No one can agree who won the first RPI-Union football game, here’s why it should stay that way

By William Dunn January 18, 2023

The annual Dutchman Shoes game is always a highlight of the Rensselaer football season. Football fandom on campus is generally lukewarm at the best, but Dutchman Shoes games inject some much-needed excitement into the weekly game. The RPI Engineers and the Union Dutchmen have a historic rivalry—the fifth oldest in NCAA Division III and the oldest in the state of New York. People like Kurt Stutt and Kevin Beattie at RPI have devoted countless hours to chronologizing the history of this rivalry. Yet, despite each meeting between the Dutchmen and Engineers adding to the legacy of this rivalry, no one can agree on who won the first game in 1886. RPI states it was 11–4, while Union claims a score of 4–0, albeit adding that it is disputed on their website. When I first started this article, I was inclined to believe 4–0 was the score, considering the RPI Engineers were awful at football in the 1800s and especially against Union.

Before we go any further, I need to state that I love RPI football. Hell, I manage the sports broadcasts at WRPI. It brings me no pleasure in saying Union used to cream us.

RPI football has regained their footing against Union in recent years. Since the loss in 2000, RPI has gone 13–8 against Union, winning the last Dutchman Shoes game pretty handily. But RPI didn’t undisputedly win a Dutchman's Shoes game until 1899, almost a decade and a half of losses since the first installment. Even that win was by just one point, and that victory was followed by ten-straight losses. Looking at the early Dutchman Shoes record, there’s a lot of shutouts in Union’s favor. The lackluster scoring output that the Engineers had in the 19th century hurts their 11-4 narrative.

Further hurting RPI’s case is its history of less than stellar record keeping. RPI used to claim a 5–4 win against Union in 1888, which Union claims they have no record of. However, there was a 5–4 Engineer victory against Union in 1888...in baseball. Somehow the May 12, 1888 extra-innings baseball win seemed to be counted as a football win. Furthermore, RPI used to claim that only one game against Union College was played in 1901, a 18–0 rout on October 26. Yet, in the October 24 edition of The Polytechnic, there is an article about the missing 17–0 loss against Union. Although these are all currently updated on RPI’s website, these discrepancies mixed with the tenuous record of early RPI football made me believe Union’s side of the story.

And then I found the archives of Union’s student newspaper.

The Concordiensis is one of the oldest student newspapers in the country, and it has an article on the 1886 game. It states while the Engineers did in fact score 11 points and the Dutchmen only scored 4, the article accuses the referee – listed in RPI’s paper as a ‘Mr. Murdock’ – of not knowing anything about football and calling the game early. The article also states that the referee admitted to having “money up” (i.e. bet money) on RPI after the game. In the end, Union elected to rescore the game based on the rules of the American College Association, determining that the officiating was the sole reason eleven points were scored. Then and there, Union decided the score should have been 4–0 in their favor with the ‘right decisions.’ RPI’s paper lists the 11-4 score, and only mentions the referee in passing, writing that there was ‘much kicking’ from Union’s players at the end of the game and that the spectators agreed the referee's decisions were “fair and impartial”.

I need to stress how wild Union’s side of the story is. Their argument is that some guy bet money on a college football game between two teams that had never played each other before, faked football credentials to get to be the referee, and successfully fixed the game for the Engineers. Let’s assume all that is true—why would the referee then admit it to the Union students? It’s just too ridiculous to be true.

And yet, in a weird way, I think the story is too ridiculous to be false, either. In a similar sense to why would the referee say that, why would Union make it up? Why rescore the game when Union kept similarly close losses untouched? Union brings into question the referee’s claim that he played football at Princeton, and I can’t find any Murdock who played for the Tigers in the 19th century. Furthermore, RPI’s account states that the game was so dark that the two teams could hardly make each other out, so is it really too hard to believe that the officiating was less than stellar? Not to mention, football was basically the Wild West in the 1800s. I mean, touchdowns used to be four points and field goals were worth five. The idea that a rogue referee interfered with one of the oldest football rivalries in America to the point that the very first score is still disagreed upon a century and a half later by sports nerds like me is kind of special. It's the weirdness that only early college athletics can provide, like the 0-222 Cumberland-Georgia Tech game or how the first ever game at Rutgers and Princeton had 25 man sides. With how long ago it was, and how little information we have on what really went down, I think no one can call it definitely. I think the dispute should stand.

When I first started writing this article I intended to find a definitive answer to the question: What was the score of the first RPI-Union game? But now, I realize that this dispute over the score is a part of the history of the game and of the rivalry. It would feel wrong to tamper with it because it would take away from the mythos. After all, would it be fair to give RPI a win when everyone who played in it, everyone who witnessed it, is gone? Or should we stick to the present and watch two teams add onto the history of a rivalry that began with a game played in the dark, between two football teams that had only played one other game before, and potentially refereed by a con man with no knowledge of the game?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go to Schenectady.