This Week in Princeton History for November 24-30

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the campus mourns the death of John F. Kennedy, the first classes are held in Nassau Hall, and more.

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John F. Kennedy speaks to the Whig-Cliosophic Society, April 26, 1954, Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP13, Item No. 3168.

November 25, 1963—In observation of the National Day of Mourning for United States President and (briefly) former Princetonian John F. Kennedy, all classes are canceled and University offices are closed.

November 26, 1787—The Faculty of the College of New Jersey resolve that baseball, being “low and unbecoming gentlemen and students,” and “attended by great danger to the health,” must be prohibited, “inasmuch as there are many amusements both more honorable and more useful.” Baseball continues to be played anyway.

November 28, 1756—With carpenters and others still at work on the building the students attend the first day of classes at Nassau Hall.

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Nassau Hall commemorative plate by Wedgwood, Memorabilia Collection (AC053), Box A2.

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Charcoal drawing of Philip Vickers Fithian, Class of 1772, by an unknown artist., ca. October 1776, Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 24.

November 30, 1770—Philip Vickers Fithian (Class of 1772) writes to his father about his experiences at the College of New Jersey. A standard schedule:

5:00 AM—Rising Bell
5:30 AM—Morning Prayers
8:00 AM—Breakfast
9:00 AM-1:00 PM—Recitation
1:00 PM—Dinner
1:00-3:00 PM—Recreation
3:00-5:00 PM—Study Hours
5:00 PM—Evening Prayers
7:00 PM—Supper
9:00 PM—Study Bell (to go to bed before this is “reproachful”)

Students who repeatedly miss morning prayers will receive “public Admonition in the Hall for Contempt of Authority.” Fithian feels the customs of the College are “exceedingly well formed to check & restrain the vicious, & to assist the studious, & to countenance & incourage (sic) the virtuous.” Read this letter and others here.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Johnny Sylvester ’37 and Babe Ruth

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Baseball in October is often marked by premier teams, clutch plays, and memorable moments. One such moment came during Game Four of the 1926 World Series. In that game on Wednesday, October 6th, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the New York Yankees and their great player Babe Ruth. Ruth would shine for the Yankees, hitting three home runs in a 10-5 victory. These home runs would be significant in the baseball world, but for one little boy, they appeared to be life-saving.
In 1926 Johnny Sylvester was an 11 year-old die hard Yankee fan living in Essex Fells, New Jersey. During the summer he was involved in a horseback riding accident in which he fell off his horse. The horse then kicked him in the head, leaving Sylvester with a bad infection that began to spread rapidly. Doctors feared he would not survive. While it is true that Sylvester was sick, there is some disagreement in the historical record as to how critically ill he actually was. Some think he had blood poisoning or a sinus condition or a back problem.
Soon telegrams reached the Yankees in St. Louis, notifying them of young Sylvester’s condition. There is some discrepancy in who initiated the contact—Sylvester himself or his father or uncle—but the end result was positive. Ruth responded by sending back two autographed balls (one from the Yankees, and one from the Cardinals). He also included a note to Johnny: “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday.”
On Wednesday, October 6th, Ruth hit three home runs, ensuring a Yankee victory. Remarkably, Sylvester’s condition improved greatly after the game. He eventually made a complete turnaround, graduated from Princeton in 1937, served in the Navy during World War II, and was a successful businessman in Long Island City, New York.
While memorable and inspiring for Sylvester, when a year later Ruth was asked about the event, he reportedly said, “Who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?” The special home run message was not Sylvester’s last contact with Ruth. Sylvester visited Ruth at the opening game of the 1929 season at Yankee Stadium. And, while Ruth was in his declining years, Sylvester visited him at Ruth’s New York apartment.
A possibly apocryphal story about the Sylvester-Ruth connection revolves around the tradition of older classes carrying signs at P-rade. Though there is no proof of it extant in the Archives, Sylvester allegedly once carried a sign that read “Who the hell is Babe Ruth?” paying homage to the great slugger’s forgetful remark and Sylvester’s memorable connection to him.

–Kristen Turner

Lobby Case Exhibition on Moe Berg

Update — Back by popular demand! The Moe Berg Lobby Case Exhibition can be once again viewed in the lobby of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library through August 31st, 2012.

Primarily known as a Major League catcher and coach, Morris “Moe” Berg was also a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II, as well as a lawyer, linguist, and Princeton graduate. As a member of the class of 1923, Berg excelled scholastically and athletically by graduating with honors in Modern Languages (he studied Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit), and playing first base and shortstop for the Princeton Tigers. While his batting average was low- Berg inspired a Major League scout to utter the phrase, “Good field, no hit”- he was known at Princeton for his strong arm and sound baseball instincts.

The exhibit highlights the varied roles of Berg in its presentation of Princeton memorabilia from the class of 1923, Berg baseball cards, and other material culled from Mudd’s two collections on Moe Berg: The Moe Berg Collection (1937-2007), and the newly acquired Dr. and Mrs. Arnold Breitbart Collection on Moe Berg (1934-1933). Also on display is a 1959 baseball signed by Berg and other Major League players, on loan from Arnold Breitbart. The Moe Berg exhibit can be located in the lobby of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, and was originally on display until August 31, 2011.


[i] Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. New York: Pantheon, 1994.