Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tigers and Bulldogs and Gators, Oh My! - a History of the University of Florida's "Gator Bait" Cheer

Charlotte News (North Carolina), October 23, 1947, page 29.

  

What do we eat, what do we eat?

   Husky meat! Husky meat!

What do we drink, what do we drink?

   O-o-o-o-l’ – wine!

 

That was the cheer that went up from the stands when the Decorah Vikings played the Oelwein Huskies in Northeast Iowa Conference high school football in the 1960s and ‘70s.  It was a little gruesome, perhaps, but all in good fun, and in keeping with a healthy competitive rivalry between the two towns.

A better known cheer with a similarly “gruesome” theme is used at the University of Florida.  Their teams are known as “Gators” and opponents are called “Gator Bait,” potential victims of the Gators’ “Chomp.” 

The “Gator Bait” cheer made headlines in June of 2020 when the President of the university banned the use of the cheer by “University Athletics and the Gator Band.”  Despite finding “no evidence of racism associated with our ‘Gator Bait’ cheer at UF sporting events,” he banned the cheer because of “horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase” in other contexts.[i] 

The expressions “alligator bait” and “gator bait” were once widely used to refer to young black children, and sometimes black people, generally, although there was always some non-race-specific usage as well.  There is a debate as to whether the expressions related to actual, historic alligator hunting practices.[ii] 

Many Florida fans objected to the ban, because they had never heard of or used the expression in its archaic, racist sense.  Proponents of the continued use of the cheer included Lawrence Wright, who played for the Gators in the 1990s, and who “famously uttered the phrase, ‘If you ain’t a Gator, ya Gator bait, baby,’ after a 1995 win over Florida State at The Swamp.”[iii]

“It’s not about what happened way back in the past. . . .  I created something for us.  It’s a college football thing.  It’s not a racist thing.  It’s about us, the Gator Nation. And I’m Black.”

Lawrence Wright, quoted in, “Lawrence Wright Disagrees with Fuchs’ Decision to Drop “Gator Bait” Cheer, Pat Dooley, Gatorsports.com, June 18, 2020.

Most discussions, pro or con, about the “Gator Bait” cheer focus on recent use of the cheer, without any historical context.  Some commentary assumes that Lawrence Wright coined the expression in 1995.  Others acknowledge that Wright revived an earlier tradition, but without any serious attempt to the explore the extent of the tradition.

The characterization of University of Florida’s opponents as “alligator bait” or “gator bait” is nearly as old as the school’s nickname itself.  The earliest known example describes the University of South Carolina as “alligator bait” in 1912.  Coincidentally, Florida earned its nickname, originally the “Alligators,” in a game against the University of South Carolina one year earlier.  For a full history of the origin of the nickname, see “Why the University of Florida are ‘Gators,’” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog.[iv]

In the early days, references to Florida opponents as “alligator bait” or “gator bait,” were few and far between, with only a handful appearing during the 1910s and ‘20s.  There is a single report of Florida students taunting an opposing team with the expression, “alligator bait,” in 1939, multiple reports of the “Gator Bait” chant in the late-1940s, and it had become an established tradition at University of Florida football games by the 1950s.

Fans and students used the cheer without much resistance for at least eight decades before coming under fire in 2020.  Long before the “Gator Bait” cheer became a regular feature of games, opponent-eating imagery had been an established feature of sports reporting for at least five decades, with team mascots figuratively eating or biting opponents’ mascots on a regular basis.

 

Opponent-eating Imagery in Sports

Opponent-eating sports imagery, like eating and drinking the Oelwein Huskies, or eating or being eaten by alligators, has continued unchanged since at least as early as 1899.

Leading the way as they have in so many areas of human endeavor, were the Ivy League schools like the Princeton Tigers and Yale Bulldogs, who established some of the oldest college rivalries.   Early examples skirted around the eating the issue, referring simply to the fierce nature of their mutual mascots and baiting opponents; later examples evolved into mutual eating or biting.

Yale is not a little uneasy about her game with Princeton this year.  There are some rousing big tigers on Nassau’s line and the Yale bulldogs may get in trouble.

