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Home sick: Why the Giants and the Yale Bowl were not a good mix in 1973-74

Big Blue's short stay in Connecticut was a "bleak period" for the franchise, co-owner John Mara said.

Giants quarterback Craig Morton looks downfield for a

Giants quarterback Craig Morton looks downfield for a receiver against the Eagles at Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut, on Sunday, Dec. 8, 1974. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous

Craig Morton, surrounded by his luggage and weighed down by his doubts, waited at LaGuardia Airport for his ride to arrive. It was Oct. 23, 1974, a Wednesday, giving the veteran quarterback four days to prepare for his first game with the Giants after 9 1/2 NFL seasons with the Cowboys.

But these were not the Yankee Stadium-based Giants whom Morton had followed as a youth, the team that had been led in the early 1960s by one of his boyhood heroes, Y.A. Tittle, and that had appeared in the NFL Championship Game six times between 1956-63. These Giants were in shambles, shunned by New York City politicians after announcing plans to build a stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands and forced to play in the antiquated, no-frills Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut, for 12 games — five in 1973 after Yankee Stadium closed for renovations and seven in 1974. They won only one of those “road” home games, 24-13, over the St. Louis Cardinals on Nov. 18, 1973.

As famed ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell noted, the Giants were “dabbling in abject mediocrity.”

There were no locker rooms in the college stadium, which opened in 1914 and whose elliptical, dug-out design inspired the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. At halftime, the Giants retreated to a leaky room under the stands not big enough to fit an NFL roster. The fans grew increasingly hostile over the team’s poor play and the players grew increasingly tired of having to drive two to three hours for a home game.

“I look at it as just a bleak period in our history,” said Giants co-owner John Mara, the grandson of team founder Tim Mara and then a Boston College student. “Our team wasn’t very good. Our organization wasn’t very good. It would take us a number of years before we righted the ship. It was a very tough period to go through. So many defeats. So many embarrassing Sundays. It was just a bleak period, one that I try to block out.”

But Morton had tired of battling Roger Staubach for playing time and told Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm that he wanted out, pressing the issue by skipping a practice earlier that week. Morton, who grew up in the San Francisco area, thought he would be traded to his hometown 49ers. Instead, the lowly Giants sent quarterback Norm Snead to the Niners and acquired Morton.

“What have you done?” Morton muttered to himself as he waited at LaGuardia. “Keep your mouth shut.”

And this was before Morton — used to the Cowboys’ meticulous structure, top-notch practice facilities and state-of-the-art Texas Stadium, which opened in 1974, and now being handed socks without elastic, mis-sized Giants T-shirts and a broken jockstrap — played his first game at the Yale Bowl.

“It was a [crap] hole,” recalled Morton, 75. “You had to dress in the main gym and bus out to the stadium. The first couple of games there, the fans were kind of docile. By the end of the year, they had baseball bats and were beating on the bus. They wanted to kill us. I love New York fans and I always loved playing at Yankee Stadium. But Yale Bowl, it was a free-for-all. Everybody got drunk and fought.”

“I came from a small school that had decent facilities,” added linebacker Brian Kelley, 67, who began an 11-season NFL career, all with the Giants, in 1973 after playing college football at Cal Lutheran, an NAIA school. “My rookie year, we trained at Monmouth College and we ended up going to the stadium in Jersey City [for practice], which was just an armpit. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the NFL?’ Then we end up going to the Yale Bowl, which was just as bad. It was always damp and dreary. I thought I stepped up to a different league but actually I stepped down from a small college.”

BRUTAL CONDITIONS

The Giants, under coach Alex Webster, went 2-11-1 in 1973. Bill Arnsparger took over the following season and there were 16 rookies and 27 new players overall on the Week 1 roster — plus Morton’s arrival for Week 7. The team finished 2-12.

“I think we were a real young team and I think there was a lot of progress,” said running back Steve Crosby, 68, who played the first of his three NFL seasons in 1974 before a lengthy career as an NFL assistant coach and coordinator. “The team probably had the chance to head in the right direction at some point. Playing at the Yale Bowl did not help us in any stretch of the imagination. I think we would’ve been a little better team if we’d been at Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium.”

