On September 30, 1865, Yale University played its first-ever baseball game, a Saturday afternoon matchup against Wesleyan. Last Saturday night, the two teams met in an exhibition game to celebrate the sesquicentennial of their rivalry, and of their respective baseball programs.
I should pause right at the outset here to talk about how long ago 1865 really is. It’s the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It’s the year William Butler Yeats and Rudyard Kipling were born. It’s the year Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, and it’s the year Richard Wagner’s "Tristan and Isolde" premiered.
In the context of baseball, 1865 is 38 years before the first World Series. It’s eleven years before the National League’s first season as baseball’s first major league. It’s four years before the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team in the world.
That said, Yale was actually a little late to the collegiate baseball table. Harvard, for instance, had had teams as early as 1862. As The New York Times put it in a story that ran two days after the game:
In base ball, […] Yale has, up to the present time, been rather behindhand. There has not been sufficient interest in the game to render its patrons able to cope successfully with other clubs, and we record with pleasure a triumph for her in that direction.
A triumph is right. Yale beat The Agallian of Wesleyan that day 150 years ago, 39–13, scoring multiple runs in each of the eight innings they played before the team from Middletown had to catch an evening train home.
“The day was fine,” the Times said, “And some of the playing was exceedingly fine, and was witnessed by quite a large number of spectators.”
As part of Yale’s alumni weekend, Saturday night’s game had a relatively large audience too. A crowd of close to 1,200, made up mostly of raucous current and former students of both schools, cheered and heckled as though the exhibition actually counted.
Former Major League Baseball commissioner, and Yale Law School graduate, Fay Vincent spoke before the game. And both teams wore throwback uniforms. Yale’s had collared tops and short-brimmed caps; Wesleyan’s included red pocket flaps and high socks with distinctive, striped stirrups.
The game, though, was quite different from the one fans would’ve seen in 1865. The fielders wore gloves. The ball was smaller and lighter and harder. The bats were aluminum.
And the outcome was quite different too, and quite a bit more closely contested. Rather than scoring 52 runs between them, Wesleyan and Yale plated just three runs each over the first nine innings.
After a timely double play prevented the Bulldogs from scoring in the bottom of the ninth, Wesleyan’s Cardinals broke the tie on second baseman AJ Ferrara’s well-placed squeeze bunt. They tacked on two more runs on winning pitcher Dylan Millhouse’s triple and a wild pitch.
On this crisp, fall evening with a nearly full moon, and in their 79th meeting with Yale dating back to 1865, Wesleyan prevailed, 6–3, in ten innings.
The night was fine. And some of the playing was exceedingly fine too.