The Y’s Contribution to Sports
Last updated: August 21, 2017, at 12:54 a.m. PT
Originally published: March 2, 2017, at 9:37 a.m. PT
James Naismith, founder of basketball
There’s no denying that the YMCA and the history of sports are uniquely intertwined. The Y is where many are first introduced to sports. Lesser known, is that many of the popular sports people play today were first introduced at Ys. The Y’s philosophy on sports has always been “Everybody plays, everybody wins.”
Basketball was invented by James Naismith, a physical educator at the International YMCA Training School in December 1891 at the request of Luther Gulick, the school’s director. They saw a need for a game that would occupy a class of rowdy young men who could not focus their energy into outdoor sports like rugby and football in the winter weather.
Naismith’s solution was a game that was physically active while being less injury-prone and easy to understand. It began with 13 rules, two peach baskets and a soccer-style ball. The men took to it quickly, even introducing it to their hometowns over Christmas break. Today, basketball is deeply ingrained in American culture.
In 1895 a YMCA in Latrobe, PA paid John Brailer ten dollars to replace an injured quarterback and play for the Latrobe YMCA against the Jeannette Athletic Club. This made him the first football player to openly turn pro. Thus, professional football started with the Y.
That same year, William Morgan, an instructor at the Holyoke YMCA invented volleyball because he felt that basketball was too physically demanding for businessmen. The sport was a result of blending elements from basketball, tennis and handball to form a game originally called mintonette. It was later renamed volleyball in 1896 to describe the way the ball volleyed back and forth over the net.
In 1909 George Corsan arrived that the Detroit YMCA in answer to a Y campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim.” He used radical new methods for the time and created group swimming lessons.
Although softball had been played for many years prior to 1926, it wasn’t until that year that it received its name during a meeting of the Colorado Amateur Softball Association (CASA) at the Denver YMCA. Before that, it had been referred to by many names such as kittenball, softball and sissyball.
In 1950 at the Greenwich (Conn.) YMCA, racquetball was invented by Y member Joe Sobek when he couldn’t find other squash players of his skill level. After coming up with rules for his new game, he sought approval from other plays at nearby Ys, forming the Paddle Rackets Association to promote the sport. The original balls he used were half blue, half red. When Sobek needed replacements, he approached the original manufacturer, Spalding to make the balls all blue so they wouldn’t leave marks on the Y’s courts.
With the Y's enduring legacy in sports history, it's truly remarkable to be able to take swimming lessons, play basketball, volleyball and racquetball at the organization where they were invented.