Sport fascinates Americans. It is axiomatic that foreign visitors to this shining land are startled—and left either amused or aghast—when banner headlines announcing World Series scores force international crises down to the bottom of the front page. Even The New York Times, the most respected newspaper in the country, devotes more space to sport than it does to art, books, education, television or the theater. Indeed, it devotes more space to sport in its daily edition than to all these subjects combined. Sport permeates our language, our art, our politics. (Eisenhower's first loss of popularity came when he passed up baseball's Opening Day in Washington to play golf in Georgia; the loss would have been greater still if he had spent the day working at the White House. Kennedy gained votes because he played touch football with his brothers.) It also permeates our economy. Americans spend $20 billion a year on sport, approximately one-sixth of the national disposable income.
What is American sport? Is it, as Francis Logan Paxson, the historian, called it, the social safety valve that replaced the frontier? Or did that dour observer, Thorstein Veblen, touch the heart of the matter when he wrote that sport was no more than an expression of the barbarian temperament? Lewis Mum ford let up on cities long enough to dismiss spectator sport as "one of the mass-duties of the machine age" and "a part of that universal regimentation of life." And Albert Parry, in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, found an even more sinister significance; he termed sport an instrument with which "the masses are to be kept in check, awed or distracted." Was Parry right when he said: "The wide interest of Anglo-Saxon masses in horse racing, football, baseball and similar sports tends to allay social unrest and lessens the possibility of political uprisings"?
These sociological pseudoprofundities tend to obscure the simple definition of sport as a pastime, a diversion, something to do. When man has time he does things. He writes, he paints, he diverts himself. Sport in America grew with the increase of leisure time and the liberalization of moral codes.
In Colonial days religion, in the form of New England Puritanism, tended to inhibit the rise of sport. The Puritans were, to generalize broadly, middle-class moralists in revolt against the Anglo-Catholic pomp and splendor of king and court. They transformed Sunday from a day of recreation, which it had been in Roman Catholic times, into the pious Sabbath of the Old Testament. They accepted the King James Bible, but they had the common hangman burn the Book of Sports, in which James I commended the games to be played after Sunday service. In Massachusetts the Puritans looked upon themselves as "saints, sacred and set apart from a wicked and persecuting world," and the struggle for existence gave force to the ban on amusements. The settlers had to work to survive, and even after they prospered, their stern code persisted. "Let others," wrote John Adams, "waste their bloom of life at the card or billiard table among rakes and fools." But John Adams played bat and ball as a boy, and loved riding and shooting and boating; he seined for minnows and turtles, hunted birds' eggs, played with bows and arrows, made toy windmills and water mills and whirligigs. Sport grew up through Puritanism like flowers in a macadam prison yard.
January 8, 1962
In Virginia restrictive laws against sport also prevailed at first. But with the introduction of slavery, the establishment of the plantation system and the creation of a leisure class, Virginia's restrictions abated. When, in 1674, the York County court fined James Bullock, a tailor, 100 pounds of tobacco and a cask, it was not because racing was against the law but because Bullock came from the wrong class, "it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race, being a sport only for Gentlemen."
The Middle Atlantic colonies, too, were more tolerant than New England. Hempstead and Salisbury Plains on Long Island were celebrated for their racing, and the British garrisons in New York and Philadelphia lent encouragement to cricket, racquets and fives. To an officer of the garrison that evacuated New York in 1783 goes the distinction of having written The Sportsman's Companion, the first sporting book published in America.
After the Revolution racing was the major sport. The match between Sir Henry and Eclipse, the first intersectional race in the country, attracted a crowd of more than 50,000 in New York. In 1826 William Fuller, an English boxer, introduced the science of pugilism to New York. Unfortunately, boxing did not receive the upper-class blessing it had had in England, and it soon fell under the domination of Native American and Irish political factions, who used it as a battleground for settling disputes. Boxing made a great contribution to slang. Such expressions as "fan" (shortened from "fancy"), "one-two," "cheese it," "breadbasket," "pal," "even Stephen," "mug" and "where do you get that stuff?" all stem from the prize ring of Regency England.
