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Yale and the Origins of Intercollegiate Baseball
A team from Yale played in the first truly modern intercollegiate baseball game

Baseball delights in controversy: The best hitter, the premier pitcher, the greatest team of all time, even the origin of the sport—almost any topic associated with the game will spark unending argument.

One of the oldest debates concerns which teams played in the first intercollegiate contest. Amherst, which squared off against Williams in 1859, has long made that claim, but according to preeminent sports authority Walter Camp, Class of 1880, the honor should go to Yale and Wesleyan, even though their matchup didn’t occur until September 30, 1865.

Regardless of who was truly first, the archival record reveals the significant role that Yale and other Northeastern colleges played in the development of the American national game. Baseball evolved over centuries from local variations of the English game of rounders, and children’s games like “one old cat.” Early in the 19th century, playing ball games became popular with Yale students despite college rules that forbade playing “hand” or “foot” ball on the college grounds or on the Green and imposed a fine of 50 cents or arrest by the city police.

In the late 1840s and 1850s two forms of baseball emerged. The rules adopted by the New York City Knickerbockers became known as New York baseball, and the older Massachusetts form of the game was known as Boston baseball. As with rowing, the first organized Yale teams were class teams, rather than varsity teams, and played intramural matches. Gradually they began to play other colleges and amateur clubs, but official records were not kept.

The 1859 game between Amherst and Williams was Boston baseball, played with 13-man teams on a square of four bases. Yale also played Boston baseball at that time. In the old game, there were no foul balls, each side had only one out per inning, and the game ended when one side scored a preset number of tallies, or runs. The use of a lively ball resulted in high scores, and Amherst beat Williams, 73 to 32.

The Civil War marked a turning point in baseball history. It was the favorite pastime of Union soldiers who tried out both sets of rules and came to prefer the New York style. Shortly after the War, 91 amateur teams adopted the New York rules, basically today’s form of the game. Baseball boomed, motivating the organization of a varsity Yale team and the first modern intercollegiate match with Wesleyan. Yale won, 39 to 13.

Baseball was a fall and spring sport until football teams were formed in the 1870s. Yale practiced on Ashmun Street where many balls flew over the high wall of the Grove Street Cemetery. In the late 1860s, games were held at Hamilton Park, two miles out Whalley Avenue on the horse railway line. Sometimes, there were large crowds of spectators and admission was charged.

Playing out of town was another matter. The faculty solved the new problem of players missing classes by permitting them to play away games only three times a season, and often not allowing any non-playing students to accompany them. Colleges continued to play against non-collegiate clubs until the organization of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1869, led to the separation of amateur from professional baseball.

The Yale Courant, which began publication in the fall of 1865, rejoiced that Yale at last had “a nine really and truly chosen from the whole college,” and compared baseball to boating. The Courant found baseball a superior sport in many regards, noting that: a few can participate in boating while many play baseball; spectators can see only a portion of a boat race while they can see all of a game; and the baseball player is not “moving monotonously in a constrained position” but is “erect and moving as the creator made you.” Baseball, the “truly national game . will always hold its place with many, as a developing and strengthening amusement.”  the end


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