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The Game Heads to Fenway Park

Fenway Park football 2017

The 135th Harvard vs. Yale football game – for those who understand its rivalry and history, it is simply The Game – will be played this Saturday at Fenway Park in Boston, the home of the defending World Series Champion Red Sox.  

Football is nothing new for the venerable Fenway, which hosted its first gridiron battle less than a month after the Red Sox won the 1912 World Series, served as the home field for the Boston College Eagles for 76 games, and as recently as a year ago hosted the Fenway Gridiron Series.

What is new is The Game being played anywhere outside of Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl, its alternating homes for over a century.

The Yale Bowl has hosted The Game in New Haven, CT since 1914:  51 meetings divided into 26 Harvard wins, 24 Yale wins, and a 21-21 tie in 1951. Harvard Stadium, located in Boston, has played host 55 times since 1903 with fittingly split results:  26 Harvard wins, 26 Yale wins, three ties – including the 1968 matchup of undefeated teams summed up in the headline “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” This year is the 50th anniversary of that tie, one of the most famous football games of the 20th century.

Last year, a crowd of 51,426 came to the Yale Bowl and watched the Bulldogs run up 17 points in the second quarter on their way to a 24-3 win. This year, then, was slated to be hosted by Harvard, but Harvard Stadium, the nation’s oldest permanent concrete stadium, has been undergoing a renovation and restoration that began in fall 2017. Though Harvard Stadium still hosted the Crimson’s other home games this season, it was decided in advance that The Game was relocated to Fenway.

When was the last year that neither Harvard Stadium nor the Yale Bowl hosted The Game? 1912, when the Bulldogs football team played at Yale Field.

This was not the same Yale Field that opened in 1928 and became the home of the Yale baseball team, the Eastern League’s New Haven Ravens (who relocated to become the New Hampshire Fisher Cats) and the Can-Am League’s New Haven County Cutters (who ceased operations in 2007). This Yale Field dated back to 1884, when Yale – one of the early powerhouses of the game, along with Princeton – routed Harvard 52-0 in their ninth all-time meeting.

A year prior, in 1883, the game was played for the first and only time outside of either Connecticut or Massachusetts. It was held at the Polo Grounds in New York City and played on Thanksgiving Day in front of a throng of 10,000. A year after, in 1885, there was no game – Harvard had withdrawn from the Football Association due to the game’s violence. (The Crimson was back by 1886, though the game remained as brutal as ever.)

Hampden Park, located in Springfield, MA, hosted The Game for six straight seasons, 1889 through 1894 – notable for Yale’s superstar on the line, Pudge Hefflefinger; Yale’s introduction of cheerleaders in 1890; Harvard’s introduction of the flying wedge in 1892; and a vicious contest in 1894 that caused The Game to be called off for the next two years.

In 1897, when The Game was reinstated, the tradition began of alternating hosting duties between Harvard and Yale. Harvard’s home site was Soldiers Field, “where fans jammed into decaying, unsafe wooden bleachers to cheer on the Crimson,” according to Harvard’s official football history. Soldiers Field hosted The Game in 1897, 1899, and 1901, at which point it was replaced by the innovative, concrete, horseshoe-shaped Harvard Stadium.

In 1898, The Game returned to Yale Field. It was the same year that the undefeated Crimson were named national champions by the Helms Athletic Foundations, an achievement they repeated in 1899 despite a scoreless tie in The Game at Soldiers Field. In 1900, the Bulldogs defended their home turf with a 28-0 shellacking at Yale Field. Harvard triumphed 22-0 in 1901 at Soldiers Field, but Yale answered with wins in the next six meetings, beginning with a 23-0 romp in 1902 in front of over 30,000 in New Haven, continuing through 1906, where the forward pass was first approved for The Game, and wrapped up with a 12-0 shutout at Harvard Stadium in 1907.

That six-year winning streak for Yale was the longest in the series until the modern-day Harvard Crimson reeled off nine straight victories from 2007-2015. (Thanks to their quick start, the Bulldogs still own the bragging rights to all-time record, 67-59-8.)

The football of the day led to low scoring games, and The Game was no exception. Each meeting from 1897 through 1912 ended in a shutout. Ah, 1912, freeze-frame it: a 20-0 Harvard win at Yale Field, the last time that The Game was played outside of Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl.

Two years later, Yale University introduced the local and national sporting community to its oval-shaped wonder, the Yale Bowl, with a capacity of 70,000 (though 80,000 packed in to watch Harvard triumph in 1920, 9-0).

The Game traveled from Harvard’s U-shaped arena in odd-numbered years to Yale’s circular counterpart in even-numbered years, until two notable hiatuses.  There was no meeting in 1917 nor 1918; both schools shut down their football programs during World War I. Nearly three decades later, Harvard ceased football in 1943 and 1944 during World War II though Yale continued to field a team. When they resumed The Game, it was on December 1, 1945, and the game was held – despite it being an odd-numbered year – at the Yale Bowl. Yale has hosted in odd years ever since, while Harvard hosted in even years.

And this year, 143 years after their very first meeting, Fenway Park gets the honors. A rare honor, indeed.

Image from fall 2017 courtesy Fenway Park.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications