Marketablility, nostalgia to intersect
Once upon a time in college football -- a time when bleachers were filled with fedoras and cigar smoke, not face paint and coeds, when fans waggled pennants instead of their index fingers and snapped section-wide card tricks instead of cell phone pics -- wooden goalposts near warning tracks and end-zone seats behind steel I-beams and foul poles were all the rage.
It was a time when websites were found only in musty attics and basements, when the term "Great Depression" had nothing do with an upset loss suffered by your alma mater. Prohibition was the law of the land, and there was an unwritten prohibition against kicking field goals and, in some particularly unprogressive regions of the country, the forward pass.
It truly was a distant era, a time when foul lines frequently blurred into hashmarks and America's national pastime was fused with its national passion, and games like this Saturday's specials pitting Notre Dame against Army and Northwestern against Illinois -- at the new Yankee Stadium and venerable Wrigley Field, respectively -- were regularities, not rarities.
Although college football's millennial era has little in common with the 1920s, '30s and '40s incarnation of the game, Saturday's games share a strikingly similar genesis to those classic contests of yore.
Though the seating capacities of college football stadiums largely dwarfed those of baseball stadiums in the pre- and immediate post-World War II eras, many schools, both celebrated and unknown, scheduled games in major league baseball stadiums as a marketing ploy. The limited availability of seats made tickets a prized commodity. And there was a certain buzz that accompanied games in foreign, albeit cozier environs. The games also attracted a fresh, curious crop of urban fans who had rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to visit rural college towns and campuses, allowing them the opportunity to experience the atmosphere unique to a college game.
And playing in baseball stadiums in big cities provided coveted media exposure from major metropolitan newspapers. The legendary scribes -- Grantland Rice, Paul Gallico, Red Smith, Damon Runyon, et al. -- usually covered only major games played on campuses located near large metropolitan areas. As a result, forays into America's Gothams were vital to publicity men -- the archaic term for sports information or media relations directors -- who, unlike most of their modern successors that function mostly as damage control specialists and mouthpieces for coaches, actively sought publicity for their schools and players.
Despite the passing of decades, the novelty remains freshly marketable, and now it's supplemented with nostalgia. College football and baseball are, after all, America's oldest spectator sports, and therefore remain perhaps the two major sports with the greatest historical foundations. When the Notre Dame-Army game in Yankee Stadium was announced in 2009, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stated his desire to tap into that nostalgia as an effort to"echo the history of our program."
While those Notre Dame-Army games played in New York from the Roaring '20s through the post-World War II era rank among some of the most famous contests ever played in traditional baseball stadiums, they were not the only such games. There were other less-celebrated, but no-less-significant games played between other schools in famous baseball stadiums in other cities.
One of the greatest, yet least known of these games was Pitt's defeat of Georgia Tech at Forbes Field, the then-state-of-the-art home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a war benefit played on Nov. 23, 1918. World War I and outbreak of the Spanish Influenza effectively truncated many schools' schedules that year, including that of Pitt, which played only four games -- all in November. The Yellow Jackets entered the hyped game undefeated and unscored upon, with a potent offense that had tallied more than 100 points in three games. The game also pitted two of the sports' most famous coaches against each other: Pitt's Pop Warner versus Tech's John Heisman. Despite all of Georgia Tech's firepower, the Panthers roared to a 32-0 victory and were crowned that strange season's national champions by many sportswriters.
Another game surrounded by some extraordinary circumstances and a totally surreal series of events was the Boston College-Holy Cross battle played in Fenway Park on Nov. 28, 1942. The No. 1-ranked Eagles, sporting a stout defense that had surrendered only 19 total points en route to an 8-0 start, thought so little of the 4-4-1 Crusaders that a postgame team victory party to celebrate a perfect season was scheduled at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. It was Holy Cross, however, that was celebrating at game's end. The Crusaders pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, and did so by an inexplicable score: 55-12. The Eagles were so thoroughly humiliated that the party was canceled. In this regard, it was perhaps the most fortuitous loss in college football history; a fire that evening engulfed the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing almost 500 people and injuring many more. And one final footnote to the story of this epic upset: the programs for this game featured two players wearing Nos. 55 and 12.