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 1893, page 3. 

Princeton is nothing if not foxy, and Yale is not a goose to swallow the tigers’ bait and rest easy until Saturday.

The Boston Globe, November 23, 1899, page 5.

[Yale] sailed into the husky striped eleven as if the Tiger meat was their favorite article of diet and they had been fasting for a month.

The Pittsburgh Press, November 13, 1904, page 18.

 

With a Yale bulldog embalmed on a Chinese catafalque, which will be carried by 32 men, the annual Princeton alumni parade at the baseball game with Yale on Saturday is planned to be as big and spectacular an affair of the kind as ever held in Princeton. . . .

Princeton’s aquatic victory over Yale will be shown in floats.  Tigers will roam the field and eat bulldogs of blue.  There will be many undertakers.

Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), June 9, 1911, page 11.  

Similar imagery spilled over into other rivalries.


 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 23, 1909, page 8.

It has been some years now since [Harvard] Crimson flesh was Bulldog meat.

The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina), September 4, 1913, page 2.

[T]he day after Colgate entertained Yale, another Yale song appeared which proclaimed in strident notes that “the Bulldog would dine on Tiger meat and dine on Crimson flesh” – or phrases to the same general effect.

The Bulldog, of course, may yet dine on Tiger meat and Crimson flesh, but if so, he is liable to absorb a bad case of indigestion, after the lean diet he has drawn these last six weeks.

The Washington Times (District of Columbia), November 14, 1913, page 15.

The famed sportswriter, Grantland Rice (who popularized the expression “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”[v] and coined the expression, “The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame,”[vi] to describe Notre Dame’s 1924 backfield) used mascot-eating imagery in at least two football poems.

Testimonial.

(As presented by a Mr. Eli Yale)

 

I recommend, for all your ills,

Old Doctor Shevlin’s Rah-Rah Pills . . .

 

My pulse was low – I could not eat,

And chills were raging at my feet,

But now I’m back upon the track

And building up on Tiger meat. . . .

 

New York Tribune, November 17, 1915, page 13.

The Yale of Other Days.

(A Blue Monday Founded on the Kiplingesque.)

 

Beneath the Crimson banners’ shade,

When punts begin to fly –

I sit me down to watch, alas, another

Bulldog die;

Blood-red I see the Crimson charge

Sweep onward through the haze,

Sainted Diana – can that be the Yale

Of other days?

Ah – shades of Shevlin, Hinkey, Thorne,

Kilpatrick, Blass and Brown –

When Crimson flesh was Bulldog meat

And Tiger skins were down;

When play by play we swept the field

And down the goal-spun ways

We saw the blue flag wave above the

Yale of other days. . . .

 

Nashville Banner, November 21, 1916, page 10.

Throughout the same period, professional baseball used similar imagery.  In 1901, for example, an apex predator was paradoxically food for beaneaters.[vii]

 “Tigers Food for Boston,” The Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), June 16, 1901, page 2.

That same apex predator, in turn, swallowed Milwaukee’s Brewers, where others might have satisfied themselves with drinking their beer.

The Tigers swallowed the Brewers without even waiting to remove their uniforms. 

Detroit Free Press, July 1, 1901, page 4.

Things were no different in the California League in 1912, when the surprisingly vegetarian Vernon Tigers devoured the Oakland Oaks.

The San Francisco Call, July 25, 1912, page 15.


 When the Kansas Jayhawks faced the Missouri Tigers in an outdoor track meet in 1912, the Kansas Jayhawkers were “tiger ‘meat’” (meat for the tiger, as opposed to meat of the tiger).

Columbia, Mo., May 11. – The Jayhawker was vanquished.  The Missouri-Kansas annual outdoor track meet held on Rollins Field this afternoon was turned into Tiger “meat.”  Self satisfied and content with seven firsts and four “slams,” the jungle beast now licks his chops in glory.

The Kansas City Star, May 12, 1912, page 11.

