Saturday, 30 December 2017

Road Trip! - All-Canadian Contests in the U.S.A.

From time to time over the previous century those responsible for promoting the Canadian game have found it expedient to schedule games pitting two teams from Canadian cities on foreign soil, specifically in the United States. The motivations for the contests varied and the reception to the alternate brand of football by the local fans ranged from polite curiosity to ambivalent disregard. Memorabilia from these match ups is mostly rare, fairly unique and historically interesting. 

One of the best known games was between the B.C. Lions and the Edmonton Eskimos held in San Francisco in pre-season 1957 at the iconic home of the San Francisco 49'ers, Kezar Stadium.

Game program from the Lions versus Eskimos exhibition match in San Francisco
and the back cover promoting the attractions of visiting Canada 

All of the games examined in this blog post are between regular Canadian teams playing at international neutral sites, as opposed to games that featured match ups between Canadian clubs and American teams from other leagues, which obviously is also a good topic for a future post.

The first such contest was held way back in 1909 New York City, no less, where an exhibition game of Canadian Football was hosted between the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Hamilton Tigers, won by the Tigers 11-6. This game happened after the Grey Cup had already been contested in Toronto.

The game was held at Van Cortlandt Park sponsored by the New York Herald magazine and apparently among the 15,000 or so attendees were many of the most prominent college officials in U.S. football at the time including Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg. According to newspaper accounts the high injury and death rate in the American college game at the time was one reason for the contest, in case there might be some aspect of the Canadian game that could possibly be adopted locally to mitigate some of the risk to the players. 

The game attracted enough attention to be featured in a local New York magazine story although there are some mistakes identifying the participating teams in the accompanying text 

Reproduction photos of the two teams have occasionally been available on Ebay from time to time, so presumably the original newspaper negatives have survived. Actual period photographic prints from 1909 would of course command a pretty high price if they still exist. Hamilton is at top right and Ottawa at bottom right.

The next such game was not until forty-two years later in 1951 in Buffalo, NY between the Tiger-Cats and the Argonauts but I have not been able to locate any memorabilia for that contest.

There was even some thought of making the Canadian exhibition game a recurring event as detailed in the San Francisco 1957 program. 
Team portraits were helpful for the fans unfamiliar with the players. 

Six years later beginning in 1957 CFL teams played six games in the next five years at neutral site American cities. The Lions and Eskimos put on a two game series on the US west coast in 1957 and check out that sauntering African lion logo used in the Kezar Stadium program above right. One would have to assume that there is a good chance that local game promoters came up with that logo on their own when the programs were graphically prepared. 

Attendance for these late fifties - early sixties games ranged from about 7,000 in the smaller centers up to about 28,000 in Seattle, with the norm being in the mid-teens for most events.   

1957 Portland, Oregon program above left  and 1960 Cedar Rapids, Iowa program above right

The San Francisco program is probably one of the easier (but not real easy) programs to come by and most of the others are pretty infrequently seen. Copies in rough shape with normal wear and tear and probably folded would run around $25 and copies in better condition would be closer to $50 if you can find one. 

Game program for Philadelphia contest at left and the respective game ticket top right.
Game ticket for 1961 Seattle exhibition bottom right.

The only regular season game ever played at a neutral site American city was the benefit game for the Children's hospital in Philadelphia in 1958. The idea was to popularize the game and raise funds for charity but the plan did not work out as the stadium sat 102,000 and only about 15,000 attended. The Tiger-Cats were apparently guaranteed about $10,000 more than they could have grossed with a sold out game at home, hence the motivation to agree to a regular season neutral game. Having thirty one punts in the game did not endear the sport to the few Americans that bothered to attend.

The program is pretty hard to come by but the excess tickets have survived in droves so they are common and only worth a couple of dollars each at most. Tickets for any of the other neutral site games are definitely way rarer and almost never encountered (even the 1961 Seattle ticket pictured above) whose game had the highest attendance (28,000) of any of the American events. The owner of this ticket stub has it offered at $100 US which is pretty pricey. 

1967 Everett, Washington game program above left and
1992 Portland, Oregon game program above right

The last of the exhibitions in the sixties was held in Everett, Washington in 1967 with the lowest attendance (slightly over 6,000) for any of the games. Another 25 years would pass before the CFL would once again attempt the promotion with a game featuring a Grey Cup rematch in early 1992 in Portland Oregon. This game was something of a precursor to judging interest for American expansion in the early nineties and Portland was considered a likely potential franchise site.

Of course eventually the league did expand in 1993 to Sacramento and then to five other American cities over the course of the next two seasons. The expansion resulted in a kind of illogical corollary of the curiosity of two Canadian teams playing Canadian football in American cities - which was two American teams playing Canadian football in American cities.    

More information on neutral site games (including those played in Canada) can be found at this Wikipedia link.