SPORTS. Sport in America began as premodern participatory contests of strength, skill, and speed that were unorganized local competitions with simple rules. However, as the nation modernized, sport became highly organized with formalized rules and national competition. Sport became commercialized with expert athletes entertaining paying spectators.
The first sportsmen were Native Americans, who competed for religious, medicinal, and gambling purposes. They had running races, but were best known for team ball sports like lacrosse, which had over forty variations. The colonists defined sports broadly to include all diversions. Colonial amusement reflected their European backgrounds, including social class and religion, and their new surroundings in America. Puritans brought their opposition to pagan and Catholic holidays, Sabbath breaking, and time-wasting amusements. They barred brutal sports, gambling games, and amusements that promoted disorder, but advocated useful activities like wolf hunting, fishing, and training-day (military practice) contests like wrestling and marksmanship. The more heterogeneous colonies had more options. New York, with its Dutch heritage, had bowling, kolven (golf), and boat races, and also horseracing after the English took over the colony in 1664. In Philadelphia, control of the community passed from the Quakers to a secular elite who in 1732 tried to separate themselves from lesser sorts by organizing the Schuylkill Fishing Colony, the first sports club in the British Empire.
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The South had the most expansive sporting culture. The Anglican Church was more tolerant than the Puritans were, and personal ethics did not prohibit gambling or blood sports. An elite planter class emerged in the late seventeenth century, which tried to emulate the English
country gentry. The great planters originally raced their own horses in impromptu quarter-mile matches and wagered enormous amounts with their peers. By the mid-eighteenth century, they were starting to import expensive Thoroughbreds that competed in long distance races at urban tracks established by elite jockey clubs. This public entertainment helped demonstrate the supposed superiority of the great planters over the masses.
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Publicans throughout the colonies were the first sporting entrepreneurs, sponsoring animal baiting, gander pulling, fights, skittles (an early form of bowling), shuffleboard, and target shooting to attract thirsty patrons. Moral reformers, particularly evangelical ministers of the Great Awakening, opposed these sports. During the Revolution, many patriots frowned on gambling as unvirtuous and elite sports as aristocratic. The Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states suppress racing and “other diversions as are productive of idleness and dissipation.”
Sport in the first half of the nineteenth century remained premodern, abhorred by proper Victorians who frowned upon it as immoral and wasteful. The sporting fraternity encompassed a male bachelor subculture, including segments of the elite, skilled butchers, street thugs, volunteer firefighters, and Irish immigrants. They enjoyed blood sports, combat sports like boxing (which was universally banned), and gambling sports. Southern plantation owners employed slaves as trainers, jockeys, boxers, and oarsmen.
The leading antebellum sportsman was the industrialist John C. Stevens. He restored Thoroughbred racing to New York in 1823; established the Elysian Fields, the preeminent site of antebellum ball sports, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1831; promoted the first major pedestrian race in 1835; and organized the New York Yacht Club in 1844. Seven years later, Stevens sponsored America, conqueror of the finest British yachts, promoting pride in American naval architecture, craftsmanship, and seamanship.
American sport began a dramatic transformation at midcentury that led to a boom after the Civil War. This was influenced by the processes of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration; by the development of an ideology that created a positive image for sports; and by the rise of new modern games. The ideology of sports was developed by secular Jacksonian reformers—who thought sports could help cope with such negative features of rapid urbanization as soaring crime rates, epidemics, and class conflict—and by religious reformers inspired by the Second Great Awakening, who saw them as a way to fight sin. Both groups believed that participation in exercise and clean sports would improve public health, build character, develop sound morals, and provide an alternative to vile urban amusements. This positive attitude toward sport was supported by the examples of Scottish Caledonian games (traditional track and field contests) and German turnverein (gymnastic societies). Clergymen like Thomas W. Higginson advocated muscular Christianity, the cornerstone of the Young Men’s Christian Association movement that harmonized mind, body, and spirit. Health advocates in the 1840s organized the municipal park movement that resulted in the creation of New York’s Central Park in 1858. It became a model for large urban parks after the Civil War.
