By Mark Schipper
College football is such a permanent fixture in American culture the legendary writer Ernest Hemingway found multiple spots in his novels and short stories to feature the game, never more prominently than the The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio from his 1933 collection, Winner Take Nothing.
The story is set at a convent-run hospital in small-town Montana, focusing on a writer recovering from an injury and an excitable young nun called Sister Cecelia. The events take place during the last peak of Knute Rockne's mighty Notre Dame teams and the final months of college football's biggest boom decade. At a time when stories of nuns leading classes in prayer for Notre Dame football were common, Hemingway found a way to make you see how the team from South Bend had been adopted by the faith.
In writing the story Hemingway demonstrated one of his strongest talents, which was attaching his art to cultural events that would prove to be durable. Whether it was San Fermines in Pamplona, which few people outside of Basque France and Spain knew of when he made it famous in The Sun Also Rises, or the five-year-old football rivalry between USC and Notre Dame in the United States, the writer had an instinct for what would stand the test of time and tried to capture it as it was.
Following details from the story we can say for certain Hemingway was writing about the 1930 Notre Dame/USC game from Los Angeles. Found amongst several timeline markers, including an exchange about the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Athletics, Hemingway references a popular, comedic song from that year called "Betty Coed."
Betty Coed tells the story of a flirty young college girl who loves to get the attention of men. It is a funny track from the era, bawdier than you thought your great-grandparents approved of, and still a great listen today with its direct references to college and college football.
Betty Co-Ed has lips of red for Harvard/
Betty Co-Ed has eyes of Yale deep blue/
Betty Co-Ed's a golden head for Princeton/
Her dress I guess is black for old Purdue!/
Betty Co-Ed's a smile for Pennsylvania/
Her heart is Dartmouth's treasure, so 'tis said/
Betty Co-Ed is loved by every college boy/
But I'm the one who's loved by Betty Co-Ed!/
Hemingway's story unfolds over several nights and days, but mostly nights, at the simple hospital. A writer named Mr. Frazier, healing from a broken leg suffered during a horse-riding fall, leads us through the events.
The action begins after midnight as a Mexican gambler shot twice through the gut, and a Russian laborer shot through the thigh, are brought to the emergency room and treated by doctors and later questioned by police. The gambler, it turns out, had been shot over a minor sum he'd won off of a local day laborer. The Russian was collateral damage, hit accidentally by the shooter, who was not a professional killer and, distraught over the money he couldn't afford to lose, fired wildly into the small, all-night restaurant before fleeing the state.
In the hospital we meet our Sister, idealistic and animated by the co-dependent's need to sacrifice themselves for others. She talks about her lifelong dream of becoming a Catholic saint and how she's dedicated her existence to making it happen. The Sister is sweet, excitable, and prays for everything, including sports, which she gets swept away with as she listens over the radio.
The writer, on the other hand, calmly listens to the radio all night as he tries not to over-think. The reception, because of the x-ray machine in the hospital and ore in the ground and mountains around it, is poor during the day but, beginning in the late afternoons, starts to pick up signals all the way out to the coast, including stations at Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
The writer switches from station to station, moving along the coast as the programming ends, until rosy-fingered dawn begins to show out the window. He finishes the cycle with the early-morning radio out of Minneapolis, which is an hour ahead of him, as the hospital stirs back to life and the listening ends for another day.
Radio in 1930 was almost a decade into its commercial existence. Local broadcasts had been building for several seasons when the 1922 Princeton at Chicago game became the first national radio broadcast of a college football game. Five years later, on New Year's Day 1927, the Rose Bowl Game marked the first-ever transcontinental radio production as NBC transmitted the event live across the entire country.
Notre Dame, largely due to Rockne's early understanding of brand marketing and salesmanship, was one of the first college football programs to put their games on radio, paying for the privilege themselves in the days before the sport had commercialized its broadcasting rights. By 1930 people had become accustomed to hearing the Fighting Irish play out their games over the radio, which is one of the reasons Hemingway used them in his story.
