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Glory on the Midway

The day Beloit College stunned the sports world
by Gary M. Arnold, '92

Published in Beloit Magazine/September 1992

 

     The Beloit College football team once changed forever the course of big-time college athletics -- and, one could even argue, big-time science -- in the United States in just a single game. In September 1939, the Beloit eleven (then the Gold) stunned the sports world by defeating the University of Chicago 6-0 at Stagg Field in the season's opener for both schools. At season's end, the Monsters of the Midway -- a cynosure for national media attention -- dropped out of the Big Ten and college football altogether. Stagg Field became available for important scientific research.

     Beloit's victory was the first in 13 meetings with Chicago. After an evenly matched first half, Beloit's ground attack took control. Starting on its own 31 yard line, Beloit marched down the field led by running backs Eddie May and Loyll Plinske, who punished the Chicago defense play after play. After a 16-yard run by Plinske late in the drive that took the ball to the Chicago 7 yard line, the Maroon's defense temporarily stiffened. May couldn't find the end zone for two plays, but on the third he broke through the line for the touchdown.

     Six points proved to be all the Gold needed. Chicago threatened to score in the fourth quarter, driving to the Beloit nine yard line with only 30 seconds left in the game. But four passing attempts failed, and Beloit had earned one of the nation's most startling upsets.

     The Beloit 11 was not an especially strong team in 1939. The Gold finished only 2-3-1 in conference play and 4-3-1 overall. The week after its victory over Chicago, it lost 13-6 to the Carleton Norsemen. But Beloit's success at Chicago prompted newspapers throughout the nation to take note of the accomplishment and the depths to which the vaunted Monsters of the Midway had fallen. After all, Chicago's Maroons, once Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg's team, had won six Big Ten championships.

     This particular defeat was especially traumatic for Chicago. Beloit was on the schedule for just one reason. Since the Maroon had been losing within the Big Ten Conference after All-America Jay Berwanger graduated in 1936, some small colleges had been added to the schedule to guarantee a few easy victories. But nothing came easy for Chicago in the disastrous season of 1939, although it did manage a single win, 26-0, over Oberlin. As the eminent historian at the University of Chicago William McNeill put it, "Beloit's victory over the Maroon showed there were no 'natural rivals' within easy reach of the Midway with whom Chicago could compete comfortably."

     According to both its critics and supporters, Chicago football sank to an all-time low after the Beloit game. The Maroon continued on through a humiliating season, which included being shut out four times at the end of the season, by Harvard (61-0), Michigan (85-0), Virginia (47-0) and Ohio State (47-0). With the choice between a greater emphasis on sports or the prospect of further humiliation by the University of Michigan's Wolverines or Beloit's Gold, Chicago's President Robert Maynard Hutchins dropped the football program entirely.

     In his centennial history of the University in 1992, McNeill offers the credit for the change in the course of football history to the team from Wisconsin: "To be beaten by Beloit hurt as much as being lopsidedly defeated by Big Ten rivals that Stagg once had humbled as a matter of course when the University of Chicago, thanks to its urban location, had been the principal center for college-based spectator sport in the entire country."

     In retrospect, of course, success for the Beloit 11 was trivial. As the 1939 season was played, the Nazi conquest of Europe accelerated in open warfare. Within three years, the west stands of unused Stagg Field would be the site for the first controlled and self-sustaining atomic reaction as part of Enrico Fermi's work on the Manhattan Project.

     The two offensive stars for the Gold in its victory over Chicago, Loyll Plinske and Eddie May, would give their lives in the service of their country. Plinske would die in an aviation training accident in 1940, and May, one of Beloit's greatest athletes, would die tragically in France in late May 1945.