75 years later: Taking a look back at the inspiration behind the penalty flag

Before the flag, penalties were indicated by a wrist horn, which often caused players to stop or hesitate

Dike and Irma Beede

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WYTV) – Youngstown’s Rayen Stadium is considered hallowed football ground because of the classic games played on its field.

On October 17, 1941, 75 years ago this upcoming Monday, one special Friday night football game at that stadium between Youngstown College and Oklahoma City University made sports history.

The first penalty flags were thrown in that football game involving what is commonly known today as Youngstown State University.

Video footage of that special game shows Youngstown driving late in the first quarter. Keeping a close eye on the official in the left corner of the video screen, you can see him reaching into his pocket and throwing the first penalty flag ever used in a football game.

That penalty resulted in a 17-yard Youngstown touchdown called back because of holding.

Gretchen Dawson and Susan Stephens, the daughters of legendary YSU football coach Dike Beede, who coached the team for 34 years, recall that first penalty flag use, all because of their father.

“Dad had this idea that they should have a visible signal for an infraction,” Dawson said.

Before the flag, penalties were indicated by a wrist horn, which often caused players to stop or hesitate.

“I thought perhaps if there was some visual signal given which wouldn’t be heard by the players it would be helpful. So I thought that if a flag could be thrown or a handkerchief to designate that the play would go on until the whistle was blown on the part of the referee which officially stopped the game,” said Dike Beede in a 1972 interview with WKBN.

On the morning of the Oklahoma City game, Beede asked the Oklahoma coach if they could use penalty flags. The coach said yes.

“So Dad came home and he wanted these penalty flags right now,” Dawson said.

Beede gave the task of making the flags to his wife, Irma. She had only eight hours until kickoff to create the flags. Beede wanted them half red and half white. Irma decided the red would come from an old Halloween costume and the white would come from bed sheets.

“So she took apart the costume and that was the red. And then the sheets were the white, and she sewed them on the sewing machine and put fishing weights, each in the corner made four flags,” Dawson said.

The game had four officials, all were given a flag. In the video, the two officials on the left side of the screen can be seen using their flags for the same play, another penalty against Youngstown. After the game, which Youngstown won, three of the four officials threw their flags away.

“There’s a letter that one of the officials wrote to Dad after the game, he’d thrown his flag away and wrote to Dad and said what a terrible idea he thought it was,” Stephens said.

The only official to keep his flag was Youngstown’s Jack McPhee, a friend of Beede and a sought-after official. Beede invented the flag but McPhee promoted it.

“So every game he went to and he officiated, he used his flag, everywhere he went. So it was Jack’s use of the flag that … did the marketing,” Stephens said.

In 1948, seven years after Beede’s invention, the penalty flag was officially adopted and thereafter used in all football games.

The original flag from that first game, the one McPhee saved and used, is now on display at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. The white half is wrinkled and soiled, but the red still looks good.

History has also not forgotten about Irma Beede. Rawlings, the sporting goods company, later presented Irma with her own personal penalty flag. That flag is on display at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown. Irma Beede is remembered as the Betsy Ross of football.

“But it surely is an example of how someone with an observant and creative mind can come up with a way to improve something, very simply, and make a difference,” Stephens said.

Note: The photo used in the above video of the first penalty flag is courtesy of the College Football Hall of Fame, Chick-fil-A Fan Experience.