But for the most part there was little diversion and little leisure. When Boston workmen agitated for a 10-hour day, merchants and shipowners retorted that "the habits likely to be generated by this indulgence in idleness...will be very detrimental to the journeymen individually and very costly to us as a community."
But here and there were glimmers of the future. James Gordon Bennett Sr., seeking readers for his penny Herald, published accounts of races and prizefights, and so did Benjamin Day in the Sun. William T. Porter began publishing the sports sheet, Spirit of the Times, and gave employment to Henry William Herbert, who, using the pen name of Frank Forester, became the first writer in America to earn a living writing about horses and hunting. Technology, as John R. Betts pointed out in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review of September 1953, was beginning to play a part in the development of sport. By the late 1830s railroads were transporting both horses and men to distant tracks. In 1852 Yale met Harvard in the first intercollegiate rowing race after the general superintendent of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad offered free transportation to both crews to Lake Winnepesaukee, N.H.; the railroad made money on special excursion trains. Later in the century several railroads offered to transport horses or ball clubs at cost or half fare, and in the '80s and '90s lines carried canoes and bicycles at no charge. With the slogan of "Go where You can have Sport," the Bangor & Aroostook published a big-game and fishing guide; and a rival railroad advertised, "A Correct Way of Going to Maine for Hunting and Fishing is via the Maine Central Railroad."
In books published in the early part of the 19th century one can find references to a children's game called baseball, an offshoot of English rounders (the Doubleday myth was manufactured in the early 1900s). In 1842 a group of professional men and merchants began meeting in a Manhattan lot to play, and a few years later they formed a club called the Knickerbockers. Although baseball was the club's reason for being, the Knickerbockers were, according to Harold Seymour, a historian of the early game, "primarily a social club with a distinctly exclusive flavor—somewhat similar to what country clubs represented in the 1920's and 1930's." A Knickerbocker had to have a certain standing in society, and the club used the blackball system to screen candidates. But class lines were not rigid enough to keep the game—and all sport—from spreading, and ability came to count more than breeding. "Baseball," Mark. Twain wrote, "is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century." Beginning with the professionalization of baseball in 1869, sport underwent fantastic growth as the tempo of the country accelerated. Industrially, the U.S. swept from fifth place in 1840 to first in 1888. There was a noticeable shift in population from the farm toward the city, a trend complicated by the millions of immigrants from Europe. Between 1865 and 1884 alone, seven million immigrants, half of them German and Irish, entered the country, bringing with them the relaxed European Sunday that contrasted with the rigorous Puritan Sabbath. "Where is the city in which the Sabbath Day is not losing ground?" a critic asked. "To the mass of the workingmen Sunday is no more than a holiday...it is a day for labor meetings, for excursions, for saloons, beer-gardens, baseball games and carousels." In Muncie, Ind., the typical American town dissected by the Lynds in Middletown, the local newspaper reported that the citizens "do not want and will not have" Sunday baseball, but a year afterward a compromise was reached: the ball game was combined with a sacred concert, "the band playing at intervals." Elsewhere Protestant churches compromised by taking up the concept of "muscular Christianity." The Young Men's Christian Association founded a training school for physical education in Springfield, Mass., and this only added to the flood. Only in the rural areas did sport languish in the Gilded Age, and one historian—Foster Rhea Dulles in America Learns to Play—in part blames the lack of amusements for the agrarian discontent and Populism of the '90s. This would seem to support Parry's thesis.
