As Princeton Football Turns 150, A Look Back At The First College Football Game

  • November 6, 2019

Published on | Read the full article here.

Written by Jay Greenberg, courtesy of the Princeton Football Association

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.