This article was written by Richard Hershberger
This article was published in Spring 2017 Baseball Research Journal
Tracing the origin of a Harvard University president’s famous quotation about a curveball. “Well, this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.”
This quotation is best known from its appearance in Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, read (in the words of historian John Thorn) with “proper snoot” by George Plimpton.1 It is ascribed there, as is usual, to Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909.
It is not, however, well attested. It has not been found in Eliot’s published writings, nor ascribed to him in any contemporary source. It is notably absent from the Yale Book of Quotations, a recent and rigorous contribution to the quotations-book genre, which includes two other quotations from Eliot. Its doubtful provenance is enough to make one of a skeptical bent suspect it of being too good to be true. This is why this, from 1884, is notable:
During the recent convention of representatives from Harvard, Yale, and other colleges to consider the subject of athletics, one of the speakers unbosomed himself thus:
Athletics have come to the pass where they are no longer fair and open trials of strength and skill, but on the contrary, as at present conducted, they train the young men to look upon victory as the rewards of treachery and deceit. That this is the case, anyone who has seen the game of baseball as it is played by the so-called best college nines will at once admit. For the pitcher, instead of delivering the ball to the batter in an honest, straightforward way, that the latter may exert his strength to the best advantage in knocking it, now uses every effort to deceive him by curving—I think that is the word—the ball. And this is looked upon as the last triumph of athletic science and skill. I tell you it is time to call halt! when the boasted progress in athletics is in the direction of fraud and deceit.2
This paragraph from the New York Clipper is clearly a more prolix form of the epigram. The pithier received version might be a tighter rendition by the same speaker, or it might have been improved by others in later repetition, but both forms include the distinctive element that make it so attractive today: the curve ball described as deceitful, stated in the voice of moral condemnation.
This discovery allows us to place the epigram in its historical context. The complaint did not come out of the blue, but was a part of an ongoing discussion about the place of college athletics—a discussion that continues to this day.
Gentlemen and Players
Baseball had a long history at Harvard, going back to 1858 when students at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School founded the Lawrence Base Ball Club.3 Harvard commenced intercollegiate play in 1865, beating Williams College 35–20. In 1868 things got serious when Harvard first played Princeton and, above all, Yale (winning 17–16 and 25–17 respectively).4 They also played non-collegiate clubs and, when the time came, with professional clubs. There lay the objections.
Eliot’s vision of the role of college athletics was informed by the assumptions of Victorian English society. English society was hierarchical, with fine gradations. The most important division was that between the gentry and the non-gentry. The gentry were defined by shared dress and speech and education: gentlemen were men who acted like gentlemen. Paramount to this was that gentlemen did not work for a living. Ideally they were supported by landed estates, or failing this, investment income from stocks and bonds. The reality was never actually so clear, of course. Certain professions, such as medicine and the law, were open to gentlemen. But others, such as manufacture and trade, were not.
Playing sports professionally was completely out of bounds. A professional athlete was by definition therefore not a gentleman. This is not to say that gentlemen did not engage in competitive sports. Quite the contrary: the English gentry were enthusiastic about athletic competition, but only against other gentlemen. This is the origin of the “amateur ideal” familiar until recent years from the modern Olympic games. Calling it amateurism is a euphemism. The original motivation was to limit competition to those with the means to compete without financial reward.
Cricket was the notable exception to the rule that gentlemen only competed against gentlemen. Organized cricket long predated the Victorian ideals of sport, and developed along different lines. Cricket clubs routinely combined dues-paying members and paid working-class employees—respectively “gentlemen” and “players”—playing together on the same field. This was not out of any sense of egalitarianism. Interactions between the groups were carefully circumscribed. The gentlemen and the players had different entrances and different dressing rooms, and just to be certain that there was no confusion, game accounts gave the names of the gentlemen with the title “Mr.” while players were given their bare surnames.
Eliot shared this worldview. There were gentlemen and there were non-gentlemen. Harvard students fell into the first class, and it was his job to ensure that they were taught how to act like proper gentlemen. This did not translate exactly to American society. Many Harvard graduates went on to business careers not available to English gentlemen. But the English gentry, with its rules of conduct, was the ideal to be copied as closely as possible.