The swift rise of sport between 1875 and 1900 paralleled the immense changes in American society. The Golden Age of Invention saw the appearance of the telephone, electric light, Linotype, Kodak camera, portable typewriter and the Zipper and, not entirely coincidentally, it also saw the first running of the Kentucky Derby, the introduction of lawn tennis from England, the first Harvard-Yale football game, the founding of baseball's National League, the start of Richard K. Fox's Police Gazette, the introduction of polo, the founding of the Appalachian Club in the East and the Sierra Club in the West, the first Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the first National Horse Show, the founding of the American Canoe Association and the National Archery Association, the reign of Heavyweight Boxing Champion John L. Sullivan (who with his size and swagger helped set the style for the American hero, sport or folk—Paul Bunyan, Dempsey, Ruth, Tarzan of the Apes, Hemingway), the start of the summer camp movement by Ernest B. Balch, the beginnings of the country club, the founding of the National Croquet Association, the first ski club, the first playground (a pile of sand in the yard of a Boston children's mission), the first national trapshooting tournament, the founding of the Audubon Society and the Amateur Athletic Union, Walter Camp's first All-America, the first gloved championship fight, the founding of the Boone and Crockett Club (by Theodore Roosevelt, who was elected its first president), the start of the sports page (by Hearst in his war of yellow journalism with Pulitzer), the founding of the United States Golf Association, the introduction of ice hockey from Canada, the first American automobile race (sponsored by Chicago's new Times-Herald, eager for circulation), the opening of Madison Square Garden, the start of the Frank Merriwell saga, the founding of the Western Conference (the Big Ten), the first automobile show and the start of Davis Cup play. Perhaps there is no better numerical index to the sweep of sport than the story of A. G. Spalding & Bros. Inc., which was begun in 1876 with a capitalization of $800. By the turn of the century Spalding's gross sales were $5 million annually. In 1892 Spalding officials laughed when a salesman named Julian Curtiss returned with $400 worth of golf equipment from England. But by 1900 golf had become a substantial part of Spalding's business, and the company brought Harry Vardon, the leading English pro, over for a tour to publicize the gutta-percha ball. (As befits such a tale, Curtiss later became chairman of the board.)
All in all, sport had gained sufficient place in society to begin feeding back ideas and techniques, however ephemeral. Leland Stanford bet a friend $25,000 that all a trotter's hoofs left the ground simultaneously during its gait, and he hired an eccentric photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to prove his point. Using a battery of 24 cameras, Muybridge not only proved Stanford correct but also laid the basis for motion-picture photography. Frederick W. Taylor, the father of scientific management in business, found in golf and tennis "the value of the minute analysis of motions, the importance of methodical selection and training, the worth of time study and of standards based on rigorously exact observation." (His only lament was that American and English workmen didn't display the same fervor in the factory as they did on the athletic field.) When Marconi sought money to perfect his wireless, James Gordon Bennett Jr. paid him $5,000 to get it ready to report the finish of the America's Cup race in 1899.
Nothing in sport made a more important contribution, social or technical, than the bicycle. The impact it had seems almost unbelievable. "It is safe to say," wrote an official of the census bureau in 1900, "that few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution as the bicycle." Invented in primitive form in 1818 by Baron Freiherr von Drais, a Prussian forester, it attracted little attention in the U.S. until the exhibition of some improved French machines at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. Then the craze took hold. In the late evenings Bennett Jr. wheeled around the block as his butler waited on the sidewalk, holding a bottle of brandy on a tray. A school with uniformed instructors taught Wall Street brokers how to pedal to band music, and Thomas Stevens of California rode a bicycle around the world. Although the Women's Rescue League warned that all lady cyclists would be invalids within a decade, Miss Frances Willard, the temperance leader, was so enthusiastic she penned A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. A magazine of the day hailed the bicycle as "a step towards the emancipation of woman from her usually too inactive indoor life." (There was truth in this remark: interest in the bicycle cut the piano trade in half.) "A few years ago," a writer reported in Scribner's, "no woman would dare venture on the street with a skirt that stopped above her ankles, and leggings that obviously reached to her knees. [The bicycle] has given to all American womankind the liberty of dress for which reformers have been sighing for generations."
Physicians thought there was nothing quite like the bicycle for exercise. (A number of them, including Dr. Paul Dudley White, still feel the same way.) Speaking before the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Graeme Hammond, Professor of Diseases of the Mind and Nervous System at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, found the wheel of inestimable advantage in maintaining health and retarding disease. (Curiously, the '80s and '90s are the only period in which critics were not bewailing the absence of physical fitness among Americans. The bicycle doubtless had much to do with this.)
The League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880 by Louis Keller, publisher of the Social Register, and one million strong at its peak, began the campaign for good roads. By the end of the century half the states had passed legislation for improved highways.
