First Blackburn sporting event cozy affair

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By Tom Emery

Today, athletic events between rivals of even the smallest colleges are intense, hard-fought affairs. In the infant days of college sports in America, it was not always like that.

A prime example is the matchup between the baseball teams of Blackburn College and Illinois College in 1882.  In that event, the first intercollegiate athletic contest in Blackburn history, the hosts from Jacksonville won accolades for their courtesy in a two-day extravaganza.

Illinois College was founded in 1829, eight years before Blackburn, and in 1882, the school from Carlinville was still struggling to gain a foothold. The Blackburn campus consisted of only two buildings, housing several dozen students and a handful of faculty.

Still, the spirit of Blackburn was permeable. Their enthusiasm and love of their college ran deep, and they enjoyed an active lifestyle in the midst of their tiny campus.  Part of that excitement was seen in a surprising dedication to athletics, in an era when college sports were fledgling at best and disdained at worst, including even by some Blackburn administrators and faculty.

Undeterred, Blackburn students lobbied long and hard for some type of athletic progression, not only for physical well-being but also for extracurricular enjoyment.

In the spring of 1882, Blackburn scheduled a baseball game at neighboring Illinois College, to be played on Saturday, March 29.  Much of the coverage in Carlinville came from the next issue of the Blackburn student newspaper, The Blackburnian.  The story of the game was printed next to a timetable for the Jacksonville Southeastern Railway.

The Blackburn team, which did not have a permanent nickname (and would not until 1947), numbered twelve players and left by train the morning before the game. They arrived in Jacksonville to find the Illinois College team waiting to escort them to the campus, where, the Blackburnian reported, “dinner was waiting.”

The courtesy continued well into the evening, as it was reported “the Blackburn boys were most hospitably entertained by the students, citizens, and professors of” Illinois College. Later, the Blackburn players were hosted by the student literary societies of Illinois College, which would not have been uncommon for the time. Such gatherings were the norm in 19th- and early 20th-century academia, and Blackburn had two such societies of its own.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine today. Now, when small-college sports teams arrive in town for a game, they are barely noticed. No one is waiting to greet them, let alone treat them to a big meal and an evening of British lit.

Perhaps the reception may be attributed to the matching faith of the schools, which are both Presbyterian.  But it is likely the result of the grace and manners of both the Victorian age and old-style academia, when gentlemanly behavior in circles of refinement trumped all.

In light of the pomp and circumstance, the game may have seemed like an afterthought. The affair began at 9 a.m. on Saturday, earlier than most games in any sport are played today  The Blackburn paper described the “splendid college grounds” of their opponents, which attracted “several hundred visitors,” certainly a large crowd for a small-school athletic event in any era.

Illinois College batted first, normally the practice of visiting teams, and scored twice in the first inning for a 2-0 lead.  Facing a larger, more experienced opponent, Blackburn held their own, pushing across a run in the bottom of the third to pull within 2-1.

But the “Illinois boys,” as labeled by the Blackburnian, came back, scoring single runs in the fifth and sixth innings before plating six big runs in the seventh for a 10-1 advantage.  Blackburn managed to score twice in the bottom of the eighth for the final runs in a 10-3 Illinois College win.

An Illinois College tutor served as the umpire, but the Blackburnian saw no hint of bias, as he “rendered just decisions in every case.”  The paper also lauded the strong I.C. pitching, which “prevented the Blackburn boys from batting anything except wind,” apparently due to a wicked curveball. The nine-inning game was played in two hours and ten minutes, with Blackburn turning “one triple and two double plays.”

As Blackburn did not leave for home until 3:30 that afternoon, more socializing must have been on tap. They finally arrived back in Carlinville at 6 p.m., “greatly pleased with their trip and with many well-wishes for the boys of Illinois,” as “a more generous class of students can seldom be found.”

Today, athletics are a much larger part of campus life, and their organization and management are infinitely more sophisticated. But a hundred and thirty years ago, opponents on the field managed to display a level of camaraderie and sportsmanship that still resonates today.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.