When Harvard Saved Football

By Zev Eleff

Seward Simons, Jr.’s hijinks changed football forever. It possibly saved it from extinction. A hundred years ago, on November 20, 1919 some fifty-thousand spectators filled Harvard Stadium. Most left very satisfied with the Crimson’s 10-3 triumph over its rival, Yale. Still, two young Harvard fans departed despondent, along with a bemused band of Bulldog faithful bound back to New Haven. The first was a girl whose pigtails were cruelly snipped off by the mischievous Harvard undergraduate sitting behind her. The other was Simons, that delinquent with the overaggressive scissors and a penchant for playful pranks. The police arrested him, charging the Pasadena, California, native with “mayhem.”

Simons’s father was a Harvard alumnus and a successful California lawyer. He traveled back to his alma mater to plead his son’s case. Simons, Sr., was also a member of the Tournament of Roses athletic committee and tasked with reenergizing the annual New Year’s football competition that matched an “Eastern” gridiron power against a juggernaut of the “West.” However, the Rose Bowl could not recruit an East Coast power to Tournament Park for two straight years. The official reason was that formal football had been canceled so that the strongest men could enlist to help the Allies in the Great War.

An avid-football devotee, President Woodrow Wilson, recommended temporarily releasing the most superior athletes from duty. He reasoned that “such a celebration would not interfere with the government’s war activities.” But university leaders disagreed, refusing to readmit the student-soldiers before the end of their term. They were also apprehensive about the multiple-days trip to California that sapped the energy out of their players, allegedly contributing upsets of the fatigued members of the Brown and Penn teams in 1916 and 1917.

Instead, servicemen, a collection of unprepared marines and midshipmen proved underwhelming substitutes for the annual East-West Football Game. Simons worried that the Tournament would once again replace football games with odd spectacles like chariot racing and tent pegging. On one New Year’s, the committee featured a racing showdown between an elephant and a camel.

It wasn’t just the Rose Bowl. Fans feared that football was about to vanish. For years, opponents had charged that college football was dangerous. Detractors tabulated the number of injuries and even deaths on the gridiron. Former Harvard president Charles Eliot had for decades led the charge to convince lads that their masculinity need not be tied to hard-hitting football. Many undergrads and alumni agreed that the game was far too ruthless. Still, they did not care for the Eliot-sponsored reforms that would induce “men in the American colleges to play lady-like games.”

Other detractors pointed out corruption, accusing teams in high school and collegiate ranks of recruiting “ringers,” professional athletes and other supposedly seedy men, to play alongside amateur athletes. College faculties felt that the rowdy sport was sidelining the academic culture they were told to cultivate. Students who stayed in school during the final sequences of World War I arrange scrub matches but the level of play was certainly subpar. The beleaguered state of the game encouraged football’s opponents to redouble their efforts to remove the gruesome game once and for all from college life.

A lot was at stake. Simons Jr.’s legal troubles gave the elder Simons an idea to revive the sport. Back then, Harvard was part of the so-called Big Three. Harvard handedly beat Yale and had tied Princeton earlier in the season. The Tigers were probably the best of the Big Three. But Simons did not hold a relationship with the New Jersey college. It made good sense to court Harvard. Besides, Harvard offered a particular pedigree unrivaled by any other American institution at that time. With the Crimson came the longest legacy of U.S. senators, industry captains and Wall Street bankers.

Simons went for it and tossed his Hail Mary. He suggested to Harvard’s leadership that the Rose Bowl was just what the school required to jumpstart an underwhelming and probably too overly ambitious endowment campaign. President A. Lawrence Lowell set a target of $16 million. In today’s amounts, that would total $235 million.

Simons claimed that Harvard needed to expand its base to reach that figure. “None of Harvard’s graduates has ever seen their school play in the West,” contended Simons. “They need something to arouse their old interests. Why not send the football squad to Pasadena?” Simons theorized that the Pacific-bound team could make strategic stops along the railway to greet fans and western alumni who would be “stirred up” to see the 7-0-1 Crimson players.