To technology the bicycle gave the ball bearing, wire wheels, hub braking, the pneumatic tire (invented by Dr. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinarian, for his 10-year-old son) and the variable speed transmission (the basis of the automobile gearshift). The bicycle manufacturers, whose business reached $100 million annually in the '90s, underwrote significant research in metallurgy—the metallurgical laboratory of the Pope Manufacturing Company, which developed tubular nickel steel, was the first outside the steel industry—and the manufacturers' use of mass-production methods, special-purpose machinery and interchangeable parts was of the greatest importance.
The technical advances of the bicycle stimulated progress in other fields. Orville Wright was a bicycle racer and, with his brother Wilbur, kept a shop in Dayton. Their interest overflowed into gliding, then powered flight. "We had taken up aeronautics simply as a sport," they later recalled. "We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper."
The bicycle played a key part in the development of the automobile. Indeed, early cars were nothing more than covered bicycles with an engine. From the bicycle manufacturers came car after car: the Lozier, the Rambler, the Peerless, the Columbia and the Pierce-Arrow. They were the property of the sporting rich who formed auto clubs and talked of opening a chain of gas stations that would service only club members. As late as 1910 Americans regarded the car as a toy for the rich, "Nothing," said Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton, "has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile." He called the driver "a picture of the arrogance of wealth, with all its independence and carelessness." "Nobody," said Stuyvesant Fish, "ever dreamed that the automobiles would come into general use." One man did: Henry Ford.
Ever since Charles Duryea had used a gas engine, then a radical device, to win the Chicago Times-Herald race in 1895, Ford had been overwhelmed by the potential of the automobile. He had ideas, and he resolved to get backing for them by winning races—"advertising," he later wrote in My Life and Work, "of the only kind that people care to read." In 1901 Ford challenged and beat Alexander Winton, racing champion of the U.S. Still he was not satisfied. He now wanted to build the fastest car in the world. In 1903, with Tom Cooper, a former bicycling champion of the U.S., Ford built two racing cars, the "999" and the Arrow.
"If an automobile was going to be known for speed," Ford wrote, "then I was going to make an automobile that would be known wherever speed was known. These were. I put in four great big cylinders giving 80 H.P.—which up to that time had been unheard of. The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man.... Cooper said he knew a man who lived on speed, that nothing could go too fast for him. He wired to Salt Lake City and on came a professional bicycle rider named Barney Oldfield. He had never driven a motor car, but he liked the idea of trying it. He said he would try anything once.
"It took us only a week to teach him how to drive. The man did not know what fear was. All that he had to learn was how to control the monster [the '999'].... It was not known how much speed a motor car could develop. No one knew better than Oldfield what the turns meant and as he took his seat, while I was cranking for the start, he remarked cheerily: 'Well, this chariot may kill me, but they will say afterward that I was going like hell when she took me over the bank.'
"And he did go. He never dared to look around. He did not shut off on the curves. He simply let that car go—and go it did. He was about half a mile ahead of the next man at the end of the race!
"The '999' did what it was intended to do: It advertised the fact that I could build a fast motor car. A week after the race I formed the Ford Motor Company."
By the '20s the U.S. had become an urban nation. The majority of Americans were no longer tillers of the soil but workers in cities and towns. They sought release not in their daily round of activities but in watching or listening to others, at home with the radio, in a movie palace or in a stadium. It was the age of the spectator. "America is reaching back for bigness to Greece and Rome, whose fun took material form in building giant sports arenas," a writer exulted in Collier's. "So far we have not surpassed the ancients. But where Athens had one big stadium and Rome several, we are building them by the dozens."
Following the example set earlier by the Ivy League, colleges all over spent huge sums on huge fields. To fill these "lunar craters," as Football Coach Alonzo Stagg called them, they needed huge crowds. They got them by recruiting players. When faculties complained, Liberty magazine said the professors were jealous and added: "The problem is not the elimination or the restriction of football, but how long it will be before red-blooded colleges demand the elimination or restriction of those afflicted with this inferiority complex." In honor of the late Walter Camp, Yale alumni helped raise $180,000 for a memorial gateway, but other Yale admirers of Josiah Willard Gibbs, the greatest physicist the country had produced, were unable to scratch up $12,000 for a more modest tribute.
