This year, Amherst celebrates Homecoming with the 135th meeting of the Amherst football team and its longtime rival Williams on the gridiron at Pratt Field at Lehrman Stadium. But the inaugural matchup in 1884 (we know, we know—that was 137 years ago; the games couldn’t be played during two years), wasn’t the first Mammoths-Ephs competition. The first contest between the two schools—the first-ever intercollegiate baseball game in history—was actually decades earlier than that, in 1859.

a student in an orange sweatshirt swiping an id card in the gym lobby with the exhibit cases on display
The stories of those two events, as well as the history of Amherst Athletics in general, are the subject of a Bicentennial-themed exhibit currently in the entryway of Alumni Gymnasium. Titled “Muscle and Mind” and curated by Michael Kelly, director of the College’s archives and special collections, several glass cases in the space are now filled with images and artifacts spotlighting the evolution of physical fitness at Amherst. On display are old game balls, posters, photographs and medals, among other things.

Kelly is quick to note that the documentation of stories and archiving of related materials in the early years of Amherst Athletics primarily focused on the white men who shaped the development of the College’s programs, pedagogies and physical structures. The primary reason for this is the makeup of the student body during that time, he says: Amherst did not admit women until the 1970s, and only a few students of color, even fewer of whom were athletes, attended the College before then. “As a result, the full, interconnected experiences of many students of color in particular simply weren’t recorded, and may have been lost to history,” Kelly says.

An active effort to increase nonwhite student enrollment began in the late 1960s. That, along with coeducation--which began in 1975--and the other massive changes in the past 60 years, significantly reshaped the Amherst community. “Happily, these things brought a wealth of talented student-athletes from a wide range of backgrounds to our courts and playing fields,” Kelly says. Such changes will be spotlighted in forthcoming exhibits.

What follows is just a taste of Amherst Athletics over the centuries.

The earliest record of student interest in athletics at Amherst dates back to the founding of the Gymnastic Society in 1826. Students took the lead, asking the faculty for a day off to clean up the College Grove (which once grew on the Main Quadrangle and was destroyed in a hurricane in 1938) as a site for their exercise equipment. With their professors, the Gymnastic Society maintained an exercise space until the College broke ground on Barrett Gymnasium in the autumn of 1859.

boxing gloves and people practicing boxing outside in the 1800s

Left: A pair of boxing gloves from the late 19th century. Right: Students fence, box and exercise on the grounds in front of Barrett Gymnasium, 1860.

Students also led the way with organized team sports at the College, forming the Amherst Ball Club in 1859. That same year, students challenged Williams College to a “Base-Ball” contest. On July 1, 1859, Amherst and Williams played the first intercollegiate game in the history of baseball, as well as an accompanying chess match. The final score, as reported in a story titled “Muscle and Mind!!” in a special EXTRA issue of the Amherst Express newspaper: Amherst 73, Williams 32. (The College also won the chess match.) A portrait of Henry Dwight Hyde, class of 1861, who pitched the entire game, is the earliest known photograph of an Amherst athlete.

newspaper from 1859 about Williams and Amherst competing in baseball and chess

A special issue of the Amherst Express newspaper reporting on the first intercollegiate baseball game in the history of the sport between Amherst and Williams College on July 1, 1859.


image of two baseballs and one ballplayer, sitting in a chair

Left: Baseballs used at the first intercollegiate baseball game in the country on July 1, 1859 in Pittsfield, Mass. Right: Henry Dwight Hyde, class of 1861,  pitched the first intercollegiate baseball game in the history of the sport on July 1, 1859.  This is the first known photograph of an Amherst athlete.


A baseball and a Williams vs Amherst baseball poster from the 1800s

Left: Baseball bat inscribed with the words, “From Amherst's Bats Blake Field, June 1882.” Right: An 1892 poster advertising the annual event that would later be called “The Biggest Little Game in America.”

