There was a time when intramural sports were waged not only in streets of New Haven, but in the skies above.
For nearly 30 years, Yale students demonstrated their worthiness to lead our nation by waging brutal struggles for an enormous leather orb. Flamboyant hijinks, near riots and even airborne assaults were par for the course in the campus wide ritual that came to be known as bladderball.
“The whole point of bladderball was nobody had ever done anything like it,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 said. “It was hugely fun.”
Arguably Yale’s least dignified tradition, bladderball originated as a prelude to the annual Yale-Dartmouth football game in 1954. The game was the brainchild of Yale Banner staffer Philip Zeidman ’55, according to Sarah Hammond ’99, who has researched the game for years.
Zeidman had done aerobic exercises with an inflatable ball more than six feet in diameter, known as a pushball, as part of basic training for the Korean War, and decided to make the exercises the basis for a game to liven up long-standing rivalries between major campus organizations.
The morning before the Dartmouth game, the Yale Daily News, Yale Broadcasting Co., Yale Record and Yale Banner fielded teams for the first-ever bladderball match. Sporting a top hat and tails, Berkeley College Master Thomas Mendenhall served as the referee for the match.
Hammond traces the name bladderball back to a combination of soccer and rugby that Yale students played on the New Haven Green in the first half of the 19th century, which was originally played with an inflated animal bladder.
Zeidman’s explanation for the name ignores his noble forbearers. He told Hammond that “bladderball” occurred to him as a fitting title for the new activity after he had consumed a few beers in the company of friends.
Having a ball
The defining characteristic of the newly founded game was anarchy.
“There was in theory a scoring system at the very beginning, but after that no one paid much attention to what the score was,” Hammond said.
Since the game had no discernable rules or uncontested goals, victory lay in flamboyant declarations of victory, published as bogus sports articles in the News and the Record. WYBC prerecorded “live” coverage of the game, in which the radio station invariably crushed its opponents.
“The Yale Daily News always won by a score of 906 to nothing,” said Gaddis Smith ’54, a professor emeritus of history.
The real objective lay in wreaking havoc. In the 1960’s this took the form of elaborate schemes to frustrate the Yale police by spiriting the bladderball off Old Campus.
Hammond said a group of students secretly cut through the lock on one of the Old Campus gates, but took pains to make the gate appear to still be locked. In the middle of the game, the conspirators seized the ball and made a beeline for the gate, which suddenly swung open, allowing the ball-bearers to make their escape into the streets of New Haven.
The escaped 1971 bladderball made a crosstown trip more than six miles long, where it caused massive traffic jams before it was cornered and deflated by campus police in the Beinecke sculpture garden.
The rowdiness inherent in the game was exacerbated by general drunkenness. Since the legal drinking age in Connecticut was only 18 at that time, participating organizations had kegs on hand for their members.
In 1961, security director John Powell decided to relocate the game to the Yale Bowl, but with little success. A game was played on Old Campus, using a variety of substitutes for the bladderball, including a student. Powell himself was burned in effigy.
Over the years, an increasing number of campus organizations, including the Yale Dramat and the Yale Scientific, began to field teams, while Old Campus residents also joined in the game.
Students for a Democratic Society even fielded a team for the 1971 game. Their rivals that year included the Rachmaninoff Society, the student laundry and a team of annexed students called the “Hillhouse Hard-ons.”
By the mid-1970s, bladderball had shifted from being a showdown between rival campus organizations to an all-out competition between the residential colleges, in which the goal was to get the ball over the High Street gate on Old Campus. The college which succeeded in seizing the ball then bore it up Hillhouse Avenue and presented it to University President Kingman Brewster.
“The teams were just a kind of fiction,” Brodhead said. “It was an expression of carnivalesque anarchy. Teams suggest orderliness and structure.”
But this being Yale, bladderball begged an intellectual rationale.
“The bladderball clearly incarnates the archetypal female form: the egg,” wrote Jonathan Tucker ’75 in the 1977 Yale Banner.
“Magically released from the Fallopian tube-like tunnel of Phelps Gateway, it bounces rhythmically above the swarming hands of the crowd like a huge ripe ovum being battered by thousands of frantic spermatozoa,” Tucker said. “The accumulated libidinal energy aroused by the pre-game skirmishes (but largely repressed, because of homophonic anxiety) is immediately transferred onto the permitted female form of the bladderball.”
Although most bladderball related injuries were comparatively minor, the reputation of Jonathan Edwards College was irreparably damaged in 1975 when an attempt to capture the ball using a hook, lowered by rope from a McClellan window, accidentally popped the ball. Enraged students broke into a spontaneous cheer of “JE sucks,” which remains that college’s motto today.
Tucker aptly summed up the magnitude of the tragedy.
“The rape of the unfertilized ‘egg’ with a tool used for suspending slaughtered animals is a graphic example of the death-mentality that is now threatening the vitality of the Yale community,” Tucker wrote, “an ominous portent of the consequences of the pervasive retreat into sterile individualism.”
The slashed ball itself was placed on closed reserve in Cross Campus Library.
The 1976 game resembled a war as much as an athletic event. David Rose ’78 and then Pierson College master Gaddis Smith ’54 soared over Old Campus in a rented helicopter, littering the town with leaflets declaring “Surrender, Pierson has won.”
“It was a very blustery autumn day, and poor David got airsick, so I had to throw the leaflets out myself,” Smith said. “Pierson students also baffled the Yale Police with prank phone calls, before chaining shut the doors of rivals Branford and Saybrook, whose pleas for release fell on deaf police ears.”
Yet that year marked the beginning of the end for bladderball, because pre-game pranks turned to vandalism. At one point, the ball landed on the roof of a car parked outside the Old Campus gates, and frenzied students trampled both the vehicle and the driver.
After Saybrook students trashed Branford dining hall, smearing tables with excrement, many administrators had had enough.
“Every Yale student is entitled to freedom from this kind of repulsive act,” irate Branford Master William Zisser told the News at the time. “If it takes cancelling bladderball to get rid of this kind of action, then it will have to go.”
But the game survived for a few more years before then-president A. Bartlett Giamatti banned it forever after a rash of injuries in the 1982 game.
The bladderball itself eventually fell into the hands of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. It made a memorable cameo appearance as the boulder that chases a hapless student down the Machine City tunnel in a parody of in movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the 1999 YSO Halloween show, an ignominious end to a long if not distinguished career.