The spectator boom hit boxing almost as heavily as it did football. In all its previous history, boxing could boast only four $100,000 gates. In the '20s, with Tex Rickard leading the way, it had 45, four of more than $1 million, one of more than $2 million.
The new device of radio added to the ballyhoo, and JL sport, in turn, added to radio. For the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, David Sarnoff, a young employee of RCA, patched together the first network, albeit a temporary one. Station WEAF was the first to use long-distance phone lines, piping a football game from Chicago to New York. Sport comprised a third of radio's time in the '20s, and the glut was such that a writer joked: "This is Station KDKAWX-KEAZFOW. The boys are in top notch condition and as the first ball was pitched Epinard broke clean and scored two goals on a good mashie pitch that just cleared the right-field stands and narrowly missed killing Tilden's backhand three inches from the cup when the entire Washington team was awarded to McGraw on points just as the chukker ended. Listen to the cheering!"
Spectator sport triumphed over education on the high school level. In Middletown basketball swept all before it. The 1890 class motto had been "Deo Duce"; in 1924 it was "To the Bearcats." The city voted $100,000 for a new gym at the same time it cut library funds to a point of inadequacy, the Lynds reported. "North Side and South Side, Catholic and Kluxer, banker and machinist—their one shout is 'Eat 'em, beat 'em, Bearcats!' "
For all the restless millions, the crazy spending and the ballyhoo, American life had lost much of the physical vigor that had cheered observers in the '90s. To be sure, golf was growing, but then Theodore Roosevelt—the advocate of "hit the line hard" and "play the game"—had once warned Taft against it as a sissy game. To the stray bicyclist in Middletown, small boys were wont to shout, "Aw, get a machine." And F. Scott Fitzgerald, who should have known, wrote: "Americans were getting soft. There were signs everywhere: we still won the Olympic games but with champions whose names had few vowels in them—teams composed, like the fighting Irish combination of Notre Dame, of fresh overseas blood. Once the French became really interested, the Davis Cup gravitated automatically to their intensity in competition. The vacant lots of the Middle-Western cities were built up now—except for a short period in school, we were not turning out to be an athletic people like the British, after all.... Of course, if we wanted to we could be in a minute; we still had all those reserves of ancestral vitality, but one day in 1926 we looked down and found we had flabby arms and a fat pot and couldn't say boob-boop-a-doop to a Sicilian."
The Depression and the New Deal turned the trend toward participant sport. Although in the Depression millions were out of work, the average employed worker gained added leisure time because of increased industrial efficiency, legislation and union agitation. By the end of 1939 he had one day more of leisure than he had had in 1929 and two days more than his counterpart had had in 1890. In its public works programs, the Federal Government put heavy stress on recreation facilities, spending almost $1.5 billion by 1938. State, county and local governments added another $500 million. The WPA built 10,000 tennis courts, 3,026 athletic fields, 2,261 horseshoe courts, 1,817 handball courts, 805 swimming pools, 318 ski trails and 254 golf courses. Federal purchase of forest lands rose from half a million acres annually to two million, and in 1934 Congress authorized the establishment of fish and game sanctuaries in the national forests for the first time. In 1934 visitors to national parks totaled six million; in 1940 the total was 20 million.
Thanks to vigorous promotion by the railroads and department stores, skiing proliferated. In January of 1931 the Boston and Maine, casting about for new business, ran the first ski special to Warner, N.H. The ultimate came a few years later when the Union Pacific spent $4 million to build a resort at Sun Valley, Idaho, at the end of its spur line from Ketchum. Macy's set the pattern for store promotion by installing a 57-foot-long borax slope and hiring Austrian salesmen to sell skis.
The attitude toward sport was changing. In 1934 the National Recreation Association published a study of the leisure time of 5,000 persons. The completed report noted a wide divergence between what the respondents wanted to do and what they actually did. What they did was mainly sedentary: they listened to the radio, went to the movies or read. But what they wanted to do was active: golf, swim or sail. Their desires were to come true after World War II, with increased leisure and income.
