Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


Organized athletics at Tufts had a slow, erratic, and inauspicious beginning and a haphazard development that was characteristic of collegiate sports at many institutions in the nineteenth century. Students had to wait some thirty years for a gymnasium; the rocky and uneven nature of the terrain on the campus, and the absence of money, manpower, and motivation played a part in delaying the appearance of team sports. Baseball, or "the New York sport," as it was first called, arrived on the Tufts campus in 1863,


some fifteen years after it had begun to take shape as a game. Football appeared at Tufts in 1864-65 and became popular among the sophomores. Rival baseball teams were organized in 1864, as the "All Nine of Tufts" and the "Ballou Club," and competition soon became traditional between the sophomore and freshman classes. The All Nine was made up of the abler and more experienced players and played all the match games. Between 1865 and 1870 enthusiasts for baseball had organized the Tufts Base-Ball Club (with more officers than players), had appeared in gray uniforms, and had lost two games to Brown.[29]  Arrangements for games with neighboring teams were strictly informal, and contests with town teams were at first more numerous than with college nines.[30] 

Football was less popular at first than baseball, but by 1874-75 the latter went into a state of dormancy, reappearing three years later. A "College Eleven" was formally organized in 1875 and played only one match game. Those accustomed to considering baseball as a spring game and football as a fall activity would have had some readjustments to make when the two sports were introduced at Tufts. Baseball was first played from September through November (or as long as the weather permitted), and the first intercollegiate football game was a spring event. The traditional baseball contest between the freshmen and sophomore classes was played in the fall until 1892. The one football game with another college, played in 1874-75 on the afternoon of an "uncomfortably warm" June 4, went down in the annals of the College as a memorable event. Tufts defeated Harvard in Cambridge, having scored the only touchdown and goal.[31]  After less than a year's experience,


both Tufts and Harvard adopted a modified version of Rugby rules. This may not have been a wise decision on Tufts' part, for the second game with Harvard, played in the fall of 1875, ended in a defeat for the Medford institution. The athletic reputation of the College was at least partially redeemed that year, for its "Second Eleven," organized in 1875, won over Bates. Tufts challenged Brown, Bowdoin, and Dartmouth in 1875 and added Cornell in 1877, but no games were played with these schools for several years. There was no such thing as a regular football schedule for several more decades. One difficulty was the lack of anything approaching uniformity of rules; every school played largely according to its own inclinations. The College Eleven failed to tempt a single opponent to a match game in 1876-77 and was driven in May of that year to play "a picked team" from among their classmates.[32] 

In the late 1870's and early 1880's the novelty seems to have worn off both baseball and football, for there were no teams at all in either sport for some years. Three football games were played (and lost) in 1877-78 to Harvard, Yale, and Amherst, and the


freshmen who played Andover lost by fifteen touchdowns and a goal. The best the sports-minded alumni could do for the next few years was mourn the fact that there were no teams of any kind in intercollegiate competitions. The baseball team came out of hibernation long enough in 1881 to win a victory over Boston University and then relapsed into inactivity until trounced by Harvard in 1882. The blow was softened somewhat the latter year by wins over M.I.T. and the Boston Law School. Two losses to Bowdoin and one to Colby completed a rather mixed season.

The baseball picture looked brighter in the spring of 1883, for sufficient manpower was recruited to provide two substitutes in addition to the regular team and to schedule seven games, five of them played with other New England colleges. The high point of Tufts baseball success in the nineteenth century was acheived in 1889, but two years later interest in the sport had so far declined that not even a captain was provided for the 1891-92 season. In 1895 the baseball team recovered itself by winning over Harvard for the first time. Football had suffered the same unpredictable career; in 1890 the team had been disbanded, yet two years later it was reconstituted in sufficient strength to enjoy one of the best seasons in the game's erratic nineteenth-century history.[33]  During the 1890's football enthusiasts had to compete with track athletics, which experienced a brief burst of popularity. Even with the coming of the twentieth century, Tufts belonged to no intercollegiate football league but played teams from all New England institutions on a strictly independent basis.[34]  Even systematic coaching for football was not provided until 1892. The attention that eventually came to be focused on intercollegiate sports at Tufts certainly did not exist until well after the First World War.

