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A History of Harvard-Yale

By Robert S Samuels, Crimson Staff Writer

Generations of Harvard and Yale students have taken part in the wonderful tradition that is The Game. Interestingly, much of what we know and love about Harvard-Yale can be traced back to the very beginning of the rivalry’s storied history.

The schools’ football teams faced off for the first time on Nov. 13, 1875. Despite the steep entrance cost of 50 cents, 2500 fans showed up to New Haven’s Hamilton Park to witness Harvard’s 4-0 victory.

The game they played was still called football, but it would hardly be recognizeable to fans of the game today. The forward pass wouldn’t be legalized for another 20 years, and the two teams had to actually agree on the rules beforehand. Only upon Harvard’s urging did players agree that either side could run with the ball.

These days, The Game is associated just as much with the partying and the tailgating, but the associated shenanigans are as old as The Game itself. Students from both schools partied together after that first game, and seven Harvard students were arrested for, as the New Haven Register wrote, “Hooting and singing in the public streets.”

The rivalry has also been intense from the start. In fact, things went overboard as early as 1894, when nine players had to be removed because of either injury or ejection (two players got into a fistfight). The violence got so bad that one player lapsed into a coma for a few hours. As a result of the bloodshed, the two teams didn’t face off again until 1897.

This kind of violence caused many, including then-Harvard president Charles Eliot, to call for a ban on football altogether. Despite Eliot’s pleas, from 1897 onward, The Game has been played every year, save 1917-18 and 1943-44.

Even so, football certainly felt the effects of this violence. To make the game a little safer, a committee of coaches toyed around with the idea of widening the field in the early 20th century. But with Harvard Stadium already built, the coaches decided to allow for the forward pass starting in 1906.

It caught on quickly, with Yale using the tactic to earn a key first down en route to a 6-0 victory in The Game later that year. Another set of important rules were added in 1912, many of which are still in use today.

The first two decades of the 20th century also saw the construction of Harvard Stadium (1903) and the Yale Bowl (1914), both of which are still homes for the two teams. Like The Game itself, each of these parks has an interesting spot in American sports lore. Harvard’s venue is the oldest stadium in the country, while Yale’s inspired one of the greatest college park in the country, The Rose Bowl.

In the first 40 years of the rivalry, then, the stage had been set.  The intensity of the rivalry, the revelry, the venues, and even many of the rules were all in place. Students and fans for the next century would feel the effects of these early years, as we will again tomorrow.

—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at robertsamuels@college.harvard.edu.

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