Athletic Wonder: Alliance’s Peg Oswalt
by Jack Weber
Athletic Wonder: Alliance’s Peg Oswalt was known nationwide for one-legged abilities. But sadly, the legend of Virgil G. Oswalt has been lost to history.
However, in 1916, he was an all-around athlete in the Alliance area who was on the verge of becoming a household name after his picture appeared on the sports pages of newspapers from coast to coast and a story detailing his athletic ability ran in syndication in magazines such as Boys’ World and Scientific American.
He played catcher for several baseball teams around the Alliance area, was a star basketball player, and was considered an expert swimmer and excellent roller skater. He was also a football player of renown, playing right guard and handling kicking and punting duties.
Being a multi-sport athlete wasn’t uncommon. Being a superb athlete in so many athletic endeavors despite having only one leg was. And according to all accounts, Oswalt, who appeared to not use any kind of prosthetic, was excellent in any sporting activity he tried.
Oswalt was being considered for the movies and a camera crew representing Hollywood was reported to have visited Alliance to capture him on film.
Sadly, great fame never came to “Peg,” as he was familiarly called.
Oswalt was stricken with typhoid fever and pneumonia around the same time film crews were supposedly in town. He suffered for four weeks at his home before succumbing to complications of his illness on April 29, 1916, at the age of 23.
His grave at Mount Union Cemetery is typical of the time it was placed, a square stone slab set into the ground relaying only his name and the dates of his birth and death. There is nothing that would denote what a unique talent he was as his stunning athletic prowess has even passed into obscurity in his hometown.
A file on Oswalt is among the holdings of the Alliance Historical Society, but there isn’t a lot in it. An article that presumably ran sometime in the 1960s or 1970s in The Alliance Review that reprinted the piece that ran nationwide in magazines in 1916, a short five-paragraph story about a film crew visiting Alliance to see Oswalt, another article that ran in The Review upon Oswalt’s death with a syndicated picture cutout produced by the International News Service, and a picture of the M.S.A. Club football team from Alliance that carried the caption “only team in world capt’d by one legged player.”
And it leaves several questions that remain unanswered.
First, what does M.S.A. stand for in the photo caption? Second, was there ever really any film footage shot? An article that ran after Oswalt’s death gives a conflicting report to the one detailing what camera crews supposedly caught on film. And last, if there were movies made of Oswalt, do they survive and is there a way to get a copy to share with the people of Oswalt’s hometown?
TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH
According to information found in the file, Virgil Oswalt was born June 22, 1892, near Maximo to George and Margaret (Biery) Oswalt and was one of six children.
Living in the shadows of Mount Union, the family home being at 2205 Miller Ave., Oswalt spent his days watching the college’s baseball and football players practice.
According to the syndicated article titled “The Athletic Wonder,” Oswalt often expressed a wish to be the greatest athlete in Ohio.
Shortly before his 10th birthday, however, he developed blood poisoning after falling on some railroad tracks and doctors were forced to amputate his right leg at the hip on April 21, 1902.
It was then, according to the article that ran shortly before his death in 1916, that the young Oswalt set out to become Ohio’s greatest one-legged athlete.
The author interjected: “If there is any athlete more entitled to the latter title, his name has never been heard as of yet.”
WHO NEEDS TWO LEGS?
Described as sturdy and stocky, very modest and the idol of the fans that watched him play, Oswalt was reported to often say to his friends, “One leg is enough, if you only know how to use it.”
That quote became the basis of an editorial about overcoming handicaps by New York writer Herbert Kauffman.
Oswalt certainly overcame any hurdles put in his way, becoming a standout with amateur athletic clubs across the city, which included the Mount Union Cubs as well as some Goat Hill teams and North Side teams.
He played catcher on several baseball teams. He was always allowed a courtesy runner once he reached first base, but was also known to hobble around the circuit to record needed runs.
In basketball, he played forward, and was part of the Coombs Brothers team, which was considered the fastest in northeast Ohio during the 1915-16 season.
A flyer promoting a contest between the Hiram College Terriers and the Coombs Brothers team on Feb. 5, 1916, mentioned Oswalt by name.
“They will play Oswalt, a one-legged man. If you don’t believe he is good, come and see,” was printed on the poster.
The Coombs Brothers team won a game against Hiram earlier in the season at Alliance by the score of 52-18.
At Hiram, it was a little tougher. The Coombs Brothers squeaked out a 31-25 victory on Hiram’s floor. It was only the fourth loss by the Terrriers at home in 17 seasons. The only other teams to beat them were Yale, Western Reserve and the Buffalo Germans.
It was on the gridiron where Oswalt really seemed to shine.
In his final season, he played for the Alliance Independents, which won the amateur championship of the “city and country” in 1915, according to the syndicated article, which stated he played in every game and was “frequently injured but refused to quit.”
It was noted that he was a guard, a kicker, and that it was “a matter of local football history” that Oswalt made a goal line stand, “leaping through the line” to stop a “terrific tandem plunge” at the 1-yard line on the final down of the game against a Canton team.
As a kicker, he would use his crutches to approach the ball, but throw them away once the pigskin was in the air and then “hop with as much speed as many gridders can attain on two good legs.”
He was even known to punt, although no description exists as to how he did it with just one leg.
CAUGHT ON FILM?
An article that appeared in the March 31, 1916, edition of The Alliance Review detailed how a camera man from the weekly division of the Universal Film Corporation “turned a crank and got real action photos” of Peg Oswalt on the Mount Union campus as he punted a football, caught a baseball while donning a catcher’s mask and “feather bed” chest protector, played basketball and hopped around the cinder track.
The article named the cameraman as J.B. Buchanan, who has been traced to having worked in Pittsburgh.
However, an article that ran on the sports page as a tribute at the time of his death a month later stated that despite being in town for two days, a film crew was unable to get pictures of Oswalt in action due to his taking ill the day before they arrived.
The conflicting reports leave a mystery as to whether or not Oswalt was ever actually captured on film.
According to the 1911 city directory, Oswalt worked for the Stark Electric Railway along with his father, who was the foreman in the Lake Park yards.
According to his obituary, Virgil Oswalt left behind his parents, a brother named Rollo, and three sisters — Mrs. Harry Robinson, Sylvia and Helen, who was approximately 10 when her brother died and later married Paul Rowland.
Peg Oswalt also left behind what appeared to be a bright future as an inspirational figure to a nation that would soon be thrust into World War I and later be filled with men returning home with debilitating injuries.
A tribute to Oswalt on the sports page of The Review read: “The untimely death of this young man removes perhaps the greatest athlete so handicapped that the country has ever seen. … His feats were truly remarkable.”