image showing Thanksgiving food and a football

In case you missed Charlie Bickerstaff and Lefty Varin’s “The Sports Historians” column in The Southbridge News this week, here is their history of the Thanksgiving Day game. Thursday will be the 100th game of the historic rivalry that has connected generations of local athletes. You can also find this in the current issue of The Southbridge News. Thank you to The Southbridge News for letting us share this week’s column.

Last week we discussed the evolution of football to its present day status. This week we would like to talk about the evolution of the Southbridge/ Bartlett Thanksgiving Day game from its onset to the classic that it has become.

It was a cold day on Nov. 11 of 1920 when Southbridge traveled to Webster to play Bartlett in football at Slater Field. Few realized that this game would start one of the longest series of Thanksgiving games in Central Massachusetts. Southbridge and Bartlett had played a few times previously with all the games being hard fought and full of spirit. This game almost turned into a riot. George Musgrave, captain of that year’s Bartlett team in Joe Capillo’s “They Play to Win,” describes what happened: “We were trailing 14-6, but we were driving for a score. We made good gain and the officials called us for offside and they pointed to me. I was playing right guard. Anyway, the referee, a man named King, points to me for offside and the crowd got into it and there was a fight, and Officer John Templeton comes out and there’s a scuffle. The officials were from Springfield College and they were escorted off the field and the game was called no contest.”

The Webster Times explained the fracas in a story which appeared on Nov. 18, 1920: “The play that precipitated the riot and which exasperated the Webster fans, occurred when a beautiful forward pass from Nolf to Bartholomei went to the Southbridge 5. The Webster fans were exulting over the play when Umpire King declared an offside play by Webster and instead of a touchdown, the ball was put back to the Southbridge 15. The riot ended the game, it was impossible to continue.”

The athletic directors of the two schools thought it was a good idea to replay the game, and it was decided to play the game on Thanksgiving Day. Southbridge had usually played its alumni on that day, so it was easy to arrange a game. The 1920 game was played on Wellsworth Field in Southbridge in front of an estimated 600 people on a snowy morning and won by Southbridge, 13-0.

The game has been played every Thanksgiving morning since 1923. Records seem to indicate that there may have been a game in 1921 and 1922, but there is no mention of it in any yearbooks or newspaper articles. There was a game played in 1921 between Bartlett and the Southbridge Trade School which Bartlett won 64-0.

This year’s game will be the 100th game if you include the 1920 game. The series is the third longest continuous Thanksgiving series in Central Massachusetts, with only the Fitchburg-Leominster and Marlboro-Hudson series being longer. Southbridge has won 55 games and lost 42 with two ties.

A special part of the game is the presentation of special awards after the game. The Captain Vincent Sabatinelli Trophy is given to the game’s most valuable player. Capt. Sabatinelli was killed in action in Vietnam on July 25, 1969. In the late fall of that year, his family and friends instituted an award to be given annually to the player judged as the most valuable on the field that day.

Since 1985, the Harry J. McMahon Award has been presented to the most valuable defensive player when the game is played in Southbridge. The winning team receives the VFW trophy that is donated annually jointly by the Southbridge and Webster VFW posts.

“The Game” will be played next week. Every game is a classic. Season records have no place in trying to figure out the winner or loser. For many of the seniors, it will be the last football game they ever play. Years from now, stories about “The Game” will be told with a little exaggeration to children and friends. This game is what high school sports are all about. Southbridge vs. Bartlett on Thanksgiving Day, could we ask for anything more? See you in Southbridge for a 10:15 a.m. kickoff.

Charlie Bickerstaff and Lefty Varin are the Sports Historians and the statisticians emeritus for The News. They may be reached by e-mail at sportshistorians1@yahoo.com, or by mail at Sports Historians, c/o Southbridge Evening News, 25 Elm St., Southbridge, MA 01550.

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