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February 2020

Happy Birthday, Oregon: 161 Years of Sports

On this Valentine’s day we celebrate a different type of love—our love for the great state of Oregon! On February 14, 1859, Oregon was officially granted statehood by President James Buchanan. To recognize this day in honor of Oregon’s 161st birthday, we are sharing a snapshot of Oregon’s history through the development of sports. Brian S. Campf’s Sporting Oregon highlights the growing popularity of sports such as baseball, football, and basketball during the mid-1800s, and the unity and camaraderie that sports inspired in Oregonians. What better way to depict Oregon’s history than through excerpts of Sporting Oregon!

Baseball [pp. 6-8, 88, 174]

The first pitch for organized baseball in Portland was thrown . . . [when nine] of the city’s young athletes gathered in the office of J. W. Cook, a bag factory, on the evening of Monday, May 28, 1866, to form a team. . . . They met again on June 2 and emerged with team officers and a name befitting them: the Pioneer Base Ball Club (PBBC). Thirty members were added to the club’s rolls just over two weeks later, including Joseph Buchtel, a player who managed the club and would become the face of early Portland baseball. Thirty-one men from among the city’s population of 6,508 signed a constitution the club adopted. Portland was a small town then, with one architect, four hardware stores, six restaurants, nine bakeries, and one astrologer.

Less than two months after the team formed, the Oregonian called baseball “exhilarating,” observing that the spirit of the Pioneer’s play showed that “its enlivening effects are by no means a small matter,” and called the club’s progress “remarkable.”

Bat and ball games were not new to Oregon. One of baseball’s predecessor games, town ball, had been played in Oregon since the pioneer days. In a 1900 Oregonian story, an Oregonian born in 1848 recalled his experience with the sport as a boy:

The ballground had four corners, similar to our baseball ground, with a pitcher and a catcher. We did not know anything about curves, but threw the ball over-hand right from the shoulder. We did not stand on the bases as in the modern game. The striker [batter] had to run the bases, and if we could catch the ball on the fly or on the first bound the striker was out. If, when he ran from one base to the next, we could throw the ball in front of him, that is, between him and the base he was trying to reach, he was out. If we could hit him with the ball while he was running from one base to the next, he was out. It would be surprising how quickly one side could be caught out and the other side let in.

Balls for town ball were made by unraveling an old sock or stocking and wrapping the yarn around a piece of leather until it was the right size. Then “we would carry in the wood and do all kinds of chores to get mother to cover it with a piece of old pants leg or coat sleeve.”

A Medford resident claimed to have organized Oregon’s first baseball team in Corvallis in 1856, ten years before the Pioneers formed. “No, it wasn’t ‘town ball’ we played, but the original game of baseball,” he told the Medford Mail Tribune in 1910. Their only equipment was a bat whittled from native wood and a ball that at first was rubber and later was made of yarn covered in buckskin with a rubber center. “That ball was the most valuable piece of property belonging to the club,” he added. “If in playing in open fields, as we did in those days, the ball was ‘lost,’ the game was called until the players, spectators and even the umpire had searched until they found it.”

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A note on the back of the 1909 “The Lions” of Scio postcard of female players reads, “This team beat the Star Nine 3 to 1 in a 5-inning game.” The Oregonian had previewed the contest: in Scio, “a unique feature of the carnival of sports to be held here the latter part of this week will be a baseball game next Saturday afternoon between two teams composed entirely of girls. A number of local girls have been practicing strenuously for the contest and it will be an interesting exhibition.”

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Southpaw pitcher Jimmy Claxton became the first African American to play organized baseball in the twentieth century when he pitched for the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks on May 28, 1916. That same year he became the first black player to appear on an American baseball card (with the Oaks). He kneels in the front row, far right of this postcard of Portland’s 1914 Hubbard Giants baseball team, named for its manager Lew Hubbard. He played for them in 1915, as well.

