February 09, 2011
The Alabama-Auburn football rivalry was not quite five years old in 1907, but the struggle for instate bragging rights already mattered enough to enshrine victory forever – or for at least 100 years. That's how long the above cartoon, commemorating "Defeat of Auburn by U. of A. Football, 1906 and Baseball, 1907," sat in a time capsule beneath Smith Hall on Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus, alongside such other treasures of 1907 as newspapers, a class schedule, photographs and a letter addressed "to the president of the university some centuries hence," before the university dug up the capsule last year.
Fairly straightforward business, except for this: Nine months after unearthing the cartoon, the Tuscaloosa News reports that no one has the foggiest idea what it's supposed to mean. Like an archaeologist coming across ancient hieroglyphics, Alabama's best historical minds are only offering some vague stabs in the dark:
Randy Mecredy, director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, said the museum researched "23" and found that the number was used as an insult in the early 1900s.
"We found that, at the time the cartoon was drawn, people were using the term '23'd' similarly to how we use the word 'diss' today," Mecredy said. "Basically, to 23 someone was a way of insulting them. During the two games, Alabama felt that they'd 23'd Auburn. That's about as much as we've been able to find out about the phrase."
Josh Rothman, a history professor at UA and director of the Summersell Center, said that when he heard the term "23'd," he thought of the phrase "23-skidoo," another popular saying in the early 1900s.
"As far as I know, 23-skidoo means get out while the getting's good," Rothman said. "If I had to guess, I'd say that '23'd' was a slang expression that many people used before they started saying 23-skidoo."
It's amazing just how far this rivalry has come in a century. Somewhere, perhaps, there's a Rosetta Stone that will unlock the keys to the cartoon taunts of ancient rivalries. In the meantime, modern readers are welcome to leave their own translations in the comments.
At any rate, the sentiment was genuine: A year after the cartoon was dropped in the time capsule, the schools argued so intensely over every minor detail of the 1908 game that they called it off, and wouldn't renew the series for another 41 years, in part because of fears that an annual game would result in an "overemphasis of football in the state and increase the unhealthy relationship between the two schools." Why on earth would anyone ever think that?
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.