As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, September 19, 2010
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
“It was in a big, old glass jar,” says Bobby Huddleston, remembering his years from 1946 to 1949 at Murfreesboro Central High School. “And it looked like a pickled apple.”
In the fall of 1920, the first four-year senior class at Murfreesboro Central High School initiated one of the most enduring and intense high school gridiron rivalries in Tennessee history. In the final game of the season, the undefeated Murfreesboro team traveled to Clarksville to play the Wildcats.
(The Murfreesboro high school opened in 1917 in new facilities on the west side of the 400 block on North Maple, across from Crichlow, the city grammar school now replaced by the county health department. The football program began in the fall of 1918. The north end of the high school campus was the football practice field in the early years.)
In the build-up to this season-ending clash, someone proposed a wager of sorts and began the “tradition of the apple” in which “the pickled fruit is the symbol of defeat.” Clarksville fans are generally thought to have prepared the trophy in anticipation of the visiting team from Rutherford County, but other sources suggest that “a certain apple was implicated in a bet by some Central boys.”
Whatever the origin, Murfreesboro accepted the 1920 challenge in the spirit of good sportsmanship and with confidence in their superiority.
But alas, the expectations of the visitors were dashed and the undefeated season was not to be had. Clarksville won the match-up 12 to 6 and the pickled fruit came home with the Rutherford boys to be kept and returned only upon future victory over Clarksville.
Captained by Jack Todd, the 1920 team included Bilbro Allen, John Lillard, Charlie Crichlow, Irby Epps, William Ridley, Albert King Jr., Aaron Todd, John Woodfin, Henry McCullough, Marthame Sanders, Euless Bell, Henry White, Doran McKnight, Boyd Kerr, Roger Sanders and James D. Brandon. Coach Moore, like a number of his successors, was not identified as part of the school faculty.
Coaching turnover may have handicapped the Murfreesboro team in those earliest years. Coached by S. H. Chester and captained by John T. “Stuff” Woodfin, the 1922 team was boasting only three wins when they headed to Clarksville for a season finale. Again, they brought home the apple losing 6 to 0. Coached in 1923 by Jess Neely, the Murfreesboro Central High School Tigers, enjoying a home crowd, finally dominated their rival in a 20-0 romp.
But Neely was on his way up through the coaching ranks and was gone by the next year. Coach R. M. Blair, Neely’s successor, with many of Neely’s players still on the team, actually won a game in Clarksville. The 1924 contest ended Murfreesboro 19, Clarksville 6, and the apple stayed in the Wildcats trophy case.
The “Apple Game” was still a special challenge in the mid-1930s when David “Leo” Ferrell, Richard “Hokey” Jones, Captain James Stone, Ben Kerr, Matt “Doc” Murfree, Ben Hall McFarlin, Tom Cannon, Bill Shacklett and John “Frog” DeGeorge were playing at Kerr Field for Coach C. L. “Pap” Cummins and Assistant Coach Baxter Hobgood.
Cannon remembers that the Clarksville game was the only game in the 1934 season where he played the entire game (offense and defense) without substitution. (Kerr Field, between First and Second Avenues a block south of East Main had been part of the old Mooney School campus. Named for an early city schools superintendent, it was used for several years as the practice and playing field for the high school. The late Brad Miller remembers that if you were late dressing out for practice and missed the ride to Kerr, you were expected to run in full practice gear from the North Maple campus to the practice field.)
“The ’34 Tigers were most pleased with the Clarksville Apple Game,” remembers Cannon. “We compared our ’34 contest with that game the previous year when our 1933 Little Tennessee Champs (undefeated, untied, scored on only once) beat Clarksville 13-6. Our ’34 team beat Clarksville, didn’t allow them to score, and beat them (6-0)…on their home field!”
The Apple Game on Kerr Field in 1935 was a disaster for the home team (Clarksville 26, Central 0), but Murfreesboro got rid of the Apple with a win in ’36. Reporting on the 1937 Thanksgiving Day game on page one of The DNJ, sportswriter Charley Cawthon headlined “Tigers Nick Clarksville 7-0, Lawrence Blocks Kick and Tommy Tucker Recovers to Line Sights, B. L. Tucker Hurdles Over Goal After Tigers Drive to Three Foot Line.”
