Anyone checking crowds at college and pro football games from Thursday through Sunday will have no trouble discerning that football is the most popular sport in America today. Further confirmation comes from TV ratings.
It was not always thus.
Baseball had a 50-year head start on football. The National Association of Baseball Players, the first “major” league, began play in 1871 following more than two decades of development and a few years of various professional teams. The American Professional Football Association began in 1920. It was renamed the National Football League in 1922. As a derivative of rugby, it followed a similar path as baseball.
The first college baseball game — between Amherst and Williams College — took place in 1859, with the Amherst Mammoths winning by the mammoth football score of 73-32. Ten years later, the first college football game occurred between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (Princeton), with Rutgers winning by the baseball score of 6-4.
Baseball was way ahead of football in building ballparks, so it was common for early football games to be played in baseball venues. Notre Dame was a baseball power, beginning with its earliest intramural days, in the mid-1860s. There were four-dozen players from Notre Dame in Major League Baseball before the founding of the NFL. Football did not overtake baseball as the biggest sport on campus until early in the coaching reign of Knute Rockne, who helmed the Irish from 1918 to 1930.
Yankee Stadium may not be the best baseball stadium, but, along with Notre Dame Stadium, it can make a claim as being the most iconic in its sport. But there is a big asterisk. The replacement of the original Yankee Stadium with a similar one a block north, has changed the aura of today’s venue.
Notre Dame’s first football game in an MLB stadium was played on Nov. 14, 1903. The not-yet named Irish battled Northwestern to a scoreless tie in South Side Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. Red Salmon was the Notre Dame captain and coach. Notre Dame did not surrender a single point all season (8-0-1) and Salmon was named the third-team All-America fullback by Walter Camp, becoming the first Notre Dame player to receive All-America mention.
Two years later, on Oct. 14, 1905, the Wisconsin Badgers laid a 21-0 whipping on Notre Dame at Athletic Park in Milwaukee. The venue played host to the 1891 Milwaukee Brewers in the 1891 American Association, then a major league. It would later play host to the Milwaukee Bears Negro National League Baseball Team (1923) and the Milwaukee Chicks team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1944). It also was the home field for the NFL’s Milwaukee Badgers (1922-1926). Notre Dame also played Marquette to a scoreless tie in that venue in 1909 and, in 1933 Notre Dame man Earl “Curly” Lambeau took his Green Bay Packers to this park, then called Borchert Field, for one game.
On Oct. 30, 1909, Notre Dame defeated Pittsburgh 6-0 at newly built Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Notre Dame took 16 players to the game, with only 12 seeing action. This was the same month the Pirates won the World Series, with Honus Wagner’s club topping Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers.
Notre Dame returned to Forbes two years later, playing the Pittsburgh Panthers to a scoreless tie. The year earlier, Pitt was 9-0 and outscored its opponents 282-0, earning national champion designation by at least one ratings group. According to an account in the Indianapolis Star, “The game was devoid of rough tactics and was viewed by a great crowd.” Pennsylvania Gov. John Tener, a former MLB player and future president of the National League, attended the game and spoke to both teams prior to the contest. Rockne could have been the star of the game, recovering a fumbled kickoff and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown. The score was disallowed, however, because the officials had not blown their whistle to begin the quarter.
Gus Dorais kicked a 25-yard field goal to defeat Pittsburgh 3-0 on Nov. 2, 1912, in the final game of the series at Forbes Field. The Panthers built Pitt Stadium in 1924.
Notre Dame added to its growing list of visited ballparks in 1912, defeating regular Thanksgiving rival Marquette 69-0 at Comiskey Park, the new home of the Chicago White Sox, which opened in 1910. The Scholastic account of Nov. 30 waxes eloquently on this game: “That tie with Marquette of three years’ standing was not only broken Thanksgiving day at Comiskey Park, Chicago, it was smashed to smithereens when our own true Varsity piled up 69 points and allowed Marquette a sad one-eyed zero. Oh, for a diamond pen and golden ink and an orator’s style to chronicle the game.” What accounted for the Notre Dame win? “The whole story is told when we say that the line held like a prison gate, the interference was a whole locomotive and freight train.”
The next season, Robison Field — home of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1893-1920 — became the fifth major league ballpark to play host to Notre Dame, which defeated Christian Brothers College 20-7. It would be Notre Dame’s only appearance at the venue.
Notre Dame returned to Comiskey for a final time in 1914 in a 48-6 victory over the Carlisle Indians. The Scholastic wrote: “(Stan) Cofall dropped back to the fifty-yard line and booted a perfect field goal, making the first score of the game.” This distance was confirmed in The Spalding’s Official Football Guide, as edited by Walter Camp. This was Notre Dame’s longest varsity field goal until Dave Reeve hit a 53-yarder against Pittsburgh on Sept. 11, 1976.
Notre Dame did not return to a major league park until 1921 when head coach Knute Rockne began making a concerted effort to bring his teams to New York. Though Rockne’s boys faced Rutgers at the Polo Grounds in 1921 (in a 48-0 victory), it was the growing popularity of the Notre Dame-Army series that necessitated a move from the plains of West Point to larger venues in New York City.
