In 1909, during the days of few helmets, lots of mud and an occasional forward pass, people in the stands weren’t always sure who was on the football field because the players didn’t wear numbers.

Putting a number on their backs

Oregon's Civil War of football is finished for another year. Hope your team won.

The Beavs and Ducks, of course, have had a long, long history, facing each other 115 times, with each having their favorite games.

Back in 1909, Oregon State was the Oregon Agricultural College, and they weren't the Beavers, they were the Aggies. With a new coach and a completely new system, it was going to be a tough year, but experts thought there was a chance they might be a dangerous contender.

The Ducks were having their own identity crisis. For years, students had called themselves the Webfoots, but by 1909 the state had generally adopted "The Beaver State" as its nickname. U of O students briefly changed the name of their yearbook to "The Beaver," but after thinking about it, quickly switched back to "The Webfoot."

That year, the Ducks were bringing back 15 football veterans and were expected to be a machine, the "best team that ever represented those lemon-yellow jerseys on the gridiron."

Their biggest threat was going to be the University of Washington on Thanksgiving Day. Washington had shut out the team the previous year, and Oregon fans were hoping for a tough-fought scrimmage for revenge. What the fans didn't know yet was that Northwest football history would be made that day.

At the end of November, after dropping Corvallis 12-0 on a rain-drenched field in Eugene, the undefeated Webfooters were beginning to dream of the Pacific Northwest Conference Championship.

It had been the hardest game of the year and the coach thought the boys deserved four days of light workouts at the American Lake Resort, south of Tacoma.

This was the heaviest team that ever snapped a ball for Oregon. Pinkham, a tackle, at 180 pounds, had added 20 pounds to his rookie-year weight, and Mitchell and Bailey, graduates of Eugene High, were both carrying at least 200 pounds.

The big announcement came on the weekend before the Turkey Day game. Officials announced that for the first time in the history of Northwest football, players would wear numbers.

This was even big news for the Mail Tribune, which almost never carried results of anything but local football games but endorsed this "tagging" idea.

"This step toward making the college sport more attractive to the spectators has long been urged by many interested in the development of the game," said the story.

"It is thought that this sort of arrangement makes it easier for spectators to keep track of the game and the different stars of the opposing team."

The black numeral on a player's back was linked with the player's name in a special 52-page, souvenir "Turkey Day Program" compiled by Washington football starters Will Coyle and Mel Mucklestone.

"Should this prove successful," wrote a reporter, "without doubt, next year it will be followed in all the big intercollegiate games."

The numbers thing caught on and the Ducks became a part of sports trivia history.

But it was another, relatively new innovation, the "scientific forward pass," that really hung a number on Oregon's back.

Washington captured their second championship in a row with a 20-0 victory over the Ducks.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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