When athletics took form in the 1860's, games were first played on a makeshift field on the Stearns estate beyond the northern boundaries of the College, and then on the field known as the "old campus." After this location was made inadequate by the extension


of Professors Row in the 1870's, parts of the faculty cow pasture on the southern side of the campus running to Powderhouse Boulevard were gradually taken over for athletic activities. These areas were at first marked by a series of wooden fences (which made excellent bonfire material) and eventually by a wire enclosure. The first serious attempt to turn the pastureland into athletic fields was made after the "gallant record" of the football team in 1892, and as part of a deliberate effort "to invigorate and dignify athletics in Tufts College." Sports-minded individuals came to the embarrassed realization that no intercollegiate games of any kind could be played until a fenced athletic field existed. The result was a decision "to lay out a large oval, with grounds for base-ball, football, tennis courts, and general athletics." The alumni were asked to contribute $2,000 to fence off the "oval" and to provide seating accommodations. This had been accomplished in time for the opening of the fall term in 1894.

The Oval was still being used for Varsity football in the 1960's, although the enclosing wooden fence that had given the field its name had long since disappeared, together with the entrance archway donated in 1908 by Trustee Thomas Cunningham. The original Oval was rather extensive and included a large (and active) spring in its lower reaches. As the baseball diamond proper was the only part graded at first, it was not unusual for players fielding balls to engage incidentally in aquatics as they emerged dripping from the watery outfield.[35]  Acquisition of a fourteen-acre combination of abandoned clay pit, brickyard, and city dump after the First World War made possible playing fields for baseball, soccer, and lacrosse; practice fields for football and track squads; and drill and parade grounds for military units.[36] 



Baseball and football were quite literally innovations when they were introduced on the Tufts campus in the 1860's. The more conventional athletic contests, classified as "track and field sports" and compared by contemporaries to Sunday School outings, were supervised by the Tufts Athletic Association, which was founded in the fall of 1874. These equivalents of intramural sports, climaxed by an annual Field Day, were organized by classes and consisted of running and walking races, high and broad jumping, hammer throwing, wheelbarrow, sack, and potato races, and wrestling matches. The Field Days were usually held in the fall, and a barrel of cider awaited the class winning the largest number of events. For many years the contests took place on the grassy areas surrounding the giant reservoir at the top of the Hill. The fate of the losers can readily be imagined, with a body of water so convenient. Field sports suffered a complete eclipse for the ten years after 1882, and running was confined to attempts to outdistance Medford or Somerville policemen or irate owners of neighboring apple orchards. A general revival of enthusiasm for sports in the 1890's included the first indoor meet in Goddard Gymnasium in 1892 and membership in the New England Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1896. The construction of a cinder track in the Oval in 1899


was a welcome addition during good weather, and a running track provided in the enlarged Goddard Gymnasium in 1900 served for the winter months.

The proximity of the Mystic River brought yet another outdoor activity to Tufts soon after it opened. Two boat clubs were organized in 1864, the "Theta" and the "Undine," and became a means by which the competitive spirit of Theta Delta Chi and Zeta Psi could be expressed. Each fraternity erected a boathouse a short distance from Medford Square and acquired a six-oared boat. The "Tufts Flotilla" was born. Enthusiasm for boating was uneven because of the inconvenient distance from the College and the chronic inability to raise sufficient funds to keep the project afloat. Fraternity rivalry in boating disappeared after 1866 and was replaced by an all-Tufts boat club that existed for several years and could in 1874 boast of twenty-five members, three crews, and a practice rowing machine installed in the basement of West Hall. Lack of funds was responsible for the demise of organized boating on the Mystic River. In the late 1890's sailing became popular on the Mystic Lakes, on the border of West Medford and Winchester. The tradition was continued with the organization of the Tufts Yacht Club in 1936.

