By Brian Bennett
For the past two years, the senior members of Geneseo’s athletic teams are given a framed felt and chenille “G,” similar in fashion to the prototypical “athletic letter” from high school days. The gift, presented by the athletic department, has become a popular symbol for the student-athlete of their participation in sports at Geneseo.
The letter also serves as an important link to the past. The letter G, in various forms, has served as a primary visual representation on Geneseo’s sports teams since the early 1900s. As the representative teams did not become known as the Knights until 1955, uniforms worn over most of Geneseo’s athletic history have utilized the “G” for over 100 years (see the gallery link above for some examples).
In addition, for most of the first half of the 1900s, athletic participants were indeed formally presented the letter G and for many years, school yearbooks included a photo of that season’s letter winners, known as “The Wearers of the G.”
The awarding of a letter as a symbol of athletic accomplishment appears to have started at Harvard in the late 1860s. Baseball teams of that period typically used a single letter as a uniform identifier, and Harvard’s nine, and later its football team, followed suit by adding the letter H to their uniforms. Top players were allowed to keep the uniforms as a reward for their play.
Geneseo followed a similar track. The 1905 yearbook notes that “it was a difficult task to induce enough young men to compete [in sports], especially since there were no prizes to be awarded.” It was finally determined that “the simple method of other schools was adopted, namely to issue to any contestant who qualified, the privilege of wearing the initial letter G, and it is needless to say, that this distinction is sought far more eagerly than any other prize ever was.”
The same yearbook notes that since 1900, “Athletic Associations” were annually formed of students interested in participating in organized sports. Those associations would each year determine in what sports teams would be organized to compete and then set up team selections and schedules. Some contests were strictly between class teams from within Geneseo, other seasons included games against local high schools or other Normal schools. From the earlier mentions, however, it was universally noted that the teams were clothed in “blue and white.”
Occasionally the uniforms of the teams would utilize “G.T.C.” (Geneseo Teachers College), “G.S.N.S.” (Geneseo State Normal School), “Normal” or “Geneseo,” but for the most part a capital G was the primary symbol.
Since each year’s Athletic Association was a unique entity, the teams selected to complete, the uniforms and lettering style used and the requirements for athletic awards tended to differ from season to season. In 1919 the girls’ basketball team was pictured wearing white sweaters with a dark (assumedly blue) G and it was noted that all but one of the the participants “won both their letter and jersey.” Considering that the jersey was of a heavy knit, it can be seen where the tradition of a letter sweater began.
In 1920 the men wore dark sweaters with a white G, while the women wore the opposite, complete with hoods. It was noted that athletics were financed that year by the Students Association, with the sweaters one of the primary purchases.
In the 1922 yearbook it was recorded that the women’s basketball tournament was won by the “Junior Library” team and that they were “awarded the sweaters to be worn for the rest of the term.” In some seasons, after the inter-class competition, a “nominal varsity” was selected of the best players, with those players receiving letters.
The awards became more formalized in the mid-1920s. In 1925, “Wearers of the G” not only received letters, but “special insignia” versions to indicated their participation in hiking, swimming, track, basketball, baseball or tennis. In 1926, an “Old English G” was given to those students who had received letters the previous season, which were a “Big G” (block style). Sweaters were also occasionally given to the players to keep. In 1926, for example, the senior class won three consecutive tournaments, so “the white sweaters, emblems of a team’s success, were given to the players.”
The 1929 “Athletic Council” reorganized and clarified the standards for the awards, providing the most detailed look at the era’s protocol for earning a letter:
“Freshman girls who participate in three out of the four major sports are awarded [class year] numerals. Juniors who participate in two of the major sports are awarded a six inch Old English G. Because of the fact that the Senior girls have added after-school responsibilities due to practice teaching, they need to take part in only one major sport for which they earn an eight inch Block G.
“The highest honor to be acquired after a season of hard fought games is measuring up the standards of the girls’ basketball varsity. Three judges have the responsibility of choosing the best players from the three class teams. This is merely an honorary membership since they do not play any games. In order to distinguish those winning this honor, white sweaters and gold basketballs are given them to use until the next varsity team is chosen. Should any member be in the varsity for three successive years, the gold basketball becomes her permanent possession.”
The men that season had similar requirements:
“A blue felt Old English G is given to each Freshman player in basketball who makes the varsity team. If he continues in the junior year, the letter takes the form of a six inch Block G. The highest award is the eight inch Block G that is presented to him as a Senior player.
“Governed by the same rule, letters similar to these are given to players on the baseball team. Since it is possible to earn letters in both sports, those for baseball are of white felt to distinguish them from the basketball honors.”
In 1937, it was noted that since Geneseo was able to offer a variety of athletic opportunities that a letter was within reach of all students. “Some points may be earned simply by participating a certain number of hours in a definite sports. Other points, for the skillful, may be procured through tournaments and meets.” The first letter awarded was a nine-inch block G, but by securing additional points, a “more highly prized chenille ‘G’” could be attained.
The last appearance of the “Wearers of the G” was in the 1945 yearbook. In 1955, a Letterman’s Club was established for varsity athletic participants who player inter-collegiately and a classic wool body/leather sleeved "letterman’s jacket" was awarded for a number of years. These coats added gray to the long-standing blue and white Geneseo palette, a color that was reintroduced in 1995 with the current Knight logo.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, several teams, such as baseball, soccer and wrestling, continued to use the monogram G as their primary uniform element, but “GENESEO” and “KNIGHTS” became more prevalent on game apparel. Logos using a rendering of a knight also began appearing on warmup apparel. A pair of logos in the 1980s combined the G with knight or castle elements in order to make the connection with the mascot.
Track and field and cross country started using a "split G" in the 2000s, a motif that may have developed from rowing crew uniforms, which adds a classic connotation. This style of G was selected when is was decided to choose a new type of commemorative gift for seniors.
Our current student-athletes share a long tradition with those who have competed before them in the blue and white. The 1927 yearbook includes a piece titled “Some Athletic Reflections,” in which the author thoughtfully describes the connection between athletics and how they fit into her Geneseo education. Hopefully this year's seniors have come to the same understanding and in future years, as “Bearers of the G,” their letter will elicit a similar memory.
"As to qualities of sportsmanship, how many many times within these three years, have I heard such words as loyalty, skill, poise, etc.! Also expressions of this type—play the game; win if you can do so fairly, if not, lose; avoid alibis. As I teacher, I shall go forth carrying all of Geneseo’s standards, including those of athletics."
Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff. One of his first projects after joining the college in 1985 was the design of the "Knighthead G" at the bottom right of the logos illustrated above.