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The Saga of a Great Headline

 
The genesis of “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29”

Two mornings after the fact, the Crimson’s headline made the 1968 match-up the ultimate Game in the historic rivalry.

Editor’s note: As the clock ticked down to the 117th Harvard-Yale match-up, Alan Schwarz, senior writer for Baseball America magazine, filed this story.

 

It was supposed to be easy. Asked by American Heritage magazine to select the most overrated and underrated newspaper headlines in history, I knew the winners immediately. The Chicago Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” 1948 banner took the overrated category because, after all, it gained its immortality simply by being wrong. Meanwhile, the underrated headline would be one that appeared wrong, but was deliciously right: “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” Somebody at the Crimson, with only one little word, had brilliantly captured the essence of the Harvard football team’s legendary comeback (16 points in the final 42 seconds) to tie Yale in November 1968. I would find that somebody.

How hard could that be? “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” had to be the most famous headline in Crimson history, its author surely spoken of reverently through the generations, perhaps even honored with a shrine in the newsroom. This would take two or three phone calls, tops. Instead it became the longest, most frustrating, undulating, teasing, and exhausting search I have undertaken in 10 years in journalism—lasting three months and consisting of 117 phone calls, 83 Internet searches, and thousands of hairs I’ll never see again. I tracked down a Federal Court of Appeals judge, an Internet magnate, Ring Lardner’s grandson, and 10 other candidates before finally finding my white whale.

 

Phone call number one went to the Harvard sports information office, whose copy of the famous paper listed Peter Lennon ’70, M.P.A. ’78, and Scott Jacobs ’71 as co-authors of the main story on the 1968 Game. They’d surely know. Well, Lennon’s phone number wasn’t listed anywhere, but Jacobs’s was. Jacobs said that, while he didn’t come up with the headline, he knew four excellent candidates who either did or would know: Joel Kramer ’69, Crimson president at the time; James Glassman ’69, the managing editor; the newspaper’s longtime typesetter, Pat Sorrento; and Esther Dyson ’71, then a 17-year-old freshman who ran around helping out however she could.

Four more people. No problem.

My confidence was swiftly punished. Kramer, now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism, had no idea who came up with “Harvard Beats Yale.” Glassman laughed and said, “People over the years have congratulated me on writing the headline, but I’m not sure I did.” He then sent me off on a detour, saying I had to call Bill Bryson ’67 (’69), a news staffer who had given Glassman tickets to The Game (whoops!) and stayed in the Crimson office to handle that Saturday’s postgame extra edition. Six phone calls uncovered Bryson’s whereabouts—but have you ever tried to phone a U.S. circuit court judge?

“I’m sorry, Judge Bryson isn’t available at the moment,” the woman said.

“Uh, do judges have voice mail?”

They don’t, it turns out, but Bryson returned my message within minutes. “I wish I could plead guilty,” he yukked, “but it wasn’t my headline. I would have been much more pleased with myself. I think it wasn’t until the following Monday’s paper that that headline ran.”

Could that be true? Before I could determine the ramifications of this—to that point, everyone had assumed the headline had run in the Saturday extra—Dyson returned my e-mail. (Now an e-publishing force dubbed “Queen of the Digerati” by the New York Times, e-mail is the only way to contact her.) Whichever edition it was, she had no idea who wrote the headline. Neither did Josh Simon ’00, the current Crimson president. But he did clear up one small point: Bryson was right, the Saturday extra ran a different headline, “Harvard, Yale Draw, 29-29.” It was the Monday edition that featured the famous banner. But still, who wrote it? Simon offered two more names from that paper’s masthead: sports editor Richard Paisner ’70, J.D. ’74, and night editor Bill Kutik ’70.

No dice with Paisner, now a health-care technology investor in Washington, D.C. He said to try Jim Lardner ’69, the grandson of Ring, and now a writer himself in New York City. “Far be it for a Paisner to take credit for a great line when a Lardner was part of the team,” he declared. Like everyone else, though, Lardner charmingly declined his chance to seize any credit. “My role,” he said, “was taking pleasure in the whole thing.”

Every person offered two or three others to try, the candidates multiplying like bacteria. I even tracked down Sorrento, the production supervisor who spent 32 years helping the Crimson hum before retiring to Chelsea last year. He remembered Bryson saying, “Run with it!” but added, “I have no idea who wrote the headline. All I did was set it.” Two months into this process, and after sifting through eight more names with no results, I was about to give up. My last call would be made to Kutik, the night editor whom I had forgotten about. I caught him as he was walking out the door and gave my now-memorized spiel about trying to find the author of history’s most underrated headline.

“You got him,” Kutik said. “You got the guy.”

At last! As night editor, Kutik explained, he edited copy and wrote headlines that Sunday afternoon after The Game. He was hunched over a page of scribble, fiddling with “Harvard Yies Yale, 29-29,” horribly dissatisfied because every reader already knew the score. “It didn’t reflect the feel of the game,” Kutik recalled. Then photography editor Tim Carlson ’71 looked over his shoulder.

“How ‘bout ‘HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29’?” Carlson asked.

“But…,” Kutik reflexively balked. Then he realized how perfect it was. He convinced skeptical higher-ups to accept the headline, and hours later, it was flying off the Crimson presses.

The problem, I gingerly explained to Kutik, was that I still hadn’t found the person who thought of the headline. Carlson’s was the flash of inspiration; Kutik had only implemented it. Where was Tim Carlson? All Kutik remembered was that he had worked for a Los Angeles newspaper at some point. Seventeen attempts to find him there or through phone, Internet, or Harvard alumni searches didn’t work, until finally an old friend said he had an old e-mail address that surely was out-of-date. Desperate, I pecked out an e-mail to Carlson detailing my quest and begging his reply.

He called me the next day.

“I was taking photographs for the Crimson in the end zone,” said Carlson, now the editor of Inside Triathlon magazine in Boulder, Colorado. “When the game ends, I’m running across the field, people are dancing, and this very drunk undergraduate sees my camera and press pass and says, ‘You know, “Harvard Beats Yale,”’ as if he’d gotten a vision of it. Like he had just seen God.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s right.’ I was smart enough to know it was good, but I didn’t think of it. The person who had the vision of it was an anonymous undergraduate. It would be nice to say I was smart and take all the credit. I guess you could say I wasn’t dumb enough to drop it. I was present at the conception.”

With that, Carlson and I said our good-byes and hung up. I just started laughing. Three months into this odyssey, there would be no reward. The hunt was over. Rather than finding a fact, I had confirmed a mystery. Maybe that drunken undergraduate will read this story, recall that magical moment of delirium, and identify himself. Or perhaps the afternoon’s alcohol forever erased his memory.

Either way, his headline has become almost as legendary as the remarkable Game that inspired it. And as for my quest, like the tie itself, no answer became the best outcome of all.