“A thing to be desired”

Editor’s Note: ALWAYS grateful to Daniel D. Covell for his remarkable contributions to the site, including this piece. The piece is geared toward a pregame release – The Game takes place Saturday, November 18. Gratitude also for the images Mr. Covell provided.

An email from J. Press popped up in my inbox a few days ago, trumpeting the firm’s Pennant Label’s release of several items of apparel celebrating the upcoming Harvard-Yale football contest, referred to by devotees of each school as “The Game.” Even though almost every hallowed rivalry in college football, most notably California and Stanford, also call their annual big game “The Game,” or something akin to it, is a propitious time to connect with H/Y edition, to be played this year in New Haven, since both programs are celebrating the sesquicentennial of their foundings. You may also know that the entire intercollegiate athletics enterprise gores back even further, and also involves Haravd and Yale, thanks to a day of crew races between the two schools on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee back in August of 1852. I’ve read that future U.S. President Franklin Pierce was in attendance, but since he was a Bowdoin grad I’m not sure for whom he was rooting.

As fans of this site may recall, I’ve been rummaging through the storage rooms and basements of Ivy League athletic departments over the past few months, studying the form and content of football game programs from the past century or so. Amongst the things the research has taught me is that the articulation of Ivy Style was both formed by and expressed through its connection with college football (and probably crew too, as anyone who has ever attended the Head of the Charles Regatta can attest). This linkage, seen in the dress of characters in cover artwork and in the multiple apparel purveyors who bought ad space within, became apparent once again in Hanover early last September during my trip to Dartmouth. I travelled north from Connecticut as the region was still in the grip of summer’s heat; good thing I had not yet stored away my seersucker, linen and madras. I was very familiar with a latter portion of the drive up Interstate 91, which hugs the Connecticut River for much of its length, as I had traversed the stretch from the Vermont border to Bellows Falls for work for the better part of four years. I had been working as athletics director at Bellows Falls Union High School, and as such made the drive at all hours and in all types of northern New England weather. Other than on those the autumn days where the foliage glowed its signature red, orange and gold, my most memorable commute was a snowy February morning, when as I had throttled back to 45 MPH so as not to tempt fate and lose control of my car on the slopes and curves of the snow-covered road, a black BMW sedan whooshed by on my left going about 75. “OK, pal,” I thought, “Good luck.” A few miles down the road I saw the same car, facing backwards in a ditch in the median. The angels of my better nature would have had me stop and help, but I was late, the car was upright and neither noticeably crumpled nor in flames and the driver should have known better. I drove on. 

But it was not snow that would be a factor this recent September day, but rather fog. I’m not a meteorologist, but I gather fog occurs often in late summer and early autumn when lots of ground moisture (of which the region had had plenty this summer) combines with cooling nights and light winds. As a result, as the road climbed and dipped along the terrain, drivers floated in and out of the fog, alternating dense mist with brilliant sunshine. By the time I exited I-91 and crossed over the river into New Hampshire, the fog had mostly burned off and Hanover was simmering like a hot and steamy Brigadoon, with students for whom the Fall term had not yet commenced lounging on the college green while the Fall sport athletes were sweating away at their preseason practices. 

I dropped my bag at the Hanover Inn and headed to the Dartmouth athletics department, where I was led to a typical back room filled with the typical decades-worth of clutter covering tables, filling bookshelves and spilling out from boxes: Trophies, game balls, banners, posters and other similar memorabilia, and of course, football game programs, some dating back to the late 1800s. I took off my jacket, loosened my tie, rolled up my sleeves, swept away the dust and dug in.

As I search, I usually stop only at the editions with engaging covers, either in use of artwork or focus of subject (or, in some cases, both), and one of the first that caught me was from November 10, 1962, when the Lions of Columbia were in town, a season removed from their last (and since then only) Ivy League title. That week’s game program featured a painting of game-action by a Dartmouth student from the Class of 1963. The work, a heavily layered oil or acrylic painting, rendered two Dartmouth players in the midst of taking down a Columbia ball-carrier, identified as such since he wore the school’s eponymous shade of blue, all before a multicolored somewhat abstractly depicted crowd. Credit to the athletics department for giving the kid the chance. I learned later that the artist, Gerald “Jerry” Raczka, was a member of the football team and an art major. He became a dentist in Chicago and died suddenly in 1975 at the age of 34. Jerry Raczka and I shared a similar pedigree – football player and studio art major. He was even an offensive lineman like me.

