Wellesley vs. Needham

Suzanne Hansmire writer

You don’t have to be in Wellesley long before you find out about “the Oldest Public School Football Rivalry.” In fact, the story of the first Wellesley High School football game has become a town legend.

The hero of the story is Arthur J. Oldham, a high school student of slight build, but capable of great speed. Although he is an unlikely protagonist in the saga, it was Oldham who served as captain in the informal football games the boys played at recess at Wellesley’s Gamaliel Bradford High School.

Oldham believed that it would be exciting to take the sport up a notch by challenging the boys of Needham to play a real game.

Of course, sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for. As soon as the Needham opponents accepted the challenge, the Wellesley boys began to have second thoughts as they realized how big and strong their Needham rivals were.

Then there was the budget crunch, a familiar story in town even today. Back in the 1880s, a big, round football cost an exorbitant $3.50, a sum not easily acquired. The high school principal, Frederick Baston, came to the rescue, and organized a fundraiser to pay for the ball.

And so it began, on the brilliant autumn day of November 30, 1882: the match-up that would begin the longest oldest public school football rivalry. In the shadow of the newly-built Wellesley Town Hall, a few dozen people gathered on the field and waited. The crowd grew, along with the excitement as players and more spectators arrived. Today a commemorative boulder, dedicated to Oldham, marks the spot just west of Morton Field, between the sites of the present day duck pond and the police station. The tradition that started that day has continued and grown for 124 years.

Later in life Oldham wrote of the event: “The first Needham game was looked upon as a really great sporting event… and as the day grew near our boys began to doubt the wisdom of scheduling this game as the Needham boys were bigger than we and some of them were as large as grown men.”

The intimidation continued as the Needham team arrived at Morton Field on their old-fashioned high-wheeled bicycles. But buoyed by the support of their spectators as well as “a number of girl students [who] were there to cheer us to victory,” the team sent its captains in for the coin toss.

Wellesley won the toss, electing to kick off from the upper end of the field. “As I recall,” Oldham wrote, “the Wellesley squad was short two men, so I immediately dispatched my brother John into the crowd to recruit two players. During the game there was no time to rest, no time to line up, but everyone kept on the jump until the goal was kicked. During the heat of this game, one of the Wellesley players entirely removed the back of his opponent’s jersey, so that the player in question had to finish the game in his overcoat.”
Years later, that shirtless Needham player, A.H. Lawrin, wrote a letter to Oldham to help establish the Wellesley-Needham claim to the schoolboy record. He said he remembered the game well, because when he arrived back home with a ruined shirt, he received a beating from his father for being such a roughneck.

Wellesley won that first game 4-0, and the teams enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to make the annual game a tradition. Needham offered to host the return match the next year at Green Field. (The Needham team triumphed in that 1883 game the following year, 1-0.)

The Wellesley team members donned their first official uniforms in 1888. Before that, both teams wore thin shirts and lightweight bicycle breeches and stockings. The outfits that Clinton Fuller purchased for the two halfbacks and the fullback in 1888, however, had to wait, when the game was cancelled “because of the questionable academic standing of some members of the Needham squad,” wrote Ed Powers in his 1965 book The History of Wellesley High School’s Red Raiders 1882-1965. “It was reported that they had some semi-professional and college material, in addition to the fact that the sire of one of the players decided to revert back to his high school days and rejoin the squad. Naturally, Wellesley took a very dim view of the proceedings.”

The scheduling of games in the early years was subject to uncontrollable events. There was a delay in 1896 when the opening kickoff went into the crowd and the ball disappeared. It took nearly an hour before another ball could be located. In 1903, a flu epidemic severely crippled both teams; the game went on, but it ended without a score. In 1914, in the face of a powerhouse Wellesley team that eventually beat Everett for the state championship, Needham called off the game. Play was also discontinued in 1917 and 1918, during the First World War.

In the early years, with no school financing for the football games or any school sports, funds were raised through collections, dances and donations. Parents furnished uniforms and helmets. “In those days as soon as the cool autumn weather came, someone in school would start a paper asking the boys to chip in a quarter for a new football,” wrote Oldham. “As soon as the school could raise the three or four dollars required to purchase the ball, a large round rubber ball was purchased.”

