October 18, 1924: The Making Of The “Four Horsemen” Legend

Notre Dame put up one great season after another once Knute Rockne took over the coaching helm in 1918, and their 1924 team has as good a claim as any to the title of “the greatest of them all.”

Continuing where they left off at the end of 1923, the Ramblers (as they were then known) raced through their nine scheduled games as if possessed by a demon, outscoring their opponents by better than 5 to 1, knocking off three previously unbeaten schools along the way and culminating their efforts with an easy win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl in what was to be their only postseason appearance until 1970.

But in the perspective of history, one game has always stood out among the rest, and it wasn’t the Rose Bowl. Instead, it was an Army game played in a baseball stadium that transformed the Irish into a true national power, thanks to the literary flourishings of a sportswriter named Grantland Rice.

This was the first time that Notre Dame had ever played in one of the two great New York City ballparks. Yankee Stadium would be the venue for the next 22 years of Army games beginning in 1925, but this time the site was the Polo Grounds in Harlem, home of the New York Giants baseball team. With 55,000 fans in attendance, more than twice as many as had previously ever seen the Ramblers in action, the game also gave birth to the phenomenon known as the “subway alumni”, which consisted of the families of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe who settled in the five boroughs of New York City. These “alumni” were seldom graduates of Notre Dame themselves, but feeling kinship with the largely Catholic roster of the Irish squad, they piled into the subways and cheered for a team that was largely made up of their sons and grandsons of people like themselves, who by this time were to be found in cities and towns all over the country.

Entering the afternoon, Army was also undefeated, but we’ll let Grantland Rice take it from here. These were the first lines of his writeup in the Sunday edition of The New York Herald Tribune, an account that was syndicated throughout the country and eventually read by nearly every football fan in America:

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. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.

Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.

But that was only half of the story. The day after the story appeared, an alert Notre Dame publicity man got the “Four Horsemen” to pose on horseback for a picture that was printed in every newspaper in the country – and thus the legend was born.

Click here to buy a poster of this program cover.

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