by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Later this week, local high school football championships will be determined from the big matchup in the CIF Southern Section Open Division between private Catholic school powerhouses Mater Dei and Servite to the Los Angeles City Section Open Division battle between second-ranked San Pedro and fifth-ranked Birmingham, which shocked top-seded Banning 37-0 to get to the title game.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection takes us back to 1928 and the penultimate game before the Los Angeles city crown was decided with a program for the contest between Manual Arts and Jefferson high schools on the former’s field. The schools are just a few miles apart from each other, with the former opening in 1910 just southwest of Exposition Park and the University of Southern California, while the latter welcomes its first students in 1916 and is situated in what is often called Historic South-Central.
As close in distance and founding as the two campuses were, however, their gridiron squads were worlds apart during the 1928 campaign. Jefferson struggled to compete with the other teams in its division, which also included Franklin, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Polytechnic and Lincoln highs, and was winless with a tie to avoid a completely ruined season.
Manual Arts, on the other hand, came into the game with a 3-1 record with an extraordinarily stingy defense and a high-powered offense and was considered the favorite to win the championship, as everyone expected the Toilers to blow past the lowly Democrats and then defeat Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day at the Coliseum to take the league crown.
The Los Angeles Express, for example, in its edition of the 22nd reported that “Manual Arts draws a comparative easy game [compared to Lincoln’s matchup with Franklin] against the bumped around Jefferson outfit,” adding that “the Toilers . . . figure to smash the Democrats without a great deal of trouble.” Looking ahead to the holiday contest, the paper concluded that “with one hand on the title already the Toilers will be out to pile up the points today.”
So, it was a foregone conclusion what the outcome was going to be and there were no surprises at all. As the program shows, it was slow going in the first quarter as Manual Arts scored a touchdown, though it was unexpected that they didn’t put more points on the board in that opening round. This was more than made up for in the second stanza, though, as the team posted 20 more points and went into halftime with a 27-0 lead.
The last two quarters found Manual Arts scoring two touchdowns each, though there were two more missed extra points to slightly mar what was otherwise a near-perfect shellacking as the team pounded poor Jefferson 53-0. What high school football fans were looking forward to was the contest with Lincoln that would decide the city title and most observers seemed to feel that Manual Arts could not be stopped and would claim the crown.
In its brief capsule, the Los Angeles Record of the 23rd recorded that “Manual Arts worked true to form yesterday” as “the Jefferson lads were smothered under a barrage of passes and a fast running attack.” The Los Angeles Times spent more ink on its coverage, beginning with the observation that “it rained touchdowns” at the blowout and “the Jefferson Democrats were caught in the deluge without umbrellas.”
Fullback Gordon Keller scored three touchdowns and also kicked a conversion on the final score of the game. Right end Kenny Moeller scored on both offense and defense in the second quarter, with a 30-yard ramble on a pass from team captain and left halfback Hugh Towle (listed as Towel in the program), while also picking off a pass for a forty-yard score.
The four scores in the second half were by right halfback La Monte, Towle, Keller, and Tent, the latter not appearing on the program and the paper not saying what position he played. The Times did allow that Quarterback Herb Cirino, left halfback Sylvone Creecy and left end Angeles Allegretti were “outstanding players on the Jefferson eleven,” but it sure didn’t look like the Democrats got much accomplished in the shellacking the team received.
Meanwhile, Lincoln defeated Franklin, which was only slightly better a squad than the hapless Democrats with just a 1-3-2 record on the season, 27-6, with the Tigers scoring first in the second quarter and then racking up two more scores in the third stanza—the trio of ouchdowns were by the team’s star Alpheus Osborne. After Lincoln put another seven points on the board in the fourth quarter, during which everybody on the team got some playing time, Franklin finally got in the end zone to avoid a shutout.
In the run-up to the final game, which was a preliminary to a match between the University of Oregon Ducks and the U.C.L.A. Bruins, the Times of the 25th noted that “Coach Jim Blewett’s powerful Manual Arts eleven will be the favorite” calling the team, led by probably the best high school coach in the city section’s early years, “one of the most powerful teams in City League history.”
For example, the paper pointed out that the Toilers racked up 148 points, nearly 30 a game, while holding their opponents to just 13 points, or under 3 per contest, and these were scored in a surprising loss to Los Angeles High, 13-7. Lincoln, by contrast, scored half as many points and gave up twice as many, though that was still an impressive 71-26 margin.
The article did note that “comparative scores and records, though, seldom mean much in high school football ranks” and it added that”the Tigers are confident that they can give the Toilers a tough afternoon on the Coliseum greensward.” Moreover, Los Angeles Poly was in the running for the title and looked to defeat Hollywood and then hope for a Lincoln triumph.
On the 29th, the paper remarked that Toilers players tended to become a bit overconfident, which is apparently what was the main contributor to the surprise defeat to the Romans, and it added “it may step in and be the cause for another upset this afternoon.” The Times noted that “this overconfidence business ranks with time as a great leveler on a football field.”
