Albie Booth ’32, Larry Kelley ’37 and Clint Frank ’38 are among 100 names listed in an online poll sponsored by the Dell Computer Corporation and CBS Sportsline for a Nov. 29 television show: “Dell Presents College Football’s Ten Greatest Players.”
With three gridiron legends, Yale is the most heavily represented in the Ivy League. Princeton and Penn each have one graduate on the list: Dick Kazmaier and Chuck Bednarik, respectively. None of the other Ancient Eight are represented.
More recent collegiate greats like Peyton Manning, O.J. Simpson, Bo Jackson and John Elway also made the top 100.
As is generally the case with such over-arching polls, comparisons between players of different eras become tough to draw.
“Ranking all three [of the Yalies] against more recent players is difficult, because the game was so different in the 1930s than it is today, or even was 40 years ago,” said Dan Fleschner ’01, a sports researcher for NBC. “Would Albie Booth be playing for Miami if he were a college athlete today? Probably not. But was he great for his era? Certainly.”
Though it is unlikely that any of the three Bulldogs will crack the top ten, their recognition is a good opportunity to shed light on their accomplishments.
Booth, a New Haven native and captain of football and basketball at Yale, was well-known for his short stature.
In his sophomore year at Yale, Booth measured 5 feet 7 inches tall and 144 pounds. On the current Eli roster, not one player is listed below 165 pounds.
The newspapers loved Booth, lavishing heaps of nicknames on him, such as Little Albie, Mighty Might, Number 48, Mighty Atom and Little Boy Blue. Booth, a running back, was a prolific offensive presence and a crowd favorite.
In his book “The Yale Football Story,” Tim Cohane writes, “When like some diminutive Ivanhoe, [Booth] rode down the lists and rattled his lance against the shields of the mighty in the tournament, then the thrill for the spectator was increased manifold.”
During his rookie season in 1926, Booth scored both touchdowns and kicked both extra points in a 14-6 win over Brown. In his next game, Booth once again accounted for all Eli offense in a 21-13 win over Army.
His performance prompted Cadets’ coach Ralph Sasse to tell his team during a pep talk before the rematch in the 1927 season, “I’m not telling you to go out and maim Booth! But you put him on a pedestal last year! Now go out there and knock him off it!”
In the second to last game of his collegiate career in 1931, Booth won the contest for Yale with a fourth quarter field goal to beat Harvard 3-0.
Like Booth, Kelley was a clutch performer. He played “end” for the Bulldogs, a position equivalent to today’s tight end.
“If you compared his stats to players of today, he would not be anywhere near the best tight ends of today,” Fleschner said. “But he was somewhat of a revolutionary player, because in that era, teams did very little passing; the running game dominated, and there was comparatively less offensive sophistication than there is today.”
Kelley is the only man in Harvard-Yale-Princeton history to score a touchdown in each of his six Big Three games, but he needed just one performance to cement his place in Eli lore forever.
In 1934, his rookie year, Kelley caught a long touchdown pass in a 7-0 win over Princeton. Kelley’s play helped break a 15-game winning streak for the Tigers and made him a legend.
“Based on that play, Kelley was written about in heroic terms and given about 30 different nicknames,” Flechsner said. “[Kelley] was also attributed a series of quips that helped the writers turn him into a legendary figure.”
After scoring Yale’s second touchdown in a 14-0 victory over Harvard in 1934, Kelley immediately went over to an official with hand extended.
“I thought you might like to shake hands with me,” Kelley said, according to legend. “Everybody else does.”
Kelley was the first modern Yale player to be named first team All-American and won the Heisman Trophy in 1936.
Kelley’s contemporary, Clint Frank also earned both honors in 1937. Because Kelley and Frank were teammates and exceptional playmakers, the two were often compared.
“Most qualified judges consider [Frank] an even greater player [than Kelley], probably the best back in Yale history and one of the tops of all time anyplace,” Cohane writes in his book.
Frank played halfback for the Elis after overcoming a devastating injury. As a high school senior, Frank was tackled hard from behind, severing a tendon in his right shoulder. During his three seasons with the Bulldogs, Frank played with a special shoulder pad contrived by Frank Wandle, the Yale sports trainer.
Frank was elected captain in 1937. After he led the Bulldogs to a 27-7 rout over Pennsylvania that year, Leo Riordan of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “It would have been a good game, if Frank had gone fishing.”
In the last game of Frank’s collegiate career, the Bulldogs lost to Harvard 13-6, but Frank won over the crowd and officials with his grit.
“In the middle of the game on Saturday, [Frank’s] knee was badly swollen and he was barely able to move,” said Tom Thorp, who umpired the game. “He stuck it out when two iron men would have called it a day.”
But it was the 1930s, and a different era of Yale football.