As the University of Cincinnati Bearcats suit up for their 135th season, it is almost assured that no one will recall the name of David Graham Phillips. He never played for any UC team and—although enrolled—never attended any UC classes, yet Phillips was profoundly influential as UC organized its first football squad.
Archibald Irwin “Arch” Carson Sr. (1864-1951) ought to know. Carson was there at the very beginning, team captain for UC’s first two football seasons. Since 1910, UC’s teams have competed on Carson Field, named in recognition of his role. Carson recalled the earliest days of Cincinnati’s pigskin enthusiasm on several occasions with slight variations, but he always credited novelist and crusading journalist David Graham Phillips for providing the initial impetus. Here is the version as reported in the 1927 Cincinnatian yearbook:
“Arch I. Carson was the captain of that first Cincinnati eleven. It was he who organized the team upon the suggestion of David Graham Phillips, the year before, and it was he who sent away to a big commercial house in the east for the first football, because there were none in the city of Cincinnati at that time.”
And here is the version as recorded by the Cincinnati Enquirer [17 December 1934] in a profile of Carson:
“The first team at the University was organized largely through the interest of David Graham Phillips, famous author, who aroused interest in football in Cincinnati two years prior to the organization of the team . . . Local sporting goods stores did not handle football equipment in those days. In 1885, Phillips had to send to New York to get a football.”
Even though Carson was the source for both of these reports, they differ in significant details. The 1927 Cincinnatian story has Carson sending to New York in 1884 for a football and a first game against some Mount Auburn amateurs in 1885. The 1934 Enquirer piece has Phillips sending for the football in 1885 and the first game against Mount Auburn in 1886. Both, however, agree that the initial idea for a UC football team originated with Phillips.
Few people today have ever heard of him, but David Graham Phillips was an A-list celebrity during his lifetime. Born and raised in Madison, Indiana, Phillips apparently enrolled simultaneously at Asbury (later DePauw) University in Greencastle, Indiana, and at the University of Cincinnati. Although he actually attended classes in Greencastle, the 1883 UC Bulletin lists Phillips among the freshman class in Cincinnati that year—along with Archibald Carson.
In 1885, when he was either buying a football for Carson or urging Carson to buy a football, Phillips dropped out of Asbury and transferred to Princeton University as a junior. Phillips returned to Cincinnati soon after graduating from Princeton, working first at the Cincinnati Times-Star where he was a general assignment reporter and later at the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette as a feature writer and gossip columnist.
While Phillips was earning his journalistic bona fides at the Cincinnati dailies, UC scheduled its first intercollegiate match against Miami University in Oxford on 8 December 1888. It is not clear whether Phillips attended that earliest game. The local papers gave it little mention.
Not long after that first UC-Miami game passed into the record books, Phillips departed Cincinnati for New York, where he wrote for the New York Sun and the New York World. In his spare time, he wrote his first novel, “The Great God Success.” The novel sold well enough that Phillips resigned from newspapers to embark on a career as a free-lance journalist. His hard-hitting 1906 investigation of political corruption, published as a series titled “The Treason of the Senate” by Cosmopolitan magazine, earned him a national reputation. President Theodore Roosevelt was not amused; it is believed that Teddy coined the term “muckraker” specifically to describe Phillips. On the other hand, that series of articles was instrumental in removing 17 Senators from office and in passing the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing for the direct election of Senators, rather than their appointment by state legislatures.
Phillips published 18 novels, many delving into controversial topics at the time, including prostitution, pre-marital sex, predatory capitalism, political corruption and urban blight. The plot of his 1909 page-turner, “The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig,” is representative of his interests and explorations. According to the South Bend, Indiana, Tribune [16 January 1909]:
“The title of the book gives at once a suggestion of the character of the story—a story of strong, virile personality set among the frothy superficialities of society life in Washington. Joshua Crag, a young western lawyer, is striving to make a name for himself in national politics. In spite of his utter disregard of conventionalities and his frank contempt of the narrowness of the aristocracy, he finds among them one true woman, Margaret Severence. He fights for the supremacy of his fundamental ideas, and slowly but surely the ‘lady’ in her gives way to the ‘woman,’ and she finally yields; and becomes the quiescent wife of a future governor.”
Buried in the details of that novel, a disgruntled violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra named Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough imagined clues that Phillips was plotting against him and his family. Goldsborough, scion of a prominent Maryland political family, stalked the famous author as he traveled around New York City and, on the afternoon of Sunday, January 22, 1911, shot him outside the Princeton Club at Grammercy Park. Phillips lingered for two days until he died. Goldsborough shot himself immediately after the attack and died at the scene. In the years after his death, at least six of Phillips’ novels were adapted for the movies, with one, Old Wives For New, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Today, David Graham Phillips is hardly remembered at all, his books gathering dust and the films they spawned unwatched and even lost. As the UC team charges out for another season on Arch Carson Field, it is fitting to spare a thought or two for the man who first got the ball rolling for the university, so to speak.