 

Alligator Bait - Sports

Such imagery was a natural fit for the University of Florida Alligators.  Although “alligator bait” appeared in print as the name of a Florida opponent as early as 1912, the first full season in which their teams were known as “Alligators” or “Gators.” 

The earliest example of “alligator bait” in conjunction with the University of Florida football team is from a game in which it didn’t even play.  In an account of a game between Clemson and the University of South Carolina, South Carolina was referred to as “Alligator Bait” due to a loss, two weeks earlier, to Florida.


With four thousand persons watching the University of South Carolina eleven run the Clemson Tigers to earth for the first time in ten years and on college campus tonight the football squad reigns supreme. . . . This game put the University of Florida above the Tigers as the Alligators defeated the Gamecocks on the 19th 10 to 6.  The Florida boys will play Charleston College Saturday and figure on making a “killing.”

The Tampa Tribune, November 1, 1912, page 6.

And even when the word “bait” was not used, Florida was frequently described as eating or biting its opponents.

The main trouble of the Tampa team was that there was only one Hopkins, whereas opposed to him were eleven husky Alligators, bellowing all the time for more meat, with a hunger which apparently was never satiated.

The Tampa Times, December 23, 1912, page 11.

And again the Florida ‘gators [baseball team] swallowed the Mercer university team in three mouthfuls when these ambitious Baptists tried to invade the element of the Florida Alligators, making a clean sweep of the series of three games.

Tampa Times, March 28, 1913, page 8.

“Alabama Good ‘Gator Meat,” The Tampa Tribune, October 15, 1916, page 9.

The earliest known example of the short-form, “Gator Bait,” used for a University of Florida opponent appeared in a baseball context in 1920.  It is the last such example I have identified before earliest report of the student cheer in 1939.

Georgia Tech has already been closed for a game and negotiations are now under way to include Auburn in the list of ‘Gator bait, but this latter game has not yet been guaranteed.

The Tampa Tribune, March 7, 1920, page 12.


 “Florida Gator to Open Jaws for Baffling South Carolina,” Tampa Tribune, October 29, 1921, page 6.

 

“Florida’s Gators Open Their Jaws and Gobble Tiger,” Tampa Tribune, December 3, 1922, page 10.

 

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), September 9, 1926, page 14.

When bait bites back, turnabout was fair play.  On occasion, their opponents would feast on “gator meat.”

Southern College[viii] looks forward to its next chance to get “gator meat.” About Thanksgiving game the following season.

Tampa Tribune, January 22, 1916, page 8.

In 1916, the Tennessee Volunteers turned the tables, collecting “alligator” or “gator” hides, while avoiding becoming “alligator bait.”

With an alligator hide swinging at each warrior’s belt the victorious eleven of the University of Tennessee football squad will make a triumphal entry into their home camp this afternoon. . . . Some dopesters consigned the Vols as alligator bait to the Florida bullies but adherence to the policy of preparedness resulted in a successful “hunt” and the possession of a number of Gator hides attest their achievement.”

Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), October 30, 1916, page 4.

 

Atlanta Constitution, November 14, 1920, page 3.

It was definitely announced that the University of Florida, which played Harvard this year, rather the Harvard scrubs, will come to West Point on next Oct. 6. Pointers like alligator meat just as well as midshipmen like the plebe class this year.

Evening Report (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), December 13, 1922, page 5.

Even fans in the state of Florida were not afraid of referring to their own team as meat.

 

Tampa Tribune, October 28, 1916, page 10.

 

Alligator Bait – a Cheer

In Florida students yelling “alligator bait” at an opposing team is from 1939, and the description of the event suggests that it was new, or at least that it was not yet a well known or common feature of University of Florida games.  In this case, however, the cheer was also counter-productive.

Florida students’ faces would be a bit on the rosy side if they knew their actions before Saturday’s game in Gainesville had a lot to do with snapping Tech out of a bad case of mental doldrums.

As the Jackets trotted on the field for their warm-up exercises, the ‘Gator student section let up a good-natured yell, jibing the Jackets with such uncomplimentary phrases as “Alligator Bait.”

