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The Rise & Fall of the Celestial Comet – Podcast #176

It’s October 1941. War is raging across Europe and Asia. Here in the United States, there is an uneasy feeling that it was only a matter of time before our troops would be drawn into the conflict. The December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor was still a couple of months away.

And when people are on edge, they seek out some form of escapism. Something that will distract their minds from the stresses of daily life and an impending war. Some will turn to alcohol, some may bury themselves in their work, and others seek various forms of entertainment like radio, motion pictures, and sports.

Prior to the war, the most popular sports in the United States were baseball, boxing, and track and field. Professional football was still in its infancy and the dominant form of play was on the collegiate level. And one of those football teams was about to crush all of its opponents and move forefront into the hearts and minds of fans all across the nation.

The front page of the New York Times sports section on Sunday, October 26, 1941, gives a good glimpse of the teams that were playing at the time. A large table titled “Football Scores” summarized the results of forty-six college games that were played the previous day. Some are well known: Army vs Columbia, 13-0; Navy vs Harvard, 0-0; Cornell vs Colgate, 21-2; and Dartmouth vs Yale, 7-0. Then there were some lesser-known schools listed: Hartwick vs Lowell Textile, 21-0; Green Mountain Junior College vs Vermont Junior College, 13-0; and Blair Academy vs Scranton Junior College, 37-7.

New York Times Football Scores from October 26, 1941.

I won’t bother you with the results of all of the games, but I was particularly interested in the seven teachers’ colleges that were listed. That may not seem like a lot, but those colleges made up about eight percent of the teams. Keep in mind that the bulk of the schoolteachers at the time were women, so it struck me as peculiar that these schools would even have enough male students to successfully compete among the bigger schools.

Not that these teacher colleges did exceptionally well that week: Hofstra vs Trenton Teachers, 38-6; Howard vs Dover Teachers, 13-0; Mansfield Teachers vs Morrisville Aggies, 36-6, Potomac State vs Shepherd Teachers, 13-0; and Grove City vs Slippery Rock Teachers, 0-0. (Slippery Rock is a real school. It was founded as the Slippery Rock State Normal School in 1889, was renamed the Slippery Rock State Teachers College in 1926, and is currently known as Slippery Rock University. It’s located in western Pennsylvania.)

Of all the teams listed that day, no school captured the public’s attention more than New Jersey’s Plainfield Teachers. They had beaten Winona 27-3. Reconstructing their season from the newspaper archives is a difficult task, but I was able to determine that up until their game against Winona, the Plainfield Lions had already beaten Benson Institute, 20-0 on September 27; Scott, 12-0 on October 4; and Chesterton, 24-0 on October 11. (Sidenote: The team had been playing every Saturday, but I was unable to find any sources that confirmed that a game was played on October 18. There are several reports that they played against Fox, but no score could be located.)

With each passing week, the Plainfield Teachers team would somehow crush its opponents and remain among the ever-shortening list of unbeaten teams.

Everyone loves an underdog, especially when a small school like Plainfield seems to come out of nowhere. After Plainfield walloped Randolph Tech, 35-0 on November 1, the press began to take notice. One week later, they buried Ingersoll (PA), 13-0.

The following day, November 9, New York Post reporter Herbert Allan wrote, “John Chung, Chinese sophomore halfback, has accounted for 57 of the 98 points scored by his unbeaten and untied team in four starts… If the Jersey dons don’t watch out he may pop up in Chiang Kai-shek’s offensive department one of these days.”

While Allan’s Chiang Kai-shek comment would be deemed inappropriate today, his focus on Johnny Chung’s performance was spot on. Known as the “Celestial Comet,” Chung would emerge as college football’s star athlete that fall. His exploits were perhaps a bit exaggerated by the sports writers: In their game against Ingersoll, it was reported that “Chung scored on a forty-seven-yard run for the first tally and dragged five tacklers with him for the second.” Another report said that “Chung was a ‘full-blooded Chinese’ who gained an average of 7.9 yards every time he carried the ball, due largely to his habit of eating wild rice between the halves.” (Yeah, right… Would anyone make such remarks today?)

New York Times Football Scores from November 2, 1941.

Yet, there was no doubt that the Celestial Comet was a force to reckon with. Should Johnny Chung lead his team to win both the next two games and Atlantic City’s New Year’s Eve Blackboard Bowl championship, he was almost certain to be awarded the Heisman Trophy.