It also observed that star fullback Ed Mesa, a rare Latino gridiron notable, was in the hospial with a leg infection. His Manual Arts counterpart Chuck Gabriels was considered “the life of the Manual offense and “a cinch for [the] all-city” squad, known for his dexterity in the running game unlike Osborne and Jim Klubnick,the other Tigers halfback.
The Record of the 26th noted that Hollywood took advantage of turnovers in the previous year’s matchup with Poly and was coming off an impressive 24-7 beating of the Los Angeles Romans. The paper continued that, “”The Manual-Lincoln clash in the coliseum [sic] ought to be an interesting one, though Manual is the heavy favorite.” Yet, it went on, “Lincoln has a powerful team” even as “the Manual machine is even more powerful.”
Whether there was any excessive bravado from the Toilers, the Thanksgiving matchup did prove to be a stunning result as Lincoln not only prevailed, but kept Manual Arts out of the end zone with a 14-0 victory (the college game that followed saw Oregon easily defeat U.C.L.A. 26-6). The win allowed Los Angeles Poly to claim the city title because, although it tied Lincoln in the standings, it had defeated the Tigers. Manual Arts, whose former star, Charlie Erb (the California player of the year as a quarterback in 1917), was in town coaching the University of Idaho in a game on the 24th against USC and which the Trojans won 28-7 to clinch the conference title, finished the campaign at 4-2.
The Times edition of the following day noted that “a dusky shadow answering to the name of Alpheus Osborne cruised up and down the Coliseum greensward yesterday afternoon in a series of dynamic dashes” in a game expected to have the Toilers as three touchdown favorites. Sid Ziff, the sports editor of the Express, however, decided to focus his coverage in a most blatant way about the “colored boy” who was the star of the game, as he was in the Hollywood contest the previus week:
“Eephus” Osborne is his name, folks. Plain Alpheus “Eephus” Osborne, an Ethiopian, and a Lincoln High School football player. In a football suit he raced like a black typhoon . . . “Eephus” is a born football player. When he gets that pigskin under his arm he forgets he isn’t carrying something else and just runs like a cyclone . . . “Eephus” was the idol of his race when the game was over . . . they had him surrounded outside the portals of the stadium and listened to him glowingly recount his deeds
“Ah didn’t know just what ah was doin’ when ah broke through an scored that theyah touchdown, but ah just run and run and pretty soon ah knowed ah was a hero” And the others all applauded while his teammate Bib Browne seconded him. “Yoh sho did, ‘Eephus’ and that ain’ no kiddin’.”
The use of “black dialect,” which was so endemic and systematic in white American media, is, of course, something that can’t be overlooked, as we have no way to corroborate if what was reported by the Express is actually what transpired. Not only that, but the assertion that Osborne, a senior who obviously practiced regularly with his team and was fully versed in the game plan employed by the coaches and mastered by the players, did not know anything other than to “run and run” is plainly ludicrous.
Osborne, who was born in Los Angeles in 1910 and died in Las Vegas in 1997, was clearly an elite high school athlete of his time (he also ran track and played trumpet), but one wonders if the Express felt compelled by the racism of the era to portray him as somehow less skilled than white players (even if his injured teammate, Mesa, appears to have been Latino). He did earn all-City honors as a fullback and went on to play at Pasadena City College, though, in the 1930 census, he, the only son of Alpheus, Sr., a caterer and former county courthouse elevator operator, and housewife Madeline (nee Moulton) was unemployed. Incidentally, living at the same address near Echo Park was the Dolphy family, including a Eric, Jr, who was not quite two years old, but who went on to be one of the great jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1940, Alpheus, Jr., who worked for a WPA road crew and then the Los Angeles Annex of the Postal Service, resided in the former Dolphy house.
Finally, as strong as Manual Arts was in football and sports generally (including such alumni as football players John Arnett and Tom Fears, along with baseball player Lyman Bostock and basketball star Dwayne Polee), it had some very distinguished alumni in other fields, including famed baritone opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, artist Jackson Pollock, film director Frank Capra, writer Irving Stone, Califonria Governor Goodwin Knight, World War II flying ace Jimmy Doolittle and Black notables like actor Paul Winfield, pioneering woman politician Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, and comedian and actor Robin Harris.
Jefferson High may not have been as successful in sports, but it had a very impressive roster of major talents in the arts. Just some of the great names include dance legend Alvin Ailey, writer and critic Stanley Crouch, singers Etta James, Merry Clayton, Ivie Anderson and O.C. Smith, and jazz masters like Roy Ayers, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss, Chico Hamilton, Art Farmer, Don Cherry, Melba Liston, Big Jay McNeely and Horace Tapscott—most of these taught by school music instructor Sam Brown. Other alumni of significance were athlete and actor Woody Strode, political scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche (who was a top-notch athlete, as well), and politician Augustus Hawkins.
This program is an interesting and notable artifact concerning late 1920s high school sports, specifically football. It takes on a tangential significance, due to its connection to the Coliseum contest in which Alpheus Osborne played a stellar game, but whose Blackness was subjected to racist characterization. This is just another reminder that a historical object has a literal interpretation, but there are associated stories that can broaden, deepen and enrich beyond the direct content.