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The University of Michigan boasts one of the most storied programs in college football history, with 11 national championships, 42 conference championships, the second highest all-time winning percentage (73.0%) and the most all-time wins (925) over the school's 137 seasons. The Wolverines played their first interscholastic football game in 1879, but only played a total of 34 games over the following 12 years. In 1896, Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Chicago, and Northwestern formed the "Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives," the forerunner to the Western Conference and the Big Ten Conference. The mission of the conference was ostensibly to provide administration and uniform regulations for college athletics, but the secondary benefit of promoting compelling rivalries and increasing gate receipts was most certainly a factor in its creation.

The Wolverines opened their 1896 season with huge non-conference victories over Michigan Normal School (18-0), Grand Rapids High School (44-0), Chicago Physicians and Surgeons College (28-0), Rush Lake Forest (66-0), and Lehigh (40-0), and walloped Purdue (16-0) in their first ever Western Conference game. Michigan's opponent on November 7, 1896, the University of Minnesota, however, would be no cakewalk. The Golden Golphers came into the game with a 7-0 record and a total margin of victory of 152-12.
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August 2016
1896 Michigan-Minnesota
Trophy Melon Football

After a scoreless first half, Michigan's fullback Ignatius Duffy plunged into the endzone for a touch down (4 points) and Gustave Ferbert converted the goal after touch down (2 points). Minnesota scored a touch down late in the game, but elected to attempt a "kick out" instead of a goal after touch down from a difficult angle. The kick out was snuffed by the Wolverine defense, and Michigan held on for a 6-4 victory. The game would be the University of Michigan's second ever Western Conference win and their first ever victory against Minnesota on Athletic Field in Minneapolis.

Michigan would win its next two games against Oberlin College (10-0) and Wittenburg College (28-0) and entered its season finale against Amos Alonzo Stagg's University of Chicago Maroons with a 9-0 record. The Maroons scored a goal from field (5 points) and a safety (2 points) after a blocked punt. The Wolverines responded with a touch down and a goal (6 points) but were defeated after fumbling the ball at the Maroons 20 yard line late in the game. The close loss cost the Wolverines the inaugural conference championship. Wisconsin, with a 2-0-1 conference record, was declared champions on the strength of their 24-0 victory over Chicago.

Our August 2016 Artifact of the Month is a remarkable relic from Michigan's first season in the Western Conference, a trophy game ball from the Wolverine's November 7, 1896 win over Minnesota. The ball, which commemorates the Wolverine's 6-4 victory, is one of the earliest known college trophy footballs and one of the rarest University of Michigan football relics in existence. The game was only the fourth meeting between the two schools, and just Michigan's second victory over the University of Minnesota.
1896 Michigan Wolverine Football Team, Photo from the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
1896 Michigan Wolverine Football Team, Photo from the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
While the provenance of the ball has been lost to time, the stitch pattern, and lacing are an exact match with the ball held by James Hogg in the 1896 Michigan team photo. Measuring 28 inches along the long axis and a massive 25 inches about the short axis, the ball is consistent in size with late nineteenth century rugby footballs. In comparison, a modern football measures 28 inches by 21 inches.

The size and construction of the ball, and the condition of the weathered paint, leads me to conclude that the ball is likely the game ball from the November 7, 1896 Michigan-Minnesota football game, as it was common practice during this period for teams to paint game balls from big wins and display them in the school's trophy case.

Footballs were relatively expensive in 1896, so it's unlikely that a fan or a player would paint a perfectly usable collegiate ball for a keepsake.

Provenance and Origin

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AntiqueFootball Artifact of the Month
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