The lead sports headline in Sunday’s Sun arrived like a blind-side tackle, announcing the loss of a Thanksgiving Day football game that used be one-half of a grand Bawlamer tradition which survived a full century but was doomed by this year’s killer virus.
Game called on account of sanity. They scratched the annual Loyola-Calvert Hall game, which the two schools jointly called “this treasured tradition,” as they announced the cancellation.
It’s a painful move but a smart one with so much illness in the air, and it brings to mind so many years in which those two schools would play on Thanksgiving morning and then City College would play Polytechnic in the afternoon.
This week’s Loyola-Calvert Hall contest would have been the 100th in the series. City’s been playing Poly even longer – since 1889 – though their traditional game was moved from Thanksgiving Day in 1992 to accommodate a move to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
For all four schools, this was about more than football games. It was part of the storied holiday tradition. Graduates from years earlier would flock to Memorial Stadium, and more recently to M&T Stadium, to meet up with old classmates and cheer on their alma maters and swap tales from their youth.
Playing on the same ground as the professional Ravens, or the Colts before that, was an extra thrill for the players.
I remember an old classmate, the late Denny Wisner, who was City’s great quarterback in the early ‘60s, telling me, years after we’d graduated, “Just to play on the same field as Johnny Unitas and those guys, it was like a dream. It was a sense of awe. Like, I’m playing on the same field as those gods. That feeling has never left me.”
In my last two years at City, my homeroom teacher was Joe Brune, who taught English and helped George Young coach the football team for the better part of a decade. Later, Brune went to Loyola, where he was head football coach for 35 years. His teams won 19 times.
You want to talk tradition? Brune, now 86, remembers going to his first Loyola-Calvert Hall game when he was “young enough that I had to hold my father’s hand.”
You want to talk tradition? Reminiscing on WMAR-TV a year ago, Brune said, “We could have a terrible season but beat Calvert Hall, and then I’d run into an alumnus during the winter and he’d say, ‘Ya’ll had a great year, didn’t ya?’” It was all about winning the big one.
You want to talk tradition? Most high school football games around Baltimore traditionally draw hundreds of fans. Thanksgiving with Loyola-Calvert Hall would draw thousands. Thanksgiving with City and Poly would fill nearly half of Memorial Stadium.
You want to talk tradition? The games would draw not only radio coverage, but full TV play-by-play, too.
In fact, my senior year, two local TV stations covered the City-Poly game. I was sports editor of City’s school paper, The Collegian, so I got to sit in one TV booth, where I was the spotter for the old sportscaster Jim West. Another Collegian sports writer, Jimmy Sugar spotted, in the other telecast booth, for Joe Croghan.
For our efforts at helping the announcers spot runners and tacklers, we got paid a few bucks. Sugar got, shall we say, a few bucks more than me.
Years later, after West and I became professional friends, I told him, pretending crankiness, “Crogan gave Sugar $20. You gave me $5.”
“Yeah,” West said, “and I’m still waiting for my change.”
Here’s looking forward to next Thanksgiving, when all these schools will start playing ball again, and this pandemic’s just a memory.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.