The Oldest Known Football Program?

7th Mar 2020

columbia yale 1872

Thanks to one of our readers, this program was brought to our attention recently. Auctioned off in May 2007 for almost $24,000. The description below is from the Heritage Galleries sale catalog.It is a program from 1872 featuring a game between Columbia and Yale. This is the first game Yale ever played and the first between two ivy league colleges. He put the question mark after our title, because in this business, you never know what will turn up to potentially be older.

The Oldest Known Football Program. Presented here for the most serious and dedicated collectors of early football memorabilia is a piece that even the top experts in the field didn’t know existed. Those familiar with the recently published book “Inside the Program: A History of College Football” by Ed Bearg and Thomas Rudebusch know that the authors claim that the 1873 program for a game between Yale and Eton, part of the collection of the College Football Hall of Fame, is the oldest known, and they’re certainly to be forgiven for this misconception. This remarkable specimen had for many decades remained hidden in the personal scrapbook of Nathan P. Tyler, who attended Yale from 1872 to 1876 and was fortunate enough to witness the school’s very first intercollegiate football match, the seventh college football game in American history.

Predating the Hall of Fame’s program by twelve and a half months, this astounding artifact is small in stature but monumental in importance and collecting appeal. In marvelous nineteenth century calligraphic style, the cover announces, “Foot Ball, Columbia vs. Yale, Hamilton Park, Nov. 16, 1872.” The creator of the program “Benham, Printer” takes credit at the bottom margin. The two interior pages list the members of the Columbia and Yale squads respectively, twenty men to a side. The back page lists the names of the two referees, four judges, and unused lines to record the scorers of the nine possible goals, as the first side to five would be declared the victor.

In fact, the hotly contested battle yielded only three scores, all of them to Yale, earning them a victory in their inaugural game much to the delight of the four hundred students and New Haven townspeople who were in attendance that day. Tim Cohane recounted the scene in his 1951 book, “The Yale Football Story.” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York 1951):

“Jim Platt got the game under way with a long kick toward the Columbia goal. After fifteen minutes of play, Tommy Sherman (who subbed for an injured Schaff) booted a goal. The second goal, which took an hour, was registered by Lew Irwin. Irwin also kicked the third after fifty minutes of play. Columbia lacked the precision the injured Schaff had drilled into Yale, and was shut out, three goals to nothing, when darkness closed in and stopped the activity. At dinner that night, the rival players compared bruises and toasted each other. The evening in later stages became hilarious to the point where shattered crockery and glassware decimated the modest profits from the gate receipts.”

Much like the plates and glasses that day, all programs and other ephemera deriving from that historic gridiron event have been lost to the ages, save one. Measuring just 4.5×5.5″ when opened, this tiny keepsake stands as the sole survivor, almost surely the oldest American football artifact in existence. A band of toning upon the front cover and very minor paper loss due to scrapbook removal on the verso must be noted and then instantly forgiven in light of the tremendous rarity and importance of this piece. As our catalog imagery should indicate, the program presents marvelously, remaining in splendid condition for a paper collectible over thirteen decades in age. For all of these reasons, one could easily argue that this is the most significant piece of football memorabilia to be offered to the collecting public in recent memory.

The 1873 Eton-Yale program (henceforth known as the second oldest program) is below. Eton is the English team from Eton College in the United Kingdom. This game was played on December 6th, 1873 at Hamilton Park in New Haven.