The History of Penn State Football In New York City

Penn State football is in a New York state of mind.

With the announcement last week about Penn State’s matchup with Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, the Nittany Lions will enter postseason play for the first time since 2011. While playing in a bowl game after a three-year absence is understandably the more popular story, the university’s return to playing football in the Big Apple is an interesting historical subplot, dating back to the infancy years of the program in 1923.

The new Yankee Stadium, located just one block away from the original “House that Ruth Built,” is well-known for its history and lore among baseball fans, but there’s a rich football tradition in the Big Apple. The New York Football Giants used to share the Polo Grounds with three New York baseball teams: the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants. Big Blue played their home games in the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan at the corner of West 155th Street and 8th Avenue until 1956 before jumping to the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., and Shea Stadium until finally moving to Giants Stadium in 1976. The New York Titans, later known as the New York Jets, also played their home games at the Polo Grounds from 1960 to 1963.

The 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts was played on December 28, 1958 at Yankee Stadium, and is commonly referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Led by quarterback Johnny Unitas and former Penn State star running back Lenny Moore, the Colts won the game on a 1-yard touchdown run in overtime by 1954 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Alan Ameche.

While the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl will have a tough time living up the magic of “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Penn State’s eighth trip to New York City will certainly provide a fun atmosphere for players and fans.

Without further ado, here’s a look at the history of Penn State football in New York City.

Yankee Stadium

Old Yankee Stadium playing host to a football game.

October 27, 1923 – Penn State 13, West Virginia 13

After losing to Southern California in the first-ever Rose Bowl game played in Rose Bowl Stadium at the end of previous season, the Nittany Lions were determined to get back to their winning ways to begin the year. Led by coach Hugo Bezdek, Penn State put together an impressive 4-0 record to start the season, outscoring opponents by a margin of 115-3.

In their fifth game, the Nittany Lions squared off against the West Virginia Mountaineers in a brand spanking new Yankee Stadium, which officially opened just six months prior on April 18, 1923. The Lions held on for a 13-13 tie in front of an estimated 50,000 fans.

October 10, 1925 – Georgia Tech 16, Penn State 7

Almost two years exactly since its last visit to NYC, Penn State played Georgia Tech in Yankee Stadium, falling to the Yellow Jackets by a score of 16-7. This time, only an estimated 8,000 fans were in attendance. The locals were no doubt depressed over the home team’s losing season, marred by Babe Ruth’s infamous “stomach ache” that kept him out of the lineup for most of the season. The Yankees finished with a losing record and fifth-place finish in the American League, 28.5 games out of first place. It would be 40 years before they would finish below .500 again.

Like the Yankees, Penn State finished a disappointing record that season, finishing 4-4 and losing to Syracuse, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh.

October 19, 1929 – NYU 7, Penn State 0

In Penn State’s last football game in Yankee Stadium, the Violets of NYU channeled their inner Herb Pennock and pitched a shutout in Bronx, NY.

In Bezdek’s last season as Penn State’s coach, the team bounced back from its shutout loss to win the next three-straight before dropping the last two games to Bucknell and Pittsburgh to finish 6-3.

Even more than 200 miles from campus, the Blue Blad managed to travel to Yankee Stadium to help cheer on the Nittany Lions, led by former director W.O. Thompson. During Thompson’s 25-year tenure, the band grew from a small student-run activity with a little more than two dozen members into one of the top college bands in the country with 150 musicians and three bands.

blue band
The 1929 Penn State Blue Band in Yankee Stadium, led by director W.O. Thompson.

Polo Grounds

A view behind home plate of the Polo Grounds during New York Mets and the Milwaukee Braves in 1963.
A view behind home plate of the Polo Grounds during a game between the New York Mets and the Milwaukee Braves in 1963.

October 29, 1921 – Penn State 28, Georgia Tech 7

In Penn State’s fourth season under Bezdek, the Nittany Lions were beginning to turn into one of the most feared teams in college football. After finishing with a losing record in Bezdek’s first season at the helm in 1918, Penn State finished 28-5-5 over the next four seasons, culminating in a Rose Bowl berth in 1923. With a win over the Yellow Jackets in the Polo Grounds, the Nittany Lions improved to 5-0-1 before finishing with an undefeated record, earning a retroactive national championship from the NCAA.

The Polo Grounds was the name given to three different stadiums in Upper Manhattan from 1880 until 1963, used by both professional baseball and football teams, including the Giants, Yankees, Mets, and Jets. As the name suggests, the original Polo Grounds was built in 1876 for the sport of polo, but of the three stadiums that carried this name over the years, the original structure was the only one actually used for polo. Nicknamed “The Bathtub” for it’s distinctive shape, the third and most famous Polo Grounds hosted the Lions and Yellow Jackets.

October 28, 1922 – Penn State 0, Syracuse 0

You have to understand, the game of football was much different back in the early 20’s. Although we somehow saw Virginia Tech and Wake Forest play to a 0-0 tie at the end of regulation this season, it was much more common during the early years of American football for teams to score zero points.

Bezdek’s squad entered the game a perfect 5-0, and was able to stave off defeat to keep its undefeated record intact. Although Penn State lost four of its final five games to finish 6-4, the Lions accepted a bid to play in the 1923 Rose Bowl Game against Southern California.

Penn State lost 14-3, but the score of the game pales in comparison to the journey the team took to the stadium.

The 29-member Penn State traveling party left State College by train on December 19, stopping in Chicago and the Grand Canyon before arriving in Pasadena, California on December 24. The morning of the game on January 1, the team watched the Tournament of Roses Parade, and left in several taxi cabs at 11 a.m. for the drive to the Rose Bowl, plenty of time for the 2:15 scheduled kickoff. But the team was delayed by post-parade traffic, and only after the cab drivers drove over the lawns of local residents did the team finally reach the Rose Bowl stadium. Having already delayed opening kickoff by 10 minutes, Bezdek and USC coach Gus Henderson almost came to blows as Bezdek successfully lobbied game officials for additional warmup time. The game finally started an hour late and ended in moonlight, with sportswriters lighting matches in order to finish their stories.

October 31, 1941 – Penn State 42, NYU 0

On Halloween night, Penn State dismantled New York University in front of its home crowd, outscoring the Violets by a whopping six touchdowns.

NYU’s football team dates back to 1873, but the university officially disbanded the varsity program in 1952 after lackluster performances and limited fan engagement. However, the program is most notable for football star Ed Smith, who posed for the Heisman Trophy study in 1935 with the now iconic stiff arm.

The 1941 team finished the season 7-2 under 12th-year coach Bob Higgins, including a 34-19 thumping of No. 18 Syracuse at New Beaver Field.

October 11, 1947 – Penn State 75, Fordham 0

In one of the most lopsided wins in program history, Penn State dismantled the Rams in the Polo Grounds to earn its third straight win to start the season.

The 1947 team, coached by Higgins and led by running back Wally Tripplett, is considered one of the best in school history. Aside from posting a 9-0 undefeated record, the team still holds NCAA records for fewest rushing yards allowed per game in a season and fewest yards allowed in a game. Penn State allowed an average of just 17 yards per contest on the ground in 1947 and held Syracuse to minus-47 yards of offense on 49 plays in a 40-0 win in the homecoming game on Oct. 18, 1947.

The season ended with a trip to the Cotton Bowl to face SMU and star running back Doak Walker, a thrilling contest that ended in a 13-13 tie.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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