From 1923 to 1946, the Fighting Irish (the nickname was officially adopted in 1927) and Cadets battled it out in the three magnificent baseball stadiums in the city–Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds–as the popularity of the game exceeded the seating capacity of the West Point campus. The term subway alumni was created to describe the tens of thousands of largely Catholic East Coast fans who took the trains and subway to see the Irish play in New York City (see pages 6-9 “Evolving Traditions: Subway Alumni Connection Lives On” for a thorough examination of the phenomenon). The largest crowd to see the games at West Point hovered around 15,000. All the games in New York City drew capacity crowds, with the Yankee Stadium totals reaching up to 78,000.
Twenty-one of these Notre Dame-Army match-ups occurred in Yankee Stadium. Ironically, the first one was in Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, while the second, and perhaps most memorable, was played at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Baseball Giants.
The Oct. 18, 1924, game featured an Irish backfield that was memorialized after the 13-7 victory by legendary New York Herald Tribune writer Grantland Rice: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”
Four years later, another win over another undefeated Black Knights team came with another famous quote attached. Though the Irish suffered through what became Rockne’s worst season (5-4), he is alleged to have relayed George Gipp’s final words in a halftime pep talk: “Rock,” he said. “Sometime, when the team is up against it–and the breaks are beating the boys–tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.” The line was popularized in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All-American,” though historians doubt the veracity of Rockne’s account of Gipp’s message.
After the 1946 game at Yankee Stadium (a 0-0 tie between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Army), the next time Notre Dame and the Army played in an MLB park was 1965, as the Irish won 17-0 in Shea Stadium, home of the recently formed New York Mets. Notre Dame played in the original Yankee Stadium one more time (1969) and then played the first college football game in the new Yankee Stadium, on Nov. 20, 2010, a 27-3 Notre Dame win.No. 2 Notre Dame played No. 1 Army to a 0-0 tie in their 1946 meeting at Yankee Stadium.
While Army became Notre Dame’s most heated rival in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, the Cadets were supplanted by the Naval Academy as Notre Dame’s most frequent rival. Since 1927, Notre Dame has played the Navy every year, the longest continual intersectional rivalry in college football history. Both teams benefit from Navy’s “home” game. It has been played in a variety of venues, primarily on the eastern seaboard, but stretching as far as San Diego and Dublin, Ireland, with many taking place in MLB parks.
The first ballpark in which Notre Dame played the Middies was Baltimore Municipal Stadium, which has had several names–including Memorial Stadium. It was not an MLB stadium when Notre Dame first played there in 1927, but became one later when businessmen in Baltimore purchased the St. Louis Browns franchise after the 1953 season and transferred it to Baltimore to become the Orioles.
In 1932 Notre Dame played Navy in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the first of 11 games in the home of the Cleveland Indians. Special Indians games and all Notre Dame-Navy games were played in front of very large crowds. The series also made three trips to Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, in 1972, 1974 and 1993.
Notre Dame first played in Fenway Park, on Oct. 14, 1944, defeating Dartmouth 64-0. Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, remains the oldest MLB park in continuous use. The Irish returned there on Nov. 21, 2015, in a Shamrock Series victory over Boston College.
Even Tiger Stadium has played host to the Irish, though only once. Then known as Briggs Stadium, the venue served as the site of an Oct. 5, 1941, matchup between Frank Leahy’s Irish and the University of Detroit. From 1925 to 1947 Detroit’s head football coach and athletic director was Gus Dorais, the quarterback who teamed with Rockne in 1913 to alter the course of college football history with the popularization of the forward pass.
Since 1923, USC has played its football games in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which also briefly served as the home of the Dodgers when they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 until Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. More than any other dual-use facility, the Coliseum demonstrated that a football layout is not easily converted to baseball. Legendary announcer Vin Scully coined the term “moon shot” to describe a dramatic home run hit by Wally Moon over the 42-foot left field fence, just 251 feet from home plate. Conversely, the right-field distance was a Grand Canyon-like 440 feet away.
The Irish played there twice while the Dodgers occupied it, defeating the Trojans in both 1958 and 1960.
Today’s game in Yankee Stadium finds the Irish in their fifth MLB park in New York City, making it their 26th official appearance in a venue bearing the Yankee Stadium moniker. Notre Dame has even met today’s opponent Syracuse on this same stretch of East 161st Street in the Bronx, that time in the original “Cathedral of Baseball” in 1963 when the Orange defeated an Irish squad that finished the season 2-7. A win today would strengthen the Irish lead in the all-time series to 6-3 and boost their Yankee Stadium record to 17-6-3.
It may be the House That Ruth Built — or at least a version of it — but for all its history with Notre Dame it may well qualify as an Irish home away from home. And as the 2018 Irish ascend from the Yankees’ clubhouse, Yankee Stadium certainly fits the bill today.
A 1966 communication arts graduate of Notre Dame, Cappy Gagnon is a former two-time president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He wrote “Notre Dame Baseball Greats” (Arcadia Press, 2004) about Notre Dame’s connections to MLB. He is currently researching a book on early (1887-1917) Notre Dame football. In 2011, he retired from Notre Dame athletics as coordinator of stadium personnel.