Football History As Told By Sporting Goods Catalogs: Cleats and Shoes
Among the sources that best document the state of football at any given time are sporting goods catalogs. Those catalogs tell us the products manufacturers, great and small, offered for sale to high schools, colleges, and, later, professional teams across the country. Short of products still in the testing process, catalogs provide a freeze-frame of top-of-the-line materials -often touted by famous coaches- and the lesser and far lesser goods available to different market segments.
With that premise, this is the second of a series of posts, each of which reviews a few items offered for sales during football's history. In addition to images from period catalogs, I'll use each item to explain elements of football at the time of each catalog's publication.
Part 1 of this series mostly covered footballs and the equipment to repair them. We open this article with a final nod to footballs by looking at white, rather than the brown or tan, footballs we typically associate with the game. When Daylight Saving Time became a thing in 1918, coaches in some locations found their team practicing in the dark, so a few painted a football or two white to enhance their visibility. A few years later, teams played the first modern night games under primitive lighting systems. They also used white footballs so the teams and crowd could spot the ball in the air.
Over the years, sporting goods manufacturers offered white or yellow footballs, white footballs with black stripes, and, more commonly, brown footballs with white stripes to enhance the ball's visibility for games played in poor lighting conditions. High schools, colleges, and the NFL all used white balls at one time or another. The NFL removed the white stripe from its brown ball only after improved lighting conditions made the stripes unnecessary.
With that, our focus turns to players' equipment, and specifically, their shoes. Early American football players used rugby shoes imported from England. Made of kangaroo leather, they were the top-of-the-line equipment for decades, but domestic manufacturers came to dominate the market with shoes made of good ol' cowhide. Like their British predecessors, American football shoes had rectangular, laminated leather cleats set in various patterns. Critically, those cleats were tacked onto the bottom of the shoe, and replacing them required the town cobbler's services.
Along came John Riddell, the football coach at Evanston High School in Illinois during much of the 1920s. Like many coaches at the time, he wanted the ability to swap long and short cleats based on weather conditions. Riddell found his team's needs prioritized after Northwestern, and Riddell's low status in the cobbler's frequent cleater club spurred him to invent the replaceable cleat. His invention proved popular despite early versions possessing a fundamental design error: the first cleats were of the female persuasion. That is, his early cleats were female-threaded, screw-on bolts that extended from the sole of the shoe. These proved dangerous to others when loose cleats fell off, so Riddell and the industry converted to male-threaded cleats that screwed into the shoe's sole.
Besides inventing the replaceable cleat, Riddell produced the first plastic football helmet in 1940. Nothing is more old school than leather helmets without face masks, but we will not cover helmets until Part III of this series. For now, readers must satisfy themselves with the second-most old school piece of equipment, as seen in the following image.
Square-toe shoes were an accouterment of straight-ahead kickers, a species that existed for much of football's first one-hundred years. Their use traces to Chicago's Walter Eckersall around 1905, while Harvard's Charles Brickley popularized their use in the early 1910s. Under football's limited substitution conditions, kickers were starting position players who kicked as a sidelight. They wore position-appropriate shoes during regular play and scrambled before kicking situations to pull off their standard shoe, put on the kicking shoe tossed in from the sideline, and lace-up that baby before attempting the field goal or extra point.
The commotion involved in swapping shoes set another inventive mind in motion with the result that Cecil Cushman, the long-time coach at the University of the Redlands, devised a kicking toe in the mid-1930s that slipped over the kicker's normal shoe. (See most image immediately above.) Cushman's Kicking Toe worked equally well on the right foot or left, which made it particularly beneficial to ambidextrous kickers. Cushman's Kicking Toe gained some popularity, but most kickers continued swapping regular and kicking shoes as the clock ticked away.
Deeming that the detachable toe fell into the category of extraneous equipment, the NFL banned them in 1942, briefly permitted them in the early 1950s, and banned them once again. One might even say the NFL and detachable toes had an on-again, off-again relationship. The NFL went a step further in 1977 by implementing the "Tom Dempsey" rule requiring kicking shoes to conform to the shape of a standard shoe.
Today, square-toe shoes and detachable toes remain legal at the NCAA and high school levels but are rare due to the dominance of soccer-style kickers. First appearing at the major college level in the late-1940s, the sidewinders' presence expanded in the 1960s and 1970s. Their greater distance and accuracy, changes in substitution rules, and increased roster sizes in the NFL resulted in specialist, soccer-style kickers dominating the kicking game by the 1980s. With that, the square-toe shoe became a rarity.
That's about it for catalog oddities from the shoe department. Part III in the series will cover helmets, face masks, and related equipment that have long been missing from sporting goods catalogs.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.