The Woman who Invented a Sport in New Orleans
Updated: Feb 13
I grew up in Israel, and when I was in grade school, I went to the school right across the street from my house, and took phys-ed classes at the court right around the corner. That is where I learned how to play a lead-up game to volleyball called Kadureshet (netball). Little did I know then that the origin of this game was called Newcomb Ball and that it was developed about a hundred years earlier by a woman, and in a city called New Orleans, where I would find myself as a tour guide some thirty years later. This woman was Clara Gregory Baer and she made sports history.
Clara Gregory Baer grew up in New Orleans and was a sickly child. She was encouraged to go “play with the boys” and that is likely why she placed so much importance on physical education for girls and women at a time when female participation in sports was an unpopular proposition.
Baer received her higher education in the Northeast, where she also got good job offers, but in 1891 she ended up going back to her hometown because of family matters. The job she did take in New Orleans was Women’s Gymnastics Director at the Southern Athletic Club, located on the corner of Washington Ave. and Prytania St. in the Garden District. If you were to look at the sidewalk right in front of the building you would see blue tiles spelling “Behrman Gym”, one of the last remnants of the Southern Athletic Club.
Although the Southern Athletic Club was a gentlemen only club, Baer was hired to provide physical education for the wives, daughters and sisters of the club members. The club’s doors had been open for women to exercise on a limited basis since 1889, but until Baer’s appearance, the women did not show much enthusiasm for sports. Baer taught the ladies gymnastics, introduced them to basketball and to the Newcomb Ball, invented by Baer and named after the girls' college around the corner, where she was a physical education teacher.
H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College was the first degree-granting women’s coordinate college in the United States, operating under the auspices of the recently endowed Tulane University. The Newcomb campus was just around the block from the Southern Athletic Club - on the corner of Washington Ave. and Camp St. Clara Baer was hired by Newcomb’s president, Brandt von Blarcom Dixon, a pioneer who believed that physical education was good for school spirit as well as for mind and body.
Parents of the girls going to Newcomb were not happy about them participating in physical exercise. There were concerns that it would make them unfeminine or that they would get hurt. On one occasion, when a father of one of the girls wrote to Dixon that his daughter had plenty of exercise during the summer vacation to last her the whole year, Dixon replied, “I presume that she had a hearty Thanksgiving dinner; is she excluded from later dinners on that account?”
When Clara Baer invented the Newcomb Ball she did not intend for it to become the lead-up game for volleyball, nor was it volleyball’s byproduct. Newcomb was invented a couple of years before volleyball, and William Morgan, volleyball’s inventor, was more than likely inspired by Newcomb. Baer’s original intention was to develop her students’ basketball skills while she was waiting for the arrival of the basket posts she had ordered. The result of this accidental invention exceeded her expectations.
Baer divided her class into two teams, standing on each side of a divided gymnasium. The object of the game she came up with was to throw a ball with such force to the other team’s side that it would hit the ground in their court. This was called a “touchdown”. Baer quickly realized that beyond a game that worked on developing basketball skills, it was a game that could be played by as many as forty participants, and it required very basic equipment.
Newcomb Ball developed quickly from that point on and Baer revised the rules several times. Newcomb became the second team sport to be played by women after basketball, and it was so popular in the early 20th century that it was a varsity sport played by both sexes on teams traveling to tournaments all over the U.S.
Eventually, volleyball surpassed Newcomb in popularity and status as a competitive international sport. However, Newcomb in its multitude of variations is still played around the world, not only as a lead-up game to volleyball but also as an emerging social sports league for mothers. Since 2005 Mamanet (a Newcomb variation) has been the largest social-sports league specifically for women ages thirty and up and for mothers of all ages in Israel. It is no longer just an Israeli phenomenon but has spread all over the world. In 2019 the 2nd Mamanet USA Cup was held in Los Angeles, and in June 2020 Mamanet will be part of the WFCS 3rd World Company Sport Games in Greece.
Now, as for Clara Gregory Baer, by the time she retired she had become the foremost pioneer for women’s physical education in the South and had a variety of accomplishments under her belt. In 1893 she helped facilitate the second compulsory physical education law in the nation. In 1895 she published the first set of rules for women’s basketball. In 1907 she instituted the first physical education bachelor program in the South; and by inventing the Newcomb Ball she was the first woman to invent a game that became a varsity sport at the school and college levels.
It is truly great to look back and realize that as a kid I learned and enjoyed a game that was developed by a woman in a city, both of which were not in my consciousness at the time; and now, I walk the streets of New Orleans’ Garden District with my tourists, see the old tiles of the Behrman Gym, the stairs that are left from the old Newcomb campus, and it all comes back to life.
Dale A. Somers, The Rise of Sport in New Orleans, 1850-1900