Ray Purpur retells the story of Stanford athletics’ early days

Jordan playing baseball
President David Starr Jordan at bat in the 1891 faculty vs. seniors baseball game, played on a dirt lot in front of Encina Hall. (Stanford University Archives)

RAY PURPUR, deputy athletic director, traced the early days of Stanford athletics back to 1891 during a recent talk to the Stanford Historical Society.

It’s unlikely JANE and LELAND STANFORD could have ever imagined today’s intercollegiate athletics program. But, Purpur noted, the Stanfords apparently believed in the value of exercise. Their Founding Grant notes that “physical activity is valuable for its own sake and that vigorous exercise is complementary to the educational purposes of the University.”

Ray Purpur
Ray Purpur

In 1891, there were no athletic facilities at Stanford. Tennis, which was popular among the university’s first students, was played on the asphalt courtyards in the Inner Quadrangle.

Stanford’s first president, DAVID STARR JORDAN, was a sports enthusiast who favored baseball in particular. He sponsored an annual baseball game between seniors and the faculty that took place on a dirt lawn near today’s Encina Hall.

In the university’s early days, men could choose among baseball, football, track and field, and tennis. There were two sports for women: archery and tennis. The Stanford Athletic Association, headed by freshman HENRY TIMM, was one of the earliest campus organizations.

The first intercollegiate sport was football, but the game played in the late 1800s bears little resemblance to today’s football. The ball, for instance, looked a little more like a soccer ball, the teams included more players and the fields were much larger. There were no forward passes. The sport, Purpur said, was one of “brute force.”

The Stanford football club, under the strict supervision of transfer student JOHN WHITTEMORE, was one of the first organizations on campus. The Stanford team accepted a challenge to play Cal in football, even though the University of California had been playing the sport a full six years before Stanford opened. Stanford unexpectedly won the first “Big Game” on March 19, 1892, giving rise to one of collegiate sports’ most famous and lasting rivalries.