Vengeance and Tedium Mothered the Invention of Football

  • August 5, 2019

We continue our celebration of Princeton’s-and college football’s 150th season with the story of the first game in 1869.


Fun was in short supply for the mid-19th century students at The College of New Jersey.

Founded in 1746 by New Light Presbyterians by ministers as a school to train them, professors at what would be renamed Princeton in 1896 frowned on levity. The strenuous curriculum had become more secular under the administration of President John Witherspoon (1768 -1794) but well into the next century more than 50 per cent of the students remained Presbyterian, and still almost thirty per cent were students of theology. All were men, and a rural location for the school, plus economic hardships that had engulfed the country during a Civil War, combined for a grim campus existence into the 1860s.   

“There was none of the social life of the city to relieve the monotony of study,” wrote Frank Presbrey in Athletics at Princeton, published in 1901. “The wealthier students would saddle horses and . . . gallop over the hills, often to some mansion in the neighborhood, where a glimpse of some life outside the gloom sent the boy back to the books with vitality.”

For students of lesser means, walking was practically the only recreation, save for attending regular orations at Presbyterian churches in the town.  Even sleigh riding was forbidden by the administrators. Boys being boys at an all-boys school, they would break the tedium by smoking, drinking and inevitably even brawling. Thus the introduction of a ball to outdoor activities added a viable objective to them, better than the fist, even though the faculty judged both outlets for aggression frivolous.  In the 1820s students had begun to engage in something called “balldown” on a field next to Nassau Hall, the participants assigned sides alphabetically.

The end of the war, which came in 1865, apparently lightened the mood to a degree. “A new generation of students entered Princeton with stronger passions and less self-control, perhaps because they were children of the war or because Southern planters were sending their sons to Princeton for a glimpse of the world.” wrote Presbrey. In the North, prosperity had returned with the peace and soldiers enrolling in university felt their service and years of hardships had earned them the right to be treated as the adults that they were.  

Or, perhaps it was just plain, timeless, boredom that brought the students to Cannon Green following the 5 p.m. nightly prayers, to kick around beef bladders (usually four of them) in a leather covering.

“Everyone who chose to play, dozens sometimes, joined in during the wanting winter night,” quoted Presbrey from the Nassau Literary Magazine, the monthly forerunner of the Daily Princetonian. “The goals were East and West College. The side who kicked to the wall won.”

Sports go back at least to the ancient Greek Olympics. What became soccer was brought to England by the Romans. Formal rules for a game with goals and a ball that permitted carrying it were laid out in Rugby, Warwickshire England in the 1840s.

The game evolving in America, however, allowed for little-to-no touching of the ball with the hands. By 1858 there were rules, not of the already established Rugby or Association Football, but a kicking game, no carrying allowed. Other than that one stipulation, however, the rules being employed at Princeton and other American colleges were as “elastic as the ball.” according to Presbrey.

“Sometimes the ball would be placed in the middle of the ground, but the more common method being to throw it up in the air, starting a free-for all,” he wrote.

Whatever this game was called, it wasn’t the first athletic contests on campuses. Harvard and Yale organized their first crews in the 1840s, and then met for what was believed to be the first intercollegiate competition of any kind on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipeasaukee in 1852. Within a few years, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown also were competing in what became the Rowing Association of American Colleges.

A cricket club at Princeton dated to 1857. Baseball, which evolved in New York City and its environs from the British game of Rounders, was called “town ball” or “round ball” until formal rules were drawn up by Alexander Cartwright and William Wheaton of the Gotham Base Ball Club in New York in 1837.  In 1858, when freshmen L.W. Midge, H.S. Butler and H. Sampson, all from Brooklyn, joined the freshman class at Princeton, they brought their baseball equipment with them.  Their enthusiasm, according to Presbrey, spread on campus to the Princeton Theological Seminary, where a team was organized to play against one representing the university.

In 1862, the Nassau Baseball Club played two formal games against the Stars of New Brunswick, winning both. In 1864, Princeton’s first intercollegiate contest in baseball was a win over Williams.  And in 1868, Princeton played games out of state for the first time, travelling to compete against Harvard, Yale and Williams. That same year President James McCosh designated funds to build a gymnasium on campus and showed his approval for athletics by attending a baseball game between the Princeton club and the Athletics of Philadelphia.

In the meantime, a rounder, livelier, rubber ball had enhanced the athleticism being displayed in the kicking–and assaulting–game being played on the Green. When some players began to reach the wall with the ball, such attempts were banned, leaving the hardest kicks mostly to the shins.  Observers thought the sport even rougher than Rugby but the kicking game continued to grow supporters. In deference to Indian summers, students waited until  “the weather grew cooler” to play. But the contests pitted mostly graduating class against class until in 1867, a team to represent the college was picked to play the Princeton Seminary on the Green and won, five goals to two.

It was only a matter of time until a rivalry with nearby Rutgers extended beyond baseball, particularly after a Princeton nine had routed a Rutgers eight–no explanation for the missing player–40-2 in 1866.   Citing examinations, Princeton refused to grant a rematch, a festering sore on the New Brunswick campus. 