Harvard had demurred several earlier invitations to play postseason football. The faculty argued that the ten-day winter recess was not long enough to support the trek and recuperation time for the students to prepare themselves for the spring semester. They also balked at the overemphasis on athletics to the detriment of scholarship. Besides, Harvard had grown accustomed to completing its season in that bone-crushing rivalry game against Yale. Adding to the season’s ritual was a kind of sacrilege.

Simons anticipated all this. He reminded Harvard officials that the school had stretched Christmas break by five days that year and downplayed the recently lopsided Harvard-Yale contests. “What’s more, you don’t have to worry about a thing,” concluded Simons. “We’ll provide the stadium and even line up another team as an opponent. All you have to do is come.” Harvard was impressed. President Lowell needed the cash and was pleased by the west-engulfing strategy. The professors eventually came around. If Thomas Jefferson were a football fan, he would have dubbed this Manifest Destiny.

Fears of a national coal shortage almost fired a false start. However, Harvard eventually signed on, forgetting to ask for a share of the ticket receipts. Seward Simons, Sr., also managed to strike up a deal for his son, restoring Junior’s good name at the university and among the Boston authorities.

***

The rest of the preparation and execution for the Rose Bowl was routine. In short order, Simons secured University of Oregon’s Webfoots to represent the West in the Rose Bowl. Coach Shy Huntington had led the Webfoots—a half-century later, the team changed its name to the Ducks—to a surprise shutout over the favored Penn Quakers on New Year’s Day 1917. Among the nascent Pacific Coast Conference, “Oregon was the smallest of the lot and,” suggested its athletic director to a friend, “we must depend on our brains primarily to lick the other fellow.” Against Penn, the little-known Webfoots “set a trap for Pennsylvania and they played into our hands.”

Oregon obliged. After all, the 850 miles from Eugene to Pasadena was a breezy trip compared to the 3,100 miles from Boston. Tapping Oregon elevated interest in the Rose Bowl for eastern fans seeking to avenge Pennsylvania’s demoralizing defeat. It also excused the committee for bypassing the Washington State Cougars—though State’s coach admitted Oregon had the better team—who had beaten the Webfoots back in November in Portland. Against the Webfoots, Harvard knew to come better prepared and better rested.

Likewise, the Crimson was not unknown to Oregon. Congressman C.N. McArthur had attended the Harvard-Yale game. Rep. McArthur was a passionate regular lobbyist for inclusion of his local boys to Walter Camp’s All-American teams. He had little to say about “the Harvard team outside of Casey who is dangerous because of his speed.” The politician remained confident in his home team, writing in a personal letter to Camp that the Crimson “showed flashes of real football but lacked in consistent attack.”

Eddie Casey was Harvard’s All-American halfback. He grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, on the same block as Eddie Mahan, who Jim Thorpe once called the “greatest football player who ever lived.” Both hailed from large Irish-descending families; Eddie was the thirteenth of fifteen Casey children. In 1912, Mahan had received some severe criticism from the Catholic press for deciding to play at Harvard rather than the up-and-coming Notre Dame or Boston College. Interestingly, the same rebuke reached African American players who chose Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard over Historically Black Colleges. Four years later, Mahan had made out well at Harvard College, so no one complained when the speedy Casey took his talents to Cambridge. In the month leading to the Rose Bowl, Casey did some of his best work, scoring touchdowns in the draw against Princeton and then tallying the deciding points in the Yale contest.

But Congressman McArthur undersold the abilities of the rest of the Harvard Crimson. Team captain Billy Murray was a competent quarterback. Harvard’s Bob Sedgwick and Charlie Havemeyer were strong, bruising tackles. Ralph Horween started beside Casey at fullback. A miserable shoulder injury had derailed Ralph’s season, opening a spot in the backfield for his younger brother, Arnie Horween. The junior Horween punished defenders with his 200-pound frame, and stifled Princeton and Yale offenses with solid linebacker play.

Pundits noted that with Arnie Horween the Crimson were “getting together better” than it had with beaten up Ralph in the game. Ralph would one day argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was Arnie, then, who collected the accolades. He had a knack for rallying his friends. Arnie was, according to teammates, “one of those all-around chaps.”