Team sports aptly fit the sports creed. Cricket, a manly and skillful English game, enjoyed a brief fad in the 1840s, but was quickly surpassed by baseball, which had evolved from the English game of rounders. Baseball was simpler, more dramatic, faster paced, and took less time to play. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright drew up the modern rules for his middle-class Knickerbockers club. Early teams were voluntary associations of middle-income men, principally in metropolitan New York, although the game spread quickly along the Atlantic seaboard. Teams were organized by occupation, neighborhood, or political party. The top New York teams organized the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1858 to define rules, resolve disputes, and control the sport’s future.
The Late-Nineteenth-Century Sports Boom
The sports explosion was directly abetted by the technological revolution. Communication innovations like telegraphy and telephony helped newspapers report events at distant locations. The New York World in the mid-1890s introduced the first sports section. Daily coverage was supplemented by weeklies beginning with the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine (1829) and William T. Porter’s urbane Spirit of the Times (1831), which promoted angling and horseracing. Other important periodicals included the National Police Gazette (1845), the New York Clipper (1853), and the Sporting News (1886).
The coming of the railroad enabled athletes to journey to distant sites for competition. This potential was demonstrated in 1852, when, to promote rail travel, the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad sponsored the first American intercollegiate athletic contest, the Harvard-Yale crew race at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Railroads enabled baseball leagues to operate and illegal prizefights to take place at out-of-the-way locations. Cheap urban mass transit, especially electrified streetcars, increased access to sporting venues.
Technological innovations also helped sport in many other ways. Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb improved illumination for indoor events. New equipment was created, such as vulcanized rubber for balls and tires, and new machines made possible cheap, mass-produced sporting goods. The English safety bicycle invented in the late 1880s created a cycling fad among men and women. Riders joined clubs, raced, toured, and attended six-day professional races at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Social class heavily determined sporting opportunities in this era. The elite, who emulated the English gentry, had the wealth, time, and self-confidence to indulge themselves. They used expensive sports to gain recognition and improved their status by joining restricted athletic, jockey, country, and yacht clubs. Elite colleges became centers of intercollegiate competition, beginning with rowing (1852), baseball (1859), football (1869), and track and field (1873). Participation spread by the 1890s to state and private colleges throughout the nation. Competition promoted manliness, school pride, and the reputation of institutions. Student-run associations ran the teams and recruited gifted athletes through financial aid and easy course loads.
The hardworking new middle class finally became involved in sport because of the sports ideology, the creation of clean new sports, and the accessibility of suburban parks where by the mid-1880s they played on baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Their participation in sport demonstrated “manliness” and offered a sense of self-worth and accomplishment lost in their increasingly bureaucratized work. Manual workers’ options were hindered by urbanization, which destroyed many traditional outdoor sports facilities; by the arrival of eastern European immigrants with no athletic heritage; and by the factory system, with its strict time-work discipline, low wages, and long working hours. Lower class urbanites were most active in sports that were accessible and fit in with their environment, like boxing, billiards, and basketball. Progressive reformers promoted sports at settlement houses to help inner-city youth acculturate.
Nineteenth-century sport was virtually an exclusive male sphere. Yet, women, mainly elite daughters whose status protected them from criticism, began to participate after the Civil War. Physicians and female physical educators advocated improved fitness for women to make them more attractive and healthier mothers. Young women partook of sociable coed sports like croquet and ice skating, and individual sports like archery, golf, and tennis, the latter introduced to the United States by Mary Outer bridge in 1875. The cycling fad encouraged the development of sports clothes, including bloomers, shorter skirts, and no corsets. Women’s colleges taught physical fitness, but female students preferred team sports and intercollegiate competition. Athletic leaders at the turn of the century modified men’s sports, especially the new game of basketball, to make them more “appropriate” for women—that is, less exertive and less competitive. Nonetheless, female physical educators opposed intercollegiate sports as creating undesirable manly values like competitiveness and individualism, and in the 1900s, noncompetitive play days supplanted intercollegiate women’s sport.
