The Little Three is said to be “America’s oldest, continuous intercollegiate athletic conference without a membership change.” Made up of Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan, the league traces its roots back to 1899. However, relations between the three teams were not always as amiable as they are today. At the turn of the 20th century, Amherst actually left the league for about a decade over a conflict not unlike the NCAA’s amateurism disputes of the modern age.
It is widely known that Amherst played the first organized baseball game against Williams in 1859, but organized leagues did not take shape until over two decades later when, in 1880, Amherst joined a baseball league alongside Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton.
Football started to become popular among the Amherst student body around this same time, though early football games were originally only played among the Amherst classes. Amherst’s first intercollegiate football game took place in 1878, a defeat against Yale in which Amherst failed to score a single point. Six years later in 1884, Amherst met Williams on the gridiron for the first time and fell by a final score of 15-2.
In 1892, following the construction of Pratt Field the year prior, a new football league was formed with Amherst, Dartmouth, and Williams. Amherst had its greatest football season yet, winning their first championship in the sport. The Amherst team finished with a record of 8-5, although they outscored their opponents by a 314-141 margin, defeating Dartmouth 30-2 and utterly embarrassing Williams 60-0 — the largest margin of victory in any of the 135 football games the two rivals have played.
Dartmouth subsequently withdrew from the league in 1899 and Wesleyan joined in its place, creating what was known then as the Triangular League, or the Tri-Collegiate League. This new league was expanded to include other sports besides football as well, and Amherst won its first league championship in baseball in 1901.
Controversy arose just three years after the league’s inauguration, however. Prior to the start of the 1902 baseball season, representatives from each of the three colleges met to set eligibility requirements for participating in the league. Similar to the NCAA’s current eligibility rules, any player who played a sport professionally and received financial compensation for their efforts was disallowed from playing in the league.
Amherst’s Jack Dunleavy ’04, a star left-handed pitcher with aspirations of playing professional baseball (his Olio bio reads, “‘Jack Dunleavy’ is another way of spelling baseball”), was one of the early victims of this new rule. He was identified as receiving money while playing for a semi-professional team in Malone, N.Y., and was thereby banned from playing in the league before the 1902 season began. Dunleavy would never play for Amherst again, but he was immediately hired as a coach for the Amherst team. He then left Amherst after his junior year and went on to play three major league seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Following this, Wesleyan representatives brought similar charges against Frank Kane ’04 during the season, alleging that he had played professional baseball for two teams in Maine the previous summer. Kane was a talented and popular athlete on campus. His Olio entry states, “His principal occupation in college has been reading what the newspapers have to say about him, and incidentally shaving about three times a day.”
Kane was alleged to have used a fake name while playing over the summer to avoid being caught for receiving money. Under the league’s sanctions, allegations such as these were to be investigated by a supposedly unbiased faculty committee at the defendant’s institution, meaning that it was Amherst faculty members who were to investigate Kane’s case. Affidavits were received from managers of the two teams he had played for over the summer, stating that he had not received a salary for his play. Kane was subsequently acquitted of all the charges.
Kane was thus allowed to continue playing for the rest of the season, and he pitched the championship game against Williams on May 3, resulting in a 5-4 victory in which Kane recorded 10 strikeouts. Williams played the game under protest.
However, this was not the end of the saga for Kane. Wesleyan unsurprisingly appealed the acquittal, and a hearing among league officials took place on May 9. After a long deliberation, Kane was declared ineligible by a predictable vote of 2-1.
The decision was the talk of the campus on the following days. Amherst held a mass meeting of students and faculty just three days after the decision, which lasted for nearly five hours and resulted in Amherst choosing to leave the league following the conclusion of the season. A special edition of The Student, which dedicated two full pages to the controversy — including letters from notable faculty members — stated, “it is plain that the only way in which the college can do justice to itself and to Mr. Kane is to withdraw from the league.” Kane was still allowed to play on the Amherst team the following year, as the only rules he violated were those of the Triangular League.
After leaving the league in 1902, Amherst did not play Williams in any athletic competitions until the 1905 season. Tensions with Wesleyan appear to have been even more strained, as no contests were played with Wesleyan until 1910. It was not until competition among the three schools resumed in 1910 that the Little Three as we know it today truly began.