In his inaugural address in November 1854, Amherst President William Augustus Stearns said: “Physical education is not the leading business of college life, though were I able, like Alfred or Charlemagne, to plan an educational system anew, I would seriously consider the expediency of introducing regular drills in gymnastic and calisthenic exercises.” In the fall of 1860, that vision became a reality with the opening of Barrett Gymnasium and the launch of the Department of Hygiene and Physical Education.

Professor, physician and head of the department John W. Hooker left Amherst after just one year and was succeeded by Edward Hitchcock Jr., who served as professor of hygiene and physical fitness from 1861 until 1911. Hitchcock was the son of the College’s third president and a member of the class of 1849. After studying at Harvard and in London, Hitchcock returned to Amherst, where he led the physical fitness program into the 20th century. Exhibitions of gymnastic exercises became a regular feature of student life at the College during his tenure.

“Doc” Hitchcock, as he was fondly known, kept up with trends in physical education through a wide range of books and pamphlets on the subject, many of which are now held in Amherst’s Archives & Special Collections. In 1863, Elisha Hubbard Barlow, class of 1866, published A Manual of Gymnastic Exercises: Arranged on Hygienic Principles and Adapted to Music, which provides a snapshot of the state of physical education at Amherst at the time.

The Pratt brothers (Charles, class of 1879; Frederick ’87; George ’93; Herbert ’95; and Harold ’00) were very fond of Hitchcock and demonstrated their support for his physical fitness program through their generous donations toward building athletics facilities, including Pratt Gymnasium, which was completed in 1884. The new gym received national attention and warranted a full-page illustration in the Feb. 21, 1885, issue of Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. 

Edward Hitchcock and the cover page from A Manual for Gymnastic Exercise

Left: Professor Edward “Doc” Hitchcock, class of 1849. Right: One of Hitchcock’s famous manuals.


Small hand weights and a page from A Manual for Gymnastic Exercise

Left: Wooden free weights used by students in the 1800s. Right: Directions on how to use the “bells,” 1884.


Amherst College men's doing stretching exercises

Students engaged in calisthenics in Pratt Gym.


Pratt Gymansium

Pratt Gymnasium, 1884.

illustration of people canoeing

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper’s, drawing of the 1872 College Regatta.

Hitchcock did not include team sports in his physical fitness program, but Amherst students were deeply connected to the development of college athletics as we know them today. Students also organized the New England Intercollegiate Athletic Association together with Brown, Dartmouth, Williams and other schools. College sports were gaining national attention, as shown in this illustration of Amherst’s victory at the College Regatta at Springfield, Mass., in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for Aug. 10, 1872. 

As “Foot-Ball” evolved into the sport we know today, it became another focus for the ongoing Amherst-Williams rivalry. The first game between the schools was played on Nov. 1, 1884, though the earliest surviving scorecard dates from 1892. The 1892 football team was captained by William Henry Lewis, one of three Black students to graduate that year; classmate William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson was also a celebrated member of the team.

Men's Rugby Team

Left: A football used on Nov. 12, 1892 inscribed with the score. Right: A photograph of the 1892 football team. Holding the ball is William Henry Lewis, Class of 1892. At the time, he and classmate William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson (direclty behind Lewis) were the only Black students to play football at a predominantly white college.



Left: “An 1878 rugby pamphlet. Center: A game ball, inscribed with the score, from the Nov. 19, 1898, meeting of the Amherst and Williams football teams. Right: A souvenir score card from an 1892 game.

Interest in the natural environment at and near Amherst began with the founding in 1822 of the Linnean Society, one of the first student groups established at the College. That organization and the Society of Natural History (founded in 1831) were dedicated to the study of the natural world, and members gathered botanical and geological specimens from the nearby fields and mountains. When Amherst opened its first natural history museum in The Octagon building on campus in 1847, the students donated their collections to the College. 

Hitchcock led the first of many “geological excursions” on July 4, 1845, when students constructed a path up nearby Mount Holyoke. Similar excursions involved climbing mountains as far afield as Vermont, though most stuck closer to home—Mount Toby, Shelburne Falls and the Holyoke Range. President Hitchcock’s son continued to lead excursions throughout the 19th century. 