Coach Fisher made room for both Horweens, to the chagrin of benched Charlie Havemeyer, when Ralph recovered in time for the Oregon match. The Jewish press exercised some exaggeration when it credited Harvard’s triumph over Yale to the Chicago-native “Jewish boys.” America’s Jews celebrated the newfound exemplars of “Jewish brawn,” as they giddily slipped the rumor that Arnold Horween was in line for captain next season, after Murray and Casey graduated. Harvard’s was a formidable just quasi-New England Protestant bunch, not at all the Waspy brand of America that Simons hoped to show off in Pasadena.

McArthur probably shared his impressions with Oregon Coach Shy Huntington, who had starred as a player in the Rose Bowl defeat of Penn. Huntington also tried to squeeze information out of a Yale player, offering him cash and fare to Eugene to counsel him. The young Yankee refused, declaring that he would not help scout. He stood with Harvard, united with a typical nemesis in the looming battle with the West.

The 1920 Rose Bowl was developing into much more than the scheming Simons had initially intended. The faceoff between Harvard and Oregon featured competing football strategies and American cultures. Bob Fisher trained his Crimson players according to the “Harvard System.” Conceived by Percy Haughton—he had coached Fisher during the latter’s playing days in Cambridge—who was credited with restoring Harvard after a decade of suffering at the hands of Yale and Princeton. Haughton (and then Fisher) drilled students in practice, preaching precision and Rooseveltian “strenuousness.”

Harvard still held tight to the battlefield-like strategies and thoughtful play-calling touted by Walter Camp of Yale and the other Big Three old-timers. But under Haughton, the football team narrowed the playbook to a handful of formations. But the oppositions’ scouts could not account for the Crimson’s meticulousness. Each blocker was aware of when to shift, how to angle himself just right to weaken the defense for a fleet-footed Harvard ball carrier.

The other team reckoned that the East played far too subdued and overthought the game. The Webfoots played smashmouth football, a less elegant design than the brainy boys of Harvard. They counted on the brawny shoulders of halfback William “Bad Bill” Steers, an All-American and member of the Mare Island Marines replacement team that competed in the college-less Rose Bowl in 1919.

Still, Oregon did not plan to win on determined grit alone. The Webfoots subscribed to the newfangled notion of throwing the football. The forward pass was illegal until 1905. For a short time, a throw was not allowed to travel more than 20 yards downfield. Dropped passes resulted in a 15-yard penalty and if untouched by any player on the throw was treated like a fumble or automatic turnover.

The stiff repercussions of an imperfect pass-and-catch coupled with the general tendency to stick to “tradition” rendered the forward pass a rare thing among the Eastern colleges. The board of elected rule makers were disinclined to change. The rulebook was meant to hold innovation in check, to protect the integrity of the sport.

Throwing the ostrich egg-shaped leather ball became a fad in the unbridled hinterland, popularized by Pop Warner’s Carlisle Indians and then further westward by Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame teams and Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago. The first coaches and trainers at Oregon were disciples of Stagg’s Chicago method and judiciously hazarded to pass the football rather than always running it.

The attitude reflected the risk-taking activists who challenged the social status quo and challenged the men in charge to push the limits of the “Progressive Era.” In kind, Oregon’s untraditional game plan was not something that Harvard had encountered in their undefeated regular season. The Rose Bowl was turning out to be a meeting of the old guard of the supposedly New England-style America and openminded experimental frontierism of a much-wilder West.

The contest was freighted with so much more than the newspapers billed as “When East Meets West on Gridiron.” It was shaping up to become a clash of cultures, a competition between elegant traditionalism and undaunted innovation. The unexpected result of this mismatched encounter saved football just as its opponents finally thought they had obtained a stranglehold on the troublesome sport.

