A Yale tradition reborn, redefined

When bladderball debuted on Yale’s campus in 1954, the game’s self-proclaimed creator, Philip Zeidman ’55, told Sports Illustrated the game was a revival of an “ancient and honorable tradition started by Walter Camp [1880],” the famed Yale football player and coach.

Although this was an outright lie, Zeidman said, the magazine sent a team of photographers and writers out to cover the game. In its beginnings, bladderball was played by representatives from four Yale student publications and involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol, dressing up in silly costumes and knocking a six-foot ball around Old Campus, Zeidman said. Over time, the game would be open to all Yale students, and teams would be divided by residential college.

Students rescue the bladderball from the underground entrance to Bass Library.
Students rescue the bladderball from the underground entrance to Bass Library.

But as bladderball became increasingly competitive and more students participated, injuries and property damage increased. Though bladderball might have seemed dead after its 1982 ban, Saturday’s revival of the game was a reminder that some traditions of old Yale are hard to erase.

THE BIRTH OF BLADDER

A photograph in Yale’s archives dated 1913 shows a mob of Yale students bouncing a giant ball. But as far as anyone can remember, the game was born in the 1950s.

At that time, bladderball was a competition between the Yale Daily News, the campus radio station WYBC, The Yale Banner and The Yale Record. Each team stood in corners of a makeshift square on Old Campus, attempting to block competitors from pushing the giant bladderball past them, Zeidman said.

In the early years of bladderball each team would declare victory in its respective publication — not unlike after Saturday’s game, when students took to Wikipedia to declare victory for their residential colleges.

“We did play by the rules, and then we lied about the results,” former News Chairman Calvin Trillin ’57 said.

The original concept of bladderball was born out of a gathering in 1954 in which Zeidman, then the managing editor of The Yale Banner, joined the head of the WYBC and the chairman of the Record in the apartment of Roger Stone ’55, the chairman of the News at the time, Zeidman said. Each organization had typically held a party the weekend of the football game against Dartmouth, Zeidman said, though that year the students wanted to do something different.

Zeidman had played a game similar to bladderball at ROTC summer camp in Mississippi. As a form of punishment, he and other ROTC members were forced to go out in the midday sun and play a game with an oversized ball, he said. Something triggered Zeidman’s memory of this ball when he was sitting around drinking with his Yale friends, he said. Then, because of all the beer they had drunk, someone mentioned the word “bladder.”

‘FUN RATHER THAN DANGEROUS’

And so the tradition began. In the early days of bladderball, each team wore costumes, Zeidman said. For example, a couple of years after the first game, members of the News carried Trillin, wearing a safari hat, onto Old Campus chanting while dressed in African costumes, as if in a movie, Trillin recalled.

Yale’s publications were not the only groups to partake in the fun. In the coming decade, other campus organizations began to form teams in the bladderball competition.

While later generations would come to remember bladderball as a fun, yet potentially hazardous activity, three alumni interviewed from the 1960s said they remembered it as being chaotic but harmless.

“I remember it as being sort of fun rather than dangerous,” Steven Anderson ’66 said.

By 1971, the game had changed. Residential colleges became the new delineation for teams, and to claim victory, students would try to force the ball over the High Street fence, the News reported in 1978. Still, the Oldest College Daily would continue to claim victory in its pages every year.

CALAMITY ENSUES

In the mid-1970s, bladderball became less irreverent and more destructive.

Students from Jonathan Edwards College popped the ball in 1975 and carried it to Cross Campus Library, attempting to put it on closed reserve. After they were denied, they brought it up Hillhouse Avenue to the president’s house, the News reported Nov. 3, 1975.

But in other ways, the game produced chaos. Students would stop at nothing to chase down the bladderball, recalled Eric Knapp ’80, who was a representative on the Joint Council of Social Chairmen, a student activities committee.

Yalies would jump on top of cars during the bladderball game and even caused damage, Knapp said. In 1976, in what the News dubbed a “pre-Bladderball attack,” Saybrook students put excrement and fake vomit in the Branford dining hall, although Knapp recalls it was in retaliation against a Branford prank the year prior, before the bladderball game.

“If it takes cancelling bladderball to eliminate this kind of action, it will have to go,” then-Branford College Master William Zinsser told the News at the time.

The administration was not happy with the property damage and potential bodily harm that had come to be associated with bladderball; Knapp said the JCSC tried to fight to keep bladderball alive despite pressure from the administration to end it.

“It also fell to [the JCSC] to negotiate with the administration and/or organize something so that bladderball didn’t simply cease to exist,” Knapp said. “Which I really did think was the administration’s preference.”

BLADDERBALL ON HIATUS

In 1977, the Council of Masters decided to move the event from Old Campus to the Yale Bowl, but few students made the trek to the bowl to play the game, the News reported. The game was moved back to the Old Campus the following year, and new rules were imposed. No longer could participants drink that morning at customary “Bloody Mary breakfasts”; instead, liquor would be available to students at happy hours at the conclusion of the game.

By 1982, the game had become more organized, with four teams of three colleges competing against one another, Jonathan Hunter ’83, co-chairman of the JCSC, said. Student marshals from each college would try to keep the game under control, but it was to no avail.

“It was not particularly safe, but it was a lot of fun,” Hunter said.

In 1981, the bladderball game was so violent that three students were hospitalized. In response, then-President Bartlett Giamatti banned the game.

Pamela Pershan Hochman ’86 witnessed two students having seizures during that fateful, violent game. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” she told the News in 1982. “It was like living through a shelling.”

Reached by telephone Sunday, Hochman recalled that the large crowd led to some unintentional violence.

“It was pretty wild,” she said.

It was the last time bladderball would ever be played — or at least it was supposed to be, until this past Saturday.

Correction: October 12, 2009

An earlier version of this article misidentified William Zinsser, who was the master of Branford College, not Saybrook.

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