Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate for president, surveyed the crowd packed inside of Bailey Hall. The election year was 1940 and Thomas had no chance of unseating incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt — he probably knew it, too.
Still, he told the cheering crowd that Cornell had given him renewed confidence in America. If only our enemy nations, he said, could take from an example of such good sportsmanship. If only they could act like Cornell had in conceding a win to Dartmouth after videotape showed that the Red had won on an illegal fifth down.
“I was kind of surprised by the reaction of the newspapers in that it seemed to pat Cornell on the back more than it did Dartmouth,” said Lou Conti ’41, a center on the 1940 football team. “That seemed to be the tenor, and I think a lot of people wrote that it was an amazement more so than anything else that such a thing could happen and did happen.”
Indeed, never in the history of college football, and never since, has a team voluntarily conceded a game. There was nothing requiring Cornell to do so. In fact, some questioned whether or not an unofficial “forfeit” would actually change the score. Needles to say, it did.
“We have done the right thing, and this will live with us,” said President Edmund Ezra Day to the 1940 football squad after receiving the telegram from Dartmouth accepting the Cornell concession. “We shall not have to spend the rest of our lives apologizing for a tarnished victory.”
To a bunch of college students, though, this didn’t sound too appealing.
“[The student body] was almost like a family,” Conti said. “So I think the feeling of the student body was pretty much the way team felt — that we should have won the game and shouldn’t have given it back to them and that [the Dartmouth people] were so-and-so’s for taking it back.”
If Ithaca is ten square miles surrounded by reality, then the real world was sending positive reinforcement.
“[Sportsmanship] remains in its true form so seldom these days that when it can be truly applied, as it can to Cornell University, … there seems again to be hope in the world,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune. “… It is such as [Cornell head coach] Snavely and Cornell that will save college football from being swamped by the professionals.”
“If we were Cornell,” stated the New York Times. “We wouldn’t trade that telegram for all the team’s victories in the past two years.”
These editorials were reprinted in The Sun, perhaps to try and consol a crushed student body. A Sun front page story appeared a few weeks later, recounting a writer’s run in with Michigan’s star tailback, Tom Harmon.
“There isn’t a team in the Big Ten that would have displayed such sportsmanship,” Harmon told the writer. “In my opinion, Cornell is about tops in any man’s football league and their gentlemanly action at Hanover showed them to be good losers — and that’s something it’s hard to be when an undefeated season is at stake. … Given good weather, you guys would have trimmed the pants off Dartmouth.”
All the attention certainly could not have assuaged all the pain, but in retrospect, all the players realized that the popular sentiment was correct.
“The pride is now. It wasn’t then,” said Frank Finneran, a guard and defensive lineman on that 1940 team. “I can just remember my father telling me. He said, ‘Son, they will never remember that you guys were undefeated and that you had the greatest team in the nation. But they’ll never, never forget that your college awarded that game back to Dartmouth. That will go down in history as one of the greatest honors that a college has ever had.’ And he’s so right. No one ever remembers the Cornell team that year, but so many people remember the fifth down. They’ll remember it forever. He was right.”
The players were even able to make light of the situation within a few weeks of the game. After an injury-depleted team lost its annual end-of-the year game to Penn, 22-20, Conti went off to play in the East-West All-Star game.
“[The Big-10 and SEC players] just couldn’t believe it, that this kind of a thing could happen,” Conti said. “That you could make an offer after you walk off the field and the score is X. … So we had a little bit of a discussion and ribbing on that.”
And as much as the game was revered as the savior of sportsmanship and integrity in America, it also became the 1940 equivalent to a late night talk show punch line — as did referee Red Friessell, who made the fateful error. Asa Bushnell, the head of the Eastern Football Association, sent him a telegram that read: “Don’t let this get you down … down … down … down … down.”
Friesell was the head of the Curbstone Coaches Association as well. When he spoke before them a few weeks after the game, someone ran in breathlessly to deliver him a telegram (which The Sun dutifully reprinted) from the Dartmouth campus. It read, “Entire student body breathlessly waiting word from you. Did we really lose? Can’t you do something for us?”
Friesell’s only support came from a prisoner at Sing Sing, where he was officiating a prison match. The inmate consoled him; “Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why we’re all here.”
All joking aside, the game has lived on as an unparalleled example of unprovoked conciliatory action.
“I’m very proud of Cornell today for what we did,” Finneran said. “The fifth down, that will go on forever.”
“It’s a great thing to be a part of it,” Conti said.