Somewhat less popular in the early days of Tufts than baseball and football, but equally demanding in its way, was fencing, which took organized form as the Order of the Foil and the Mask in the winter of 1873-74, under the supervision of William Homer of Boston. Two members of the faculty were honorary members in the mid- 870's. Because there was no gymnasium at the time, fencing practice was permitted in a room at the main College building (Ballou Hall). In spite of later sporadic attempts to revive it, fencing never attained the status of a major extracurricular activity because it failed to appeal to more than a fraction of the student body. A Rifle Team was organized in the spring of 1878, with weapons lent by the state for a drill team. "Training was kept up until the members of the company could actually keep step, and some of them could even hit the target." However, just as a degree of proficiency was being developed, the team collapsed when the arms it was using had to be returned. Tennis, which had appeared as a local game in the mid-1880's, became an intercollegiate sport in 1900-1901. In the same year, renewed interest in athletics was heralded by the


organization of a class in boxing, and "a modest beginning" was made in "scientific basketball."

No one could argue that athletics at Tufts was in a privileged position in the nineteenth century. It was not until the 1890's that any systematic attempt was made even to provide for effective supervision or that the alumni or Trustees took more than a nominal interest in the subject. The increasing attention paid to athletics all over the country after 1900 was mirrored on the Tufts campus, and something approximating a set of policies was finally developed. Throughout its history the College has made a sincere and usually successful effort to avoid the tendency to commercialize or professionalize its athletics or to give its team members special concessions or favors that would set the athletes apart from their peers and make them into priviliged characters. Now and again the institution came close to this and did make certain provisions and exceptions for which it could be (and has been) criticized.[37]  But neither the incidence nor the magnitude of such occurrences should warrant feelings of shame, consternation, or defiance on the part of the faculty, governing bodies, or alumni. The athletic accomplishments of the Tufts students at the intercollegiate level have been for the most part unspectacular but solid. The faculty (the traditional enemies of organized athletics) have, over the years, been tolerant and sometimes downright enthusiastic about Tufts athletics; in return, they have been fortunately free from pressures of various kinds which could conceivably have distorted their academic vision or unduly interfered with the standards on which they have operated.

Aside from a student-operated Athletic Association organized in 1874 to arrange Field Days and the like, what little supervision there was at first came from the faculty. Their permission was required when any athletic team desired to visit another school. The football team was given "leave of absence" (for one afternoon) to play Harvard in the fall of 1877, but it was "granted with caution." Not until 1891 was an Advisory Committee on Athletics created, at


the request of the students. It consisted of representatives from the faculty, the students, and the alumni. Team sports were placed under the supervision of the Instructor in Physical Education by the Trustees in 1900 "in order to secure the better discipline and higher efficiency of the teams." After 1900, students from the medical and dental schools contributed toward the expenses of Tufts athletics.

Some differences of opinion did develop from time to time between the faculty and students over athletic commitments. The faculty decreed in 1899 that no student on academic probation was to participate in intercollegiate athletics off the Hill. The timing of this announcement of policy was poor, for it came on the eve of a game with Bowdoin, and apparently with little or no warning. There was no question that the absence of no less than five members of the team because of the faculty ruling would have crippled its operations. On the petition of the Advisory Committee on Athletics the faculty agreed "to postpone the operation of the decree until after the game." In order to avoid similar complications and embarrassments, the Advisory Committee kept the faculty informed of the names of the members of each team, and the faculty in turn reported the standing of such students to the Advisory Committee in sufficient time to make necessary adjustments on the teams. The College thus faced for the first time in a serious way the problem of securing "faithful observances of student obligations, and a healthful and helpful conduct of athletes." [38] 

The Board of Overseers, as an alumni body, felt called upon in their annual report in 1903 to express their views on athletics because sports seemed to be a topic of "ever increasing importance" on the campus. The Overseers were realistic enough to see the dangers of overemphasis on athletics and hoped for a coordinated balance between intellectual and physical training. Most of the difficulty on the campus seemed, in their opinion, to come from


those members of teams who were "constantly upon the danger line in scholarship," and from those who were not athletes at all but thought they were being loyal to Tufts when they frittered away hours of valuable time talking and writing on the subject. As to the purported evils of professionalism in athletics, they saw no danger to the College as long as "every vestige" of it could be eliminated from College sports. "We hope that there is absolute and complete absence of professionalism at Tufts College. Whether teams are strong or weak, let them be genuine Tufts teams and let the athletic standing of the College be established in thoroughgoing honesty." The Boards of Visitors also had a word to say on athletics. Sumner Robinson, a Trustee and a man especially active in the affairs of the College, made an extended report on the subject in 1909. He expressed concern that Tufts was falling behind in collegiate competitions because it did not have winning teams. What to do about it posed a real problem. Should the College subsidize its players? Tufts had leaned over backward not to follow such a policy.

