East-West Shrine Game: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image recently posted.

In the recently uploaded photograph below, a rainy San Francisco day couldn’t keep 60,000 people away from what sportswriter Bob Stevens called “squishy, miserable” Kezar Stadium. It was January 1, 1944, and with the United States two years into World War II, patriotic pageantry with a show of many American flags kicked off the East-West Shrine football game.

Flag parade at East-West Game
Huge crowd shown at Kezar Stadium on January 1, 1944. Army and Shriners seen with dozens of American flags. (wnp14.5812, courtesy of a private collector).

Since 1925, the East-West Shrine Game has supported Shriners International—a fraternal group whose members are known for their orientalist fez headwear—and the organization’s Shriners Hospitals for Children. Proceeds from the game once specifically went to what was then known as the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children on 19th Avenue between Lawton and Moraga Streets (today the Cypress at Golden Gate senior living community). The game also acted as a terrific publicity vehicle to acquaint the public with the Shriners’ work.

The East-West game is a contest between teams composed of all-stars from colleges on either side of the Mississippi River. The West squad traditionally had lots of locals from Santa Clara, St. Mary’s, and Stanford, but also featured players from Washington State to Hawaii. The East-West was a premier postseason game in the mid twentieth century, with scouts from all the professional teams coming out to assess talent. Seventy-two players once on East-West Shrine Game rosters are now in the National Football League Hall of Fame, and a few are sure to be there eventually, including five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady.

Flag parade at East-West Game
East West Game Parade of Flags, Kezar stadium showing sailors and giant flag. Looking west, January 1, 1944. (wnp14.5814, courtesy of a private collector).

The muddy 1944 game ended up a 13-13 tie. Many of the best college football players who might have played for the East side were serving in the Armed Forces, but the underrated “all-civilian” squad outplayed their opponents, gaining 309 yards rushing against 43 for the West. Only a couple of big pass plays for the West, which was led by five men from the Fourth Air Force, saved the tie.

The Shrine game used to be part of a manageable college football postseason. On New Year’s Day, 1944, five bowl games were played in addition to the East-West: the Cotton, Sugar, Orange, Rose, and Sun Bowls. In contrast, the 2016-17 “bowl season” had forty games, and, in addition to the East-West, other all-star games now include the Senior Bowl and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. The Shrine game moved off the traditional New Year’s Day date some time ago to try and stand out from the every-increasing football mania of that day, and is now played in mid January.

For most of its history, the game was played in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium (now much reduced in seating capacity) in Golden Gate Park. The 1942 game was moved to New Orleans because, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, officials feared the large event would be a tempting target for the Japanese.

The last East-West Shrine game at Kezar was in 1973. From 1974-2000, the game’s home was Stanford Stadium, and since then it has bounced from stadium to stadium and region to region: back to San Francisco in AT&T Park (2001-2005), over to Houston, Texas (2006-2009), and even farther east to Florida, where it’s been for the last seven years. Last month, the East beat the West 10-3.

Flag parade at East-West Game
Michigan State Spartans working out at Kezar Stadium at a quieter time in 1937. (wnp14.5482, courtesy of a private collector).