***

The whole affair was designed for the sake of publicity and pageantry. Reporters followed Harvard along the protracted journey, printing travel logs in a variety of newspapers. The train lugging 35 Harvard players, coaches and trainers pulled out of Boston’s South Station’s Track 13 on December 20, 1919. After some delay the team made it to Chicago on Day 2. There, Harvard alumni toasted the young sportsmen. Their words were “well calculated to stir up the athletes to a realization of just how serious is this coming game with Oregon in sight of Harvard men the world over.”

Fans positioned themselves along the train platforms along the journey, waving to the two cars carrying the Crimson players. On each occasion, the collegians, dutifully obeying Coach Fisher and the other chaperones, took a break from their never-ending bridge tournament and saluted the Harvard supporters throughout America’s little-known Middle West.

On Day 3 of the cross-country trip Fisher arranged for a travel respite in Omaha so the team could practice. He pushed them hard, reckoning that the fine dining and extended sitting had weakened the footballers. Everyone sweated through the drills and exercises, save for Eddie Casey who had been laboring with a heavy cold since departing from Boston. Day 4 was Christmas Eve. As the engine conductor distracted the Harvard men, showing off some sights in San Francisco, team managers set up a Christmas tree and laid out plenty of presents meant for small children. That generated some merriment and lots of laughter.

The passenger train pulled into Los Angeles on Day 6. Coach Huntington’s Oregonians had been stationed in LA for more than a week, owing to severe cold and snow in the South West. Upon arrival, Harvard’s athletes hobnobbed with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and Doug Fairbanks, the “King of Hollywood,” at Robert Brunton Studios, now the site of Paramount Pictures. The team was grateful to Fairbanks for the introduction to Charlie Chaplin and politely invited the two renowned actors to sit among the mix of Harvard fans at the New Year’s Day matchup.

Seward Simons, Sr., also seized the moment full of celebrities and America’s most well-known college. The Tournament of Roses added 10,000 seats to accommodate a respectable 30,000 spectators at the event. Most were piqued by the curious appearance of Harvard on the West Coast but were committed Oregon enthusiasts. Harvard’s fans numbered in the hundreds, a sizable portion travelling from San Francisco and San Diego.

Stops were pulled. The parade preceding the game featured automobiles, not horses. Simons’s committee arranged for two jet planes to swoop low, just above the stadium. The first hovering airplane deposited a football connected to two long streamers: a red one for Harvard’s colors and another, lemon-yellow, to represent Oregon’s uniform. The same colors bedecked the north and south goals. The other jet dropped the game ball into the waiting hands of the players and umpires stationed below. The stunt thrilled the patrons but frightened Pasadena officials. They promptly met in special session to ban low-flying aircrafts in the city’s airspace.

***

The game, played during a humid afternoon, was a good one. Harvard’s and Oregon’s defenses did not disappoint. The first quarter featured forced fumbles and a volley of punts. Oregon neutralized Eddie Casey and managed to block Ralph Horween’s field goal attempt and recouped possession at midfield. On the play Horween fell to the ground and landed on his bad shoulder. He was removed to the sidelines and replaced by Freddie Church. Despite the garnered momentum, Oregon’s march was curtailed. Arnie Horween’s tackling halted the Webfoots assault at the start of the second period to mitigate the damage. Superstar Bill Steers’s drop-kick sailed above the post. 3-0 Oregon.

Harvard then traded in its playbook for Oregon’s. Animated by the daring western style, Murray lobbed consecutive passes to Casey, who was normally surehanded but had committed a costly fumble earlier in the contest. Arnie Horween and Casey carried the ball hard into Oregon’s linemen while Jack Dempsey realigned Ralph’s collarbone. It turned out that the understudy, Freddie Church, came up with the big moment. Likely the only athlete faster than Eddie Casey, Church received a direct snap and swung to the left sideline for a 13-yard touchdown. Ralph was still too injured to attempt the extra point so younger brother and emerging hero Arnie kicked the ball in between the uprights. 7-3 Harvard.

Oregon returned serve on the subsequent drive. Steers could only manage to complete a single pass during the contest, so the Webfoots resorted to hard running. Steers powered toward Harvard’s endzone. He might have won the day had it not been for two determined Harvard defenders who caught up to him and knocked Steers out cold along the sidelines. Oregon removed the wobbly Webfoot. Steers was relieved for the smallish Skeet Manerud to kick another three-pointer before intermission. 7-6 Harvard.

