When Pierson College set out to win the annual bladderball game in 1976, one Piersonite went over the top — literally.
“The Pierson student, who was fairly affluent, rented a helicopter and took it from the New Haven airport,” former Pierson College Master and Larned Professor Emeritus of History G. Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 recalled.
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Smith and the student flew over Old Campus tossing out fliers declaring Pierson winners of the game, Smith said. The following Monday, the Pierson College Master’s office received a visitor.
“A policeman arrived at the Master’s office, and he wanted to charge me with littering,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Do you have any evidence?’ and he didn’t.”
Now, 27 years since then-President A. Bartlett Giamatti banned the sport after injuries increasingly plagued its participants, some students are planning to revive it. Though rumors of a bladderball game this Saturday have been circulating around campus, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she remains skeptical.
“I think this is all a giant hoax,” Miller said. “Bladderball remains banned by the Dean of Yale College. It would be shut down.”
University President Richard Levin said revivals of the game have been attempted before and have failed.
Though the rules of bladderball have changed radically over the years — some alumni claim there are no rules at all — the game is generally characterized by a mob of Yale undergraduates fighting for control of an inflated ball six to seven feet in diameter. Chaos was the key element of bladderball games. The winner of a game was never known, and many groups often claimed victory with outrageous scores. It is an event Miller recalled as “a drunken mob.” The game traditionally took place on the weekend of the Yale-Dartmouth football game, which is this weekend.
Beginning Tuesday night, flyers reading “BLADDERBALL IS COMING” appeared on tables outside the Davenport dining hall. By Thursday, the signs had spread to Saybrook. Before a history section in William L. Harkness Hall on Thursday, students witnessed Sean Fraga ’10 run into the classroom and write “bladderball” on a chalk board. When asked who was organizing the event, Fraga shrugged and ran out.
Albert Chang ’13, a Davenport College Council representative, e-mailed his classmates to announce that the game would begin at 4 p.m. Saturday on Old Campus. Each college will be tasked with bringing the bladderball to its respective courtyard, Chang wrote.
When asked who was behind the event, Davenport College Council President Anna Aleksandrova ’10 said she was unsure.
“Even those who were charged with disseminating this information were not told who is organizing the event, and the group’s ‘messenger’ did not answer any questions,” Aleksandrova wrote in an e-mail.
Although Yale College Council President Jon Wu ’11 confirmed that the game was taking place, he said the YCC was not behind the effort.
There is no way to tell what resemblance Saturday’s game will bear to the bladderball tournaments of yore. For alumni, it was bladderball’s lack of rules that made it enjoyable.
“To me, bladderball captured the free spirit anarchy of the late sixties,” Paul Taylor ’70 said. “It was just about wild and crazy and uncontrolled things. It wasn’t about winning and losing. It was about going with the chaos and that seemed very much in the spirit of the times.”
Werner Lohe Jr. ’71 said he remembers bladderball games as mysterious.
“People would mill around Old Campus waiting for the bladderball game to start, and suddenly the bladderball would appear out of Bingham Hall,” he said. “Everyone would swarm toward it like 6-year-olds at a soccer game.”
Smith said the game began when he was a student, with teams fielded by the News, The Yale Record, The Yale Banner and WYBC. Each organization’s team tried to earn points by getting the bladderball into a square drawn onto the ground.
Over time the purpose of the game had changed, Smith said, with colleges now attempting to get the ball back to their respective courtyards. Over time, the event evolved to include hundreds, even thousands, of participants.
A February 2001 News article reported that when a Jonathan Edwards student popped the ball during the 1975 game, students began cheering “JE sucks,” giving birth to the college’s motto, which remains today, though with an alternative spelling (JE sux).
Vandalism usually played a large role in the game as well, Lohe said.
“No one knew what the rules were, but the crowd quickly figured out that one way to get a cheer was to push the ball up against the glass globe on top of the lamp post,” he explained. “When the glass globe was knocked down, people would cheer and move on to the next lamppost.”
Asked what he thought of a 2009 version of bladderball, Lohe said he would be interested to see which campus groups created the most interesting teams, adding that he believed residential college teams would not be “cohesive enough.”
Since then, the bladderball itself appeared in a movie shown during the 1999 Yale Symphony Orchestra show.