Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2012 (November 16, 2012)

Olympians of Beloit College


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November 16, 2012
By Fred Burwell’86

A contemporary photograph shows nine ballplayers nattily dressed in new uniforms, wielding bats that look hewn from tree trunks. Two or three fresh-faced kids are surrounded by a group of grizzled Civil War veterans. In 1866, the Olympian Base Ball Club of tiny Beloit College tested the mettle of clubs hailing from much larger cities, winning several games and apparently losing only one. The following year they were the champion baseball club of Wisconsin. Then, as fast as they rose, they faded away.

Baseball PioneersAt that time, the city of Beloit, Wisconsin, had just over 4,000 citizens and had been in existence for only 30 years. Founded in 1836 by New England emigrants, the city nestled along two sides of the Rock River, the southernmost city in Rock County, only a few steps from Illinois. The new city drew entrepreneurs who built a paper manufactory and a steam planing mill among other enterprises. Downtown Beloit became a hub for commerce and a market for the many farmers tilling the nearby fertile prairie.

Almost from its inception, the city planned to have a college. After four founding conventions, a group known as the Friends of Education adopted the Beloit College charter in 1846, with classes beginning in 1847, based on the Yale model of a classical curriculum. By 1866, fledgling Beloit College had 82 students in the college proper, with another 159 in its Preparatory Department. Fully one half of its alumni had served in the Union armed forces during the Civil War. Many veterans returned to the college to resume their studies.

Although since the 1840s Beloit College students had enjoyed a variety of sports among themselves, they had never played a contest with a club from outside the college. With the introduction in 1866 of a new sport, that was about to change, as a reporter for the college newspaper explained: “The term for out-door sport and exercise has returned. The rough and exciting game of foot-ball has been in a great measure superseded by a more agreeable one called ‘New York Base.’ The corporeal calamities attending our ‘exercise for health’ are no longer bruised shins and broken collar-bones, but simply blistered hands and occasionally a black eye.”

The same issue announced the formation of two “complete organizations” for the new game, the “Olympian Base Ball Club” of Beloit College, and the “Union Base Ball Club” of the Preparatory Department, along with a roster of officers. According to alumnus Joel B. Dow, class of 1869, “Base-ball was born and christened in ’66. Aaron Skinner, of ’69, proposed the name of ‘Olympians’ for the College Nine, and it was a go. Aaron was commended for his classic thought.” A founder of the Olympian Club, Henry T. Wright, Beloit College class of 1866, wrote in 1920, “W.A. Cochran is the man I selected and coached for the Olympian Baseball club, the first college baseball club west of the Allegheny Mountains so far as I can learn.”

Although they probably played several undocumented games during 1866 and 1867, the first known match of the Olympian Base Ball Club took place on Saturday afternoon, June 2, 1866, against the Union Base Ball Club, resulting in a resounding 57-12 victory, featuring a 13-run second inning and a 15-run eighth inning. The line score did not list the players, but mentioned that there were four Olympian home runs.

In one of its editorials, The Beloit College Monthly reflected on changing times, describing a country and people ready at last for fun and leisure after the turmoil of the war years:

Did we say, a moment ago, the summer is a time of activity? Yes, and of recreation too. And this summer is specially so. In the last war were many scenes of fierce excitement. The people at times have boiled over with rage, patriotism, bitterness or grief. Now peace has come and the popular heart demands some food for excitement. So a host of festivities, celebrations and tournaments have risen all through the land … We rejoice in the rising popularity of manly sports …

Excerpted from Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870: The Clubs and Players Who Spread the Sport Nationwide, © 2012 Edited by Peter Morris, William J. Ryczek, Jan Finkel, Leonard Levin and Richard Malatzky by permission of McFarland & Company., Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com

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