How Football Became Football: The History of Hash Marks
Football fans seldom think about hash marks. Some don’t realize hash marks are positioned at different distances from the sideline at the high school, college, and professional levels, yet the introduction of hash mark ranks among the most important innovations in the history of football. If that statement seems far-fetched, imagine watching a football game played on a field without hash marks. Where would the referee spot the ball when the ball carrier is tackled near the sideline or runs out of bounds? If either of those events occurred in the red zone, from what spot would a team attempt a field goal?
Fans watching football in the old days did not need to imagine football without hash marks because sixty-four years of football passed before the lowly hash mark was first chalked on a gridiron in 1933. Before hash marks, each play began wherever the previous play ended. As shown in the image below of a Yale game during the 1904-1909 checkerboard field era, the teams aligned near the sideline when the previous play ended there. If the ball was placed far enough from the sideline to allow the offensive team to align in their regular or balanced formation, they did so and ran their normal plays. Having the sideline nearby constrained their play calling to that side so their primary option to gain significant ground was to run away from the sideline. Of course, the defenders understood the situation and overplayed to the wide side of the field.
Some plays ended with the ball carrier being downed very close to the sideline and the teams adjusted their formations as a result.
Take a close look at the image below from a 1922 game between the University of Rochester and Hamilton College. The teams are lined up for what appears to be a first down play since the pole for one end of the chains lies on the ground at the tip of the football. The man in the white sweater is likely the head linesman, while the man in the white shirt and tie to his left is the referee. (The striped shirts worn by referees were first used in the early 1920s, but that is the subject of another story.)
Hamilton’s offense is aligned with the center next to the sideline, the guards and tackles are to his immediate left. The ends are further out, but are still relatively close to the ball. The Rochester defense is also aligned close to the sideline.
The quarterback (#12) is “calling signals.” Almost all quarterbacks communicated the next play to their teammates by calling out code words (akin to today’s audibles), since few teams huddled in those days. Every team devoted portions of their playbook and practices to running and defending plays along the sidelines, so we can assume the quarterback signaled one of those plays.
While the sideline constrained play calling in these situations, the lack of hash marks also constrained play calling from the middle of the field since a sweep or pass near the sideline might result in their player being downed near the sideline once again. That constraint was strongest inside the red zone since teams needed to consider the angle available to their kicker on future field goal attempts. In short, the rules limited offenses from running more open offenses so the game remained heavily run-oriented.
Under the rules in the 1920s, ball carriers running out of bounds or passes thrown out of bounds resulted in the next play being spotted fifteen yards in from the sideline. On plays ending near the sideline, the ball continued to be spotted wherever the ball was downed. Since coaches are clever little fellows, they taught their quarterbacks that the best strategy when near the sideline was to run or pass the ball out of bounds. Doing so moved the ball fifteen yards infield for the next play, albeit at the cost of a down. (This is akin to quarterbacks spiking the ball to stop the clock in today’s game.)
Starting in 1930, the cleverest coaches recognized that wasting these downs was, well, wasteful, so they considered potential rule changes to submit to the national rules committee. One study showed the typical game had fourteen wasteful “sideline plays.” Following the 1932 season, college coaches submitted recommendations for spotting the ball infield when a play ended near the sideline.
During the same weeks the college coaches made their recommendations, the professional football season ended with the 1932 NFL Championship game in Chicago. Due to extremely cold weather, the Bears moved the game from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium, a basketball and hockey arena. The indoor field was 80 yards long and 45 yards wide rather than the standard 120 yards by 53.33 yards. Playing inside on a smaller field with hockey boards surrounding the field led to several rules adjustments, one of which was to start play ten yards inside the sideline on any down in which the previous play ended within ten feet of the sideline. Although hash marks were not chalked on the field, the game was the first played in which, by rule, the ball was never spotted close to the sideline.
The NFL, which followed the college rule book through the 1932 season, created its own rule book for the 1933 season and both the college and NFL rules committees implemented hash marks for the 1933 season. Both started with hash marks ten yards infield, but the distance has varied over time while creeping further infield. (Today, the NFL hash marks align with the goal posts at 70 feet and 9 inches infield; college hash marks are 60 feet infield; and high school hash marks are 53 feet and 4 inches infield, splitting the field into three equal zones.)
Hash marks impacted the game’s development because they ensured the offense had the realistic option to run each play to the right or the left. As the hash marks moved further infield over time, the flexibility available to offenses increased. Hash marks were soon followed by offensive formations that moved ends out as wide receivers. Later, flankers replaced one of the running backs and so on. Each move required defenses to spread out and opened more options for the running game.
That brings us to the second stage in the development of hash marks. The first hash marks consisted solely of short stripes intersecting each yard line. The playing fields of the 1930s to the mid-1950s look barren compared to today's field. As seen in the videos below, the field was a plain expanse of green other than the yard lines, hash marks, and occasional yardage numbers near the sidelines. That remained the case until John Lockney arrived on the scene in 1954.
Lockney was a football fan from Waukesha, Wisconsin with an idea to add stripes running parallel to and between the yard lines in the hash mark area and along the sidelines. Lockney added his lines on the local high school field in 1954 and they were a hit. Fans and announcers were better able to judge the yardage gained or lost on a play, while officials found them useful for spotting the ball, particularly after penalties or incomplete passes on the other side of the field. Lockney Lines also reduced the need for officials to bring the chains onto the field for first down measurements.
Lockney then convinced the University of Wisconsin to add his lines for a nationally televised game against Rice in 1954. There was only one college game televised each week at the time, so the game between the #3 Badgers and the #11 Owls drew a large TV audience and the Lockney Lines were a hit once again. Television viewers, announcers and others praised the innovation and the word spread. Lockney Lines began appearing here and there with the Green Bay Packers adopting Lockney Lines in 1955. The college rules committee made them mandatory for the 1956 season.
The striping on football fields has seen little change since 1955, though painted logos now adorn midfield and the 20-yard lines, decorated end zones abound, and virtual first down lines and logos now appear for the television audience, but the lowly hash mark has stood the test of time. And it changed the game of football along the way.
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