Griffith Stadium, the longtime home of the Washington Senators on the corner of Georgia Avenue and W Street in Washington, D.C., hosted several college football games throughout its 54-year lifespan, the most notable of which might have been Maryland's first victory (6-0) over Navy in the first neutral site game of the heated "Crab Bowl" series in 1931. Both Maryland and Navy would play occasional home games at the stadium before it was demolished in 1965, and the Terrapins even used the structure as a temporary home field while their on-campus facility, Byrd Stadium, underwent renovations in 1948.
Away from the East Coast, Warner was involved in another football clash in a baseball stadium in 1914, when he took his Carlisle Indians to Chicago's South Side to face Notre Dame in Comiskey Park. Warner, for all historical intents and purposes, should probably be credited with the idea of playing college football in baseball stadiums as a way to introduce his team to larger audiences and to gain media exposure. Warner, after all, had been barnstorming the country with his "Nomads of the Gridiron" since the late 1890s, playing games in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as titanic tilts with Ivy League powers in New York's Polo Grounds. But it was Notre Dame that perfected the venture. Under coach Jesse Harper, the Irish routed Carlisle 48-6 in a game that would essentially kick off three decades of barnstorming in baseball stadiums in major cities for the Fighting Irish. Harper's protégé, Knute Rockne, would employ the endeavor to ultimately propel the small Catholic college in northern Indiana into the national sporting consciousness.
Notre Dame would play in nearly every major baseball facility in the country, from Fenway Park to Yankee Stadium to Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as New York's Polo Grounds. And it wasn't an official college game, but a group of Notre Dame all-stars would play the NFL's Pottsville Maroons in Philadelphia's Shibe Park, home of the Athletics, in 1925. Pottsville would best the Irish standouts, 9-7, but lose the NFL championship in the process due to a controversial dispute over territory rights with another now-defunct franchise, the Frankford Yellow Jackets.
Often overlooked in Notre Dame's long historical parade of famous games played in baseball stadiums is the 1943 wartime showdown between the No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Navy Midshipmen in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The game was significant because the Irish's 33-6 victory was the sixth game of the season, yet the last game played by quarterback Angelo Bertelli. Bertelli was inducted into the Marine Corps almost immediately after leading Notre Dame to the victory. Without the big win over a highly-ranked Navy team under his belt, Bertelli might not have won the Heisman Trophy that year.
But New York was the place, historically and Frankly (as in Sinatra) speaking, big-time college football called home in the sport's golden era. There was no better place to lose those "little [college] town blues," and "start spreading the news." If you could play and win in New York, you could "make it anywhere."
At least that's what Pete Rozelle believed. Rozelle, the publicity man for the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons, perhaps the greatest team in college football history that nobody has ever heard of, used a trip to Manhattan to play Fordham in late October 1951 to gain national attention for the small Jesuit school and All-America status for one of its star players.
Rozelle went so far as to pick up Grantland Rice and chauffeur him to the game at the Polo Grounds in order to talk up the Dons' star back, Ollie Matson. Rozelle's moxie paid off: Matson wowed the Eastern sporting press, scoring three touchdowns to cement a spot on Rice's All-America team. Matson, alongside two other NFL Hall of Famers, Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti, would lead the Dons to an undefeated 9-0 season. But the story of the 1951 USF Dons didn't have a happy ending. The Dons courageously turned down bowl invitations that came with the stipulation that the team's two black players, Matson and standout Burl Toler, stay at home. Without the big bowl payouts, the school was forced to drop football.
Other famous Big Apple baseball stadium games included a remarkable, yet bizarre three-game series played between Pitt and Fordham from 1935-37 at the Polo Grounds. Incredibly, all three games ended in scoreless ties.
And despite the rise of pro football in the late 1950s, the tradition of melding New York college football with baseball stadiums continued into the early 1960s with the Gotham Bowl. There were only two games in the bowl's limited lifespan, but the latter, an exciting 36-34 Nebraska victory over Miami played at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 15, 1962, was one of the earliest sporting events televised on ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
While a handful of recent bowl games have been played in baseball stadiums, the last regular season college football/baseball stadium games to attract any interest were likely a series of contests involving Grambling and legendary coach Eddie Robinson that were played at Yankee Stadium through the 1980s.
But the fad, if this Saturday's games in New York and Chicago are any indication, might just be returning to college football. Be sure to gather around your HD TVs -- or, better yet, your radios -- and enjoy. I hope the foul poles don't obstruct your view.
Writer and historian John D. Lukacs is a consultant for ESPN's "College GameDay." His first book, a true World War II adventure titled "Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War," is available at booksellers nationwide.
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