Protoball at Harvard: from Pastime to Contest

Harvard baseball club, 1866; Harvard University Archives, call # HUPSF Baseball (2).

The article below, by Harry Lewis, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Lewis,  a former Dean of Harvard College, has traced the history of college sports from the colonial days in his book on American higher education, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (Perseus/Public Affairs, 2006).

His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1781.2, reflects that it is the second entry for the year 1781. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see:

http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934

Item 1781.2, Protoball at Harvard: from Pastime to Contest

Harry Lewis

The Freshmen shall furnish Batts, Balls, and FootBalls, for the use of the students, to be kept at the Buttery.[1]

Early Harvard records refer more often to football than to baseball and its forebears. What early Harvard baseball references exist, however, illuminate the story of college sports.

Certain kinds of athletic activity were never discouraged at Harvard, even in Puritan times. One Harvard father advised his son in 1670, “Recreate your Self a little, and so to your work afresh,” as long as the recreation be “not violent.”[2] Starting in the late 1700s at least, Harvard students played bat-and-ball games for such recreational purposes, though formalized baseball would appear at Harvard only in 1858.

The earliest report of bats and balls at Harvard is in the diary of Sidney Willard. His father graduated from Harvard in 1765 and then became steward of the Buttery, which, as Sidney explains, “was in part a sort of appendage to Commons. . . . Besides eatables, everything necessary for a student was there sold, and articles used in the play-grounds, as bats, balls, &c.”[3]

This early reference is a long way from direct experience; Sidney is writing about his father’s youth ninety years earlier. But a direct confirmation of bat-and-ball games at Harvard appears in what we would, today, call the minutes of faculty meetings.[4] Among the entries for the year 1781 is a list of “The antient [sic] Customs of Harvard College, established by the Government of it” (i.e., by the faculty). These are ground rules for inter-student behavior: Freshmen should doff their hats; freshmen must “consider all other classes their seniors,” but “no freshman shall be detained by a senior when not actually employed on some suitable errand”; and so on. Rule 16 states: “The Freshmen shall furnish Batts, Balls, and FootBalls, for the use of the students, to be kept at the Buttery.”

Harvard-Brown 1870

Does this suggest bat-and-ball games at Harvard long before Willard’s father served as Butler? Perhaps. But this record is from 16 years after the father’s graduation, and in a college, that can be long enough to make past events seem ancient.

What kind of game was played with this equipment? We have few clues. Writing of his own undergraduate years, 1797–1801, Sidney Willard writes, “. . . we wrestled and ran, played at quoits, at cricket, and at various games of bat and ball, whose names perhaps are obsolete, and leaped and jumped in rivalry.”[5] So the bat-and-ball games were surely not cricket and may have been no more formalized than running. Willard also describes his realization, as a child, that his eyesight was too poor to follow the considerable trajectory of a hit ball. “I could not distinguish different birds, or see them at the same distance as other boys did . . . and on the play-ground [they] would watch and seize the ball, when beaten to an unusual distance, before I could trace it.”[6] Willard was born in 1780, so this childhood memory is from around 1790–1795.

Scrutinizing 19th century records, baseball researchers encounter problems of creative memory. Once it became the national game, men recalled playing “baseball” early in the century, though they had not recorded any games at the time. The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, is described in several late–19th century sources (but not in his biographies) as having played baseball at Harvard.[7] The ultimate source of this legend may be a baseball history published in 1891.[8] “There seems to be no doubt,” writes the editor with groundless confidence, “that baseball was played in the United States as early at least as the beginning of this century. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was graduated from Harvard in 1829, said, a few years ago, that baseball was one of the sports of his college days.”

Alas, this is merely what Holmes is said to have said as an old man. Perhaps more reliable are the recollections of George F. Hoar, sometime senator from Massachusetts. Writing of his boyhood in Concord (he was born in 1826, so these memories are from around 1835–1840), Hoar recalls playing “various games of ball. These games of ball were much less scientific and difficult than the modern games. Chief were four-old-cat, three-old-cat, two-old-cat, and base.”[9] Of his Harvard years (1842–1846) he notes that while football was the main sport for students, “There was a little attempt to start the English game of cricket and occasionally, in the spring, an old-fashioned, simple game which we called base was played.”[10]

Harvard BBC logo

Harvard BBC logo

Whatever they may have been called, bat-and-ball games were not a serious form of rivalry at Harvard early in the 19th century. The blood sport was football. John Langdon Sibley, for two decades Librarian of Harvard College, kept a remarkable diary from 1846–1882. On August 31, 1846, he described the annual freshman–sophomore football contest, which took place on the evening of the first day of classes. “This is the general sport among students till cold weather,” wrote Sibley. “In the spring there is no playing of football, but ‘bat & ball’ & cricket.”[11]

