It is 1936 and a string of 18 Pullman and baggage cars is moving slowly eastward out of California's Moraga Valley. Were we to peep into one of the Pullmans, we might feel for a moment that we were snooping on a musical film stage with dances by Busby Berkeley. True, Dick Powell cannot actually be seen singing to a coed, nor is Jack Oakie readily apparent, but their presence is somehow felt. If an assistant director sould come by and if we were to ask him, he would tell us that this is no movie, it is simply the football team of tiny St. Mary's College setting forth once again to lay siege to another famed citadel of football and Catholicism.
St. Mary's players, though bulky enough themselves, make up only a fraction of the expeditionary force. They are accompanied by more than 200 singing, swinging businessmen, shopkeepers, secretaries and other camp followers, described as loyal fans of St. Mary's and its high-pressure coach, Edward Patrick (Slip) Madigan.
Before the introduction of regular commercial planes between California and New York, the cross-country journey consumed about four days. In addition to its sleeping, dining and reveling facilities, therefore, the St. Mary's Special contained a "gym car" equipped with rubdown tables, exercise mats, bucking machines for the linemen's use and a battery of showers.
For the latter purpose, the gym car carried its own supply of water, a commodity one was not likely to find anywhere else on the train. Madigan, the perfect host, had provided his Pullman alumni with all the trappings of an American Legion convention to beguile the tedium of an arduous journey.
At the other side of the continent, where St. Mary's was scheduled to play Ford ham in the Polo Grounds, New Yorkers followed the party's progress. Wherever the train stopped, as it did in Chicago to give the players a chance to work out on the turf at Soldier Field, bulletins were flashed to New York. This "hard news" supplemented the press releases dispatched earlier by Madigan and his imaginative press agents.
Though St. Mary's College antedated Madigan, its existence had been a well-kept secret until Slip arrived. Fewer than 100 students were enrolled there in 1920 when its football team earned a small measure of notice by losing to the University of California 127-0. The following autumn the Christian Brothers who ran the school hired Madigan to help spare it such unwanted publicity.
Slip, who had played center under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, was a large, cocky Irishman with a booming voice and a louder wardrobe. He set to work assembling husky young men to preserve the school's honor and a sufficient number of uniforms to clothe them. Since football players came cheaper than uniforms in those days, Madigan spent much of his early years buying up secondhand jerseys and repairing damaged cleats.
Within a year his team went down with all flags flying before powerful California 21-0. A year or two later, the frequency with which it was upsetting its better-known rivals gained St. Mary's the reputation of a "giant killer." By that time Madigan had dubbed his team "the Galloping Gaels," though his failure to secure many genuine Gaels prompted verses like these from Sports-writer George Phair:
The Harp that hangs in Tara's Halls
Sings out in accents rich,
As Herman Meister throws the ball
To Luben Popovich.
As increasing gate receipts enriched St. Mary's treasury, the school moved out of its dingy building in Oakland and found a bright new campus in the Moraga Valley. At the same time, Madigan began to shun the dark plumage worn by conventional teams of that era in favor of the wildest colors in the rainbow. He experimented with tear-away jerseys as well as the T formation. Rival coaches also accused him of concocting the "forward fumble" to pick up vital yardage.