As flipped through the pages of the program – Dartmouth would win the game handily, 42-0 – I came across an Ivy Style Holy Grail of sorts: An article by George Frazier. Many of this site’s devotees are well-acquainted with Frazier and his work, especially his landmark 1960 Esquire piece, “The art of wearing clothes” (published in September of that year, just in time for the start of the football season). When I went back to that piece recently, I noted that Frazier refers to the influence of illustrator John Held, Jr. on a certain set of 1920s society, one referred to by Sir Max Beerbohm, an English essayist, caricaturist and clothing guru of the day, as the “cake-eaters” and “sheiks” who found in Held their laureate. Not exactly sure what that means, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a complement. I had only recently learned of Held, as his work had graced the cover of several Yale football programs during that time. 

In his Esquire piece, Frazier – a Harvard man Class of 1933 (he was dismissed due to academic shortcomings but returned to complete his degree program and win the Bowdoin Prize for writing), by way of Boston Latin School and Irish South Boston (a.k.a., “Southie”) – argues that apparel of the best-dressed American man is “full of tradition, being, rather more often than not, products of such sanctified New England private schools as St. Mark’s, Groton and St. Paul’s, and of ivied universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton … They walk, so to speak, in beauty, and at dusk, when not playing backgammon … they turn up at beatified bars like the ones in St. Regis in New York and the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.” Frazier lived in and aspired to an Ivy Style life, and like many of us, was revered by some (“an arbiter of elegance,” said his Esquire editor) and reviled by others (“a notorious freeloader and physical coward,” said a Boston Globe colleague). His brother, Andrew, likely captured his essence best: “My brother was like James Michael Curley or Richard Cardinal Cushing. You either loved him or you hated him, but you sure did know all about him and you always had had an opinion about him.” 

Along with his Esquire gig and others, Frazier was a columnist for the Boston Globe and the Boston Hereld but lived mostly at 52 E. 81st Street in Manhattan. Boston, like many mid-century East Coast metropolises, was home to a rough-and-tumble newspaper scene, populated by the Globe and the Herald, plus the American, the Daily Record, the Post and the Traveler. Given the cutthroat competition, editors knew that sports sold papers, and many writers, the “knights of the keyboard,” as so dubbed by Boston Red Sox luminary Ted Williams, who read every line written by scribes like Dave Egan and could never, ever ignore their jibes, captured readers through constant and acerbic criticisms of Williams and others. Frazier was not of that ilk, as probably his best-known work of sports writing is his 1973 Globe piece on opening day at Fenway Park in Boston when the Red Sox beat the hated New York Yankees, 15-5. Why? Well, he wrote it entirely in Latin of course, with the headline, “Tibialibus Rubris XV, Eboracum Novum V.” Frazier also provided an English translation, “in case anyone Latin is rusty.” The revival of a dead languages aside, the game was actually an important marker in Major League Baseball history, since in it debuted the first-ever designated hitter, when the Yankees’ Rob Blomberg took a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk in the top of the 1st. In case you’re wondering, Frazier told us that “designated hitter” in Latin is “designatus clavitor.” His Boston Latin teachers must have been proud. 

In that 1962 Dartmouth program, Frazier, who was working Hearld then, deigned to write in English and about Harvard-Dartmouth football. In those days, Dartmouth made the late-October trek down to Cambridge nearly every season (as it did to New Haven in early October to face Yale), since the crowds to be drawn on the road were much larger than could fit into Hanover’s Memorial Field. So it was in 1962, when the Indians, as they were known, defeated the Crimson 24-6. Two weeks later, the Dartmouth program, or more precisely, the Dartmouth Football News, ran a reprint of Frazier’s Herald piece, entitled “A thing to be desired,” that had run the day before the 24-6 Dartmouth win, along with a black-and white photo of the author in a dark suit and white shirt, staring off toward stage left of the camera, his left hand resting against the bridge of his horn-rimmed glasses, balancing one of the cigarettes that would kill him from lung cancer between his index and middle fingers, his collar affixed under his tie with a pin.

In a brief preamble, program editor Ernie Roberts ran an intro, stating that Frazier’s piece “sums up completely the spirit of that Harvard-Dartmouth football game and, in fact, all Ivy League football.” Roberts had worked for the Globe prior to his Hanover time and would return to it in 1966 and stay on as the sport page editor and occasional columnist until 1983. Fans of the sportswriting genre know that under Roberts’s watch, the Globe assembled arguably the best-ever cadre of scribes, including Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville, Bud Collins, Ray Fitzgerald, Will McDonough, Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Ryan and Harvard alum John Powers. No doubt about it, the guy could spot talent.

