Women’s intercollegiate basketball debuted in 1896 with a fierce Stanford vs. Cal contest
American life was already changing when nine Stanford women strode onto the court April 4, 1896 at San Francisco’s Page Street Armory to take on the University of California in the world’s first women’s intercollegiate basketball game.
That September, the state’s male electorate would weigh a proposal to give California women the vote. (It lost, finally passing in 1911.) Automobiles were already starting to appear on the streets.
As the Armory game tipped off, many of the 700 women spectators felt themselves witnesses to similar societal change. All three big San Francisco newspapers sent women writers and artists to cover the historic contest, for men were banned for modesty’s sake. Denied admission, men climbed the roof and peered in the windows. Women inside fended them off with sticks.
“There is not an instant of ennui in basket ball. All is motion, change, excitement,” the Chronicle reporter wrote.
Yet it wasn’t, not by modern standards.
The game invented by James Naismith only four years earlier quickly became so popular among women that a Smith College instructor adapted the rules for what were thought to be women’s physical and psychological frailties.
Each half of the Armory court was zoned in thirds according to the so-called “half-court” rules that prevailed in the women’s game with few changes through the 1960s. Three players were consigned to each zone. Each could possess the ball for five seconds and dribble it twice. Only the “home” players at the net could shoot.
And at the net, Berkeley’s players, though said by reporters present to be taller and have better hair, were weak.
“The girls they had depended upon to score for them missed the basket repeatedly,” the Chronicle observed.
The game was tied at 1-1 when Stanford’s Agnes Morley, ’00, executed “a long, fine, straight throw clean from the shoulder” for the win. Morley was a rancher’s daughter from New Mexico who had already hunted bears – real ones – and once subdued a rowdy teenager at the rural school where she briefly taught by punching him in the gut.
She and her teammates returned to Palo Alto as heroes, met by cheering male crowds and a Stanford Band serenade.
But it was all too much, too soon. In December 1899, Stanford put an end to women’s intercollegiate team sports, according to the faculty, “for the good of the students’ health” and, according to the Daily, for “the unpleasant publicity accompanying the contests.”
Such reactions stemmed from anxiety over the changing times, wrote Stanford player and author Mariah Burton Nelson, ’78, in her book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football: “an actual fear … that women’s growing athleticism somehow threatened not only men and men’s sports but the very nature of things: men on top.”
Stanford also muted its support for other women’s sports. The women’s tennis team, for example, failed to get Block S varsity letters as their male counterparts did, but instead sweaters that said “Tennis,” on the grounds that their own tournament with Cal lacked recognition as an intercollegiate contest.
Even so, the basketball players sneaked across the Bay to Berkeley and played a rematch in 1900, according to Sue Macy, author of Basketball Belles, a children’s book on the historic 1896 game. This time, they walloped Cal 7-0 before fading into sports obscurity.
It took decades and the implementation of federal Title IX before women’s sports at Stanford or the rest of America redeemed the promise of the Cardinal’s historic 1896 win.
But when it did, Stanford women were ready. Stanford won NCAA championships in 1990 and 1992 under great Coach Tara VanDerveer and reached the Final Four in 12 of its last 27 seasons. Meanwhile, in 1995, the university retroactively awarded Block S varsity letters to 2,200 women who had competed at Stanford in the decades before Title IX.
The 1896 game stands as a monument to the players’ progressivism, athletic skill and pride.
“It’s always been so surprising that this first game took place on the West Coast when basketball itself started in the East,” Macy said. “The colleges were so conscious on the health of the women that they didn’t want to overtax them.
“But the West Coast upstarts had other ideas. Thanks to them, Stanford has a legitimate claim to being the first women’s basketball power,” Macy said. “And they still are.”
In this 2015 exhibition at a Cardinal women’s halftime, the Stanford Bloomers, ages 53 to 83, play under rules like those of the first women’s game in 1896.