New Year’s Day 1929: Which Way the Future?

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The huge crowd gathered in Times Square on December 31, 1928, did not know that the “New Era” of eternal good times, proclaimed by everyone from the new President-elect, Herbert Hoover, to the lowliest shoe shine boy, would fail to last the new year; or that a business depression, an occurrence supposedly banished to the land of historical curiosities, would soon be upon them; or that the coming depression would be modified by the word “Great” and forever capitalized. The Times Square crowd and the whole nation cheered in the year 1929; latter they would curse it.

President-elect Herbert Hoover was on board the battleship USS Utah enroute to Norfolk, Virginia, after completing a South American good will tour. The soon to be Thirty-first President of the United States truly believed his campaign rhetoric that poverty would soon be banished from American life. Hoover had no inkling of the storm the ship of state was sailing into.

The New York Stock Exchange celebrated “the greatest year in the history of Wall Street speculation” on New Year’s Eve with a shower of confetti and ticker tape. The market closed the year at an all time high. The New York Times editorialized: “It has been a twelvemonth of wonderful events, of unprecedented prosperity….” The New York World gushed, “Nothing matters as long as stocks keep going up. The market is now its own law. The forces behind its advance are irresistible.”

Everything seemed to be going the right way. Maybe everyone should have paid more attention to an event on the West coast that foretold the wrong way looming in 1929.

Under a blue sky and 80 degree temperatures, 70,000 people sat in the Rose Bowl watching Georgia Tech play the University of California. In the second quarter of a scoreless game Roy Riegels, California’s center, scooped up a Georgia Tech fumble and sped for Tech’s goal. While trying to avoid a group of tacklers, Riegels spun around, became disoriented, and ran for his own goal line 60 yards away. All the players and fans seemed stunned except Cal’s Benny Lom who raced down the field after his teammate. The roar of the crowd kept Riegels from hearing Lom’s repeated plea — “wrong way!” Lom finally ran Riegels down at the 3-yard line. Realizing his mistake, the Cal center turned around and started back up the field. He did not get far. The Georgia Tech players swarmed over Riegels almost as soon as he turned around, throwing him down at the 1-yard line.

California’s subsequent punt, snaped by the still shaken-up Riegels to Cal’s punter Lom, was blocked and then touched by a Cal player before going out of bounds. The referees ruled the play a safety giving Tech a two-point lead. Tech scored a touchdown in the third period and missed the extra point for an 8-0 lead. The Golden Bears scored a touchdown in the fourth period and made the extra point that would have given them a 7-6 win if not for the safety caused by Riegels wrong-way run. Georgia Tech won the 1929 Rose Bowl game 8-7.

Americans laughed at Riegels run; little did they know that on New Year’s Day 1929, “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels proved a harbinger of the year and the decade to come.