Since it was founded in 1920, the National Football League (NFL) has played fewer than 25 games in Connecticut with only one true professional team: the Hartford Blues.
The Blues’ inaugural and only NFL season came in 1926, where the club played home games at the Velodrome — a bicycle racing arena — in East Hartford that seated 6,500. However, the mediocre team (they finished the season with a 3-7 record) never scrounged enough interest from Nutmeggers to even reach capacity, convincing the NFL to nix them for the following year, according to ConnecticutHistory.org.
Coincidentally, as fate would have it, the squad debuted on Sept. 26, losing 21-0 to the New York Giants — who would become the most recent team to host professional, regular-season football games in the state. However, the Giants’ temporary relocation was done out of necessity: Yankee Stadium had been the club’s home field since 1956, yet renovations to the ‘House that Ruth Built’ left them homeless. Meanwhile, construction was incomplete on a stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. — which would become Giants Stadium also known as the Meadowlands (where the team played until after the 2009 season).
With no New York arena to host NFL contests for the full season, the Giants made an offer to Yale University to play at the campus stadium in New Haven. After extensive negotiations, Yale accepted. For two seasons, the G-Men held their first of 12 “home” games against the Green Bay Packers at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Oct. 7, 1973.
This is the story of when Yale was “home” for the Giants.
The G-Men Are Coming…
The Giants had been “quite familiar” with the Yale Bowl (that seated more than 70,000 at the time), playing annual exhibition games on the Ivy League gridiron for nearly 15 years prior to the 1973 season. In light of the team’s predicament, the concept of the NFL squad calling New Haven home had “been bandied about” yet, in early 1972, there “had not been any direct communication between the Giants and Yale,” as reported by the Yale Daily News (Feb. 2, 1972).
While Wellington Mara, then-president of the franchise, was open to the idea, the university’s athletic department raised concerns with the rumors getting a “cool reception” from its business manager, David Smoyer. “If this goes through it would hurt Yale football a lot,” Smoyer told the News. “And in general it would be a Giant pain in the neck for the department.” The department head’s “negative attitude” was based on the mayhem of the New England Patriots hosting games at Harvard just two years prior in 1970. He was also concerned about scheduling conflicts for the Yale and New York’s squads, hiring additional staff, and the renovations that would be required for the Yale Bowl to accommodate an NFL game, such as installing lights that “would be ‘unattractive in the Bowl.’”
In September, Smoyer would go so far as to deny the rumors of the Giants playing at the Yale Bowl, telling the News that there had not been any communication, but that they would “give the matter careful consideration if and when an offer is made.”
Between then and February 1973, the Giants did make an offer to lease the field. The News’ editorial staff were “highly favorable,” but became worried over Yale authorities’ tight lips during the negotiations. “We are fearful, however, that the athletic department will convince the administration that the proposed deal is a bad idea,” ran the Feb. 13 column, “Petty interests must be disregarded when the economic well-being of the University is at stake.”
From a financial perspective, the News’ reporter Chet Cobb believed the temporary relocation would ease “deficit headaches” the university faced at the time, and that the city and surrounding businesses “will not be hurting” and “New Haven will become a city to be reckoned with” (Feb. 16, 1973). Yet the prospects of securing the Giants were not all glowing in the News, as reporter John Yandell noted in a Feb. 22, article titled “Yale, Giants: new worries?” He suggested that the move “could worsen Yale’s already strained financial relationship with New Haven,” since the city would “share in the promotional headache, but not in the financial windfall.” If Yale denied any share of revenues, Yandell wrote, the university could face retribution in the form of “difficulties with the city regarding zoning board approval, parking spaces, and the use of off-duty policemen at the Bowl itself.”
In a word, Yale could have easily punted the Giants’ offer. But local businesses were mightily enthusiastic, presenting a petition to City Hall arguing that the team’s 63,000 season ticket holders could generate “considerable income for local hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments,” according to the News (March 5, 1973).
On March 10, the Yale Corporation — the university’s governing body — approved the Giant’s offer “provided the City of New Haven and the City of West Haven want this to happen,” according to a brief statement. Aside from seeking community approval, the Corporation had other conditions: a financial settlement of $1.2 million from the Giants, and the suspension of the league’s mandatory blackout of TV coverage “in a 75-mile radius from the city in which an NFL game is played,” according to the News, April 16. The latter was a major sticking point for Yale’s Secretary Henry Chauncey (who led the negotiations), who “insisted that no deal can be made without an agreement exempting WTIC-TV in Hartford from the blackout.” The station had carried Giants’ games for more than a decade.
