Rose Bowl history: Gate-crashers, near fisticuffs and crowds, the move to the Arroyo Seco 100 years ago

The temperature in western Pennsylvania hovered around freezing on Jan. 1, 1923 – a New Year’s Day of snow and rain that was nothing out of the ordinary for its residents.

Far to the west, a few tourists from those frosty climes – mainly football players from Penn State University – found the pleasant 70-degree winter weather in Pasadena a bit of a challenge, almost as much as their opponents, the University of Southern California.

On that day 100 years ago, the Nittany Lions lost to the Trojans, 14-3, in the first Rose Bowl game played in Pasadena’s newly constructed stadium.

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“The game started under a blazing sun,” wrote Mark Kelly of Universal News Service. “It ended in darkness, but it found the Lions exhausted and all in.”

The Trojans, used to playing under such balmy conditions, knew to substitute frequently. They kept the Lions at bay throughout, allowing only a first-quarter field goal. The Trojans’ passing skills and a strong defense wore down Penn State before a crowd of 40,000 to 50,000, though the actual attendance was a bit hard to figure.

Construction of Rose Bowl Stadium started in late February 1922, and this is how it appeared on March 31. The venue hosted its first Rose Bowl Game the following New Year’s Day. (Pasadena Public Library – Pasadena Digital History collection)

The stadium was initially built as a horseshoe — designed similar to the open-ended Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn. Several hundred fans on that Jan. 1 decided against buying tickets and took advantage of the temporary gate in the open end. These cheapskates rushed the gate, knocked it over and faded into the crowd, taking over vacant seats. Not surprisingly, it was a stunt repeated in future years until the “bowl” was finally enclosed.

It also was Pasadena’s introduction into what has become its traditional whirlpool of traffic, meshing the departing Rose Parade crowd — estimated by one paper that day at 400,000 visitors — with those heading to the football game in the valley of the Arroyo Seco.

Police Chief Charles H. Kelley told the Pasadena Star-News that he had never before seen such a mess of traffic that converged on Colorado Boulevard and Orange Grove Avenue — an intersection over the subsequent 100 years that has become a regular traffic adventure for Tournament of Roses visitors.

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Kelley was the real hero in getting the game started at all. He recognized that vehicles carrying the Penn State players were at a standstill mired in Orange Grove traffic. The chief directed the cars to be driven on the sidewalks for four blocks in order to get them to the stadium for the scheduled 2:15 p.m. kickoff.

The late-arriving crowd, and players, almost led to a fistfight on the field.

USC coach Elmer Henderson had his team ready to play at 2:15, but Penn State was obviously not ready, something coach Hugo Bezdek blamed on the traffic delaying players and their fans.  Henderson rejected that explanation and “hotly accused Bezdek of trying to put something over,” said the Los Angeles Times of Jan. 2.

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They each made threats to the other, with the only thing stopping a fistfight in front of the crowd was John J. Mitchell, president of the Tournament of Roses Association, who stepped between the two. Eventually, calmer heads prevailed.

The battle after that battle finally got started about 3 p.m. With sunset at 4:52 p.m., the game ended with fans and players having difficulty seeing the final moments in the twilight. The stadium was then many decades away from having lights installed.

The first Rose Bowl Game in the new stadium also had another first, as it was broadcast via radio for the first time. Station KHJ, then owned by the Times, broadcast the play-by-play to Southern California and sent it via telephone lines to many stations in the East.

Pittsburgh radio station WCAE had its own broadcast of the game for its listeners, with each play described by an announcer reading accounts sent out via telegraph from the stadium.

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