Why the Diplomats?

by Jill Colford Schoeniger, '86

Special thanks to Franklin & Marshall library staff members who helped with the research for this article, namely Michael Lear, Christopher Raab, and Tom Karel.

 

monikers

 

 

 The 1935 football game in which Franklin & Marshall nearly upset national powerhouse Fordham University stands as one the highlights in the College’s sports history. Not given a chance against Fordham—which was considered one of the best teams in the country and featured future NFL Hall of Famers Vince Lombardi and Alex Wojciechowicz—the Franklin & Marshall squad led 7-0 entering the final period at the Polo Grounds, before succumbing 14-7.

Coming off an 8-1 record in 1934, Franklin & Marshall was considered among the country’s elite small-college teams. But nary a soul felt the boys from Lancaster could compete with the mighty Fordham Rams and their legendary “Seven Blocks of Granite”—picked by many experts as a sure bet to advance to the Rose Bowl, the only post-season game in 1935.

 With a surprising 7-0 halftime lead, F&M huddled in its locker room listening to Coach Al Holman map out strategy for keeping the Rams at bay during the second half. And, strangely, that’s when one of the turning points of that Sept. 28 game occurred.

F&M was a few minutes late in returning to the field for the second half. Because of its tardiness, the team was slapped with a little-used delay of game penalty that gave the ball to the Rams at the F&M 35-yard line. Though Fordham didn’t score on that possession, the penalty helped shift the momentum of the game. The heavily favored Rams went on to score twice in the fourth quarter to eke out a victory.

Following the game, the New York press lauded the talent and determination of the Franklin & Marshall team, cementing F&M’s place in the top tier of small-college football programs.

In addition to boosting the program’s reputation, the game held further significance. Legend has it

J.W. Nevin
J.W. Nevin

 

that the team name “Diplomats” was born after the Fordham game. Prior to this season, common nicknames were Nevonians, which honored the College’s second president, John Williamson Nevin, as well as Big Blue or Blue and White, which are the school colors.

Tracing the citations back, a Dec. 12, 1939, Student Weekly editorial credits the nationally renowned sportswriter Eddie Dooley with being the person who dubbed the team the “Diplomats,” following the Fordham game.

Other reports credit a different New York writer—Arthur Daley of the New York Times—with coining the name when he wrote about the notorious penalty: “The Diplomats’ downfall could be traced indirectly to their penchant for oratory, conference, or just plain gas in the clubhouse, a failing customary in the diplomatic services of both hemispheres.”

As is often the case with legend, however, the facts bear out a different truth. The story that contains the now-famous phrasing actually appeared in the New York American and was penned by Lewis Burton. In the second paragraph, he writes: “The Diplomats from Lancaster, Pa., as the F. and M. boys are known, buckled under the strain.”

But Arthur Daley does play an important role in the Diplomat debates. He did in fact write about the F&M-Fordham game for the New York Times—and what he wrote proves to be significant. That’s because he used the name “Diplomats” in a story before the Fordham game, thus overturning the legend that the name was born after the game.

On Sept. 27, 1935—the day before the showdown—Daley wrote: “The meeting of the two institutions on the gridiron will be the first played since 1907, when the Rams downed the Diplomats 51-0.”

In his game story the next day, Daley repeatedly referred to Franklin & Marshall as the Diplomats. And he was not alone. Stories citing the “Franklin and Marshall Diplomats” also appeared in the Sept. 29 editions of the New York Sun and Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, in addition to the aforementioned New York American. Therefore, since so many sources mention Diplomats, it proves that the name preceded the Fordham contest.

So when did Diplomats really make its first appearance? Digging a little deeper, one finds that the name “Diplomats” had been bandied about for more than a year before the Fordham game—and not just by New York writers.

Back in 1934—a full year before the F&M-Fordham game—“Diplomats” popped up in F&M’s student newspaper. A Nov. 21, 1934, commentary in the Student Weekly called for the student body to come up with a new name for the sports teams: “Wanted—A Name: There is one urgent need at F. and M. . . . It is a nickname for our intercollegiate athletic teams.”

The following week the paper printed a letter from Ira Honaman ’18, who put forth the use of Diplomats. “May I suggest the nickname ‘Diplomats,’ which was used for our football team in this year’s issue of the Annual Illustrated Football Classic and also in the program of our game this year with Lafayette,” he wrote. “This name well fits our college . . . and is a name that will not change with new administrations, new coaches, or good or indifferent teams.”

The Illustrated Football Annual was a national magazine that rated college teams. Its 1934 issueFootball Illustrated   (right) —one year before the Fordham game—does refer to Franklin & Marshall as the Diplomats. The magazine ranked the 1934 team 150th in the country and said: “F&M plays steady, heady football, and the man-power is well up to standard.”

Lafayette program - 1934

 

The Oct. 13, 1934, Lafayette–Franklin & Marshall football program book (left) contains the word “diplomats” (with a lowercase “D”) when referring to the Lancaster team, though it was anything but official-sounding: “For visiting here today is a delegation of diplomats that doffed their gloves and high-toppers long enough last Saturday to prove how essential the word [perhaps] is to the vocabulary of all prognosticators.”

Honaman’s suggestion so amused the student editors that they ran a lengthy piece lampooning the name “Diplomats.” In a Dec. 12, 1934, parody, the F&M players hand out cards to opponents, carry briefcases, and use flowery, “diplomatic” language about the sporting way to compete. In the end, the editors implored the student body to “think up a good rip-snorting nickname.”

However, College officials seemed to have taken notice of “Diplomats” and began using it at the start of the 1935 season. Exactly when this decision was made is unclear, but if “Diplomats” was suggested at the end of the 1934 football season, then the first time the name could really have been put into effect would be the 1935 season.

The Fordham program book—which would have been written by Fordham staff—referred to F&M as the Nevonians and Blue and White. But in F&M’s first home game of the season—Oct. 5 against Philadelphia Military College (PMC)—“Diplomats” appears in the program: “Last year under Coach Holman, the Diplomats went through one of the most successful seasons in its history.”

A few days after that PMC game, it’s finally made clear to the world that “Diplomats” is the official nickname, as reported in the Oct. 8 Student Weekly. “After several unsuccessful attempts which were made during the past three years to find a suitable moniker for all of Franklin and Marshall’s athletic teams, one has been found,” the editors wrote. “Henceforward all varsity teams at the Blue and White institution shall be known as ‘The Diplomats.’ This title has been used for some time by newspaper scribes and football magazine editors throughout the East, and recently ‘Uncle Charley’ Mayser gave his stamp of approval.”

All subsequent stories used Diplomats as the primary team name, and the Lancaster papers picked up on the name later that same season.

So while the name “Diplomats” was circulating for some time, the near upset of Fordham and all the press the team received seemed to have reinforced the name in the minds of the press and fans. Maybe that extra attention was the final, gentle, “diplomatic” push the name needed to become official.