THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE FAMOUS NOTRE DAME
FOUR HORSEMEN PHOTO
Walter “Bud” Stuhldreher, ND 1953
Much has been written about the most famous sports picture ever taken, the one of Notre Dame’s immortal Four Horsemen. This tells the story of how it almost wasn’t made. My uncle, Harry Stuhldreher, was the quarterback on the Four Horsemen team. He is the little fellow on the right in the picture. He told this story to me while having lunch in the Cleveland Athletic Club in 1958. I later verified the story with Jim Crowley in 1968 when he was visiting my home in Huntsville, Alabama. If it wasn’t the most famous, and reproduced, sports picture of all time it wouldn’t make sense to tell the story now, 81 years after the picture was made. Due to its uniqueness however, I believe the story is worth telling.
In October of 1924, the Notre Dame football team beat Army 13-7. During the half-time George Strickler, a student, was in the press box and commented that the Notre Dame team reminded him of a movie he had just seen, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Grantland Rice, the famous sports writer, picked up on this idea, and started his column for the New York Herald Tribune as follows:
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky,
the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic
lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence,
Destruction and Death. These are only aliases.
Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller,
Crowley and Layden.”
But the team wouldn’t be remembered today if George Strickler, who made the original comparison between the Notre Dame quartet and the title of Vincente Blasco Ibanez’s novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, hadn’t followed up on the story when the ream returned to South Bend. Strickler, a junior at Notre Dame at the time, and Knute Rockne’s student publicist, told how the picture came to be made.
At midnight at the Belmont Hotel, where the team was staying, there were stacks of the early editions of the New York papers. That’s when Strickler first read Rice’s epic. On Sunday morning, just before the team entrained for South Bend, he got the idea for the picture of the Four Horsemen on horseback. “I wired my father. My dad was working at Notre Dame, worked for them for years. I asked him to see if he could round up four horses. The next afternoon (Monday), as soon as we got into the depot, I called my father. He had the horses lined up at a coal and ice house. They weren’t very well taken care of, but they were saddled up and ready to go.
“I got on one and started pulling the other three. I got pulled off that horse three or four times and I had a hell of a time getting back on. Then, when I got to the football field I had to talk the guard into letting me get into practice. I broke up Rock’s practice to get the picture. My photographer was already there. I led the horses onto the field, put the Horsemen on them, and took the picture.
"Later in the day, Rock gave me a little hell. He didn’t like the idea of me breaking up his practice. He said he only had a couple of practices before the Princeton game, and that I should have made other arrangements. I said, ‘I didn’t have a chance.’ He kept giving me hell, but he wound up saying it was a good idea.”
It certainly was a good idea. It made the Four Horsemen famous for life – and beyond. But, according to Harry, and later verified by Crowley, the above wasn’t the whole story. Here’s what actually happened.
When Strickler motioned for the Four Horsemen to get on the nags they refused and no amount of Strickler’s cajoling could get them to change their minds. Rockne, already mad at having the practice interrupted, angrily asked what was the holdup. Crowley told Rockne they didn’t want to get on the horses for three reasons: 1. Polo was played on horses, football on a field. 2. The photographer wanted them each to hold a football but there was only one football at a time in a game. 3. They had their practice uniforms on which were dirty, full of holes, and didn’t look very good.
Rockne looked at Crowley suspiciously. A couple of weeks earlier, distressed at a bad play, Rockne had yelled at Crowley, “What’s dumber than a dumb Irishman?” Crowley, never at loss for words, unwisely fired right back, “A smart Swede?” (Never mind that Rockne had been born in Voss, Norway; the point had been made.) So Rockne didn’t believe Crowley’s tale and asked him for the real reason they weren’t getting on the horses. Crowley admitted they were all scared of horses.
Rockne then told them George had gone to a lot of trouble to get the horses out there, that he was sick and tired at having his practice held up so get on the horses and be damn quick about it. As usual, Rockne had the last word, and the picture was made.
This explains two aspects of the picture. 1. In spite of photography being a very inexact science in 1924, only one picture was made, instead of the usual three or four to ensure a good picture. There’s only been one picture of the Four Horsemen ever shown simply because there weren’t any others. 2. It explains the glum expressions on their faces: they were scared to death!
There you have it, the story of how the picture that changed their lives, that made them famous, almost didn’t get taken. I asked Harry, during that lunch in 1958, how they felt about the picture, and the ensuing notoriety. He replied that they didn’t understand the continuing interest by the public in them, but they appreciated it and enjoyed it very much. They all felt it had been simply an accident which caused them to be remembered by the public when so many other backfields had long been forgotten.
He went on to illustrate this being remembered so many years after they played. During the Battle of the Bulge, near the end of WWII in Europe, German soldiers had infiltrated the Allied lines and, wearing American uniforms taken from prisoners, had wrecked havoc by misdirecting traffic. The disguised Germans would direct the Americans down the wrong roads, either away from the battle or into ambushes where scores of American soldiers were killed, injured or taken prisoner. After the Americans realized this was happening they solved the problem by refusing to follow instructions unless the traffic soldiers could respond to a simple question: What college did the Four Horsemen play for? And this, Harry stated with some pride, happened 20 years after they had played. He was, understandably, quite pleased with that recollection. (Years later I came across this story in a military history of the Battle of the Bulge so I know it’s true.)
There you have it, an addition to the story of how the most famous sports picture ever came to be made. Yeah, it’s some picture. Imagine: 20 years later a screwy picture of four unhappy football players in ratty uniforms sitting on four nags saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers in one of the closing battles of WWII in Europe. And even today, if you so choose, you can buy a tee shirt or a sweater at Notre Dame with the picture on it. The Four Horsemen continue to ride into glory!