The history of volleyball is closely linked to that of another popular court game. In fact, just eight miles and four years separate the historic development of volleyball and its cousin basketball.
Game for the (Middle) Ages
In 1895, William G. Morgan was the education director as the Holyoke, Massachusetts, YMCA. Four years earlier, his colleague James Naismith had invented the game of basketball just down the road at the Springfield YMCA. Naismith’s game was catching on quickly but there was a drawback. Not everyone could keep up with the fast pace of basketball—and that was even before the fast break was created. Morgan needed a game that could be enjoyed by middle-aged men.
Morgan conceived a court game he originally called mintonette. He chose the name because his new sport was related to badminton. Mintonette was played on a court divided by a six-foot, six-inch net. Teams volleyed the ball back and forth across the net until one team missed. The first competitive game of volleyball was played July 7, 1896.
Things They Are
Changes were immediately made to Morgan’s game. One of the first changes was the name itself. Alfred Halstead is credited with renaming the sport with the descriptive words “volley ball.” (Can you imagine Karch Kiraly playing for a gold medal in Olympic beach mintonette?) The number of players on each team also was limited. Originally, a team was allowed to have as many players as it could fit into its half of a 50- by 25-foot court. The number of players was set at nine per side and later reduced to six. Rotating players to various positions on the court has been part of the game from the beginning.
The number of times a team could touch the ball before it went over the net was eventually established at three. The first rules allowed an unlimited number of hits. The earliest games in Morgan’s gym were played with the rubber bladder from inside a basketball. Spalding made the first official volleyball in 1896. By 1900, the standard shape and weight of the ball were almost identical to those used today.
The height of the net was raised to make play more challenging. Today, the net is just under eight feet for men’s competition (2.43 meters) and just over seven feet (2.24 meters) for women’s. Under the original rules of volleyball, a team had to score 21 points to win a game. In 1917, that number was reduced to 15.
Giving the Game
YMCA workers took the game from Holyoke to US missionary schools in Asia. The game became very popular in the East as was played in the Oriental Games as early as 1913. Volleyball also caught on in Russia. When regular international competition began in the 1950s, Russia was the dominant team. During the World War I, United States troops introduced volleyball in Europe.
You know a sport has really arrived when official governing bodies are established. For volleyball, this happened in 1928 when the United States Volleyball Association was formed. The organization later became USA Volleyball. The Fédération Internationale de Volley-ball (FIVB) was founded in 1947. In 1949, the first men’s world championship tournament took place in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Not Just for Middle-Aged
It quickly became apparent that volleyball had appeal far beyond the middle-aged men it was originally introduced to. Colleges and high schools began to adopt the sport for both men and women. Volleyball became the competitive fall sport for girls. The first US national volleyball championships for women were played in 1949, 54 years after women began competing in the game. The first international championships for women were played in 1952 in Moscow.