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Andy Wittry | | July 7, 2022

How Yale got the nickname 'Bulldogs': The true story

NCAA mascot history: The iconic origin of Yale's Handsome Dan

While the nickname "Bulldogs" is far from a unique mascot in college athletics, the specific nickname of Yale's bulldog is one-of-a-kind: Handsome Dan. Yale is represented by a live bulldog mascot, the lineage of which includes nearly 20 living, breathing bulldogs.

Here's what we know about the origin and history of the Yale Bulldogs.

What was Yale called before the 'Bulldogs'?

Yale students have also been called "Elis" after Elihu Yale, who was the namesake for Yale in the early 1700s.

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Do any other schools have the nickname 'Bulldogs'?

Yale is one of 17 current or former NCAA Division I schools to have the nickname "Bulldogs," along with schools like Alabama A&M, Bryant, Butler, The Citadel, Drake, Fresno State, Gardner-Webb, Georgia, Gonzaga, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, UNC Asheville, Samford and South Carolina State.

What makes the Yale Bulldogs — specifically the living, breathing Handsome Dan bulldog — different?

"Well, of course, he was the first," said Judy Schiff, the Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library, "and he was a real one."

When did Yale get the nickname 'Bulldogs'?

Yale alum and former football and crew athlete Andrew Graves, a member of the class of 1892, bought a dog from a blacksmith for $5 and it was named "Handsome Dan," becoming Yale's first bulldog mascot in 1889, according to the school's website. The school was reportedly the first university in the U.S. to have a mascot.

A story published in the Hartford Courant in 1894, headlined "Yale Oarsman Married," reported "Mr. Graves was a very popular man in college and rowed in the victorious '91 and '92 Yale crews. He had inherited a large fortune from his father."

However, this story isn't totally true.

"I'm glad you called me, actually, because I went back to check the Yale website, the athletics department, and I don't know what it is but every time I try to point out the error of their ways, they seem to put up a website that has even more errors about Handsome Dan," said Schiff, the Chief Research Archivist at the Yale University Library. "I don't know whether it's deliberate or someone is joking around or what it is. You know, legends get to be true after a while. It's OK."

"There was another bulldog before Handsome Dan," Schiff said, "but Handsome Dan is the one who was revered as the first one."

The original Yale bulldog, according to Schiff, was named Harper.

"In 2014, it was Handsome Dan's 125th birthday and I felt we should celebrate it and by that time, they had just, or not too long before, I guess, completed digitization of all of the old issues of the Yale Daily News," Schiff said. "So when I looked up Handsome Dan, and of course Yale being the oldest, claiming to be the oldest college paper that goes back to 1878, here was this story about the other bulldog. I really researched it very carefully."

In a column titled, "A tale of two bulldogs," that Schiff wrote for the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of the Yale alumni magazine, "Old Yale," Schiff wrote, "The issue of November 22, 1890, announced: 'Harper the Champion English bulldog will be taken to Springfield today as a mascot to the Yale team.' It was not until 1892 that there is any record of Dan as mascot. The June 23, 1892, issue of Forest and Stream noted that Dan would be 'the Yale mascot this year in the place of the champion Harper.'"

After Harper came Handsome Dan, and Handsome Dan's accepted origin story isn't totally accurate, either. Schiff said he was a show dog —  "none of them would've been foundling dogs that came from any blacksmith's shop," she said.

"As far as Handsome Dan, he had a pedigree and he was shown in dog shows, too," Schiff said. "I don't know if it's still displayed the same way, I haven't been to the bar at the Yale Club in a while but they always had a sort of framed display of the dog show medals that Handsome Dan had won back in the 1890s."

When commanded to "speak to Harvard," Handsome Dan was trained to "bark ferociously and work himself into physical contortions of rage never before dreamed of by a dog," reported The Philadelphia Press. After Yale beat Harvard in 1893, "some Harvard humorist got a big dog of red cloth, stuffed wit rags," according to The Morning Journal-Courier. "He was displayed with this placard: 'Where's Dan?' After the game the Yale dog tore the dummy to pieces, and evidently relished the job."

A 1893 story published in The Morning Journal-Courier noted how the captain of Yale's baseball team grabbed Handsome Dan from the team's bench and ran around home plate in an effort to bring good luck to the team before it was Yale's turn to bat in the seventh inning amid a scoreless tie.

"In personal appearance, he seemed like a cross between an alligator and a horned frog, and he was called handsome by the metaphysicians under the law of compensation," wrote the Hartford Courant in the dog's eulogy in 1898 after Graves and Handsome Dan went to England. "The title came to him, he never sought it. He was always taken to games on a leash, and the Harvard football team for years owed its continued existence to the fact that the rope held."

The original Handsome Dan's taxidermied body used to be in Yale's old gymnasium and it's enclosed inside Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

It was quite some time until Handsome Dan II came around after his predecessor's death. "Handsome Dan II  did not come into creation until 1933 because they had no concept you could have more than one," Schiff said.

The "Handsome Dan" mascot also inspired the naming of guns that were aboard a naval cruiser ship called the "Yale," whose other gun was named "Eli." According to a 1898 story published in the Hartford Courant, the two guns were sent to Yale's campus, where they were to be placed in the school's gym and potentially be used for effect during home football games.

Today, Yale is represented by Handsome Dan XVIII, who took over as the school's mascot in Nov. 2016.

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When was 'Bulldogs' first officially used in publications?

The first reference of "Yale bulldog" that could find on the database was on May 31, 1891 in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Daily Times in a story about four women living together in an apartment, where one woman painted a pastel portrait of the school's mascot.

The oldest reference we could find to "Handsome Dan" — the mascot and not a person, because it was a fairly common nickname back then — was in the Oct. 5, 1891 edition of The Morning Journal-Courier in New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale is located.

"LOST," read the headline of an ad in the newspaper. "A white and brindle bulldog; name, 'Handsome Dan,' on collard; a suitable reward will be given if returned to 43 College Street."

Either the first Handsome Dan mascot was missing for several months or he had a habit of running off. In the Dec. 11, 1891 edition of The Morning Journal-Courier, the paper reported "Officer George Hyde found the celebrated Yale dog, 'Handsome Dan,' wandering around Orange Street and restored him to A.B. Graves of 43 College street, a student in the scientific school."

However, Yale's athletic teams weren't universally called the "Bulldogs" until several years after Handsome Dan's death.

Schiff said, "It wasn't until something like 1906, I really traced this, that I finally found someone in writing about the Yale team called them the Yale Bulldogs and you began to sort of see this creep in as more reporters creating it, until about 1912."

"In 1906, a Yale team was finally called “the bulldogs” in print: a New York Tribune report on the Princeton football game declared, 'The Yale bulldogs came on the field with a defiant growl,'" wrote Schiff in her 2014 "Old Yale" magazine column "A tale of two bulldogs." "The Yale Daily News first used “the bulldogs” in 1909, in an article about the freshman basketball team. It was also in 1909 or 1910 that Cole Porter wrote the iconic fight song: “Bull-dog! Bull-dog! Bow, wow, wow.”

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