But Yankee Stadium was closed until 1976 — when Giants Stadium opened — and New York City Mayor John Lindsay never offered Shea as an option to the Giants, though his successor, Abe Beame, finally did for the 1975 season.

Still, the Yale Bowl initially made a lot of sense for the Giants. It was big enough that every season-ticket holder at Yankee Stadium could be offered a seat — the Giants’ attendance topped 70,000 for four of their games in 1973 and 65,795 saw them beat the Cardinals — and the team had started playing preseason games there against the Jets in 1969, a memorable series for both franchises.

“They were like regular-season games of today,” Mara said. “We really wanted to win. They were emotional games with fights in the stands and all sorts of craziness.”

“It felt like a natural thing,” added linebacker Pat Hughes, 71, who played for the Giants from 1970-76, then finished his career with the Saints from 1977-79. “The first game was in 1969 and that became the annual training camp preseason game. My rookie year, it was like playing the Super Bowl, for bragging rights of New York. It was both a jewel and a curse. All players were available to play. You weren’t sitting Joe Namath or Fran Tarkenton or Ron Johnson. Unfortunately, at times, we peaked at that time.”

And there was some architectural charm to the Yale Bowl, particularly the way it was dug into the ground, much like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. As a result, there is no towering outside presence. It’s tucked away among trees about two miles from the Yale campus.

“You don’t really see it until you’re on top of it,” said Rich Hanley, 62, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, who worked as a Yale Bowl usher for Giants games while attending the University of New Haven. “When you walk in through the portal, it’s quite an experience. You see the green field and you hear the players on the field. It had a somewhat unique PA system that was ancient and the scoreboard was old-school. Obviously, no replays, just home and away and down and distance. It was as basic and as high school as you could get, and there was only one of them in the end zone.”

Giants fans who were used to Yankee Stadium found themselves suddenly crammed into bench seating and bathrooms that, like the locker rooms, were outside the stadium.

Hanley described the crowds as “boozy.”

“You had to leave the bowl to go to the bathroom,” said Hanley, still a devoted Giants fan, who worked solely for tips as an usher but was thrilled to get into the games for free. “There were no TV monitors. Basically, it was like a cattle trough. To find your way back to your seats was sure interesting because they were scattered outside of the bowl.”

Of course, there was no way the Giants could make their way through the crowd outside the stadium to get back to their locker rooms for halftime.

Rather, the players retreated to a room underneath the stands.

“We dressed in one locker room and bused to the stadium and, at halftime, we were in this hole about half the size of what we needed because we couldn’t get to the other place,” said Crosby, still sounding incredulous about the setup all these years later. “It was under the stadium, this little room. It was 120 degrees and we were sweating like pigs and at a time we were supposed to be getting wiped off and getting water.

“You didn’t pay attention to hardly anything,” Crosby added. “You could hear the coaches were saying stuff at halftime but you couldn’t hear. The offense was talking, the defense was talking, there were people standing in between the two and you couldn’t get much out of what was going on. I’ve never been around anything like it.”

And if it rained on game day, Crosby said, “there was water dripping in from the ceiling into the room.”

GIANT CHANGES

Actually, everything was crowded in and around the Yale Bowl.

The influx of fans on game days made traffic a logistical nightmare in New Haven, something the players discovered as they tried to make it to the Yale Bowl on Sundays in 1973. The first season there, Giants management decided to bus the players to New Haven on game days.

“As we used to say, we were the only team in the NFL that had to travel through three states to play a home game, practicing in Jersey City and going from New Jersey to New York to Connecticut and then coming back under the cover of darkness,” Hughes said.

That season ended with a 31-7 loss to the Vikings at the Yale Bowl and Webster knew he’d be out after five seasons as coach.

“The fans had ammunition,” Hughes said. “It had snowed and they had access to snowballs. They were peppering us. They were expressing their dissatisfaction.”

Mara remembers it as a “miserably cold day” and recounted how Webster, in tears, approached him to say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a winner.”

“For me, at that age, it was a heartbreaking moment,” said Mara, adding that Webster made sure he kept control of the team until the end. “Toward the end of the game, the players were gathered around the one heater and they weren’t paying attention to the game. He asked me to pull the plug on the one heater. He was upset so many players were huddled around it instead of what was going on on the field.”

