How New Orleans invented the New Year’s Day bowl game — in 1890
New Orleans’ interest in the then-still-developing game of American football dates at least to 1869, when “those crack ball clubs, the Lone Stars and the R.E. Lees” met at the Fair Grounds for a match, but it was hardly the same game fans today know. Sometimes, football at the time was chaotic “mob” football. (The Lone Stars and R.E. Lees’ game featured 25 players on each side.) Other times, it was merely five-on-five. The first recorded game of “real” organized, inter-club football, however — with 11 players on each side and a referee to keep order — kicked off at 12:40 p.m. on Jan. 1, 1890, when two teams of collegiate players squared off for a game at Sportsman’s Park, which was on City Park Avenue where it met the New Basin Canal. There were to be no winners that day, though. After 45 minutes of play, the football was inadvertently kicked into the canal and slowly sank out of sight. The game was called. Final score: 0-0.
Sportsman’s Park, later named Crescent City Base Ball Park — and which would be home to the baseball Pelicans from 1887 to 1900 — no longer exists. Neither does the New Basin Canal, which was filled in and replaced by the Pontchartrain Expressway. But more than 125 years later, New Orleans is as football-crazy as it has ever been, cheering on their beloved Saints of the NFL, collegiate teams including LSU and Tulane, and the myriad high-school teams that make up the lively local prep football scene.
- The 1890 game was the brain child of New Orleans native Thomas Bayne, who had played football for Yale in the 1880s. The teams, made up mostly of players from East Coast schools, were dubbed “Yale” and “Princeton,” after the two most popular collegiate teams in the country at the time. Each side wore their respective “school” colors: blue for Yale, orange and black for Princeton.
- James Booth served as referee for the game. He was easy to pick out from the crowd, being “a six-footer in a tall silk hat,” according to a write-up in the next day’s Daily Picayune.
- The game was a charity game, to benefit the local Ambulance Fund.
- The player who kicked the ball into the canal was identified in the next day’s paper as L. LeSassier, who played for the Blue squad. Kicking from the 2-yard line, “Mr. LeSassier proved himself too much a kicker,” the Picayune account read. “The ball went over and above the goal line … and the fence and went into the canal. Searches for the ball were futile.”
- Another ball was produced, but it couldn’t be properly inflated, so the game was called.
- Technically, the Blue team scored the game’s only points shortly before the ball went into the canal, but, as the Picayune reported, “according to the rules, when an inning ends previous to the end of time, all points made during it become null. Referee Booth therefore declared the game a tie and the first intercollegiate football game in New Orleans ended with this score: Blue (Yale) 0 … Orange and Black (Princeton) 0.”
- The game was so popular that Bayne, with his brother Hugh, organized a follow-up on New Year’s Eve 1892, pitting players from Louisiana against players from Alabama.
- Both LSU in Baton Rouge and Tulane University in New Orleans began fielding a football team in 1893. Tulane’s first coach: Thomas Bayne.
- During LSU and Tulane’s first match in 1893, Bayne agreed to coach both teams when he learned that LSU coach Charles E. Coates was unavailable. Tulane won, 34-0, prompting a headline in the Chicago Tribune that read, “Bayne’s Tulane team whipped Bayne’s L.S.U. team.”
It is generally accepted that the 1902 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif. — then known as the “Tournament East-West” game — was college football’s first-ever bowl game. A valid argument, however, can be made that the birth of collegiate post-season football on New Year’s Day really occurred on the banks of the New Basin Canal some 12 years earlier, when “Yale” and “Princeton” met in New Orleans. Either way, that game started something in New Orleans. In the intervening decades, football — whether college, pro, high school or pee-wee — has become more than just a sport in New Orleans. It is closer to a religion. That’s only fitting for a city that roots passionately every Sunday for its Saints, whose performance on the field each week reliably dictates the mood of the entire city come Monday morning.