What is the origin of giving [it] the old college try? In particular, is it referencing an old ritual that might have percolated amongst alumni of the old and prestigious New England colleges/universities? I tried Googling, but I'm not really finding an authoritative source at the moment. If nothing definitive can be found, I'd at least appreciate a date of first attestation.
Here's a citation from 1917:
courtesy of a wordorigins discussion of this very question:
A newspaper column by that title by Billy Sunday which has a 1917 copyright by The Bell Syndicate Inc. Appears in an Elyria Ohio paper October of 1918.
Actually, the evangelist puts the expression on the lips of the great Giants manager John McGraw who after watching an rookie outfielder just out of college miss a heroic catch which resulted in a homer. While the "sapient birds of the Giants gave the kid the cackle" McGraw is quoted as saying, "That's the eye, young fellow. The old college try."
For more background on the use of the phrase, including some connotations I wasn't aware of, I offer the following entry in Paul Dickson's The Dickson Baseball Dictionary:
old college try A wild and desperate attempt to make a play. Sometimes the term carries a hint of showboating. Babe Ruth (Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball, 1928) defined "giving it the old college try" as "playing to the grandstand or making strenuous effort to field a ball that obviously cannot be handled." In a column that appeared in the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen (Nov. 26, 1927) and was quoted in American Speech (Apr. 1930), Billy Evans wrote that "I gave it the old college try" is a term "often used in big league baseball, when some player keeps on going after a fly ball, usually in foul territory, with the odds about ten to one he would never reach it. Teammates of such a player often beat him to it by shouting in unison with the thought of humor uppermost: 'Well, kid, you certainly gave it the old college try,' as he falls short of making the catch." Evans continued: "When some player does something that a professional player might not ordinarily attempt, such as colliding with a fielder who had the ball ready to touch him out, in the hope that he might make him drop the ball, regardless of the danger he was courting, someone is sure to say, often ironically, if the speaker happens to be one of the players in the field: 'That's the old college spirit.'" Extended Use. The term was quickly applied to any effort with limited chances of success.
I found this link (at the bottom of the page) that might be helpful. Attestation in 1919 about a baseball player:
[Frankie] Frisch was taking a long hold on his club and the old college try at the ball.
Frankie Frisch played baseball in college at Fordham University. He's a Hall of Famer whose nicknames are "The Fordham Flash" and "The Old Flash." He left college to make his major league debut with the NY Giants in June 1919, and the article was written in October 1919, so my best guess is that the author was giving a nod to Frisch's educational background — sort of a "he's playing with as much heart and determination as he did in college."
Given the popularity of baseball and the exceptional talent of this player, it would not surprise me if that's the reason this phrase became popular. Compare for instance "Win just one for the Gipper," which occurred around the same time period.
In college, you are faced with impossible situations in which you are expected to succeed. For example, having multiple exams and papers due at the same time, and being scheduled to work many hours at your college job.
When something seems impossible to do, but you do it anyways because you have no choice, you "Give it the old college try."
(Supporting edit by FumbleFingers, from Merriam-Webster...)
Definition of COLLEGE TRY - a zealous all-out effort
Origin of COLLEGE TRY - from the phrase “give it the old college try”, First Known Use: 1927