Changes came in 1974. The players were put up in a nearby hotel on Saturday nights and were allowed to drive up in groups after their walk-through earlier that day at Pace University in Pleasantville, rather than having them all go on a team bus. That season, players also started getting taped at their West Haven hotel rather than their out-of-stadium locker room.

“The folks in New Haven and Connecticut, they embraced us,” Hughes said. “They threw beer bottles at us periodically, but they were always in the lobby of the hotel cheering us on.”

“I never did go around Yale because we were there and gone,” Morton added. “I should’ve gone to see Yale.”

DRIVING THEM CRAZY

But Morton was like the rest of the Giants, who were looking to get home after the games. In 1974, that meant driving their own cars back.

Crosby, though, recalled one game in which defensive back Pete Athas, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 68 and had the reputation of being a free spirit, purloined Hughes’ car, wrecked it, ditched it and reported it stolen.

“We finally get into New York and we run into Pete and he’s got Band-Aids on his forehead and neck,” Crosby said. “We’re like, ‘You didn’t get hurt like that in the game?’ He hitchhiked a ride into New York City. Pete was a character, though.”

Hughes clarified the memory. “I had an MG and I was going home,” said Hughes, originally from Everett, Massachusetts. “My family had driven down and I was going home with them because we had the next day off.

“Athas, who was headed for a successful career in criminology, we were sharing a place together in training camp. I said, ‘Could you take my car back from the stadium? I’ll fly into LaGuardia and you pick me up.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But he doesn’t get out of Connecticut. He doesn’t get onto I-95. He wrecks the car on the ramp and he doesn’t tell me. He leaves it there and calls the police and reports it stolen.

“I hear nothing,” Hughes added. “I fly back into LaGuardia. I call Athas, ‘Where are you?’ He said he wrecked the car and told the police it was stolen. ‘You’ll get more money.’ And he hung up on me. It was like a ’68 or ’69 and I had it refurbished and it was a classic. I was set to live with it for the next 30 years. It took me a year to calm down.”

SHEA GOODBYE TO YALE!

While there were tight friendships on the team — the comedic strain on Hughes and Athas notwithstanding — Morton said that by the end of 1974, the losing had become divisive.

“It was a very divided team in many ways,” Morton said. “Our offensive group was a close group of guys, but everybody was blaming the losses on the other side.”

Attendance dipped that second season at the Yale Bowl as the novelty of NFL games there waned and New York City fans tired of the drive.

The Giants drew less than 50,000 four times in 1974 — including a soaked crowd of 21,170 for a 20-7 loss to the Eagles on Dec. 8 on a muddy field that marked the Giants’ final regular-season game at the Yale Bowl — and their biggest crowd was the 64,327 that saw them lose to the Jets, 26-20, in overtime on Nov. 10.  

None of the Giants’ 12 games at the Yale Bowl sold out, creating a somewhat ironic situation for local residents.

Previously, many Giants fans used to drive to Connecticut and book hotel rooms or find other means to watch television there to see games at Yankee Stadium that had been blacked out on New York TV because they had not sold out. Now they could just stay at home as the Yale Bowl games were blacked out on Connecticut television but not in the New York City area.

In the end, news that the team would play at Shea Stadium in 1975 was welcomed by everyone save for the municipalities of New Haven and West Haven, which had been sharing a cut of the profits from the Giants’ games at the Yale Bowl.

“We were glad and I can tell you that thinking about the hour and a half up the parkway,” Crosby said. “It was brutal coming back because everybody in the world was trying to get out of there. We were in the locker room and we had to shower and clean up and we always got caught in the middle of that traffic. We were extremely glad that it was over. The next year we had Shea Stadium, and a lot of times after games, we went into Gallagher’s Steakhouse or we met up in the city. That was a hell of a lot easier.”

After 1974, there was little reason for any of the players to go back to the Yale Bowl.

But Kelley did a few years back.

“We did a big thing for television,” he said. “I hadn’t been back since that last game. And the moment I walked in, my stomach started turning. It was not a good feeling. It was quite an experience going up there.”

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