A few months later, the deal was officially struck: the Giants had a place to play. In exchange, the team agreed to an undisclosed settlement (which the News believed to be likely close to $1 million); pay for “all expenses, including the cost of hiring approximately seventy extra policemen” to handle traffic; and exempt WTIC-TV from the blackouts. Meanwhile, Yale would renovate the locker rooms and halftime facilities beneath the Yale Bowl’s stands. As Chauncey stated, this was one of the “best settlements ever made for a stadium in the country.”
With a “home” in place for the foreseeable future, the Giants could focus on their game plans to beat the Packers, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings.
Only One Win in Two Years
The year prior to 1973, the Giants had a middling season, finishing with an 8-6 record. The teams’ hopes to improve started well-enough, defeating the Houston Oilers in their season opener on Sept. 16 at Yankee Stadium (which was only available for the Giants’ first two games). After a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and a loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Giants entered their opener at Yale Bowl with a 1-1-1 record.
On Oct. 7, the paid attendance was 70,050, eclipsing the Bowl’s capacity. Tickets were $8, concessions were allowed to sell beer for the first time, only six arrests were made (two for intoxication), and apart from the “attempt to cover the white ‘YALE’ chalked” in the endzones, fans saw a genuine professional football contest. As the News’ reported: “The fans were typical Giants rooters, applauding and cheering politely or booing vociferously as the situation required. They were serious about their football; after all, this was a real contest and the results counted towards the Super Bowl.”
However, the Giants lost — and the News described the contest as “boring,” despite the 16-14 final score. Meanwhile, Alex Webster, the team’s head coach, stated after the game, “It was sort of like a road game.” Perhaps that mentality spelled doom for the rest of the season, as the G-Men only clinched one win at Yale Bowl that year in Week 10 versus the Cardinals, besting their opponent 24-13.
The other games’ results were 21-3 (Redskins win in Week 5); 23-10 (Cowboys win in Week 9); and 31-7 (Vikings win in Week 14). Overall, the Giants finished an abysmal 2-11-1 — one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
The 1974 season was not an improvement. In fact, it may have been worse — with the Giants losing to every opponent that entered the Yale Bowl, including the Redskins (13-10), Patriots (28-20), Atlanta Falcons (14-7), Cowboys (21-7), New York Jets (7-2), Cardinals (23-21), and Eagles (20-7). In the end, the team ended 1974 with a 2-12 record. The horrid play extinguished any fervor for hosting NFL games in New Haven, as attendance drastically dipped from the Giants’ Yale Bowl opener of 70,000-plus to just over 21,000 by the final game. The only exception was the 64,327 that turned out to see the Jets-Giants rivalry.
In 12 games, the Giants only secured one win at Yale Bowl, much to the dismay of sports fans. Then the inevitable happened.
On Jan. 15, 1975, the team “caught Yale officials by surprise” when they announced their intention to play at Shea Stadium in the upcoming season. According to Chauncey, the Giants “never made mention of the fact that they were negotiating simultaneously with the City of New York,” as the university “fully expected” another NFL season at the Bowl. Additionally, he told the News that the NFL might have pressured the move back to New York so the league could avoid any financial losses due to the encroaching, rival World Football League.
The News reported that Yale lost $400,000 because of the team’s relocation to Shea Stadium, and that the city “also stands to lose a large sum of money because it controlled the concessions and parking.”
In the end, to put it politely, the Giants’ experience at Yale Bowl was lackluster, though not in terms of accommodations. Even though players in Giants’ uniforms were on the turf, the team failed to “show up” in their play.
Doinking Off the Upright
Those miserable 1973-1974 seasons were, at one point, unlikely to be the final NFL games played in the Constitution State.
In the late 1990s, the Patriots were shopping for a new home, and Gov. John Rowland rolled out the red carpet to reel in the franchise. To lure them to Hartford, the state promised Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft to spend “upwards of $1 billion on the stadium, infrastructure upgrades, and guaranteed revenue to persuade the Patriots to move from Massachusetts,” according to Sports Illustrated.
At first, the Patriots’ move felt like a tangible possibility, with owner Robert Kraft giving Hartford exclusive negotiating rights as well as the pomp and circumstance of an elaborate press conference; even after the whole circus, however, Kraft still had concerns with the stadium’s site on an old steam plant. Additionally, forces in Massachusetts and the NFL top brass — worried about losing the Boston TV market — moved heaven and earth to convince Kraft with a new stadium in Foxborough.
Ultimately, nearly 25 years and a dynasty later, the Patriots are still quite comfortable in Massachusetts. Since then, the likelihood of another regular-season NFL game has been zilch. So, 50 years after their first game in New Haven, the Giants may indeed be the final team ever to call Connecticut home.
But this season, for the sake of yours truly, let’s hope Big Blue shows up and doesn’t echo the performance of their 1973-1974 counterparts.
Till next time —
Your Long-Suffering Giants Fan & Yankee Doodle Dandy,
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