Clotheslines and Leather

A Century of Harvard vs. Yale

Even before the 8:00 a.m. train has left South Station, a well-built middle-aged man draws a bottle of scotch from the pouch of his Harvard sweatshirt and swallows the first mouthful.

"Hey Corky, they've sold out the Yale Bowl," he tells his friend. "I don't think that's happened since we played in the fifties."

He takes a second gulp and passes Corky the bottle. "Here, have a hit. You look half asleep."

"When you get to be my age," Corky laughs, "You learn to save yourself for the second half."

One hundred years ago this November, 150 Harvard men joined 15 of their toughest classmates on a train ride over these same tracks to New Haven for the first Harvard-Yale game. Since at that time the schools played different brands of football, both team captains had met previously to set compromise rules. Unfortunately, the rule compromises eliminated only a part of the confusion. The Elis, who had previously played a game involving only kicking, were unsure of how to hold and tackle. When Yale succeeded finally in grasping the fundamentals, Fair Harvard accused them of unnecessary roughness. Even the ball did not cooperate fully, losing its air at enough critical junctures to keep Yale scoreless, but not often enough to prevent the Crimson from scoring four goals and as many touchdowns.


Yale immediately challenged Harvard to a rematch the following fall. The teams met again in November 1876, in a game notable for a lack of contribution by the groundskeepers, and a superfluity of contribution by the spectators. Only after the players had arrived at Hamilton field did someone notice there were no goalposts. A frantic last minute search turned up nothing better than clothesline attached to parallel stakes. Throughout the game both lines held tightly, Yale scoring the contest's sole goal towards the end of the first half. Then, with only a minute or so remaining, Harvard launched a fearsome drive, muscling the ball near the Eli goal line. Suddenly, a barrage of Yale fans stormed the field. They disrupted play and, despite cries of "hold that line," tore down both makeshift goalposts. Without goalposts the game could not continue, and Yale was declared a 1-0 victor. Harvard, decrying both the lack of civility among Yale fans and increased roughness, declined to play Yale in 1877, deciding instead to begin a series with the more refined men of Princeton.

As the train approaches New Haven its passengers become increasingly less sober and more boisterous. There is scattered singing and a few people are dancing. The vices are what one would expect for the Harvard-Yale game; alumni drink $12-a-bottle scotch at the front of the train, students smoke $35-an-ounce marijuana at the back. When the train arrives, cabs and buses wait to whisk denizens of the game to Yale's campus, and to the Yale Bowl where the game will be played. In Yale Bowl parking lots old friends gather to sip champagne and pick at delicacies spread across station-wagon tailgates. Antique autos abound, many of which remain in storage all year except for this and perhaps a few other special occasions. At Morey's tavern, well-bred alumni quaff two--dollar cocktails. Undergraduates bring beer and liquor to lunch in the college dining halls, where they sit with old high school classmates and forecast the doom of each other's team.

"You guys don't have a prayer," one Yalie tells his friend. "Why, you guys lost to Princeton and they don't even know how to play football."

The entire scene creates the feeling that an event of some import is about to take place, despite the lack of television cameras, high school marching bands, and multi-colored banners. Harvard versus Yale is probably the least commercialized of all American sports spectaculars. Not coincidentally, it is also the most clannish.

That the Harvard-Yale game has not become a commercial enterprise should not imply that big business has had no affect on the event. Last year, frequent arbitrary timeouts for television commercials bothered many players who felt that the interruptions defused their momentum. Eighty-one years ago, the Vitascope company, a precursor of the modern motion picture corporations, offered the managers of both teams $25,000 for exclusive picture-taking rights at the 1894 game. Vitascope made one stipulation however, that the game be played between the twenty-five yard lines so their cameras could record all the action. The company even devised new rules to compensate for such changes as the loss of use of the goalposts, since they were beyond the range of the cameras. Harvard and Yale abruptly declined the offer. Perhaps, if someone from Vitascope had suggested a few stakes and some clothesline...

As the spectators reach the Yale Bowl they segregate themselves and go to sit on the side of Harvard or on the side of Yale. With some exception, their proximity to the fifty yard line is proportional to the length and extent of affiliation with their respective universities. Juniors from the class of 1977 sit together on the ten yard line, fund-raisers from the class of 1947 sit together on the fifty. But here it is not class against class; it is Harvard against Yale. With all the ferocity of rivals who are more alike than dissimiliar, the fans exhort their team to demolish the oppostion. They chant cheers as refined as "Fair Harvard" or "Bingo, bingo, that's the lingo" (written by Cole Porter, Yale '13), and as unrefined as "A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale's shorts." While on the field the men of Yale and Harvard battle in what for many will be their final football game, and their most memorable. There is much pride involved, at times more for those off the field than for those who are playing.

Throughout the first century of Harvard-Yale football contests action has often exceeded the bounds of fair and friendly competition. Increasing violence during the early 1880s compelled the Harvard faculty in 1885 to abolish Ivy League competition. Harvard was still allowed to play non-Ivy League schools, but most players felt, as an Advocate editorial read, that "The game would not be worth the candle. No strong interest can be aroused among the students at large until we are allowed to play Yale and Princeton." In the summer of 1886 the faculty agreed to allow the team to schedule Ivy League contests, if the team adopted rules to tame the game's "bestial nature." New groundrules, when they were adopted, did not restrain the players for long. By the early 1890s Harvard and Yale were stunning each other with such devastating innovations as the flying wedge, a formation eventually banned in all U.S. football leagues. After the 1894 match the Boston Globe ran a special box listing the game's players and casualties.

During these same years a Harvard coach noticed that on rainy days his players' uniforms would soak up 20-30 pounds in excess water. Someone suggested leather outfits, and a Boston tailor went to work. Harvard surprised the Elis by appearing at the 1893 game in new waterproof uniforms, much to the displeasure of Yale all-American "Pudge" Heffelfinger '93, who was attending his first game as a recent alumnus. "Pudge," thinking the leather had been employed solely to prevent those Harvard sissies from bodily harm, bounded onto the field soon after the game had started and began tearing uniforms off the players backs. Bedlam erupted for several minutes, but order was eventually restored and the game continued.

Exhibitions of Harvard-Yale chauvinism often walk the razor's edge between good-natured boasts of superiority and spiteful self-gratification. Yalies are wont to espouse the stereotype of the condescending Harvard pseudo-intellectual, as in the following excerpt from a Yale student's report of the first Harvard-Yale game: "If we were to paint the typical Harvard student, we should draw him as a gentlemanly fellow with a thin veneering of respectibility, and an amazing amount of superficial knowledge, who, angry at a man would think, 'he's a low fellah, you know,' ... and who, immediately after death, would ... congratulate the Almighty for having made him."

Likewise, there have always been those at Harvard who must continually assert that Yale is an inferior educational institution. This sentiment is expressed most crudely in a 1905 Harvard Graduate's Magazine article that advocated the temporary cessation of games with Yale to preserve Harvard's preeminence. "Thanks to the linking of Yale's name with Harvard's in the sports of the past fifty years, the public, in its haphazard fashion, has gone on supposing that Harvard and Yale were about on a level as institutions of learning," the story's writer laments. Nothing, he adds, could be further from the truth. The article appeared at the nadir of Harvard football, the team having beaten Yale in only one of their previous ten contests.