Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Fighting Illini at The House That Ruth Built

Chicagoans are focused on the return of football to Wrigley Field this weekend for the first time in forty years, as the University of Illinois takes on Northwestern University. On the East Coast, the story is the first football game at either Yankee Stadium since 1987 and the renewal of the Army-Notre Dame rivalry. The New York Giants vacated The Stadium in 1972, eventually crossing the river to the Meadowlands, and only twelve college football games were played there after the 1970s renovation. Ironically, there’s an Illinois-Army-Yankee Stadium connection.

Several publications, including Wednesday’s New York Times, have written extensively about the storied history of the Cadets vs. the Fighting Irish. In summary, they played 22 times at Yankee Stadium, with the majority of games between 1925 and 1946. After routs of 59-0 and 48-0 by Army in 1944 and 1945, respectively, both teams entered the November 9, 1946 match-up undefeated, ranked #1 and #2 and averaging more than 30 points per game. Scalpers were getting $400 a ticket for 50 yard-line seats, while end-zone tickets fetched $200. In what would be the only college football game to feature four present and future Heisman Trophy winners (Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis for Army; Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart for Notre Dame), both teams played conservatively, resulting in a 0-0 tie.

Army vs. Notre Dame,
Yankee Stadium, November 9,1946

Army coach Red Blaik refused to renew the Notre Dame rivalry in New York, due to the high emotions (although the Cadets traveled to South Bend in 1947), and instead enlisted another “Fighting” outfit, the University of Illinois. The Fighting Illini won the previous year’s Rose Bowl, 45-14, vs. UCLA and would play their second game in Yankee Stadium since a 13-0 loss to Army in 1930. Both team were 2-0 for the October 11 meeting.

Program cover, Army vs. Illinois
Yankee Stadium, October 11, 1947

Of course there’s a personal angle here: my parents, married a little more than a year, attended the game. My mother, still very sharp at age 87, doesn’t remember much about the East Coast trip that brought them to Yankee Stadium. The photo below is dated “10-5-47” on the back. She accompanied dad to Washington to audit the Pick-Lee House Hotel at 15th and L Streets, N.W. and to New York City. Pick Hotels didn’t have a New York facility (it would later purchase the Belmont Plaza at Lexington Ave. and 49th St.), so mom doesn’t remember where they stayed, who may have been with them or how they got to the Bronx. She does remember visiting friends at the El Dorado on Central Park West and 90th St., where the bathroom window overlooked the park.

Dad and Mom, Washington, D.C., October 5, 1947

Both teams had lost key players from the previous season. Illinois featured halfback Dike Eddleman, probably the greatest athlete in Illinois history. He would later finish fourth in the high jump at the 1948 Summer Olympics and play in two NBA All-Star Games as a member of the Fort Wayne Pistons. The Cadets’ opposition may have changed but the result was the same: a 0-0 tie before some 70,000 fans, keeping their undefeated record intact dating back to 1943. Illinois would not return to the Rose Bowl until 1963.

Dike Eddleman

I attended the last two White Sox game at Yankee Stadium in 2008. Because we’d never shared a father-son experience at The Stadium, my thoughts when exiting The House Ruth Built were of my parents – 30 and 24 at the time – watching a college football game and my wonderful wife – only 22 and my girlfriend at the time – and me being yelled at by an usher for not tipping him (see “The Sound of Metal Spikes on Concrete” before a Sox-Yankees game. We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.

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