A History of Brown Athletics Facilities:
The Beginning of Intercollegiate Competition—1859-1899
By Peter Mackie ’59
Sports Archivist, Edward North Robinson 1896 Collection of Brown Athletics
This is the first of a four-part series that will detail the evolution of Brown’s athletic facilities, from the days of the earliest intercollegiate competition, to the current facilities and those in the planning stages.
In the early 1800s, athletic activity at Brown centered around the Back Campus (now the College Green), then a rough unlandscaped field bounded by the College’s first buildings (The Old Front Row), which in turn overlooked the Front Campus. Informal, impromptu games, interclass competitions, and practices for Brown’s fledgling teams all took place here, often witnessed by the President’s cow. The first recorded account of athletic activity appears in the diary of Williams Latham 1827 who noted on March 22, 1827, “We had a great play at ball today at noon.” The annual freshman-sophomore football game was contested on the Back Campus early in the fall term, with every member of the class participating in what amounted to a free-for-all. The ball had to be advanced beyond the goals, two large elms on Waterman and George Streets. There was no campus gymnasium, and students exercised in a private gym downtown, splitting the $7 charge with the college.
As interest in organized athletics among Brown’s small student body (fewer than 300 men) grew, associations for various sports emerged, in spite of the reservations expressed by President Caswell, who wrote in his 1870 report, “the College is ... losing scholarship by the very great interest ... in boating and baseball.” There was no centralized, comprehensive oversight of athletics until the 1895 reorganization of the Athletic Association, an organization which included all the constituencies interested in sports. Funding for earlier teams come from association dues, alumni donations, fundraisers, or by passing the hat in Chapel. In 1890 an Athletic Advisory Committee had been formed to distribute funds and to deal with perceived mismanagement of funds by the individual associations.
Intercollegiate competition began in 1859, with the July 26 crew race against Harvard and Yale on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass. The crew initially operated from Brown’s first athletic facility, a ramshackle boathouse above the Red Bridge on the east side of the Seekonk. Baseball was the next to compete against another college, taking on Harvard in 1863. Baseball soon became king of College Hill, played virtually all year round, and winning national championships. Practices were held on the Back Campus, with home plate at the north end near Manning Chapel.
Football first played in 1878 (against Amherst), and like all University teams, drew its members from the most outstanding athletes on the class teams. With no campus facility, these teams played on local fields such as the Dexter Training Grounds or Adelaide Park. Track and field events began in 1878 with the Athletic Association’s first Field Day. According to “Doc” Marvel 1890, track athletes practiced running on the Back Campus, making a “long or short jump over the wet ground around the pump.”
After the construction of Sayles Hall in the late 1870’s, the Back Campus was transformed and renamed the Middle Campus. A Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1883, and soon the whole Middle Campus was covered with courts. Sentiment for a much-needed “ball-grounds” had been growing, and in the spring of 1880 the swampy area behind Sayles Hall was turned into Brown’s first formal athletic area. Named for Professor John L. Lincoln, it provided a home for baseball, football, and track, with stands for spectators. The basement of Sayles provided a batting cage and track.
In 1891 a gymnasium was finally built, thanks to a $50,000 bequest from Daniel W. Lyman 1865. Situated adjacent to Lincoln Field, Lyman Gym (now Lyman Hall) contained a basketball court, balcony track, basement batting cage, bowling alleys, and indoor track. Now all Brown students, not just those engaged in intercollegiate athletics, were offered instruction in required physical education classes under the direction of Dr. Fred Parker, Director of Physical Culture. Gymnastics and fencing had their start shortly after the completion of Lyman.
Although the crew stopped plying the waters of the Seekonk in the late 1880’s, a victim of baseball’s popularity, Brown men were still drawn to the water. A Yacht Club was organized in 1894, holding more social outings and cruises than competitive races on the student-owned yachts. Meanwhile on the nearby frozen ponds, ice polo (1894) and ice hockey (1898) had been imported from Canada. Brown was an early power in both sports, and claimed a national hockey championship in 1898, the first year in which a battle with Harvard took place, a rivalry which continues to this day.
As the century wound down, sports at Brown were solidly entrenched. The College was growing under the leadership of President Andrews, a strong advocate of athletic competition. After the establishment of the Women’s College in 1891, Brown women were poised to get in the game. Already voices were calling for larger athletic facilities to generate revenue from the three major sports.