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July 13, 2017 – Happy Birthday Anniversary William Cunningham!

Posted on July 13, 2017 by Barry Gallagher

Today’s post celebrates the happy birthday anniversary of William Cunningham.  who went to rest in peace on this day in 1872. William Ralph Cunningham was born on this day in Volant, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Cunningham arrived in Ann Arbor in 1896 and decided to try his hand at the new game of American football. So, yes, the story of this Wolverine “Pigskin Pioneer” goes way, way back to the nineteenth century!

William Cunningham was listed as a “v sub” on the 1896 Michigan Football Roster. He must have subbed a lot since he is listed as a four-year letterman starting in 1896.  Michigan had a very good year under first year coach William Ward in 1896. They tied the record for most wins in a Michigan Football season with a record of 9 wins and only 1 loss. The Wolverines finished tied for second in their inaugural season of Big Ten play with a record of 2 1ins and 1 loss.

Cunningham came back to play some more football in 1897. Former teammate, Gustave Ferbert, was now in charge of the team and he only wanted one thing – the Western Conference Championship! William started an undetermined number of games at center in 1897. He earned his second varsity letter and helped Michigan post a record of 6-1-1. The Wolverines finished the conference season with another record of 2 wins and 1 loss. Unfortunately, it was only good for third place in 1897.

William Cunningham Michigan Football All-American 1898 | bigbluefootballhistory.com

Center William Cunningham became Michigan’s first All-American in 1898. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

William Cunningham came back in 1898 and so did Coach Ferbert. It was a special season in Michigan Football History and young William was right in the middle of it! The good news was that he was a part of Michigan’s first Western Conference Championship team that year. The Wolverines were perfect (10-0-0) for the season and finished with a record of 3 wins and 0 losses in the conference to claim the undisputed title! William Cunningham also became Michigan’s first All-American player at the end of the season. Of course, the final game against Chicago also spawned Michigan’s legendary fight song. So, it was probably Michigan’s greatest season of play, but, of course, it would continue to get better!

All-American Center William Cunningham returned for his senior season in 1899. He started seven games for the Wolverines and continued to play at a high level. Michigan finished the season with a final record of 8 wins and 2 losses. They posted a record of 1-1-0 in the conference which earned them a tie for third place.

William R. Cunningham is connected to some amazing Michigan Football “firsts.” Here are some of the best ones that I found for Mr. Cunningham:

  • William Cunningham played on the first, and only, team coached by William Ward in 1896.
  • Cunningham played on the first team of the Gustave Ferbert Era in Ann Arbor in 1897.
  • William Cunningham played on the first team in Michigan Football History to play Ohio State, Ohio Weslayan in 1897.
  • Cunningham was a key player on Michigan’s first Western Conference Championship team in 1898.
  • William Cunningham also played on the first Michigan team to win ten games in a single season.
  • Cunningham became the first Michigan Football player to earn All-American honors in 1898. He was also the first “western” player to be so honored.

So, today is a very good day to celebrate the birth of William Cunningham and honor his contributions to Michigan Football History. Cunningham died in September 1957 as eighty-four years of age. William Cunningham was definitely a “Pigskin Pioneer” in the days when Michigan football really started to become a powerhouse team in the Midwest. Now, one hundred and thirty-eight years later, Michigan Wolverine football is still going STRONG! Thanks to William Cunningham for being a great Wolverine. May he always rest in eternal peace. Go Blue!




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