Plainfield’s head coach was a guy named Ralph “Hurry-Up” Hoblitzel. No clue where that nickname came from, but he had once been a star player for another seemingly fictitiously named school, Spearfish Normal. Yet, it once was a real school. Located in Spearfish, South Dakota, the school was renamed Black Hills Teachers College in 1941, became Black Hills State College in 1964, and assumed its current name of Black Hills State University in 1989.

Hoblitzel is best remembered for his “Winged W” formation. Over the years, numerous articles have attempted to explain how it worked, the most detailed being in the July 31, 1950, edition of the Elmira Star-Gazette. Reporter Alan Gould Jr writes that Hoblitzel “used a revolutionary ‘W’ formation in which the ends faced the backs and generally accounted for not only a fifth but also a sixth man in the backfield.” I know little about football, so I will leave it to others to interpret how this worked, but my hunch is that this description is still a bit off.

New York Times Football Scores from November 9, 1941.

There were two other important players on the Plainfield team. The first, who is only briefly mentioned by name in the press, was six-foot-three (190.5 cm) tall pass receiver “Boarding House” Smithers. The other was right tackle Morris Newburger, who would prove critical to both the team’s incredible success and their ultimate downfall.

More on Newburger later in the story. It was his actions that would not only bring an end to the team’s winning streak but also forced the school to permanently eliminate football. And, let’s face it, any team that chooses mauve and puce – that’s pale purple and reddish-purple – as their team colors should never have been allowed to play in the first place.

The beginning of the end for the Plainfield Lions came shortly after Herbert Allan’s November 9, 1941, New York Post blurb. While football is fun, members of the Plainfield team were students at a college that was preparing them to become teachers. And that meant passing their exams.

Jerry Croyden, the spokesman for the team, issued a press release that read, in part, “Six of our players including Chung flunked their midterm exams and now the last two games must be forfeited. What happened to Plainfield shouldn’t happen to a dog.”

Plainfield’s incredible winning streak was brought to a sudden halt. They had to forfeit games against Appalachian Tech on November 15 and Harmony Teachers on Thanksgiving Day. The players’ dream of going to the Blackboard Bowl had been squashed.

But what if the team had been able to play those games? Well, my crystal ball can help answer this question. What I see is a cloudy future for the Plainfield Lions. But wait! A vision is appearing within the amorphous sphere. I see… I see… Yes, the Plainfield Teachers would have definitely won both of those games. And… And… They would have buried Appalachian Tech 40 to 27.

How can I say this with certainty? It’s not that I am any great visionary. I just happen to know the rest of the story.

A lot of what was reported was totally wrong. Johnny Chung, the Celestial Comet, had never scored a single point. Coach Hoblitzel’s “Winged W” formation was never executed. In fact, Plainfield Teachers lacked everything required to have a successful football team: players, coaches, opposing teams, a football field, and even a school. It would be safe to say that Plainfield didn’t even have a football. In other words, it was all just one big hoax.

Although one tiny bit of the story was true. The team’s right tackle, Morris Newburger, really did exist. The problem was that he wasn’t on the team. In reality, he was a Wall Street stockbroker and he had made the whole thing up.

Newburger was born on February 26, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Harvard in 1926, he joined his family’s investment firm of Newburger, Loeb, and Company. The origins of the company could be traced back to a wholesale clothing business started in the 1860s by his grandfather, also named Morris Newburger, which later transitioned into the securities business. This was a multigenerational family business that would continue until its bankruptcy in 1974.

Morris Newburger. Photo from the 1926 Harvard Class Album
Morris Newburger. Photo from the 1926 Harvard Class Album.

The younger Morris Newburger was a huge sports fan and took great interest in the scores that were published in the papers. Then, he began to wonder aloud about some of those lesser-known schools. Were they legit? Could there really be a Slippery Rock Teachers College?

Newburger also realized that there was no way that reporters from any of the big New York City newspapers could be attending any of these obscure games. He concluded that the papers were dependent on someone at each of these schools calling in the game results every Saturday night.

This was something that Newburger could have a bit of fun with. He would create a fictional team and see if he could dupe one of the New York papers into print the results of one of their never-really-played games.

First, he needed a name for the team. He jotted down several plausible names but ultimately settled upon Plainfield Teachers. His main reason for choosing this was that one of his secretaries was from Plainfield, New Jersey. (Perhaps the Flying Figments would have been a better choice…)

Next, he set out to create a fall schedule for the team. This meant coming up with nine opponents, all of which were also fictional teams. And he predetermined the outcome of every game.

  • Fictitious Team – Check.
  • Fictitious Fall Schedule – Check.
  • Fictitious Opponents – Check.
  • Fictitious Game Results – Check.

