Before the silly string, before the RVs and beer coolers and bleachers and picnic chairs, it all took place on a small chunk of land south of California Boulevard, known as “town lot.” Sandwiched today between the Caltech athletic buildings and a fenced-off residential neighborhood, the small sliver of grass known as Tournament Park was where the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game began.
Organized by the Valley Hunt Club—an exclusive club of wealthy emigrants from the Midwest and East Coast—the Tournament of Roses was to created in 1889 to draw tourists from other parts of the country, and to boast about Pasadena’s pleasant winter climate.
The first tournament was held on January 1, 1890, and for the next decade the event consisted of a small parade with modest horse-drawn floats, games of tug-of-war, and races between elephants, camels and other exotic animals. The event was immediately popular, and its popularity grew with each successive year, so that by 1895, the Valley Hunt Club could no longer handle the responsibilities of the parade. Thus in 1895 was born the Tournament of Roses Association, and in 1900, the city renamed “town lot” Tournament Park, in honor of the festival.
In an effort to draw more crowds, and, more importantly, the attention of the East Coast press, civic leaders also proposed a college football game . In 1902, the University of Michigan, led by legendary coach Fielding Yost, took on Stanford University in the first “Tournament East-West Football Game.”
The game succeeded in drawing crowds, but Michigan’s staggering 49-0 victory over Stanford sent the roughly 8,500 spectators into pandemonium. Thereafter, football was deemed too dangerous, and beginning in 1904, it was replaced with chariot racing, a popular novelty at the time. Other features were added as well, including an unfortunately named comedy troupe called the Komical Knights of the Karnival (or “K.K.K.”), a sort of precursor to Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade.
Though the chariot races attracted large crowds, they too were dangerous. Accidents were common and staging costs were high, and by 1915, they were abandoned and football reinstated.
By 1920, Tournament Park had become too small a venue to accommodate the game, and the city commissioned architect Myron Hunt to design a new stadium in the Arroyo Seco. The last football game was held at Tournament Park in 1922, and all future games were held at the new Rose Bowl stadium, which opened later that year. Caltech acquired most of Tournament Park and built it over.
Today the park consists only of a small stretch of grass with a playground and picnic area in the shadow of Caltech’s athletic facilities. A small stone plaque, placed in the park in 1962, commemorates the park’s historical significance, but other than that, you would never know that the event now watched by millions began here.