A Harvard man playing professionally obviously was beyond the pale. The question was what, if any, interaction was permissible between college and professional athletes? Was it like cricket, where they could compete together under clearly circumscribed conditions? Or did they have to be completely separate?
The cricket model did not translate well to America, where all men are created equal and every man is a “Mr.” This comes through in the aftermath of the tour of 1874 by the Bostons and the Athletics of Philadelphia baseball club to England. They played a series of exhibition baseball games against one another and cricket matches against local clubs. They were professionals, and so their hosts treated them as such: with courteous hospitality, but the courtesy and hospitality one offers to one’s social inferiors, not one’s equals. This didn’t go over well, and upon their return the players were full of complaints. An explicit example comes out in an interview of Athletics’ catcher John Clapp:
R.—How did they receive and treat you?
C.—Well, they seemed rather indifferent, just as if they didn’t think either we or our game amounted to much.
R.—You saw, I suppose, that they were slightly conceited?
C.—Slightly? Slightly ain’t the word for it! Confoundedly conceited!
R.—And you didn’t like it?
C.—No, none of us did. I’m every bit as good as any Englishman, I don’t care who he is. We outbatted them and outfielded them all the time, but they grunted about “form,” and called us “sloggers,” until we laughed more than we sneered.5
American ballplayers simply did not know their place. Eliot worried that this attitude would be contagious, making any interaction with them a threat to the amateur ideal. This first comes out in the mid-1870s, as seen in this from Harvard’s Annual Report from the President:
Base-ball, foot-ball, cricket, running, jumping, and various other athletic exercises, are practised there [Harvard’s Jarvis and Holmes fields] during October, November, April, May, and June. While the [Harvard College] Corporation have given the best possible evidence of their desire to foster these manly sports, they have felt compelled to discourage by every means in their power the association of students with the class of persons who make their living by practising or exhibiting these games; to dissuade students from making athletic sports the main business, instead of one of the incidental pleasures, of their college lives; and to prohibit altogether the taking of money for admission to witness the sports upon the College play-grounds.6
Competition and coaching
Eliot, over the next few years, raised further concerns about the over-emphasis on sport—or perhaps he realized that a pure class argument was not compelling. College sport, in his new critique, was growing too competitive. The athletes’ training regime grew too time-consuming and open to only a small number of top performers rather than the student body as a whole.7 Worst of all, it bred a belief that winning was the only goal, that “games should be played to win, and that whatever promotes winning should be done.”8 This was antithetical to Harvard’s mission:
The athletic sports ought to cultivate moral as well as physical courage, fair-dealing and the sense of honor. If any form of unfaithfulness, unfairness, or meanness is tolerated in them, they become sources of wide-spreading moral corruption. If students do not find their sense of honor cultivated and refined by their College life, they may be sure that their education is failing at its most vital point.9
Matters came to a head when students started pooling their funds to hire professionals to coach them over the winter and early spring. This exemplified to Eliot everything that was going wrong in college sport: an extraordinary measure taken merely for the purpose of winning, and which would inevitably inculcate the culture of professionalism.10
Harvard responded by instituting a standing committee of three faculty members to supervise athletic competition. It forbade games with professional clubs, restricted match games to Saturdays, and reined in professional trainers, only allowing by special permission.11
The Harvard faculty athletics committee called an intercollegiate meeting to be held in New York City over the 1883–1884 winter holiday. Professional coaches were at the top of the agenda. An agreement was adopted at a follow-up meeting in February to ban such coaches.12 Even this modest achievement proved for naught, as Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, and Penn all refused to ratify it.13
The Harvard faculty nonetheless stuck to their guns. The faculty strictly enforced the ban on any competition against professionals. April games with the National League Boston Club were an institution, so this did not go over well with the students. A faculty-student meeting, a student petition, and a mass meeting of the student body resulted.14 Eliot, speaking to the Boston Association of High School Teachers, described baseball as a “wretched game.”15
Further complaint arose from the case of William Coolidge. He had played for the Harvard nine as an undergraduate and then as a student at Harvard Law School (as was legitimate under the eligibility rules of the day). In 1884 he retired from the Harvard nine to concentrate on his studies. He was happy to fill in for the Beacon Club of Boston when they needed a player for a game with the professional Boston Club. The immaculately amateur Beacons were composed mostly of Harvard graduates, and Coolidge anticipated no difficulty arising from this. But later in the season the Harvard team asked him to fill a temporary vacancy, but the faculty athletic committee declared him ineligible for having played against professionals.16
Charles Eliot Norton
The preceding is by way of setting the context for the famous denunciation of the deceitful curve ball. Eliot’s longstanding unease about collegiate competitive sports was coming to a climax, resulting in his expostulation at the winter holiday meeting.
