The Origins and Development of Ultimate Frisbee


Over recent years what have been variously termed alternative or lifestyle sports have increasingly become the focus of academic study. These sports are considered ‘alternative’ as they have sought to challenge accepted conceptions of modern Western achievement sport and typically have evolved from North America, having later been imported to Europe. An example of such a sport is that of Ultimate Frisbee. To date little has been written about Ultimate Frisbee or indeed the developmental process which has given rise to the creation and establishment of alternative sport. This paper seeks to examine the distinct and crucial stages of Ultimate’s development.


Over recent years what have been variously termed alternative or lifestyle sports (Wheaton, 2004) have increasingly become the focus of academic study. Examples of such activities and related papers include skateboarding (Beal, 1995), snowboarding (Humphreys, 1997), windsurfing (Wheaton, 2000) and surfing (Butts, 2001). These sports are considered alternative as they have sought to challenge accepted concepts of modern Western achievement sport (Eichberg, 1998; Rhinehart and Sydnor, 2003) and typically have evolved from North America, having later been imported to Europe (Bourdieu, 1984). Another lesser- known example that has made the transatlantic jump is that of Ultimate Frisbee.

Ultimate Frisbee (known simply as Ultimate to participants) is a fast paced, non-contact, mixed team sport played with a flying disc (or Frisbee), which marries features of a number of invasion games, such as American Football and netball, into a simple yet, demanding game (UKU, 2008). To date, little has been written about Ultimate or indeed the developmental process which has given rise to the creation and establishment of alternative sport. What this paper seeks to do is to examine the evolution of Ultimate Frisbee and illustrate the key stages of its development.

Ultimate, as with all disc sports, would not exist without the invention of the flying disc, or Frisbee, as it is commonly known. Flying discs have of course been thrown in numerous cultures for centuries for a variety of reasons, including sport (Malafronte, 1998). The origins of Ultimate can be argued to have gone through distinct and crucial stages and each will be discussed in turn. Firstly, the origin of the name Frisbee will be examined followed by the subsequent development of the plastic flying disc. The idea of Frisbee football will then be explained and then attention will be drawn to locating the development of Ultimate amidst the American counter culture. Finally the creation of Ultimate and the first game will be detailed.

The Origins of Frisbee

The name Frisbee is accepted by most sources to originate from one William Russell Frisbie of Bridgeport, Connecticut (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998; Iocovella, 2004; Leonardo and Zagoria, 2004). Following the end of the American Civil War, William Russell Frisbie moved to Bridgeport to manage a new bakery, which he subsequently bought and renamed, the Frisbie Pie Company.

The original bakery was situated close to the college which later became Yale in 1887 (Scotland, 2004). Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are strong links between Yale and the origination of the Frisbee. The popular theory – perhaps it is a myth — is that Yale students frequently bought Frisbie Pies and after eating them, would toss the empty pie tins around the Yale campus (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998). As metal pie dishes are not the kindest of missiles to be struck by, this led to throwers shouting the cautionary word “frisbie-e-e-e!” (not unlike golfers shouting the word “Fore!”) to warn both the catcher and bystanders of the approaching disc (Weiss, 2004).

Not surprisingly, in the absence of definitive evidence, modified or alternative stories abound. One particular point of contention is whether the projectile was indeed a pie tin or whether, in fact, it was a cookie tin lid. Support for the cookie argument can be found in ih a study by Johnson (1975), who conducted interviews with former Yale students. An example of one such account is credited to Charles O. Gregory who recalled:

‘I clearly remember the cookies; and I also recall that the cover of the tin box was used by the older kids just the same way that Frisbees are now used… When I went to college…I saw students using these same tin box lids as people now use Frisbees. So I assumed that the name came from these sugar cookies and the boxes in which they were sold…. I never heard of Frisbie’s pies’ (Johnson, 1975,18).

As a semi-professional player and respected writer on Ultimate, Malafronte (1998) considers that cookie tins were more likely to be used for throwing games. “With their flat tops and deeper perpendicular edged rims [they] were much more air worthy – players could perform a variety of throws, with more control than a pie pan (35).” However, deeper research into the debate leads one to the belief that the tossing of pie pans was equally popular and in some cases was likely to be more so, given the fact that pies were considerably cheaper to purchase for the typical student than tins of cookies (Malafronte, 1998).

Johnson (1975) considers that both cases probably have some truth and merit but that additional research conducted, including conversations with the widow of Joseph P. Frisbie (son and heir of the late W.R. Frisbie) and former plant manager Mr. Vaughn, leads to the conclusion that the earlier prototype was most likely to have been the pie tin.