According to Jay Dunn’s The Tigers of Princeton, published in 1977, Rutgers was enduring an additional indignity besides the baseball debacle. Nassau students had long bragged of a prank theft from the Rutgers campus of a treasured British Revolutionary War era cannon, even though that mission was delayed in completion–the wagon carrying the gun having broken down on the side of road. It took three years for the cannon to be rescued by Princeton students, who planted it, muzzle down, on the courtyard that came to be known as Cannon Green.

But apparently the indignity stemming from the baseball rout of two years previous was more the impetus for captain William J. Leggett organizing a Rutgers football team to compete against Princeton in a three-match series, the first and third games to be played at New Brunswick. William S. Gummere ’70, a student leader who was a reserve outfielder on Princeton’s baseball team, was chosen its first football captain to meet the Rutgers challenge.

There was a hint of snow in the air when the Rutgers team gathered at the New Brunswick station at 10 AM. on November 6, 1869 to amicably greet the train loaded with the College of New Jersey team and its student supporters.  While the visitors strolled around town and lunched, the captains met to set the rules.  

According to Mark Bernstein’s Football, The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, published in 2001, Leggett suggested using the rules of the London Football Association and Gummere agreed quickly.  The one major difference in the game being played on each of the New Jersey campuses was that at Princeton, a player who caught the ball on the fly or first bounce was entitled to an unhindered “free kick.”  Rutgers had no such rule so it was agreed that it be employed only in the middle game of the three, to be played at Princeton. For the first-ever intercollegiate football game that day, the only major deviation between this sport and the one that would evolve as soccer was that the ball could be batted with a hand, although never carried, as in rugby 

College Field at Rutgers was 225 feet wide, with goals 24 feet wide.  There were 25 players per side, two stationed as final defenders termed “captains of the enemy’s goal” Twelve were employed at specific places on the field and the others were “bulldozers,” told to follow the ball.

Six goals would be required to win the game, unless darkness fell first. There was no video review of scores (just making sure you’re still paying attention here). Two pre-game coin flips were held, one to determine the first offensive opportunity, the other a choice of goals, which would switch after each score. Six officials would preside, although the manner of the game was so ungentlemanly, it is not clear exactly over what.

Spectators, gathered on the wooden fence around the field in anticipation of the 3 pm start entertained themselves with college songs.  Princeton supporters adopted orange as the color of the class of 1869 by George K. Ward ’69 after William of Orange, Prince of Nassau, but was not yet representative of the entire student body. They preformed a “Tiger cheer” of increasing cadence which had been learned from a Union regiment passing through Princeton during the war. Eventually that would evolve into the locomotive cheer.

According to The Targum, Rutgers’ student newspaper, the Princeton players “grimly” stripped off their coats and hats, rolled up their sleeves and took the field with no semblance of uniform.  The Rutgers players wore scarlet turbans.

Princeton won the toss to get the first “mount” and was repelled by Rutgers who countered to drive home the first score. Gummere told Jacob E. Michael, known to his Princeton teammates as “Big Mike’ to assert his power and he took to plowing through the mass of smaller Rutgers players and tied the score, 1-1.

Later Big Mike and a Rutgers player crashed into the fence sending spectators crashing to the ground.  According to the Targum, Rutgers won the third, sixth and ninth rounds. Princeton, getting the ball into the air more that its opponent, took the second, fourth, seventh–that one helped by a Rutgers player becoming confused and kicking the ball the wrong way. But Rutgers went back to a ground attack, broke a 4-4 tie and won 6-4.

Princeton “had the most muscle but didn’t kick very well and wanted (for) organization,” summarized the Targum reporter.  “They evidently did not like to kick the ball on the ground. Our men, through comparatively weak, ran well and kicked well throughout, for which captain Leggett ’72 deserves great praise.”

The participants from both sides shared an evening meal at a New Brunswick hotel before the Princeton players took the train home.  In the rematch a week later, Princeton, on its own turf and able to use its own rules, used short free kicks to rout the visitors 8-0 (no explanation for the expansion of the game by two more goals) but then sportingly agreed to play two more “innings” Rutgers style–minus the free kicks. Rutgers won those.

As the professors at both schools decided athletic foolishness was taking away from studies, the rubber match never was played. But the two schools met again the following year at Princeton, Old Nassau winning 6-2. Ongoing disapproval by the faculty limited the Princeton men in 1871 to games only against the Seminary, with no records surviving of the result. But by then Rutgers students had grown the game by introducing it to Columbia and another Rutgers challenge of Princeton in 1872 was repelled by Princeton, 4-1.

Having suffered no apparent loss of brainpower from these athletic wastes of brainpower, Gummere studied law and eventually became Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Apparently this new foolishness of football did not erode the soul but could even strengthen it.  Colleges were uncomfortable with the violence, but were unable to squelch the spectator appeal of these rough and tumble struggles for bragging rights and soon learned to make money off of them. Born was an autumn mania.

Coming: Three presentations, divided by eras, of football at Princeton, leading up to the creation of the formal Ivy League in 1956. The first (1869-1906) will be posted August 14.  Accompanying each will be the selections of Staś Maliszewski ’66 and Eric Dreiband ‘86 of the best players of the pre-Ivy era, when Princeton won 28 national championships.

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