The Rise of Professional Sport
While most nineteenth-century sport was participatory, the era’s most significant development was the rise of professional spectator sports, a product of the commercialization of leisure, the emergence of sports entrepreneurs, the professionalization of athletes, the large potential audiences created by urbanization, and the modernization of baseball, boxing, and horseracing. Baseball started to become a business in the 1860s with the hiring of the first paid players, the opening of Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, and the 1869 national tour of the all-salaried Cincinnati Red Stockings. The National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the first professional league, was formed in 1871, supplanted by the more business-minded National League (NL) in 1876. The NL’s success led to the rise of rivals, most notably the working-class-oriented American Association—which was created in 1882 but merged with the NL the next season. In the 1880s, major league baseball largely developed its modern character, including tactics, rules, and equipment.
Baseball, dubbed the “national pastime,” completely dominated the sporting scene in the early 1900s. Not merely fun, its ideology fit prevailing values and beliefs. It was considered a sport of pastoral American origins that improved health, character, and morality; taught traditional rural values; and promoted social democracy and social integration. Baseball’s popularity was reflected by the rise of the American League, the growth of the minor leagues from thirteen in 1900 to forty-six in 1912, and the construction of large fire proof ballparks.
Prizefighting was universally banned until the 1890s, when the bare-knuckle era came to an end—marked by Jim Corbett’s 1892 victory over heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, the preeminent sports hero of the century. Boxing continued to be permitted in just a few locations until the 1920s, when it was legalized in New York. It then became very popular, with heroes like Jack Dempsey fighting in arenas like Madison Square Garden.
Fighters came from the most impoverished backgrounds, hoping to use boxing to escape poverty. There were a few black champions in the less prestigious lighter weight divisions. However, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (1908–1915) was considered a threat to white supremacy, and there was a crusade to get rid of him. Thereafter, no African American got a heavyweight title shot until Joe Louis, who won the title in 1937. He became a national hero one year later by defeating Max Schmeling, symbol of Germany. After World War II, boxing was a staple of prime time television, but overexposure and widening public recognition of underworld influences curtailed its success.
Horseracing was rejuvenated after the Civil War under the aegis of politically connected elites. After a successful experiment at Saratoga, New York, in 1863, the American Jockey Club opened New York’s Jerome Park (1866), a model for elite courses in Brooklyn; Long Branch, New Jersey; and Chicago. Their success encouraged the rise of proprietary tracks—like those in Brighton Beach, New York, and Guttenberg, New Jersey—run by men closely connected to political machines and syndicate crime. By the early 1900s, every state but Maryland and Kentucky had closed their racetracks, if only temporarily, because of the gambling. In the 1920s, Thoroughbred racing revived because of increasing prosperity, looser morals, ethnic political influence, and underworld influences. Racetrack admissions surpassed admissions for all other sports by the early 1950s, and continued to do so until the early 1980s.
Public interest during the 1920s—the so-called “Golden Age of Sports”—was whetted by increased leisure time and discretionary income, by national radio broadcasts of events like baseball’s World Series and heavyweight boxing championships, and by the development of a pantheon of heroes. Every major sport had its great hero, role models who symbolized prowess and traditional and modern values. Idols included Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, and Charles Lindbergh in aeronautics. While women were largely limited to “feminine” sports like tennis, figure skating, and swimming, some female athletes—notably tennis player Helen Wills—also became widely celebrated.
The Great Depression hurt sport, though people still looked to recreation for escape. Commercialized sports declined, but less than most businesses, as companies curtailed industrial sports programs, and colleges cut back on intercollegiate sports, particularly football. On the other hand, the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration constructed thousands of sports fields, swimming pools, and other athletic facilities.