Section: Features

History of ultimate frisbee on the Hill takes the cake (tins)

Did Kenyon invent ultimate frisbee? No — students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., formalized the sport and its rules in 1968. But did Kenyon students play a football-inspired game with a circular cake tin from 1942 onward? Most certainly.

William “Bud” Southard ’43 and his brother Tom Southard ’51  created the game in 1942, when Bud was at home in Lakewood, Ohio for spring break. The game was to be played with a nine-inch Ovenex cake tin, which was tossed underhand between players. Fields were to be about 60 yards long and 30 to 40 yards wide. Other rules of the game were inspired by touch football: Each team received four downs to cross the field, and players could toss the cake tin laterally if they had not yet been touched by the opposing team.

While these rules are a far cry from those of modern ultimate frisbee, the game created by the Southards was molded by the equipment on hand. Current frisbeers have at their disposal aerodynamic discs specifically designed for long-distance throws; Bud and Tom had a cake tin that could not be tossed any farther than 40 yards, even in the best conditions.

Bud was involved in campus literary life, and the game first spread through those same circles after the spring break of 1942.  The game was frequently seen being played outside Douglass House, a free-wheeling residence inhabited by many aspiring writers and poets — Southard included. Many Douglass residents had come to Kenyon to study under Professor of English John Crowe Ransom, noted poet and literary critic. The House, located in downtown Gambier, had an atmosphere distinct from the fraternity-dominated residence halls of South Campus.

The Collegian playfully “exposed” Douglass House in 1941, sending a reporter there to interview Southard and his housemates. The reporter narrates, “Southard is the perfect host. He not only invites you to sit on the floor but offers to remove the pile of unpressed pants which were there before you were.” Though disorganized, Southard was well-liked by his peers at Douglass. They affectionately nicknamed him “Ace” for his consistently high grades, so Southard’s sport quickly won the moniker “aceball.”

Though once confined to Douglass lawn, aceball soon took over campus. When TIME sent a photographer to Kenyon for “The Educated Man,” a 1950 piece about the changing social perceptions of higher education, the photographer took numerous photographs of students playing aceball on South Quad. Though the 50-plus photos went unpublished, USA Ultimate Magazine quoted Tom Southard explaining that aceball was “the only thing [the photographer] saw there that he didn’t see someplace else,” as a rationale for the photographic surplus.

It is unlikely that the New Jersey inventors of ultimate frisbee were influenced by the rules of aceball, and the Kenyon frisbee team SERF did not come into existence until 1977, long after the Southards had left campus. In some sense, however, frisbee roots reach further back at Kenyon than they do for ultimate itself. SERF member Peter Reinhart ’20 reacted positively to seeing the historic TIME photographs: “That’s what we do nowadays, on the weekends or whenever we get the chance: Just throw around outside on South Quad, right where they were doing it way back when.”

So whether you play for Ransom or SERF, or just enjoy tossing a frisbee on a sunny afternoon, maybe we should all pause for a moment — and be grateful we no longer throw around rusty cake tins.

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