The school department assumed responsibility for all sports in 1923, and eventually varsity and intramural sports became an integral part of school programs with the advent of the High School Athletic Associations.

Legends are built upon stories of great individual heroics, feats of daring adversity, and even comic events. The chronicles of the history of Wellesley football continue
to be filled with stories of the more extraordinary events.

In 1887 the temperature was 11 degrees below zero the morning of the game. The school officials decided that the contest should be called off, but the players insisted upon going on with it. By the time of the kickoff, the temperature hovered around the two-below mark. According to Oldham’s later description: “Many of the residents of both towns are still chortling over the events which resembled the antics of a comic opera. During the course of the game, when a Needham player managed to get himself into the clear and was on his way to an apparent touchdown, the Wellesley fans would swarm on the field and send the young man crashing to the turf. Similarly, if a Wellesley player shook himself loose he was accorded the identical treatment from the Needham fans.”

Official rules soon brought an end to audience participation, and a few years later one of the players, Alvin Hooker, actually distributed rulebooks during the game to try to encourage order.

The 1896 game came perilously close to being a washout. During the opening kickoff the treasured football was launched into the crowd and disappeared. Players were sent out to canvas the town in search of a new ball and luckily play resumed a half-hour later. Another year, when a football ended up in the crowd, it was deflated and flat when it was returned to the field.

The game even has its own urban legend. Artist N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth is often credited with being a member of the 1904 Needham squad. The team did boast two Wyeths, Nathaniel and Edwin, neither of whom was the famous artist (who would have been about 22 at the time). And in 1904, Wellesley and Needham did not meet for a game.
In 1940 a blizzard forced the post ponement of the Thanksgiving Day game, which finally had to be played at Newton, where the field had been plowed by horses and covered with straw.

In a game in the 1940s, Tom “Tiger” Furdon ran over 100 yards (but actually accumulated a total of nearly 200 yards) for a touchdown. First he ran forward to the 50-yard line and was chased back to his goal line. There he began his run back down the entire length of the field to score.

Also during that era, Len Maccini made two 90-yard punts in one game.

In 1941 Wellesley quarterback Bob McIntyre protected his team’s lead by deliberately fading back into his end zone. Although he gave Needham two safeties, he preserved the Wellesley victory, 6-4.

“Rocky” Edwards distinguished himself in the Needham game in 1956 by throwing for three touchdowns, and running for the other two Wellesley scores.
Other highlights of football history in Wellesley:

The Wellesley High School 1952 team, coached by Charlie Gubellini, came from behind to beat Concord 21-19, and then went on to complete an undefeated season. (In Wellesley High School history, there have been only nine undefeated seasons: 1901, 1909, 1914, 1952, 1954, 1961, 1992, 1993, and 1998.)

The State of Massachusetts proclaimed 1982 “Public High School Football Centennial Year” in honor of the Centennial of the Wellesley-Needham football tradition. Then President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation honoring the tradition, and in addition, Congressman Joe Moakley entered a description of the tradition into the Congressional Record. The Massachusetts State House of Representatives issued a resolution commemorating the rivalry.

The 1985 Wellesley Raiders managed to snap Natick’s 38-game winning streak (the longest in the country at the time) with a 28-19 victory. One member of that team, Drew Kelton, is today a teacher at Wellesley High School and an assistant football coach.

The 1992 team played a strong Lincoln-Sudbury team in the “Super Bowl” in Wellesley during a snowstorm, and won the title 14-13.

The next year, the Wellesley players repeated their outstanding record by defeating Bishop Stang 35-7 for a 1993 “Super Bowl” championship.

The 1999 Wellesley Raiders celebrated a 14-0 “Super Bowl” victory over Marshfield.

Many thanks to the Wellesley Historical Society, the Needham Historical Society, the librarians of the Wellesley Hills Branch Library, and the Wellesley Free Library reference librarians. Other resources used were: The History of Wellesley High School’s Red Raiders 1882-1965, by Ed Powers; The Wellesley Townsman Centennial Issue, April 2, 1981; the 1999 Wellesley High School Gridiron Club Program book; and 1882-1982 Needham versus Wellesley: The Centennial Anniversary and History of the Oldest High School Football Rivalry in the Nation, by Beth Hinchliffe.

Summer 2024