“A Fondness for Town Ball”: Early Years of Baseball at Davidson

As the Men’s Baseball team goes on a Cinderella run in the NCAA Division I World Series, let’s look back at the foundations of baseball at Davidson College.

Baseball is first mentioned as a pastime on campus in 1870, played as recreational “Saturday ball”-style games by members of the literary societies. Much of the information the archives has on 1870s baseball come from the reflections of E.M. Summerell (Class of 1876), who was interviewed for a May 15, 1924 Davidsonian story, “Earliest Days of Davidson’s Baseball History Are Pictured By Former Player”:

“Dr. Summerell said that he had a fondness for town ball and that when a baseball club was organized here the spring after he came, he joined and made the team. He played every position on the field, including pitcher, catcher, and infielder.”

Members of the Class of 1892 baseball team, holding a sign indicating that their class had won the championship showdown between all class teams.

Cornelia Shaw’s Davidson College describes the spirit of Davidson baseball in these early years:

“The first mention of baseball was in September, 1870, when two clubs (The Mecklenburgs and the Red Jackets) were in existence… Members were excused from literary society meetings on Saturday mornings to take part. The games were an overflow of joyous interest in sport; there were no coaches and no admission fees.”

Baseball became an intramural sport, and each class fielded a team to play against the others. Quips and Cranks, the yearbook, often recorded athletic records set each year, including a “baseball throw.” However, the March 1898 issue of the Davidson College Magazine noted that “baseball doesn’t receive as much attention among us as it should,” implying that football was the more popular sport on campus at that time.

The 1905 intercollegiate team, with their mascot – that year, “Bowman’s baby.” We do not know who Bowman is, but likely a townsperson in Davidson.

Class baseball played an important role in one of the most infamous riots on campus – the Freshman Riot of 1903, when inter-class competition and hazing led to a conflict between the Class of 1906 (then freshmen) and the Class of 1905 (then sophomores) that legendarily involved their baseball score score (freshmen 12, sophomores 9) being scrawled on the columns of Old Chambers, sophomores being barricaded from their rooms, both classes taking refuge in boarding houses in town and then possibly settling their differences in a fistfight on the College President’s lawn.

The baseball squad in 1906. Since this image includes 47 players, it is likely of all the class teams and the intercollegiate team players together.

Baseball became a varsity sport in 1902, when Davidson began intercollegiate play. The first season went swimmingly, with Davidson recording victories over Duke University (then Trinity College), The Citadel, and University of South Carolina. The intercollegiate team’s first season record was 7-2, and the team would go on to post a 84-55-2 record over the first ten years of play. The freshmen class retained a junior varsity team, known as the “Scrubs” and later as the “Kittens” or “Wildkittens”, which allowed freshmen to get more playing time.

A summary of the first year of varsity intercollegiate baseball play appeared in the 1903 Quips and Cranks: “What team in the beginning of its career ever made such a record on the diamond as our team did last year?”

A baseball cartoon from the 1902 Quips and Cranks, the first year of intercollegiate baseball play.

A cartoon from the 1904 Quips and Cranks, celebrating Davidson baseball’s win over UNC. Cartoons of this type, often featuring racist stereotypes, were commonly featured in yearbooks in the early 20th century.

The baseball program has significantly expanded since the early years of “town ball,” class team rivalries, baby mascots, and early intercollegiate play. Cheer on our modern-day Davidson ball players in their best-of-three super regional match-up against Texas A&M – game one will be on June 9, game two on June 10, followed by a third game on June 11 if necessary. Go ‘Cats!

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