As the unseasonably mild fall draws to a close, groups of students on Old Campus are enjoying the last days of warm weather by indulging in a classic college pastime — tossing a Frisbee.
But many passersby might not realize that Yale may have a special connection to the disc. According to a nearly century-old myth, a group of Yale students invented the frisbee from throwing around a pie tin, thus adding the popular item to an illustrious list of Connecticut’s firsts.
Although this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Frisbee’s official copyright by a non-Yalie, many in the New Haven community continue to pass down the story of the Frisbee’s genesis in the Elm City. But others — historians and Yale archivists — said they think Yale’s claim to have invented the frisbee is questionable at best.
According to the Web sites of both the Connecticut state government and the Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau, students invented the frisbee at Yale in 1920.
Longtime New Haven residents interviewed said Yalies began the pastime by throwing around empty pie tins from Bridgeport’s Frisbie Pie Company. As legend has it, they said, students would shout “Frisbie” as a warning while they tossed around the tin, much as golfers yell “fore” when they hit the ball off-course.
Alumni interviewed said they had heard varying accounts of the birth of the Frisbee. Stephen Zetterberg LAW ’42 said he recalls flinging around the Frisbie company’s pie tins with friends during study breaks while he was a law student in 1939, which he said intrigued passerby.
“When we got tired of studying, we would go down [to] the quadrangle and throw the pie tin,” he said. “We always called it the Frisbie. I had never seen it before I got to Yale.”
But Sam Carr Polk LAW ’47 said he has fond memories of returning to Texas from World War II in 1946 and “finding joy spinning pie tins.” He said he takes credit for bringing the pastime to Connecticut.
Polk said he was introduced to the Frisbee right before returning to Yale to finish his final year of law school. At a family gathering, Polk recalled, his cousin Louis, an engineer, started throwing paper plates through the air, before moving on to his wife’s pie tins.
Carole Cheney, owner of a local public relations firm who has conducted extensive research on New Haven, said she has found evidence to support the legend of the Frisbee’s origin in New Haven, although the story is difficult to prove. But she said she is certain that Frisbees evolved from the pie company’s tins.
Others are less willing to give New Haven credit. In 1957, one year before Frisbie’s Pie Company closed, a man named Walter “Fred” Morrison — who is not affiliated with the University — sold the copyright for the frisbee to the Wham-O toy company.
Phil Kennedy, who co-wrote “Flat Flip Flies Straight!: True Origins of the Frisbee” with Morrison, refutes Yale and Connecticut’s claim to the flying disc. According to the book, Morrison, who was a World War II fighter pilot, invented the first frisbee model after tossing around a popcorn can lid and later selling similarly shaped cake pans for 25 cents on a beach.
David Waisblum, Frisbee Brand Manager at Wham-O, said he suspects the name “Frisbee” somehow became attached to Morrison’s invention during a promotional event at Yale for the item — then known as the Pluto Platter — but he does not credit Yale with the invention.
“When they gave it to the kids, they associated it with Frisbie because of the pie tins they had thrown around on campus,” he said. “I don’t think they give credit to Yale or the Frisbie Pie Company because that is not documented in history.”
Regardless of the origin of the frisbee, New Haven still boasts many notable firsts. Judith Schiff, a research archivist at Yale who wrote an article about the Frisbee for the Yale Alumni Magazine, said many claim that New Haven is the first planned city. But she said she is less certain of the generally accepted claims that the first hamburger and pizza were served at local diners.
Several students on the Yale Ultimate Frisbee club team said they have heard of New Haven’s Frisbee legend. Ian Culter ’10 said New Haven claims numerous inventions, but he said the only one he believes completely is that of the frisbee.
“The coincidence of the name seems too strong to me,” Cutler said. “The shape of the Frisbee as a pie tin as opposed to being a discus is also convincing [evidence].”
But Alex Civetta ’09, co-captain of the team, said New Haven’s track record of connecting itself with firsts makes him skeptical that the Frisbee has its roots in Yale.
“I heard it was invented here. … I heard everything and its mom was invented here,” he said. “I guarantee you someone threw a paper plate before we got claim to it.”