Football [pp 25-26, 105] 

On November 12, 1892, Pacific University became Oregon’s first college team to enter the football fray, defeating Bishop Scott Academy 18–6. The following year, Pacific University played in the state’s first intercollegiate football game, trouncing Oregon State Normal School (now Western Oregon University) 54–0 on November 3. Only one or two of its players from the normal school had ever seen a game.

Five hundred people in Corvallis paid ten cents apiece to see Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) play its first foot-ball game on November 11, 1893. The Corvallis Gazette explained the new game to its readers, starting with this preamble: “Many of our people have never witnessed a game of football as it is now played, and as there is to be a contest between our boys and the visiting team from Albany tomorrow afternoon, perhaps a few simple points as we remember them will be of interest, the details of which can only be understood by seeing the men on the field.” OAC cruised to a 62–0 win over Albany Collegiate Institute (now Lewis & Clark College). “The Albany team proved no match for the Agricultural boys. In fact they were mere playthings,” according to the Oregonian.

Elsewhere in the school ranks, Portland Academy had a team by early 1893 and Portland High School (now Lincoln High) had one by November. Perhaps the most delightful story of a new team comes from Salem’s Willamette University, which would have been practicing in November but for an important missing ingredient: “The foot-ball has not arrived as yet so the boys have been creating exercise for themselves, by getting the field in good shape.”. . .

Beneath the mild heading of “Other Oregon News,” the Oregonian sandwiched a brief article about that historic contest between stories on business picking up in Pendleton and a Jacksonville boy who cut his foot chopping wood: 

Eugene, March 24—The first match game of football this city has witnessed was played today between the teams of Albany college and the University of Oregon. The Albany boys were outplayed at every point, and the score stood 44 to 2 in favor of the University of Oregon. Two of the Albany men were slightly injured.

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The 1909 Eugene High School football team in the postcard expected to vie for

the Western Oregon interscholastic championship (they had won it two years earlier). They did not disappoint, beating every high school they played in 1909 after losing their first game 18–0 to the University of Oregon freshmen squad. Unsettled claims for the 1909 state title were asserted by Eugene High and by Portland’s undefeated Washington High School team. 


Basketball
[pp, 32-33, 89]

A March 16, 1895, Oregonian article described the sport’s appeal. “An exciting game of basket-ball was played last night in the gymnasium hall of the Young Men’s Christian Association. This is a new game, and is just being introduced here. The rules are such as to avoid the roughness and liability to injury of foot-ball; yet the exercise brings into play and develops about every muscle and portion of the body. It is a great fad in the East, and promises to be a most enticing amusement and exercise here.”

By late April 1895, at Portland’s East Side YMCA “a lively game of basket ball” was being played on most evenings, nine to a side played in a contest in May, and by July basketball was the “principal amusement” there. A sense of the action comes from the following excerpt from the Oregonian’s coverage of the May game:

A game of basket ball was played yesterday afternoon at 5 o’clock on the East Side YMCA field between the regular nine and the “scrubs.” It was the hottest game yet played, the practice the players are receiving being plainly evident. The features of the game were the first goal made by the regulars in three throws, Gwilt’s remarkable agility and sprinting to keep from being hit by the ball, McMonies’ high-jumping, and Van Auken’s fine goal-throwing. The score was 4 to 2 in favor of the regulars.

Play improved with practice. In intramural women’s athletics at the University of Oregon, “the ladies teams of basket ball continue to practice as rigorously as if they were to enter some inter-collegiate contest,” the Daily Eugene Guard reported in February 1895. . . .

Women thrived in the game. In 1895, the first athletic exhibition given by the Multnomah Club’s “lady members” included a basket-ball contest played before at least four hundred spectators. Wearing red or white ribbons to identify their sides, they played two ten-minute halves to a 3–1 final score. Young men watching “yelled as if they were on a football field."

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The center for Astoria High School’s women’s basketball team is featured on a postcard mailed in February 1909 to William E. Gregory, Captain of the USS Armeria, detailing past and future games.

The team disbanded in November 1909 after the coach insisted they play under girls’ rules; the team countered that other teams would only play them under boys’ rules.

 

 

 

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