In 1947 the citizens of Cazenovia in Madison County mounted a campaign to have the proposed hall of fame or shrine honoring American players of “football” located in their community.
Supporters at the village, town, county, and state levels joined in the effort to bring the hall of fame to Cazenovia. Assemblyman Wheeler Milmoe who represented Madison County introduced Resolution No. 154 in Albany in support of Cazenovia’s claim to fame. Gov. Thomas Dewey also voiced strong support for the idea. There were other places in the nation politicking for having the “football” hall of fame located in their communities.
Partisans of locating the shrine in Cazenovia touted the village’s location and proposed a site along Route 20 with “far-reaching views” and an abundance of parking. They claimed that on the last official highway census count 5,862 cars passed through scenic Cazenovia. They also argued that were the proposed hall of fame located at Cazenovia, it would be but “a few miles” from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Backers of the Cazenovia proposal believed that they held the trump card. Gerrit Smith Miller, grandson of the Gerrit Smith, the famous abolitionist and reformer of Peterboro, was born in Cazenovia on January 30th, 1845. His parents were Elisabeth Smith Miller, the suffragist daughter of Gerrit and Ann Smith, and Charles Dudley Miller, a banker. The family lived at 15 Linklaen Street, a house that still stands but has been significantly altered since the Millers resided there.
Cazenovians and their allies proudly declared that Gerrit Smith Miller, about whom I have written as America’s pioneering breeder of Holsteins, should be honored as the inventor of the game of organized “football.” By right of birthplace, then, Cazenovia should have the Hall of Fame. Opponents of this assertion may have pointed out that the Miller’s family moved to Peterboro, New York, when their son was one year old, but birthplace is birthplace.
“Gat” Miller and the Oneida Boys
At the age of fifteen, Gerrit Smith Miller, affectionately known as Gat, enrolled in an all-male private Latin school in Boston founded by Epes Sargent Dixwell. A natural athlete, Gat participated in pick-up games with fellow students and in competitions with students at other elite schools. The boys engaged in so-called football contests where the rules varied. The play was rough and tumble. Miller took it upon himself to sort out the chaos and with fellow students from Dixwell founded the Oneida Football Club in 1862. The “Oneida Boys,” as they were called, played their first game with a regular roster using Miller’s rules on Boston Common.
A half century later Miller, then in his nineties, was still referring to the game that the Oneida Boys played as football. Sorting out the tangled history of the origins of the sport Miller and his chums played is a complicated matter. Sport historians are themselves at a loss to untangle the genealogy of the game. The games of football, soccer, and rugby as we know them today have evolved over time. Gridiron football as it is played now was not what the Oneida Boys played.
Some writers claim that the Oneida Football Club (which Miller was captained) was playing soccer, a game known as “association football” in England. I am watching a premier British league game of football on television now, but it certainly doesn’t look like the game of football that my favorite team the Green Bay Packers play today. Those incredibly gifted athletes can kick the ball but not pick it up and run with it.
Honoring “Gat” Miller at the Soccer Hall of Fame
I have before me a copy of the Special U.S. Soccer Presidential Citation awarded Gerrit Smith Miller by the United States Soccer Federation on June 12, 1993. The award credits Miller with being the “founder of the Oneida Football Club of Boston in 1862, the first organized soccer club in the United States.” The award ceremony took place not in The Hall of Fame Museum that opened in June of 1999 in Oneonta (Otsego County) and grew into the Wright National Soccer Campus, but an old brick building located in downtown Oneonta.
The award, of course, had to be given posthumously. “Gat” Miller died in Peterboro on March 10th, 1937, at the age of 92. Representing Miller were two women from Peterboro, Dorothy Willsey and Beth Spokowsky. Willsey told me that there was an empty chair next to hers. The name tag on the chair indicated that it was reserved for Pele, the famous Brazilian professional soccer player. As he was a no show, he was inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame in absentia. Gerrit Smith Miller, though credited as being the founder of a team that played the first soccer game in the United States, received but a presidential citation. I wonder if Miller’s lifelong insistence that the Oneida Boys had played football and not soccer had anything to do with his not being formally inducted.
