A $20,000 football?

May 25, 2021

Back Then

Nearly a year after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Treasury Department launched what one senator called “the greatest single piece of financing ever undertaken by any government in the world’s history,” a $9 billion war bonds drive. A game-used football provided UR an opportunity to do its part.

By Matthew Dewald

During an auction in November 1942, UR treasurer Charles Wheeler won a football on the university’s behalf for the tidy sum of $20,000. The ball had been used the day before in a game between UR and William and Mary, but its true value lay in the cause that the purchase supported.

The sale of this ball and another from the same game raised $40,000 for war bonds to support the United States in the early years of World War II as the nation ramped up the production of arms, tanks, planes, and ships.

Wheeler cannot have been particularly happy with this specific ball. During the game where it was used the day before, William and Mary shut out the Spiders 10-0 at City Stadium. It was the final blow in a forgettable season in which they won only one game in conference and three overall. William and Mary, meanwhile, secured its first Southern Conference championship with the win.

Of the two autographs on the ball, one — that of W&M’s star left tackle Marvin Bass — would have been salt in the wound when Wheeler saw it. Bass was a team captain and a favorite of his coaches. During the 1942 season, a Richmond Times-Dispatch sports reporter asked the W&M coach to describe his ideal team. The coach replied by pointing at his star tackle. “I’d like to have a squad of Basses,” he said.

Wheeler’s feelings about Bass likely changed significantly in the 1943 season because in that year, he became a star for UR. He enrolled at Richmond in Fall 1943 through a Navy program called V-12 and played for the Spiders, helping lead the team to a 6-1 season and the state championship.

Bass was one of a handful of football talents that came to UR thanks to the V-12 program, which brought nearly 800 men to campus between July 1943 and the fall of 1945 to train as naval officers. Richmond was one of 131 universities involved in the effort, which trained more than 125,000 officers nationwide.

The V-12 players’ participation in university athletics stirred some controversy. Bass and students like him were playing under a wartime exemption to eligibility rules that allowed them to play additional seasons. College football would likely have been suspended by schools across the country had the exemption not been in place to provide players. Still, midway through the 1943 campaign, Virginia Military Institute threatened to cancel its game against the Spiders if they fielded Bass. UR relented, sitting him, but managed to beat VMI handily anyway with a final score of 27-0.

Bass didn’t last the season. The Navy transferred him in mid-October with two games to go. He served two years in a war funded in part by the proceeds of the sale of a football he signed and Wheeler bought.