February 9th: William G. Morgan Invents a Game Called Mintonette that is Better Known Today as Volleyball

This Day In History: February 9, 1895

On this day in history, 1895, the first volleyball game, originally called “Mintonette” (referencing its similarity to badminton), was played in Holyoke Massachusetts at a YMCA.  The inventor of the game was the YMCA athletic director there, William G. Morgan.

Morgan had become intrigued by the recently invented game of basketball, which had been invented about four years before around nine miles from Holyoke in Springfield Massachusetts.  Basketball was invented there by Dr. James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School, which is today known as Springfield College (read more about the origin of basketball here).  The purpose of basketball was originally to create an entertaining game for young athletes that they could play indoors and would be a relatively safe game to play, in terms of making sure they didn’t get injured.  Basically, the YMCA was looking for a game that would keep athletes in shape and un-injured during the cold winter months when they couldn’t play outside.

The problem with basketball, as William Morgan saw it, was that it was extremely physically demanding to constantly run up and down the court, something older, non-athlete adults, such as businessmen, weren’t in good enough shape to do.  As such, he set out to create a game with similar goals as basketball (can be played indoors, not a terribly rough game, and would require some athletic skill and ability), but for people who weren’t in as good of shape, such as a group of middle-aged businessmen who were members at his YMCA.

He then borrowed ideas from a few different sports, such as tennis, handball, baseball, and badminton to make volleyball.  He also used the inside bladder of a basketball as the first volleyball. In the original rules:

  • The net would be 6 ft., 6 inches (basically he wanted it just a bit taller than most of the men who would be playing it)
  • It would have a court that was 25 ft. x 50 ft., so it could easily be played indoors at various YMCAs
  • It would have two teams of any number of players, so that it could accommodate differing sized groups.
  • Each match consisted of nine innings.
  • Each team could serve three times per inning (three outs).
  • There was no limit to the number of times each team could contact a ball before volleying it back to the other team.
  • Each server was allowed two tries to get the ball over the net.
  • A point would be awarded to the other team if the ball hit the net (except in the case of a faulty first serve); if the ball failed to be served back to the other side before hitting the ground; or if the ball was hit outside of the court by the team that had just returned it over the net.

Mintonette was first played at his YMCA and the rules were tweaked over the course of a little under a year until 1896 when Morgan wrote down the “final” rules and submitted them for review at a YMCA Physical Director’s Conference.  At that same conference at the International YMCA Training School, the first exhibition game was played between different YMCA groups.  One of the spectators of this exhibition match, Dr. Alfred T. Halstead suggested to Morgan that a better name for the sport than Mintonette would be “Volley Ball” (originally two words until 1952, when it was officially changed to one word) as obviously the game primarily consisted of volleying a ball back and forth.  Morgan liked the new name and so re-named the sport as such.

Volleyball quickly spread in popularity throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Philippines, among others, and was soon spread throughout Europe largely thanks to troops from North America playing it during WWI (16,000 volleyballs were donated to the troops, which needless to say made it a very popular game among them).  Today volleyball is one of the most popular team sports in the world and is still growing, though obviously professionally speaking, it’s still not as popular as sports such as Association Football, Baseball, Basketball, American Football, or the like.  However, the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) claims that it is currently the world’s most played team sport, though I should think the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) might argue that point in favor of Association Football.

Bonus Facts:

  • Morgan was actually recruited to play American Football at the YMCA Training School by Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.  Once Morgan graduated from the school, he decided to work at the Holyoke YMCA as the athletic director, where he ultimately invented volleyball.
  • Morgan only stayed at the YMCA a few years after he invented volleyball, leaving to work at General Electric and pursue other business ventures later in life.
  • After volleyball began to catch on throughout the U.S., the Spalding Company set about designing the first volleyball (as opposed to just using the bladder of a basketball) and began selling it in either 1897 or 1900 (there is some dispute over which it was).  In either case, 1897 was the same year the rules for volleyball began being included in the Handbook of the Athletic League of YMCAs of North America.
  • Players in the Philippines are credited as being the inventors of the set and spike strategy in 1916, which quickly became popular throughout the world.
  • The rule only allowing three hits per side before a ball must be returned wasn’t established until 1920.
  • Volleyball was originally demonstrated in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but not played as an official sport.  It was finally added as an official sport in 1964.  Beach volleyball wasn’t added to the Olympics until 1996, just nine years after being endorsed as an official version of volleyball by FIVB.
  • Another interesting variation on volleyball, which is significantly more physically demanding, is Hooverball.  In Hooverball, named in homage to President Herbert Hoover, the ball is a 6 pound medicine ball.  As you might imagine, one is allowed to catch the ball in Hooverball, before returning it by throwing it, rather than hitting it.  It was named after President Hoover as it was popularized by him; he frequently played it at the behest of his personal physician who thought it would be good for his health.  A team receives a point if the other team isn’t able to catch a ball, or can’t successfully throw it back over the net.  There is no passing in the sport and no moving when you hold the ball, though allowances are made if you have to run to catch the ball and can’t stop right away.
  • Another interesting variation on volleyball is Footvolley, which is played such that you are only allowed to use your legs or feet to handle the ball.
  • Volleyball has an amazing number of terms associated with it.  Some of the more entertaining include:
    • Shank: whenever a player wildly passes a ball such that it is unplayable by any of their teammates.
    • Chicken Wing: when someone is forced to bend their arm in a shape of a chicken wing to hit the ball.  This often happens when the ball is hit right at a defender who isn’t expecting it.
    • Dinosaur-Dig:  references the Tyrannosaurus Rex style arm position players sometimes get when a defender tries to block a ball, but it falls down between themselves and the net.
    • Dump: a surprise return by one team who has the setter unexpectedly return the ball, rather than setting it for the hitter.
    • Flipper: when a player hits the ball with one fully outstretched arm.
    • Kong: a one handed block.
    • Pancake: when a player only just manages to get to a ball and has to put their hands flat, palm down, on the ground so that the ball hits the back of their hands, instead of the floor.
    • Camel toe: when the ball hits the knuckles.
  • The award given to best collegiate male and female volleyball players in a given year is named in William Morgan’s honor: The Morgan Trophy.
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