Coach Alex, who said on the train that morning that his team wasn’t right and stood a good chance of getting licked, sat quietly by as this was going on but made a mental not of it.

FINAL PEP TALK

Just before the game started, his final pep talk sounded something like this: “Well,” he said, “I see they are calling you alligator bait. Now just think of it. Can you think of anything lower than that?” The Techs got to thinking about it and found out they couldn’t.  The more they thought about it the angrier they got. So they went out and took it all out on the Florida team to the tune of 21-7.

The Atlanta Constitution, November 27, 1939, page 15.

A Florida sportswriter referred to the University of Maryland Terrapins as “Gator Bait” a couple years later.

Maryland is none too strong this year and the Saurians are generally rated as being a better eleven than was the 1940 outfit, so all indications point to the Terps being just so much “Gator bait” next Saturday.

Fort Lauderdale News, October 14, 1941, page 8.

The earliest reference to what seems to have been organized chanting of “Gator Bait” appeared in 1946 following a game against the University of Miami.

Miami’s Hurricanes were the first team to take the field, amid the chant of “Gator Bait” by Florida rooters.

Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 1946, page 23.

A comment from the following season suggests that the chant grew organically from the students, and was not officially sanctioned by the school.

Fla.’s head cheerleader Bill Bracken made an earnest pre-game plea to the students not to air their usual chant of “Gator Bait, Gator Bait, Gator Bait,” when the Tar Heels team first came out on the field. . .  A request which was most emphatically ignored.

The Daily Tar Heel, October 28, 1947, page 2.

Within a span of a few short years, the chant would become a familiar part of University of Florida football games.

Kentucky . . . could very likely be “Gator Bait” as the students chant during Florida games.

Fort Myers News-Press, November 8, 1948, page 6.

Elsewhere around the campus and city, the famed Florida mascot “The Gator” was pictured in various ferocious postures, usually gulping a Tech Yellow Jacket.

Across the field, Florida’s student section was crammed full an hour before game time, as vigorous as usual.  When Tech appeared on the field, the students started the chant that makes the flesh of opponents crawl: “Gator Bait, Gator Bait. . . .”

The Miami News, October 23, 1949, page 9.  

 Miami News, November 19, 1949, page 1.

A freshman led the Hurricanes’ new mascot, a boxer pup up, and down the field and from the south stands came the familiar chant – “Gator bait” made famous by Florida rooters.

The Miami Herald, November 19, 1949, page 1.

A different report from the same game describes the cheer as “ancient” and “old,” suggesting that it mah have been older than the earliest known occurrences of it in print.

The ancient chant of “Gator Bait” was entirely inappropriate last night. 

There was no bait for the Gator.  The poor old saurian went hungry and cold. . . .

The Gator band and cheering section started its annual razz even before the game.  They kept the jeering up for most of the first quarter when the fans agreed that the Hurricanes were getting the worst of it.

But from this time on, there was no chant of “Gator Bait” from the saurian section.  The old chant, that in the past had nearly driven Miami fans to a frenzy, didn’t have an opportunity to stand on and it wasn’t heard any more.

The Miami News, November 19, 1949, page 12.

Regardless of how ancient the cheer was, “everyone” was “familiar” with it by 1951. And once again, the cheer was not effective.

Everyone is familiar with the “Gator Bait” cry sent up in terrific volume by Florida students when the rival team trots on the field before a game and at half time. . . The kids have come up with something of a new wrinkle now by shouting “Gator Bait” in unison after member of the opposing eleven’s lineup is announced over the loud speaker . . . It didn’t scare the Yellow Jackets unfortunately . . . .

Orlando Evening Star, October 2, 1951, page 6.

Gator Bait, University of Florida’s famed battle cry, is the name given a young Florida-bred race horse which Donald (Buddy) Rose of Ocala, a Florida student, will race next Winter at Hialeah.

The Tampa Tribune, July 13, 1952, page 22. 