A member of the class of 1841, writing in 1879, remembered that “The college games at that period were foot-ball, cricket, and, to a limited extent, base-ball.” Of the latter two, he noted that “the games passing under these names were simpler than now,” and were “played almost always separately by the classes,” as opposed to the brutal football contest that the faculty eventually banned.[12] Similarly, a member of the class of 1855, writing more than half a century later, recalled that “In those days, substantially all the students played football and baseball, while some played cricket and four-old-cat.”[13]

Harvard game balls

The earliest contemporaneous reference to baseball as such seems to be the June 1858 Harvard Magazine, in which an alumnus notes that “almost any evening or pleasant Saturday . . . a shirt-sleeved multitude from every Class are playing at base or cricket. . . .”[14] By this time the game was well developed in New York; the first convention had taken place in January 1857. As the New York Herald then reported, the game was “played at most of the New England schools.”[15] But none of the Harvard references to bat-and-ball games prior to the fall of 1858 mentions rules or a score, or indeed anybody winning or losing.

Within five years that picture changed dramatically. Harvard athletic histories commonly date the beginning of New York rules baseball at Harvard to 1862.[16] The Harvard Book, an exhaustive compendium of Harvardiana published in 1875, explains that “the New York game was brought to Cambridge from Phillips Exeter Academy” by Harvard freshmen George A. Flagg and Frank Wright.[17] In the first game, the Harvard ’66 nine beat Brown ’65, 27–17 at Providence on June 27, 1863.[18] This account is repeated in the original H Book of Harvard Athletics, the university’s sports bible and almanac.[19]

In fact, organized baseball had reached Harvard more than four years earlier. A team from the Lawrence Scientific School—Harvard’s engineering school of the time, a poor cousin to the College—organized itself in the fall of 1858, placing it among the earliest New York Rules clubs. The Constitution, dated November 3, is written in a stitched notebook in a hand of which John Hancock might have been proud. “This Association shall be called the ‘Lawrence Base Ball Club,’” it proclaimed in large, swirling letters; the games were to be played “in strict accordance with the rules adopted by the ‘National Association of Base Ball Players,’ held at New York; March 10th, 1858.” As though to preclude any threat posed by the Massachusetts game, the Constitution further stipulated that “in no case shall any other game be played by this Club.” It went on to give the business practices of the club, the schedule of play, and the dimensions and composition of the balls and bats. The original members bore names then typical of Harvard—Putnam, Gould, Washburn, Morrow, etc.—with two striking exceptions: Primitivo Casares (a Mexican) and Eulogio Delgado (a Peruvian).[20]

The Club’s first game on November 8, 1858, was between teams captained by Gould and Washburn (Gould’s team won, 27–9). The scorecards of this and three more games played over the next 10 days were scrupulously reproduced, inning by inning and player by player.[21] The notebook is otherwise empty. A member of the original team later stated that games were occasionally played on the Cambridge Common against a Law School team.[22]

In preparation for the first game, Putnam reported that he was going to have to skip church on Sunday and “read in the Bible” instead, so he could meet up with Delgado, who “being the best writer in our Club is going to copy off our Constitution.”[23] Putnam’s son reported that the Club continued for a few more years,[24] but dissolved when many members left for military service. Men who in 1858 had been teammates in “healthful exercise and amusement,” as the Club’s Constitution declared, died as soldiers in opposing armies.[25]

After the Exeter boys replanted the seed in 1862, the game quickly became the rage at Harvard. John Sibley, whose diary noted perfunctorily the playing of “bat & ball” at Harvard in 1846, two decades later described a dramatically new world:

Lowell Base Ball 1865 and 1866

Great excitement & enthusiasm awakened within two or three years through the country about baseball playing. Numerous clubs have been organized. Last week a club from Holliston came to play the Harvard students on the College Delta. Last week the Harvard Club met the Boston boys organization under the name “Lowell Club”[26] & were beaten on Boston Common. Today both clubs played on the Jarvis Field in Cambridge—thousands of persons, among whom were college officers and ladies, were present. The Harvards were victorious. I could hardly imagine there could have been such intense & universal enthusiasm as there was on & for both sides. Every throw or knock or catch or miss of the ball was the occasion of special notice by the crowd. And the congratulations, poundings, embracings, & exultations at the final result partook of the uncontrolled ardor & jollity of little children’s joyousness & simplicity. The female spectators became so enthusiastic as to be at the highest state of nervous excitement. The challenge is for two games out of three. The prize, which is transferable, is a silver ball which passes from club to club as they are victorious. The third trial will [be] more exciting th[an] either of the last two.[27]


        1. Presidents, Professors, & Tutors Book, began January 27, 1775, pp. 257–260. Harvard University Archives, UA 3.5.5.2; vol. 4, 1781.

