In 1903, after winning a national championship with the Michigan Wolverines college football team during the previous season, Fort Covington native Big Bill Palmer was working in Chester, Massachusetts. In subsequent years, homesickness, financial issues, and the supposed need to care for his ill mother were reasons cited by reporters seeking to explain his decision to leave the University of Michigan. The real issue, however, was his status as an amateur athlete. At the time, colleges were cracking down on the use of athletes who were considered professionals, and after winning the national title, Michigan discovered that Palmer, unbeknownst to them, had been paid to play football for Watertown in 1901. By the rules, any type of payment for play changed an athlete’s status from amateur to professional, so Michigan was unable to allow his return to the roster in 1903.
But he wasn’t done with the game just yet. In mid-summer, Watertown’s professional football team, now officially known as the Red and Black, began negotiating with Palmer, having benefited from his great capabilities as a running back, kicker, and offensive lineman during the 1901 season. In early August, the Watertown Athletic Association confirmed that he had signed a contract for the fall campaign.
The team rolled through September with victories over Carthage, 17–0, Cortland, 142–6, and Carthage again, 41–0. In the Cortland game, Palmer scored a touchdown in the first minute of play, and another before the second minute had expired. Watertown’s score in that game still stands as the second-highest point total in professional football history.
The fourth game of the season was in early October against the Philadelphia Athletics, one of three topnotch teams who had laid claim the previous year to the national professional football championship of America (all three had legitimate arguments from different perspectives). Among the stars of the game singled out for praise in the Watertown Re-Union was the home team’s powerhouse fullback: “Big Bill Palmer, the particular favorite of the Watertown supporters, pounded the line of the Athletics hard, and his onslaughts when given the ball were so fierce that not even the giant Kingdon, the wonderful Wallace (hero of so many gridiron battles), or the weight of the strong McFarland, could prevent him from making his five, ten, or fifteen yards whenever he was tried in plunges at the line. Up the field went the ball steadily, with little trouble, the brilliant end running of Draper and Bottger and the line-breaking of Palmer being the chief characteristics of play.”
An estimated 5,000 fans from across northern New York were on hand for the big game. When the Athletics lost, 12–0, Watertown proclaimed itself the current national champion, which went undisputed, in part because the Red and Black had already been recognized for the past three years as one of the four best professional teams in the country.
Also among the best was Syracuse, who played Watertown twice that season, each game ending in a scoreless tie. The Red and Black’s only regular-season loss was to Bucknell College, 12–6, a defeat they avenged later in the year, winning 22–6. Other Watertown victims included Steelton, the highly-ranked amateur champions of Pennsylvania, who fell, 16–5 (Palmer’s numerous excellent kicks were key to the victory), and the Tornado of Orange, New Jersey, a shutout victim at 33–0. The Orange were not your average team. As one of the top four professional squads in the country, they had played in the World Series of Professional Football held at New York City’s Madison Square Garden the previous year, losing to the eventual champions, Syracuse. (Believing themselves to already be the world champs, Watertown hadn’t competed in the 1902 World Series—but the winner, Syracuse, borrowed three backfield men from the Red and Black to help win the title.)
Soundly defeating some of the best teams in the land left Watertown with a nearly unblemished record: twelve wins, two ties, and a loss that had been avenged. At the end of the 1903 season, the football World Series was held once again in Madison Square Garden. Watertown, still considered the current national champion by many observers, accepted an invitation, as did the Asbury Park Oreos and the Orange Tornado, both of New Jersey, and Franklin of Pennsylvania. The Franklin team featured a selection of star players, mostly from the Philadelphia Athletics and the Pittsburgh professionals.
In mid-December, when a six-day bicycle race ended, the Garden’s floor was torn up. Five hundred truckloads of dirt were dumped, spread, and then leveled by a large steamroller to create a football field. A day later, yard lines were added and goal posts were installed. The games began that night.
In addressing the tournament, Brooklyn’s Daily Standard Union accurately defined expectations: “When professional teams line up, dirty and rough tactics are expected.” Watertown first faced the Oreos in what was a wild, brutal affair, at one point requiring the intervention of police to quell a melee after a Red and Black player was punched. As the New York Times described it, “Slugging in the game was a common feature. Every man on the teams was apparently willing, if not eager, to give a little more than he received … two men were ruled off for flagrant violations of the gentlemanly code for pure sport.” In a game the Times said was “fiercely played,” the action centered on intense clashes between the offensive and defensive lines. Palmer, at left guard, was in the thick of it, where his great strength was an asset. Such were the collisions that at one point, an Oreo player was knocked unconscious for nearly five minutes. Watertown’s winning margin, 5–0, came courtesy of a trick play. (Touchdowns counted for five points.)
The following night, Franklin defeated Orange, 12–0. Both games had been surprisingly low scoring, but the result was a dream matchup everyone was anticipating: the generally acknowledged champion, Watertown, versus Franklin, the Pennsylvania juggernaut. Because of its tougher schedule, Watertown was conceded to be top dog, but their final status would be determined by a head-to-head meeting.
The Red and Black battled to the end in front of 3,000 fans, but lost, 12–0, and the Franklin Athletic Club was declared the professional football champions of America. In the consolation game, Watertown defeated Orange, earning them second place in the 1903 World Series of Football—the final year for the tournament and for Franklin, whose owners announced shortly after that they would no longer field an all-star team.
Watertown had lost its champion status, but for Big Bill Palmer it had been a remarkable two years. While playing for one of the legendary teams and coaches in college football history, he had won a national championship, and then spent the next year on the nation’s top professional franchise until they were finally dethroned shortly before Christmas.
He returned to Chester, Massachusetts, about 50 miles southeast of Albany, New York, where he operated Brookdale Farm. Palmer’s impressive exploits on the football field continued for several years, during which he played for or against teams in Chester, North Adams, Dalton, Pittsfield, and Williamstown.
He died in Chester in early January 1956 at the age of 80. Not every player of his caliber made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but as the oldest semi-professional team in the country, the Watertown Red and Black has its own showcase there. In 1970, in connection with that display, the folks at Canton accepted a donated photograph depicting the 1903 Watertown team on which Palmer played, giving him a small presence in the museum.
Photos: 1903 Headline (NY Sunday Telegraph); 1903 article snippet (Potsdam Courier and Freeman)