Many absentee Harvard fans cheered on the Crimson back East. The faithful assembled at the Harvard Clubs in Boston and New York, dressed in fine attire. Radio, though, was still an experimental medium. On Forty-fourth Street in Manhattan, a telegraph operator translated the incoming wires from Pasadena into dramatic sentences. He plastered the game notes onto large-sized blackboards and moved a football-shaped placard back and forth along another board outfitted as a gridiron field.

The makeshift concoction represented the absolute height of long-distance sport spectatorship to date. The crowds appreciated the effort, anxiously awaiting the rapid and suspenseful reports. “Hey, stop that ball!” the fans shouted as Oregon took it deep into Harvard territory. “That’s far enough, quite!”

A journalist witnessing the whole scene testified that upon Church’s score “this was no longer a club room; it was a segment of the Stadium at Cambridge at the supremist moment.” Upon learning of Bill Steers’s unfortunate injury, the scorekeeper in New York relayed that his counterpart in Boston had asked the wire operator in Pasadena “whether the delay is due to the fact that they are burying Steers.” Some Harvard fans cheered while others prayed for “Bad Bill” to recover—after the conclusion of the contest.

The third quarter produced no scoring. Neither did the fourth, but it did yield uncommon drama. The night was nearly wrecked for all those in favor of Harvard. The surefooted Steers remained sidelined. His substitute, Manerud, booted a short drop-kick. The Rose Bowl score keeper hastily placed a “9” next to Oregon’s name, to the delight of Oregon’s fanbase. The operators in Boston and New York did the same. Then referee George Varnelli, an Oregon-native, signaled that the kick had sailed wide of the post. Still 7-6 Harvard.

Harvard returned on offense and relied on Arnie Horween to absorb the balance of the game clock. He marched—some might say “smashed”—downfield. Horween stopped at the opponent goal line, not wishing to run up the score, as time expired. The writers declared that the “East” had finally won the Rose Bowl.

It wasn’t exactly so. Coach Fisher denounced the implicit “provincialism” of referring to the sides as “East” and “West.” He and other football experts had come to see something transcontinental about the sport. On the homeward trip, Fisher reflected on the opportunity afforded to his group to “get out of its own little set and meet people of other parts of the country.” He acknowledged that research of Oregon and other teams beyond Harvard’s usual sphere inspired the throws and several of the runs that contributed to the Crimson’s triumph.

Fans also delighted in the opening of the American football frontier. In 1922, telephone lines carried a radio broadcast of the Princeton-Chicago game. NBC’s Graham McNamee provided the radio play-by-play of the Rose Bowl for the first time in 1927. A year later, 25 million people listened to the Tournament of Roses contest between Pittsburgh and Stanford. Surely, audiences found football commentators a better experience compared to the wire operators and blackboards that had enchanted Harvard fans just a few years earlier. Still, the latter effort to connect America’s coasts through football had provided the impetus to upgrade.

Football fans hoped Harvard would return to the West and renew its role in the football culture it had incidentally inspired. The Crimson did not journey out to the West until September 1949. There, Harvard lined up against Stanford and was crushed, 44-0.

Much had changed since the fateful 1920 Rose Bowl. About nine months after the Pasadena game, professionals led by Jim Thorpe claimed a share of the sport, giving birth to what is now known as the National Football League. The college ranks remained popular, though Harvard faded from the forefront of the football scene. The attention paid to the Harvard-Oregon duel inspired the Tournament of Roses to invest in a new stadium. Completed in 1923, the aptly-named Rose Bowl was built with seating for 52,000 and faith in a vision for American sports culture set in motion by a Pasadena-based lawyer and his pigtail-snipping insufferable son.

Zev Eleff is Associate Professor at Touro College and Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He is preparing a book about Harvard football in the 1920s, a story that aims to show how “outsiders” shaped the American mainstream

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