In addition to Yale – and in accordance with the rising heritage industry – other East Coast US colleges also claim to be the birthplace of the ‘Frisbee’ (Weiss, 2004). For instance, at Middlebury College in Vermont, a statue of a dog caught in mid-Frisbee-snatching-flight has been erected to celebrate the claim that a group of Middlebury boys discovered pie-pan tossing while on a road trip to a fraternity convention in Nebraska in 1938 (Weiss, 2004). Such claims are perhaps not surprising when one considers that, according to Malafronte (1998), workers of the Frisbie Pie Company travelled around many of the Ivy League institutions of New England and were apparently renowned for tossing pie tins around during their breaks.

The Development of the Flying Disc

Following the end of World War II and gathering anxieties about future external threats, supposed sightings of UFOs and flying saucers were beginning to grab the public’s imagination in the USA (McMahon, 1998). Capturing the prevailing public mood, one budding American inventor, Fred Morrison, took an idea to the Southern Californian Plastics Company and, in conjunction with Warren Francioni, produced a crude prototype plastic flying disc, known as the Arcuate Vane model in 1948 (Johnson, 1975; Mc Mahon, 1998; Malafronte 1998).

In 1951 Morrison went on to produce his second model called the Pluto Platter, which he sold at fairs with moderate success (Scotland, 2004). Though the importance of the Pluto Platter cannot be underestimated, as it became the blueprint for all subsequent Frisbees (Johnson, 1975), it was not, in fact, initially mass produced.

However, among the young, the Platter was gaining popularity, and 1954 saw the first recorded competition using a flying disc when Dartmouth University (New Hampshire, USA) students organised a tournament for the disc sport known as ‘Guts’ (Iocovella, 2004). In addition, the Pluto Platter, significantly, reached the US West coast beaches too.

According to Johnson (1975), the story goes that Rich Knerr and A.K.”Spud” Melin, fresh from the University of Southern California, had established a fledgling toy company known as Wham-O. In late 1955, after seeing Pluto Platters whizzing around southern California beaches, they cornered Morrison while he was “hawking his wares” in downtown Los Angeles and made him a proposition (Malafronte, 1998).

In 1958, mass production of the Pluto Platter began (US Design patent 183,626 – See Patents Online, 2008). But as co-founder of Wham –O, Knerr recalls (Johnson,1975), “At first the saucers had trouble catching on but we were confident they were good, so we sprinkled them in different parts of the country to prime the market (20).” According to Scotland (2004), however, disc production would have been far from paramount given the success of Wham-O’s other new creation which began a national craze, the hula-hoop.

In a bid to improve both the flying properties and the marketability of the Pluto Platter Wham-O turned to another fledgling inventor, Ed Headrick, and in 1967, the ‘Wham-O Frisbee’ was launched (US patent design 3359678 – see Free Patents Online, 2008). It is alleged that it was Knerr who picked up the catchy term whilst on a trip around the campuses of the Ivy League colleges. He reported that Harvard students told him how they had been throwing pie tins around for years and calling it ‘Frisbie-ing’. Being unaware of the possible origins of the word (the Frisbie Pie Company closed in 1958 and Knerr was not from the East Coast) he spelled his new creation as ‘Frisbee’ (Johnson, 1975).

Frisbee Football

Frisbee football (a version of American football played with a flying disc) is recorded as the origin of many games similar to Ultimate (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998; Zagoria, 2003). Accounts of such games are recorded at institutions such as Kenyon College, Ohio as early as 1942. A version of such a game, referred to as Aceball, was later captured by Life magazine in 1950 (Malafronte, 1998).

Evidence of another similar game, involving “a plastic or metal serving tray” cropped up at Amherst College in the early 1950s. In a letter to the editor, published in the January 1958 Amherst Alumni News, Peter Schrag (alumni from 1953) describes this game, stating that:

Rules have sprung up and although they vary, the game as now played is something like touch (football), each team trying to score goals by passing the tray down field. There are interceptions and I believe passing is unlimited. Thus, a man may throw the Frisbee to a receiver who passes it to still another man. The opponents try to take over, either by blocking the tray or intercepting it (Leonardo & Zagoria, 2004,5).

Established sources indicate that the most likely origin of Ultimate probably rests with members of Columbia High School (CHS), Maplewood, NJ, USA, who introduced their idea of an Ultimate Frisbee game to their student council in 1967 (see Figure 4). The key individual among the group in devising Ultimate was probably a student called Joel Silver who had played Frisbee Football at a camp in Mount Herman, Massachusetts in the summer of 1967 (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998; Iocovella, 2004; Leonardo and Zagoria, 2004).

Born in 1967 at the Height of the American Counter Culture

Ultimate was conceived in the U.S. amidst political assassinations, the escalating war in Vietnam, urban riots and civil rights unrest (Heale, 2001). As increasing numbers of largely young people became “alienated from the parental generation” they looked for forms of escape and resistance and loosely formed what became known as the counter culture (Roszak, 1972: 1). The forms of escape and resistance were manifest in a multitude of ways including political activism and protest, the creation of alternative lifestyles, experimental and communal living and through dress, drugs and music (Heale, 2001). Although hippies embodied the counter culture and represented any serious real threat to the establishment it was middle class, college educated students that were at the very heart of counter culture events and attitudes and “there were more conservative kids who were eager apprentices of the system” (Anderson, 1995: 242) as baby boomers flooded onto campuses.

