Morning sun and mild temperatures bathed Doyle Field in light and warmth as the Leominster and Fitchburg High School football squads prepared for their traditional holiday game. In 1933, Thanksgiving came as late in November as possible. November 30 was the last Thursday of the month. Each team wore silk football pants. Fitchburg donned red and Leominster blue. The fabric shimmered. Ten thousand fans waited and breathed with collective anticipation. The partisans crowded the grandstands. Leominster’s blue and white dominated the north side and a throng of red and gray cloaked Fitchburg fans occupied the opposite seats. Earthen embankments that sloped toward each end zone accommodated another three thousand fans for whom there were no seats.
It was the 40th year of the rivalry between the two central Massachusetts schools. No one could remember a more important game. The match was billed as a pinnacle, a game of games. It was an extraordinary year both on and off the football field.
The nation was in the midst of an economic collapse, ultimately deemed the Great Depression. The depth of despair earned the panic a singular place in the history of American financial turmoil. The Great Depression was preceded by an age of contradictions. The twenties were years of innocence, unbridled optimism and technological advance. The decade welcomed the mass production of the automobile, transatlantic telephone service and a rapid electrification of the country’s landscape. It was also a time of excess, wild speculation, and bootleggers intent on quenching the thirst of a nation bristling against Prohibition.
When the markets crashed on October 29, 1929-“Black Tuesday” - Americans were caught off guard. The decline was rapid and precipitous. Bank failures rose from 659 in 1929 to 2,294 in 1931. Nearly one third of American workers were without a job by the winter of 1933. Bank Holidays were declared to stem an unabated stream of frightened depositors seeking to withdraw their savings and hunger haunted every corner of the nation.
The crisis required leadership to restore the American psyche. Ironically the impoverished looked to a man of privilege when the Presidential election came in November of 1932. The President elect, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, faced a huge challenge. Despite the advantage of an education at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia Law School, FDR knew adversity. Stricken by polio in 1921, the President required the aid of crutches and a wheelchair the rest of his life. The press shielded his physical disability from public view.
Even before his illness, Roosevelt demonstrated determination in the face of inauspicious circumstances. His years at Groton were marked by a lack of athletic prowess, an ingredient necessary for real distinction at the school. The headmaster, Endicott Peabody, believed sport integral to maturation and football was at the top of his list. To Walter Camp, “father of American Football,” he wrote, “I am convinced that football is of profound importance for the moral even more than the physical development of the boys.” The smallish Roosevelt, who lacked any experience in team sports, found a place on the second worst of eight football teams at the school. Perhaps Peabody was correct. FDR never forgot his boyhood days at Groton or the lessons learned both in and out of the classroom. He drew on those experiences early in his Presidency.
The first one hundred days of Roosevelt’s administration produced a dizzying array of legislative initiatives aimed to right the American economy and redraw the equitable distribution of wealth. Government grew quickly and new agencies took on acronyms still familiar today. Virtually lost to history is the fact that the whole program almost ended before it ever got off the ground.
On February 15, 1933 the President-elect visited Miami to address a convention of Legionnaires. Roosevelt delivered his speech seated on the top of the back seat of an open car.