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How the first Thanksgiving college football game started a holiday tradition

Seven years after fighting Rutgers in what is considered the first college football game, Princeton met Yale on November 30, 1876, in the first college game played on Thanksgiving. Fewer than 1,000 fans, mostly alumni and college students, watched Yale win 2-0 in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a game that resembled rugby.

Less than five years later, as college football’s popularity increased, the rivalry had become a major event on the social calendar, with thousands of fans filling the stands.

In 1873, as Northeastern college campuses incubated the sport, students from Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association. The league standardized the rules and established schedules that included an annual Thanksgiving game in New York between the teams with the previous season’s best records.

With the exception of Harvard in 1883 and 1887, these teams were Princeton and Yale. In the 1880s and 1890s, their Thanksgiving showdowns became the biggest events on the college football calendar.

READ MORE: How the NFL Popularized Thanksgiving Day Football

Princeton-Yale becomes a New York tradition

Millionaire William K. Vanderbilt sipped champagne while watching the 1889 Yale-Princeton game.

When the Thanksgiving game between Princeton and Yale moved across the Hudson River to Manhattan’s Polo Grounds in 1880, the crowd grew from hundreds to thousands. Ten thousand fans watched the 1881 game and attendance has grown throughout the decade.

By the mid-1880s, the Princeton-Yale showdown had become a major social event in New York City, and an annual game between Wesleyan and Pennsylvania was added as a side dish to the main course.

While football in the 1880s was a brutal game of mass tackles and wedges between players wearing nothing thicker than skull caps, the fan experience was not much different from it. that it is today. Outside the sites, vendors peddled pennants and flags. The profiteers sold tickets for $ 1 for five dollars. The punters exchanged betting coupons for cash from the fans, who bet on the results of the matches.

Like the fall foliage, the stands were a blazing color with Princeton supporters decked out in orange and black and Yale supporters in blue. Fans tied handkerchiefs in their team colors to umbrella handles and canes and decorated hats and lapels with colorful ribbons. Female Yale fans wore violets, while their Princeton counterparts wore yellow chrysanthemums and orange and black rosettes

Ticket holders in stagecoaches and cars parked next to the football field to enjoy the ultimate tailgating experience. Sitting in his coach drinking champagne from a goblet, millionaire William K. Vanderbilt was among those enjoying a side view during the 1889 game at the Berkley Oval in the Bronx. Led by All-America quarterback Edgar Allan Poe, whose father was a cousin of the famous writer, Princeton capped an unbeaten season with a 10-0 victory.

Yale wins 37 consecutive football games in the 1890s

By the late 1880s, football teams had sprouted on college campuses from coast to coast, and Princeton-Yale game veterans such as Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg helped spread it. By 1890, 45 former Yale players and 35 former Princeton players were football coaches across the country.

As the new decade dawned, Yale started a 37-game winning streak (which included 36 shutouts) with a 32-0 shutout for Princeton at Brooklyn’s Eastern Park in 1890.

The following year, Yale shut out Princeton, 19-0, in pouring rain to end a perfect season in which he beat his opponents, 488-0. This game in the newly opened Polo Grounds was played in front of 40,000 fans, including thousands who watched from afar atop the crags of Washington Heights in Manhattan.

With their new site, Princeton and Yale have shown that while it is an amateur business, college football has grown into a big business. While schools each pocketed $ 340.42 for their 1880 game, that number soared to over $ 14,000 in 1891.

Fans across the country filled the chicest hotels on Fifth Avenue, and shop owners courting business in the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving game placed photographs and colors of the teams in their windows.

Decades before Macy’s sent balloons and marching bands to the city streets on Thanksgiving morning, Princeton and Yale fans held their own parade as they made their way to the Polo fields.

People lined the sidewalks three or four deep as school-colored cars and omnibuses carried fans blowing tin horns and bugles “like the advance of an army going triumphantly to war,” according to the report. Harper’s Weekly.

New York religious leaders have moved their traditional Thanksgiving services forward to avoid conflict with the kickoff. Chairs were also empty around family celebrations.

“A powerful and fascinating great rival has come to take the place of Thanksgiving dinner, the Thanksgiving game,” said Harper’s Weekly in 1891. “And now everyone goes out to watch Princeton and Yale decide the football championship… instead of being bored around the dinner table.”

In 1893, over 50,000 people attended the Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving game

After another victory at Yale in 1892, Princeton ended its rival’s epic winning streak the following year with a 6-0 victory in front of more than 50,000 fans. This 1893 match in New York would be the last between the Thanksgiving rivals, though they faced each other in the city for the next three seasons. In 1897, the annual game moved to their campuses.

Thanksgiving football, however, was here to stay as family and friends communicated around the fields in addition to the dinner tables. In the mid-1890s, fans could gorge themselves on a football feast as colleges, high schools, and club teams played around 5,000 games for Thanksgiving.

“In these times, Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn feast to God for the mercies given,” reported the New York Herald in 1893. “It is a public holiday granted by the state and the nation to attend a football game.


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