SI Vault
John Underwood
September 10, 1973
Winner of the annual Wabash-DePauw battle gets to keep an old locomotive bell, assuming it is not stolen first. Last year it went to...
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September 10, 1973

Bell Of The Ball Game

Winner of the annual Wabash-DePauw battle gets to keep an old locomotive bell, assuming it is not stolen first. Last year it went to...

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"I could never have done that at Maryland," Mont said.

It was not Mont I had come to Indiana to see, however. Mont was a bonus, like finding a first-edition Melville in the quarter bookrack at the Goodwill store. It was the game—DePauw vs. Wabash—that had drawn me, through the clouds of my own doubts that college football could still get by in the kind of small-town incubators that spawned it so many decades ago.

Wabash had been playing DePauw in the privacy of western Indiana since 1890, which makes it (orchestra up) "The Oldest Continuous Rivalry West of the Alleghenies." The schools' propagandists cling to this designation as though it were a lifeline, the way other places vaunt their right to be "The Bell Pepper Capital of Kansas" or "The Birthplace of Truman Seymour." There is, nonetheless, a certain cryptic glamour to being the oldest anything, and that is what DePauw-Wabash has enjoyed, "The Oldest Continuous, etc., etc."

Any persevering self-respecting rivalry has to have pains to grow, on, of course, and the seeds of a loving enmity were sown early in this one. DePauw claimed a forfeit of the 1891 game because Wabash didn't show. Wabash has no record of it, but has been unable to get it off the books. When DePauw lost in Crawfordsville one year, its student newspaper reported that "the best team cannot win when playing against 13 men, two of them the officials...[who] were personal friends of the Wabash coach." Wabash backed out of another game because of an incident the year before when Wabash fielded a black player. When DePauw records showed a victory over Wabash that year, Wabash officials conducted a "scrupulous investigation" and found that the losing team was actually Wabash High School.

It was not unusual in those days for DePauw and Wabash to engage such teams as Purdue and Notre Dame, but there were even bigger nuts to be cracked. DePauw played the great Illinois team of 1924 and lost 45-0. Red Grange appeared on the field once during the game to pose for a picture. After the game the DePauw coach "was granted a leave of absence."

Wabash managed to drum up a piece of business with superpower Michigan. Outweighed 30 pounds to the man, Wabash succumbed 22-0. It was considered a moral victory. "Little Giants," someone called them, and the Wabash nickname was born. DePauw's athletic teams are called Tigers. There are no romantic stories about that, but a Wabash professor says that every time the DePauw mascot—a student dressed in a $300 tiger suit—gets near the Wabash stands he loses his tail. Or worse.

By the '30s the rivals seemed to settle at their moorings like aging ships, taking on only routine passage and finding in each other the best reason for existing. In 1932 the Monon Railroad, which ran through the towns of Greencastle and Crawfordsville, donated a 350-pound bell off one of its locomotives as the winner's prize, and most of the intrigue since then has centered on the stealing of and the fighting over the Monon Bell. The series slogged along. It was remarkably even, 36 victories for DePauw, 35 for Wabash and seven ties, when I first heard of it a year ago.

I made my headquarters the week of the game at the General Lew Wallace Motor Inn in Crawfordsville, motoring in from Indianapolis through a misting rain and 33�. The Indiana sky was caked in layers of gray, like an elephant's hide. The sun had made three spot appearances since September, and the bone-chilling dampness had taken root.

Crawfordsville is 30 miles due north of Greencastle on U.S. 231. The tie line is not exactly the labyrinth at Knossos, however, so it is reasonable to say that the towns are compatible. Crawfordsville has a few more people and apparently not as many funeral homes. My first impressions were reassuring. John Wayne was playing at the 88-year-old Strand Theater. A whistling mailman was making his rounds on foot. The police wore American flags on their sleeves.

One of the latter obligingly led me in his patrol car to the Lew Wallace, which I had missed on the first pass through. Wallace was the Civil War general who wrote Ben Hur. His study is now a museum near Wabash, which he attended in 1840. For six days. Nevertheless he remains the school's most famous matriculator and the only name I recognized on the lists of Wabash alumni.

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