According to Cawthon, the 1937 Apple Game “made you wish the Central season was just starting instead of ringing to a close.” Seniors playing their last game included Marvin Lea, Raikes Slinkard, Fred Cassity, Roger Smith, Richard Smotherman, Tommy Tucker, Albert Lawrence, Charley O’Brien, Sewell Manley, Charley Byrn and John Bond. (Injured seniors Harry Cook and Frank Faulkinberry watched from the sidelines.)
In a self-congratulatory, season-ending mode, Cawthon concluded: “And so ends our last account of a 1937 football game…the only distinction we claim for it is that not once were the phrases ‘send the apple back to Clarksville’ or ‘Turkey day battle’ used in connection with the game.”
Anticipating the rivalry in November 1938, the school newspaper reported: “Tomorrow afternoon the Central Tigers will journey to Clarksville to battle the Wildcats in the final game of the season. This is the well known Apple Game. The losing team keeps the apple until it defeats the winning team; then it is presented to the captain of the losing team. For the last two years the apple has remained in the Clarksville showcase. This year the wildcats are determined to return the apple to Murfreesboro.”
Determination prevailed in the 1938 match-up on a cold and wet Thanksgiving Day in Clarksville. Due to a snowfall the night before, and a cold wind during the day, “the gridiron was six inches deep in cold, sticky mud.” The game was marked by frequent fumbles and seven blocked punts. The Central Tigers brought home the apple losing 13-0.
The 1939 contest was a reversal of the previous year. Playing in near perfect weather on Jones Field in Murfreesboro, the home team triumphed over Clarksville 13-0. In a special ceremony at the Central High auditorium, “Captain Dick Russell presented the traditional pickled apple to Clarksville Captain Billy Miller…with tears in his eyes, Captain Miller accepted the much-hated fruit and vowed that it would be returned to Murfreesboro (after the next year’s game in Clarksville).”
And so it was in 1940 when Clarksville claimed the conference championship by defeating a tough Murfreesboro team 6-0 with a disputed call. On the final play of the game, John Pitts grabbed a Clarksville fumble and ran 88 yards for an “apparent score,” but officials ruled the ball down before the fumble. Coach John Dixon “protested vigorously” to no avail.
But the “Apple Game” in 1941, just days before “the world changed” on December 7 (Pearl Harbor), brought vindication. Led by Captain Allen Prince, “Wild Bill” Nesbett, and J. C. McBroom, Murfreesboro romped to a 25-0 victory. “Climax of this Apple Day occurred at Central after the cheerleaders for both teams had whipped the jammed auditorium to a fine frenzy,” according to the newspaper report. “Captain Prince introduced each member of his victorious team and Coach John Dixon, then presented the hated sour apple in its jar of alcohol, symbol of defeat, to the Clarksville captain, who took it saying he hated to take it worse than anything he ever had offered to him.”
After the 1941 ceremony, both teams were treated to a Thanksgiving dinner at Mrs. Shipp’s Café on East Main Street. Pickled fruit was not on the menu.
Except for two years when wartime travel restrictions and rationing curtailed high school athletics, the Apple Game tradition endured. When post-war play resumed in 1944, the Clarksville Wildcats went on a tear with a four-game win streak. But the 1948 Tigers, in their second year under legendary coach Lee Pate, sent the fruit back to Clarksville. Led by team captain Jack Pearson, Earnest Adams, Billy Noel, Billy Miller and Howard Alsup, the team had 8 wins and only 2 losses. “In the traditional Apple tilt … perhaps the most thrilling game of the season,” according to school documentation, “the Tigers came from behind” to win 12-6 and end their losing streak.
The 1949 season would have been “just another mediocre season” for the Tigers “but for the most important things such as the traditional Apple battle with Clarksville which the Tigers won (20-12),” according to the school annual.
