One of my biggest fanboy moments came on July 15, 1995, when I got to see the Birmingham Barracudas take on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a Week Three contest at Legion Field. It was a bit surreal … not only was I watching my longtime favorite Canadian Football League team play in America – in person – they were playing a new CFL franchise located in my hometown.
Of course, Hamilton had been crossing the border to play regular season games since 1993 as part of the “CFL in America” experiment. But 37 years earlier, the Ti-Cats made American football history by playing another Canadian team on U.S. soil in a regular season matchup. That was a first for the newly minted CFL.
On September 14, 1958, Hamilton and the Ottawa Rough Riders met at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium in a Big Four (East Division) clash. It was the fifth game of the season for both clubs and was something of a test drive for the league in the United States. Canadian football teams had played several exhibitions in front of American audiences, but this showdown had real stakes.
Hamilton, which agreed to move the game from Ivor Wynne Stadium, was coached by former Philadelphia Eagles boss Jim Trimble and featured four former Eagles: Skippy Giancanelli, Ralph Goldston, Bob Kelley and Hubert Bobo. The hope was a bit of “home cooking” might result in a record crowd. The stadium seated 102,000, and with the start of the NFL season still two weeks away, organizer Bud Dudley expected 40,000 fans to show up for the gridiron novelty.
“We hope to draw in a crowd that will break the Canadian record of 39,000 odd,” Dudley told the Canadian Press.
He added that advance ticket sales were already in the 20,000 range and with prices set at $10, $5 and $3, 17,000 patrons were enough for the event to break even.
Proceeds from the game would benefit both the children’s hospital and rehabilitation center in Philly, and it would come on what had been declared “Canadian-American Day” by the city’s mayor, Richardson Dilworth.
Leading up to the contest a few local papers took the time to give fans a quick tutorial on the Canadian game, emphasizing the extra player per side, three downs to make a first down, and longer, wider playing field (although the configuration of Municipal Stadium meant the field could be only 100 yards long instead of the 110-yard length used in the CFL).
So, was the game a success?
From a strictly football standpoint it certainly was for the Tiger-Cats, who won, 24-18, and improved to 5-0 on the year.
But the large crowd didn’t materialize, with only 15,110 showing up and 3,000 of them coming down from Canada.
The Canadian Press asked a few American sports writers for their take on the game and the reviews they gave were hardly raving.
“If you’ll forgive me, I’d agitate for four downs on your game,” Jack Walsh of the Washington Post said.
“There is more ball control and, consequently, more sustained scoring drives in the American variety of the game,” added Philadelphia Bulletin writer John Fraser.
And Bulletin sports editor Ed Pollock opined, “As the game progresses, it becomes apparent that the Canadian attack is handicapped by limited number of downs, thus there are fewer drives of good length.”
The American fans who showed up were likely put off by the 31 punts in the contest, and if they weren’t familiar with the rules (Hamilton scored four singles) they probably spent much of the afternoon scratching their heads.
Whether that meeting was the reason or not, the CFL never attempted an all-Canadian regular season game in the United States again.
The next time the CFL did play a game in the Lower 48 that counted in the standings came on July 17, 1993, when the Sacramento Gold Miners hosted the Calgary Stampeders.
Football history is interesting, ain’t it?