Flashback: Hidden-ball play beat LSU in 1937

In the magical season of 1937, one of Vanderbilt's finest teams ever came within a hair's breadth of earning a Rose Bowl invitation. But the most famous play from that year came not in the season-ending loss to Alabama, but in a 7-6 victory over mighty LSU. Howell Peiser recalls the "hidden-ball" play, one of the great moments in Commodore football history.

The year was 1937. World War II was still two years from starting in Europe and four years from reaching American soil. The nation was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Nashville was a large country town of just over 150,000 people. Memphis Democrat and power broker Edward H. Crump, fittingly nicknamed "Boss Crump", politically dominated the state of Tennessee.

After "getting" Gordon Browning elected Governor in 1936, the two had become bitter enemies, and Crump was backing Prentice Cooper for the 1938 Democratic nomination for Governor. Cooper, a young attorney from Shelbyville, would be ordained governor after the Shelby County vote went heavily in his favor.

Times were quite different for Vanderbilt football in 1937 too-- the Commodores were perennial powers. For 21 consecutive years, the Black and Gold experienced winning records, frequently suffering no more than one blemish on the schedule. At 3-5-1 in 1936, Vandy endured a rare losing season, including a loss to Southwestern of Memphis (Rhodes College today).

Coach Ray Morrison was anxious for the 1937 season to start. He had the making of an excellent team ready to bounce back. His top assistant, Henry Frnka, would later go on to enjoy success as a head coach at Tulsa and Tulane. Morrison was an early advocate of the forward pass. At his prior coaching stop, he had turned the SMU Mustangs into today's version of Texas Tech. SMU frequently passed the ball 20 to 25 times a game, whereas the average team threw the ball only two or three times a game.

The strength of this Vandy eleven was in its offensive and defensive lines. In those days, starters usually played 90 to 100 percent of the game, so the lines on both sides of the ball were composed of the same players. The star of the stellar line was center Carl Hinkle, who would become a consensus All-American. Tackles Buford "Baby" Ray (right) and Greer Ricketson were two agile, strong blockers. Ray would enjoy success in the NFL. Ricketson had been an end in 1936, and his ability to accelerate quickly would prove to be vital for the Commodores. The guards were Ed Merlin and Bill Hays.

Vandy broke out of the gate strong in 1937. The Commodores shut out Kentucky 12-0 and The University of Chicago (then a member of the Big 10) 18-0. Next came revenge against Southwestern, 17-6.

At 3-0, Vandy traveled to Dallas to take on Coach Morrison's former team, SMU. On the train trip to Texas, a worried Frnka approached Morrison about the next game against mighty LSU at home. After scouting the Purple and Gold Tigers, Frnka didn't think Vandy could score against their impressive defense. Frnka told Morrison he knew a trick play he thought might work against the Tigers. While coaching high school ball in Greenville, Texas in 1933, Frnka had used it to win an important game on its way to the state title.

Genesis of the hidden ball play

On the Friday night prior to the Vandy-SMU game, Frnka convinced Morrison to accompany him to watch his former Greenville assistant coach a high school game in Dallas, and persuaded the high school coach to use the trick play in that game. The play worked for a touchdown, and Morrison was convinced it would work for Vandy against LSU.

Vandy proceeded to beat SMU 6-0 and returned to Nashville 4-0, and ranked No. 20 in the AP poll. LSU was 4-0 and ranked No. 6. Morrison kept his starting eleven after practice and made everyone but the coaches and starters leave the practice field. In secrecy, Frnka installed the trick play.

Later in the week, Frnka visited the 11 starters in their dorms at Kissam Hall and continued to work on the play in secrecy. The play would definitely be used for the LSU game.

LSU came into the game having yet to surrender a point. The Tigers had not lost an SEC game in three years; Coach Bernie Moore was the Bear Bryant of his day.

As the players went through their pre-game warm ups, Coach Morrison instructed the four referees to be on alert for a special play. Vanderbilt would use it on their second play of a possession if they were near midfield.

LSU received the kickoff and couldn't move the ball. Vandy returned the punt to its 44-yard line; this was midfield enough for Frnka and Morrison. Tiny 5-foot-6, 145-pound back Jimmy Huggins gained six yards up the middle on first down. Facing second-and-four from the 50-yard line, Morrison signaled for the trick play. Braving temperatures in the 30's, 18,000 fans watched, but Morrison wasn't one of them. He held his head low with his hands over his eyes and told assistant coach Willie Geny, "Tell me when it's over."

Here's what happened next: tackle Ricketson and guard Merlin exchanged positions. Using the direct snap (like the single wing), Hinkle snapped the ball to blocking back Dutch Reinschmidt. Reinschmidt spun around (the spinner was an old type of play in the single wing days in which the back spun around and either kept the ball or handed off to another back during the spin) and ran outside left end. It looked as if Ricketson was supposed to pull and lead the play, but he fell to the ground behind linemen Hays and Ray. As LSU's defenders en masse pursued Reinschmidt, looking to tackle him for a loss, they realized something was amiss. Reinschmidt didn't have the ball. The ball had been left on the ground next to where Ricketson fell.

Greer Ricketson rambles untouched down the right sideline vs. LSU in 1937. The "hidden-ball play" provided Vandy's only points in a 7-6 win. (VUAD/File)
Ricketson counted to three, got up and picked up the "hidden ball." He ran down the right sideline with nothing but 50 yards of turf in his way. No Tiger player came within 20 yards of making the stop. Even the officials, who knew something was going to happen, went to the left following Reinschmidt. Fullback Joe Agee booted the extra point, and Vanderbilt led a stunned LSU team 7-0 with only five minutes gone in the game.

