Every year from 1895 to 1938, the Penn versus Cornell football game was a big-time college football affray on Thanksgiving Day attracting tens of thousands of raucous and rambunctious fans to the comfy confines of the iconic Franklin Field.
The inaugural Turkey Day tussle was played on Nov. 28, 1895, and was the last game of the season for both teams. Entering the contest, the Red & Blue—the defending national champions—were a perfect 13-0 and riding a 25-game winning streak. The Big Red’s record stood at 3-3-1. Manning the sidelines were two future College Football Hall of Famers: George Woodruff, who coached the Quakers, and Marshall Newell, who commanded the Cornellians.
“From shortly after noon until 2 o’clock, all roads led to Franklin Field, and by the time Referee Laurie Bliss blew his whistle for play to begin, it seemed as if everybody from everywhere had taken up temporary quarters within sight of the twenty-two collegians who struggled with brain and brawn to support the honor of their alma maters,” reported the Nov. 29, 1895, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In front of 17,000 spectators at a slippery and muddy, newly opened Franklin Field, Penn clobbered Cornell 46-2. Jacks Minds, a student at Penn Law School who ran “like the force of a trolley car running wild on a mountain side,” scored four touchdowns. The Red & Blue faithful, who “yelled like Trojans” during the game, carried the triumphant players off the field.
Penn finished the season with an unblemished 14-0 record and claimed their second consecutive national championship.
Following five more defeats, Cornell picked up its first Thanksgiving Day win on Nov. 28, 1901, upending Penn 23-6, the Red & Blue’s first-ever loss to the Big Red.
“Cornell at Last Wins from Penn” read a front-page headline of the Nov. 29, 1901, edition of the Inquirer.
Twenty-thousand fans “braved the cold and the high wind” to attend the game, and at one point swarmed the field after a player was injured. Play was stopped until the police could restore order.
Back in Ithaca, New York, two thousand Cornell undergraduates stood out in a severe snowstorm for two hours, shaking, shivering, and eagerly watching every movement of the ball as it was traced on a blackboard representing the game. At night, every public place in town was filled with reveling students, as if they won the World Series.
Over the next 11 games in the Thanksgiving Day series, the Quakers went 10-0-1.
Leading up to the 1915 game, which was held on Nov. 25, Penn football was in the midst of a downturn and Cornell was king of the college football world. The Red & Blue, coached by George Brooke, a former All-American running back on the 1894 and 1895 national championship teams, were coming off an unimpressive 4-4-1 1914 season and two straight Thanksgiving losses to the Big Red.
Designated by the Inquirer as their “season of disgrace,” Penn had a 3-4-2 record on the eve of the 1915 game, and needed a win to avoid their first losing season since 1887. Conversely, Cornell was coming in hot with an 8-0 record, including handing Harvard its first loss in four years, and trotting a 15-game winning streak.
Two days before the game, the Quakers practiced for two hours on the golf links at the Whitemarsh Valley Country Club. The Inquirer reported on Nov. 24 that players “showed plenty of snap and pep” running through drills at practice, and “more spirit and teamwork” than they had shown all year.
Starting at end for the Quakers were Walter Hopkins and “Heinie” Miller. Unk Russell and Neil Mathews started at right and left tackle, respectively. Lud Wray played center.
In the backfield were Gene Rockafeller at left halfback, Ben Derr at right halfback, “Gravvy” Williams at fullback, and at quarterback, Bert Bell, who would later co-found the Philadelphia Eagles and serve as commissioner of the NFL.
From every standpoint, the Inquirer reported, the 1915 Penn vs. Cornell football game was superlative. The weather was the best, the crowd was the greatest, and the playing most spectacular.
As usual, Franklin Field was packed, with 20,000 roaring fanatics, Penn fans, Cornell fans, neutral fans, and the Navy football team, which stopped in Philadelphia to watch the game on their way from Annapolis, Maryland, to New York to take on Army that Saturday.
Penn won the opening coin toss and fought Cornell to a 0-0 draw after the first quarter. A touchdown by the Big Red in the second quarter gave the Ithacans a 7-0 lead. The Quakers were expected to fold after falling behind, as they had all year, but the Inquirer reported, “a surprise was in store.”
With a swiftness almost stunning, Cornell fumbled the ball and the Quakers recovered. Miller of Penn heaved the ball to Hopkins for a 42-yard gain. Penn, “playing with an aggressive spirit,” was in the endzone soon after, but missed the extra point, and trailed 6-7. The Red & Blue added a field goal before halftime and entered intermission with an improbable 9-7 lead.
Cornell players and fans, stuffy and chesty before the game, felt a chill shudder down their spines.
Neither team scored in the third period and the Quakers entered the fourth clinging to a 9-7 lead.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
Just as the astonished supporters of the rejuvenated Penn football team began to feel confident about the outcome, Cornell’s All-American quarterback Charley Barrett plunged through the line for a 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, which put the game out of reach. Cornell won 24-9.
For fully an hour, Cornell students celebrated on Franklin Field after the game ended, “indulging in weird steps, snake dances, and other generally accepted signs of collegiate football victory.”
Penn finished the season with a 3-5-2 record. Cornell finished 9-0-0 and won their first national championship. Brooke did not return as coach.
The Penn vs. Cornell Thanksgiving Day series ended in 1939 after President Franklin Roosevelt signed a proclamation changing the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last Thursday in November in order to prolong the Christmas shopping season. The change of day moved the Penn vs. Cornell game, and it was no longer an annual Thanksgiving event.
(In 1941, Roosevelt and Congress established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, taking into account Novembers with five Thursdays.)
Seventy-thousand fans saw the last regularly scheduled Thanksgiving matchup between Penn and Cornell on Nov. 24, 1938. It ended in a 0-0 tie, a moral victory for the underdog Quakers. In 1939, Penn vs. Cornell was played on a Saturday.
Across the 43-game period that the Thanksgiving Day showdown was a yearly skirmish, the Red & Blue amassed a 29-11-3 record.
Periodically thereafter, the game would be played on Thanksgiving: 1942-43, 1946-49, 1952-60, and in 1963 and 1965.
In 1964, the game was played in October for the first time and began to alternate between Ithaca and Philadelphia, no longer exclusively a Franklin Field affair.
Most recently, Penn and Cornell played on Thanksgiving on a snowy Nov. 23, 1989, in front of 10,000 fans at Franklin Field. The Quakers fell 6-20. Bryan Keys, who graduated in 1990 as the Red & Blue’s all-time leading rusher with 3,137 yards, was held to 66 yards on 23 carries.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, Penn hosts Cornell for Homecoming at Franklin Field. It will be the 127th meeting between the two teams, the sixth-oldest rivalry in Division I college football. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. The Quakers lead the all-time series 75-46-5.