The Biggest Game in Town
Of course there's the turkey and the pumpkin pie, but for fans of the game, Thanksgiving Day is all about football. Long before the Cleveland Browns—and the NFL for that matter—the biggest game in town was between the Case Rough Riders and the Reserve Red Cats. From 1894 to 1953, crowds gathered on Thanksgiving morning at venues including League Park, Shaw Stadium and even Cleveland Municipal Stadium, to watch the teams face off.
"The Thanksgiving game was the biggest game of the year," recalls James Biggar (CIT '50). "We played in [Shaw] stadium and the noise from the crowd was tremendous." Biggar, a member of The Spartan Club Hall of Fame, played left end for Case in 1948—the year the Rough Riders rebounded from a two-decade losing streak against their rivals across the fence—and 1949. He recalls playing those games in front of some 15,000 cheering fans.
"The alumni gave us a golden footballthat year—and the Thanksgiving turkey tasted even better," Biggar says.
A visit to the Case Western Reserve University archives reveals a bit more of the game's storied past. The oldest program in the collection is a football-shaped booklet from 1897 bound with two ribbons—one red and one brown, for each of the teams. By 1913 the playbill-sized program was packed with advertisements and invited spectators to read about the game in "tomorrow's Plain Dealer." By 1927 the 24-page program cost 25 cents and featured full-page photographs of Amasa Stone Chapel and Adelbert College. The program also featured a "forword" from Case President Charles S. Howe.
"Two institutions cannot stand side by side without producing rivalry of some kind," Howe wrote. "Here it takes the form of a rivalry in sports...But this is a generous rivalry between friends."
By 1932, the teams marked "four decades of probably the fiercest gridiron rivalry in the annals of the great college pastime." In 1941, 38,000 fans watched as the Red Cats defeated Case and went on to beat Arizona State in the Sun Bowl.
The last Thanksgiving game was held at Clarke Field in 1953, and the last Case vs. Reserve game was played in 1969. After 75 years, Reserve had won 49 games, Case had won 20 games and there were five ties. When the teams merged in 1970, the great rivalry dissolved—but only in the physical sense. Ask any alumnus who attended "Cleveland’s Football Classic" and you'll find that Rough Rider and Red Cat pride are still alive and well.