It has been likened to a mini-Army-Navy game, or sometimes the Hatfields versus the McCoys. From the start, though, City-Poly was about more than just football.
More than a century ago, the budding rivalry was so intense that the schools held secret practices and excused players from classes days before the game to work themselves into a frenzy.
Through the years, the annual meeting has been marked — and occasionally marred — by pregame hijinks, from mascot thefts and graffiti wars to impromptu rallies by thousands of students that gridlocked Baltimore streets and mushroomed into full-scale donnybrooks.
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In its 125th year, the pageantry seems tame by comparison. Both schools held pep rallies Friday and spirit activities throughout the week leading up to today's noon game at M&T Bank Stadium. The series is believed to be the second-longest continual public school football rivalry in the country, after Boston Latin vs. English High in Massachusetts, which began in 1887, two years before City and Poly first played. Poly leads all-time, 62-56. Six games ended in a tie.
It's still an important contest for both teams though it lacks the passion of the seismic showdowns of the past, especially the 48 years it was played on Thanksgiving Day, when the game was a welcome appetizer for turkey dinners. The last Thanksgiving Day game was played in 1993, when City and Poly joined the state association.
"Our coach, Bob Lumsden, told us in a pre-game pep talk, 'Boys, you will remember this game for the rest of your lives' — and I have," said Dave Sandell, 74, who graduated from Poly in 1957.
A City victory today would all but clinch a state playoff berth for the Knights (7-2); a Poly win would keep postseason hopes alive for the Engineers (6-3). But any extra emotion is conspicuously absent.
"To me, it's the next game," City coach George Petrides said.
It wasn't always so. In years gone by, both sides fixated on The Game and the run-up to what quickly became a spectacle. In 1916, the night before he was to play, Poly's Ernie Hill dreamed he booted the winning extra point. Hill awoke in agony, having kicked a bedpost and broken two toes.
Two years later, while toying with a loaded rifle, City's Bob Raleigh accidentally shot himself in the foot two days before the game. Come kickoff, the star lineman bandaged the wound, donned a larger shoe and limped onto the field.
"Who wouldn't suffer to play in a Poly-City game?" The Sun surmised.
Stakes were greater than mere bragging rights. In 1923, City rewarded its team's 14-6 victory by presenting each player with a golden football and sending the whole crew to New York to see the Army-Navy game at the Polo Grounds.
Attendance grew exponentially, from 500 in 1904 to more than 25,000 in 1928, when City fans took their allegiance to heart and pelted members of the Poly band with raw eggs and tomatoes as they performed at halftime. Perhaps it was payback for the night before, when several thousand students from the rival schools took to city streets, cheering and jangling cowbells before exchanging taunts and punches on Guilford Avenue. Forty-two arrests were made, and five revelers were hospitalized.
Halftime activities, while spirited, were focused on contempt. In 1931, Poly students assembled a huge mock sausage grinder, painted in school colors. At intermission, The Baltimore Sun reported, "A figure emblematic of a City player was fed into the top, and from the side streamed orange and black sausages, strung in strips. They were laid on the field to form the word 'City,' then torn asunder and thrown to clutching hands in the cheering section to be kept as souvenirs."
Crowds were as revved up as the players. Late in the 1936 game, with City leading 20-6, joyous fans rushed the field, uprooted a goal post and spirited it out of Municipal (later Memorial) Stadium. A cortege of city cops managed to save the crossbar and held it aloft, in the end zone, until the final gun.
By 1940, the City-Poly game was entrenched in Baltimore lore.
"It was the biggest thing around, the climax of the season," said Bill Lewis, 90, then City's quarterback. "Everyone at both schools was high as a kite that whole week."
The day before the game, a throng of Poly students stormed City Hall, roused Mayor Howard Jackson from his office and handed him an invitation to the contest. That night, fireworks lit the sky above City Hall Plaza as youths from both schools whooped it up, rocking parked cars as well as startled motorists in their automobiles who "gave themselves up to a shaking akin to a bundle of clothes in a washing machine," The Sun wrote.
When students tried to start a bonfire on the sidewalk along Charles Street, police intervened.
"We were ornery, not mischievous," said Ed Novak, 87, then a City lineman. "We'd go out on 33rd Street, board a bus, form a conga line and go out the back door."