Everything about this quotation seems consistent with Eliot’s views. It would be tempting to declare the case closed, with the attribution to Eliot confirmed. There is only one problem. He was not at the meeting:
During the holidays a meeting of representatives from the faculties of the chief colleges met in New York to discuss athletics. This convention arose from Dr. Sargent’s visit to the various colleges and was called by the Athletic Committee of Harvard. There were present Prof. Norton and Dr. Sargent, from Harvard; President McCosh of Princeton; Professor Richards of Yale; Mr. Goodwin of Columbia and many other presidents and professors.17
The two Harvard delegates were Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent and Professor Charles Eliot Norton. It is most likely that the denunciation of the curve ball came from Professor Norton.
This conclusion relies on the assumption that the denunciation came from a Harvard delegate. This is not certain, but there are reasons to believe it to be true. The quotation has always been associated with Harvard, and Harvard was the driving force behind the meeting. Most of the other schools were decidedly less enthusiastic about the agenda. If someone was going to stand up and bloviate this way, we would expect it to be someone most committed to the cause.
Once we assume that it was one of the Harvard delegates, Norton is the obvious candidate for two reasons. The first is the similarity of names between Charles Eliot and Charles Eliot Norton. This similarity was not coincidental. The men were cousins. Eliot was the far more famous of the two. It is easy to see how a colorful quotation would be transferred in memory to the more famous cousin.
The second reason to believe it was Norton rather than Sargent is that Sargent was the wrong age. The particular curmudgeonry of the quotation bespeaks a man from an earlier era. The key is the portion of the original quotation that was italicized: “For the pitcher, instead of delivering the ball to the batter in an honest, straightforward way, that the latter may exert his strength to the best advantage in knocking it, now uses every effort to deceive him by curving—I think that is the word—the ball.” It is tempting to focus on the part about the curve ball, but the objection is to any attempt to pitch the ball in such a way that the batter cannot hit it.
Baseball was an English folk game brought to America by English colonists and played in unnumerable variants throughout Anglophone North America, most typically as a schoolyard game. Modern baseball derives from a particular form that arose in New York City, adapted for organized adult play. This version began to spread in the late 1850s, and by the late 1860s was played in towns and cities across the nation.
As the New York game grew in popularity it also grew in competitiveness. This affected how it was played, as clubs looked for an edge. One place they looked was to the pitching. The pitcher’s original role was simply to deliver the ball to the batter to hit, like a modern batting practice pitcher. The point—and the fun—of the game was in running the bases and the fielders catching and throwing the ball. As clubs looked for an edge, their pitchers started using fast balls and changes of pace and careful placement of the pitch to get batters to hit weakly, or even to strike out.
These developments did not meet universal approval among the older generation. Reminiscences of old-time baseball were common, including comparisons of and commentary on the pitching. Here is a typical example, describing the old-time game as played in Perry County in central Pennsylvania:
The object of the pitcher was not to throw a ball that could not be hit, but one that could be hit. This added interest and made the game much more lively than [modern] baseball.18
The author of the Perry County reminiscence thinks the old game superior because it was “more lively.” Implicit is the critique, hardly unknown even today, that the modern form involves too much throwing of the ball between the pitcher and the catcher. The Harvard critique is similar, but stating it in moralistic terms. The proper role of the pitcher, in this statement, is to deliver the ball for the batter to hit. When he instead tries to take on the fielder’s role of putting the batter out, he has failed to perform his duty. The curve ball had become widespread in the mid-1870s, and it loomed large in the baseball imagination. This explains the curve ball’s prominence in the Harvard critique, but the fast ball and change of pace served the same undesirable—even illegitimate—function.
The Harvard condemnation is the critique of someone whose playing days preceded the 1850s, or at least the 1860s, and therefore the rise of the fast ball. Norton was the right age, while Sargeant was too young, and generally has the wrong biography.
