Harvard played Oregon in the 1920 Rose Bowl and was not expecting an invitation to play in the 1936 game. After all, the Crimson had won three and lost six that season, beating only Springfield, Brown, and New Hampshire. They played Yale close but failed to score on Holy Cross, Army, and Princeton, so an invitation to spend the holidays in Pasadena came as a surprise.
In those days, the Tournament of Roses chose a West Coast team to play in the Rose Bowl game, and that team selected and invited their opponent. Stanford, UCLA, and Cal tied for the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1935, with the Tournament choosing Stanford as the representative based on their shutting out Cal in the last game of the season. So, it was Stanford's invitation to give.
The timing of Harvard's invitation was surprising as well since it arrived shortly after the last game of the season against Yale on November 23. Several teams considered potential invitees had games scheduled for Thanksgiving, which fell on November 28 that year.
Despite it all, a telegraphed invitation landed on the desk of Harvard's athletic director, William J. Bingham, who had been appointed Harvard's first AD in 1926. In his day, Bingham was among America's top half-milers, and a likely Olympian had WWI not gotten in the way. Besides his Harvard duties, he chaired the American Olympics track and field committee, so he'd been around the track a few times.
Bingham understood that the Rose Bowl invitation did not always go to the best football team in the East; other considerations included various teams' willingness to accept the invitation. So while he may have thought the invitation a bit odd, Bingham nevertheless penned and telegraphed a reply to Alfred R. Masters, Stanford's athletic director.
Harvard regrets it cannot accept your bowl invitation this year. Due to the Harvard-Yale-Princeton agreement we are unable to engage in any post-season games. It will also be impossible next year because our present policy extends until 1938. Good luck on New Year's day.
Of course, Alfred R. Masters was startled to receive Bingham's telegram, but it was not because Harvard turned down the invitation. Masters was surprised because he had not invited Harvard to play in the Rose Bowl. Harvard, it seemed, was the victim of a hoax.
Out of respect for his counterpart, Masters likely would have kept this story quiet. However, a copy of the telegram also arrived at the Stanford Daily, their student newspaper, sent by Howard Clark, the purported editor of the Harvard Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper. As you might guess, no such person existed on the Crimson staff.
Other than the subsequent press reports and a few good laughs, the Harvard hoax story ended there. Still, a quarter century later, another Rose Bowl hoax occurred when the band director at Cassopolis High School in Michigan received an invitation for the band to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade. After the band members held several fundraisers to help pay their expenses, the school principal followed up with the Pasadenans, only to learn Cassopolis had not been invited to the New Year’s Day parade and needed to march on other roads.
Enjoy April Fool's Day, and beware of unexpected Rose Bowl invitations!
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Thanks. It was fun digging into it.