(FDR was an avid football fan, and FDR Suite-mate Lathrop Brown managed the Varsity Team in 1903, so to celebrate the big Game this Saturday, I thought it fit to do a little digging into the history of the contest. I was pleasantly pleased to find an extended article by Morton Henry Prince, Class of 1875, in something called The H Book of Harvard Athletics, printed in 1923, and donated to the Restoration by the descendants of Chester Robinson ’04. Prince who served as secretary to the first Harvard Football Club and who witnessed events first hand, relates how Harvard’s unwillingness to change its traditional ways led directly to rise of football as we know it. Part I takes us up to the first “real” intercollegiate football contest ever played, with McGill in 1874. Part II explains the origins of the Harvard-Yale contest. MDW)
By Morton (Henry) Prince ’75
To understand the history of football at Harvard, it is necessary to realize that during the 1850s and 1860s, the College played a game that had been played for many years in the preparatory schools of Massachusetts, particularly those of Boston. The rules were simple and through tradition were well established. Theoretically, any number could play on a side, but practically only ten or fifteen played because not more than twenty or thirty turned out each afternoon for a game. Instead of goal posts, the goal, over which the football had to be kicked on the fly, was only an imaginary line across the whole width of the field at the end. But after the game had become well established in College and match games were introduced a rope was strung across on supports about five feet above the ground.
The players were assigned to positions of “tenders,” “half-tends” (referring to the goal and corresponding to the present “full backs” and “half backs,”) and “rushers.”
The ball was round, and made of a non-elastic rubber fabric material similar to that of which rubber boots are made. The rubber only made it airtight. Kicking was the predominant feature of the game, but under a certain condition a player was allowed to run with the ball, “baby” (dribble) it, or throw it or pass it to another, and these tactics were liberally used. A player holding or running with the ball could be tackled. On the other hand, striking, hacking, tripping and other rough play was forbidden. Of course the ball could be caught or picked up.
The condition which permitted the player to run with, “baby,” throw, and pass the ball was that he be pursued by an adversary. If he ran with the ball he was obliged to stop the moment his opponent ceased the chase, and kick the ball. It may seem curious that this rule worked, but it did. The reason is that the pursuer always called out when he stopped chasing and if the runner did not at once also stop, the cry was taken up by the whole pack of opponents. He was then obliged by tradition to go back to where he was at the crucial moment, before kicking. It is obvious that under this rule there would develop the tactics of a player of the same team running by the side of the player with the ball, who, when tackled, passed the ball to his running mate, who in turn could run if chased, otherwise he must kick or throw the ball. The style of play as developed under these rules and by tradition was remarkably open, and remarkably individual, leaving nearly everything to the skill, initiative and agility of each player….
When winter came the success of the three seasons (two autumns and one spring, 1871) of sport had been so exhilarating that the football enthusiasts felt that the game ought to have wider support and that all the students ought to be invited and encourage to join and learn to play. Accordingly, a mass meeting was called in Holden Chapel, and the Harvard University Football Club was formed on 3 December 1872, and the set of rules that were adopted were essentially those as handed down by tradition…
In October of 1873 a letter was received by the caption of our team from Yale inviting us to send delegates to a convention, to be held in New York, of the five colleges which had shown the most interest in football, namely Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale. The purpose of the call was to form an Intercollegiate Association and agree upon a code of rules. However, there was an essential problem: one fundamental principle of our game, determining the whole character of the play, was, I may repeat, that a player was permitted to pick up the ball, run with it, throw it, or pass it. He could also seize and hold an adversary to prevent his getting the ball. Quite contrary to this were the Yale rules, which were essentially the same as those of Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers: no picking up, carrying or throwing the ball was allowed, nor was holding or pushing with the hands. The game was all footwork. The styles of game were consequently vitally different, as different as Soccer football is from the present game.
Regretfully, our Captain was instructed to decline Yale’s invitation.
Of course our action drew down upon Harvard considerable adverse criticism, as it was interpreted by Yale as an aloofness at meeting the other colleges in sport. Yet Harvard persevered: “ We must either sacrifice entirely the principle of our game and learn a new one, or abandon all thought of intercollegiate matches. We have chosen the latter alternative.” And with this, the incident was closed, but only for the time being, for the introduction of the Rugby game in the following spring in order to play McGill gave an entirely new aspect to the intercollegiate question and was destined to put American football upon an entirely different basis. But this became possible because of Harvard’s refusal to join the Intercollegiate Association and play the “Association Rules.” If Harvard had not refused it is highly improbably that the modern game played today – the American Rugby – would ever have been evolved. Instead, all universities colleges and schools today would be playing the Association Rules – practically soccer. But as it happened the ancient rivalry between Harvard and Yale with the irresistible desire to play each other finally induced a compromise and acceptance by the two colleges of the Rugby rules with which, as we shall see, Harvard at that epoch had become fortuitously experienced, and for which she had even learned to a acquire a secret taste….
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