A small book to love

Author: Staff writer

A young woman receives a letter on the eve of her wedding. “I am thankful that you agreed to marry me,” her soon-to-be husband writes. But the letter, she discovers, was written six years previously, when both were students at Notre Dame.

When an oversized statue of Father Sorin was spirited to the 1957 Notre Dame-Army game in Philadelphia, what food was it “treated” to in a toll road restaurant? Exactly why were Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce, in their full clerical dress, throwing a baseball around the aisles of the library? And what famed signature can be spotted in the bowels of the Radiation Building?

“Everybody’s got a Notre Dame story,” says Larry Wentz ‘59. "What’s yours?"

The Notre Dame Alumni Club of Philadelphia asked that question in the mid 1980s, and the result was Love Thee, Notre Dame. The club published the stories in 1986 as a fund-raiser for their John H. Neeson Scholarship Fund.

Now the reminiscences are back, in Love Thee, Notre Dame II. From the amazing letter a bride received to the pitching practice of two elderly priests, the new gathering offers stories, poetry, artwork and photography, as well as a preface by Father Hesburgh.

Excerpt: Nick’s Game

from Love Thee Notre Dame II

by Larry Wentz ’59

Nick’s gone. So is the stadium. The story of the 1957 Army-Notre Dame football game is rich in lore for the Notre Dame community in Philadelphia — anywhere for that matter — but it is almost forgotten. It was the only the Army-Notre Dame game ever played in Philadelphia. The only place big enough to hold it was Municipal Stadium, with its 102,000 backless, splintery, bench-style wooden sears (90,000 of which were either too high, too low, or too far away from the action). Municipal (later named Kennedy) Stadium held 25,000 more fans than Franklin Field — site of the ND-Penn series from 1952-1955 (all sellouts!).

From 1913 to 1947, Army-Notre Dame was the biggest rivalry in college football. Even though the game was played in October or November almost every year, it was that era’s “Super Bowl.” In the initial game, Gus Dorias threw forward passes to Knute Rockne in a 35-13 Notre Dame upset. No admissions were charged for the first nine games — all played at West Point. By 1923, its growing reputation forced the game into New York City’s Polo Grounds — but the New York Giants were now playing in the World Series. Knute Rockne grabbed 35,000-seat Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and filled it the same weekend as the World Series. Notre Dame made a $23,000 profit in addition to a 13-0 win.

The 1924 site was the Polo Grounds, and in 1930 it was Chicago’s Soldier Field. The other twenty games to 1946 were played in 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium. The fabric of Notre Dame tradition was sewn in New York; from underground at 161st Street in the Bronx came the “Subway Alumni;” in the stands, the majority of the fans clad in green became the “Fighting Irish.” On October 18, 1924, New York Herald-Tribune reporter Grantland Rice, watching Notre Dame’s speedy backfield defeat Army, dubbed them “the Four Horsemen,” and in 1928, the Irish came back after halftime to “win one for the Gipper.”

The rivalry had gotten bigger than life. It was the Catholics of America (a quickly rising minority) versus the old establishment, political influence, power, and, yes, even the steady old Army mule. In the last four games of that series, militarism, jealousy, over-hype, and bitterness entered the mix. In 1944 and 1945, while ND Coach Frank Leahy was in the Pacific, Army’s loaded teams shut out Notre Dame by a combined two-year score of 107-0. The 1946 game pitted a Notre Dame team of returning veterans under “Commander” Leahy against Army’s Blanchard and Davis Behemoth, coached by a real Army Colonel, “Red” Blaik. Celebrated today as one of college football’s greatest games, it ended scoreless, as four Heisman Trophy winners and over a dozen All-Americans played to exhaustion and futility. In 1947, at South Bend, ND back Terry Brennan returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Brennan breezed by the Notre Dame bench on his way, igniting a one-sided pasting of Army, 27-7. Then it all came to a halt. Joe Doyle reported in the South Bend Tribune, October 1957, that in 1947, “‘Red’ Blaik began muttering he didn’t want to meet teams that battled so intently as those coached by Frank Leahy.”

Perhaps the opposing fans got to Blaik as well: when these teams played in Yankee Stadium, Army could have considered it a home field — only 45 miles up the Hudson — yet 80% (maybe 95%) of the stadium fans rooted for Notre Dame. But the final straw was gambling. In this regard, college football far overshadowed pro football in 1947. “The game was being played under conditions escaping the control of the two colleges,” stated the press release of both colleges to temporarily interrupt the series in 1947. Michigan State replaced Army on the Notre Dame schedule.

Notre Dame flourished all the while, not losing a game until the 1950 season. In the new media of television, Notre Dame’s football games were shown live through the East and Midwest almost every Saturday. Some games were being telecast coast to coast — and it you missed it, Sunday evening TV usually ran film highlights of each weekend’s best games.

My future classmate, Nick Pietrosante, could listen to Joe Boland on the Irish Football Radio Network in Connecticut every Saturday while playing for Notre Dame High in West Haven. Al Ecuyer in New Orleans — and Saint Thomas More lineman, Dick Beschen — and Saint Joseph’s Prep running back, Dick Giannini, could also tune in locally. Philadelphian Joe Boland, one of the “Seven Mules” of the 1920s and an inspirational Notre Dame play-by-play announcer, was nationally syndicated and recruited thousands, maybe millions of Notre Dame lovers. More than once his broadcasts were distantly recognized as we made our confessions. I stand as an eyewitness to Notre Dame’s cost-free scouting network, PR agency, and fan-base — the priests and nuns of the USA.

The players of that era were a special breed, too. College football, competing with basketball and baseball, required the eleven men on the field for each team to play offense and defense. In the ensuing game two different players on each team converted extra points. The eleven men on the field had to include passer, punter, place-kicker, and blockers and tacklers. Notre Dame senior Dick Lynch ’58 will simply be remembered as a “great back.” And, “the man of first resort,” the quarterback, usually doubled on defense as “the man of last resort” — as tackler or long pass defender. Hopefully, the started eleven could last the first quarter. Second and sometimes third teams — complete elevens — replace tiring or ineffective units. Notre Dame and Army also thought they recruited and educated the best of student athletes to be our future leaders. Maybe they did.

The Love Thee Notre Dame II collection may be ordered from Philadelphia Club historian Larry Wentz, who can be reached by calling 215-773-0500 or at kkwinc@aol.com.