Water polo was introduced to the United States in 1888 by John Robinson, an Englishman who had been hired by the Boston Athletic Association as a professional swimming instructor. Robinson taught a game based on brute strength, taking on some characteristics of American football in the water. This somewhat ferocious version of the sport developed great spectator interest. In the 1890s, games were played in such venues as the Madison Square Garden and the Boston’s Mechanics Hall, where crowds of 10,000 to 14,000 watched the games. Ambulances stood by, ready to take injured or passed out players to the hospital.
It was not the game we know today. The main attraction was violence and mayhem. It was probably one of the roughest games ever played. There literally were few rules. Players could hold, sink and pull back opposing players. Anything went: back strangles, thumbing, gouging, punching, biting—anything. Life-threatening holds, like the “jujitsu toe hold”, the “back stranglehold”, and the “leg scissors hold” were developed and used with little control. Tensions rose so quickly that often games would end in fisticuffs.
In an article in Argosy magazine, before the turn of the century, writer Normandie Murray made an interesting observation about the American rules for the sport:
“The rules of the game are quite simple. Tackling is allowed when a man is in possession of the ball or is within three feet of it… Slugging and tackling a man who is not within three feet of the ball, are fouls.”
Murray’s last comment was quite telling. In the early years, slugging an opponent was part of the game. It is no wonder that many games ended in brawls and it was common that several players would be sent by ambulance to the hospital.
The ball was partially deflated, enabling an offensive player to clutch the ball and dive deep underwater. Under these rules, many life-threatening battles took place underwater, where a defender could hold the player with the ball to the brink of passing out. Defenders would not give up their death grips until the offensive player tapped or pinched the defender to notify him that he was giving up and would release the ball. Even then, it was common for victims to float to the surface needing resuscitation.
The most famous player around the turn of the century was Joe Ruddy. For decades, he was considered the best player in the United States. He was a strong proponent of the softball rules, stating, “It’s a great game. Sure, it’s a bit rough. But so is football. Those that want to play tiddlywinks can stay in the parlor. We’ll pile into the tank and have some fun.”
Near the end of his career, when asked about the dangers of players strangling each other underwater, Ruddy explained:
“Now you know, if a fellow feels he’s done up under water, he just gives his opponent a little pinch-like that-and the fellow lets go. We call it the busy signal. It’s a safeguard, you see, to keep fellows from really getting hurt underwater. A good idea too, for the other boys. In thirty-six years, I never gave the busy signal once. Not me.”
When asked when he would quit the sport, Joe promptly replied, “When anybody can make me give the busy signal.”