Charles William Eliot on the curve ball

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sat Sep 8 11:01:50 UTC 2012

 Soos, Troy, 1957-
 Before the curse : the glory days of New England baseball, 1858-1918 / Troy Soos.
Rev. ed.
Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., c2006. page 44 gives:
One of the challenges that the Harvard ball club had to face came not from another team but from the head of their own school. In the early 1870s, university president Charles W. Eliot threatened to close down the baseball program because he did not approve of the curve ball, calling it a "low form of cunning."

No footnote, though the book has lengthy acknowledgements, including to archives, and a fairly long bibliography.

Stephen Goranson
From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Garson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Saturday, September 08, 2012 6:05 AM
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] Charles William Eliot on the curve ball

Below is a book excerpt that refers to Eliot's supposed statement
about the deceptive nature of the curve ball. The passage has a
footnote that points to a precise report authored by Eliot that is
available in Google Books and HathiTrust. Unfortunately, the report
does not appear to mention "curve" or "curveball". (The GB search
seems to be malfunctioning, but the HathiTrust search seems to be
functioning properly.) Eliot's report is very critical of some sports
at the college level.

Cite: 2000, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy by John
Sayle Watterson, Quote Page 28, Johns Hopkins University Press,
Baltimore, Maryland. (Google Books Preview)

[Begin excerpt]
In his 1894 report for the previous school year Eliot let loose his
first cannonade against college sports, namely baseball, crew, and
especially football. Like his Puritan forebears, Eliot preached a
gospel of simple and unadorned truth. He rejected the competitive and
deceptive spirit in college athletics, criticizing, for instance, the
curve ball in baseball because it was designed to deceive the batter.
He also showed extreme distaste for the win-at-any-cost commercial
spirit of college athletics—what he called "an unwholesome desire of
victory by whatever means." He deplored the way in which
intercollegiate athletics put colleges in the business of entertaining
the non-collegiate public. Eliot also criticized the amount of time
that competitive athletics took from a student's daily life and the
false image of university life which college sports projected, a point
to which he frequently returned. [Footnote 6]

[Footnote 6 is Ibid and footnote 5 is the following]:

"President Eliot's Annual Report, 1892-93," Harvard Graduates'
Magazine 2 (Mar. 1894): 376-83. The report was released in February

[End excerpt]

HathiTrust contains Eliot's report of 1892-1893 and it also contains
the issue of Harvard Graduates' Magazine that reprinted the report. GB
also contains the issue of Harvard Graduates' Magazine. The report
does discuss sports and tricks and surprises. But I could not find the
saying about the curveballs. Below is an excerpt mentioning tricks.

Cite: 1894 March, Harvard Graduates' Magazine, President Eliot's
Report: 1892-1893, Start Page 374, Subsection: Athletic Sports, Start
Page 376, Quote Page 377, Harvard Graduates' Magazine Association,
Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust)

[Begin excerpt]
Again an unwholesome desire for victory by whatever means in
intercollegiate football has perverted the judgment of the players and
the college public concerning the propriety of 'tricks,' surprises,
and habitual violations of the rules of the game as means of winning a
victory. In war, stratagems and surprises are consistent parts of that
supreme savagery; but in manly sports new 'tricks' practiced in secret
sudden novelties, and undetected violations of the rules should cloud
the joy of victory, and aggravate the mortification of defeat.
[End excerpt]

It is possible that the statement about the curve ball appeared in
another report form Eliot in this timeframe. I have not looked at the
other reports yet. Alternatively, Eliot's remarks may have led to the
creation of a parody that was later accepted as an accurate quotation.
This is, of course, speculation.


On Sat, Sep 8, 2012 at 1:45 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg
<nunberg at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Subject:      Charles William Eliot on the curve ball
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> There's a widely repeated story that Harvard's president Charles Eliot objected to the idea of Harvard baseball players using the curve ball because it was deceptive. It has always sounded bogus to me-- the sort of story someone would make up about a character like Eliot.  I asked John Thorn, the official MLB historian and the author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, about this and he responded:
>> Geoff, once upon a time I tried to find in Eliot's published writings the famous quote, used in the Burns Baseball film and uttered by George Plimpton but could not. (""Well, this year I'm told the team did well because one pitcher had a fi
>> ne curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.") It is in several quotation books, but always (as far as I can detect) unsourced. Boston Globe printed the quotation June 27, 1963, and I am aware of no earlier citation.
> I bet the story goes back earlier than that. Fred? Ben? Barry? Anyone?
> Geoff
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