Who has the Ball?
Oneonta’s Soccer Hall of Fame closed due to financial problems in 2010. When still open to the public, my wife and I toured the exhibits where we saw one dedicated to “Gat” Miller and the Oneida Football Club. I remember seeing a ball that was labeled as having been used by the Oneida Boys in a famous match played in November 1863 when they defeated an elite team composed of players from Boston’s High and Latin Schools on Boston Common. That ball has become “the holy grail” to devotees of soccer history.
Miller kept the ball at his home in Peterboro until November 16, 1922, when he donated it to the Boston Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The ball is now in the collections of Historic New England in Boston. There may be a competitor for possession of soccer’s holy grail. The National Soccer Hall of Fame, presently located in Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas claims that it has the oldest soccer ball used in the United States, but that ball has no names on it and, according to Djorn Buchholz, Executive Director of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, probably dates from the 1920s.
Photographs of the ball used in the famous 1863 game on Boston Common show an object that resemble a squashed oval, not a round soccer ball or football such as used in the gridiron game played Friday nights by our local high school football team, the Cazenovia Lakers. The names of the Oneida Boys are inscribed on the back of the ball.
The next time you visit Boston Common, walk over to Frog Pond. Close by you will see the Oneida Football Club Monument. The inscription reads: “On This Field the Oneida Football Club of Boston, the First Organized Football Club in the United States Played Against All Comers From 1862 to 1865. The Oneida Goal Was Never Crossed. This Monument is Placed on Boston Common, November 1925 by the Seven Surviving Members of the Team.” Gerrit Smith Miller’s name appears on the back of the monument, along with the names of his living teammates.
A close look at the monument today reveals a curious anomaly. The chiseled image depicting the rubber ball allegedly used by Miller and his chums looks like the spherical object that soccer players kick around in games now. Yet a photograph taken November 24, 1925, of the Monument sports a chiseled relief of what looks like a football, though not exactly like the squashed oval ball used in that famous 1863 game.
In the early 1990s the football-shaped relief at the top of the monument was re-shaped into a round object resembling a soccer ball. Traditionalists such as Tom McGrath, who for many years acted as the guardian of the legacy of the Oneida Boys and protector of the monument, called a foul. I suspect “Gat” Miller would also have been upset. The ensuing tussle over the shape of the ball underscored how convoluted the lineage is of Miller’s game.
Cazenovia did not win that competition in the late 1940s for the location of what was to be a national football hall of fame. The honor went to New Brunswick, New Jersey, because of the claim that Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game there. That hall of fame bounced around several times in the succeeding decades, finally ending being divided with the hall of fame for the college game in Atlanta, Georgia, and the hall of fame for the professional game in Canton, Ohio.
Given the tangled web we’ve explored, I’m of the mind that Cazenovians should be satisfied with what we have – an undisputed claim of having been the birthplace of Gerrit Smith Miller, a gifted athlete and superior human being. His motto in sport as in life was: “Defeat with Honor is better than Victory with Dishonor.”
Illustrations, from above: Gerrit Smith Miller at 78 from James D’ Wolf, Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played (Boston: Riverside Press, 1907); Playing “football” on Boston Common, from James D’ Wolf, Old Boston Boys and the Games The Played (Boston: Riverside Press, 1907); National Soccer Hall of Fame, Oneonta, NY, before it closed from Wikipedia.org; Tom McGrath with display of the game ball at Historic New England Museum; Soccer Ball, National Soccer Hall of Fame, Frisco, Texas, image courtesy of Djorn Buchholz; Seven Surviving Members at the Oneida Football Monument on Boston Common in 1927, Gat Miller first person to the left of the monument, from Winthrop Saltonstall Scudder, “An Historical Sketch of the Oneida Football Club of Boston, 1862-1865,” typescript October 18, 1926; Photo of house Gerrit Smith Miller was born in on January 30, 1845, located at 15 Sullivan Street, Cazenovia, taken by Milton Sernett.