This Date in Cardinal Hoops: 4-4-1896

Mark DeVaughn goes back to the 19th Century for the Bootleg faithful, providing us with historical insight into the start of the Stanford/Cal Women's Basketball rivalry. Let's go back with him to that special time in San Francisco when the Cardinal defeated the Golden Bears by a final score of 2-1!

A dozen of the football rivalry's first 13 games were played there.  It still hosts the annual Big Game week revelry of today.  San Francisco remains forever part of Cal-Stanford lore, and credit the city that produced everyone from Hank Luisetti to Bobby Shaw with another related milestone.

Victorian Era heroines are the subject of the latest "This Date" edition. The first intercollegiate women's basketball game took place 114 years ago today. When tonight finds you glued to the Women's Final Four in a San Antonio football stadium, take a moment to consider the work of 18 enterprising women from Cal and Stanford, who made serious history during their Easter weekend.

The setting on April 4, 1896 was San Francisco's Page Street Armory, not far from what became the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Seizing the momentum of their football teams' budding rivalry (Stanford had already gone 2-0-3 in the series and would win again that fall), the ladies held court on a Saturday afternoon in front of a rowdy capacity crowd of 700 fans.

Men were forbidden from attending. The baskets, in keeping with women's basketball rules of the day, had no backboards. The established San Francisco Chronicle sent correspondents to the groundbreaking moment. So did William R. Hearst's upstart San Francisco Examiner, which made good on its proud claim of covering "the latest and most original sensations." The first modern Olympics opened in Greece the following Monday, where women were most definitely not allowed to compete.

Final score: Stanford 2, California-Berkeley 1.

"The first great struggle in feminine athletics," the Chronicle wrote.

"The jolliest kind of a romp," the Examiner said.

Versions of basketball, both very primitive in nature, existed for men and women at the time. Dr. James Naismith had only five years earlier invented the game in Springfield, Mass. It would be another two decades until hoops with bottomless nets replaced actual baskets. Ensuing years saw courts surrounded by chicken wire to hold back rowdy fans, allowing the term "cager" to come into being.

Given that women had to wait another 24 years before gaining the right to vote, inequality too reigned on the basketball court. According to the original women's rules penned by Smith College physical education instructor Senda Berenson, the game featured nine players to a side. A girl could only dribble three times and hold the ball for three seconds in between passes.

Three players were assigned to three specific sections on the court but couldn't leave these designated spots. As women who played basketball in the pre-Title IX era found out, variations of this stratified game remained in place for decades to come.

Why was it considered a foul to shoot with two hands? "It caused the shoulder to incline with a consequent flattening of the chest," noted one 19th-century account, which Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune cited in his story about the game six years ago.

Stanford and Cal however weren't in a dainty mood, and they obliged with a rough-and-tumble version of the game where players freely left their assigned areas. The game went on for about ten minutes until a "Miss Clark of Stanford" scored the first basket, according to the Chronicle account.

"Miss Katherine Jones" of the Golden Bears answered with the tying hoop within five minutes. The tie score stayed that way until halftime, where players rested on the Armory floor while snacking on orange slices.

But in the waning moments came the game-winner. "Miss Tucker" did the honors, and Stanford enjoyed the fruits of victory. Several hundred fans met the team upon its return to the Palo Alto train station. A reception was held in the team's honor, where each member of the team was a block "S." Mrs. Jane Stanford penned a note of congratulations.

The sad epilogue is that it would be decades before women's varsity sports took root at either school. Otherwise known for progressive ways in business and world affairs, Stanford president David Starr Jordan banned women's athletics at his school several years later. Basketball didn't become an official intercollegiate sport at Cal and Stanford until 1974. It's indeed a long way from the Armory to the Alamodome.

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