The “never to be forgotten” 1950 Tiger team went undefeated winning the Midstate Championship averaging over 30 points per game. The Apple Game in Clarksville, however, was a “hard fought battle” with the Tigers prevailing 12-6 but losing team captain George Harvey to injury. Lineman Billy Rogers achieved All-State honors; Earl Roberts, George Harvey and Jimmy Neal earned All-Midstate recognition; and Dallas Cook, Brock Sanders, Bucky Hayes, Howard Haley, Steve Ralston, James Allen and Max Goff received All-Midstate Honorable Mention. (Jimmy Taylor remembers that Richard “Hokey” Johns, a team alumnus from the 1930’s, drove the team bus for the 1950 champions.)
With only four wins, 1951 was “a very discouraging season” for the Tigers, according to school records, but “they conquered the most important ones.” Clarksville was left with the Apple for the nineteenth time in a 13-6 outcome. Rogers repeated as All-State, and Sanders, Hayes and Allen made the All-Midstate squad.
Clarksville was forced to keep the pickled fruit in 1952 and 1953, but in 1954 the Wildcats were favored. Due to some “minor ailments,” Coach Pate was unsure of his starting line-up and the Wildcats had a “big weight advantage.” Led by the outstanding play of Bobby Modrall, the Tigers out-clawed the Wildcats 14-13 in a “hard fought” battle. The outcome and Clarksville’s retention of the apple may have been predicted, however, since “someone forgot to bring the apple” to the game.
The Tigers’ historically worst Apple Game performance was in 1955. The newspaper report that they were “badly beaten” 55-0 was an understatement.
From 1956-59, the “symbol of defeat” stayed in Clarksville while Charles Brandon, Howard “Poochy” Wall, Truman Jones, Charles Hord, and John L. Batey were among those playing for the Tigers. This was followed, however, by an eight-year period of Clarksville dominance, broken only by a 1963 Murfreesboro win. Circuit Judge Royce Taylor remembers some of those years.
“I think I played in the worst year ever for the Central Tigers,” confesses Taylor, remembering the 1961 season. “We finished 0-9-1.” (The school annual fails to report or acknowledge the 1961 football season record.) Butch Vaughn, Andy Adams and Woody Robinson were among those playing for the Tigers in 1960-62.
Clarksville native Johnny Roe remembers the 1964 game. “We rotated the team captain title among the seniors that year, and I had the honor of being captain for the Apple Game,” recalls Roe. “It was a very close game, and one of my best games on defense. We won 14-13. The apple was kept under our bench during the game. When the game ended, I carried the old jar across the field and handed it to the Tigers’ captain (Don Warren). Standing in the midst of all the Murfreesboro players, I thought it prudent to simply say ‘good game’ and head back over to my side.” (Warren and teammate Dickie Thomas earned All-State honors for the 1964 season.) The Apple Game, the season opener, was the only 1964 Tiger loss.
But as Central began its final quadrennial in 1968, the pickled apple settled into its final resting place. David Parsons was a freshman traveling with the team in 1968. The apple was on the team bus as the Tigers headed to Clarksville for the annual match-up. “The jar was in a wooden crate with slats where you could see the apple.” Coach Gene Windham, in his first year following Pate, knew the significance of the Apple and prepared his team. “We won (15-10), but I don’t remember how the apple was presented to the losers because of all the fights going on around the bench,” said Parsons, recounting another Apple Game tradition.
In a 1969 home game, Murfreesboro put the Apple back on the bus to Clarksville with a 13-6 win as part of a 9-1-1 season. On Friday the 13th, Apple Day 1970, the undefeated Tigers headed to Clarksville with the conference championship on the line in this last regular season game. With outstanding offensive play from Parsons, Leo Martin and Leon Alexander, the Tigers won handily (20-7) to become the fifth Tiger team to go undefeated.
Murfreesboro Central opened its final football season in 1971 “playing traditional rival Clarksville in the last annual Apple Game.” The Tigers won easily (28-6) and went on to achieve a 9-2 season. Quarterback David Parsons earned All-Southern and All-State honors. Terry Haynes was another All-Stater.
The final score for the 50-game rivalry (1920-41, 1944-71): Tigers 31, Wildcats 19.
The ultimate fate of the Apple, the “pickled fruit,” “the symbol of defeat” — unknown; last seen in the possession of the Clarksville high school athletic department.
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.