125 years of Franklin Field

The historic stadium, home to the University of Pennsylvania Quakers and the Penn Relays, is celebrating its quasquicentennial. It is the oldest college stadium in the country.

aerial of franklin field
Historic Franklin Field at 235 S. 33rd St.

The story of Franklin Field began on April 20, 1895, when the stadium opened with the first running of the Penn Relay Carnival. Around 5,000 people attended the affair, the largest crowd to witness a track meet in Philadelphia at the time.

“The spacious grand stand was appropriately decked with flags and streamers, while from every quarter could be heard the challenging slogans of the college boys,” reported the April 21, 1895 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bright and warm shined the sun, with a slight breeze.

“A better day could not have been furnished had the weather forecaster made it to order,” a journalist wrote.

The University’s Spring Handicap Track and Field Games were held in conjunction with the first Penn Relays. All of the prominent East Coast college teams, including Harvard, Rutgers, Swarthmore, Cornell, Columbia, Lafayette, and Lehigh, attended the maiden Relays meet, except for Yale and Princeton, which did not accept Penn’s invitation. The meet also featured high school/prep school teams from the Philadelphia area, such as Central High School, the Cheltenham Military Academy, Germantown Academy, Haverford Grammar School, and William Penn Charter School.

franklin field panorama
Franklin Field (as built in 1894) and Weightman Hall (built 1903-1904) as shown on Nov. 26, 1910. (Photo credit: Penn Archives)

In a much-anticipated matchup, Harvard beat Penn in the relay race to win the first Penn Relays championship. Arthur A. Knipe, a student at the Medical School and captain of the Penn football team, broke the school record in the shot put with a throw of 41 feet and 1 ½ inches.

The house that Penn built

Alumnus and former history professor Edwards Potts Cheyney, in his 1940 book “History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940,” reported that before Franklin Field was constructed, student-athletes at Penn played on open space located behind College Hall, land now covered by the Quad dormitories. The tract of land was given to Penn by the City of Philadelphia in exchange for 50 free scholarships to students from public schools.

When the site was needed to build new dormitories, University administrators applied in 1892 for vacant city land east of campus for use as a new athletic field. With help from alumni, this land was filled in and graded, and given the name Franklin Field.

At 33rd and Spruce streets, the Franklin Field stadium was built for a cost of $100,000 (around $3 million in 2019 dollars). It is the oldest college stadium in the country.

Franklin Field opened with the nation’s first scoreboard, and on Oct. 1, 1895, the Penn football team put their first points on the scoreboard in their first game at the facility, a 40-0 romp of Swarthmore.

Football firsts

A multitude of major moments in the history of college football have occurred at Franklin Field. In 1899, it was the first neutral site of the Army-Navy Game. In 1903, in order to increase seating for big games, the wooden stands in the stadium were replaced by a brick horseshoe, making Franklin Field the first permanent horseshoe college stadium.

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Franklin Field busy with action during a football game on Nov. 25, 1926. (Photo credit: Penn Archives)

College football’s first radio broadcast occurred at Franklin Field on Nov. 22, 1922. Cornell defeated Penn 9-0. Three years later, the stadium’s second deck was completed, making Franklin Field America’s first double-decker stadium and increasing its capacity to 78,205, the largest in the country.

In 1940, Franklin Field was the site of college football’s first televised game, Penn’s 51-0 demolition of Maryland on Oct. 5. The contest was broadcast by Philco, the forerunner to today’s KYW.

The first episode of ABC’s widely popular “Wild World of Sports” was filmed at the Penn Relays on April 29, 1961.

Home-field advantage

The Penn football team has played 858 games at Franklin Field and has a home record of 571-256-31.

Twenty-three times, the Quakers have finished the season with an undefeated home record. In the stadium’s inaugural season, the Red & Blue finished 11-0 and won the national championship.

From Oct. 28, 1896 to Oct. 11, 1899, Penn had a 35-game winning streak at Franklin Field, followed by a 22-game winning streak at home from Nov. 11, 1899 to Oct. 23, 1901. The Quakers have a winning record at Franklin Field against every Ivy League team.

football in franklin field
The Philadelphia Eagles called Franklin Field home from 1958-1970, and won the NFL title at the stadium in 1960. (Photo credit: Philadelphia Eagles)

The Philadelphia Eagles called Franklin Field home from 1958-1970, and amassed a record of 41-45-2 at the facility.

On Oct. 5, 1958, the Eagles collected their first win at the stadium, a 27-24 win over the New York Giants. Their final game at Franklin Field was a 30-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 20, 1970.

