Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Nice Way To Spend Thanksgiving

A grand foot ball and base ball exhibition will be given at Sportsman's Park, St. Louis on Thanksgiving day.
-Colman's Rural World, November 24, 1881

Come to think of it, isn't this kind of how we spend our Thanksgiving?

And by "foot ball," of course they mean soccer.


Richard Hershberger said...

'And by "foot ball," of course they mean soccer.'

I claim no expertise in the history of football, but it's not clear to me that this is so. By 1881 the eastern colleges were playing Rugby-style football, and the rules variations distinctive of American football were alread developing. I don't know what they were playing in the west, but I am unwilling to assume absent supporting evidence that it was soccer-style rather than Rugby-style.

Jeff Kittel said...

I'm no football expert either and you're right that there is no direct evidence that this is soccer rather than rugby or American football. But there is evidence of soccer-type games being played in StL as early as 1858. I have a source that has clubs playing a street game called "shinny" that is very similar to soccer. There are also references to "football" in StL older than the 1881 article I posted.

It could be a Rugby-variant but I really have no doubt that it's soccer. StL was, and continues to be, one of the soccer hotbeds in America and the game was certainly being played in the city by 1881. By 1890, they were organized enough to form the St. Louis Soccer League, an entity that lasted until about 1920.

Richard Hershberger said...

This requires at least a thumbnail history of football in America. Football was played since here since time immemorial, and certainly long before the putative first game in 1869. Around mid-century the game in England was splitting into two basic versions: kick-the-ball and carry-the-ball. A bare reference to "football" is insufficient information to know which version was being played, or even earlier versions which combined the two.

It is known that the 1869 game was kick-the-ball. The developmental period of intercollegiate ball really got going in the 1870s between the various northeastern schools. During the early period the rules had to be negotiated before each game. Most of the games seemed to be of the kick-the-ball variety, and when representatives finally got together to draft standard rules it looked like American footbal would be kick-the-ball.

This awful fate was averted because the major exception was Harvard, which favored carry-the-ball. They were stubborn, and they were Harvard, and in the end they got their way.

Initially the rules were pretty similar to English Rugby, particularly after Harvard played a game against McGill University and adopted some even more Rugby-like rules McGill played under. (This is the kernal of truth to the notion one hears occasionally that American football originated in Canada.)

The distinctive features differentiating American football from Rugby arose around 1880, due to the influence of Walter Camp of Yale. The main features are the snapping of the ball at the line of scrimmage, replacing the Rugby scrummage; offensive blocking; and transferring possession of the ball on downs. The major change since then is the institution of the forward pass, which came a few decades later. There are countless details, but the substantive differences between Rugby and American football come down to these features.

So what were they playing in St. Louis in 1881? Heck if I know. I don't know how quickly the eastern collegiate football rules moved west. Were any St. Louis colleges fielding football teams then? That should be easy enough to check, and if there are any game accounts it should be possible to figure out roughly what version they were playing. How would this apply to a "grand foot ball...exhibition" at Sportsman Park? Again, heck if I know. Who was playing?

True soccer (aka "Association football") was codified by football clubs in Britain, which formed the Football Association somewhat later than this. It is possible that St. Louis favored kick-the-ball football, and so once the codified version was created St. Louis took to Association football rules. This is, however, a huge leap.

Shinny, by the way, is an early version of hockey and involves a stick. There is an early reference to a game involving sticks in Cooperstown, N.Y. which inevitably is interpreted as being baseball. It is probably shinny, or something closely related.

Jeff Kittel said...

I understand what you're trying to tell me, Richard. There is nothing in the piece that suggests that they were playing kick the ball rather than run with the ball football. And I don't have the time or inclination to run down the history of football in StL (although it would be rather interesting). But, given what little I know, the football tradition in StL was of the kick the ball variety. There has never been a strong tradition of run with the ball/North American football in StL, neither in the universities or at a local club level.

Dave Litterer has a piece on the history of soccer in StL for the US Soccer History Archives and he wrote that there are records of "organized soccer" in StL dating to 1881. The implication is that it was being played in the city prior to that. He also has a nice piece on the 1862 Oneidas Football Club of Boston and where he runs through
the same argument that we're working through with regards to whether or not the Oneidas, who some claim were the first soccer team in the US, actually played soccer. He suggests that simply because the FA wasn't formed until 1863 doesn't mean that they weren't playing soccer in the US prior to this. The FA was organized to codify the rules of a game that already existed.

As to shinny, I've known about the hockey-type game for a long time (probably from reading Stan Fischler as a kid) and a couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a big hockey fan, telling him about the article I found and asking him his opinion. The problem I have with the article is that there is no mention of sticks and that made me think that it was something other than a hockey-type game. I'll have to go back and look at it again. It's an interesting article and has reports on a marble contest and a game of mumbly peg. Sadly nothing on any kind of bat and ball game.