When Wesleyan’s baseball team visits Yale Field on Tuesday, April 21st, it will be much more than a team having a fine season playing a struggling Ivy League nine.
Currently Wesleyan and Yale are marking their 150th year of baseball. Sports historians are taking note that teams from those two universities first played each other in 1865, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, college baseball rivalries.
There is little available information about the contest in New Haven on September 30, 1865, but we have uncovered some interesting material surrounding it, which should help to bring credibility to the origins of the rivalry, and preserve some of the details in a modern format.
Wesleyan’s baseball beginnings
For much of the following material, I am indebted to the Special Collections and Archives of the Olin Library at Wesleyan, and the publication contained there, entitled Agallian Baseball Club Records, 1865-1869.
Although this was the first intercollegiate game for the Cardinals and Bulldogs, as they are now known, they had faced some non-college clubs earlier in that year of 1865. Technically, the team from the school in Middletown, Conn., did not play as Wesleyan but under the Agallian Club banner. “Base Ball”, as it was then written, was not formally sponsored by the college at the time, although it was composed of members from several of its classes.
An earlier version of the game had been played informally at Wesleyan starting at least in 1860. Then the Agallian Base Ball Club was formed in the fall of 1864.Two of its founders were Charles L. Bonnell, class of 1868, and Stephen Olin, class of 1866.
Bonnell was the first team captain and Olin was a future President of Wesleyan. In 1923 Olin was presented a varsity letter “W,” since in his days as an undergraduate there was no such award. (Major League Baseball in Gilded Age Connecticut by David Arcidiacono)
The Agallians played their first games in the spring of 1865, debuting against the Charter Oak Base Ball Club of Hartford, and losing 22-12. Practices and home games took place on the Washington Street Green in Middletown and on a nearby vacant plot of land, also on Washington Street.
The following September the Agallian Club challenged Yale for what is believed to have been Wesleyan’s first athletic contest, not only in baseball, but in any kind of sport.
Why “Agallian” was chosen as the club’s name
A professor of Greek, James Van Benschoten, pointed out that a person in ancient Greece, whose name was Agalles, was said to have invented the first game of ball-playing. The Base Ball Club was named as a tribute to Agalles.
Yale’s baseball beginnings
While the club team from Wesleyan was playing against non-collegiate opponents, Yale archives refer to a “return match” between the Yale College Club and the Charter Oak Club in New Haven on July 1st. Until now, I have not found anything on the earlier game between those teams.
The article mentions that the Charter Oak Club team was met at the New Haven depot by Yale and conveyed in carriages to the new playing grounds, which had never before been used for the purposes. Charter Oak won the nine inning game 39-12.
The game that started it all
The following detail is from A History of Yale Athletics, 1840-1888. It indicates that “Base Ball” was first played at Yale in 1859, but the game then was in a very crude state of development. In 1860 it was discontinued, and not taken up again until 1865, when the Y.U.B.B.C. (Yale University Base Ball Club) was formed, with J. Coffin as President (probably equivalent to Captain). A team was picked to meet a challenge from the Wesleyan Agallian Club.
The book states that “the Yale nine, never before having played together, improved vastly as the game progressed, and toward the close played very brilliantly. Their fielding was excellent, some very fine fly-catches being made, and home runs were secured by three men.”
The game ran 3 hours and 20 minutes and the score was Yale 39 Wesleyan 13. The high run totals of the day were due largely to the “first bounce” rule, under which a batter was out if the ball was caught on the first bounce. “Outfielders playing in close to try to get that first bounce allowed frequent home runs.” (Baseball in New Haven, by Sam Rubin)
There was a game report in The New York Times (Oct. 2, 1865) stating that the day was “fine” and it was “witnessed by quite a large number of spectators.”
The contest went for eight innings, until, as was reported in the Times, the “Middletown boys, finding the score too heavy against them and wishing to leave for home by the evening train, put a stop to the game.”
There is no reference to exactly where in New Haven the game took place, but evidence supports the conclusion that it was at Brewster Park, later known as Hamilton Park, and then Elm City Park, until it was taken down in 1913. It was located off of Whaley Avenue, in the area of Hubinger Street, Pendleton Street and the West River, and with a spectacular view of West Rock. Yale would also use the site for several years for football and soccer.
When it was demolished, it was described by The New York Times (Jan. 5, 1913) as “one of the most historically famous athletic spots in America.” It had a lot of other history besides the staging of the first ever Yale and Wesleyan intercollegiate game of baseball.
It is hoped here that the players, coaches, and the expected relatively few in attendance at equally historic Yale Field on April 21st to see the renewal of the Yale-Wesleyan rivalry will appreciate that they are part of a baseball legacy.