With no real campus, over-age players and suspicious origins, the high school football team's sketchy credentials came to light only after a player rebellion. But this isn't a story about Bishop Sycamore, the Ohio "online" charter school exposed after its game against national powerhouse IMG Academy on ESPN sparked outrage and wonder.
No, The Salem Trade School of Massachusetts, originating nearly 100 years ago, was way ahead of Bishop Sycamore when it came to duping high schools into playing a team that was a school in name only.
And it kept it up for nearly six years.
When finally uncovered by the Boston Globe with a front page expose, the Salem Trade School, a laughable loser for much of its existence, suddenly became the most famous team in the nation while appearing in every major newspaper from coast to coast.
The story begins in 1924 when a teenage boy, Harold Burgess, recruited a few of his friends to form a football team. Burgess was no longer in school, having dropped out when in eighth grade, but that hardly mattered since none of his friends were in high school either.
Some of the players worked in the local factories. One was a leather worker, another a chauffeur. Yet another was a professional boxer. Most of the players were 20 years old or older with one player aged 24. This wouldn't have seemed too out of the ordinary in the 1920s however, since players then were able to play until they turned 20.
Burgess installed himself as quarterback, a position he held for all six years the team played. Using the alias of Ritchie Ray King and posing as the faculty manager, Burgess called around to the local schools in the Boston area to get a game.
Although a big fan of football, Burgess didn't put together a team simply to play games. He was in it for the money. And the money ultimately exposed his ruse. In the 1920s, home teams paid visitors an appearance fee. Salem Trade School was always a visitor since it didn't have a home campus. Burgess often got about $100 (about $1,500 in today's economy) for a scheduled game and he reportedly kept $10 for himself, distributed some of the money to the players and used the rest for expenses.
Beverly Junior High School was the first school to bite on the invitation and the resulting game was a 117-0 win for Beverly. More games followed with freshman teams and "seconds" from area high schools landing on Salem Trade School's schedule.
Soon Burgess hit upon a strategy. He instructed his team to lose its games. He reasoned that the victorious team would certainly invite the losing team for a future game and would have little reason to investigate the credentials of a school it had defeated.
Burgess's assumptions proved correct. He soon began scheduling high school varsity teams and losing to them and none ever inquired about the legitimacy of the school. It went on that way for nearly six years with scores regularly appearing in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald.
Salem Trade School didn't lose all of its games, however. There was a 12-2 win over St. Mary's of Brookline in November 1927 when Burgess, playing under the King alias, returned a fumble for a touchdown and Mike Iwanicki scored on an 80-yard touchdown run. Iwanicki also scored the only touchdown in a 6-0 win over Taunton in 1929.
It was also Iwanicki who led the rebellion that exposed Salem Trade School.
According to a 1972 Boston Globe interview with Iwanicki, Burgess had failed to give any of the players money for some time.
"He was keeping too much of the guarantees for himself, so I said I wanted $10 to play," Iwanicki told the Globe. "The others wanted something, some only $2.50. We told him to pay up or we'd squeal. He wouldn't pay, so we gave up the story."
The Boston Globe broke the story Oct. 16, 1929 with the headline "Schools Hoaxed by Salem Trade" across the top of the front page. The story exposed the school's non-existent campus, the overage players, the losing strategy and the many schools duped by Burgess. A series of sidebars also provided reaction from the principals of the opposing schools who were "shocked" they had been fooled by the Salem Trade School hoax.
Like the Bishop Sycamore situation, the remaining schools on Salem Trade School's schedule canceled.
All except for one.
Maynard kept its Nov. 22 game with Salem Trade, citing the offending school's newfound infamy as a possible drawing card and its own need for money to pay off season debts. With Salem sporting an entirely new lineup of players, many of whom had never met until the day of the game, the two teams played a tie game.
Surprisingly, Salem Trade School did not disappear immediately following its exposure as a hoax and was not universally condemned as a sports pariah. In fact, the Globe published an editorial where it praised Burgess's ability to get his players to sacrifice their competitiveness and lose in an era when winning was overemphasized.
"It is probably his (Burgess) major contribution to the athletic ideas of the United States' this recipe for turning defeat into victory," wrote the unnamed author on the Globe opinion page.
With football over, Burgess and Salem Trade School traded in cleats for basketball shoes and hit the hardwood. One listing in the Globe had Winthrop "trouncing" Salem Trade 43-7 in January 1930 with Burgess starting at center and going scoreless. Winthrop had also played Salem Trade in baseball the previous spring, beating Salem Trade 20-1. Iwanicki was the losing pitcher.
Salem Trade School continued to play football in the fall of 1930, getting a game with Chelsea. With Burgess once again calling signals at quarterback, Salem Trade pulled off a win, beating Chelsea 2-0.
Burgess and his team played an assortment of town teams, club teams and alumni squads the remainder of the season and then disappeared to the dustbin of history, never again gracing the football fields of Massachusetts.
Burgess reportedly left the Boston area and tried to field similar teams in various New England states only to be exposed again by the Globe. He eventually ended up in Texas where he became a big fan of Texas football, according to an interview by the Globe in 1959.
The Salem Trade School may have disappeared forever if not for the sons of two former players. According to a story in the Salem News in 2018, Paul Carlin and John Murphy worked together to preserve the memory of their fathers' legacy as members of the infamous team via newspapers articles and team memorabilia. Brian Codagnone of The Sports Museum took notice and the memorabilia from the team is now showcased in a display at the museum located at Boston's TD Garden.
Burgess, the school's principal, faculty manager, coach and quarterback, once said Salem Trade School existed only in his pockets. But thanks to the Sports Museum, the school finally has a home.