The writer Frazer, who does not have any regular visitors, enjoys the sister's company and invites her to join him for the broadcast. Notre Dame, the writer tells us, has a game out in Los Angeles. But the sister does not want to listen—not because sports don't appeal to her—but because passively listening to the team she calls Our Lady is too emotionally difficult. The sister has all the overwrought allegiance of a true college football fan.
"Do you want to come up and hear the game this afternoon?" Frazer asks her.
"Oh, no," she said. "I'd be too excited. I'll be in the chapel praying."
"They're playing on the coast and the difference in time will bring it late enough so we can get it all right."
"Oh, no. I couldn't do it," says the sister.
"The World Series nearly finished me. When the Athletics were at bat I was praying right out loud: 'Oh, Lord, direct their batting eyes! Oh, lord, may he hit one! Oh, lord, may he hit safely!' Then when they filled the bases in the third game, you remember, it was too much for me. 'Oh, lord, may he hit it out of the lot! Oh, lord, may he drive it clean over the fence!' Then you know when the Cardinals would come to bat it was simply dreadful. 'Oh, lord, may they not see it! Oh, Lord, don't let them even catch a glimpse of it! Oh, lord, may they fan!' And this game is even worse. It's Notre Dame. Our Lady. No, I'll be in the chapel. For Our Lady. They're playing for Our Lady. I wish you'd write something sometime for Our Lady. You could do it. You know you could do it, Mr. Frazer."
"I don't know anything about her that I could write. It's mostly been written already," Mr. Frazer said. "You wouldn't like the way I write. She wouldn't care for it, either."
"You'll write about her sometime," the Sister said. "I know you will. You must write about Our Lady."
"You'd better come up and hear the game."
"It would be too much for me. No, I'll be in the chapel doing what I can."
The 1930 Notre Dame/USC game was one of the most fascinating early battles in a series that now has stretched to ninety-two games. I have been present for three of them, two in Los Angeles and one in South Bend. They are big on-campus pageants, full of everything that makes college football the special American game, and the series endures—straight out of the 1920s boom that produced it—as one of the autumn's greatest rivalries and traditions.
USC, under their third-year head coach Howard Jones, had won the school's first national championship back in 1928. The Trojans had beat up on Notre Dame that season in Los Angeles, but lost the next year in front of a crowd of 115,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago. USC was crushing opponents again in 1930, entering the game at 8-1 with a one-point, upset loss at Washington State back in October the only thing between the Trojans and an undefeated team.
As the Fighting Irish got off their train at Union Station in Los Angeles, the 1928 loss to USC was their last defeat, period. Notre Dame was riding a seventeen game winning streak and a perfect 9-0 record that November. But everything was not perfect for the Irish. Rockne had kicked his star running back, Jumping Joe Savoldi, off the team less than a month earlier after divorce papers had been filed and became public knowledge. The marriage had been a well-kept secret but the newspaper boys got word of divorce proceedings and published the news.
It was against Notre Dame rules to be married, and it was more against the rules to be married and divorced. And just like that Jumping Joe was out. Not even Rockne could clean up that mess.
With Savoldi gone and Notre Dame coming off back-to-back slugfests against a good Northwestern team and an even better Army squad, writers in Southern California believed a well-rested USC could be as much as four-score favorites over the Irish. It was at that moment that Rockne, who had a propensity for playing highly-effective mind games—both on his own players as well as their opponents—turned his attention on the press, the Southern California boosters, and the Trojans themselves.
“I’m afraid we’re going to take a beating from Southern California Saturday in Los Angeles," Rockne told a reporter as the Irish prepared to leave. "I am willing to wager we will not be defeated by four touchdowns, as some Los Angeles newspapermen have predicted, but if we can hold the Trojans to a two-touchdown difference we’ll go home feeling pretty good.”
Headlines ran in the Los Angeles newspapers: “Knute Sees Defeat for Irish Team” and “Battered Irish Team on Way to Los Angeles.”
“I’m not kidding you or attempting to use psychology on the players when I say I do not expect to win,” Rockne told another reporter. “While my boys may rally enough to give the Trojans a fairly good game, I see no chance of victory. No coach could expect three victories on successive weekends over clubs the caliber of Northwestern, Army and Southern Cal.”
