yankee stadium

New York Not Lost On Rockne

If New York City long has been considered the media capital of the world, credit former University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne for his keen appreciation of why a regular presence there for his football program would pay massive dividends.
For many years, through the early 1900s, Notre Dame football teams played predominantly a regional schedule, finally traveling as far east as Pittsburgh in 1909.
Rockne’s senior season as a Notre Dame player in 1913 saw a stark change. In addition to playing games at Texas and Penn State, head coach Jesse Harper’s final team traveled to West Point to meet Army. The resounding 35-13 Notre Dame victory not only burnished the program’s reputation, it also gave University staff a sense of the publicity that could be gained by playing near New York.
Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr director of athletics Jack Swarbrick recently told Sports Illustrated, “When Jesse (Harper) handed the reins over to Knute Rockne, Knute always reported that Jesse said to him: ‘Take the team to the largest venues in the country because you want the world to know who Notre Dame is.'”
Notre Dame made the train trip to West Point eight more times, including in four of Rockne’s first five seasons as head coach. But a 0-0 tie in 1922 (in front of 15,000 fans at Cullum Field) between the two programs marked Notre Dame’s last trip to West Point until 1973.
“The event simply had gotten too big to be staged again on the intimate field in the Hudson River Valley,” wrote Ray Robinson in his 1999 book “Rockne of Notre Dame.”
Rockne also opted to play Rutgers at the Polo Grounds in 1921, just four days after playing at West Point — and in 1923 and 1924 played at nearby Princeton.
Wrote Murray Sperber in his 1993 book “Shake Down the Thunder,” “The Rutgers game was important to Rockne and his plans for future contests in New York. For the first time, he had tapped into the city’s alumni and, learning from the too ad hoc manner in which he and they worked in 1921, he determined that in future years he would harness their enthusiasm and start promoting the New York game much earlier.”
In 1923 the Notre Dame-Army game switched to Ebbets Field, where double the number of fans attended compared to the previous year. The contest had originally been set for the Polo Grounds but that site became unavailable when the New York Giants made it to the World Series.
Wrote Sperber, “During a decade of ND visits to West Point, from 1913 on, the New York metropolitan press — twelve daily papers as well as the headquarters of the major wire services and press syndicates — noticed the Notre Dame football team and its coach only for the two or three days around the Army game. The remainder of the time, the program as well as the Catholic school were far beyond the Hudson River horizon. In 1923, Rockne set out to change Gotham’s perception of his team and himself.”
In 1924, Grantland Rice named the Four Horsemen in reaction to Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory over the Cadets at the Polo Grounds (55,000 spectators watched). That story appeared on the front page of the Sunday Herald-Tribune. A year later the game moved to Yankee Stadium and it remained there except for one season (1930 when the teams played at Chicago’s Soldier Field) through the 1946 season.
Notre Dame’s 1924 visits to the Polo Grounds to play Army and to Princeton to meet the Tigers provided the biggest road paydays to date for Rockne teams — $56,500 and $20,000, respectively.
As Red Smith of the New York Times noted, Rockne student publicist George Strickler — who had arranged the Four Horsemen photo on horseback back in South Bend — was making hay: “On a campus where a five-dollar bill represented wealth, Strickler sold hundreds of 8-by-11 prints at one dollar each” to newspapers, magazines, and individuals around the country.
With crowds of 65,000 and more packing Yankee Stadium from 1925 on for Notre Dame-Army tilts, the presence of Rockne and his program had bloomed.
From 1932-43, the Irish defeated the Black Knights 10 times and tied twice. Then the rivalry really got interesting. Both teams were ranked in the top five in three straight seasons (1944-46) — with Army whitewashing Notre Dame in 1944 and 1945 before the two top-rated teams played in the famed 1946 0-0 tie that featured John Lujack’s noted tackle of Doc Blanchard. The best seats for that contest sold for $4.80, while general admission was one dollar.
The New Yorker magazine, not always inclined to cover sports seriously, suggested of the 1946 matchup, “A sort of insanity seemed to seize the city last weekend.”
According to Sperber, one national columnist assessed the Notre Dame-Army rivalry this way: “From a gridiron fixture it appears to have grown into a Frankenstein monster.”
After a 1949 game against North Carolina, the Irish presence at Yankee Stadium lapsed until 1963 — then took another big break from 1969 until 2010.
Meanwhile, the Irish played once at Shea Stadium (1965), once at West Point (1973), once at Rutgers (2000) and 13 times at Giants/MetLife Stadium (versus a combination of Navy, Army, Syracuse and Virginia).
The 2010 contest at Yankee Stadium marked the first football game in that facility.
In that game, much was made of the fact that freshman Irish quarterback Tom Rees — now the Notre Dame quarterback coach — dressed in Derek Jeter’s locker.
Today’s game in the Bronx — with the Irish again using the Yankees’ home locker room — likely will leave behind some similar moments for the memory book.
That’s what playing in the Big Apple has been all about for the Notre Dame football program.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.