 

Alligator Bait – an Idiom

The expression “alligator bait,” and less frequently, “gator bait,” existed as an infrequent idiom referring primarily to black children, and at times black people, generally, since at least the 1890s.  The expression became widely known and used beginning around the turn of the century, thanks in large part (apparently) to the success of a photographic print of several naked, black babies and toddlers, and its variants, knock-offs and imitators. 

Since fans and sportswriters of the era would have been familiar with the pejorative sense of the word.  It therefore cannot be ruled out that when used to characterize an opponent, they may have intended it as a racial epithet, akin to referring to someone as the n-word.

But the pejorative sense of the expression was not the only sense, and not every use of the expression was intended an insult or racial epithet.  The phrase was still used literally, for bait used in alligator hunting, and figuratively for anyone at risk of being eaten by an alligator.  The expression was also consistent with other non-racist, sports-related imagery; Bulldogs or Tigers might eat their opponents, and Yellow Jackets or Gamecocks might feast on Alligator meat. 

It is not clear to what extent, if at all, the use of “alligator bait” or “gator bait” by Florida fans or sportswriters in connection with University of Florida athletics during the early-1900s conveyed, or was understood as conveying, racist meaning or intent.  And regardless of how widespread the use of “gator bait” as an epithet may have been in the early 1900s, its use had diminished to a large extent by mid-century when the cheer became a regular feature at their games.

An anecdote told by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall-of-Fame pitcher, Bob Gibson, illustrates that the expression was not in widespread, common use during the 1940s and ‘50s.  Gibson, a black man born in 1935, was born, raised and attended college in Omaha, Nebraska.  Shortly following graduation in 1957, he signed a minor league contract with Omaha Cardinals of the American Association, a Triple-A minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.  In August of that year, he was sent down to the Cardinals’ A team in Columbus, Georgia. 

In an interview given in 1968, Gibson said that he had never heard the term “alligator bait” until he played in Columbus, Georgia, where one particular fan heckled him with the phrase.  And when he first heard it he just thought it was funny.  Only later did he learn that it was a racist insult.  

The Gibson anecdote may only demonstrate that “gator bait” was a regionalism, known in the South, but not the Midwest.  But the expression also had other, presumably non-racist uses, even in the South.  “Gator Bait,” for example, was the title of one of the (presumably white) officers of the Florida Club of the University of North Carolina, a club of students from Florida who were enrolled at the school in 1914.[ix] Several decades later, the Gator Bowl Queen of 1963 was approvingly referred to as “Gator Bait,” presumably because she attracted the Florida Gators on the football team.

Miami Herald, December 1, 1963, page 5.


 


 



[ii] Evidence of the supposed hunting practice is thin.  The earliest, widely cited reference in support of the historic truth was written by a military humor cartoonist, and the most widely cited reference in support was written by a self-proclaimed “sex philosopher” who wrote other hoax “news” items.  For a full history of the racist use of the phrase and survey of the purported evidence of the supposed hunting practices, see Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog’s earlier post, “Live Human ‘Alligator Bait’ – Fact or Fiction?”  https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2020/04/live-human-alligator-bait-fact-or.html    

[v] “Grantland Rice, Josh Billings and Arthur Schopenhauer – the Win-or-Lose History of ‘How You Play the Game,’” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, April 9, 2015. https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2015/04/grantland-rice-josh-billings-and-arthur.html

[vi] “From Stuhldreher to Castner and Crowley to Staubach – a Last-Second History of the ‘Hail Mary Pass,’” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, February 23, 2018. https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2018/02/from-stuhldreher-to-castner-and-crowley.html

[vii] “Beaneater” here is used in the generic sense of someone from Boston, not as the name of the team involved in the game.  Boston’s American League team, the subject of the article, were then, as now, the Red Sox – the National League team were more commonly known as the “Beaneaters.”

[viii] “Southern College” refers to the school now known as Florida Southern College, which was then located in Sutherland (now Palm Harbor), and which has since moved to Lakeland, Florida.

[ix] The Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), December 10, 1914, page 1 (“The following officers were elected: . . . M. Kanner, Chief Custodian of the Gator; D. H. Killeffer, Gator Bait . . . .”).