Dudley Allen Sargeant was born in 1849. He was graduated from Bowdoin College in 1875 and Yale Medical School in 1878. He long promoted physical exercise. He ran the Bowdoin gymnasium even before he was a student there. In 1879 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Physical Training at Harvard, where he also was director of the gymnasium until his retirement in 1919.
Charles Eliot Norton was a generation older, born in 1827. He was graduated from Harvard in 1846. After a brief stint with a trading firm he decided to devote himself to literature and the arts. He spent twenty years in Europe before returning to Harvard in 1874, where he was appointed Professor of the History of Art until he retired in 1898.
It is easy to construct a coherent narrative for Norton for the curve ball quotation. He likely played ball in his youth, as did most American boys. He was overseas during much of baseball’s development from a schoolyard game to a competitive sport, and in any case his adult biography does not suggest any interest in sports. When baseball was brought to his attention many years later he was surprised by the changes since his youth. His response was shocked disapproval, and he let this be known.
A similar narrative is much harder to imagine for Sargent. He was a boy when baseball pitching began its transformation. In later years he was in regular contact with baseball players, if only in his capacity as director of the gymnasium. Even if he preferred the old way of pitching, he would certainly not be shocked by it.
The epigram condemning the curve ball is, in its usual form, a modified version of a longer statement made in 1884. This statement was most likely made not by Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, as is usually claimed, but by Charles Eliot Norton, Professor of the History of Art at Harvard.
The evidence for this conclusion is indirect, but strong. Eliot was not listed among the persons attending the meeting where the statement was made. The statement is always associated with Harvard, and Harvard was the driving force behind the meeting, so it is likely that it was a Harvard delegate who spoke it. Of the two listed delegates, Charles Eliot Norton is by far the likelier candidate by biography, and the similarity of names explains the misattribution to his more famous cousin.
The quotation came from the growing concern among the Harvard faculty of the rise of competitive intercollegiate sports. The efforts to rein in college athletics were, of course, doomed, but not because of baseball. The worry about baseball was already falling out of date by 1884. Baseball, with the mismatch of the academic calendar and the baseball season, was never really well adapted to intercollegiate competition. Football, on the other hand, was made for college. Intercollegiate competitive football had been growing slowly and sporadically through the 1870s, but took off in the 1880s. Eliot soon transferred his critiques from baseball to football, condemning especially its brutality, making his earlier concerns about the degrading influence of baseball seem quaint.
RICHARD HERSHBERGER writes on early baseball history. He has published in various SABR publications, and in “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.” He is a paralegal in Maryland.
1 Email from John Thorn dated June 17, 2016, to the SABR 19cbb listserv.
2 “Give the Batsman a Chance” New York Clipper Vol. XXXI No. 44 (January 19, 1884), page 744, column 3. Emphasis in the original.
3 “Lawrence Base Ball Club. Records of the Lawrence Base Ball Club: an inventory,” http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hua06007
4 “Harvard University Base Ball Club. Records of Organized Baseball at Harvard: an inventory,” http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hua02006
5 The (Philadelphia) All-Day City Item, September 13, 1874.
6 Annual Report of the President of Harvard College 1873-1874, 22-23.
7 Annual Report of the President of Harvard College 1881-1882, 16-19.
8 Annual Report of the President of Harvard College 1882-1883, 22-23.
9 Annual Report of the President of Harvard College 1883-1884, 32.
10 The Chicago Tribune of January 2, 1881, reported that George Washington Bradley, of the Providence Club, had been hired by Dartmouth students to coach them. It is probably not the first such instance. When Harvard students instituted the practice is unclear.
11 Annual Report 1881-1882, 17.
12 Cincinnati Enquirer, November 25, 1883; Harvard Crimson, February 14, 1884. Unfortunately, the exact dates of the two meetings are not reported.
13 Harvard Crimson, February 28, 29, March 3, 1884.
14 Harvard Crimson, January 21, March 1, 4, 1884.
15 Sporting Life, April 23, 1884.
16 Sporting Life, May 7, 1884.
17 Harvard Crimson ,January 5, 1884. It is very unlikely that Eliot was included among the “other presidents and professors.” The named individuals all came from schools now in the Ivy League. The unnamed mass of presidents and professors came from inferior institutions.
18 The (Philadelphia) Times, August 3, 1890.