Needham History Center & Museum

The Secret History of the Needham-Wellesley Game

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum

The Needham High School football team for 1904 poses on the steps of the High School (now the Emery Grover Building). Manager Nat Wyeth (NC’s younger brother) is in the top row, third from left; Captain John Burrage is next to him, fourth from left. The quarterback was Frank Stanwood, third from left in the second row. Nat’s brother Edwin is in the front row, second from right.

Usually, Thanksgiving week is the time for all the old traditional football rivalries – Yale/Harvard (in that order), Boston Latin/Boston English, and of course, Needham vs Wellesley. Recently, and for the first time in 100 years, the Needham-Wellesley game had to be cancelled. The last time the game was cancelled was 1917-1920, first for the War, and then for the last great pandemic.

Needham and Wellesley (the towns) had been tussling over one thing or another ever since the 1720s, when Wellesley was still Needham’s western half. The Westerners even burned down the First Parish meeting house out of spite once (but that’s another story).

By the late 1800s, both sides of town had their own high schools, the East District and West District, and they naturally formed a rivalry in sports. Once the towns separated in 1881, this rivalry continued, and soon became symbolized by the annual football contest. For nearly all of these 130+ years, the schools have fielded their best young student athletes for a Thanksgiving Day game that is a source of local pride, cross-town hospitality, and a year’s worth of bragging rights. But it was not always thus….

If you live in Needham any time at all, you quickly learn this one important fact – that the annual Thanksgiving Day game against Wellesley is the oldest rivalry of its kind in the country. The fight has been going on since 1882, ever since East and West Needham split apart, taking their respective high schools with them.

I was therefore more than a little surprised to come across the following comment in the Needham Chronicle for November 16, 1901:

“The Needham-Wellesley Thanksgiving Day football game will be played this year by strictly town teams. This is a return to the old custom under which better games were played and more enthusiasm created, than has been the case in the past two or three years.

“It is certainly more satisfactory to the spectators to watch men from their own town play, than to see the game played by a lot of professionals hired for the occasion. The Needham team has commenced getting into shape, and the prospects for a good team are encouraging. Next week the team will be coached by a prominent Harvard player, and under his tutoring we may confidently expect to see a team turned out fully equal to the so-called Needham A.A. [Athletic Association], which contains but two local men.”

The game, played on the 28th, ended in a scoreless tie. The inexperience of the players was evident as “both sides fumbled very freely,” although “a few slugging matches livened up the game.”

So much for schoolboy sports lore. We know that the earliest Needham-Wellesley games were actually played by schoolboys, playing an extension of their old East District – West District contests. For a couple of years at the end of the century, however, it seems that rivalry overtook sportsmanship, and the ball was entrusted to the surer hands of ringers.

Or maybe there was just a shortage of schoolboys. The Superintendent’s Report in the Needham Town Report for 1902 reveals that there were only 33 boys enrolled in the high school, for all four grades. Not a big pool from which to field a team, one would think. A look through the pages of the Advocate, the Needham High School class yearbook, for 1902 yields no mention of school sports (though they did list the heights and weights of all 12 graduating seniors – including the girls!)

Class sizes, however, began to rise rapidly, and the Advocate for 1905 sported (hah!) a new section – “Athletics”:

“On the twenty-third of September 1904, the Needham High School Athletic Association was organized. . . It was voted that the school be represented by a foot-ball team for the season to open. Accordingly, [NC Wyeth’s younger brother] Nathaniel Wyeth ’06 was chosen Manager and instructed to at once secure games with the surrounding schools.”

This first team was not too promising: “On the afternoon of September twenty-eighth, the candidates for the foot-ball team assembled in a room in the high school building and elevated John Burrage ’06 captain of the eleven. From that date until the first game [about a week], the team practiced two or three afternoons and contrived to partially master a set of signals beside putting in condition and marking out a gridiron on the field at the corner of Great Plain Avenue and Pickering Street [Greene’s Field].

“The eighth of October saw the team line up for the first game of the season against Natick, a team averaging nearly fifteen pounds more to the man than the home aggregation. . . As the Needham team stood shivering on the field waiting for the kick-off, they could hear the varied comments of the narrow fringe of spectators as they shouted advice, or derision at the relative sizes of the opposing elevens.”

In the movies, these courageous but inexperienced striplings would somehow manage to pull off the big win, despite the fearful odds. But the movies were not invented yet – This was real life.

Or was it?

The Needham team scored “two touchdowns and two goals”, for a total of 12 points, shutting out the Natick team and gaining their first victory of the season. They would go on to end the season with 6 wins, 2 losses and 2 ties. They trounced the Norwood team (“the only team of its own size that Needham encountered”), an astonishing 49-0.

The Thanksgiving Day game, incidentally, was played that year against their first opponent, Natick (Needham 18, Natick 0). Needham did not play Wellesley at all that season. The autumn of 1905, however, saw the two rivals once again finishing the season against each other (alas, Needham 6, Wellesley 11).

And the rest, as they say, is History.