The only question was would any paper fall for it? The only way to find out was to call one of the papers.

During the evening of Saturday, October 11, 1941, the phone rang at the New York Herald-Tribune. Sports Editor Harold Rosenthal picked up the handset.

Newburger asked, “Sports department?” He added, “I’d like to report a football score. Plainfield Teachers 17, Winona 3.”

Rosenthal queried, “Plainfield Teachers, that a New Jersey school?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

Rosenthal stated, “Okay, thanks very much,” and hung up the phone.

Newburger wondered if Rosenthal had really fallen for it. He decided to call the New York Times and do a repeat performance.

The next day, Newburger went to a nearby newsstand and picked up copies of both newspapers. And, sure enough, both had printed the Plainfield Teachers game results.

Many years later, Rosenthal would comment on his falling for the prank. “It was not uncommon for the smallest schools to telephone their scores because of the lack of telegraph facilities. Also there were a good many small schools taking up football and dropping it continually.”

It was at this point that Newburger began to create the players on his imaginary team. It’s unclear where the name Johnny Chung came from, but nearly all the players on the team were either relatives or people who worked at Newburger, Loeb, and Company. And while coach Hoblitzel’s name may seem totally made up, the brokerage once had an affiliate in Baltimore named Cahn, Newburger, & Hoblitzell.

Plainfield Teachers football team comic 1963
Comic from the article “Undefeated, Untied and Unfounded” by John T. Cunningham that was printed in the December 6, 1963 edition of the Ocean Grove Times on page 10.

After the New York Post ran that glowing piece on Johnny Chung, Newburger decided to kick the whole thing into high gear. He knew that any top-notch football team needs a good PR person, so Newburger hired the best in the field, a man named Jerry Croyden. Newburger, of course, knew that Croyden was perfect for the job, mainly because they were both one and the same person. The name came from the Croyden Hotel, which was located at 12 East 86th Street in Manhattan.

It would be Croyden’s job to send out press releases, contact the news outlets, and handle the team’s scheduling. A telephone dedicated solely to team business was installed in Newburger’s office. To make it all seem legit, stationery emblazoned with the words “Plainfield Teachers Athletic Association” at the top was printed.

Every Saturday evening, after each fictional game supposedly ended, Newburger would assume his Jerry Croyden persona and call in the results of the latest Plainfield win to the New York papers. His friend, Alexander “Bink” Dannenbaum would contact the Philadelphia Record and do the same. Initially, the two men failed to coordinate the information that they would pass along, which resulted in Plainfield having played different opponents in New York and Philadelphia. But eventually, the two got their stories straightened out.

It’s unclear as to how the hoax was exposed. There have been several theories put forward.

The first, and most repeated, was that Time magazine somehow caught wind of the hoax. Some theorized that a disgruntled Wall Street broker tipped them off, but no proof was ever provided. Newburger supposedly begged Time to allow the Plainfield Teachers to finish out their season and play in the Blackboard Bowl, but the magazine refused to play along. In response, Newburger wrote that one last press release describing how the team had to forfeit its remaining games because so many of its players had failed their midterms. Time, being a weekly publication, would not publish its story “Sports Page Error” until Monday, November 17, 1941, which was three days after it broke in the newspapers.

It was writer Caswell Adams, writing for the already duped New York Herald-Tribune, who beat Time to the punch by writing about the hoax the previous Friday. His article, “Brokers Find Phantom School Easy to Sell in Football,” began with a simple poem:

Far above New Jersey’s swamplands
Plainfield Teachers spires

Mark a phantom, phony college
That got on the wires.

Perfect record made on paper,
Imaginary team!

Hail to thee, our ghostly college,
Product of a dream!

Adams, who passed away in 1957 at the age of fifty, said that it was pure luck that he had been the one to uncover the hoax. He credited a friend for learning about Newburger’s phone calls to the papers.

It’s unclear who that friend was, but it was reported that Irving Marsh, who was the assistant sports editor of the Herald-Tribune at the time, received an anonymous tip and then attempted to learn more about the Plainfield Teachers team. After calling the Board of Education in Plainfield and discovering that the team never existed, he may have asked Adams to pen the story. But that’s pure conjecture on my part.

In the end, the Plainfield Teachers managed to accomplish several things: First, they were the subject of the 1957 teleplay “Plainfield Teachers College,” which ran on national television. Next, the team easily duped The New York Times, which is very difficult to do. And lastly, the team’s story will forever be in the history books.

The Plainfield Teachers will forever be remembered as having been unbeaten, untied, and unreal.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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