The introduction of hockey at Tufts illustrated some of the dilemmas in which schools sometimes found themselves in relation to athletics. A start was made in January 1907 at organizing an ice hockey team but it was not until seven years later that one actually came into existence. Although permission was secured to use the rink at the Boston Arena, the Committee on Athletics refused to recognize hockey as a Varsity sport. Enthusiasts for the game thereupon organized the "Tufts Independent Hockey Team," consisting largely of medical and dental students. This private enterprise, not under the control of the Athletic Association, brought down the wrath of Trustee Fletcher, particularly when it was discovered that a professional baseball player (a dental student on the reserve list of the Toronto Club of the International League) appeared on the Tufts team which won over Amherst in 1914. The team was immediately ordered disbanded by Tufts authorities. When hockey reappeared in the winter of 1918, this time as a sport officially recognized by the institution, it had strictly amateur standing. Its greatest handicap was the lack of a rink. The flooding of the lower part of the athletic field near the Oval never worked out satisfactorily, and the team was unable to play home games. This was one explanation for the fact that hockey never attracted as much attention among Tufts students as some other sports.



The first attempt at giving aid to athletes had been made in 1899, when several gratuities had been established by the Trustees for encouragement of extracurricular activities (including the Glee Club as well as athletics). But these had lasted for only a short time; they were too closely identified with the College to escape criticism. Trustee gratuities were temporarily abandoned on the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Athletics. If financial aid was to be provided for athletes, it was believed that it should come most appropriately from the alumni. Nevertheless, the Trustees did feel justified in giving special assistance now and then, including direct subvention.[39] 

The year-to-year operating expenses of athletics were financed on the eve of the First World War largely by an annual assessment of $10 entitling each student to a season ticket to all home games and sports; half of the assessment was earmarked to pay the expenses of physical education. Voluntary subscriptions were also solicited, but the amounts were always disappointing; one appeal to the alumni in 1913 netted only $365. Gate receipts were not sufficient to wipe out a continuing annual deficit of several hundred dollars. In 1909 Sumner Robinson, an outspoken champion of intercollegiate athletics, offered to "be one of ten to pay one hundred dollars per year for ten years" to finance the College bills of Varsity athletes, but the requisite number of benefactors failed to appear.

Tufts faced the same problem encountered by other relatively small institutions, namely, recruiting students competent both on the athletic field and in the classroom, and offering sufficient inducements to prospective athletes without being accused of favoritism and commercialization at the same time. A special Trustee committee in 1902 put the question directly. "How far a college may properly go in its encouragement of athletics is a mooted question. It was only after careful consideration and with some misgiving that the experiment of directly fostering athletic interests was undertaken. . . . Open college aid to athletics is tabooed and


yet nearly all the smaller institutions are taking this method to make themselves prominent. If we have erred at all it is by being found out in doing more or less openly what others are doing secretly."

The decade before 1914 saw an emphasis on intercollegiate athletics all over the nation which many individuals considered most unhealthy. The number of intercollegiate sports had increased enormously, competition to develop winning teams had resulted in questionable recruiting and financing practices, and college calendars had become jammed with athletic events. There was considerable fear that a disproportionate amount of athletic energy was being expended, and at the expense of purely academic concerns. One of the first steps taken to bring order out of a rather confused athletic situation was the creation in 1906 of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, of which Tufts immediately became a member. The Association was intended to be "a systematic attempt to improve the situation in intercollegiate athletics" and to bring about reforms in football in particular. A New England branch was soon organized, and Tufts became a charter member. Another major step to encourage cooperation and provide for consultation among institutions on matters of common interest was the organization of the Association of New England Colleges for Conference on Athletics in 1908. Dean Wren of Tufts was a member of the committee which drew up its constitution and nominated its first officers. Professor Clarence P. Houston, who served as a coach, Director of Athletics, and chairman of the Department of Physical Education at Tufts for much of the period from 1919 to 1946, was at one time president of the Conference. The sense of the first meeting was that intercollegiate basketball "as at present conducted" should cease and that the number of intercollegiate contests in other sports should be reduced. No more than twenty games per season in baseball and nine in football were suggested. Tufts adhered closely to the spirit of the New England Conference recommendations by discontinuing basketball as an intercollegiate sport in 1911, eliminating long and time-consuming trips for the Varsity football team, and encouraging intramural sports.

