“The public, so far as it knew of our playing, was shocked”
Frisbees sail about in the Circle now, tossed by students in their jeans and sneakers, or cutoffs and shorts with tank tops when Poughkeepsie’s weather permits. So it’s true, kind of: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Here in the Circle is where were played the first baseball games for women in the history of the country, of the world .
“They are getting up various clubs now for out-of-door exercise,” wrote home Annie Glidden of Vassar Female College’s first class, her letter dated April 20, 1866. “They have a floral society, boat clubs, and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it highly I can assure you.”
Vassar pioneered the idea of sports for young ladies in America, a concept entirely new. “Of special importance to the student is the relation of athletics to the hygiene of the brain,” said Sophia Foster Richardson, looking back after decades to when she, like Annie Glidden, played baseball in the Circle at Vassar. And that was hardball. Softball came long afterward. Strenuous games were not a “foe to scholarship,” Richardson had found; indeed, the student “puts her brain in fit condition for study by some vigorous play.”
But baseball ? Slide, baby, slide? Stick it in her ear? Kill the ump? Yes. The first students formed two teams almost as soon as they checked into Main, Vassar’s first building, modeled on the Tuileries soon to be burned by the Paris mob rebelling against Napoleon III and the lost war with Prussia. One team was the Laurel Base Ball Club, the other was the Abenakis, a title whose meaning does not instantly come to mind. (There is a close parallel a century and a quarter on, for not immediately apparent are the precise meanings of all the names of such recent Vassar intramural teams as Sexual Anarchists, Backdoor, Boys Be Hoppin’, UNICEF All-Stars, Nasty Girls, Modern Wenches at Play, Chinga Chompers, Gutrot, Mother Puckers, Sick Animals, Hondo’s Team, Pete’s Dream Machine, Six Pack, Kicking Dudes, Boy Scout Death Camp, Undergrowth, and Yummy Purple Awakening.)
Soon the Precocious Base Ball Club joined Laurel and Abenakis. In their high-necked and frilled long gowns they played their Vassar matches: “Upon its Circle the base ball clubs flourish and there are the mighty brought low,” reported the July 1875 Vassar Miscellany when the number of clubs had grown to seven. By then the “Female” was gone from the college’s name, for the word had come to be seen as an inaccurate designation. It seemed to imply of the new school, said the influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book , that “all female creatures may there be instructed; that idea would, besides including all ages of womankind, also take in animals.” The founder, Matthew Vassar, who had put up the money and land for the college, agreed. The word, he decided, was a “degraded vulgarism.”
But increasingly the baseball clubs were also seen as vulgar. It was one thing for a former cavalry officer of Prussia’s army, a baron, to lead side-saddle files of equestriennes round and round the Circle, and no one looked askance at students exercising with dumbbells and Indian clubs or performing Swedish or Boston light gymnastics in gym suits with kilts in the Calisthenium. But baseball? “The reputation for dignity” of those who played the game, remarked a Miscellany writer, “may be regarded as a minus quality.”
And there was the opinion of the outside world to consider. “The public, so far as it knew of our playing, was shocked, but in our retired grounds, protected from observation by sheltering trees, we continued to play in spite of a censorious public,” Sophia Richardson remembered. The sheltering trees, some still there, enormous evergreens, could not block out the Victorian era. Archery, said the Miscellany , had about it a “flavor of aristocracy that baseball lacked” true enough it was that while showers of arrows were sent at targets, no proof was seen that one was ever hit. Baseball, after all, was “plebeian.”
Tennis was coming in, golf, ice skating, bicycle riding, and in 1895 Vassar would hold a field day of varied competitions, the participants in which wore dark blue bloomers and shirt-waists and yellow surrah-silk ties and sweaters as they reintroduced to the modern world track-and-field events not seen since the Greek women’s Olympic Games a millennium and a half gone. An instructor in gymnastics wore what were surely the first spiked shoes ever made for a woman. But there was no more baseball. “I think there was too much pressure against it from disapproving mothers,” wrote Sophia Richardson. By the end of the school year in the spring of 1876 there were only two teams playing—“delightful but contraband pleasure.” When the students returned to campus in the fall, base-ball was finished.
So here they are, one of the last two teams, the Resolutes, seen outdoors on a June day of 1876 in front of what was probably the Calisthenium (now Avery Hall), the Misses May Gardner, Italia McKeague, Mollie Woodward, Ada Thurston, Sarah Sheppard, Gertie Crane, Molly Dickey, Maude Gould, and May Bryan, who, when not in their sweeping skirt baseball uniforms, go about wearing gowns with corsets and bonnets and great fruit-tray hats, and carry parasols. It was a long time ago. Custer in that month was about his business at the Little Bighorn.
Today the manicured baseball diamond is well away from the Circle, as is a massive field house with a magnificent pool. The new art gallery isn’t too far off. It cost just thirty-nine times the four hundred thousand dollars old Matthew Vassar put up to create the college. His money came from beer, and each Founder’s Day the school’s president takes a ceremonial sip and kegs are opened for the student body—free. Vassar’s teams honor the founder’s memory; they are the Brewers. The tennis team’s done wonderfully of late, nationally ranked.
Born in the mid-1850s, the Resolutes would have been mature by the end of the nineteenth century, their ballplaying days long behind them, and getting on by the time of the Depression, and likely all dead by Pearl Harbor, and so the flag sank for the last of them long ago, brave girls.