“People don’t ask questions about Bladderball. They just show up to play it every year, assuming that, like Kingman Brewster, 36 required courses, and hating Harvard, Bladderball always has and always will exist,” Ruth Marcus ’79 wrote in the News on Friday, Nov. 5, 1976, the day before the 22nd annual Bladderball game.
Marcus is only two for four. Though Yalies still need 36 credits and hate Harvard, Bladderball has gone the route of Kingman Brewster, who departed Yale’s presidency in 1977.
But for approximately 30 seconds on Nov. 3, Bladderball returned, albeit ephemerally. After cryptic emails and signs appeared around campus advertising Vesica Sphaera, which means “bladder ball” in Latin, students believed the long-awaited return of Yale’s most famous game was upon us. Thanks to the game’s violent legacy, however, it was not to be. Yale Police stopped the game within the first minute.
Bladderball, a big-kid version of kill-the-carrier featuring inebriated college students and the occasional helicopter, began in 1954 as a contest between four Yale publications: the News, the Yale Broadcasting Co., the Yale Record and Yale Banner. The game was an innovation of Banner staff member Philip Zeidman ’55, who intended it as a preliminary festivity the weekend of the Yale-Dartmouth football game.
In 1954, each publication fielded a 15-man team and invited Berkeley College Master Thomas Mendenhall to serve as the referee. That November, Sports Illustrated ran a three-page spread on the strange new sport, including a picture of Mendenhall in a top hat and tails “officiating” the game.
Bladderball expanded in 1958, when freshmen spontaneously joined in. As the decade progressed, residential colleges, student organizations and other informal groups — including a student laundry troop and a collective of annexed students who called themselves the “Hillhouse Hard-ons” — fronted teams.
Despite the expanding scope of the game, there were still no distinguishable rules. Mayhem was king; victory lay not in possession of the Bladderball but in over-the-top declarations of supremacy. The News faithfully reported its annual win, often claiming victory by thousands of points.
Bladderball, according to the News, has a very specific recipe. “In a large Old Campus, mix 5,000 undergraduates and one very large ball. Add one jigger screams, one teaspoon old college rivalries and a dash of insanity. Drink.”
This recipe, which eventually proved toxic, led the administration to step in. In 1961, Security Director John Powell and Yale College Assistant Dean Henry Chauncey, Jr. jointly issued an ultimatum: The game had to take place at the Yale Bowl, or not at all, according to Bladderball historian Sarah Hammond ’99.
Without the game’s traditional location, Bladderball did not technically take place in 1961. The groups refused to go all the way out to the football field but did hold a “Non-Bladderball Game” on Old Campus. The Yale Record brought an effigy labeled Dean Powell, and the News team burned it.
“Since there was no actual bladderball, the teams first played with a cardboard box, then a student [Frank McGuire, chairman of the Record] and eventually with a large trash barrel,” a reporter wrote in 1961.
Bladderball returned to Old Campus the following year.
The Most Dangerous Game
This year, posters bearing the words “Vesica Sphaera” and the image of a bladderball appeared around Branford and Jonathan Edwards Colleges on Halloween. Although originally scheduled for 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, an email sent from the account firstname.lastname@example.org notified a select group of students that due to rain, the game was moved to the following day.
News of the game made its way online thanks to posts on Yik Yak and Overheard at Yale. By 4 p.m. on Nov. 3, approximately 200 hundred students were milling around on Old Campus.
At 4:08 p.m. the ball emerged from Farnam A. Two unidentified students pushed it through the door, leaving it to bounce once and roll past Battell Chapel. The Yale Police got their hands on the ball in front of Durfee C, and a female officer used a knife to puncture the ball. A chorus of boos from the students accompanied two officers as they carried the Bladderball through the Elm Street Gate and to a police minivan stationed on High Street.
“There’s a balance between having fun and public safety,” said Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins. “It was common knowledge that Bladderball is banned. My thoughts about it initially were, why is this game being yet again revived when the University made its position on it abundantly clear. Notwithstanding the obvious risk to safety of those who are playing the game, the danger to innocent community members — pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists — these are city streets that run through our campus. This is a dangerous game.”
Higgins confirmed that the remains of the bladderball are still in the police’s possession.
So how did we get here? How did a beloved tradition go from tolerated nuisance to unacceptable danger in the eyes of the administration?
Funny as the aggressively off-brand humor of Bladderball was, it became more difficult to ignore the risk inherent to the game. The self-mockery of the 1960s and early 1970s had devolved into bedlam by the early ’80s, which ultimately harmed the University and its students.
Bladderball’s prohibition was anything but abrupt. The ban was the result of decades of injuries and damages camouflaged by humorous bluster. Although many current students don’t know this side of the game, the truth is that Bladderball has, if not a dark, then at least a checkered history.
It’s All Fun and Games …
The week before the Bladderball game, the News would run other teams’ boasts, which ran from outlandish to clever to self-deprecating. Samples include the Stoner Hall Bowling team’s 1976 threat that “We will disjoint you, bong you over the head and weed you out. When we ignite our attack, you’ll all cough up another victory for the perfect parallelogonal alignment.”
That same year, David Rose ’79 executed the most unbelievable Bladderball prank.
