GREATEST MOMENTS | Harvard beat Yale in first collegiate sporting event


Harvard-greatest-1There’s a reason the Ivy League is known as the Ancient Eight.

If it seems Ivy League teams have been around forever, well, they have.

Harvard, for example, has fielded a baseball team since 1865 (and appeared in four College World Series); a football team since 1873 (and won more games than all but seven Division I schools); and a hockey team since 1898 (and won a national championship in 1989).

More ancient is the Harvard-Yale Regatta, first contested in 1852 and held annually since 1859. The Race is the nation’s oldest collegiate athletic competition, and predates The Game — the annual Harvard-Yale football rivalry — by 23 years.

The Race actually goes back to the 1840s, when Harvard and Yale formed boat clubs. They served a mostly social purpose until 1852, when Yale challenged Harvard “to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges.”

On Aug. 3, 1852, Harvard’s Oneida edged Yale’s Shawmut by about two lengths in the two-mile contest on the “calm waters” of Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H., according to Harvard’s history of The Race. Yale’s Undine finished third.

Because Harvard won the first college sporting event in American history, it is judged the greatest sports moment in school history.

It took years of research to determine their precise significance, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006. But it became clear that the 1852 race outdistanced the first intercollegiate football game (1869) and basketball game (1895).

“It was two rag-tag teams,” Thomas Weil, founder of and a trustee of the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, England, told the Times.

“The students challenged each other; it wasn’t started by the universities. There was a huge level of interest in the race at the time. The newspapers of that day were full of the stuff. The results were on the front pages.”

Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad provided the college crews with transportation to New Hampshire — an NCAA violation today. The event, spread over eight days, drew about 1,000 spectators.

A pair of black walnut, silver-inscribed oars were awarded to Harvard as a trophy by Gen. Franklin Pierce, who became the 14th President in 1853.

Lost for 129 years, the historic oars were found in 1981 in the basement of an old rooming house in Medford, Mass., and nearly discarded.

“When I looked at them,” Paul Marino told the Times, “I saw all this writing. Harvard, Yale, names of people. These are from the first race, the first time Harvard and Yale competed, before any teams in college sports competed, before baseball, football and basketball. It was before Lincoln was president, before the Civil War. These oars have a lot of significance.”

Marino offered to sell Harvard the oars in 2006, but the school balked at his $30 million asking price.

Since the first competition, The Race has since moved to the Thames River, near New London, Conn., and the varsity crews compete for the Sexton Cup.

But the real prize is the right to paint school colors on the rock at Bartlett’s Cove near the finish line. And the Crimson can always say they won the first.

• Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame

On the cover: Harvard’s crimson painted on the rock at Bartlett’s Cove near the finish line of The Race. (Courtesy Harvard University Archives)

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Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.