything did come-in the way of an invitation we want to be sure to insist that no negroes be allowed in the game."
In December Alabama accepted a bid to play in the Orange Bowl against Syracuse which had an all-white roster. Maybe. Atavus Stone, a black player, had been a standout on the Orangemen's 1950 squad and played quarterback in 1951 when the team's starter went down with an injury. Although he was eligible to play in 1952 Stone had not appeared in any game during the season.
But Alabama wasn't taking any chances.
Syracuse was unlikely to agree to any demands by Alabama to sit a black player given what had transpired 16 years prior to their star halfback, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh. In 1937 it was revealed that Sidat-Singh was black and the University of Maryland insisted he be benched for the regular season contest with the Orangemen.2
Syracuse complied and lost 13-0. The school was criticized in the press for buckling under to the demands of the southern institution and so Sidat-Singh played when Maryland traveled to Syracuse the next season. The Orangemen won that contest 53-0.
There is no record that Alabama requested Syracuse to honor the "gentlemen's agreement" for the 1953 Orange Bowl but the southern school's leaders were determined to hold to its segregationist stance. According to historian E. Culpepper Clark, UA President Gallalee ordered coach Harold "Red" Drew to take the team off the field if Syracuse put a black player in the game.3
Despite the concern of having to resort to such desperate measures, the crisis never materialized since Stone had been injured in pre-season and missed all of 1952. Syracuse had no black players on the sideline for the Orange Bowl and Alabama crushed the Orangemen in the well-documented blowout.
The controversy surrounding Alabama's participation in the game was not known to the general public for years but it marked the high-water mark of the segregationist mindset in regards to the football program. But it turned out there was an even greater power to sway people's convictions concerning the Crimson Tide team — losing.
Red Drew's Crimson Tide team followed up the Orange Bowl win with a tumultuous 1953 season. Although Alabama won the SEC Championship it was despite a tepid 6-3 record. The Tide was invited to the 1954 Cotton Bowl where they were crushed by the Rice Owls, 28-6.
After a losing season in 1954 the powers-that-be dumped Drew and hired Jennings "Ears" Whitworth4 as the Tide's head coach in hopes of rising above what was seen as unacceptable mediocrity. What they got was absolute futility.
Whitworth oversaw what was, by far, the worst era in Alabama football history. His Crimson Tide squad went winless his first season and mustered just four victories in the following two. At the end of the 1957 season Drew was allowed to resign and Paul "Bear" Bryant was hired. The former Tide player and assistant was given carte blanche to resurrect the program including the tacit approval to break the ban on playing integrated teams.
On Dec. 19, 1959 he did just that. At the conclusion of Bryant's second season back in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide team was invited to the inaugural Liberty Bowl game in Philadelphia. The opponent was a Penn State team that boasted a black starting player, Charlie Janerette.
Despite the muted objection of segregationists groups in Alabama and a formal protest by the NAACP in Pennsylvania, Bryant took his team north and played the game. Although Alabama fell to the Nittany Lions 7-0 on a bitterly cold day, the arduous decade-long process toward the integration of the Crimson Tide football program itself had begun.
1. The exception was California's Rose Bowl which was integrated in 1915 when Brown's Fritz Pollard played in the game. One of Pollard's teammates was future Alabama coach Wallace Wade.↩
2. Last Saturday the University of Maryland held a ceremony during the game with Syracuse relating the incident and presenting Wilmeth Sidat-Singh's family with a Wounded Warrior jersey at midfield. After college Sidat-Singh joined the Tuskeegee Airmen, graduated with its inaugural class but was killed in a training accident. ↩
3. Clark cites an interview with Alabama assistant coach James "Bubba" Nesbet as the source of this information.↩
4. Whitworth had also been involved in one of the most notorious racial incidents in college football a few years prior as head coach of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). Whitworth's players deliberately targeted Drake quarterback Johnny Bright, who was black, in a game on October 21, 1951. Bright was knocked unconscious three times in the first seven minutes and left the game when the final blow broke his jaw. A dramatic photo sequence of one of the hits won the Des Moines Register the Pulitzer Prize.↩
Clark, E. Culpepper. The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1993. pp 21. Print.
Demas, Lane. ""A Fist That Was Very Much Intentional": Postwar Football in the Midwest and the 1951 Johnny Bright Scandal." Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2010. pp 49-71. Print.
Friedman, Victor H. Letter to University of Alabama President John Gallalee. 17 Nov. 1952. MS. University of Alabama Library, Hoole Special Collections, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Kemper, Kurt Edward. College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2009. Print.
Martin, Charles H. Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2010. Print.
Rappoport, Ken. "Nightmare on New Year's Day." The Syracuse Football Story. Huntsville, Ala.: Strode, 1975. 170-74. Print.