        2. Thomas Shepard Jr., “A letter from the Revd Mr Thos Shepard to His Son [at] His Admission into the College,” c. 1670, in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 14, Transactions 1911–1913 (Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1913), p. 104.

        3. Willard, S. 1855. Memories of Youth and Manhood (p. 31).

        4. Presidents, Professors, & Tutors Book.

        5. Willard 1855, 316.

        6. Ibid., 236.

        7. See, e.g., “Early Baseball Days,” Washington Post: Apr. 11, 1896.

        8. “A Complete History of Baseball, from Its Earliest Days to the Present Period,” The New York Clipper Annual for 1891 (p. 17).

        9. Hoar, G. 1903. Autobiography of Seventy Years (p. 52).

        10. Ibid., 120.

        11. John Langdon Sibley’s diary, Harvard University Archives (hul.harvard.edu/huarc/refshelf/Sibley.htm).

        12. “Harvard Athletic Exercises Thirty Years Ago,” Harvard Advocate 17.9, June 12, 1879, pp. 130–131.

        13. “E. H. Abbott, Secretary of Harvard Class of 1855,” Harvard Graduates Magazine 18 (1909–1910), p. 738. The context is a note on the life of the eminent natural historian Louis Agassiz, written on the occasion of his death. Abbott notes that Agassiz was interested only in rowing.

        14. “Mens Sana,” Harvard Magazine 4.5 (June 1858), pp. 200–206.

        15. “Our National Sports,” New York Herald: Jan. 23, 1857, p. 8, col. B.

        16. For the story of the Lawrence Base Ball Club, see: Seymour, H. 1990. Baseball, The People’s Game (vol. 3 p. 133).

        17. The Harvard Book; a series of historical, biographical, and descriptive sketches by various authors, 1875, p. 269.

        18. The teams included members of a single class year at each college. Harvard had first invited Yale, which declined because it had no team.

        19. Reid, W. 1923. “Baseball at Harvard,” in The H Book of Harvard Athletics 1852–1922, ed. J. Blanchard (p. 150).

        20. The List of Students of the Lawrence Scientific School, 1847–1901 (p. 29) shows one Primitivo Casares y Galera, S.B. 1861, died 1866, in Merida, Yucatan. The same list, on p. 24, shows one José Eulogio Delgado, S.B. 1858, of Lima, Peru, “Chief Engineer, Oriental R. R. Co.”

        21. The columns are the innings and the rows are the players, as in a modern scorecard. But the players are listed in positional rather than batting order, so the columns have gaps. Washburn’s team has 12 players, designated C, P, 1B, 2B, 3B, and 1F through 7F; evidently there were substitutions. 2B batted only once, for example. The players on Gould’s team are designated P, C, 1B, 2B, 3B, and 1F through 5F, with 5F not batting until the sixth inning. The notations in the entries are either “c.o.,” “ab.,” or the numeral “1,” the latter evidently indicating a run since the sum of each row matches the run total in the right-hand column. Where a team batted around, a single entry may include more than one of these notations.

        22. “The Lawrence Base Ball Club,” The Harvard Graduates Magazine 25, Mar. 1917, pp. 346–350.

        23. “Letter from Eben Putnam to the Editor of the Harvard Graduates Magazine,” dated Mar. 4, 1916. Records of the Lawrence Base Ball Club, Harvard University Archives, HUD 9600.

        24. The last of those recorded as signing the Constitution, F.H. Atkins, did so on September 22, 1859.

        25. Col. Francis Washburn was mortally wounded in the bloody battle to control the bridge over the Appomattox River at High Bridge, Va., on April 6, 1865, in the last days of the war; he died at Worcester, Mass., on April 22. Elijah Graham Morrow, a captain in the army of the Confederacy, was killed at Gettysburg in 1863. List of Students. 

        26. So called because the team had been founded by John Lowell, Harvard Class of 1943.

        27. Sibley diary, May 24, 1867. Jarvis Field is the northerly part of the area now occupied by the Law and Engineering Schools. South of Jarvis lay Holmes Field, so called because the estate of he elder Oliver Wendell Holmes was located there until it was razed to construct Austin Hall. These fields were used for both football and baseball, until play moved across the river to Soldiers Field in the late 19th century.

2 Comments

Ah, this is well timed! The Providence Grays and West Broadway Neighborhood Association are starting to plan a commemoration next June of the 150th anniversary of that first intercollegiate game in Providence. There is still a baseball field in the original site (well, somewhat overgrown and with a dog park in center field…).

We’d like to have a game between Brown & Harvard students or alumni by 1863 rules. We’re trying to figure out how to scare up the nines.

I’ll have to try to get in touch with Mr. Lewis.

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