Amazingly, Rockne would get the chance at a team dinner to address the Trojans directly. He asked them not to throttle his beat-up squad too badly. A bullying victory like that would not only embarrass the Irish, who were the good friends of USC, but would perhaps reflect poorly on the reputation of the Trojans as gentlemen. Beat us, sure, but let's keep it sporting, gentlemen.
A USC team that many considered the best of Jones's early era, a squad that averaged more than 500 yards offense per game at a time when 300 was enough to beat anybody, dug in and waited for the Fighting Irish.
On that Saturday, in the middle of an expansion to accommodate the 1932 Olympic Games, a record-setting crowd of 88,000 filled the Los Angeles Coliseum. Scalpers outside the gates were getting between $30 and $50 cash for seats, which is in the ballpark of $450 to $800 in today's currency. It was the game of the year from the coast and the big-business engine of college-football was roaring.
That was the scene out west when Hemingway wrote the game into his story . . . .
That afternoon they had been playing about five minutes when a probationer came into the room and said, "Sister Cecelia wants to know how the game is going?"
"Tell her they have a touchdown already."
In a little while the probationer came into the room again.
"Tell her they're playing them off their feet," Mr. Frazer said.
A little while later he rang the bell for the nurse who was on floor duty. "Would you mind going down to the chapel or sending word down to Sister Cecelia that Notre Dame has them fourteen to nothing at the end of the first quarter and that it's all right. She can stop praying."
In a few minutes Sister Cecelia came into the room. She was very excited. "What does fourteen to nothing mean? I don't know anything about this game. That's a nice safe lead in baseball. But I don't know anything about football. It may not mean a thing. I'm going right back down to the chapel and pray until it's finished."
"They have them beaten," Frazer said. "I promise you. Stay and listen with me."
"No. No. No. No. No. No. No," she said. "I'm going right down to the chapel to pray."
Mr. Frazer sent down word whenever Notre Dame scored, and finally, when it had been dark a long time, the final result.
The next morning Sister Cecelia came in. She was very pleased and confident.
"I knew they couldn't beat Our Lady," she said. "They couldn't" . . . .
The final from Los Angeles had been Notre Dame 27, Southern California zero. The Fighting Irish had, as four-score underdogs, scorched a powerful USC team to reach 10-0 on the season. That night the Irish boarded their chartered train back to Chicago, a trip that would take three days. On the way home the newspapers awarded them the 1930 national championship, the third and last captured during Rockne's twelve-year crusade out of South Bend.
When the Irish arrived to Chicago on December 9 their train was met by a wild mob at the LaSalle Street Station. If it were possible to wind back space and time ninety-two years I could have looked down from my writing-room onto the platform as the Notre Dame railcars chugged in from Los Angeles and hissed to a stop. Thousands of Notre Dame fans, and hundreds of local delinquents, descended onto the tracks, swarming over the cars and climbing up onto the roofs in a wild celebration of the triumph at the coast. The crowd became so dense that railroad security began walling off paths through the bodies so the team could de-train.
The next day the Fighting Irish were taken to La Salle Street, where the mighty Board of Trade loomed over the canyon of buildings at the city's financial center. Since 1924 Chicago had hosted most of Notre Dame's biggest games at Soldier Field, and feeling like the university's second home, the city had orchestrated a ticker-tape parade to celebrate the championship. The football team was driven up the street in a cavalcade of cars, standing on the running boards and waiving from the cabins, as the confetti and tape streamed down from above and the bands struck up the old songs once more.
It was the last of the great times for Notre Dame under Rockne. Three months later the coach, the national embodiment of college football, was killed when his commercial flight cracked up in midair and crashed into a wheat field in Kansas. Rockne had been on his way back to Los Angeles to participate in a movie on the spirit of Notre Dame football.
Rockne's shocking death was a devastating loss felt around the country, but his final team could not have engineered a better way to seal off the era. And Hemingway, using the tools a writer has, captured what college football and Notre Dame meant at that time in his story about a faithful nun working at a convent hospital in Montana.