It is a clear, bright, unseasonably warm October day at Princeton, and the university, 250 years old this very weekend, is a riot of color and sound. Some 10,000 alumni have descended on these Gothic premises to toast their alma mater on Charter Weekend, and they are entertained royally by campus officials ever grateful for the graduates' emotional and financial fidelity.
In the shadow of old Nassau Hall a jazz band resonates. There are puppet shows, rock concerts, theatrical presentations, lectures, tours, fireworks shows and sporting events. Serenity may be found on this busy Friday only at the southern tip of the campus, where autumn breezes detach drying leaves from gently swaying trees, and once proud Palmer Stadium stands cool and gray, like some ruin from antiquity.
And a ruin, regrettably, it is. Black netting encases Palmer's decaying columns, the better to protect unwary spectators from falling concrete. The stadium's Roman facade is now so pockmarked with dislodged chunks that Princeton athletic director Gary Walters has described Palmer anthropomorphically as "suffering from a terminal case of acne." The wooden seats are rotting and splintered, and a section of stands at the open end of the horseshoe has been fenced off as unsafe. Eighty-two-year-old Palmer Stadium, once the regal setting of Princeton football glory, is doomed to face the wreckers' ball at the close of this season.
Concrete was first poured for the stadium on June 29, 1914, by the George A. Fuller Co. With workers on the east and west sides competing against each other, the 45,725-seat structure was completed a month ahead of schedule, in time for the fifth game of that season, against Dartmouth. The stadium cost $300,000, donated to Princeton by Edgar Palmer, class of '03, who dedicated the structure to the memory of his father, Stephen S. Palmer.
Princeton's greatest football hero up to that time, Hobey Baker, class of '14, missed playing in Palmer, but other famous Tigers, powerful teams and memorable games would follow in happy abundance. Princeton, an Eastern Seaboard powerhouse, would have undefeated teams in 1920, '22, '33, '35, '50, '51 and '64. The 1922 team was christened by sportswriter Grantland Rice as the Team of Destiny after it defeated Amos Alonzo Stagg's University of Chicago juggernaut 21-18. The 1933 team out-scored opponents 217-8, chalking up seven consecutive shutouts. Coach Charlie Caldwell's single-wing teams won 24 games in a row between 1949 and 1952. The Tigers of '50 and '51, led by Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier, finished undefeated.
Knute Rockne took Notre Dame teams to Palmer in 1923 and '24, and there he met at least his oratorical match in Tigers coach Bill Roper. Roper, the head man since 1919 and a star end on Princeton's 12-1 team of 1899, was also a lawyer, insurance executive and three-term Philadelphia city councilman. But his approach to football was hardly cerebral. "This game is 90-percent fight," he was fond of saying. "There is a great deal of bunk to all this talk of 'system' and involved plays." He would tell players, "If you have a Princeton jersey on and the other man doesn't, you have him licked."
But the team wearing Notre Dame jerseys defeated Roper's Tigers 25-2 in 1923, ending a 10-game Princeton winning streak. A year later, on Oct. 25, 1924, Palmer Stadium would entertain college football's most legendary team. The week before in New York's Polo Grounds, Notre Dame had beaten Army 13-7, behind Rockne's small (159-pound average) but swift backfield. Rice was so taken with the four backs' dash and daring that he wrote, in his game account for the New York Herald Tribune, this immortal lead: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
After a photograph of the four players on horseback appeared in virtually every newspaper in the land, a capacity crowd turned out to see the Four Horsemen ride into Palmer. And ride they did, helping Notre Dame down the previously unbeaten Tigers 12-0. Left halfback Jim Crowley scored both touchdowns.
The Nov. 23, 1935, game between Princeton and Dartmouth was played in a snowstorm so severe that patrons in Palmer's upper seats could not see the field. In a 26-6 win the Tigers, who threw only one pass all day, outgained previously undefeated Dartmouth 208 yards to 49. Then a Dartmouth fan, well fortified internally against the cold, tottered out of the stands late in the fourth quarter and lined up with the Dartmouth defense for a goal line stand. "Kill the Princeton bastards!" he bellowed in encouragement. But Princeton's Jack White scored anyway in a game known thereafter as the Twelfth Man Game.
The elements also played havoc in a Nov. 25, 1950, game between Princeton and—who else?—Dartmouth. Hurricane Flora, with 80-mph winds gusting up to 108, raged through Palmer Stadium, and torrential rain drenched the 5,000 spectators (of an original crowd of 31,000) who stayed to brave the storm. A tarpaulin protecting the turf was blown loose from its moorings shortly before kickoff, and the field was instantly under an inch of water. The opening coin toss disappeared into the torrent. When they had the wind behind them, both teams often punted on first down rather than risk fumbling the soggy ball. Punts with the wind sailed the length of the field; a punt against the wind blew backward over the head of the kicker. There were 19 fumbles, 13 by Dartmouth. But even a hurricane couldn't stop Kazmaier, who scored on a 37-yard run and set up a second touchdown with a 23-yard wade. Princeton won 13-7.