One brief statistic, on paid vacation weeks, tells much of the story behind the current boom in participant sport. In 1929 there were 17.5 million paid vacation weeks in the U.S.; in 1941, 30 million; in 1947, 48.5; and in 1961, 65 million. New developments in technology—from the automatic pinsetter to the fiber-glass hull—had their impact on sport. In 1958 retail sales of sporting goods passed the $2 billion mark. Signs of this are almost anywhere. A passenger flying north over the Mexican desert can tell when he has crossed into the U.S. by the swimming pools that begin to appear below.
Still, Americans are far from inhabiting an athletic Nirvana. The new leisure, the new sport, has its problems. Martha Wolfenstein, a sociologist at City College in New York, has discovered "fun morality," the new Puritanism. "Here," she writes, "fun, from having been suspect if not taboo, has tended to become obligatory. Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one is inclined to feel ashamed if one does not have enough."
Akin to this is a compulsion to win, no matter what the game or its level of play. A common remark is, "So-and-so is a good golfer, but he doesn't take the game seriously." The competitive energy that many Americans give to business has carried over to sport. "How can you be proud of a losing team?" asked the late Jim Tatum. Another football coach, Woody Hayes of Ohio State, says, "Anyone who tells me, 'Don't worry that you lost, you played a good game anyway,' I just hate." More and more TV commercials portray, as typical Americans, successful athletes like Sam Snead and Warren Spahn and Norm Van Brocklin. Branch Rickey, who was too much of a Puritan to attend ball games on Sunday, defined his ideal player as one who "will break both your legs if you happen to be standing in his path to second base." American sport, imbued with the absolute need to win and a pervading commercialism (which doubtless stems from the business interests that have done so much to develop sport), has nothing comparable to the British maxim, "That's not cricket." Instead, many honor Leo Durocher's crack, "Nice guys finish last."
The failure of sport to foster the ideal of sportsmanship is paralleled by its failure to produce widespread physical fitness. Without asking, "Fitness for what?" various tests conducted over the years (e.g., those administered to incoming freshman at Yale and West Point) show a decline in the physical well-being of Americans. This seems paradoxical in view of the increase in participant sport, and it has caused even President Kennedy to blame our supposed flabbiness on "spectation." But Kennedy missed the point. This is the era of participation, but it is pushbutton participation tremendously softened by technology. Instead of cycling, Americans ride in autos—from sports cars to hot rods. Instead of canoeing or rowing, they use powerboats to cross the smallest of lakes. When they golf, they ride in carts. Hunting and fishing and camping have succumbed to the pushbutton. "Roughing it," a trade magazine recently announced with pride, "now means toting collapsible tables and chairs, gasoline stoves, Polaroid sunglasses and electric blankets to the sea, streams and lakes." Underlying all this is a general physical ease of life no other civilization has approached. America has, as David Riesman remarked of the new leisure, moved from the melting pot to the casserole dish.
And what of the future? Attendance at the major spectator sports appears to have reached its limit—which has prompted the assumption that the participant sports are taking over. However, the unavoidable fact of television makes it clearly evident that the watching trend is still up; more Americans are watching more sport more often than ever before. In 1940 few Americans living outside the handful of metropolitan centers had ever seen a big league baseball game. Even fewer had ever watched professional football. The U.S. Open, the Kentucky Derby and the World Series were newspaper stories or radio broadcasts. Almost no one, except for a very few of the most privileged sportswriters, saw all of them. Today a man living a dozen miles from nowhere needs only a television set and a high antenna to see more topflight sports events in one year than Grantland Rice ever did. Of course, the "more and more" are seeing more and more of less and less: the sustained boom in televised sport has caused an inevitable centralization of spectator events: big league baseball prospers, the minor leagues die; professional and major-college football is watched by millions, schools with inferior teams give up the game.
The heightened interest in watching has produced another paradox. Participating in sport has increased concomitantly with watching probably because watching via television does away with the exhausting and time-consuming effort of traveling to and from sporting venues. Just before he settles down to watch the game of the week, the American sport fan may have finished a round of golf. Just after it he may take his family off for a run across the lake in his boat.
But the American's interest in both "spectation" and participation, coupled with his new concern for physical fitness, means that sport in America today is being utilized more than ever before. It may be at its peak. But it seems more than likely that it is really only just beginning to grow.