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Baseball not always biggest game in the Bronx

September 21, 2008|Tom Coyne | Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Baseball wasn't always the biggest game played at Yankee Stadium.

Early in the 85-year history of the House that Ruth Built, Army and Notre Dame met annually for a football game that drew up to 79,000 people. It grew so popular that $3.30 tickets for the 1946 showdown were scalped for as much as $200.

"For a time, the Army-Notre Dame games were more important than the Kentucky Derby," said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football. "It's hard today to realize how important it was."

Even Notre Dame halfback Terry Brennan, who played in the '46 game that ended in a 0-0 tie between top-ranked Army and the No. 2 Irish, didn't realize its significance until years later when people continued to ask about it.

"We knew it was a big deal. Army had a fine team and so did Notre Dame, and the history dated back to 1913, so there's a lot of buildup for that game. And then playing in New York City. It was a big thing," said Brennan, who coached the Irish from 1954-58. "But most of us were young guys and didn't realize how big it was until 10 or 20 years later."

Johnny Lujack, who won the Heisman Trophy as Notre Dame quarterback in '47, said the 0-0 tie is the game he is asked about most often. People most want to hear about his game-saving open-field tackle of fellow Heisman winner Doc Blanchard.

"You just don't feel good with a tie," Lujack said.

The series began in 1913 when Notre Dame traveled to West Point. The Irish revolutionized football by using the forward pass as a regular part of their offense, and not just a desperation play, in a 35-13 win that featured Knute Rockne starting at end. The teams played at West Point in nine of the next 10 years.

The two schools, which both had small home fields, decided to move the game to New York City the next season to give more alumni a chance to see the game, Sperber said.

The 1923 game was played at Ebbets Field. The Irish won, 13-0, and drew the attention of the New York media and 30,000 fans.

A year later the teams met at the Polo Grounds. Notre Dame won in front of 55,000 fans and the game became part of sports lore when Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune opened his account of it with a line about the Irish backfield: "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. ..."

New York media continued to follow the Irish that season and Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, noticed. He got the two schools to agree to play at Yankee Stadium in 1925, two years after it opened.

Three years later another legend was born when Rockne, now the Irish coach, implored his twice-beaten Irish in a pregame speech to "Win one for the Gipper" against an undefeated Army team. The memory of former Irish standout George Gipp, who died in 1920, inspired Notre Dame to a 12-6 victory.

"Through the 1930s it became bigger and bigger," Sperber said.

But by the 1940s, the game had gotten too big.

"There was huge scalping. There was huge gambling. Both schools were besieged by scalpers, by people wanting tickets," Sperber said. "It just got totally out of control. Both schools decided it was way too much."

The schools agreed to play the 1947 game in South Bend, then stopped playing annually.

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