The values and behaviours that came to represent the counter culture, which was at its height in 1967 during what was termed the Summer of Love (Farrell, 1997) were that of democracy, perceived alternative and superior lifestyle choices, communal caring and sharing, an appreciation of beauty and nature, having a relaxed and laid back attitude, rejecting regulation and technology and encouraging self expression and personal growth (Heale, 2001; Anderson, 1995).These values and behaviours were based upon humanistic psychology (Farrell, 1997: 207) where in a supportive environment people would work towards self actualization (Maslow, 1968). Those espousing such values they viewed the time and the counter culture as an instrument of change. They hoped that through spreading their cultural values and changing the consciousness of their fellow citizens, a structural transformation of society could in turn be effected (Heale, 2001).

For the majority, being part of the counter culture was a frame of mind manifested in a particular way of life (Farrell, 1997). ‘The idea was to liberate yourself from the confining conventions of life and to celebrate the irrational side of your nature, kind of let yourself go. This was the counter culture coming to us and it stirred people up and made us feel like doing something dramatic (University student in Anderson, 1995). “The point is that it was the culture that was sick, so one way to change was to live it differently” (Anders, 1990, 36). To many, doing something dramatic was manifest in doing something differently and dropping the values of the mainstream and living the “here and now revolution” (Anderson, 1995). To Joel Silver and his friends it was creating a game that would embody all of these values, many of which continue to be manifest within Ultimate today.

The Creation of Ultimate and the First Game

When Joel Silver returned home to Maplewood, he continued to throw with fellow students, adapted the rules of Frisbee Football, and ‘invented’ the team sport of Ultimate. The name itself is said to have arisen due to Silver referring to the game as the Ultimate sports experience. Such claims have been supported by fellow players of the time (Zagoria, 2003).

However, more recent and rigorous research has come to light to suggest that the truth may be somewhat different. According to Herndon (2003), after interviewing Silver, it was found that he had learned a Frisbee game from someone named Jared Kass while attending summer camp. Herndon (2003), like many, assumed that Silver had played something like Frisbee football with Jared Kass at camp, and then returned to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, and made up and named, a whole new game called Ultimate. However, upon questioning Kass closely it seems that the whole of the Ultimate playing world had been somewhat misled.

Upon investigation, Herndon (2003) learned that Kass had taught Silver not some distant relative of Ultimate, but Ultimate in its essence and by name, whilst having no idea that he had had anything to do with its creation. Kass recounts that the game evolved from a variation of touch football whilst at Amherst College where he started as a student in 1965.

Whatever the true chain of events, Silver continued to throw with his friends including Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring and Jonny Hines until in the autumn of 1967, Silver proposed that, for a joke, the Student Council form a Frisbee team. Yet by the end of the school year, Silver and members of both the student newspaper The Columbian and the Student Council began to play a modified game of Frisbee football (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998).

The game was what one might describe as freeform early on, with no strict limits on how many players should be on each side, with as many as 20 to 30 players being allowed per team. However, the local ecology meant that this number was eventually whittled to seven (the current number) because “that was the most you could fit in the parking lot” (Zagoria, 2003:2). The original game also allowed running with the disc, and it included lines of scrimmage and a series of downs; but as they played, Silver, Hellring, and Hines began to modify the rules.

Finally, in the fall of 1968, the members of the student newspaper challenged the students on Council to a formal game. In a match up that featured two large, co-ed teams, The Columbian won the first game in front of the high school, 11-7. This historic first match was played on the now famous Columbia parking lot. During the summer of 1970, Silver, Hellring and Hines re-wrote and refined the rules which were subsequently printed and copies were sent all over the world (Leonardo & Zagoria, 2004).

Thus, the sport of Ultimate Frisbee was born and following the dissemination of the rules via college campuses in the United States, the sport grew from strength to strength, seeing the first intercollegiate game in 1972 between Princeton and Rutgers and two years later the beginning of the founding of international organisations, such as the Swedish Frisbee Federation (Iocovella, 2004).


In this paper the origins of the alternative sport of Ultimate Frisbee have been explored, showing the distinct and crucial stages of its development, starting with the origin of the name Frisbee, development of the plastic flying disc and moving through to development of ‘Frisbee football’ and the creation and playing of the first game. Importantly attention was drawn to locating the development of Ultimate amidst the American counter culture, the values of which permeated into the sport and largely remain to this day.

What the pattern of development of Ultimate shows is that particular conditions need to be in place to facilitate the move from one significant stage to another. These conditions are not always apparent, however, until viewed retrospectively when a clear pattern may emerge. Within newer, alternative activities such as Ultimate, historical developments are less well reported. So it is hoped that this paper offers and insight into one such activity.


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