Former Eagles owner and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell said moving the team’s games to Franklin Field “saved pro football in Philadelphia.”

Prior to playing on Penn’s campus, the Eagles spent 18 seasons at Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia, which could only hold 39,000 people compared to Franklin Field’s 60,000-plus. The University also offered a welcoming environment for families and fans.

“We became socially acceptable,” Tom Brookshier, a former Eagles cornerback, said in a 1997 interview with sportswriter Ray Didinger. “There was just something about walking across the grounds, past the statues and the library on a crisp fall day. People who could never go to Penn now could go to Penn on Sunday to see us. It was a great setting and we [the players] felt it, too.”

In 1971, the Eagles moved to the newly built Veterans Stadium.

Franklin Field has also hosted field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, sprint football, baseball, rugby, cricket, CFL, and USFL games. Since 1986, Penn’s Commencement ceremony has been held at the stadium.

Runners, take your mark

Hundreds of thousands of people have attended the Penn Relays since their first running at Franklin Field in 1895. Athletes trek from all over the world to compete in the internationally renowned meet, including competitors from different corners of the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, and the Caribbean. 

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The 125th running of the Penn Relays kick off on Thursday, April 25, at Franklin Field.

Dave Johnson, the Frank Dolson Director of the Penn Relays, says the size of the crowd at Franklin Field and the noise generated at the stadium make the Relays unique.

“What helps on the noise factor is there is almost no downtime,” he says. “As soon as one race is done, there’s another one on the track and you don’t get this lull of five or eight minutes between events.”

Johnson, who has directed the Relays since 1996, says one of the amazing things about the meet is the opportunity it provides for athletes to race in front of tens of thousands of people.

“On Friday, we’ll have a crowd of better than 30,000 for at least half a day,” he says. “And then on Saturday, once you hit around 10 o’clock in the morning, you got 30,000, and by noon, you’re up to 40,000. How many people ever perform or do something in front of that many people at one time in their whole lives?”

Field of Franklin

The field at Franklin Field is made of artificial turf, and it has been synthetic since 1969. Mark Conway, athletic grounds supervisor at Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), whose portfolio includes the stadium, says artificial grass allows for multiple use with minimum downtime and renovation. The numbers, lines, hash marks, and Penn logo in the end zone are stitched into the turf, and no painting is required. Conway and his staff of five groundkeepers are responsible for the setup and breakdown of events at Franklin Field, and getting the field ready for practices and games.

“Our guys are responsible for grooming the turf,” Conway says, which is a daily occurrence. “We have a sweeper that runs on the field, and we run it multiple times throughout the week. This will loosen up the fibers of the turf, bringing up any loose debris to the surface. After that is complete, our staff will run backpack blowers and walk-behind blowers along the turf to blow [the debris] off, and to accumulate all the debris at the end of the turf, which we then remove from the field.”

Once the debris is removed, Conway’s staffers fill out any low spots on the turf with additional rubber to ensure that the playing field is level. When cleaning has concluded, they will set the field based on scheduled practices and/or games.

franklin field at sunset
The field at Franklin Field is made of artificial turf. It has been synthetic since 1969.

At minimum, Conway says Franklin Field is in operation for 12 hours per day. The stadium opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. The playing field is used on an everyday basis by multiple teams.

On Fridays in the fall before home football games, the stadium is shut down completely so FRES staffers can do a football prep. The first thing they do in the morning is raise the stadium flags, followed by a walk through the facility, cleaning the turf, cleaning the surrounding areas, and getting everything ready and set for kickoff.

During football games, Conway’s staff is responsible for maintaining the concourse and field. When the teams clear the field at halftime and enter their respective locker rooms, groundskeepers clean the turf and set the benches for the second half.

Since the 1970s, Penn football fans have sung the school song “Drink a Highball” at the end of the third quarter and performed a ceremonial toast toss when they reach the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Depending upon attendance, thousands of pieces of toast are tossed per game.

“At the end of the toast toss, our staff is challenged to remove it all while the game is going on,” Conway says.

In his third year serving as athletic grounds supervisor, Conway says he very much enjoys caring for and working at historic Franklin Field.

“My office is inside of Franklin Field, so every morning I get to walk through the iron gates,” he says. “People laugh at me when I say it, but it’s essentially my gameday every morning when I walk in there. There’s just a good, positive vibe walking through the concourse to start your day.”

Homepage photo: Franklin Field as built in 1894. Penn battles Harvard in a football game at the stadium in 1902. (Photo credit: Penn Archives)