And so it was with Frazier’s piece, who sprinkled his homage to the game and its fans with snippets from Dartmouth football fight songs. “Maybe this is what some men would fight and die for … to stand up and take off their hats in hallelujah as the backs go tearing by … for the right, on anointed Saturday afternoons, to exult in all the exaggerations of undergraduate urgings and afterward to stand bareheaded in the gathering dusk and into the affectations and auld acquaintance of anthems without age … Is it so bad, really, to be moved by a football game between Harvard and Dartmouth?” 

Frazier goes on to laud Dartmouth’s institutional spirit. “What is so warm and likeable is that there is about it – about Dartmouth – all the enthusiasm that we call undergraduate … that is the thing to be desired – undergraduate enthusiasm – and we could do with more of it … For life is too short, really, and we will all be dead too soon … ‘Nine Saturdays make a year,’ an old Dartmouth has said – and perhaps he is right. Perhaps that is all – or as little as – there is to it … There is more to it than we know, really – and we should never sell it short. If Dartmouth is in town again, why, let us stand up and take off our hats.”

Biographer Charles Fountain wrote that Frazier “concerned himself with the elegant life: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, The Plaza, The Ritz, the Racquet Club, and the rest of the world be damned. Yet, like Fitzgerald, he was a fraud in this world, a man of humble roots and often-desperate financial means.” The Andover Shop’s Charlie Davidson, Frazier’s closest friend, spoke of Frazier’s writing in terms of the jazz music they both loved. “Jazz musicians always know the melody,” he told Fountain, “but they never play the melody. They’re always playing the improvisation. George is like that. People keep searching for the melody, but there is no melody. George was always playing the improvisation.” Of his studies or clothing and its importance, Fountain wrote that “such a frivolous matter, this style he treasured so. Surely, his critics argued, a mature writer with so powerful a forum had an obligation to address weightier matters. But was his treasured style truly frivolous?”

After several hours of scrounging through boxes, I went back to the Hanover Inn, and had a drink with a high school friend who lived nearby. I’d seen him only once since we graduated in 1981, and as we sat at the bar I learned that he had a son who had committed suicide as a teenager several years ago, and that he rarely drank much anymore. I have another friend, this one from college, whose son died in a car accident while back home on break from Bowdoin. I told my high school friend I was sorry for his loss, and that I knew there was nothing I could say that would take the pain away. I had said the same thing to my Bowdoin friend at the time. The next morning, I looked out my window at the college green, and saw that the fog had returned. I checked out, got in my car, and crossed back over the bridge, leaving Brigadoon behind. The sun came out, eventually, as I drove back south on I-91. 

Frazier died in June 1974, a few months before Jerry Raczka, back in Cambridge at Mount Auburn Hospital. You can see Harvard Stadium from there, that mock Roman coliseum plopped on the southern bank of the Charles River floodplain back in 1903. All our football fields today are the size they are because of the prescribed dimensions of this venue, this first concrete and steel reinforced football stadium on this continent. This week Dartmouth travels down again to face the Crimson for the 116th time, looking for their 49th win in the series. These are facts, the melody if you will. I’m sure Jerry Raczka would like to be there, as would George Frazier, both working on the improvisation. I’d like to think they would both be there and doffing their caps as the backs came tearing by. Ivy Style, football, jazz and art. Frivolous? Maybe, but also necessary. As Frazier wrote, there is more to it than we know, really – and we should never sell it short.

  • D. Covell

9 Comments on "“A thing to be desired”"

  1. Mr. Covell:

    Well done, sir!

    Your article has plenty of “duende”:

  2. Richard E. Press | October 31, 2023 at 3:38 pm |

    “Wah Hoo Wah,” Mr. Covell, as we once upon a time unwoke Dartmouth Indian fans used to screech and holler, Dick Press ‘59

  3. Randy Ventgen | October 31, 2023 at 6:55 pm |

    Wonderfully written.

  4. Keanu Moore | November 1, 2023 at 1:07 am |

    My school <3

  5. MacMcConnell | November 1, 2023 at 10:21 am |

    D. Covell, thank you.

  6. I love articles about college football’s connections to American history and culture, and this one scores big. Thank you sir!

    For something with southern twists, go find the book “Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming,” which chronicles the “Shootout” between Texas and Arkansas in 1969. You’ll be amazed at all the intersecting cultural and historical currents — Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, Nixon and Clinton — in just one dad-gum football game.

  7. Excellent. Thank you Mr. Covellz

  8. Chris Lawford | November 2, 2023 at 1:33 am |

    Institutionalized violence

  9. Great article! Looking forward to more.

Comments are closed.