In the middle of that century, the College began to celebrate Mountain Day, a day when classes were canceled so students could hike and picnic outdoors, and it has been observed on and off since then. An editorial in the Oct. 23, 1875, issue of The Amherst Student newspaper described the great love the students had for this holiday: “To visit, then, with this sense of freedom, any of the lovely spots which are clustered hereabout so thickly, is to gain not merely enjoyment, but benefit as well; and while lying upon one of these grand old hills, with the rich valleys spread out before you; the distant mountains just visible through the softening haze; and all about the foliage has that richness which is October’s own, there steals over you a wonderful feeling of restfulness, as if you were indeed ‘Under the walls of Paradise.’ To live thus, even for a day, is to come somewhat into harmony with Nature; is to receive a refining influence which, though unconscious, perhaps, is inestimable.”

The Mountain Club was formed in 1903 to “interest its members in the mountains and walks near Amherst, and to arrange excursions, and to bring its members into touch with the literature of mountain-climbing.” The club organized several outings each year, including the annual Mountain Day excursions; Amherst students also participated in the New England Trail Conference of 1917. The Mountain Club was replaced by the Outing Club, established in 1927, which organized excursions near and far, but most activities took place at Tyler Camp, a 10-acre site with a cabin on the southwest slope of Mount Toby in Sunderland, Mass. The land was given to the Outing Club by Professor John Mason Tyler, and the camp was dedicated on Dec. 10, 1927.

In 1926 the College acquired a large tract of land from Sidney White that was formally designated a Wild Life Sanctuary in the 1930s under the supervision of A.S. Goodale, professor of botany. Today, the Amherst College Wildlife Sanctuary includes approximately 500 acres in a diverse collection of open fields (both actively maintained and unmanaged), wetlands, flood plain woods, river, upland woods, plantation pines and ponds—and is an important place for both recreation and research.

A horse dawn carriage with 5 men

Mountain Day, 1880s.


The Outing Club

The Outing Club’s logo and some schedules from the 1900s.

Blake Field and Pratt Field were built in 1877 and 1892, respectively, when baseball and football were the main team sports. The 20th century would see a substantial expansion of athletics fields and facilities and the arrival of new sports, starting with the addition of a pool to Pratt Gymnasium in 1905. A swimming requirement was added to the curriculum shortly thereafter, and the College organized its first swim team for the 1907–08 season. 

In addition to swimming, other sports were supported by new construction around this time. The first outdoor skating rink was built in 1907, which enabled the College to establish a hockey team the next year. Outdoor basketball courts were incorporated into Hitchcock Field, along with a baseball diamond and soccer fields. 

The early 20th century is also the era when college athletics reached new levels of formal organization. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was formed in March 1906 and changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1910. The NCAA worked to standardize rules and address the many injuries and even deaths associated with college football at the time.

assorted athletic medals and ribbons

Cheerleading accouterments, the components of a track and field uniform and various hard-earned medals.


Men's track and field team from the 1800s

The track and field team, 1892.

swimmers in an indoor pool

Pratt Natatorium, ca. 1910


an 1800s men's swim team poses for a group shot

The 1921 swim team.


ice rink

Pratt Rink, 1908.

By the time the College celebrated its Centennial in 1921, Amherst Athletics had evolved from student-organized competitions outside the control of the College into a significant presence in campus life, with standardized rules, national associations and support and guidance from the faculty and alumni.

President Alexander Meiklejohn raised serious questions about the role of college athletics, but by the early 1930s, the call went out for another new gymnasium nevertheless. After much activity at Amherst was suspended during World War II, the second half of the 20th century saw the athletics program grow and change substantially, particularly around the introduction of women student-athletes in the mid-1970s.

The Olio for 1920–21 includes the following sports teams: baseball, track, football, basketball, swimming, hockey, tennis, soccer and golf.

Alumni Gymnasium

Informtion about the Alumni Gymnasium, 1936.

Men's ice hockey team

Left: Three winning game pucks inscribed with final scores. Right: The 1921 hockey squad.


Men's Basketball team

Left: A 1924-25 “Little Three” Championship souvenir. Right: The 1921 basketball team.