“Teams would start drinking at seven, get themselves all lubricated, so by the time it got to ten, you had 4,000 drunken crazy Yalies trying to push this ball back to their college,” Rose said. “You can imagine the forces of physics involved. It got to be a bit of a zoo. You couldn’t win by force, so you had to win by guile.”
Rose chartered a helicopter and flew over Old Campus so he and Pierson College’s then-master Gaddis Smith ’54 could drop leaflets encouraging other teams to surrender to Pierson’s inevitable victory.
The original plan was to fly in on a helicopter and scoop up the bladderball, according to Rose. Rose and fellow Piersonites were designing a tool to do so when they realized that they would have to fly the helicopter too low to safely pull off the trick. Instead, Rose used the Pierson Press, which he ran at the time, to print flyers.
“We did leaflets modeled after German propaganda leaflets,” Rose said. “We dropped three or four thousand leaflets across the whole thing.”
In order to fund the project, Rose used crowdsourcing — promising aerial photographs of Bladderball to anyone who purchased stock in the newly-formed Pierson Bladderball Attack and Lifting League — to pay for the helicopter. Just in case other colleges had the same idea, Rose reserved all other helicopters in New Haven, he said.
But the prank did not stop with the game.
“The press being so important, I figured there should be a record of this,” Rose said. “I arranged it so Channel Eight News could cover it. I took a film camera up with me and filmed the whole thing from the air. I raced over to Channel Eight and wrote the story along the way, which of course proved Pierson won Bladderball, and they put it on the air.”
Those who helped fund the helicopter did receive their dues. Each shareholder received an 11 by 14 aerial image of the Bladderball game.
But not everyone was entertained by the antic. The New Haven authorities went searching for the litterbug responsible for the thousands of papers (which ultimately got picked up by students as collector’s items) and traced them back to Pierson. Master Smith denied knowledge of the incident, according to Rose.
“It was a wonderful tradition and very uniquely Yale,” Rose said. “But as it was at that point … [Bladderball] had gotten out of hand. The administration was really trying to tamp things down. This wasn’t the final straw, but getting up there.”
… Until Someone Gets Hurt
Harmless jokes slowly approached — then crossed — a line in the 1970s. In 1976, frenzied students chased the ball through the High Street gate of Old Campus and over a tourist’s car, damaging the stationary car but, fortunately, not the tourist.
That same year, other serious incidents of vandalism took place. The News reported an incident at Branford in which Saybrook students spread excrement on dining tables, smeared fake vomit on the ceiling and hung a smoke bomb from the rafters of their opponent’s dining hall. These episodes, in conjunction with the copious amounts of alcohol consumed during the game, led the News to run an editorial questioning how far Bladderball ought to go.
The violence that characterized the game in the ’70s was pervasive. In 1982, despite the presence of officiating marshals, the game ended early when three students were hospitalized. Two of the three students suffered seizures, one of which was related to epilepsy, and a fourth student was taken in an ambulance to University Health Services.
“The attitude and the aura surrounding Bladderball pose just as much danger as the facts of the game,” the News’ board wrote on Monday, Nov. 8, 1982. “Too many people, it seems, view the tradition as an occasion to promote drunken hysteria, boundless aggression and thoughtless violence … Yale ought to give Bladderball one more try. But if a contest advertised with caution and promoted as fun results in further injuries and another early end, the traditional game should be called to a halt — for good.”
The following day, University President A. Bartlett Giamatti banned Bladderball.
Bladderball Bounces Back
Bladderball did not return until 2009. After a 27-year ban, over 1,000 people flocked to Old Campus to see the tradition reappear. The ball came through Phelps Gate, traversed Old Campus and moved towards Cross Campus, blocking traffic in the process. Eager students ripped the bladderball apart, and although the News reported the largest pieces of the ball ended up at Ezra Stiles Master Stephen Pitti’s house after a battle that lasted a full hour, every college and the News claimed the victory.
Nobody was seriously injured in the revival, though several students suffered minor battle wounds. The game drew a strong response from the administration: All 12 deans and masters signed an open letter condemning Bladderball, reiterating its illegality.
In 2011, an 11-minute game ended when the Yale Police got involved. Though the bladderball had popped two minutes after emerging from Dwight Hall, over 300 students were fighting over its remnants when the authorities stepped in. Dalton Johnson ’14, then a sophomore, was one of the lucky undergrads who managed to snag a piece of the ball.
“I hung the piece up above my bed until the end of junior year,” Johnson said in an e-mail. “I meant to get it framed.”
What happened last weekend is part of a trend of ever-shortening Bladderball resurgences. Yale seems unable to let go of the custom, even as the administration comes down harder on it.
“A self-conscious caricature of Yale’s devotion to tradition, Bladderball became a tradition in its own right,” Hammond wrote. “Bladderball’s absurdity was contagious. Whatever one chose to identify with so patently silly a sport looked equally silly by comparison.”
At its heart, Bladderball is a contradiction. Both a parody of itself and a much-needed release, the game weathered the latter half of the 20th century with humor and guts. Yet it still retained its dual nature, a combination of savagery and satire unique to the game.
Both a brutal game and an emblem of school spirit, Bladderball is not the only thing that makes Yale, Yale. Neither is Kingman Brewster, or 36 courses, or hating Harvard. Bladderball is a fundamental part of the school’s history, and although it probably should not be played as it was 30 years ago, the game’s spirit still endures — limited to descriptions on Wikipedia, archives of the News and the strains of JE’s cheer.