From baseball captain “Chick” Toomey to All-American running back and three-sport coach Dave Morey, the history of Bates athletics before it joined the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) is both deep and rich in history and tradition. Although Bobcat athletics saw itself as one of the premier programs in the NCAA field prior to NESCAC affiliation, it was not until 1971 when the school joined the conference it finds itself in today. From there, as the program continued to grow throughout the 20th century, Bates eventually planted itself among the ‘Little Ivies” and became one of the poster children of the conference.
Before the ’CAC: The early history of Bates sports
Turn of the century
It wasn’t until 40 years after Bates’ founding, in 1895, that the college hired its first Athletic Director. Though he wasn’t officially known by that title, William Wheeler Bolster ’95 basically fulfilled that role as the “Director of Physical Training and Instruction.” However, Bates was active athletically well before Bolster took over. The Old Gymnasium, which was built in 1867, stood for 58 years until it mysteriously burned down in 1925. Alumni Gym opened thereafter in 1928, and has fortunately avoided the same fate. Bates baseball played their first game in 1872, while the football team began intercollegiate competition in 1893.
Bates football played in several games that attracted nationwide attention in the early-1900s, including contests against Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth that were covered by the Boston Herald, Boston Post, New York Tribune, and other national outlets. The team was coached by Dave Morey (who also coached hockey and baseball) from 1929-1939, a Dartmouth graduate who played professional baseball for the Philadelphia A’s in 1913. Famous sportswriter Grantland Rice gave Morey the nickname “David the Giant Killer” in 1932 after his Bobcat squad tied vaunted Yale 0-0. Morey was so popular that Bates students started a petition for the college to reinstate him after his unexpected resignation in 1939, according to the Portsmouth Herald.
Another prestigious name from early in Bates’ athletic history is Harry Lord ’08, Bates’ sixth-best athlete of all-time in The Student’s list last year and an original member of the Boston Americans, a team that soon became the Red Sox. Frank Keaney ’11 (number seven on our list) went onto a legendary career as a basketball coach at Rhode Island, and is credited with inventing the fast-break offense. Charles “Chick” Toomey starred on the baseball field while at Bates, then became a highly regarded college football official, refereeing for 35 years, including six Harvard-Yale games and three Army-Navy games. Vaughan Blanchard ’12, Harlan Holden ’13, Ray Buker ’22, Art Sager ’26, Arnold Adams ’33 all competed in the Olympics in various track and field events.
Growth of the program
Though Bates didn’t have any other Olympians for another 45 years, the athletic program continued its upward trajectory. A 1935 “Athletics at Bates College” brochure noted that Bates’ athletic success came “not by might, nor by power, but by spirit.” The brochure also describes the Gray Athletic Building, which “contain[ed] a practice dirt gridiron, full-sized baseball diamond, and 40-yard straightaway.” Baseball, track, football, and tennis all used to play their contests on Garcelon Field. Men’s basketball began intercollegiate play during the 1920-21 season in the Old Gymnasium, while women’s basketball didn’t have their first season until 1968-69. This pattern of women’s sports having to wait decades after the men started competition to play is mirrored in soccer, as the men’s first season was in 1962 and the women’s first season was in 1980. However, women’s lacrosse (first season in 1975) actually began competing against other schools before men’s lacrosse (1978).
The core facilities of Alumni Gym, the Gray “Cage,” and Garcelon Field may be the same, but sports at Bates have changed in several ways. For instance, student-athletes used to play on Freshman teams before joining the Varsity squad, and Varsity coaches doubled as coaches for intramural sports. One aspect that was missing from the Bates athletic experience was regular conference competition. Even though Bates did often face off against the other “Little Ivies,” it wasn’t until 1971 that the college found a home in the NESCAC.
Bates and the NESCAC
As a Division III conference, one step above the NAIA, the NESCAC is much more than a conference based solely on athletics.
The commitment to not only build strong athletes, but also academically driven individuals is evidenced in the NESCAC Mission Statement itself, where it is noted that the “primary mission” of the conference is to remain “consistent with our commitment to academic excellence and our core values.” As programs like Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby are commonly referred to as “Little Ivies,” the notion of student coming before athlete is certainly real, as opposed to many large and profitable Division One programs. The NESCAC began formation in 1955 with an agreement between Amherst, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, and Williams. Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, and Bates then joined as sustaining charter members in 1971. Connecticut College was the last member to join, in 1982.
However, athletic competition does obviously play a crucial role. In fact, from the beginnings of the conference in 1971, the NESCAC has been commonly referred as the best Division III conference in the whole country. Many Division III championship tournaments largely consist of NESCAC members. From lacrosse powerhouse Tufts to the Trinity men’s basketball team, a tradition of excellence remains consistent year after year.
Within the NESCAC, Bates certainly has an administrative presence. Specifically in the form of “Sports Committee Liaisons,” the Bobcat athletic department has two members that serve as a voice for athletic programs. Athletic Director Kevin McHugh serves as the NESCAC Liaison for men’s basketball, while Assistant Athletic Director Sue Harriman reports to the conference for men’s and women’s skiing. The liaisons serve as a vital voice for athletic programs that wish to state their approval, or disapproval, with NESCAC conference policies.
1999 saw the conference take a major step forward, as the NESCAC became a “playing conference” by sponsoring conference championships across all sports. Awarding 27 total postseason titles, 14 for men and 13 for women, the championship season again is tailored to academics. Conference championships are designed to have the least impact on the academic schedules of all the institutions. Ultimately, as more sports are being recognized by the NESCAC with title winners, most recently with women’s golf in 2015, the challenge to honor the academic rigors of each school is constant.
While the NESCAC has evolved into an exemplary conference, the road was not always pretty. Specifically, instances of hazing have gripped the conference throughout the years. In 2011, Middlebury College suspended the majority of the women’s swim and dive teams for a hazing incident, which saw the freshman class carry the load for the rest of the season. And in 2013, Bowdoin’s men’s tennis was sanctioned by the NESCAC and forfeited four matches for an annual initiation that went awry.
Although the conference has had its fair share of problems, it has blossomed into a collection of schools with incredible competition and class, built on a tradition of both academic and athletic excellence.
Throughout its history, Bates has made a name for itself athletically. The college has managed to retain its academic integrity via its affiliation with the NESCAC while competing in one of the best Division III conferences in the country. Moving forward, both Bates and the NESCAC will aim to stay true to their founding principles while adjusting to modern challenges.
Thanks to the Muskie Archives for granting us access to their vast resources.