By and large, the policies expressed in the 1930's by President Cousens and Professor Houston could be taken as a summing-up of


the prevailing attitude of the institution toward intercollegiate athletics for most of its history. Good athletes were encouraged to come to Tufts if they could meet its academic standards. It was the policy of the College "to maintain the teams upon an amateur basis, so far as is consistent with common sense." Cousens assured the Trustees that "there is absolutely no taint of professionalism in connection with any of the various sports at Tufts College." The rules in force at the time prohibited freshmen from playing on Varsity teams; students transferring from other colleges were not allowed to compete for one year. Students were limited to three years of undergraduate intercollegiate competition in any one sport.[40]  Supervised intramural sports, which had started with baseball in 1909 and had been extended to six other games by the 1930's, were encouraged; however, no holder of a Varsity letter or member of a freshman squad was eligible. Most important of all in Cousens' view was the success in instilling "the idea not only into the students but into the faculty as well that intercollegiate athletics are an important factor in any general health program for a college."


[29] The freshmen jubilantly triumphed over the sophomores in 1867 with a score of 47 to 35; no freshman scored less than four runs. The sophomores trounced the freshmen in 1870 with the resounding score of 65 to 16.

[30] The record of games played during the 1871 season indicates matches with teams from Charlestown, Chelsea, Boston, Natick, Somerville, and Stoneham. Dartmouth, Brown, and Harvard were the only colleges on the list. During this year Tufts won eleven games and lost eight. M.I.T. had been added to the schedule by 1873-74.

[31] The so-called "McGill Rules," imported from Canada, were first used; there were three "innings" of half an hour each, and a touchdown was not counted unless a goal were kicked. If no goals were made, the team accumulating the greater number of touchdowns was declared the winner.

[32] The regular team could take some comfort from the game; they not only won but appeared for the first time in new uniforms (blue shirts, blue hose, and white trunks); the color combination bore little resemblance to the College colors adopted a year earlier by the students.

[33] The 1892 season was also the first one in which all games were played with colleges and not with a mixture of local town and city teams.

[34] Tufts joined Amherst, Williams, and M.I.T. in 1885 to form the "Northern Football Association," which lasted exactly two years. Tufts enjoyed its best football season before the First World War in 1913-14, when it won seven out of eight games; its only loss was to West Point (0-2).

[35] The source of this moisture was Two Penny Brook which, when dammed sometime in the 1860's and known as the "Artificial" by the 1870's, made an excellent swimming hole in summer and skating rink in winter. It was still in active use at the time of the First World War, and until 1958 there was sufficient water available to provide a respectable skating area in the wintertime. But underground drains and the raising of the grade eliminated this campus landmark familiar to the students and townspeople of an earlier era.

[36] This area, known frequently as "College Acres," is located on the northerly side of the campus, across the Boston and Maine Railroad, and conveniently close to the Cousens Gymnasium.

[37] In 1886-87 two non-Tufts men were hired to play a five-game schedule of baseball. However, this action by the Baseball Association was repudiated by the team captain and the manager, who both immediately resigned in protest. The two imports quickly disappeared, but the policy of hiring an occasional baseball player from outside the College was not abandoned until 1891.

[38] An alumnus (C. B. Southard of the Class of 1870) was apparently sympathetic to the problem. He swung his support to the side of scholarship by offering in 1892 a silver cup to the best player on each of the two teams (football and baseball) who also ranked in the upper half of his class. When the faculty representatives on the Board of Athletics made their annual report in 1907, they noted how fortunate the College was that the coaches employed for baseball, football, and basketball were "experts who have realized that athletics occupy a subordinate position in the College curriculum."

[39] For example, nine team members in 1913 were allowed "to defer the payment of College charges without thereby incurring any disabilities as students of Tufts College." The Executive Committee in 1915 appropriated a total of $1,000 toward the expenses (tuition fees) of thirteen members of the football and baseball teams.

[40] Any further participation by students in the medical and dental schools was prohibited by this ruling. Those in the graduate division were also ineligible to participate.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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