On October 28, 1922, hundreds of young men gather around radios in Western Union offices, speakeasies and a Princeton University physics lab to hear the first-ever cross-country broadcast of a college football game. Telephone lines carried a play-by-play of the matchup—between Coach Amos Alonso Stagg’s formidable Chicago Maroons (frequent Big Ten champs in those days) and the well-regarded Princeton Tigers—from Chicago’s Stagg Field to radio receivers up and down the East Coast. After Princeton’s unlikely victory, her fans were just as unruly as they would have been if they’d seen the game for themselves: They thronged the town’s main street, lit bonfires and stole into Nassau Hall to ring the University’s bell, a celebration usually reserved for victories over Princeton’s Big Three rivals Harvard and Yale.
Athletic contests were among the first live events that radio stations broadcast, and they were definitely the most popular. Station managers and advertisers could always guarantee an audience for horse races, baseball games and boxing matches. But early broadcasts of college football games were almost always local ones, and they weren’t quite live—typically, a reporter in the stadium pressbox would wire or telephone a detailed account of the events on the field to the station, where an announcer would re-enact the play-by-play, sometimes with sound effects, for the radio audience. The first live broadcast of a college football game didn’t happen until 1924, when announcers Edwin “Ty” Tyson and Leonard “Doc” Holland broadcast the Michigan-Wisconsin game right from the stands at Ferry Field.
But even in this secondhand form, the radio gods could hardly have picked a more exciting game for the first long-distance transmission of a college football matchup. Princeton took an early lead, but then Chicago fullback John Thomas scored three consecutive touchdowns. Chicago kept its 18-7 lead until the fourth quarter, when Princeton’s Howdy Gray picked up a fumble and sprinted 42 yards for a touchdown. Minutes later, Gray’s teammate Harry Crum scored his second touchdown of the day, and Princeton was winning again. But Stagg’s team didn’t give up easily: The Maroons kept pushing until they were just one foot, and one down, away from scoring the game-winning touchdown. But a determined Princeton defense kept Thomas from scoring again, and the Tigers won the game.
“The wonders of wireless technology were never better exemplified,” one Princeton alum wrote, and it was true—college swells and middle-aged sports fans listened breathlessly to the reenacted play-by-play, eager to find out how the game would end. The New York Times reported that the town of Princeton was filled with listeners, all “cheering madly one minute, groaning hoarsely the next.” The Tigers kept on winning—they went 8 and 0 in the 1922 season and beat Harvard and Yale to win the Big Three championship—but their victory over Chicago, broadcast over the airwaves for all to share, was perhaps the sweetest.