By Joel Alderman
The Yale Bowl stands empty and silent on a sun-filled, crisp November 21, 2014. There is nothing remarkable about my being there, except to realize that it was exactly 100 years ago to this day that what was then America’s largest sports stadium opened to the public for the first time, as Harvard and Yale got together to play football.
I went to the Bowl today, as I have many times, thinking, but not expecting, that there would be something special going on to mark the occasion. There was nothing. No ceremony, no audience, no dignitaries, no recognition, and, of course, no football. The Yale-Harvard game was still 24 hours away, but it would not be in the Bowl. Instead, it will be at Harvard.
That’s an almost sacrilegious way not to celebrate that historic day in 1914.
Why this year’s game isn’t where it could have been
The reason The Game is not in New Haven, according to the original plan, is because the pattern of home games was disrupted during World War II. Following 1942, when it took place in the Bowl, Harvard dropped formal football and the teams did not meet in 1943 and 1944.
After the 1945 season was underway, Harvard and Yale began to talk about a game that year, even though the schedules were already drawn up. It would have been Harvard’s turn to be the host. However, Harvard had already started planning for a game there in 1946.
As a result, the Harvard Athletic Director, Bill Bingham, asked Yale’s AD, Ogden Miller, if the first postwar game could be in the Bowl, and Yale agreed. It meant that back-to-back games would be at Yale. It also reversed the sequence of home games which until then was Yale in even numbered years and Harvard in years ending in odd numbers.
Since 1945, Harvard now gets home field for the even numbered years and Yale the odd, which is why the one in 2014 is at Harvard.
Otherwise, I suspect that there would have been a gigantic party in the Bowl tomorrow.
How it looks 100 years later
If I could have gone through the gates this afternoon, I would have noticed that the well worn seats are unoccupied, the press box is quiet, sea gulls are flying overhead, and the well manicured green grass is in surprisingly good condition after six home games. The goal posts are placed 10 yards farther back than they were in 1914, when they were on the goal lines. The playng field, still with a large blue “Y” and other painted embellishments, along with the yard line and end zone markings, left over from the Princeton contest last week, is in good shape and ready for another game. But it won’t happen for a while. There will be no more football played there until next year.
The scene in the Bowl
It was eerie to think about the same date in 1914. A crowd of nearly 75,000, over half of which were from the New York and Boston areas, had arrived primarily by special trains. The students and city residents mainly walked or went to and from the Bowl via open air trolleys. Within the Bowl there were women in fancy furs, men in raccoon coats, heavily wrapped players on the sidelines, cheerleaders with megaphones, and thousands of Yale and Harvard students and alumni who actually participated in organized cheers and songs.
Bands played many of the same college songs that are heard today, and at the end of the game Harvard undergraduates set off fireworks and red flares from the tips of the goal posts. Having correctly anticipated a victory, they were well prepared for pranks.
They were in no hurry to leave after their team had embarrassed Yale 36-0. They lapped the field while performing a long “snake dance,” and by the time they left it was dark.
I wasn’t there, of course. (I’m old but not THAT old!) From books and newspaper accounts I have read, I have no reason to dispute the accuracy of the above description.
Back to the present
The quick visit to the Bowl today, even though it was closed, was sad and also uplifting. I thought of who were there for its opening, in full realization that those players and spectators have long since departed. Maybe, just maybe, their spirits came back this day for a reunion. Among the very few changes they would have seen were a scoreboard, a press box, and separately built rest rooms, all of which were omitted in the original construction.
The saddest part about this anniversary date is that there was no recognition, official or unofficial, in tribute to this same day 100 years ago. There were no speeches, no plaque was put in place, nobody was present to lay claim to having seen the earliest game in the Bowl.
Nobody came to the party, simply because there was none.
Maybe, after another hundred years, in 2114, there will be a 200 year celebration at the Yale Bowl, if indeed the Bowl is still there. I kind of think it might be. But we’ll never know, will we?