The opposing sideline could never recover. LSU could do nothing with the ball, as Vandy's inspired defense stopped the Tigers' vaunted running attack. The score remained 7-0 until the final moments of the game. LSU was forced to pass. An overeager Commodore defender hit a Tiger end a tad early, and the officials flagged the Commodores for interference, giving LSU the ball at Vandy's 17 with a minute left. LSU passed for a touchdown on the next play. On the point-after attempt, the ball was snapped over the holder's head, and Vandy recovered. Vandy also recovered the LSU onside kick and ran three plays to end the game. The Commodores pulled off the 7-6 upset, ending LSU's long SEC winning streak.

The score didn't do justice to the Commodores' domination; the statistics showed Vandy winning the rushing battle 253 to 91. LSU passed for more yardage, 148 to 65. Vandy converted 16 first downs to LSU's nine. The five rugged Vandy linemen and two ends each logged the full 60 minutes of playing time.

With the win, The Commodores rose to No. 7 in the AP poll (its highest ranking ever), even managing to garner one first-place vote.

One week later, he Commodores were abruptly grounded. Vandy was upset by a good Georgia Tech team, 14-0. After dropping from the Top Ten, the Commodores routed Sewanee 41-0, and then beat a very good Tennessee team led by future consensus All-American George Cafego, by a score of 13-7.

From Roses to thorns

At 7-1, the 14th-ranked Commodores were set to close out the 1937 season by hosting Alabama on Thanksgiving Day. The Crimson Tide was 8-0 and ranked fourth behind Pittsburgh, California, and Fordham, three of the best teams of the first half of the twentieth century.

The winner of this game was a lock to get a bid to the Rose Bowl to take on the Cal Bears, which had already finished their regular season at 9-0-1. Alabama was considered marginally better, but with the game at Dudley Field, it was considered a tossup, especially with inclement weather expected.

A capacity crowd of 21,650 braved a cold rain to watch Vandy's biggest game ever to date. Extra police were brought in to prevent others from attempting to gain admission without a ticket.

The two teams knocked heads for the first 25 minutes with neither squad able to threaten the other's goal. Morrison called for the hidden-ball play once again, but this time the opponent was wise to the maneuver. Bama picked up the ball that was laid on the ground. The Tide quickly drove for a touchdown but missed the conversion. Alabama led 6-0 at the half.

In the third quarter, Morrison sent the tiny Marshall in to run the offense. After returning a Tide punt past midfield to the 48, Marshall scrambled 15 yards to the 32. He then passed for 14 yards and ran another nine yards to the Alabama 9. Three consecutive plunges over center Hinkle did the trick, and Vandy tied the game. Agee kicked the extra point, and Vandy led 7-6 with just one quarter separating them from a date in Pasadena.

The first ten minutes of the final period were a repeat of the first quarter. Vanderbilt's prized defensive line stopped Alabama, while Alabama stopped Vandy's running plays. Alabama started its last possession at its own 20 and marched down the field deep into Commodore territory. The Tide made it to the 5-yard line; the Vandy defense dug in, and the Tide could not gain another yard. Sophomore end Sandy Sanford, a reserve, was called upon to attempt a 22-yard field goal from a 45-degree angle (in those days, the ball was marked in play where the tackle occurred, and if the play went out of bounds, it was marked one yard inside the sideline.) Typically this type of kick was good about one in ten attempts. Alas, this happened to be that one time. Sanford split the uprights, and Alabama won 9-7. The Tide received the Rose Bowl invitation and proceeded to lose to Cal, 13-0.

Epilogue

The 7-2 season was Morrison's best in his five-year tenure at Vanderbilt. He would leave after 1939 and would be replaced by Henry "Red" Sanders. Vanderbilt twice flirted with a New Year's Day Bowl Bid, in 1948 and 1955, but it has never smelled the roses, picked the cotton, squeezed the oranges, or tasted the sugar. That's no fiesta.

Lord Marley, the Deputy Speaker of the English House of Lords, witnessed his first American football game at the Vandy-Alabama game in 1937. Asked for his comments on the game, he said, "The game is considerably slower than our rugby because of the frequent little committee meetings in which the players indulge."

That quote brings back to memory a funny little story from my youth. While attending Akiva School in the early 1970's, one of our athletic Rabbi teachers thought it would be a great idea to have a school basketball team. At the organizational meeting for the team, he was trying to relate how serious he was about starting a team and wanted to express that we would have uniforms and regular practices. In his opening remarks, he said, "This is going to be serious basketball. We will have costumes and rehearsals before we play our games."

Greer Ricketson graduated from Vanderbilt and became one of the finest plastic surgeons in the history of Nashville. Included in his brilliant work was his bang-up patching of my first cousin. As a young girl in the late 1950's she was playing in her yard when a blast from a nearby construction site sent several large rocks toward her. One of the rocks struck her in the face, doing prohibitive damage. Dr. Ricketson worked his magic on her, and to this day you cannot see the scars. She is a beautiful mother of three living in the Boston area.

***

Sources for this story include: The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The New Orleans Times Picayune and the Nashville Banner.


Carl Hinkle (R) celebrates a win in 1937. (VUAD Photo)

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